The approach to Cuba makes the English Channel look like an aquatic desert. There’s a traffic separation zone just off the east coast of Cuba. And tankers, cruise ships and other large vessels are either going into it, coming out of it, or going around it. It makes navigation interesting.
Fortunately, we were able to get on the coastal side of the traffic separation zone before dark. And after that, it was smooth sailing – but mostly motoring – all the way to Santiago de Cuba.
With the sky clear and the stars bright, even after darkness fell, we could see the bold and steep Cuban coastline. And we detected the occasional wisp of smoke from the woodfires in the coastal settlements, which was all very pleasant.
However, this route to Santiago de Cuba passes by Guantanamo Bay, famous for all the wrong reasons. So, we had to stay clear of the coast by a few miles to avoid a prolonged stay there, wearing orange. As we approached Guantanamo, we could no longer see the stars in the sky. The light pollution emanating from the military base here is worse than Vegas.
We could see police patrol boats in the distance, and I’m almost sure we could see the golden arches of McDonald’s. But whatever was cooking over there, the unpleasant smell of singed hair replaced the homely smell of woodsmoke.
After passing the exclusion zone, we altered course back towards the coast and continued to alternately sail and motor throughout the night. The only other vessels in sight were cruise ships passing well to the south of Cuba. And with Guantanamo fading into the distance, the sky cleared and the stars returned. There are no dangers from shoals, rocks, or pirates around these parts. It was stress-free all the way to Punta Gorda.
Our pilot book insisted that it’s necessary to call Morro Santiago de Cuba when 12 miles from Punta Gorda. We tried that several times but heard nothing back. So, we carried on past the old fort towards the marina, finally giving up on the coastguard and calling Marina Marlin instead. The dockmaster, Alex, eventually responded, but by the time he did, we were within shouting distance of the folks on the pontoons. None of this mattered though. Getting into the marina is easy, and the directions given to us by Alex couldn’t have been more precise.
Alex guided us to the rugged concrete dock and, with the help of a colleague, caught our lines and welcomed us to Cuba in perfect English. He said to come and see him for a welcome meeting when we have finished with the officials. The first of the officials was the medical officer who bore a stunning resemblance to my old boss. And after asking some questions, filling out a form, drinking a beer, and checking our temperatures, he declared that we had passed quarantine and could lower our Q flag and raise the Cuban one.
Although we had cleared quarantine, we weren’t allowed off the boat until we had cleared customs and immigration. And for that, we had to wait. A few other boats had arrived earlier that day, so there was a backlog. Two hours later though, someone from the Guardafronteras came along, escorted us to his office, and took care of all the rest of the formalities for us. We had also read that the officials come onboard and rifle through the contents of the drawers and cupboards on your boat and that they send in the sniffer dogs. Not in our case. That visit to the friendly Guardafronteras guy (this one resembling an ex-employee – proving that everyone has a doppelganger somewhere) concluded all the official stuff.
Welcome to Marina Marlin
After completing clearance, we walked the few metres to the marina office for our welcome meeting with Alex. He explained where things are in the marina. I asked him if there is any way to avoid the pollution from the power station staining our boat (the station is fired by crude oil, and the fallout leaves brown spots on your deck). He said I wish there was.
Our priority was to get some cash, so we asked Alex to unlock the gate separating the marina from the hotel and walked up to the reception area where they changed our Euros for CUCs (convertible pesos or tourist cash) and a few CUPs (Moneda national or local money). On the way out, Aldaberto the restaurant manager accosted us and asked if we wanted to have dinner that evening. At less than a fiver, we certainly did. And the food was excellent.
That evening the rain arrived bringing with it the fallout from the power station, possibly mixed with a little something from the cement factory. The whole area stank like an oil refinery. And in the morning, as we assumed would be the case, we found the telltale splotches of oil-coloured stains all over the deck.
Santiago de Cuba
On Thursday 17th, armed with one CUC each for the fare, we walked the short distance to the ferry terminal and took the Ferry to Santiago. The ferry terminal title is a bit grand – it’s a roof on stilts on a bit of spoil ground. There’s no health and safety here. The ferryman drives the bow of the boat up to land and passengers jump off or up from there. We took the ferry with the family off Moira, a solid-looking Hans Christian boat, with whom we shared the pontoon at the marina.
Stepping off the ferry at Santiago de Cuba, our first mission was to get internet. We needed to switch on the magstripe function on our debit cards so that we could withdraw cash from an ATM (of which there are many). The only way to get internet, it seems, it to get an ETECSA card. Each one of these scratch cards gives one hour of internet for 1 CUC. Not bad. After a couple of dead ends, we managed to get some of those cards at the hotel reception of the Excelsior hotel. And shortly after that, our pockets were stuffed with enough CUCs to last us until we left.
According to the guidebooks, Santiago de Cuba has particularly persistent hustlers who will attach to any tourist like a limpet. This isn’t reflective of our experience, however. We didn’t find them too bad. Most of them are offering rum or cigars, a taxi ride or a good restaurant to eat at. And all of them can be easily (and gently) dealt with – although we met a very skilled one while sat at a bench at the square. He wove a very convincing tail about not having the money to see his family. He even provided a breakdown of costs. He must have been good. He got one CUP out of me towards the fare, but only after giving us a postcard.
Casa de la Trova
The music scene in Santiago de Cuba is probably like nowhere else in the world. And the epicentre of live music is the Casa de la Trova. So we walked over there to see what was on. As we walked by, one of the musicians called me over and shook my hand. And thanks to Google Translate we worked out that he was playing on Saturday and wanted us to come along. We said we would, and indeed we did.
After lunch at the Hotel Casa Granda Terrace – partly famous as the place where Grahame Green was known to write.- we went back to the Casa de la Trova to listen to one of the matinee acts. They were excellent. We have paid a lot more to see a lot less. So, when they offered us CDs of their music, we bought both of them.
We also bought some rum with the help of a bloke wearing orange shorts brighter than a builders safety vest. He shouted that he had seen us at the Punta Gorda Hotel where he works behind the bar. I don’t know if he works there or not, but he must have seen us there. Anyway, to snip a long story short, we followed him to the upstairs of a house a couple of streets away from the Casa Grande, where there was a stash of rum and cigars. We didn’t buy the cigars, as we can’t stand the smell, but we did buy three bottles of 15-year old Santiago de Cuba rum at a bargain price – and it is delicious.
After that, we walked over to the cathedral. And after leaving our rum-filled bags with the ticket people, we climbed the steps up the cathedral tower. The steps up there might be steep, but it’s worth the breathlessness. The view from up there is superb.
Meet the Locals
With light starting to fade, we decided to head back to the marina on the ferry. As we waited for the boat to arrive, we struck up a conversation with a couple of young guys sat near us on the wall. Mario and Josué were fascinated by our tale of sailing from the UK on Lady Jane. They wanted to know if we could take them fishing, but we had to explain that we can’t allow any Cuban nationals on our boat and that we would all be en la mierda, but them more than us. Instead we each shared photographs and tried our best to understand each other’s attempts at each other’s languages until it was time to catch the 6 pm ferry.
When we got back to the marina another dockmaster, Norbert, asked if we could move the boat to accommodate a superyacht coming into the marina. So, early on Friday morning, we relocated Lady Jane to the western side of the marina.
We knew from our trip into the city the day before that it’s a long and sweaty uphill walk to the Moncada Barracks from the centre of Santiago, so we ordered a taxi. Half an hour later the taxi driver arrived in his Studebaker. I don’t know how old this car is, but I do know that Studebaker ceased manufacturing cars in 1966. The Cubans seem to be masters at preserving vehicles. The bodywork was in good condition, and mechanically all seemed to be excellent. It even had suspension.
Some say this is where the revolution started – and where it nearly ended. The attack by Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries on the Moncada Barracks didn’t go well; principally because some of the fighters got lost. But the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. And now, the Moncada barracks has become both a museum for the revolution and a school. The bullet holes, repaired post-attack, have been recreated to add a bit more poignancy. And it works. Many of the artefacts contained in the museum drive home just how recent this was. The style of jeans worn by some of the revolutionaries can probably, even now, be bought in a popular market somewhere. And there isn’t much censorship for the sensitive inside these walls. Fidel’s fighters were not treated well.
After that we walked down the hill towards the city centre, passing several buildings containing bold reminders of the revolution, ending up at Thoms and Yadira restaurant opposite the cathedral. As we reached the top of the restaurant’s steep stairs, one of the waiters told Maria that she needs more exercise. She wasn’t impressed, but it was all in good spirit. The staff were quite nice. But the prices were not. This is definitely a place for the holiday folks.
After getting the 6 pm ferry back, we again ate at the restaurant near the marina. Unlike the last time, when we had exclusive use of the restaurant, the place was full of Dutch holidaymakers. But, the staff managed them and us very well.
Casa de Diego Velazquez
On Saturday we had a date with our musician friend at the Casa de la Trova for 1100. This time, the taxi that turned up was more of a modern-day classic: a Lada. And the restoration on this one involved taking out the suspension. We’ve had softer fairground rides.
Nevertheless, the driver got us to our destination in time. We got out at the Casa Grande, walked the few steps to the Casa de la Trova, and communicated with the doorman using pointy fingers and mime. This seemed to work. We quickly found out that our musician friend had cocked up the time. He was playing at 1 pm.
With a couple of hours to kill, we decided to head over to Casa de Diego Velazquez across the square. Built in 1515, this is the oldest colonial-era house on the island – so we thought it worth a look. After paying the small entrance fee, the person on the desk guided us in the general direction of the rooms, and we were treated to a tour by each of the guides stationed at the various sections of the house.
The standard question asked was ‘¿de donde eres?’ We, of course, answered ‘Inglaterra.’ Unfortunately, none of the guides could speak English. But they did know the names of wood in several languages and the names of a few countries. So, as we walked through each of the rooms, the tour sounded something like this: Mahogany; Cedar de Cuba; Mahogany; Restoration (yes, I know that’s not wood or a country); French; Flemish; Dutch; Mahogany; Original; English; Restoration; Chinese.
The selection of artefacts was quite impressive. Valazquez either must have travelled extensively or had a lot of stuff shipped in. And most of it is in an excellent state of preservation. Only the fire in one of the rooms at the back of the building has buggered things up. But the Cuban craftsmen have done a fabulous job with the restoration.
Let’s Face the Music and Dance
After lunch at the reliably good and inexpensive Casa Granda Terrace, it was time to try again at the Casa de la Trova. And this time we found our musical friend there. So we took a seat towards the front of the room and waited for the show to start.
I have never heard music like it. The harmonies these guys have worked out are something beyond description in words. And how it’s possible to create a sound like it with the instruments they were playing strikes me as pure genius. There was only one thing for it: I had to buy another CD. And one day we will work out how to play them.
The Cubans might be able to put together some fantastic music, but I’m sorry to say that dancing doesn’t appear to be a strong point. To dance like a native Cuban, you need to contort your lips so that it looks like you are sucking a lemon, then you take your partner for a two-step shuffle and occasionally pause for what I can only describe as an epileptic fit. You then repeat the process, but at no time is your facial expression allowed to change. My dance partner tried to get me to do the two-step but had no chance. I lack those Cuban genes.
We decided to get a taxi back but wanted to get one of the ice creams for which Cuba is quietly famous. So, we walked down the hill towards the port and called in at the ice cream/cake cafe place. Unfortunately, the place was packed, the queues long, and it wasn’t apparent from which section of the cafe the ice cream was being sold. So, we gave up and continued our descent to the port to get a cab.
As we crossed the road, we spotted one of the guys who had previously spoken to us about buying cigars and rum. He also recognised us. Today, he was operating his bicycle taxi. After a brief chat, we asked him about getting a taxi back to the marina. He said he would get one for us. And he did: a small yellow tuk-tuk with bench seats at the back, and it was surprisingly comfortable.
English Night in Cuba
After drinks with Glenda and Ian onboard the only other British boat in the marina: Lucy Alice, we headed over to the small marina bar and met a German couple who arrived at the marina about the same time as we did, and had a Mojito with them before walking to the hotel for dinner. The hotel restaurant looked closed. The drink bottles had gone from the bar, and the tables were empty. But Aldaberto appeared from the kitchens and assured me that they are open for business – as long as we are OK with chicken.
Some more people arrived during dinner, and by strange coincidence, they were also from the north of England. Scott and Simon, have worked in Cuba on a dredging contract for over six months and this was the first time they have heard another English accent. Because they only had each other for company, they were thrilled to bits. And it was great to talk with them too – despite the mild hangovers inflicted on us by the Cuba Libres they bought us. Another guy arrived later. He was also from the north of England but now lives in Spain. He comes to Cuba over the winter months to avoid the cold from up in the mountains. What are the odds of that eh?
Because we had paid the marina bill the day before, the departure process was simple. And the same Guardafronteras officer who cleared us in was also there to clear us out. Formalities were as simple as declaring our next port, having our photographs taken, and being issued with an exit Despacho. All this took no more than half an hour. And despite it being Sunday, there was no overtime to pay.
Then after giving some fishing gear to one of the security guards and handing out some small packs of soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes to the marina staff and our friendly Guardafrontera man, we slipped our lines and headed off to Montego Bay.
We loved Cuba and were sad to leave. But there was only a small weather window available to us to sail cross to Jamaica, so we had to go.
We do feel that we have only just scratched the surface of this fascinating country, so, we would like to return. Next time we would come armed with a lot more Spanish – and a bloody good cover for the boat.