Trinidad de Cuba

This past week we travel to Trinidad de Cuba via a 1952 Dodge sedan. At $25 we think it’s a bargain to travel the 80 kilometers east from Cienfuegos and we enjoy the drive that weaves through farmland and along the coast. We ask the driver to leave us as close as possible to the old city; this area is a designated World Heritage site and no cars are allowed within. He drops us in front of the Iberostar hotel opposite a large park and I go into GPS mode to find our way to our casa particular. We haven’t made reservations but we stayed at this casa particular two years ago and liked it. It’s a picturesque place within the heritage area on a steep hill and has air conditioning, good plumbing (not always a sure thing in Cuba) and a nice rooftop restaurant attached to it. After a few false starts and wrong turns, we are at the casa particular and, amazingly, our landlady Katriska recognizes us from our past visit. We dump our knapsack in our room and head out to re-acquaint ourselves with Trinidad.

Gates to the heritage area

Gates to the heritage area

It’s one of the oldest cities in Cuba and we spend a day just wandering through the heritage area, ducking into cafes to listen to musicians and just soaking up the atmosphere. At one point we take a wrong turn and end up in an area that can only be described as ‘dirt poor’. The street is a rock-strewn path and leads up the steep hills between wooden shacks and squalor. In the midst of all this poverty, there is a young woman determinedly sweeping her front step and walkway to keep her small space clean. As we hastily make our way back down into the heritage cobblestoned streets, a woman calls out to us, pointing to her toddler saying, ‘Something for the baby?’ It was probably the first time I actually felt a little nervous here in Cuba. But 50 steps later, we turn the corner and we’re back onto a well-kept street with young girls skipping rope in their school uniforms.

Trinidad seems a bit full of tourists right now so we’re not sure if this is the high season now or a reaction to President Obama’s slackening of restrictions on Cuban travel. In addition, the number of people approaching us to ask for money or clothes is much more noticeable than our last visit here two years ago. Is that a reaction to the increase in tourists we wonder? A woman stops me on the street – she really likes my pink Athleta T-shirt and I think she wants to trade my shirt for hers. A stoop-shouldered man waylays us and holds out his straw hat looking for coins. We know from past experience that if I open my bag to offer money, soap or razor blades, a crowd quickly forms and it doesn’t feel comfortable. Trinidad feels more like Havana on this visit; more hustle, less friendly. But, then we stop for lunch and our waiter, Georges, is a delight. He speaks excellent English and shares many stories with us. He tells us that he used to teach grades 7 & 8 English but he quit to become a waiter because ‘it is better for his family’. Anyone who works with the tourists makes far more money and Georges is no exception.

Center of Trinidad

Center of Trinidad

Despite our casa particular being an above-average establishment, like all houses here in Cuba, there are no screens on the windows, just shutters. I’ve come prepared for the lack of screens, although I feel like something out of a Woody Allen movie as every evening around 5 pm I close the shutters and spray the room with Raid. I’m not taking chances with dengue-carrying mosquitos.

One day we ask a bicycle taxi driver to take us to the local cigar factory. We were here on our last visit and Blair picked up a few bundles of cigars then. But this time it’s harder to peek in the door and indicate that we want to buy some cigars because there is a fairly big guy in uniform guarding the entrance and shaking his head at us. Part of the problem is that we are so obviously tourists. I take photos of the building and various street-carts and horses while Blair walks around the other end of the building and catches the eye of one of the workers inside. Ten minutes later, a wiry, young man strolls around the corner with a packet of 25 small cigars (more like cigarillos rather than cigars). But Blair’s picky and doesn’t like the size of them so we wait around another ten minutes and our cigar-man returns looking quite serious but we don’t see any package for us and we expect him to say ‘Sorry…close but no cigar’. Instead he pulls up his T-shirt and stuck down each side of his pants front are a bundle of 10 cigars. He’s skinny and he hitches up his jeans as he digs out each paper-wrapped bundle and passes them over. Blair hands over $15 CUCs and the deal is done. Back at our casa particular, Katriska tells us that the cigar factory where we got our cigars makes them specifically for Cubans, not tourists. But Blair tells me that, although not nicely ‘finished’, they taste great and are really fresh.

One day Katriska encourages us to re-enter that ‘dirt poor’ area to see the beautiful church up on the hill. It’s in ruins but definitely worth seeing she says. We climb up a dusty path until the hovels disappear and we feel a fresh sea breeze sweeping up the hill. The church is beautiful, despite falling down. It’s behind a barbed-wire fence though because just beside and behind it European money is building a hotel – cinco estrella (5-star) Katriska tells us. On the hillside below the church and future 5-star hotel there are a number of tiny but tidy cement houses. One of them has hand-worked cotton tablecloths hung on a clothesline, offered for sale. We think these people will do well once the hotel is build. Perhaps even their houses will appreciate in value because of the proximity. Again, we wonder what changes are in store for Cuba once the US embargo is lifted entirely.

In Trinidad, we always eat breakfast at our casa particular because it’s a known quantity and for $4 each we’re provided with such a big meal that we aren’t hungry until late in the day. Coffee is always served in two delicate little flowered teapots the size my sisters and I played house with as children. One is full of black sweetened coffee, the other contains hot milk and I drink mine as a latte while Blair has his black and strong. Without fail we are served two thick slices of jamon, a processed ham that is just way too much meat for me. Accompanying that are two equally large slabs of gouda cheese, two wedges of flan, a big basket of toast, a tall pitcher of freshly-squeezed mango juice, omelettes and tomato slices. As we eat breakfast each morning, our waitress from last night has a bucket of water and sings lovely, gentle songs in Spanish as she hand washes the stairs leading to our bedroom.

On two nights we eat dinner at the casa particular’s restaurant and each meal we are served Arroz Moro (dark rice). We love this rice and discover that Katriska is responsible for making the rice in large quantities each day. She shares the recipe with me and explains that she uses her pressure cooker to make it; she tells me everyone in Cuba cooks with a pressure cooker, especially los frijoles (beans) – an important ingredient of Arroz Moro. She’s very specific about cooking the beans; 30-40 minutes of cooking time and then 30 minutes to sit before opening the pressure cooker. This seems like a long time for the beans and I’m thinking they must be mush by the time the pressure cooker is opened but I guess the purpose is not to have distinct beans with the rice but just use the beans to make the rice dark and give flavor. Her bean rinsing instructions are also very precise; rinse the beans five times with one cup of water each time, no more. Another odd ingredient is one can of evaporated milk but there’s a language barrier so I’m not sure if she means that I should measure the bean rinse water with an empty can of evaporated milk or to actually dump a can of the milk in with the cooked beans; I’ll try it both ways I think.

Side streets in Trinidad

Side streets in Trinidad

The taxi driver who took us to Trinidad returns for us on Saturday and we are happy to be back aboard Strathspey and sleeping in our comfortable bed. In our absence we see that Strathspey is covered with a thin film of ash because of the various fires that burn here. There is always something burning here in Cienfuegos. A neighbouring boat tells us that often they burn sugar cane fields to encourage new growth. But someone else tells us that sometimes it is just garbage that is being burned. Regardless, at least twice a week there are big clouds of smoke in the sky above Cienfuegos.

We are waiting for some good weather to continue further West to Cayo Largo but in the meantime we are also stocking up on provisions, as Cienfuegos is probably the last city we will be near until we arrive in Havana in March. We make trips into the agromercado to pick up fruits and vegetables and each time we ask for papas (potatoes). After two months here, both Blair and I daydream about foods we miss most and top of the list is a big baked potato with butter and, if it isn’t being too greedy, a dollop of sour cream on top. Potatoes are hard to find. They aren’t ever displayed in any of the agromercados we visit and certainly not in any of the vegetable carts seen down side streets. Periodically, we ask the marina errand boys, ‘Donde puedo comprar papas?’ (where can we buy potatoes). The cruisers tell us that papas are only available via the black market and we’re not quite sure why. A neighbouring boat confides that they have potatoes. They tell us that someone motioned to them outside the agromercado and offered them potatoes so now we’re on the lookout for them.

We’ve also walked over to the nearby Hotel Jagua to get Internet a few times. Yesterday, on our way there, we see a big crowd gathered in front of a concrete shed. There are horses and carts and bicycle taxis and dogs and you name it. On the sidewalk are stacks of beef ribs but these aren’t any kind of beef ribs we’ve ever seen. They look like the entire rib cage of a cow and there is next to no meat on any of the ribs. Four or five rib cages are piled up, money is handed over and the ribs are thrown in the back of the carts. I dig out my camera to record this very odd spectacle and someone shouts very loudly ‘No!’ and shakes a hand negatively. I immediately put my camera back in my purse and gesture a sorry to the man. We draw nearer though and Blair asks someone what the ribs are for; we can’t believe people would eat them as there is no meat on them. The young man tells us that people buy the ribs for their dogs and it is definitely black market and not allowed. This is when I really wished I could have captured those images.

As well as provisioning for food, we have an opportunity to stock up on Cuban CUCs as there is a big bank here in Cienfuegos. Banking is always an interesting task in Cuba and today it was particularly enlightening. As we approach the bank, we see that there is a group of six people standing outside the door; this usually means that there is another group four times this size standing inside the bank with the entrance controlled by a guard. Blair says ‘Ultimo’ (who’s last in line) and we determine that we are behind the guy with the red cap. Shortly after, red cap guy turns to Blair and says about ten sentences in Spanish with much gesturing and pointing to a guy in yellow shirt beside him. We understand this to mean that red cap guy is behind yellow shirt guy but he wants to run an errand so we are to watch yellow shirt guy to determine when to go into the bank ….oh, and yes, red cap guy is emphatic that he is still ahead of us. Blair says ‘Si’ and we settle in for a wait. Blair counts seven people sporadically leaving the bank and then the guard sticks his head out the door and motions us in. We are given a number (#348) by a clerk sitting at her desk beside the front door. She tells us to sit down and gestures toward six rows of chairs, with all but two chairs filled with customers. Now we understand that we’ve been allowed entrance to the bank only because there are two empty chairs for us to sit in. We take our place with the 20-odd people sitting waiting for their number to be called. Number 324 is displayed and we look at each other and grimace at the fact that there are 24 people ahead of us. After 30 seconds though, our number 348 is called and Blair goes up to one of the tellers to make his transaction. About two minutes later, number 325 is called. We can only surmise that when they gave us our number, someone also put out the word to move us through quickly. We’re a little embarrassed that we’ve jumped the queue but also a little happy that we aren’t spending the next two hours waiting our turn.

On our way out to the bank we see a small fruit and vegetable cart sitting outside the marina entrance. There’s no getting past these vendors. They’re pretty persistent and want to show you all their wares but Blair just says ‘Papas’. He really wants a potato I think. This time though, the vendor says ‘Si, pasado mañana’ (day after tomorrow). This is encouraging we think. But when we return from the bank, the vendor motions us over behind his cart and he has five pounds of potatoes for us. He wants $12 for them which is pretty pricey by Canadian standards but we don’t quibble. We’ve been asking people for potatoes for two weeks now and everyone has made a face as if to say ‘Are you crazy’. So, potatoes are on the menu for the foreseeable future and Blair’s happy about that.

We’re finding that there are few things you can’t buy in Cuba. In fact on our last trip into the center of town to buy some excellent but very inexpensive Argentinian wine, we find that there’s some pretty interesting things you can buy on the street here. In the wine/cigar store, I am perusing the various brands and Blair strikes up a conversation with Juan, a Cuban wearing all sorts of Canadian logo clothes. Juan says he loves Canada and to prove it he pulls off his T-shirt to show Blair his Canadian flag tattoo. Juan is a ‘facilitator’. He speaks four or five languages very well and he says in an undertone, ‘You need lobster, fish, something else?’. The something else is hard to distinguish because of his accent but as he sees me approaching, Juan says, ‘That your wife? We talk later’. I go back to picking out wines and Juan asks Blair again if he wants this something else but the accent is too thick so Juan opens his jacket and, from an inside pocket, pulls out a packet of pills in a push-pill bubble package. Turns out it’s Viagra. Potatoes and Viagra, who knew?

So here is a sad/happy story involving our dinghy and Honda outboard here in Cienfuegos. The sad part of the story is that someone tried to steal our dinghy and outboard motor two nights ago. The happy part is that they were thwarted because we had our dinghy locked to Strathspey via a braided steel cable and the outboard was aboard Strathspey and locked to our pushpit with a Stazo stainless steel super lock. Every night, we had grudgingly hauled the outboard motor off the dinghy and onto its stern mount on Strathspey. And every night we’d complained about the extra task, often made difficult by high winds and waves in the harbour. At the same time we lifted the dinghy out of the water as well; sometimes we put it on our forward deck and sometimes Blair used the spinnaker halyard to position it on Strathspey‘s starboard hull. As time went on we saw that other boats were not lifting their dinghies up so we got lazy and began leaving the dinghy in the water but snugged up to Strathspey‘s stern and locked to one of our stanchions with the steel cable. But yesterday morning, we see the Honda outboard bridle is missing, and one of the outboard toggles is unfastened. The Stazo lock on the other toggle is intact and this is what has prevented the loss of the motor. We also see obvious signs of a hacksaw blade on the plastic casing of our dinghy’s steel cable. The marina staff suspects a fisherman (or two) either rowed or swam out to Strathspey to do this and they are very upset and have increased their nighttime patrols. There are many, many boats anchored here now and we wonder what attracted them to Strathspey. It’s creepy that we didn’t hear them at all, although I did wake up around 1:45 am to use the bathroom. Perhaps they woke me up…perhaps I scared them off. It gives us a bad vibe for Cienfuegos now, despite how much we’ve enjoyed being here. Now it’s definitely time to leave Cienfuegos to head further West.

Fresco in Teatro Terry in Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos

Here in Cienfuegos, we anchor in the harbour because there is no room at the marina. There are about 20 other boats anchored out here with us and initially we were annoyed that we couldn’t get dockage, thinking how easy it would be to hook up to non-stop water and just step out on the dock when we wanted to leave Strathspey. But, after being anchored offshore for the last six nights, we now realize how much better this is. We have a wonderful breeze each night which makes for good sleeping and the unlimited water is actually a water pipe dream because the pressure is so poor that it takes a half hour to fill a 20-litre jerry jug and occasionally there is just no water at all. So, rather than paying marina prices, we are anchored out and just as happy.

The only annoying thing about being out in the harbour is that every night we must haul our dinghy and motor up out of the water. When we checked in here, Blair signed an agreement that promised we would do this and we definitely comply. We comply because every night at 8 pm, 11 pm and 4 am, the marina security guards get into their own dinghy and make rounds through the harbour to ensure that everyone’s dinghy and motor is still accounted for; they really are worried about someone swimming up to an anchored boat and absconding with the motor in particular. Marina staff tells us that the stolen motors get shipped across the country to Havana and used to get to US shores.

José Martí square

We settle into a nice, relaxed routine here in Cienfuegos. We wake around 7 am and with the usual early-morning calm waters in the harbour, I do my yoga practice on the foredeck. We have breakfast and then Blair makes us espresso. I tune in to Chris Parker’s SSB weather forecast; because of our position we’re no longer listening to the Bahamas forecast at 6:30 am but now tune in to the Western Caribbean forecast at 8:30 am. Blair noodles on his guitar or plays his bagpipe chanter, learning new songs or improving existing ones. I read a little (I am hooked on the Outlander book series right now) and think about what we’re going to do today. We work on Strathspey a little, trying to keep up with the cleaning and maintenance so it doesn’t become overwhelming at some point. And then, after a light lunch, we dinghy to shore and start walking. It’s a pleasant half-hour walk down the broad Paseo del Prado from the marina into the center of Cienfuegos. There’s always some new side street to explore, a farm market stall to pick up some small bit of fruit or vegetable or sometimes even a glimpse through an open front door into someone’s house (we’re always amazed at how lovely the interior of these houses are compared to their exterior threadbare looks).

huevos

In our wanderings, we usually turn onto Avenida 54 (the pedestrian mall) and halfway down the street we stop at the cigar store where Blair happily browses through the cigar boxes in the walk-in humidor room. The mall is jam-packed with people every day of the week at any hour – we’re not sure what these people do but we think many of them are just checking out what’s for sale. One day on the mall, we see a huge crowd in front of a store and, upon investigation, we see that everyone is lined up to buy eggs. Eggs aren’t sold on a regular basis in Cuba so when they make an appearance, word goes out and the crowds gather.It’s like that for every item here in Cuba it seems; one day there are eggs, the next day there are no eggs but there is honey, the next day, no honey but stacks and stacks of cooking oil. This Sunday, everyone was out at the various cafes with their family and friends, drinking beer and rum and socializing. Monday, there was no beer for sale anywhere in Cienfuegos – even the marina bar had no beer on Monday. So the rule aboard Strathspey is that if we see some item that we use on a regular basis, even if we don’t need it immediately, we buy it; who knows when we will see it next!?

agromercado

Cienfuegos is a good place to re-provision before heading further West to the Isla de la Juventud cruising grounds. So, one of our favourite stops in downtown Cienfuegos is the Agromercado Calzada, the farmer’s market. At Calle 58, we make a left turn off the main boulevard and now the street is far narrower, more crowded and we’re picking our way carefully between the potholed sidewalks and the many street dogs trotting along purposefully. Four blocks along there is a large concrete building with all manner of food vendors set up. We wander through the market overwhelmed by rows of fruit, vegetables and pig parts for sale. I have a wad of Pesos, the paper money that is worth about 1/20th of the regular Cuban CUC. We’ve been told that all the posted prices at the agromercado are in Pesos and to be sure not to pay for anything in CUCs. In fact, to illustrate how cheap Pesos are and how we will pay very little for our market purchases, the marina manager takes a Peso out of his pocket and tears it in half and then half again – ‘Worthless’, he says. So be careful to use the right currency. We know that meat is expensive here and we’ll likely have to make those purchases with CUCs but we’ve been forewarned…everything else in Pesos.

I’m looking for bananas but Blair decides that he wants pork tenderloin tonight and he doesn’t get much past the first market table at the entrance. When I retrace my steps, I see him standing in front of a long table with mostly undistinguishable cuts of meat and I can see that he is negotiation mode. He’s gesturing to his own body with a sweeping motion down the right side of his chest; this is where a tenderloin lives right? The vendor’s eyes light up and he hauls up the biggest side of pork ribs I’ve ever seen. I shake my head ‘No’ and cup my hands together to indicate an oval and run both hands down my side. The vendor gets even more excited and lays out a pork tenderloin. ‘Si, si’, we say and then he lays out five more but that’s way too much for us considering the size of our refrigerator and our appetites. He’s confused as we say ‘Uno, no mas!’ (only one). I think that when Cubans buy meat, they buy in quantity perhaps? He looks crestfallen as he removes one pork tenderloin and offers us five and we say ‘Uno’ and then he removes tenderloins one at a time until there is just one lying there. He shakes his head and takes our money, still confused. We make our way from table to table in the agromercado, buying cucumbers, bananas, and carrots. We pay for all these items using the Pesos rather than CUCs and we think we have the hang of it; the price of all the vegetables and fruits are displayed in Pesos per pound and we start to leave the market with two full bags of food. But, Blair catches sight of some nice-looking pineapples and, at 15 Pesos for two (that’s less than $1), he lays 15 Pesos on the counter. The woman immediately gives him back 10 Pesos and hands over her entire stock of pineapples. We’re confused but happy to take them and we head across the street to the bakery. I pick out two big loaves of fresh bread and Blair hands over a Peso and here’s where we figure out what’s gone awry. The vendor asks if he can give us change in ‘Nationales’ and digs out the biggest wad of Pesos we’ve ever seen. I realize that Blair has laid down a CUC rather than a Peso and we quickly substitute for the correct money. Now we realize why we were the recipients of seven pineapples back in the market! Guess what our morning fruit is for the next week….or three. Our bags are heavy so when the first bicycle taxi drives by and hustles us for a ride, we’re happy to accept and we relax as our driver works hard to bring us 3 km back to the marina. Everything we buy at the market is thoroughly washed in a Clorox solution to ensure continuing good health aboard Strathspey.

kids on bikes

As well as provisioning for food, we refill our diesel tank and the extra jerry jugs we carry on deck. We’re not making water here in the harbour because it’s none too clean and we still have lots of water in our tanks. If we need any water, we’ll use our water jerry jug to supplement our supply from the marina taps. We plan to do some inland travel using Cienfuegos as our base camp but we don’t want to leave until we get our propane tank back. We have two 11-pound propane tanks aboard Strathspey which will last six weeks each with normal cooking – leaving the Bahamas, we had three months worth which will bring us to the second week of March. But it’s always a worry that we might run out of propane before we finish our trip around Cuba. So, here in Cienfuegos we think we might get propane. Propane is not sold anywhere as a matter of course. Each household has a monthly quota but there’s really not any allotted for cruisers but…..there is a black market for most things….including propane. Every day at the marina we stick our head into the marina office and say ‘Gas liquido?’ and most days, they say ‘No, pero manana’ (‘No, but maybe tomorrow’). Well today, someone in the ‘know’ says Gas liquido at 7 o’clock tonight, be here. Blair detaches our propane tank from its lines around dusk and we dingy in to the marina with high hopes. When we walk up to the office, someone (we’ve taken to calling him our propane ghost) appears out of the shadows and takes our propane tank, examines its fittings closely. ‘American fitting’ he says and ‘OK, good’ (apparently it’s difficult to handle the European gas fittings here). He then says ‘Pasado manana’ which is tomorrow afternoon but then our propane ghost says something that sounds distinctly like manana, manana, manana which we think is gringo-talk for perhaps three days from now. Also, he wants $20 for the fillup, which, for the average Cuban, is a monthly wage. We’re not about to argue over the price but we wonder if there is a Cuban household doing without propane this month so Strathspey can grill their fish.

roasting pig

There is no wifi here in Cienfuegos but we can use the Internet at the nearby Hotel Jagua’s for a price. This entails using the computers in their lobby and I’ve posted one blog using this method. Despite being excruciatingly slow, it allows me to post photos so all the older posts from Puerta Vita to Cienfuegos now have accompanying photos – check the one of Blair with his Mahi-Mahi! Other than posting a blog now and then, we really are not accessing the Internet at all because we have our new Iridium satellite phone. We love this phone. It’s an expensive item this year, including the monthly bill, but I don’t think you can easily cruise Cuba and stay in touch with friends and family without one. We do have SSB email but it’s more cumbersome, requires good propagation and takes forever to download emails. SSB is a good backup system but, now that we have a satellite phone, I’m not looking back!

Using the satellite phone is easy and involves getting out both the phone unit plus our Ipad. I usually put the phone unit on top of our bimini so it has an unobstructed view to the sky because we find that if we just leave it on the bench in the cockpit, sometimes the reception isn’t great. I open up the iPad and in ‘Settings’ I turn on the wifi option and select ‘Iridium’. Once that connects successfully, we have two applications we can open – either the Iridium email or the text option. The texting is quick but often people respond directly to the text on their phone and that results in a big surprise on their next phone bill because they are actually texting an International phone number. We keep telling people to go to the Iridium website to text us but sometimes it’s easy to forget. To talk, we just use the speakers on the Ipad.

sailors

We have a scare one night while anchored in Cienfuegos. I put the satellite phone on top of the bimini and settle down to set up the Ipad to receive emails and I hear a weird slide and pop-sort of sound. Blair and I look at each other and both of us curse at the same time; our satellite phone has fallen off the bimini and into the dark waters of the harbour. But, now there is this choking, barking sort of noise beside the bimini and it sounds like there is some animal aboard Strathspey. I scramble for a flashlight as the barking gets louder. It’s an 8-inch long squid! The barking noise is this squid gasping for air. Blair flips him back into the water and we both heave a sigh of relief to see that our satellite phone is still sitting securely on top of our bimini.

It’s been lovely and hot (+30C) during the days here and 18 Celsius at night. We have a great view of the harbour and every afternoon a local sailing school provides great entertainment as the young children sail back and forth in sailboats, wind surfers and Hobie Cats. We’re getting our ‘landlegs’ back with all our walking and looking forward to some inland travel in the next week. All is still good aboard Strathspey.

street art in Cienfuegos

Through the Jardins de la Reina

We sail Northwest slowly through the Jardins de la Reina archipeligo, enjoying the slow-mo pace after our almost non-stop 275-mile passage here from Puerto Vita. The Jardins archipeligo consists of two big gulfs (Golfo de Guyacanayabo and Golfo de Ana Maria) containing hundreds of small, uninhabited islands strung out in a Southeast to Northwest direction. All this, in between more reefs than we’ve seen in all our sailing to date.Because of the lack of navigable passes between the reefs and the rougher oceanside, we elect to travel the sheltered route for the time being; we’ve had our fill of rough ocean passages!

We arrive at CayoCuervo and we’re thinking that it’s pretty crowded by Cuba standards. There are four sailboats and a sportfish anchored here as well as seven shrimp boats. We’re obviously intruding on the shrimp boats – they up-anchor every evening around 5 pm and head out to work, leaving the mothership here. Their mothership is a big processing ship that comes 100-odd miles here from Cienfuegos to pick up the shrimp that the little boats have caught. The mothership is anchored in the middle of the protected bay of Cayo Cuervo and periodically, throughout the early to mid-morning, the shrimp boats come steaming back in to offload their shrimp catch. The sportfish that’s anchored here was the boat that provided us with water back in Cayo Granada when we thought our water maker was toasted. With all the tomatoes we got at our last anchorage, now we have a chance to say thanks and we dinghy over to offer some of those tomatoes up. Our friends are so happy to have fresh salad; you really can’t pay back borrowed water but it seems fresh tomatoes are a pretty good substitute here in these remote islands.

We’re definitely in the market for fresh shrimp so we dinghy over to one of the shrimp boats and, in rudimentary Spanish, let them know we’re happy to buy some shrimp from them. They don’t want money from us. But, what they do want is rum. ‘Ron’?’ they gesture with a tipping motion to their mouths. We say ‘Si’ and they hand over way too much shrimp… easily five pounds, and we say ‘Un momento’ and zip back to Strathspey. We’re not big liquor drinkers but we have a few small bottles of rum to trade. Actually, they’re embarrassingly small … about the size of the rum bottles they serve aboard airplanes. I put three of them in a ziplock bag and because those bottles are so small I add some soap and a nice razor (both gold here in Cuba). Back at the shrimp boat, when we hand it over, they’re quite pleased. Actually, when I stretch up to hand off my ziplock bag to one of the crew, he says ‘No’ and motions to me to slide it in through one of their side hatches that he has flipped open, just about on our dinghy eye-level. As I reach up to pass it through, I gasp and start back because there is a huge sea turtle lying on its back in the opening. The crew laughs and, in pantomime, gestures that they will be making soup from him and we should come back tomorrow for a sample. Hmmmm….we’re happy with way too much shrimp and wave goodbye with many calls of ‘Gracias’.

seahorse

CayoCuervo is a good stop for us. We snorkel out on the surrounding reefs, visit the shrimp boats and, because it is so protected, we have two very restful nights and sleep the sleep of tired sailors. But, it’s not very good for swimming. There are big (4-inch diameter) red and rough jelly fish that drift by Strathspey constantly. As well, when the shrimp boats clean their nets, they let loose all manner of sea horses, coral and starfish that have been scooped up along with the shrimp.

Reluctantly, because a nice calm anchorage is hard to find in the Jardins de la Reina, we up-anchor and sail further West to Punta Breton. When we arrive, the wind has died down completely and the water is flat calm. This is so unusual for this South coast and, instead of trying to feel our way into a shallow lagoon for a protected anchorage that will be full of biting insects in the calm winds, we anchor a quarter-mile from shore. It’s a lovely, calm night with a gentle swell in the lee of a line of reefs that break the waves from the ocean. We anchor about a half-mile South of a fishing station. These stations are actually steel poles driven into the ocean bed with a bit of a platform associated with them – sort of like a heavy duty dock out in the middle of nowhere. The fish and lobster boats tie up to them each night, the men gather for a bit of dinner, settle down for a good night’s sleep and then cast off the next morning at dawn.

We anchor in 10 feet of water off Punta Breton and the anchor grabs tightly – it’s good hard mud and we are happy; this means a secure sleep tonight. It’s been so hot all day that we immediately cool off with a long swim off Strathspey’s stern. We can’t settle in for the evening because off in the distance, we see a rowboat leave the fishing station and head toward us slowly. A good 45 minutes later, two men row up to Strathspey and offer us a hog snapper and a big bucket of lobster. We’re not really in the market for any more seafood as we have almost too much shrimp and lobster aboard but Blair has his eye on that hog snapper. We pay $7 for the 10-pound snapper but say no thanks to the lobster. Ever cognizant of how hard these guys work for their money, I go below and dig out a nice bar of soap and now they want to give us a big lobster as thanks. Everyone is happy with this particular transaction but mostly I’m wondering where all this seafood is going in my tiny fridge.

For the past few weeks as we anchor, our full moon is starting to wane but Venus shines brightly in the West after the sun sets. Shortly after, Mars appears, less brightly and just slightly to the right and below of Venus. Every night when we see Venus and Mars one of us hums the Paul McCartney song….’Venus and Mars are alright tonight’.

By dawn the next morning, as each fishing and lobster boat leaves the fishing station to the South of us, without fail they swing by Strathspey. It’s not even a gentle kind of swing by; these guys bear down on us until we call uncle and one of us comes up into the cockpit to acknowledge them. Without fail, the fishermen hold up huge lobsters and call out lobster??? You buy?? But right now we have way too much fish aboard… five pounds of shrimp, 1 ½ pounds of lobster and six hog snapper fillets. Blair leafs through our Spanish for Cruisers book to find the phrase that says, ‘ No more fish thank-you, we have enough’. This is obviously a first world problem!

Interestingly, the fishing boats have no brand names but are labeled for their construction type. The big fishing boats all have Ferrocemento hand painted on their sterns. The smaller rowboat-type fishing boats all say Plastico on their sterns. When we check in with our despacho, often the Guarda Fronteras ask us to confirm that Strathspey is a plastico boat, Si? We’re not so sure we enjoy the association with those little rowboats though.

Leaving Punta Breton we head toward Machos de Fuerta, one of the last cayos in the Jardins. As we start our approach in from the deep waters toward the cayo there is a disparity between what our charts show and what our eyes see. I point out an area of breaking seas to Blair, which normally would indicate a reef but our chart plotter shows no reef. We know we must skirt a small mangrove island before we make our final turn so we’re expecting to see an island at some point. The chart plotter indicates that we have 10 minutes before we make the turn around the island but I think it’s going to put us on a collision course with those breaking seas and I don’t see that island. We keep watching, ready to head further South into deeper waters, trusting our chart plotter but also trusting what we are seeing with the breaking seas. 10 minutes later, it becomes clear that the seas are breaking over our mangrove island, which is not actually an island but clearly a bit of land just awash at low tide. We make the turn past the breaking seas and nose our way in behind Machos de Fuerta and drop anchor in eight feet of water. It’s another calm and quiet night and I make panko-crusted hog snapper for dinner.

bienvenidos a Cienfuegos

The next morning we up-anchor at 7 am. This is early for us these days but we have a long day ahead; our next anchorage is at Cienfuegos, 52 nautical miles Northwest. There’s no wind and, despite our vow to only sail so as to conserve fuel, I’ve got my heart set on Cienfuegos tonight so we motor-sail all day. No worries I figure, we can buy diesel in Cienfuegos.

dinghy lift

We arrive at the entrance to the Cienfuegos harbour at 3:30 pm but it takes us almost an hour to motor in to the marina. It’s a zig-zag route down a narrow but deep channel. The Castillo with it’s gun turrets aimed down the channel remind us that this was a well-protected Spanish harbour back in the 1700’s. We call out our arrival to Marina Cienfuegos and at 4:30 we are anchored in Cienfuegos harbour. We dinghy to shore and check in with the Guarda Fronteras and Blair signs a form that promises that we will lock our dinghy and engine and have both out of the water every night; it seems that this harbour is a good place to get those items stolen. We’re glad to be here and very excited to start exploring this 300-year-old Spanish city.

Water, water, everywhere, ne’er a drop to drink.

Every day we are glad we sprung for a reverse osmosis water maker. We run our water maker for five hours to fill our water tanks while at anchor here in Bahia Pilon. This is a task that is made longer by the fact that we couldn’t use the water at Marina Santiago because of the cholera scare. From Santiago westward, not only diesel is scarce, so is water.

morning awakening

Morning Awakening

This morning we up anchor and leave Bahia Pilon but we’ve obviously misunderstood the Guarda. In yesterday’s pantomime of examining our despacho and pointing down the coast and smiles and nods and lots of ‘Ok, Ok, no problemo, you go’, something got lost in translation. We leave our protected spot behind Cayo Pergatorio and are almost out the channel leading to the ocean when we hear a voice calling ‘motoro vessel, motoro vessel’. We’re pretty sure it’s us he’s calling as none of the fishermen have VHF radios. Blair answers ‘Strathspey aqui’. And then a long, drawn-out volley of Spanish proceeds. It’s the Guarda and we don’t catch even one word of it because of the speed as well as the poor quality of the VHF transmission. Blair says ‘No comprende’ and the voice responds, a little more agitatedly. A back and forth with ‘No comprende’ always on our side, results in the Guarda’s voice getting louder and louder and more and more frantic. We finally catch the words ‘Despacho, correcto’ so we think he needs to change something on our despacho so we turn around and Blair flips through our Spanish for Cruiser’s book to find the phrase to say that we are returning to the harbour.

When we get back to the harbour, there are quite a few people on the concrete pier, motioning us to come alongside. We take one look at the rusty, nail-laden concrete pier and the rocks jutting out from the water beside it and motion that we will anchor instead. The Guarda official shrugs his shoulders and slowly walks back to where the fishing boats are tied, obviously looking for someone to motor him out to us. The wind has risen to 20 knots and the waves are rolling down the bay now so when we try to anchor, we quickly realize that it’s not possible. Now we are circling at the entrance to the small harbour, waiting for our Guarda to arrive. In the distance, we can see this tiny rowboat heading for us. It’s our Guarda official actually being rowed out to us by a fisherman. But he’s not making great progress in the high wind and waves. It takes a good half hour before the rowboat is near Strathspey and we decide that we will have to pull alongside the rowboat to shelter them from the wind so that our Guarda can come aboard. I’m behind the wheel and Blair is on our port side hanging fenders out to protect our nice blue paint from the wooden rowboat. All I’m thinking is, this isn’t going to be pretty. I’ve been making long tacks back and forth in front of the concrete pier and on my last tack, I aim directly at the rowboat and at the last minute, I swing Strathspey’s wheel to starboard. These guys take it all in stride and throw their painter to Blair. I reverse hard to slow us down and the Guarda and his rower grab Strathspey’s toe rails. In one quick motion, the Guarda puts one foot on the toerail and swings his other leg over our lifeline and sits down in our cockpit, smiles broadly and gestures for our despacho.

Well… as it turns out, the despacho requires an ‘Entrada’ (entrance) signature AND a ‘Salida’ (exit) signature from every bloody harbour we stop in. Our Guarda signs the Salida section of the despacho, all the while saying ‘No problemo’. For goodness sakes, they’ve probably expended 3000 calories rowing out to us and risked life and limb to get aboard and, still, it’s no problemo. Blair hands our Guarda two Heinekens and he passes them over to the rower, who has been standing in his leaky little boat all this time, hanging onto Strathspey’s toe rail and desperately trying to fend his boat off our nice paint – all this in 20 knot winds and big waves. The Guarda swings over the lifeline and jumps down into the rowboat and Blair tosses their painter in after him. As we motor away, Blair tells me that the beers are now opened and are currently being enjoyed despite the fact that it is 9 am. What an adventure!

The forecast today is for 15 knot winds from the East behind us to push us all the way down to Cabo Cruz, 30 miles West. The reality is that the winds increase to 20-25 knots and the seas are the biggest we have ever been in. The swells are close to 20 feet and when we look over our stern, there is a mountain of water behind us. Strathspey rises gently to the top of the mountain but each time she slides down it on a 45-degree angle into the valley. After a half hour of this, I no longer looked over my shoulder; it is just too much. Our bilge pump always tends to engage periodically in a following sea because of the way our transom door is constructed (it’s a bad design with an oval slit that houses the hatch lift arm and this lets water in when there is a following sea). But today the bilge alarm sounds, indicating that the pump has been running for at least five minutes so we are concerned that we’ve got a steady leak, not good in these high seas. Blair checks the bilge but it is almost dry and the pump is running steadily so he thinks that our bilge pump switch may have a film of diesel covering it which causes it to think that there is water that needs pumping. We’d overfilled our diesel tanks in Santiago and we think perhaps some of that diesel trickled down into the bilge and has coated the switch. The bilge alarm keeps sounding and it needs attention so I stay at the wheel and Blair goes down below to see about cleaning the electronic bilge switch. This involves unbolting the salon table from the floor and lifting the floorboards to access the bilge. A rogue wave causes Strathspey to lurch sideways suddenly and Blair is tossed onto the settee and now the table is leaning against him. He recovers and wipes the sensor with a soapy rag and the alarm stops sounding. After putting the table to rights, Blair resurfaces to the cockpit and I give him a look that covers all range of emotions and at the top of the list is a wish to leave sailing and start RVing instead.

We’re not in any danger in these seas but we’re uncomfortable and we periodically discuss how we will make the turn in to Cabo Cruz. This will put us broadside to these winds and waves which will make us roll from side to side. It also requires us to move the foresail from one side of the boat to the other, not the easiest task in high winds. Blair hauls about four feet of the foresail in so it’s quite a bit smaller and when we make the turn toward shore, the sail flips to the other side in a fairly controlled manner. There is a long line of reefs stretching West from Cabo Cruz and we enter the shallower water just past the reefs. Almost immediately, the waves disappear and it’s just really windy but with flat water. We anchor behind the reef in about 8 feet of calm water and wait for the Guarda officials to arrive. Night falls and no Guarda have appeared which surprises us. We crack a few beers, I make fire-roasted mushroom ravioli with pesto sauce, we share a nice bottle of Pinot Grigio and we concede that we’re not quite ready for an RV. After a quiet night and a good sleep, the next morning we haul anchor and leave without incident.

We follow our breadcrumb trail out of Cabo Cruz, back out into the deep ocean and head West for an hour and then we make the turn that we have eagerly anticipated for the last 400 miles – we turn Northwest toward the Jardines de la Reina archipelago. The ever-present mountains disappear and we enter an area of small cayos (islands) and more shallow water and look forward to short daysails, good swimming and some fishing as well. It’s a whole new ball game out here. It’s remote and we are definitely dependent on our reverse osmosis water maker as we are almost two hundred miles from any drinking water now.

This area is colloquially known to cruisers as the ‘Hardeens’. All day we are by ourselves, seeing no fishing boats and hearing nothing over the VHF. We have a great sail all day and at 4 pm, we anchor behind a small island (yet another Cayo Blanco). The next day we move on to Cayo Granada and stay two nights in the protection of this small island. And, here’s where we really start appreciating our reverse osmosis water maker.

Cayo Blanco

Cayo Blanco

We arrive at Cayo Granada around 1:30 pm and it is hot – 30 Celsius with no wind so, after anchoring, we have a long, cooling swim and then get out our paddleboards to explore the shoreline. We’ve been invited to a neighbouring boat for lobster tonight but before we go, Blair wants to fire up our water maker to replenish the water we’ve used since Bahia Pilon. But my pride and joy doesn’t work tonight; it seems that the intake pump has stopped working and no water can been filtered. Blair tries everything he can think of and, after a few hours, he’s pretty frustrated and actually says that he thinks we won’t have water from this point on. This is serious and means that we must make long day sails from marina to marina and forego any frivolous use of water (frivolous is all relative but in this case it means no showers!). I’m madly considering our options. It’s three long days to Casilda where there’s a good marina to fill our tanks with water, get diesel and spend a few days in Trinidad de Cuba. From there, it’s a long day sail to Cienfuegos where there’s another good marina to fill our water tanks once again. As I plan the new itinerary, it becomes clear that we can still circumnavigate Cuba but it will be in less comfort; fewer showers, more sponge baths, no hosing out the grungy cockpit, the water we have is solely for cooking, drinking and basic hygiene. We can wallow in non-stop showers at each marina and we will call ourselves ‘salty sailors’ –not fun, but definitely doable.

We have dinner aboard the neighbouring boat and, when they hear our tail of water woe, they immediately start up their high-output water maker and insist on toping up our tanks. We have a wonderful meal and dinghy back to Strathspey, thinking good thoughts about the ‘kindness of strangers’. I go straight to bed but Blair sits up thinking about various options to our water problem. I wake up a half-hour later to the sound of our water pump and Blair tells me he has re-engineered our deckwash pump and connected it to the water maker but he’s not optimistic as the deckwash pump is not powerful enough and our water maker hoses show too many air bubbles in them now. I go back to sleep and, when I wake up to get the weather forecast on our SSB radio at 6 am, Blair lifts his head from his pillow briefly to say, ‘It’s fixed’ before he goes back to sleep. Turns out that he was up until the wee hours of the morning, trying all kinds of things; he took the pump apart, cleaned it up, put a new O-ring in the filter and this morning we have a functioning water maker. Now that it’s working we can go back to our original itinerary. Whew!

After two quiet days and nights swimming, paddleboarding and who-knows-what at Cayo Granada, we upanchor and sail down to Cayo Chocolate. As much as it sounds yummy, it’s a bust. We can’t get close enough to shore to get any protection from the nighttime winds and accompanying waves so we up-anchor early the next day and sail another 38 miles to Punta Practicos. Typically here on the South coast of Cuba, the winds blow 20-25 knots at night and early morning but by noon they pretty much die down to 10 knots and provide flat seas. We end up motoring down the channel to the ocean and make a quick left to anchor in the lee of Punta Practicos. The water is crystal clear here. Finally, we have non-silty water to run our water-maker in. Up until now, every time we run our water-maker, Blair finishes the process off by removing the water filter and rinsing it gently in fresh water. Here in Punta Practicos, the water is gin-clear and we can see the sea bottom easily in 10 feet of water. Mid-afternoon, two fishermen pull up alongside Strathspey. They give us six lobsters, 20 good-sized herring and, when we tell them we need fruta y verduras (fruit and vegetables), they zoom off in the direction where we know there is a fishing lodge and about an hour later show up with more bounty. They hand over a pineapple, about 20 tomatoes and six grapefruits. We give them very little money and everyone is happy.

lobster bot

Lobster Boat

So, now the plan is to sail slowly Northwest through the Golfo Ana María toward Cienfuegos. We’re not in a hurry; the seas are 1-2 feet, the winds are 15 knots during the day but, annoyingly, 20-22 knots at night, gusting 25 knots while at anchor. We sail 20-25 miles each day from anchorage to anchorage so we have easy pleasant sails. Blair sleeps like a log each night because he sets our anchor alarm before bedtime. It sounds if we drag more than 100 feet and each night on our chart plotter we see we swing back and forth through a huge arc but we are anchored snuggly and don’t move. Me… I’m not sleeping quite so well because I’m not used to these higher winds at night. In the Bahamas and in Lake Ontario, I’m used to quieter winds at night so this diurnal pattern that is so common down here takes a bit of getting used to. Still, all is good aboard Strathspey… weather is warm (+30) and sunny most days.

P.S. I’m sending these blogs to Brooklyn when we are in the really remote areas on the South coast. They go via Iridium satellite phone so photos don’t travel well. I’ll post the photos when we get to a larger center and have Internet access.