This was originally posted on our Sea Trek site. This was originally published in Soundings Magazine, and many of our readers ask that we republish it. So here it is and we hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed making the trip. Revisiting Cuba is high on our cruising plans.
We weighed anchor and got underway from Punta Manzanillo in the Dominican Republic at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. It was Easter Sunday and we knew that the entire island of Hispaniola would be celebrating today. We would sort of be celebrating ourselves, but in a different way and for a different reason. Today was the beginning of a cruising adventure that began as an idea five years prior and was just now before us.
Leaving the Florida Keys, making a quick trip through the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and now the DR, we were as ready as we were going to be. We had provisioned and prepared the boat while spending a wonderful time in Luperon. A day sail to Manzanillo and a good night’s sleep found us both excited and anxious. We had heard mixed reports about visiting Cuba. Everything from how terrible it was to reports that it is one of the most wonderful cruising grounds left in the Atlantic. Soon we would know.
It was a very uneventful motorsail north of the coast of Haiti and across the Windward Passage. Finally, at around 11:00 a.m. on Monday morning, we entered Cuban waters. Our minds were full of conflicting thoughts. We had been told about the fantastic fishing and lobstering to be found in these waters. We had also heard the rumors of Cuban gunboats and Communist authorities. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were very excited that we had finally arrived. The next decision was where to make our first landfall. Santiago de Cuba was the port of entry for the southeast coast, but that would be well over a hundred miles away. We did have a concern as to how we would be received if we just showed up in a Cuban harbor without first clearing into the country.
We made the decision to put into Baitiquiri, a small port just a little more than 30 miles from Punta Caleta, the easternmost tip of Cuba. The southeast coast is very steep and you can almost sail with one foot on the beautiful mountainous coast. We thought we might not reach Baitiquiri before nightfall, but arrived at the harbor entrance around 5:30 p.m. As we approached Baitiquiri, the depth sounder didn’t come off soundings until we were about two boat lengths from the marked channel entrance. Upon our approach, we noted what seemed to be a statue on the rocks to the right of the narrow entrance. As we got closer, we realized it was actually a man sitting perfectly still just watching us come in. Once we entered the narrow, 50-foot-wide entrance, he finally waved and smiled at us. The entrance channel was deep and well-marked.
The head official settled into the cockpit and pulled out a small notebook. In each port, the officials used different things to take notes. Some had notepads. Most just used whatever scraps of paper they could find. Sometimes we provided them with paper. He asked us several questions such as where we departed from, what the dimensions of the boat were (always in meters) and asked to see our passports. Since my wife speaks passable Spanish, it all went well. After perhaps 10 minutes, the official warmly welcomed us to Cuba and wished us a good visit. He did tell us that we would not be able to leave the boat to go ashore for even a swim until we had reached Santiago and cleared in. Again, we later found this was the case even after we were cleared into the country. This was also the beginning of one of the more frustrating experiences we would encounter.
At 6:45 a.m. the next morning, we raised anchor, waived goodbye to our Guarda Frontera friends, and headed for Santiago de Cuba. Once again, the boat was off soundings as soon as we cleared the harbor entrance. Since we had very light winds that morning, we found ourselves motorsailing along the coast. We discovered that if we stayed close in, there were no navigational hazards, but we would have a counter current of up to one and a half knots against us. If we were two to three miles offshore, we had a one to one and a half knot current with us. This proved to be very helpful as we moved along this section of the coast. After perhaps two hours, we sighted a pod of what we believed to be pilot whales traveling along in our same direction. They stayed about 200 feet off our port side for some time. One things we would take note of all along the entire south coast was the fact that even in the lightest winds, the swells would be rather large. The fact that they were widely spaced kept them manageable and not uncomfortable.
We were concerned regarding entering the waters at the Guantanamo Naval Base, which we had to pass on the way to Santiago. We knew that if we entered their waters, we had a good chance of being stopped and inspected. We set the coordinates in our GPS to be outside their range and plotted a course well off. We had heard that the Cuban authorities would be problematic if we made any contact there. Ironically, we were not as concerned with the Cuban authorities as we were with our own. This would be the first of many contradictions we would encounter along the way.
Ten hours after raising anchor at Baitiquiri, we were entering the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. The harbor entrance is easy to find. At the eastern side is a tall, steep hill with Castle el Morro and a lighthouse, both of which are very prominent. The entrance and the inner channel are well-buoyed. This is a large commercial port, and pleasure vessels are only allowed into the harbor as far as Punta Gorda Marina. As we came in the marked channel, we were amazed to find a large island on the west side of the harbor. This was covered with private homes and is only accessible by boat. It is known as Cayo Granma. As we entered the harbor, we contracted Punta Gorda Marina on VHF Channel 16. It was pleasant to find that the marina personnel spoke excellent English. Since it was nearing sunset, they directed us to a spot just off their docks, very near another cruising boat, and instructed us to drop anchor. They also informed us to stand by to receive the first of many officials to begin the clearing in process. Within minutes, an ancient vessel, that we figured was a holdover from the Soviets, approached us. It was turbine driven and propelled itself using a jet drive like the modern jet skis use today. The major exception being it was 40 feet long and powered by that very large turbine engine. It kicked up a lot of turbulence everywhere it went and made us a little nervous as by now it was quite dark. Its captain turned out to be very skilled.
Next would come the first of two search teams. It consisted of two gentlemen from the Guarda Frontera. Each official was extremely polite and friendly. They told us they would be searching for contraband, drugs and pornography. We explained that we had none, but they could search wherever they liked. The search seemed to be very random and we had the impression it mostly concerned curiosity about items we had on board. They were fascinated with things like our son’s toys and our Pocketmail email device, which they thought was a phone. One of our officials sat on the settee the entire time looking through our musical cassette tapes telling us who his favorite artists were and which of our tape selections he liked the best. (He indicated his favorite was Barry Manilow, which we do not own.) When they got to our video tapes, they were totally amazed. We had hundreds, taking up an entire locker. It was at that moment we realized how these people have been deprived of all of the things we take for granted.
The “search” went smoothly. We were asked to accompany each of the officials as they went about their work. Any time a drawer was searched, all the contents would be removed, then replaced exactly as they found them. They seemed to each find a specific area on the boat and concentrate on that area, not even bothering with adjacent storage that in some cases could hold a small family. This process took about two and a half hours. By now, it was 10:30 p.m., and we were beginning to feel the effects of our long day. As the last official left us for the night, he informed us that the rest of the check-in procedure would take place at 8:00 a.m. the next day, since they were also busy with a freighter that had arrived about the same time we did.
At precisely 8:00 a.m. the next morning, we were asked to dinghy the Capitania’s next search team to the boat. This time they brought their drug and weapons specialist, Danny. Danny is one of the friendliest and cutest officials we met. He was a happy, young, all black Cocker Spaniel. His trainer brought him aboard and they immediately went below. His trainer carried a small cloth pouch which Danny saw as a cue to stay each time his trainer used it to try to persuade him to search or "busca." He opened some drawers low down in the cabin and tried to get Danny to sniff, but Danny just wanted to run up and down in the cabin and find someone to play with him. As soon as he decided no one would play, he went out into the cockpit, sat down and refused to come back into the cabin. So much for vicious drug dogs. The rest of the “search” went the same as the previous evening. The officials were friendly, courteous and more curious than suspicious. Once this was completed and more paperwork filled out, we were officially welcomed to Cuba, told we may now go ashore, and could take a berth at the marina if we wished. The marina charges for dockage were $0.40 per foot and the charge for anchoring was $0.25 per foot.
We were asked to tie to the dock med-moor style. This always presented a problem for us since we had a dinghy and a solar panel hanging off the davits, and climbing on and off was difficult. We wound up putting a plank from our aft cap rail to the dock. The staff at the marina was very helpful and extremely accommodating despite all of the information to the contrary in the cruising guides. As a matter of fact, we found a great deal of information in the cruising guides outdated and incorrect, mostly because the cruising situation is constantly changing. We recommend buying your cruising guides based on the navigational information and detail of chartlets rather than shoreside advise. The guide we used left a great deal to be desired. In hindsight, other guides with more detailed charts would have been much more useful.
We were adopted by a young girl in a restaurant in Santiago selling her wares. She had beautiful carvings and figurines designed to bring the owner good luck. Our sponsors purchased one for themselves as well as us. A stamp on the bottom indicated that she was selling these with the government’s blessing and would have to pay tax on them. She threw in a small charm pendant, also a wood carving, for free. They resembled the faces at Easter Island. Our newly found friend walked us to the nearest bus stop. Another older woman befriended us at the stop and told us that she could be fined 1,000 pesos for being seen speaking to us. She rode with us back to the marina to make sure we got off at the right place in the dark, and then quietly asked for some money. Our friend slipped her a few pesos in passing.
Unfortunately, the stories about the cement factory raining dirt on to the boats at night was true. We attempted to wash the rusty spots off the deck to no avail. There also remained a nasty black scum line around the hull from the polluted harbor, which required much attention later. (To our relief, we found that an inexpensive product, Rustaid, would take the spots off the deck and avoid a costly paint job. Some Fantastic and elbow grease worked on the waterline.)
We were off again the next morning to spend the day getting to Marea del Portillo. We had heard mixed reviews over the single side band regarding whether folks were allowed to go to shore here. The two very young Ricky Martin look alikes that rowed over to us advised us that we could not, however a German fellow anchored there was allowed to as he needed to purchase diesel. When Susan commented to the Guarda Frontera that they had a beautiful country, they responded, "it only looks that way from here." Very frustrated that we could not go to shore, we were at least allowed to row to our friend's boat for dinner and watch the sunset cause the mountains behind our boat to turn the color of spun gold.
Desiring to be away from civilization and wanting to roam freely, we decided to head to the out islands in the Golfo de Guacanayabo and Golfo de Ana Maria as we threaded our way to Cienfuegos. Some folks chose to travel along the outer cays known as Los Jardines de la Reina or "the Gardens of the Queen." We chose the inner route, traveling in relatively shallow water and saw no other human beings for days on end.
Our next day's sail took us to Cayo Algodon Grande. This is a very protected lagoon entered by running along the inside of the reef until you clear a shoal to starboard, then you can anchor in 10 to 13 feet. Again, our fearless lobster hunting friends found the biggest lobster yet in the rocks on the outside of the lagoon. We saw no other people this day either, except our two boats, anchored in peaceful, quiet solitude.
It was time for us to move on, so after passing a huge ship on our way out of the entrance channel, we departed for the outer cays between Cienfuegos and Isla Juventud. An uneventful trip past the Zona Prohibida of the Bay of Pigs brought us by late afternoon to Cayo Guana del Este. We found poor holding there and moved a bit farther to Cayo Trabuco. This is basically a rock with no protection, and the surge around it was not bearable for an entire night. Fortunately, there was enough daylight to move a few miles farther to Cayo de Dios. This anchorage was much more protected from the prevailing wind/wave direction, but we felt it wise not to anchor too close to shore as this was obviously a nesting ground for thousands of birds. They seemed none too happy that we were there, so we did not go to shore to upset them further.
A quick trip the next day brought us to Cayo Matais, just a few miles east of Isla Juventud. We opted to anchor in the lee of the cay. Another boat anchored just behind the reef and from a distance, it looked like they were stuck on a reef. Another solitary, peaceful anchorage. Because we were getting near the time our 30-day visa would expire, we pressed on to the western side of Isla Juventud the next evening and anchored in Bahia Siguanea. This anchorage was exposed to the prevailing winds, but as luck would have it, it was a fairly calm night. Cayo Real is a beautiful anchorage some 40 miles from Isla Juventud, which you will share with some local fishermen. There is an interesting cut between the cays and many miles of beach to explore. The lobstering is good here as well.