The night before we leave Cienfuegos there’s some excitement in the anchorage. At dusk a 50-foot Amel ketch steams into the harbour, clearly intending to anchor in a wide-open space between Strathspey and shore. But perhaps in reaction to the attempted theft of our dinghy and motor, the Guarda officials hop in their dinghy and speed out to the Amel and direct them to a spot much further from shore. It’s a windy and wavy night in the harbour and the Guarda want to get this job done quickly so they gesture the Amel to follow them and, despite not being boaters themselves, they simply indicate a spot that is right in the middle of a big clump of other boats. There’s obviously no regard as to what kind of swing room a 50-foot boat requires. They position their dinghy about 50 feet in front of Strathspey and gesture to the Amel to anchor right there. Blair whistles them down to say that it is too peligroso (dangerous) having the big boat so close to Strathspey as well as the two other boats anchored near us. The Guarda aren’t happy because they’re getting wet, sprayed with saltwater in the windy anchorage. They acquiesce though and agree that it is too close, but not before the Amel has dropped their anchor and started paying it out. The Amel now realizes that these guys in the dingy are the Guarda officials, not actual boaters with an understanding of anchor scope or swing room. Twenty minutes later, the Amel ignores the new anchoring location indicated by the Guarda, judging it again to be to close to surrounding boats and eventually drops its anchor at the far North end of the anchoring field. Throughout the whole exercise there are many other cruisers in their cockpits, eyes narrowed, all thinking the same thing, ‘Just anchor well enough away from me and set the anchor well’. The excitement ends and we all retreat down below and carry on.
The next night we leave Cienfuegos. We have paid our marina anchorage bill ($7/night) and requested a 7 pm checkout by the Guarda Frontera. This isn’t just a formality. They have our dispacho and we need it to continue on. Once past Bahia Pilon, the dispacho process is quite a bit stricter and, in every port, we must surrender our dispacho to the Guarda officials and only receive it back when we leave port. Promptly at 7 pm, the marina manager and the two Guarda officials dinghy out to Strathspey. The Guarda speak a little English but the marina manager speaks even more and he translates when necessary. At some point, one of the Guarda officials holds up our visa and says that there is a problema with it. This is the last thing we want to hear about our Cuban visa. He says, ‘visa expired’. The marina manager asks our nationality and Blair says we are Canadian and we have three months and it’s Americans that are only given one month. The Guarda official looks skeptical but the marina manager says’ Si, Si!’ and agrees that we should have three months. In the end the Guarda believes both Blair and the marina manager but it is a little disconcerting. Blair thinks there was a little smirk on the Guarda’s face as he announces the problema because these are the same two Guarda officials that he delayed the night before by pointing out that the Amel was too close. I give the Guarda the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably needs to go back for refresher training.
We sail overnight west to Cayo Largo, the first big cayo in the Archipelago de los Canarreos. This archipelago is a popular cruising area with Canadians and Europeans and the occasional bold American willing to take a chance on bucking the US system and hoping to not get caught. We think it is easier for Americans to cruise on the South coast of Cuba as there are no US Coast Guard patrols down here and few Guarda Frontera outposts to check in and out of. Although not as remote and pristine as the Jardines de la Reina archipelago, we’re looking forward to exploring this area through February.
In Cayo Largo, the Guarda officials insist that we dock at the Cayo Largo marina so they can check us in. They don’t search the boat at all and we get the feeling that they just don’t want a wet dinghy ride out to our anchored boat to check us in. Once we pull into the dock though, we decide to stay a few nights and clean the layer of Cienfuegos grim off the decks. Blair gets ambitious after the first layer of dirt is removed and he uses FSR, a solution of oxalic acid, to remove all the spots on our deck deposited by the Santiago refinery plume. We’d tried scrubbing at them with all kinds of product and this oxalic acid did the trick (two jars worth). On the floating docks we are surrounded by chartered catamarans out of Cienfuegos. The marina manager tells us that water and electricity are free but please don’t drink the water.
Once Strathspey is clean we leave the marina and drop our anchor behind a small island beside a blinding white beach. We spend the next few days swimming and snorkelling in the crystal clear water here and walking beaches of talcum powder softness. We visit the local turtle hatchery and get a tour of their holding tanks for green and hawksbilled turtles and hear the method of releasing the newly-hatched baby turtles on the beaches every spring. Cayo Largo is not a typical Cuban island or town. It is just a series of hotels and resorts and one long beach after another; the resort workers are actually flown or ferried in here for 20-day stints, staying in barracks. Each day at anchor, we are passed by huge catamarans carrying sunburned tourists out to the beaches or to various islands to snorkel. Periodically, charter catamarans join our anchorage and it feels a little crowded so we make plans to continue on.
From Santiago all the way to Cayo Largo, at almost every port and anchorage we’ve stayed at we are joined by the same two American boats. We play leapfrog with them as we move westward down the coast and trade items back and forth as we go. One boat gives us water in Cayo Granada when our water maker had problems, we give them tomatoes in Cayo Cuervos when we have a surplus, we copy their excellent Cuban charts while in Cienfuegos and, as thanks, offer up a pound of butter to tide them over until they reach good shopping across the Yucatan channel in Mexico. Here in Cayo Largo is the last time we chat with them. They’ve had a surprise when trying to extend their one-month visa; it’s expensive for Americans it seems. They must pay $3/person/ day for insurance. They’d shown a valid credit card to the officials in Santiago when they checked in but it seems that wasn’t sufficient for the Guarda in Cienfuegos who want actual money for the insurance up front. In Cienfuegos they coughed up enough to stay an additional 15 days in the hopes that they’d get good weather windows to travel from Cienfuegos to Isla Mujeres in Mexico. In conversation with a group of five German businessmen on a chartered catamaran, I mention that expense to them. They scoff at the cost and say that it is worse for them. At $8/person/day, they’d ponied up $800 for the five of them to sail in Cuba for 20 days. It’s all to do with the insurance it seems. As Canadians, we’re lucky that we haven’t been stung by this extra cost.
We sail down to Cayo Cantilles on the ‘outside’, out in the ocean. All the catamarans in this area can sail down there on the shallow inside route. Because we take the outside route, we carefully negotiate the red and green buoys that mark the safe passage between the reefs that shelter Cayo Cantiles from the big ocean swells. We hear from other cruisers that this is a good area to trade rum for fresh lobsters as the lobster fishermen use this area as a nightly anchoring spot on their week-long fishing trips. We anchor in 7 feet of crystal clear water and then dinghy out to the reefs to do some snorkelling. Our guidebook tells us that many boats have been wrecked on this reef as only one of the red and green buoys is lit at night. We find the remains of quite a few fishing boats under water and Blair sights a green moray eel. The holding in this area is notoriously bad and when the winds pick up to 25 knots later that night we have a slo-mo drag that positions us about 500 feet south of where we started. No harm is done but we decide to move across the channel to Cayo Rosario that afternoon as the winds are clocking to the Northeast and there will be better protection and hopefully better holding. However, on the opposite side the holding is no better; the seabed is turtle grass and sand. We re-anchor twice and hold through the high winds that night but when I listen to the weather forecast from Chris Parker, he tells me that we need to be in a very well protected area by end of day Sunday as there is another strong cold front coming, bringing clocking winds from southeast, south, southwest and then northwest along with heavy rain and squalls with 40 knot winds. This is not a good area to be in for that sort of weather so we head to Cayo Tablones for the night with plans to move on to the town of Nueva Gerona on the big island – Isla de la Juventud.
We have a quiet afternoon and evening at Cayo Tablones until the wind picks up to 31 knots around 8:30 pm. The cayos in Cuba are basically low-lying islands covered with mangrove shrubs, which provide very little protection from the wind. The seabed at each one of them is the ubiquitous turtle grass and hard-packed sand so holding is never wonderful. We’re frustrated as we can see we’re dragging again. We have set an anchor alarm on our chart plotter and that’s the only way we can tell we are dragging. It’s pitch black out because the moon is not up yet and there are no lights on shore for a reference point. Blair gets out on the foredeck and we re-anchor but the current around the cayo is at right angles to the wind direction and Strathspey is dragging from the minute our anchor has been dropped; it just doesn’t have time to grab. We make the decision to go to Neuva Gerona immediately rather than waiting for daylight and spend the next five hours sailing there.
We have a reef entrance, Pasa de Quitasol, to contend with before we arrive at Isla de la Juventud but it’s well marked with red and green lights. The only hiccup is that we read and re-read the guide’s instructions that the red buoys must be on our port (left) side going through the channel. Our Garmin chartplotter shows the red buoys on the starboard (right) side of the channel though. We’ve been finding that the Garmin software is not as detailed for Cuba as other brands. We often sail from waypoint to waypoint while our chart plotter shows broad swaths of uncharted waters. The Navionics charts that our American friends have are far more detailed for Cuba and show the same waters crowded with depth notations. This is the first time we’ve been disappointed with Garmin as they have been very accurate and detailed for all the other areas that we’ve sailed in so far. Blair says he will contact Garmin regarding the red buoy mistake at Pasa de Quitasol as that could be disastrous. On the other hand, as we follow the channel, the Garmin charts show a small circle with the notation that there is an obstruction in the middle of the channel. I scan the waters ahead of us with our 400,000-candle flashlight. I see no obstruction but Blair gears back suddenly and says that the channel depth has shallowed suddenly. He gradually relaxes and throttles up as the depth increases and comments that Garmin had that little detail bang on.
We negotiate the reef without further incident and an hour later we follow the well-marked channel into the Rio las Casas to Nueva Gerona. This is a commercial port with no facilities for yachts but our guidebook says that we can tie up to a concrete pier at the ferry terminal for a maximum of two days. This will take us through the cold front we hope and give us a few quiet nights without the constant 25-knot winds that we’ve had for the last three days. One thing we’ve been finding here on the South coast of Cuba is that the winds are quite a bit stronger than anything we’ve had in the Bahamas or Lake Ontario. If the wind is blowing here, it’s usually at 20-25 knots and gusting to 30 knots. There’s usually a late afternoon lull, a diurnal effect, where the wind dies down to 15 knots but then after sunset, it picks right back up.
So, it’s a relief as we turn the corner past the last green marker in the channel and we are in the calm Rio las Casas. There are no more lighted buoys and Blair at the wheel feels his way down the river while I shine our spotlight onto shore looking for a ferry terminal. Our Garmin chartplotter shows that we are on land again, a disappointment but we’re okay because we have the moon plus our powerful spotlight to help us stay in the middle of the channel. We pass a Guarda Frontera building and a big shipyard on the right, then on the left an oil and propane dock with a big ship pumping propane into huge storage tanks ashore. And then the shores are black, no lights. We keep going and the depths are still good; 8 feet under our keel. We round corner after corner and then the ferry terminal appears on our right. We find a spot that looks good on the concrete wall just past the last ferry and I take the wheel and circle in the river with 4 feet under our keel until Blair has lines and fenders set out and we gently slide into dock finally; it’s 5 am and we’re numb from the cool night, the constant 30 knot winds and the occasional salty wave over the decks. There are three people there to catch our lines, one of which is the harbourmaster. He comes down below to do the necessary paperwork immediately and it’s embarrassing because Strathspey is a shambles down below from the constant rolling through the big waves. We look like we’re a dirt-eater boat rather than our usual pristine condition. I apologize for the mess but the harbourmaster shrugs it off and says Welcome to Nueva Gerona.
In very rudimentary English with more Spanish than English he tells us that Nueva Gerona is a commercial port – no tourista. We say ‘Si’. Then he says, ‘Is your boat broken?’ We get it right away – that’s the only way we can stay here on the concrete dock. Blair says ‘Si, la bomba de agua tiene una fuga’ (the water pump is leaking). Then the harbourmaster asks ‘How long (to fix)’? I say ‘Dos dia’. Here in Nueva Gerona, they really have no facilities for visiting boats and the guide books says you can only stay two days maximum but I figure maybe I’ll get two days for the water pump repairs and then perhaps another day for the big cold front to pass. Blair says ‘Tiempo pronostico es habra tormentas’. There are storms coming. The harbourmaster says, ‘Si, norther martes’ so we hope we have permission to stay through Tuesday at least.
We tidy up a bit and then fall into bed hoping to sleep a good five hours at least but this is a noisy port and we’re awake again in three hours. We walk into town to explore a bit but we’re both dozy and, with eyes a little glazed, are not taking much in. I’m looking for produce as always and we use up the last of our meagre stack of Cuban pesos to buy some tomatoes and green peppers and some sort of purple vegetable that Blair is sure is turnip. I’m too tired to argue and we get two of them; I’ll figure out how to cook them when I’ve had more sleep. We wander around for an hour or so and on the way back to Strathspey we see a vegetable cart with the kind of vegetables I can recognize so I’m more alert now. Trouble is, I have no more pesos; only CUCS which are worth so much more than pesos that it’s a big problem. Thinking back to when Blair handed over CUCs for pineapples and we ended up with seven of those things, I’m doing mental calculations; there is no way I want enough tomatoes to make 20 batches of spaghetti sauce. I say to the vendor, ‘No pesos pero CUCS’ (I have no pesos but I do have the big ones – CUCS). I hand the vendor a three CUC note (worth $3 Canadian) and I start to point out what I want. He’s happy to oblige and I get cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, beets and eggplants. My bag is full to overflowing and I say ‘No mas’. The vendor is happy, I’m happy and I’ve got at least two weeks worth of vegetables right now.
The ferry dock on the river is pretty yucky. In fact, it’s actually been described as noxious which we wouldn’t dispute. But it’s secure and we have a chance to see a real Cuban town that has had very little tourist influence. It’s definitely a different view of Cuba. Here at the ferry dock, we’re behind a high fence and a locked gate that is guarded day and night. In fact, when the ferry from Havana arrives or departs, we’re actually not allowed off the boat. Or if we happen to have been walking in town and are outside the fence, we’re not allowed back into the safe enclosure where Strathspey sits floating. To emphasize that fact, there is a fit young man in olive green hovering at the gate we usually enter and exit from. We know he is not your typical Guarda Fronteras because he’s wearing a badge, ‘Brigada Specialisa’, but mostly because he’s got a service revolver holstered at his waist. Other than the standard guards visible outside the banks when money is being picked up, this is the first time in Cuba that we’ve seen any signs of weapons at all. The regular security guard at the marina has a nightstick as a weapon and he very apologetically tells us that we must wait until the ferry passengers are loaded before we can walk down the pier to Strathspey. We stand at the fence looking in at them until the Brigada Specialisa motions us away and points to where we must wait to enter. We say ‘No problema’ and move away quickly.
Other than this odd bit of guns and ammo thing, we’re quite comfortable here despite the polluted river we are floating on. Far up this river, we feel very little wind and when the torrential rain begins on Monday morning it’s a welcome washdown for our decks with just a bit of wind blowing us off the pier. Once the rain clears, we walk into the center of town and negotiate a taxi to take us out to Presidio Model. This is the penitentiary built by the USA for the Batista regime back in the 1950s. It was modeled after Joliet prison in Illinois and held mostly political prisoners; both Fidel and Raoul were held here at one point. It’s been abandoned since 1967 and, although not a museum or tourist destination, we’d heard you could tour it if you found a taxi driver that knew something about it.
Our driver speaks little English but with our bit of Spanish and his bit of English and lots of gesturing, we have an excellent tour. The prison is comprised of four circular buildings, five stories high that held 1000 prisoners each. Our taxi driver drives us around the outside of the buildings but when we ask if we could enter, he shrugs and says OK and proceeds to break into one of the buildings. We follow him in and stop suddenly. Overwhelmed. Silent. Both of us say in unison, ‘Oh.wow’.
This is probably what a prisoner would have felt upon entering the prison building for the first time. Each cell is labeled with a number, each cell has a toilet and a sink, each cell held two political prisoners, each cell is no more than 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. The cells are on the outside walls, one cell deep, while the middle of the building is wide open with a walking/socializing area. In the center of the building is a tall tower where the guards kept watch; they actually didn’t get to the tower through the socializing area, they entered it through a tunnel.
Our next stop is the dining hall holding 1000 prisoners at a time for each meal. Each prisoner had their own table with attached chair, much the same as old-fashioned school desks. The tables and chairs fanned out from a central guard tower so that the prisoners sat in long rows, one behind the other to eat, much the same as a school classroom but everyone faced the outside wall. After the dining hall, our guide took us into a sort of ‘halfway house’ building called ‘Distincion por buen comportamiento’. If you were good in the prison, you graduated to this building where there were actual classrooms and you would be taught lessons in good citizenship. Once you graduated from here, you presumably were free to go.
We make one last stop at the administration buildings of the prison. It is impressive with its marble stairs and architecture. This marble is pretty common throughout the entire prison; all the stairs in each of the prison buildings are made of polished marble. We notice that in the town of Nueva Gerona, all the parks have marble benches and even the pedestrian mall is laid with marble stones so we think that marble is readily available in this area, especially if it was standard in the prison buildings. I take one last photo; it’s a long shot of the administration building showing two flagpoles on either side of the long, straight road in. One flagpole is taller than the other and our taxi driver says that the taller one flew the Stars and Stripes and the shorter one flew the Cuban flag. In a quieter voice he tells us that American money build this prison and most of the infrastructure on Isla de la Juventud. We’re quiet on the ride home, contemplating all this.