We set off in tandem with Medea for Cuba. The first 24 hours were awful, with short waves, big swell and really uncomfortable – the dreaded mal de mer hit me and for the first time ever I was actually seasick. It’s a horrible feeling but after the first 24 hours I was much better thank goodness. I can’t imagine what it would be like to suffer for days on end. The last 24 hours was brilliant though, we had a wonderful beam reach and had the Code 0 out so we were flying along at between 8-10knots. We were hoping to crack the illusive 200nm in 24 hours but for the third time only did 196nm! One day we will do it….
There are only a few places to check into Cuba and the island of Cay Largo was the nearest. This is a resort island so not typical of Cuba but the marina manager Pirie spoke superb English and was waiting for us when we arrived. Coming into Cay Largo we were amazed at the water, it had to be some of the clearest we had ever seen – huge turtles accompanied us in and the fish life was prolific. As we approached, we realised we were the only yacht in the marina, followed by Darryl an hour later, who to the manager Pirie’s horror was flying an American flag. He had an American crew on board in Mexico and had forgotten to take down the US flag which is a complete no-no in Cuba. The first thing he had to do was lower it before disembarking and hide it down below! Pirie told us that this was high season and usually it’s full but COVID had stopped yachts coming and of course the Americans are not allowed to sail in, only fly in. The resort was closed which was a bit of a bummer because we had read stories of the great parties usually held here where rum flows freely and people end up dancing on the bar… There is a small charter boat industry here and during our stay we did have two charter boats arrive – but it was pretty quiet so we decided after we checked in, to sail onto Cienfieugos- a larger town on the mainland where we could base ourselves for some inland travel.
Cienfieugos is a beautiful town in the south coast and is the only town in Cuba that has a French influence. The marina was a couple of kilometres from the town and after we had checked in with the authorities, which you have to do in every place you stop in Cuba, we headed off to see the town.
We spied our first old car as soon as we had left the marina – it was a taxi and lovingly maintained but we kept on walking as we had to shake down our sea legs.
We needed internet, something to eat and to organise transport to Havana… but the first thing we needed to do was change some money. We had been told not to use the banks as there are two levels of exchange rate – the local and the tourist. Now we had met this before, and in fact we always change money on the street because you get a better rate but Cuba surpassed anything we had experienced before. They all desperately want hard currency, the US dollar or the Euro being the preferred currency. It is because there are certain things you cannot purchase in local currency like electronics, electrical goods and prohibited items sneaked in from the US. The official bank rate was 20 Cuban pesos to the dollar but by doing an exchange in a run down hallway with a young man, and two others on watch, we got 90 pesos to the dollar… which meant we could pay local prices. Few places accept cash though, they all want credit cards – we could only buy some bar drinks, souvenirs, taxis and unbelievably our diesel. Armed with our pesos we went looking for some internet. We spotted queues outside anywhere that sold food, but when we got a look-in we were saddened to see the food shops were empty – just rice, pasta and some tinned vegetables. The queues were for bread – and they were rationed. We did see a crowd around a shop and about 3 washing machines on the pavement being fiercely protected by their new owners – there had obviously been a shipment and we wondered how long they had waited for them to arrive. We guess that was one of the items bought with their hard currency. It was quite confronting to see how little they had, just a few shops selling plastic toys, knitted baby clothes, plastic flowers(!) etc. We found the internet shop and got quite cheap data, so we now had cash and communication – time to find something to eat.
We found the one and only sandwich shop – and each had a ham and cheese sandwich and a mango juice. Total cost A$1.67!
We got a tuk-tuk back to the marina and paid 9c each for the journey….. at the marina we had a beer in the bar – 50c a beer, the cheapest beer ever.. We were loving the prices!
We decided to all go to Havana for a few days – and thought an Airbnb would be the way to go but when we tried to book an apartment we couldn’t because it’s an American website, even though we could access it we couldn’t book through it. Darryl eventually got his sister in Australia to book one for us – crazy that you can book an apartment in Havana from Australia but not another Cuban town.
We took a taxi (euros or dollars only) to Havana which was only a couple of hours away. The roads are quite empty, and about 30% of the cars are 1950’s models.
We arrived at our apartment about 4pm, and found it was in the old town on the 4th floor – with a tiny little balcony overlooking the bustling streets. For $30 a night it was fantastic. We had the whole apartment including the rooftop which we actually didn’t use.
Our first evening was spent wandering the beautiful old city – so beautiful and so full of life albeit with many crumbling buildings. They are trying to renovate some of them with the tourist dollar but most are private houses and their incomes are far too low to be able to afford house maintenance. Cuba has many large open spaces, with magnificent government buildings and statues, but the back streets are very narrow and most of the house only have about 5ft of frontage but go back 4 or 5 rooms deep. Our apartment was on the 4th floor and the entry was just a door’s width, leading straight onto a staircase. Basically the front door and staircase was shared by all the apartments in that particular house – odd but functional.
We found Floriditos. The most famous of Cuba’s watering holes and Ernest Hemmingways local. We googled it and found it was one of the top ten bars in the world and famously invented the daiquiri. Mr Hemmingway himself was sitting in the corner and everyone had to get their photo taken next to him.
Next door to Floriditas was The Havana Club. We found all the different Havana Club rums here from only $9.50 a litre. They also had a huge range of Cuban cigars but as none of us smoke them, we didn’t buy any. We left with lots of Havana Club though! There was a small bar there where we tasted all the different vintages – such a fun way to spend the afternoon!
We decided we had to go for a ride in one of their vintage cars. The ones in the centre of Havana are specifically for the tourists and are not only totally renovated but shining… most of them are still owned by the grandsons or even great-grandsons of the original owners and they are the livelihood for the whole family. We chose a 1953 Ford Fairlaine as we wanted to ride in a red convertible. We then spent an hour driving round Havana, being shown landmarks, famous hotels and the waterfront. It was brilliant fun and something very different.
That evening we went out on pub crawl, visiting lots of funky bars and somehow ended up back in Floriditas. There was a Cuban band and lots of people enjoying cocktails – the ambience was wonderful and we felt like it had already become our local. Dinner was so-so, but mainly because they have so little variety of produce. A salad was just a sliced tomato with a lettuce leaf and mainly fish in a sauce. Lobster seemed to be everywhere but little meat. After dinner, we wandered back and opened one of our bottles of Havana Club and sat on our tiny balcony to watch the world below. People hanging out their washing, men on the street sharing a cigar, and women leaning over their balconies talking to their neighbours. Just brilliant…
We found a really modern cafe for breakfast which was cheap and delicious. It turned out to be the best restaurant we went to in Cuba – they are really working on tourism but without the American dollar they are finding it hard.
We spent the morning at the brand new Fidel Castro museum – housed in a gorgeous renovated building. We were not sure what to expect but were very pleasantly surprised… After half an hour of having our passport details taken, our bags thoroughly searched and form filling, we were told we had to have a guide, and that the tour would take a couple of hours! We were sceptical at first but it turned out to be a really good museum and our guide Margarita was thrilled to have 3 Australians as she actually knew someone there. She spoke fluent English and knew just about everything there was to know about Fidel Castro – her absolute hero. She beamed with pride as she showed us his medals and uniforms and spoke with such affection that you would think he was her father! The museum was totally interactive but we were not allowed to touch any of the buttons (COVID) so Margarita operated them and showed us everything- from his childhood, to his dramatic return to Cuba with Che Guevara on their boat to take over the country. The famous Bay of Pigs battle where the Americans tried to invade but were beaten back by the Cubans and all the social changes he implemented for the Cubans, like new housing, education for all, new factories and sanitation.
I really enjoyed this museum – it held my attention for the full 2 hours – which is unusual. Recommended if you go to Cuba.
After we left the museum we walked to a small park that had a bench with a statue of John Lennon sitting on it. We all took the obligatory photo and then walked over to a bright yellow building which turned out to be a bar called ‘The Yellow Submarine’. Inside the walls were adorned with pictures of the Beatles, mainly John and Yoko and prints of newspaper articles about him. I asked the barman how many times John Lennon had visited Cuba to which he replied ‘Never! Just love the Cubans…
We did but more exploring, and found the North Korean embassy, which happened to be next door to the British Embassy and other important buildings, but they didn’t really feel like embassies or diplomatic offices as outside were old dilapidated cars like Ladas, Skodas and Beetles…
We were made to feel very welcome, every time they asked us where we came from we would reply ‘Australia’ and every time they would call back ‘Skippy’ – that Australian tv programme from the 60’s must have played right up into the 90’s in Cuba for the young people to know about it. We laughed every time…
Back in the main tourist centre, the buildings were beautifully preserved. Havana is a beautiful city but the people have so very little.
We drove along the waterfront in an old 1950’s taxi that had no door panels, no upholstery, no window handles and no instruments that worked! It was as interesting as our fully renovated car and the taxi driver was just as proud of it! The waterfront is spacious and long. The waves were crashing over the wall into the promenade but it was still an amazing waterfront. Big hotels standing in pride position with very few tourists to enjoy the view. We went for a coffee in one of them and it was like stepping back in time.
That night we found some more bars hidden away, and chatted to both locals and some tourists from Europe. We wandered through squares dotted with street vendors selling doughnuts and fried patties and enjoyed the warm evening, but somehow we ended up again at Floriditas – somehow that lovely bar kept calling us back… lots of Mojitos and Daiquiris and more live music. Another so-so dinner and an upstairs bar overlooking the street later and we ended up back on our balcony drinking Havana Rum. Oh we were definitely in Cuba!
When we were wandering around, we found very few shops except for tourist t-shirt shops. There was one supermarket we found that had a few more basics than we had in Cienfieugos but still very little. What was surprising was that some people just sold a few items from their living rooms – barred so no-one stole them, but an eclectic array of anything they could sell.
Havana was an amazing city but we had to get back to the boats so we took a taxi back to Cienfieugos. We rang our original taxi driver that had brought us and he was pleased to get the gig again so another $100 later, and a 6 hour round trip he came and picked us up and took us back to the marina.
On the way we stopped to buy some onions, the only vegetable we saw in abundance. We also passed a town called Australia!! We noticed that there were many hitchhikers, but they were holding out some pesos so they pay for their lift. It must be cheaper than the bus.
A couple days later and it was time for Darryl to move on. He had a good weather window for his sail east to the Dominican Republic and he needed to take it. Was this time really goodbye? We had said goodbye three or four times before but as we were heading south to Panama and he was heading East, this really was the final one. From living next door to each other in Turkey, discovering the beauty of the Turkish coast line, the Caribbean, Grenada, the San Blas Islands, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and finally Cuba – we had one final Havana Rum, untied his docklines and bade him fair winds…. The sad part of cruising.
The next place we visited was a small town on the south coast called Trinidad. One of Cubas top tourist destinations because of its old colourful buildings and traditional way of life – Trinidad was completely the opposite of Cienfieugos and Havana. No magnificent buildings or three story skinny houses – but a joy to walk around. It was terribly poor, and we saw no sign of prosperity here. We found a shop selling bread and bought some as we hadn’t been able to buy any yet. We were rationed to 4 rolls each and 10 minutes later they had some out so we were lucky. The shop had an old fashioned till and empty shelves – but they were employed.
The streets of Trinidad – not maintained at all.
We walked around for a few hours and saw raw meat hanging in open windows with dogs waiting outside for scraps. We had not seen meat in any other shops but this meat was not at all appealing… there were a few veg for sale from other windows which we bought but other than that, there were various people sitting on the street selling just one or two items. I’m not sure what the Cubans eat as we saw so little but we saw no really skinny people and no begging.
The houses were all different colours and it was a pretty town but so rundown –
Back at the marina we had our 50c beer in the bar and got ready to set sail for Cay Largo the next day. We had to fuel up just before leaving at the grand sum of 25c a litre – our cheapest diesel since Sudan.
En route to Cay Largo we stopped at a small island which had a lighthouse with 2 lighthousemen who have to stay for months at a time. We had been told they welcome boats as they never see anyone and appreciate some gifts. We hadn’t even dropped anchor before this little boat arrived offering us two huge lobsters and some fish. We gave them a bottle of rum, a couple of caps and some beer and they were really happy. The next morning we went ashore and discovered some ruins which at one stage would have been the accommodation we assumed. The guys now live in the lighthouse itself. The island was dry, rocky and very inhospitable – not your average tropical island. We felt for the guys spending months at a time with so few visitors.
We spent the night here and set off early the next morning for Cay Largo. We anchored this time off a stunning beach, with many thatched shelters and sunbeds and no people. We literally had the whole beach to ourselves. It was the beach for a resort which was closed, and there were walkways, bars and dining areas – all empty. We spent the day lounging around, relaxing and swimming. It was one if the best beaches we have come across and we felt very privileged to have it all to ourselves.
We spent a few days here before going round to the marina to check out. We had a 5 day sail to Panama so we needed to get going. We had adored Cuba, the country is gorgeous, the people are so friendly and hospitable and it’s completely untouched by modern life but… It is desperately poor and they have so little. We discovered in Cay Largo that our snorkels and masks had been stolen from Cienfieugos marina which was a bit annoying, but we don’t really mind – they could never buy them there or afford them if they had a shop that sold them so they will really appreciate having a mask to catch their lobsters with so we felt it was a parting gift!
Next stop Panama and the canal…..