Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.

We spend nine days holed up at Sunset Lake in the heart of South Beach, Miami. Thirty years ago South Beach was pretty down at heel and then people started thinking that ‘Hey, this is close to the beach and the land prices aren’t too bad’. Once that happened, the land prices started rising. Now, the average price of houses on Sunset Lake runs in the neighbourhood of six million dollars. The house sizes are close to 6,000 square feet, the lawns are manicured and the streets are busy with mostly hired help….that would be aka ‘servants’. We’re not unaware that we’re squatting here in the lap of luxury and we keep our noses clean; we’re quiet (i.e. Blair doesn’t play his bagpipes), we don’t hang towels on our lifelines to dry and we really try to refrain from spying on all the mega mansions with our binoculars (if that doesn’t work then we just ‘discretely’ spy on them).

Once we leave Sunset Lake though, we make good time north to Green Cove Springs and arrive at Holland Marine docks on a muggy, overcast day. We’re glad to be secure here as there are many days of rain and severe thunderstorms predicted…typical weather for Florida in the spring. Here we remove Strathspey’s sails and transport them to St Augustine for washing and storage. We empty the boat of anything that has a tendency to attract mold and mildew, take all the stuff to a climate controlled storage unit and wash Strathspey both outside and in to remove all traces of our past six-month cruise. We pace ourselves though because the temperatures here in Florida right now hover around the 30-Celsius mark and the extreme humidity ensures many water breaks.

It feels good to give Strathspey the TLC she deserves after this 2700-mile cruise around Cuba. Strathspey performed well as usual, Blair kept all systems maintained in top condition as usual and I navigated us so that Strathspey’s bow always pointed us in a clockwise manner around Cuba. Actually, there was a three-week period where we seemed to be going in circles around Isla de la Juventud but that was all weather-related so not a navigation-related issue. This was a long trip around Cuba but one we’d been planning for a long time. Feels good to have done it. Feels good to be home.

Road Trip

The weather windows from Havana to Miami have had tight shutters on them since our arrival at Hemingway Marina so we decide to take a road trip to Viñales, 120 miles east of here. We waffle over renting a car but we hear that the road to Viñales is pretty bad so we opt for an air-conditioned bus there for $12 each. Our experience with buses in Havana so far has been pretty positive so we’re optimistic as we stroll up to the pickup area in the resort next door at 8:15 am Thursday morning. We’ve pre-paid for two return tickets to Vinales and we’ve even pre-booked a casa particular that has come highly recommended by the tour agent at the resort.

This is the sort of traffic you should expect on the way to Vinales (view from our bus window)

This is the sort of traffic you should expect on the way to Vinales (view from our bus window)

The bus is scheduled to pick us up at 8:40 but we’re early just to ensure we don’t miss it. Buses come and go, picking up folks heading into Havana for the day or to the beach but there’s no sign of our bus. Around 9 am we start pestering the resort desk but they are no help and finally the tour agent arrives at her desk in the lobby. She calls the head office for us and relays that it’s on its way and we need to wait. At 9:45 we are severely PO’d because the bus is still not here yet the tour agent is still telling us that it is coming and we should still wait. At 10:30 I ask her if we need to get a refund and simply call a taxi to go to Viñales. She tells me there are no refunds and we should still wait. At 10:45 Blair is grinding his teeth and I tell him that he should stay put while I go talk to the tour agent. She dials the head office again and tells me that it is coming that we should still wait but she has no credibility with me and I’m wondering if that bus is already in Vinales as it is only a 2 ½ hour ride and the bus is almost 2 ½ hours late. Eureka! At 10:55 the bus arrives to pick us up and it seems that the bus driver didn’t show that morning – what can I say…this is Cuba and we’re probably lucky that it wasn’t a case of mañana. It’s 31 Celsius outside but the bus is wonderfully cool so we settle into our seats and a few hours later we’re climbing up a series of small mountains and then coasting down the other side into Viñales.

View of Viñales from Los Jazmines

View of Viñales from Los Jazmines

We arrive in the center of town, the bus pulls over and the door opens but it’s not a simple matter to step down. Our path is blocked by at least 10 Cubans at the foot of the stairs flashing 8 x 10 glossies of casa particulars (B&B’s), tours to this and tours to that. I squeeze out first and escape to the relative quiet of a group of tourists waiting for a bus back to Havana. Blair it seems is far more polite than I and he stops to say ‘No gracias’ a few times and that’s pretty much done him in because a stout blonde woman with a big umbrella now has him in hand and she’s definitely not letting him go. I dig out the business card for the casa particular where the tour agent has secure reservations for us and I show it to the blonde. She shakes her head and shows us pictures of her casa but eventually gives up and graciously decides to walk us over to the place we’ve reserved.

We follow her down the main street and then a dogleg down a side street to the right and another to the left but then she stops and says she really wants to show us her place. We have a quick conference between the two of us and agree that if her place is really nice, we’ll ditch the other; after all, the casa we’d reserved was meant to have someone waiting for us at the bus. We reason that our blonde lady is working hard for us and deserves our business. She takes us over to her casa particular and we realize that it’s actually not hers….she’s just an ‘agent’ and for a fee she grabs the tourists off the bus and brings them to the various casas and, in return, they give her a half CUC (that’s 50 cents!) for the favor. She starts to show us through the casa but it seems that there is another tourista couple that has grabbed it already so she shrugs and agrees to take us on to the place where we had the reservation. When we get to that casa particular, we’re foiled once again as it appears that a reservation is not all it is cracked up to be and another couple has already grabbed our room. Our blonde lady is not at all concerned and she leads us to another casa particular that she assures us is ‘really clean’. The daughter of the house lets us in and we peek inside the room (it’s got a double bed plus a single and everything is red….curtains, bedspread, walls and yes it is very clean). I check the bathroom and it has a shower, sink, toilet (with a toilet seat!) and an air conditioning unit on the wall. Toilet seats are usually missing in most of the Cuban bathrooms so we take this as a good sign and agree to take it at $25 a night.

We dump our knapsack in the room and find our way back to the main street, ready to start exploring Viñales. This is the primo tobacco growing area in Cuba. As a bonus for us, it has a special designation where the farmers can only use traditional Cuban farming techniques. That means no pesticides, no tractors….just horse and oxen, manual labour and sun, rain and compost. We hike 4 kilometers up to Los Jazmines for lunch with a good view of the Vinales valley. It’s dotted with hump-backed sort of mountains and fertile fields in between and is so picturesque that we figure it’s good that we have a digital camera rather than using rolls and rolls of film to capture the essence of Viñales.

Arroz negro, a combo rice and black bean dish that is a favourite here in Cuba

Arroz negro, a combo rice and black bean dish that is a favourite here in Cuba

On our hike up to the top of Los Jazmines, men appear out of the woods (literally!!) and hold up big handfuls of fine cigars they’ve rolled. One guy has our attention and Blair calls out ‘Quanto questo?’ (how much). This guy holds up 10 fingers and Blair looks at me quizzically. I shrug and say that maybe he’d rather buy his cigars when we go for our tobacco farm tour the next day. Blair says ‘Gracias no’ and we continue on but the man calls out again and holds up five fingers so Blair hands over five dollars and it’s a done deal. We keep hiking higher looking for a good view but mostly we’re looking for somewhere to eat at this point. We eat lunch at the Buena Vista restaurant for $20 and agree that we won’t need to eat again until the following day. Our waitress sets out chicken and vegetable soup, black bean soup, BBQ’d chicken, arroz negro, stir-fried vegetable rice, salad, squash, fruit plates and cold Crystal beer.

After lunch we walk over to the Hotel Jazmines looking for a driver to take us on a tour of the valley the next day. There is a tour agent in the lobby who speaks excellent English and I tell him we want a driver who speaks good English to take us around. The tour agent says, ‘Oh you want a driver AND a guide?’ ‘Absolutely’, I tell him. He calls over Reiner who has a ’57 Ford in pristine condition and tells us that Reiner doesn’t speak English that well but he ‘communicates’ in English Very well. Hmmmm….we like Reiner’s smile and we really like his car so we agree that he’ll pick us up at our casa particular the next morning at 9 am.

Cueva del Indio

Cueva del Indio

Turns out Reiner is a pretty good guide and has no problem ‘communicating’ with us. He takes us to Cueva del Indio, a limestone-walled cave that takes about 10 minutes to walk through. Most of these rounded mountains (myotes) have caves in them, created by eons of rainwater and run off that wear down the softer bits of the mountain. There’s a trail through this cave system that ends at an underground lake where a motor boat picks us up to take us out to the other side. There are a few others waiting with us for the boat and we’re lucky to be first on. We scramble to the front of the boat and grab our seats and then all the lights are extinguished in the cave system. It is pitch black and I immediately reach out for Blair, calling his name. Our hands connect at the same time that a dozen iPhones are switched on as flashlights so everyone stays pretty calm. Reiner is waiting for us at the end of our boat ride through the caves and we climb back in the old Ford and he drives us deeper into the valley.

At some point in our tour is a stop at a tobacco farm that Reiner knows. The fields are green with tobacco plants in various stages of growth. We walk through an area of fresh-cut plants carefully because the leftover stalks are an inch thick and cut on an angle and are as sharp as a kitchen knife. To fall on one of these stalks would likely result in a pretty deep gash. The leaves from the harvested tobacco stalks are hung on long poles for drying. Our guide tells us that the leaves dry in the sun for two or three days and then are brought indoors for a few months of drying.

Three-year-old tobacco

Three-year-old tobacco

We make our way into the drying shed where our guide offers Blair a freshly rolled cigar. The guide speaks English fairly well and gives us a good overview of how the tobacco is processed once it is dry. The leaves are mixed with the farm’s special ‘marinade’ and packed tightly into bales to ‘steep’ until it’s ready for rolling into cigars. Each tobacco farm in Vinales has their own secret tobacco marinade which can consist of things like honey, oranges, caramel and other ingredients that provide a unique flavour to the cigar. The guide rolled a cigar to demonstrate the basic technique for us and stressed that, at his farm, they always stripped the main vein out of the tobacco leaf because that part has the highest concentration of nicotine. Removing this vein makes for a milder cigar. Apparently the cigar gets stronger and stronger depending on where the leaves are grown on the plant. Leaves from the bottom of the plant are relatively mild but the ones at the very top (the corona) are especially strong. As the guide demonstrates his craft to us, his little brother reaches up to take one of the newly rolled cigars. Our guide gently takes the cigar away from the three-year old and nonchalantly hands him one that was already smoldering in an ashtray. That little guy wanders around the drying shed for a good half hour, all the while puffing on that fat cigar; they start young in Cuba I think.

Public transport in most small Cuban towns is via dump trucks

Public transport in most small Cuban towns is via dump trucks


We stay two nights in Viñales and explore the area, walking mostly, sometimes with a driver. We eat dinners at a great Mediterranean restaurant we find on the main street and decide that we’ve now had the best dinner yet in Cuba. Our landlady at the casa particular is disappointed that we don’t eat dinner at her house but we find that most casas typically serve very bland meals of fried marlin (very dry), copious amounts of white rice and cabbage and tomatoes. We tell her that we would like breakfast both mornings though and she perks up at bit. Her breakfasts turn out a little odd though and one morning we are served hot dogs sliced lengthwise in quarters. She redeems herself just a little by providing huge pitchers of freshly-squeezed juice but we’re really glad we didn’t go for the dinner package here!

More dogs than you'd want to shake a stick at I think

More dogs than you’d want to shake a stick at I think

In Viñales, just like every other Cuban city or village we’ve visited, the dogs run the show. We’ve never seen so many dogs running loose. They lie all over the sidewalks and make drivers stop to let them cross the streets. They trot up and down the side streets in packs and even walk into restaurants and sit at your table begging for food! Blair keeps taking photos of them for some reason…perhaps he will mount a retrospective of Cuban dog shots in some gallery when we return. He keeps asking me why I don’t post any shots so I’ve given in for this post.

The trip is over now, we’re still at Marina Hemingway, still waiting for good weather to duck across the Gulf Stream to Miami, still warm.

Drying tobacco

Drying tobacco

Havana

Marina Hemingway is not your average marina. It’s four long canals that run parallel to the north coast with side-on tie ups to concrete walls. Canal #1 is closest to the sea and is for indigents…actually, the marina says it is for long-term stays because it’s half price but, from our view right here, it’s full of mostly abandoned boats or sailboats with shredded sails that have dogged their way here from Miami thinking it’s cheaper to live in Cuba. There’s a sailboat here that’s been sitting in Canal#1 for 14 years; no fees have been paid but it’s still there floating. Five doors up is a half-sunken motorboat.

Sunday fishing on the river next to the marina

Sunday fishing on the river next to the marina

Canal #2 is where they put all the cruisers and Strathspey is tied up here. It’s a good football field east of the showers but on the north side of the canal so we only walk one side of that football field for our daily ablutions. Less fortunate boats assigned dockage on the south side of the canal must walk twice that distance to get to showers. So, here’s a head’s up…if you are planning to come to Marina Hemingway, it’s worth a bottle of rum ($5.80) to secure dockage on the north side of Canal #2. Canal #3 is less full and we have heard it is strictly for medical tourists here in Cuba for various treatments, most of whom are from Venezuela. Canal #4 is empty because there are basically no facilities there; no water, no power, nada.

Typical pharmacy in Havana

Typical pharmacy in Havana

Havana is available via a free shuttle bus from the resort next door into Viejo Havana. It’s a half-hour ride in an air-conditioned bus and a pretty easy way to get into the old city. Our first visit into the city we wander up and down Opisbo Street, dodging the 3000-odd tourists that were disgorged from a cruise ship in the harbour. We’ve never seen the old city this crowded. We take refuge at the Hotel Parque Central, a five-star hotel just north of Opisbo and are delighted to finally find wifi – something we haven’t had since December.

Jianinitis market stall

Jiaminitis market stall

The small village next door to Marina Hemingway is Jiamanitas where we can buy a limited variety of fruit and vegetables every day from small carts in the streets. On Saturday mornings there is a big market with just about every Cuban vegetable and fruit you can think of, including quite a few odd looking ones that we can’t put a name to.

Soda crackers for sale on Havana curbside

Soda crackers for sale on Havana curbside

We often spend our afternoons in Havana Vieja wandering down side streets and exploring, listening to music in cafes and one time touring the Cuban Revolutionary Museum. It is housed in Batista’s presidential palace and front and center on our tour are the bullet holes displayed in the marble staircase; the aftermath of one of the coup attempts here in the capital. It’s hot here but there is usually a good breeze in the marina. We’re watching the weather for a good window back to the USA now. Each time a cold front reaches south we get northeast winds but when the front moves on the winds go east or southeast. For the past while those east and southeast winds have been just a little too high for an enjoyable trip back across the Gulf Stream so we enjoy Havana and wait for mild southeast winds to establish and then we’ll head north.

All produce prices are quoted per pound here at the market

All produce prices are quoted per pound here at the market

Hotel Juventud

We stay tied to the concrete pier in Nueva Gerona for five grey, windy, cool days. To pass the time we layer up in long-sleeved shirts and polar fleeces and wander through this town of 20,000. It’s a city of contrasts running the gamete of modern marble pedestrian malls and dirt-poor back streets. Along one of the back streets we stop to watch three men making concrete bricks, used for house foundations; the process is primitive but the end result is definitely a concrete brick, although I’m not so sure I’d want to use them in a foundation over a Canadian winter.

Brick  construction Cuba style

Brick construction Cuba style

One of the downtown streets is set up as a flea market of sorts and we stop to chat with Lio, a young print maker. He speaks a bit of English and is really charming and wants to show us how his old-fashioned printing press works. Later that day we rummage through Strathspey’s lockers and find a small plastic bin of unused pencil crayons, crayolas, and ink pens plus a bound book of good drawing paper. We find Lio again and offer this treasure trove to him and he is almost speechless but so happy. This sort of stuff is not found in Cuba very easily and we’re happy to perhaps make a difference in this young man’s life.

Fixing windlass in Nueva Gerona

Fixing windlass in Nueva Gerona

During our stay here Blair takes Strathspey’s anchor windlass apart and tries to find the source of the grinding noise its been making over the last week. He re-greases the spindle on the windlass and cleans the accumulated rust off all the electrical connections. The bolts on the gearbox are seized so he can’t take it apart and we make a mental note to have that looked at back in Florida. The salt water has been hard on Strathspey and the type of windlass mount on our bow is definitely not a good design for salt water use as it allows this sort of rusting and seizing to happen.

Finally, the constant strong Northeast winds ease slightly and, after checking with weather guy Chris Parker, we decide that we perhaps have a window to sail around to the north coast of Cuba. We’ve been waiting for this weather window for almost two weeks. A few years ago while in the Bahamas, every morning on Chris Parker’s weather broadcast, a woman on a catamaran would call him for a personal forecast. Like us, she had paid Chris Parker a yearly fee that allowed her to call him for specific routing information. We think it is money well spent and we still use Chris here in Cuba but are also reading weather grib files downloaded on our SSB radio. Every morning in the Bahamas this particular woman would jump in with her routing request as soon as Chris opened up his broadcast for questions. She and her husband were trying to get from the Bahamas down to Luperon, Dominican Republic and they just weren’t getting the forecast they needed. So, every day for approximately three weeks, we’d hear her asking the same question. After the second week Blair and I would say to each other, ‘Oh man, it’s her again, this is getting tiring….she takes up a lot of broadcast time’. We were fairly unsympathetic even though we knew that the number one rule when cruising is to pick your weather windows well. So now here on the south coast, I’m that woman. I’ve talked to Chris Parker every day for two weeks, telling him that we are trying to get around the western cape, Cabo San Antonio, and onto the north coast. I’m sure people are thinking, ‘Oh for goodness sakes, just go for it!’ The strong northern fronts have been reaching quite a bit further south this winter and we’ve been getting constant 25-knot winds from the wrong direction so we’re almost feeling like we’re trapped down here in Isla de la Juventud. It’s like Hotel Juventud…you can check in but you can never leave.

Strathspey tied to concrete pier with ferries

Strathspey tied to concrete pier with ferries

But finally one day, Chris gives us good news and we think we have a long enough period of time to make the leap around the corner to the north side. We notify the Guarda Fronteras that we are leaving Sunday morning at 11 am. In fact, I’ve told three officials that we want to leave at 11 am but it’s still not clear to me that they’ve understood exactly what we want.

At 11 am, we’re ready to go. Our dinghy is securely tied on the coach roof at Strathspey’s bow, our diesel tank is full and we have two jugs of spare diesel tied on Strathspey’s port rail and one in the starboard locker. There’s no sign of the Guarda officials though. I walk up to the guardhouse and there are two women security guards who don’t know where the guarda officials are. They motion to their telephone and say that it is dead so they can’t call. One of the workmen offers to bike by the guarda office at the mouth of the river to tell them we need our dispacho. It’s a five-minute bike ride and 45 minutes later there is still no sight of the guarda with our dispacho. Guermo, a naval engineer on one of the ferries docked behind us calls the guarda office for us and says they’ll be at Strathspey in 25 minutes. Sure enough, a male and female guarda official arrive at 12:30 pm but they’ve forgotten the dispacho back at the office. There’s another delay while the male guarda gets back on his bike and rides back out to the mouth of the river to get our document but by 1 pm, we are casting off our lines and motoring back down the river. All the way down this foul river we pass men sitting in huge truck tire innertubes, floating down the river, legs in the water up to their knees. Their fishing rods jerk occasionally and they pull up 6-inch long silvery fish. We can’t imagine eating anything out of this particular river because it is so polluted but there are plenty of these fishermen who obviously do.

We don’t have far to go this afternoon. We’ve decided to spend the night at Ensenada Los Barcos again and make a series of long day sails until we finally get around the cape. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and we make good speed. Blair comments casually that if I were up for it, he’d be fine doing an overnight sail all the way to Maria La Gorda. We check the grib files once again and do some mileage calculations and decide that it makes good weather sense to get to Maria La Gorda in this nice northeast wind. Blair adjusts our route waypoints on the chart plotter and I dig out my foul-weather gear just in case the waves get higher. In regular clothes, once I get wet with salt water, I just stay wet until I can change so the foul-weather gear works best. It’s an uneventful night and at 9 am we tie up to a mooring ball in 20 feet of water just west of the long beach at Maria La Gorda. The water is crystal clear here. In fact, this is the clearest water we’ve seen in all our travels through Cuba. The sea bed 20 feet below us looks like it is only a foot under our keel.

Strathspey's profile in clear water at Maria La Gorda

Strathspey’s profile in clear water at Maria La Gorda

I call Chris Parker to get tomorrow’s forecast to confirm that we’re still on track for a nice rounding of Cabo San Antonio and he tells me that all still looks good but that the wind is going to blow like stink from the northeast for a good long time once this short window closes. Blair and I talk about this new bit of information for a good long while, weighing the pros and cons of getting stuck in a remote anchorage on the north coast rather than being in Havana exploring the city and doing some other inland travel. We decide to get a good night’s sleep tonight and leave pre-dawn on Tuesday to sail all the way to Havana. We map out a few bailout anchorages on the north coast in case we don’t like the weather or if the window closes suddenly. Once we’ve made that decision, we check in with the guarda and he tells us that we should pick up our dispacho that night at 6 pm if we plan to leave so early the next day. This simplifies things for us and we spend the rest of the day snorkeling and walking ashore at Maria La Gorda. We arrange to buy a 20-liter jug of diesel from a fishing boat tied to the pier beside the beach. We don’t really need it but it gives me some added reassurance that if the winds don’t cooperate we can motor toward Havana.

We sleep soundly after the previous day’s 17-hour trip and at 6 am on Tuesday we drop the mooring ball line and turn toward Cabo San Antonio. The guidebooks warn that rounding this cape is one of the hardest trips. The winds must be moderate and in the right direction. You must be the right distance off shore in order to avoid the Cuban countercurrent that runs southwest around the cape and then east along the south coast. In opposing winds, you must stay out of the Yucatan current, a north flowing component of the Gulf Stream that can run at speeds above 5 knots at times. You must stay far enough off the capes and headlands in this area so as to avoid the turbulent water caused by shallow areas. With all these requirements, it’s understandable that I’m a little nervous as we approach Cabo San Antonio. We sail at 6 knots until we make the turn North to pass the cape. The waves are steep and choppy far inshore but out where we are, it’s mostly just long, gentle and manageable waves. Now that we’re heading north, we feel the effects of the countercurrent but it’s not too overwhelming as we’re still sailing at 4.9 knots. Once we pass the cape and turn northeast, the wind changes to an easterly direction and we are close-hauled and sailing at 6.5 knots in fairly flat water.

Radar display on Strathspey's chart plotter

Radar display on Strathspey’s chart plotter

As the day progresses and night falls, the wind gradually clocks around to the south and, in the lee of the Cuban coastline, we see only 1-foot waves. Around midnight our knot meter reads 7.5 knots so we think the Gulfstream is looping in close to shore and helping us along. Our plotted course keeps us about 1.5 miles off shore, occasionally two miles. At 2 am, our knot meter reads 8.8 knots so we are sure we are in the Gulfstream as the true wind is only 7 knots. Blair keeps saying, ‘Oh, we picked the best window. How could it get any better?!’ I don’t want to jinx anything so all I say is, ‘It seems good so far’.

By 9 am we can see the tall buildings of Havana and at 12:30 pm we make the turn down the channel into Marina Hemmingway. There’s a certain cachet about this particular marina and its namesake writer so we’re pretty excited to have finally arrived here. We pull over to the customs dock and get checked in by the two guarda officials. It’s a first for us in Cuba when one of the guarda officials asks us for US dollars and CUCs, ‘I need it for my baby’. He makes a cursory check down below and when he opens up our Nav station desk and sees our Canadian iPhones, he asks if he can have them. We just keep saying no and eventually he stops pestering us. This is also the first time we have been asked to show our medical insurance and are surprised when they copy down the policy numbers. It’s a short checkin though and then we leave the customs dock and motor past the entrance to canals 3 and 4 and make a right turn into Canal number 2 where we’ve been assigned a spot at the concrete wall on the north side; 196 miles and 30 hours from Maria La Gorda!

We’re excited to have easy access to Havana and plan to stay here for a few weeks to explore it, listen to some good music, perhaps take an inland trip to the western end of Cuba and definitely to get some good nights’ sleeps tied to a secure dock in a sheltered canal.

I’ve posted some photos on the older messages. Check the one of Blair’s tuna!!!

Some people want more than a dinghy for transportation

Some people want more than a dinghy for transportation