January 2013 - Cuba

1 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
We had a chill-out day, nursing our hangovers – why do we always start a New Year with headaches?

I caught up on editing our web site and played the guitar.  Glenys just read a book.

2 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
To Glenys’s astonishment, I went for a run.  I went past the local airport where there is a skydiving centre – it’s all geared up for doing tandem jumps for tourists at a cost of $180 per jump, which is not a bad price compared to the UK.  My route also took me past a small oil pumping station – we’ve seen many of these dotted around the country. I guess that the Cubans have to use every resource that they have.

We walked into Varadero, booked the bus to go to Trinidad tomorrow and then explored the town a little bit more. We found a pleasant public park with a small lake complete with the obligatory pedallos.  There was also a fun fair next to the park which was crowded with Cubans - not many tourists in sight.

On the way back to the Marina, we had a slight detour to Santa Marta and bought a huge lunch for only $3.50 each.  Pork and beans of course – they had fish on the menu, but we’ve not been able to find anywhere that actually has some yet.

We walked bloody miles, so we chilled out for the rest of the afternoon. “Catrine” and “Windfall” left today, so there’s only Debbie and us around.

3 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
We were up early to catch a bus to Trinidad, which took six hours, but at least it gave us both a chance to concentrate on our audio Spanish lessons.  It was chaos when we arrived at the bus station in Trinidad – the officials had strung a wire across the entrance to the bus station and a horde of people were lined up behind it, touting for business;  wanting to show us to a Casa Particular or shouting “Taxi, Taxi”. 

Parque Cespedes, Trinidad, Cuba

We declined all offers and walked the half a mile to our Casa Particular.  The house looked very basic from the outside, with huge plain doors and windows encased in wrought iron bars that stretched almost all the way to the floor.  Our apprehension dissolved as soon as we were shown in.  What a lovely place – marble floors and nicely decorated with mahogany furniture.  Our room had an on-suite bathroom and opened out onto a small courtyard in the centre of the house, with lush plants and a table for breakfast – not at all bad for $25 per night.  

The people were lovely as well.  The owner was a very small lady, who was quite a character and very patient while we tried to talk to her with our limited Spanish.  Unfortunately, she only had a room for us for one night, so she organised another room for us with her niece in a nearby casa.

We went for a quick wander around to orient ourselves and ended up in the centre of the small town having a few beers and listening to local groups playing Soco or Salsa music.  The Cubans love to dance and will salsa away in any small spaces between tables in the crowded bars.  We had fabulous dinner at the Casa with another guest - an Italian lady who lives in the UK.  It was brilliant value for $55 for the night including the evening meals and breakfast.  The casa was called “Dona Ramonita”, 68 Camilo Cuienfuegos, Trinidad.

4 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
After a huge breakfast, we were taken around to the niece’s casa, which was in a rougher street, but again once inside, it was very well decorated and a maze of corridors and spiral staircases.  The landlady arranged a guide to come tomorrow morning to take us horse riding for the day. The casa was called Hostal Trinicuba, 70 Calle Miguel Calzada, Trinidad. 

Salsa band, Trinidad, Cuba

We spent the rest of the day wandering around Trinidad, which is a sixteenth century Spanish town with large mansions built from the wealth of the sugar and tobacco plantations.  The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many of the buildings are well preserved as are the old cobbled streets.  The architecture around the central “Plaza Mayor” square is very photogenic, but wandering only a short distance north of the centre takes you in to very poor and rundown areas of town.

The town is heavily geared to the hundreds of tourists that wander around the streets, with nearly as many “jineteros” – street hustlers and opportunists.  However, it’s a very relaxed atmosphere and the jineteros are not too pushy.  Our Casa Particular was in a residential area, very close to Parque Cespedes, which is a local shopping area, so we were able to escape the tourist areas and do some serious local people watching.

Confusingly, there are two currencies in Cuba, the Moneda Nacional which is what the local Cubans earn and spend; and there’s the Cuban Convertible Peso (“CUC”) which is what tourists spend.  One CUC is roughly worth 1 US dollar and you get 25 Moneda Nacional pesos for one CUC.  The only time that we can use Moneda  Nacional is when we buy food or snacks from local street vendors otherwise we have to pay at least twice as much for things in CUC.  No wonder that the locals just see us as dollars on legs.

We stepped out in the evening, visiting some more bars and checking out the local music before returning to the Casa for dinner.  The meal wasn’t as good as last night, but it was filling.

5 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
It’s not cheap being a tourist and we were running out of cash, so I nipped off to the bank to get some more money.  I had no problem in getting cash from my debit card apart from the fact that the bank only had $3 notes - $200 dollars was 66 bank notes which is a fair old wad.  When I arrived back at the casa there was a Caballero (cowboy) standing outside with his horse. 

Horse riding, Trinidad, Cuba

We walked across town to a street near the Plaza Mayor, where we found our horses tied up to a lamp post.  There were another two ladies in our group – an Argentinian and a Venezuelan.  We rode out of town and into the Valle de los Ingenios which is where the sugar estates are based.  It was very pleasant riding past houses with banana, coconut and sugar cane growing everywhere.  The horses were very responsive, which was a surprise since they are often ridden by tourists who don’t know what they are doing.

We stopped at a bar for a drink and spotted cocks in cages, which we were told are fighting cocks – still a popular activity in Cuba.  At another stop, we were shown how sugar cane is crushed in a mangle to produce sugar cane juice, which is lovely with a big splash of rum…

We ended up at a waterfall in the National Park which has a very nice pool below it – the swim was very refreshing after being out in the beating sun for three hours.  Retracing our route, we called in at a bar for lunch before returning back to town.  We had a great day out – 6 hours horse riding for only $20.

In the evening we walked into town, had a few beers and let a jinetero take us to a Paladar, which is a privately run restaurant.  The restaurant was just outside the centre of town in a run-down area and there was only on other couple in there, but we had a nice meal for only $6.  As a bonus, we had a small band playing us Cuban music – I think that it was “Son” with two guitars and bongo drums.  I chatted to one of the guitarists, who showed me his “tres” which is a Cuban guitar having only three, double strings - each pair of strings is tuned to be the same note, but an octave apart, giving it a rich tone.

6 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
We caught the bus back to Varadero - another long six hour trip, but this time the route took us along the south coast where there are lots of beaches.  From the bus station, we managed to negotiate a ride on a horse-drawn carriage for only $5 back to the marina.  Normally these are very expensive for tourists only, but the guy was going back to the stables, which are just across the road from the marina, so he gave us a bargain trip.

Back at the marina, we found that Vic and Marilyn on “Whisper” had arrived from Marathon a few days ago and “Saltwhistle III” with Tony & Rachel arrived yesterday.  “Saltwhistle” is a Hallberg Rassy 42 almost identical to Alba and we first met them in Long Island about four months ago.  It’s very strange that out of five boats arriving here in the last two weeks, three have been Hallberg Rassys.

We had a few beers at the meeting table next to Debbie’s’ boat and caught up with everyone.


7 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
Glenys used Debbie’s washing machine while I tried to catch up on six days’ worth of my diary and editing the 140 photographs that we took in Trinidad.  Digital cameras are great because I can take multiple pictures of one subject, but I end up with too many and then have to spend ages sifting through the photos and editing them. 

We walked into Santa Marta to buy some food – the cupboards are bare of fresh food now.  Unfortunately, the market is closed on Mondays, but Glenys was able to buy some vegetables and a loaf of bread.  We’ll have to try to get some eggs and meat tomorrow morning.  We had lunch out which was great for only $3.50 for a full meal.

In the afternoon, I ran the generator and, after half an hour, I noticed that one of the diesel fuel filters was leaking, so I bit the bullet and changed the fuel filters for both the generator and the engine.  I've been putting it off for over six weeks now because it’s such a messy job, but it all went smoothly and I was able to start the engine and generator – it’s always a hassle bleeding the fuel lines to get rid of the air after changing the filters.

Buying meat in the market, Santa Marta, Cuba

When I started the generator, there was a lot of smoke and I found that the alternator is extremely hot.  I gave up investigating when I burnt my finger, but I think that the alternator has seized and the smoke is from the fan belt.  I’ll have another look in the morning when it’s cooled down.

8 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
It was very windy this morning.  I downloaded a grib file using our satellite phone and it looks like the wind is going to be easterly at around 20 knots for the next five days, but looks to be stronger tomorrow night, so we’re planning to leave the day after tomorrow.

We walked into Santa Marta to buy some meat and eggs.  We were successful with the meat and Glenys bought some smoked pork chops, a pound of pork and half a pound of spicy pork minced meat.   There’s only pork available –thank God that I'm not Jewish.  I spotted a lady walking with two trays containing 25 eggs, so I headed in the direction that she had come from, but I was too late, the lady in front of me cleaned the guy out.  Manyana…

I love the way that the Cubans re-use everything.  There’s a small stall on the street with a man who repairs and refills disposable cigarette lighters – you wouldn't see that anywhere else.  Glenys went into the bank to get some cash and (again) the bank only had $3 bank notes, so she only got $200 worth.

After lunch, I took the alternator off the generator and, as I suspected, the bearing has disintegrated and it’s seized up.  I've decided that I’ll wait until we get to Havana and get it sorted out there – it might take a few days and we don’t want to be hanging around in Varadero for very much longer.  

We had the smoked pork chops with rice and beans for dinner and they were superb.

9 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
Glenys walked into Santa Marta to try to get some eggs and bread, but nothing was available, so she bought some more of those wonderful chops. 

Meanwhile, I downloaded another weather forecast and the wind is still predicted to be around 20 knots from the east for the next week.   It’s an awkward distance of 70 miles to Havana, so we’re going to have to leave in the late afternoon and sail overnight.  The wind will be behind us, but it may be over 25 knots tomorrow, so we decided to leave it another day – we don’t want to have another horrible night like between Charleston and Savannah. 

Repairing & filling disposable cigarette lighters, Santa Marta, Cuba

We chilled out for the rest of the day, went for a walk and actually sat on the beach for fifteen minutes before the strong wind and blasting sand drove us away.

In the evening, we went for a meal at a local restaurant with “La Vida Dulce”, “Whisper” and “Saltwhistle”.  We had a pleasant evening, but I've decide that the food in Cuba is very bland – I was expecting it to be more Mexican and spicy.

10 January 2013   Varadero, Cuba
It was another very windy day.  I downloaded a GRIB file and it looks like the wind is going to drop down to 15-20 knots tomorrow.  Let’s hope so because it’s starting to get a bit wearing now – we know that it’s windy when the front toilet door rattles…

I told Salsito in the marina office that we are planning to leave tomorrow - they like to have 24 hours’ notice for some reason.  I gave him a list of the ports and anchorages that we want to stop on the way to Cabo San Antonio, from where we will depart to go to Mexico.  I’m hoping to get a cruising permit (“despacho”) for the whole route.  I also tried to ask Salsito, in my pigeon Spanish, to organise an extension to our visa for another month.  For some reason, the immigration would only give us one month when we checked in, but they give all Canadians three months – what’s that about?

I did a couple of jobs in the morning - recharged the fridge again (I MUST find the damn leak) and then spent two hours making a couple of brackets to hold the engine control panel in place – it’s made of some kind of plastic and after fourteen years at sea, it’s had enough and is cracking up.

The afternoon was a very quiet affair, reading, napping and playing the guitar.  Glenys bought a huge bag of tomatoes the other day for $1.00 and has been drying some of them in the sun because there are too many to eat now – very tasty.

We went to the usual happy hour.  It’s become a habit - definitely time to go now.  Glenys listened to the howling wind just before we went to bed and said that she didn't care how windy it is tomorrow, we have to go…

11 January 2013   Varadero to Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba (Day 1)
I can’t believe that we've been here for two weeks.  The wind finally dropped a little bit overnight, so we tidied up and got ready to leave in the afternoon.  Glenys filled up the water tanks with the expensive marina water ($0.10/gallon) – it’s a bummer that we can’t run the water maker because the generator is out of action until I get the alternator fixed.

Havana at Dawn, Cuba

We hung around all day, waiting to leave in the afternoon.  Salsito turned up with an invoice for $345 dollars, which was for 15 days plus some charges for documentation.   We seem to have been on a mooring ball or in a marina for the past couple of months for various reasons and I was hoping that once we left the USA, we’d be spending a lot less money, but we’re going through cash here in Cuba at an alarming rate.

The Customs, Coast Guard and Guarda Fonteras strolled up at quarter past four and went through a load of paperwork.  They issued us with a “despacho” which is our cruising permit and has to be stamped every time that we enter or leave a port. We finally managed to get off the dock just before five o'clock.

It was still pretty windy – blowing 20-25 knots from the east, so there were six to eight foot seas when we cleared the harbour entrance.  We headed out on a broad reach with just the genoa out.  It was a very uncomfortable motion with the constant threat of a large breaking wave slopping into the cockpit, but we were able to turn west after three hours, so the motion got a little better.  There was no moon, so it was a dark ride all night.

12 January 2013   Varadero to Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba (Day 2)
We didn't get much sleep during the night because of the constant rolling.  Also we've been very slack at storing things, so my spare parts and tools were banging around in the cupboards as well as loads of stuff in the galley.

Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba

At the start of the trip, we had a one knot current with us, so we were a little worried that we were going to arrive before dawn, so we only had a scrap for genoa out for most of the night.  We set a course that kept us 2-4 miles off the coast and for the second half of the journey, we had a 1-2 knot current against us, which slowed us down nicely.  We arrived at the outer buoy at Marina Hemingway at eight o'clock which was perfect. 

The entrance was very straightforward and we were told to tie up on a dock just inside the harbour, so that we could go through the check in procedure. We were visited by the usual suspects - Customs, Guarda Fonteras, Veterinarian and Immigration who all filled in another set of forms.  They also took our flares away from us, which we’ll get back when we leave (they’re classed as weapons for some reason).  The Immigration guy asked for a little “gift”, I told him that I didn't understand and walked out.  It’s the first time that we've been asked for a bribe by an official.

The Dock Master gave us a berth right opposite a hotel swimming pool that was blasting out music, so after walking along the docks for a while I asked them to move us to a berth upwind of the hotel.  I talked to some other cruisers that have been here for a week, and they told me that the music gets louder at night and sometimes goes on into the early hours.  Typical – we have to pay $21 per night to have sleepless nights.  I'm sick of being in marinas and can’t wait to get out to a nice quiet, isolated anchorage off a small cay.

We walked to the small marina boatyard and, with a mixture of Spanish and English, showed the boss (Mario) the broken bearing and asked if he could repair it.  He said that he might be able to exchange it (“cambio”) so we left the alternator with him.  Mario’s going to take it somewhere on Monday and says that he’ll come around to our boat on Monday afternoon.  I don’t hold up much hope.

While we were out, we went for a walk around the local area and found a couple of places where there were small shops selling food including eggs and bread, which we snapped up.  The area looks a little more affluent when compared to Santa Marta and we didn't see many horses.

Street life, Havana, Cuba

Back on the boat, we had egg sandwiches for lunch and tried to catch up on some sleep.  We had a quiet night in.

13 January 2013   Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba
We sneaked our way onto a coach, which takes guests from the nearby hotel into Havana and had a free ride – I felt a little bit guilty, but soon got over it.  

We spent all day wandering around the old part of Havana - it’s a very interesting place.  There are a vast variety of buildings from the sumptuous presidential palace of the 1960’s dictator Batista (now a museum) to the run down, yet elegant four and five story buildings that house most of the city’s population.  Walking along the normal tourist streets, we were accosted by jineteros wanting to take us to a restaurant or on a tour, but just a couple of streets away, we could walk among the locals hurrying about their business without being bothered.

It was Sunday, so there were lots of locals wandering about, especially around Obispo which is one of the main shopping streets in the area.  We stopped off at a nice old bar on Obispo and had a couple of beers and lunch.  It was a bit expensive ($6 each) and poor quality, but they had a good salsa band playing which made up for it.

After lunch, we walked miles looking at the various squares and historic buildings.  There were a large number of beautifully preserved classic cars at the Capitol building, which were all waiting to drive tourists around on tours.  Everywhere we looked there were iconic images of locals playing baseball in the streets, people chatting on balconies and washing hanging down the sides of once-splendid buildings. 

We ended up on the sea wall on the Malecon, which runs along the shoreline.  We were only there for two minutes before we were “befriended” by a small group of three people.  They started chatting us up by asking where we were from and talked for a couple of minutes before the guitar and maracas appeared.  The guitar player was amusing and sang a little song which had Glenys’s name in it.  They played a couple of songs for us and were very friendly until we only gave them $20 Moneda Nacional as a “tip”, which is about 80 cents - I never asked them to come up and chat to us and I'm sick of being seen as “Dollars on Legs”.


14 January 2013   Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba
I gave a printed list to the Dock master showing the places where we want to anchor on our way west of here.  Later in the afternoon, he gave it back to me with the places that we are allowed to go to.  Basically, we’re not allowed to stop on the North coast at all and our first stop has to be Cayo Levisa which is 65 miles away – another night passage…

We went to the Hotel Acuaria and used their internet connection at a reasonable cost of $6 for an hour.  The speed of the connection wasn't bad compared to some of the rotten connections that we get on-board, so in 30 minutes, we were able to check our emails and transfer some more money into our bank account.

Street Vendor, Marina Hemingway, Cuba

In the afternoon, Mario turned up and miraculously, he’d repaired the bearing in the alternator.  Even better, it only cost us $30 – I couldn't get anyone to talk to me in the USA for $30 never mind repair anything.  I fitted the alternator to the generator and it works fine.  I'm so happy.

I put on my swimming shorts and had a look at the bottom of the boat – first time since we re-launched in August.  The antifoul is holding out well – no barnacles and just a light slime on the hull.  There were a few small barnacles on the propeller, but it didn't take long to scrape them off.  I also had a look at the rudder bearing.  It has been clunking when we are sailing – especially if we are running down wind.  The bottom bearing has a few millimetres of movement, but I don’t think it’s an immediate problem.  However, I’ll probably have to get it sorted out the next time that we haul out.

We had Pete and Raywin from “Saliander” over for a couple of beers; they’re from New Zealand and are heading down to Panama tomorrow.

15 January 2013   Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba
We walked over to the Hotel Acuaria and booked a bus ride to Vinales tomorrow – we’re going to go for a couple of nights.  The tour company can drop us off there and we’ll then have to sort out a Viazul bus ride back to Havana.  The tour guide recommended a friend’s Casa Particular, so we got her to book it for us.  We then walked into the nearby local bank to get some cash for our road trip.

In the afternoon, we went to get our visas extended by a month, which turned into a bit of a saga.  First we had to buy ten, $5 stamps which are used on many official documents.  We could have bought these from a bank for $5, but it was easier to get them from the marina office who charged an extra $1 per stamp.  

A serious game of dominos, Cuba

A taxi picked us up and, after a few U-turns, eventually found the Immigration office.  It didn't look good because there were lots of Cubans standing around obviously waiting for their turn.  However, one of the officials spotted us and within minutes we were sat in front of an immigration officer.  She went through the tedious process and was a little confused when we couldn't show her our airline tickets.  I showed her the voluminous pieces of documentation that I’d received from the authorities and, after a few minutes of scowling, she seemed to accept those. 

She then wanted us to show her proof that we have medical insurance, which was (of course) back on the boat.  I managed to find an EU medical card in my wallet which she accepted (even though it is useless over here), but Glenys didn't have anything.  We had to take the taxi and go back to the marina to pick up the correct medical insurance documents then return to immigration.  After that it all seemed to go okay, so we now have a visa until the end of February. 

We invited “Yindee Plus” for a drink – Chris and Sue are Brits and have been cruising with their two sons, Wilf and Sid for three years.  It’s been a long time since we've talked to a sailing family and there was quite a bit of reminiscing back to our good old days on “Glencora”.   Chris has played the guitar for decades, so I'm looking forward to seeing having a guitar session with him when we get back from Vinales.

16 January 2013   Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba
We caught the tour bus to Vinales, which was very painless.  When we arrived, there was a guy holding up a sign with my name on it, so we followed him.  We walked about ½ kilometre to his casa, which is right on the edge of town.  Our guide book warns that the houses in Vinales are concrete boxes and all the same, but this one still looked a bit primitive.  The bedroom was OK and Toni & Onalis were friendly enough, so we said that it was fine.

Once we were in the room, I dug out the business card for the casa that the tour guide in the hotel had given us and, low and behold, it was a different address.   I questioned Toni and he admitted that it was a different one to the one that we had booked.  His uncle owned the other one and he was full - it’s weird how they take a booking knowing that they are full…

Mogotes & Tobacco, Vinales, Cuba

We went for a walk into town and had lunch at a small bar, then walked four kilometres along the road.  The valley is surrounded by Mogotes, which are boulder-like hills made from limestone that thrust out of the ground.  The area is supposed to have a good reputation for rock-climbing, but we didn’t see any climbing at all.  

We walked between two hills called the Mogote Dos Hermanas (twin sisters) and came to the Mural de la Prehistoria.  This is supposed to be one of the highlights of Vinales and was commissioned by Fidel Castro in the 1960’s.  It’s a 120 metre by 180 metre painting in garish colours which desecrates the side of a Mogote – very bizarre.  They wanted us to pay $3 each to get a bit closer, so we politely declined – we’d seen enough.

On way back, we saw that there were some casas with vacancy signs that looked a lot nicer than the one we were staying in, so we went into one and booked it for tomorrow night.  We walked back and told Toni that we were only staying one night.  Glenys told them that we like to stay in different places each night to meet more people – what a great face-saving reason to leave.

We had a nice meal and sat up until eleven o'clock drinking Mojitos and chatting to Toni and Odalis.  Toni wanted to practise his English and we wanted to practise out Spanish.  Odalis teaches Spanish to young children in the local school, so was constantly correcting our poor pronunciation. 

17 January 2013   Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba
We went horse riding.  Toni arranged for one of his neighbours to guide us and walked us to where the horses were corralled.  We had a great ride through very rich farm land with crops like Tobacco, maize, bananas, sweet potatoes, cabbages, etc.  It’s a very beautiful landscape with the mogotes as a backdrop.  To make it even better, there was only Glenys, me and the guide, so we were able to trot and canter as much as we wanted.

Horse riding, Vinales, Cuba

The guide took us to a few places including an organic farm, a small cave, and a couple of bars.  At one bar on the top of a hill, we ordered a coconut water with honey and rum and then I noticed a couple in another small group.  I’d seen her before, but where?   Then it clicked, they live on a Swiss boat that I’d last seen in Marathon, when I said hello, they recognised me – their boat is at another port in the north east of Cuba.  Small world…

On the way back to the stables, we stopped off at a small house, where we had a grapefruit drink made by cutting off the top of a grapefruit, squishing the fruit up in the middle and then adding honey and rum – fabulous.  Drink in hand; we were then treated to a demonstration of hand-rolling a cigar.  The dried leaves are fermented and quite flexible when being rolled, with different grades and types being blended to make the particular flavour.  At the end of the demonstration, the guy wanted to sell us some cigars, but we told him, sorry, we didn't smoke…

We picked up our luggage and walked along to our new Casa Particular, which had a much more colonial feel to it – high ceilings and a huge garden filled with plants such as banana, plantain, coffee, cabbages, avocados, etc.  The room was typically basic and some of the fittings had much to be desired.  You have to admire the practical approach to life that the Cubans have.  There was a chandelier in the bedroom that only had one of the four fittings working and looked as though it had seen much better days. The shower head was electrical and the wiring would have sent a British electrician into a fit.  The toilet handle was broken and with the type of ingenuity that I've seen elsewhere - a piece of wood tied onto the end of a length of string was a workable solution.

We wandered into town, had lunch, then sat in square – I was falling asleep after all our exercise, so I went back to have a two hour siesta while Glenys wandered around the small town a little more.  When she got back to the Casa, she found the gentlemen of the house rolling their own cigars and the lady picking through rice in a tray to remove the stones – it’s a different world.

In the evening, we had a great meal – Glenys had lobster and I had pork, both with the inevitable rice and beans.  Interestingly, in Vinales, they serve the rice and beans separate, so you can mix them up yourself.  After dinner, we went out to a bar, listened to a Salsa band and drank too many Cuba Libres.

Hand rolling cigars, Vinales, Cuba

18 January 2013   Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba
Once again, we were running out of money, so we went to bank to get some money.  Cubans have a very interesting way to queue.  They don’t stand in a long line, but huddle together with their friends chatting in small groups.  The trick is to ask who is the “Ultimo” as soon as you arrive at the door to the bank.  The person who is the last in the “queue” will raise a finger or nod in your direction - it’s quite subtle, so you have to be quick.  Once you have made eye contact with the last person, you are now the “Ultimo” and have to wait until the next person comes before you can relax.  You then watch the person “in front” of you, who is watching the person “in front” of them…

Our bus didn't leave until two o'clock in the afternoon so we went for a long walk to the Cuevas del Indio.  It’s six kilometres each way, so it was a good work out.  The caves are interesting and stretch back a few hundred metres until the way is blocked by an underground river.  At this point, you get onto a small boat and they take you for a small tour further into the cave and then drop you outside.  Not bad, but a little expensive at $5 each.

Back at the Casa, we had a shower, said goodbye and went to a restaurant for lunch.  The trip back on the bus was pleasant and we arrived back in Havana at half past five.  We were inundated by taxi drivers all trying to get us into their cab. On telling them that we wanted to go to Marina Hemingway  the starting price was either $20 or $25 dollars.  After haggling with a few of them, I determined that the best price we could get was $10.  There was a lot of shouting when I picked one of the more run down taxis rather than the newer state-run Cuba-Taxi.  There’s obviously a bit of a cartel being run here.  

19 January 2013   Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba
I downloaded a weather forecast which showed that a weak cold front has just passed over the area.  This will give light north east winds for the next few days, so we’ll probably leave tomorrow and head west.

We dropped off a bag of laundry and walked into the local town to get some food because we’ll be in isolated anchorages for the next couple of weeks and won’t be able to buy any food until we get to Mexico.  Unfortunately, we were too late to get any eggs and bread, but Glenys managed to get a good selection of vegetables and bought a frozen chicken at the marina’s state-run supermarket, so we won’t starve to death.

The afternoon was a lazy affair, reading and chilling out with a small excursion to the marina supermarket to buy enough beer and rum to last us for the next couple of weeks. 

In the evening, we had Mojitos on “Yindee Plus” and then went out to a local café with Jeff, Yuda and their two kids from “Xanadu” where we had a huge meal of pork and rice with a big salad for $1.25 each. 

Classic Car, Cuba

20 January 2013   Marina Hemingway to Cayo Levisa, Cuba (Day 1)
The weather forecast is still for settled weather for the next few days, so I told the marina office that we were leaving at five o'clock   We’re not allowed to stop anywhere along the northern coast until Cayo Levisa, which is an awkward 65 miles away.  We’ll not be able to get there in one day, so we’re going to have to do leave late afternoon and sail slowly overnight to arrive mid-morning; another day of hanging about waiting to leave.

We walked into town to see if we could find any eggs or bread, but had no success – we should have bought two dozen eggs when we found some the other day.  There was some kind of car rally going on at the marina and hundreds of cars kept parading up and down the road playing loud music.  We had a wander around and looked at the cars – some of the classic cars were in beautiful condition.

Chris from “Yindee Plus” came over in the afternoon with his guitar for an hour.  He’s been playing for over 40 years and showed me a few things to try.  It’s very embarrassing when I meet other guitarists because they always want to get together and I can’t play anything – I must learn to play some songs instead of just playing technical exercises.  On the plus side, Chris says that my technique is good.

I was a little annoyed when I paid the marina - they charged us an extra day because we’d stayed after noon.  On the positive side, I looked so annoyed that they didn't dare ask me for a “tip” – another boat that left today was hit for a 10% tip.  We had to go along to the clearance dock on the way out where we were visited by the Immigration, Customs and Guarda Fonteras.  They filled in numerous forms and stamped our “despacho” and, as expected, they would only give us permission to go to Cayo Levisa. 

When we finally exited the channel, we had a nice 20 knot wind from the north with settled, three foot seas, so we put the main up and set off on a reach into the setting sun.


21 January 2013   Marina Hemingway to Cayo Levisa, Cuba (Day 2)
The wind varied between 10 and 20 knots for most of the night - it was a lovely sail with a half moon and nice warm wind.  

I had a bit of a scare on my 11-2 watch.  I glanced up from my book and saw a line of white lights ahead.  As I approached, I could see that it was a string of lights, spaced about 25 metres apart – obviously some sort of fishing net or line. The question was; could we pass between the lights?  I turned to starboard and sailed parallel to the line of lights, but after ten minutes, I’d travelled over half a mile and the lights still stretched out ahead of me.  

I could see a fishing boat in the distance on the other side of the lights and decided that this had to be long-lining, where the fishing boat puts out baited fishing hooks on floats tied together by a rope which can be over five miles long.  I reckoned that the lights were on each float and guessed that the rope between would be sinking rope rather than floating rope.  I slowly sailed towards a pair of lights and sailed between them at three knots.  Thankfully, we didn’t snag our keel on the rope… 

Portuguese Man-of-war Jellyfish, Cuba

The wind dropped as dawn approached, so we had to run the engine for a few hours, which was a pity.  We arrived off the entrance to Cayo Levisa just as the sun came up, so we hove-to for a couple of hours waiting for the sun to get higher in the sky to allow us to make the entrance through the reef.  When we started to sail again, we caught a big 3-4 foot barracuda, which put up a good fight, but I let it go – with the danger of ciguatera, it was bit too big to eat.

As we approached the entrance buoy, Glenys spotted a lot of white blobs in the water ahead of us, so we slowed down worried that it might be a fishing net.  It turned out to be a large group of Portuguese Man-of-war jelly fish, slowly drifting around.  They’re quite small (between one and six inches long) with a translucent inflated “sail”.  I’m guessing that they’ve been blown from the Gulf Stream to here by the recent north winds.  We’re going to have to be careful if we go swimming because the tentacles (which can be up to 20 feet long) are highly toxic.

The entrance was simple, passing an entrance buoy and heading for a couple of marker posts about a mile away.  The water was murky, so it was difficult to see the shallows and we relied on the Navionics electronic charts and directions from the Calder cruising guide which were spot on until we approached the anchorage at Cayo Levisa.  There’s a shallow patch that is in a different place to the position shown on the chart – I know because we hit it…  The water depth went from three metres very quickly and we found ourselves aground showing a depth of 1.7 metres – our draft is 2.0 metres.  I tried to back off, but we didn’t move.  I knew that we had deeper water behind and to our left, so I used the bow thruster to pivot us to port and used forward gear to push us clear – phew!

We gingerly skirted the shallow patch and anchored in 7 metres of water to the west of the dock on the island.  I put the dinghy in the water, attached our 15hp outboard and miraculously it started on the third pull – not bad after three weeks on deck.  Touch wood, perhaps I’ve finally sorted out my fuel problems.

After lunch, we wandered ashore and was told that the Guarda Forteras was on his way and would be arriving by the small ferry from the mainland to check our papers  - bummer, we were hoping to avoid any more paperwork until we left for Mexico. 

The island is mostly mangroves, but has a hotel on the windward side – the beach is lovely and the hotel consists of lots of small beach huts with a couple of restaurants.   We had a swift beer in the hotel bar and then met the officer from the Ministerio del Interio on the ferry dock.  He was very pleasant, inspected our documents and filled in all of his forms. The job was done within twenty minutes, but we have to go through the whole rigmarole again when we leave.  We told him that we’d probably leave in a couple of days.

Cayo Levisa, Cuba

We collapsed back onto the boat and caught up on some sleep.

22 January 2013   Cayo Levisa, Cuba
We went to the beach, planning to stay most of the day.  We picked up a couple of beach chairs, lashed on the suntan lotion and lay there catching the rays.  This is the first time that we’ve been sunbathing on a beach for nearly a year.  Unfortunately, there was a strong wind and clouds whizzing past, so it was cold.  We persevered for a couple of hours then retired to the bar for lunch and retreated back to the boat.

I did some serious navigation planning in the afternoon.  We’ve had a vague idea of where we wanted to go, but no firm plans.  I was hoping that the water here would be clear and we’d be snorkelling on reefs catching lots of lobster, but the water is murky, the bottom is sea grass and we’re miles from a coral reef.  In addition, the murky water makes navigation a lot more difficult especially as we can’t trust our charts.

I spent three hours reading the two cruising guides that we have on board, both are over ten years old, but it’s all that we have.  Many of the anchorages appear to have very shallow water on the approaches, so it limits our options and we’ll need to be very careful.  It’s just over 100 miles as the crow flies to Los Morros (where we will clear out to go to Mexico), but we want to make day sails from here.  I eventually decided that six anchorages are suitable with 10 to 30 miles between each of them.

For the first two passages, we’ll have to go outside the barrier reef which skirts the coast.  There are quite a few marked channels through the reef, but the one between here and our next stop at Ensenada del Playuelas is an unmarked channel called the Quebrado Ines de Soto.  Our electronic chart shows that it’s a large, one mile wide gap in the reef with depths of 5 metres, which sounds okay, but we’ll need good light to make sure that there aren’t any isolated coral heads.  Once through the reef we’ll have to negotiate a very narrow shallow channel into the anchorage – if we can’t get through we’ll have to go onto the next anchorage. 

We asked the hotel staff on the dock to ring the Guarda Fontera and tell them that we’ll be going tomorrow morning and he should be here at eight o’clock.  

At five o’clock, I heard a voice calling out and found a guy from the dive centre in the water at the back of the boat.  He lifted up his right arm and showed me a dozen small lobsters and asked if I wanted them.  I asked him how much and he just replied how much do I think.  Eventually, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, he said $20 for the lot.  I said no, so he immediately dropped to $10.  Glenys looked at them and thought that they were too small, so we said no.  There’s obviously a lot of small lobster around, maybe I’ll go snorkelling tomorrow…

Bread rising in the engine compartment

23 January 2013   Cayo Levisa, Cuba
It rained a little bit last night and it was very overcast when we woke up early this morning, so I downloaded at another grib file.  There’s not much change – the wind is going to be from the east for the next seven days, so it must be a small ridge that is producing the cloud.  We really need good sunlight to navigate the next entrance through the reef, so we decided that we would stay another day and hopefully it will be sunny tomorrow.

I went ashore at half past seven to try to stop the Guarda Fronteras from coming on the ferry, but there was no one around on the dock.  I eventually managed to get the hotel reception to call, but the guy was only able to leave a message that we weren’t going to go today.  We met the ferry at half past eight, hoping that the message got through, but it hadn’t…

I apologised to the officer and told him that we weren’t going because of the weather.  He didn’t seem to be bothered and said, “No Hay Problema”.  While he was there, I asked him at which anchorages we could stop and his immediate answer was only Los Morros.  Fortunately, one of the guys from the dive centre was on the boat and helped us translate.  We explained that it’s a long way and we just wanted to stop at a few places overnight.  Once he understood that we didn’t want to go ashore, he said that it was okay to stop. 

It was a good decision to stay here for the day, because it rained on and off all day.  Glenys did some Spanish lessons and played her concertina, while I did a few jobs.  I recharged the two fridges with Freon – I’ve still not looked for the leaks.  I also pulled the saloon floorboards up – when I replaced the generator fuel pump a few weeks ago, I put it in a slightly different position and the damn thing has been hitting the underneath of the floorboards making an irritating clunking noise every few seconds.  I only had to move the pump a quarter of an inch, but it took me a couple of hours to take the saloon to pieces and put it all back together.

24 January 2013   Cayo Levisa, Cuba
It was another miserable overcast day with showers going through every so often.  Glenys made some bread, did more Spanish lessons and played her concertina.  Meanwhile, I caught up with editing my photographs and then got our web site up to date ready to be published whenever we get a decent internet connection.

After that it was a session of playing the guitar and watching a film – a very quiet day.  

We’ve decided to stay another day and let this front go through.  If it’s sunny tomorrow, then we’ll try to do some snorkelling and tell the Guarda Fronteras to come early the following day.

25 January 2013   Cayo Levisa to Punta Alonso Rojas, Cuba
I woke up at quarter to seven and peered out of the window to find blue skies, so I jumped out of bed, put the dinghy into the water and rushed ashore to ring the Guarda Fronteras.  The official arrived on the half past eight ferry and soon sorted out the papers.  We were on our way just before nine.  

We retraced our track from when we came in, but it was still very stressful – several times we had 2.1 metres of water and I had to go very slowly.  Once we were clear of western tip of Cayo Levisa, the water depth increased to 3-4 metres, so we could relax a little.  The water was too shallow for us to get to the next anchorage inside the reef, so we had to go outside and then come back in through another reef entrance.

Anchored next to Mangroves again, Cayo Rapado Grande, Cuba

Once past the outer sea buoy, we had 20 knot winds from the north-east and six foot waves, so the motion wasn’t very restful as we turned down-wind.   I put out the fishing line and quickly hooked a very nice four foot Wahoo which put up a great fight for ten minutes.  Unfortunately, I lost it just as I was trying to gaff it on board – I was gutted because I’ve still not managed to successfully land a Wahoo.

We had a 55 mile passage ahead of us and, because we’d not been able to leave until nine o’clock, I was worried that we’d not be able to get into the anchorage in daylight.  In addition, we appeared to have a ½ - 1 knot current against us for most of the day, so we had to motor sail all day, which was a shame in these great sailing conditions.  (We actually anchored at five o’clock, with one hour to spare, after averaging 6.8 knots for the day.)

We entered the reef again at Quebrado De La Galera, which is a couple of miles south west of Cayo Jutias - we didn’t go there because we were trying to get further south to clearer waters where we would be able to go snorkelling rather than staring at another island of mangroves.

Our Navionics charts show the green entrance buoy and reefs to be 0.4 miles further to the west-south-west, so it was a little disconcerting as we made our approach.  We had 8 metres of water up to buoy and then the water depth varied between 10 and 4 metres when we passed over submerged coral patches.  I stood on the bow keeping a sharp look out for coral heads, while Glenys steered us in.

After entering the reef, we turned south-west and motored in 5 metres depth until the approach to Punta Alonso de Rojas, where the water gradually shoaled and we anchored in 2.5 metres on grass and mud.  The anchorage is not very interesting being surrounded by mangroves and we had to anchor a long way from the shore because of the shallow water.

We were exhausted after a long and stressful day – it’s not easy navigating around here because the water is so murky and we can’t rely on the charts.

26 January 2013   Punta Alonso de Rojas to Cayo Rapado Grande, Cuba
We had a late start and left at nine o’clock in the morning, heading out to investigate Cayo Restinga de Carruyo. It’s a pleasant cay with lovely water colours, but we decided not to stay because there didn’t seem to be any coral and, after seven months lay-off, we’re desperate to go snorkelling…

We headed towards the Punta Tabaco light, but again didn’t stop because no coral.  Carrying on towards the Cabezo Seco light, we encountered shoals, which we had to skirt around.  The water depth dropped to 2.6 metres at one point, but it was easy to skirt around the obviously light coloured shallow areas.

We finally found a shallow coral reef just south of the Cabezo Seco light and tried to anchor in 3 metres of water, but the wind had picked up to over twenty knots and we dragged on the first attempt, so we ran away.

The reef that wasn't... North of Cayo Buenavista, Cuba

The approach to Cayo Rapado Grande was fairly straight forward, but we had to navigate around the sand spit that sticks out about a mile on the south side the cay – it’s a long way around.  I was impatient and cut the corner, so we ended up in water that was only 2.3 metres deep, but by following the darker water, I found a 2.8 metre channel very close to the spit that got us out of trouble.

We anchored in 3.0 metres of water next to a small, isolated cay in weed and mud. The anchorage is very peaceful, surrounded by mangroves and we were able to anchor close to the shore for a change.  We couldn’t swim because there were hundreds of jelly fish around the boat.  

27 January 2013   Cayo Rapado Grande to Cayos De Buenavista
It was a lovely morning, so we took a dinghy ride into the large lagoon, but there wasn’t very much of interest unless you like staring at mangroves – at least it got us off the boat.

We went out to the “reef” to try to find some elusive coral and anchored next to a charted shallow area.  Disappointingly, this turned out to be a patch of weed and sand, consequently the snorkelling was uninteresting, but at least we got to swim for the first time since we were in the Bahamas in May!  We stayed for lunch, gazing at the spectacular water colours.  

We had settled conditions with a 15 knot north-easterly wind, so we anchored off Cayos de Buenavista.  We had no luck in getting the anchor to set at the western end of the island – we think that it was thin sand over rock.  However, we managed to find weed and mud at the entrance to the lagoon on the island, but we had to anchor a fair way off shore in 2.6 metres of water.  Another uninteresting island covered with mangroves.

Mosquito netting protecting our cockpit

It’s been over a week since we’ve been ashore, so we’re slowly running out of things.  There’s only six beers left in the fridge and the fresh vegetables are running out, so Glenys is growing some bean sprouts to go with a stir fry tomorrow.  I’ve not managed to catch any fish or lobster and to make matters worse, the handle on the fishing reel on my small casting rod has broken off, so I can’t fish at anchor anymore.  Maybe it’s time to get back to civilisation.

28 January 2013   Cayos De Buenavista to Ensenada de Anita
My laptop computer decided to crash this morning and wouldn’t reboot, so I had to go through the laborious process of repairing the operating system.   This needed most of the three hours that it took us to sail to the approach to Ensenada de Anita, so Glenys was “Anjin-san” while I cursed and muttered below. 

The water depth gradually dropped to 4 metres as we approached a shoal patch that guards the entrance to the anchorage.  The water was murky, so we couldn’t see any changes in water colour, so we tentatively inched our way in using our small chart plotter.  For once the Navionics charts were accurate and we didn’t see anything less than 3.5 metres.  We then headed north and anchored in 2.6 metres to the west of Cayo Montano.  

Ensenada de Anita is another anchorage surrounded by mangroves with a grassy sea bed.  It’s pleasant enough and good protection from the prevailing easterly winds.  We arrived at lunch time and spent the rest of the day chilling out in this isolated anchorage - it was so calm and quiet this evening that my ears were ringing in the silence.

29 January 2013   Ensenada de Anita to Cayos de la Lena, Cuba
I downloaded a weather forecast and there’s a cold front coming through in the next couple of days.   These fronts come from the north and have a very predictable pattern.  The prevailing east winds start to come around to the south and then, as the front passes, the wind will suddenly switch to the north and increase in strength.  This front looks to be quite a strong one, so we decided to head down to Cayos De La Lena where we can get better protection. 

Cold front passes over us, Cayo de la Lena, Cuba

The wind was 20-25 from the south east, so we just put out the genoa and tromped along on a reach at 5 knots in beautiful sunshine.  The approach into the Canal de Barcos was is very straight forward with the shallowest depth being 3.5 metres.  The Canal is a long waterway that goes through the middle of Cayos de la Lena into a lagoon.  It’s about 100 metres wide and the water stays over four metres deep until close to the mangroves.  We anchored ½ mile along the waterway in five metres depth in soft mud – it took us a couple of goes to get the anchor to hold.  

In a fit of madness, I decided to put out a second anchor in a Bahamian mooring.  This configuration has two anchors 180 degrees to each other with rode from both leading from the bow rollers.  The idea is that it reduces area in which the boat swings.  We simply let out twice the normal amount of chain on the primary anchor, tossed the secondary anchor overboard and then pulled in the chain on the primary anchor, so that we’re left with 25 metres on both anchors.

It took us a couple of goes to get it right – the first time, I put the second anchor over the port side and the rope rode was caught under the keel, rubbing off some of my precious anti-foul paint.  We did the procedure again and dumped the anchor over the starboard side and all seems to be okay.  We’re a bit close to the mangroves behind us because the anchors are not in the middle of the waterway, but I think that we’ll be fine.  At least we’ll be in a better position when the wind switches around 180 degrees when the front comes through.

The rest of the afternoon was spent chilling out, reading, playing musical instruments and staring at even more mangroves – we’re surrounded by them now.  Glenys rustled up a pizza for dinner and we ate it watching a film.

30 January 2013   Cayos de la Lena, Cuba
Another yacht arrived late last night and is anchored at the entrance to the waterway.  This is the first cruising boat that we’ve seen since we left Marina Hemingway ten days ago, so we went over to say hello to Greg & Bev on “Liberty VI”.  They have four of their family over for a long holiday.

Cuban fishing boat, Cayo de la Lena, Cuba

We chilled out for the afternoon – I’m trying to work out how to play “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash on the guitar, but don’t have any written music, so I’m trying to work it out from the mp3 track that I’ve got – it’s going very, very slowly…

“Yindee Plus” arrived in the late afternoon, so we ended up having a few drinks on their boat with “Liberty VI” until rain stopped play.  Three boats in an anchorage, I’m in shock.

31 January 2013   Cayos de la Lena, Cuba
It was a very calm night and when we woke the anchorage looked like a mill pond.  One disadvantage of having no wind is that we’ve been invaded by no-see-ums.  There was a huge swarm of the little buggers in the cockpit and quite a lot have managed to squeeze through our mosquito netting and were biting us, so I “Bopped” the whole boat and the cockpit – there were hundreds of the little bodies everywhere.

The front came through mid-morning.  The wind picked up to 20 knots from the north and we had a little bit of rain. “Liberty VI” decided to make a run for Maria La Gorda, left just before the front came through and had a good trip.

A small rowing boat with three lobster fishermen came alongside us and offered us some of their catch.  After a bit of negotiation, we gave them a pack of playing cards and a tot of rum each for four nice sized lobster – yummy.  As they went over to “Yindee Plus”, a couple of big fishing boats came in to anchor behind us – it’s all go in this anchorage.

I went over to “Yindee Plus” to have a guitar session – Chris showed me how he plays “Folsom Prison Blues” which was very helpful.  I’m still useless, but I picked up a few hints.  Meanwhile, Sue and her twins came over to Alba to watch a Harry Potter film on our big screen and then we all ended up on Alba having a few cocktails …

We've produced some Cruising Notes for Northwest Cuba with navigational information:

http://www.thehowarths.net/albacronicles/cruising-notes/336-northwest-cuba-2013