This is a difficult post to write as we have mixed feelings but it is based on our 7 weeks there in February and March 2017. Rob and I also have slightly differing opinions as he became quite fed up with being there in the end. He didn’t enjoy the way tourists were ripped off by many people, especially in Havana and Cayo Campos. The restrictions on movement and lack of food and Internet access were other issues, as was the shallow water for our deep draft.
For me, just being able to see Cuba was great. A real experience and the first communist country I’ve been to. I learned a lot about the way people live, not all good but some of the places we visited were remote and lovely. It was also 100% safe and I never worried about anything to do with security. People were friendly and helpful and many really appreciated anything you could give them, without asking for it in advance.
You are very much on your own though. No help, rarely any other vessels around and no response on the radio. You need to be self-sufficient for repairs and parts. Not being able to connect to the Internet for nearly all the time we were there, meant relying on our SSB radio for weather information and we were glad we subscribed to Chris Parker’s net. We could only let our friends and family know we had arrived and were safe via a friend, Carla, again via SSB and she posted a Facebook message for us. Cayo Largo had wifi vouchers and reasonable connectivity but we didn’t get onto the Internet anywhere else.
Arriving was fine although the Coastguard doesn’t have a radio or boat. In Los Morros, the officials came to the boat and were courteous and efficient. The difficulty was equipment usually and lack of repairs and spare parts. The credit card machine no longer worked and the local hotel couldn’t change dollars either, so we had to pay the 235 dollars entrance in cash. We then needed to go to the nearby canal due to incoming bad weather and to do that, despite it being 5 miles away, you need to be cleared out of Los Morros for the Canal and return to Los Morros to clear in and then out to the next place, Cayo Largo in our case. This all takes time but it was only a 10 minute stamping exercise once we got back there.
Going on to Cayo Largo was great. Although it was our next official port, the one in Maria Gorda being closed now, it didn’t matter how long we took. We stopped at several anchorages along the way, enjoyed 4 nights at Cayo Campos for another bad weather spell and had some good sailing. Puerto Frances on Isla De Juventud was stunning and deep! The anchorages can be very shallow, especially with our 7 foot draft and we were forced to anchor some way off the islands at times. We found the anchorage in Cayo Largo the worst, with several boats going aground there. We met lots of fishermen, especially in the Canal near Los Morros as they stopped by every day offering fish and lobster for a beer or two. Taxi drivers outside Havana were also nice, clearly touched if you gave them even a small tip and proud to tell us about the area.
Food was another issue. You do need to take absolutely everything you need with you. Some of the marina water isn’t potable either. All the food, apart from lobsters traded for next to nothing, was for the hotels. We could pay 20 dollars for a pretty basic meal but couldn’t buy anything else until we got to Cayo Largo. There the options were eggs, very poor vegetables which we didn’t buy, some fluffy white bread and not much else. In Nueva Gerona we found a farmer’s market stocking tiny onions, little peppers and 2 pineapples, which we bought. A so-called supermarket had thousands of tins of fruit, rum but not much else. I craved salad, fruit and fresh vegetables.
Havana was well worth the flights and expensive taxis but sad to see how dilapidated the buildings are. In the countryside there must be produce but no fuel to transport it. Horses and carts are everywhere instead but aren’t enough to move food around the big country. We heard that people can’t get basic things they need, sometimes waiting 6 months to obtain a hammer. Naturally the Casa Particulars where you can stay for 30 dollars a night, can be run down but you will get a reasonable breakfast. We were found a modern, clean and quiet place with hosts who became friends. Jorge Duany in Vedado was brilliant. Restaurants in Havana have OK food mostly, some are really good but prices are high. The Paladares, small restaurants in homes are better value but likely to serve rice, beans and chicken. Beef is very rare and used as a commodity to get better medical treatment and schooling instead. Communism hasn’t brought a level playing field to many people as money is still used to get a better chance in life.
Outside all the government buildings were statues of Jose Marti, Fidel Castro and paintings of Che Guevara. Almost 60 years on, the revolution is still prominent. The museums were interesting, if a little biased. We did pay out for a quick trip in a 1954 American car but haggle on prices as tourism is making Cuba very expensive and you soon get the feeling they are out to rip you off.
Nueva Gerona was in a better state of repair than Havana and we spent a nice day wandering around. The coffee shops and food stalls are good value. As it took so long to get from Los Morros to Cayo Largo we didn’t get any further east as I would have liked to have visited Cienfuegos, Trinidad and the Jardines.
Compared to Guatemala, we noticed how few children there were. One man told us he and his wife decided not to have any as they couldn’t guarantee getting milk and basics they would need. We were also shocked at the way trained Doctors give up medicine to buy taxis as they only earn 40 CUC (virtually 40 dollars) a month and can get that in a day driving a taxi.
Everywhere things need fixing and a huge amount of investment. The toilets can be utterly dire, even in good restaurants. Fresh drinking water is delivered in trucks in parts of Havana to crumbling buildings. Despite all this, people seem happy. In the evenings groups sit outside in the streets, listening to music, which is everywhere and enjoying themselves.
This year they have 4 times the number of tourists than last year and a huge increase in Americans. Havana was very busy with cruise ship passengers arriving in their droves. The habit of giving big tips is eagerly accepted by the Cubans but they wouldn’t accept one from us. Clearly the anti-American stance taught in schools runs deep and just saying you are British or Canadian will bring the prices down. The Marina Hemingway adds a 10% tip to the bill and their staff asks for a tip on top of that for just processing the credit card payment! We Brits are just not so used to this tipping thing unfortunately.
Would we go back there? Definitely ‘No’ for Rob but I’d cruise the south coast again for the solitude and stunning anchorages. The north coast is more restricted in terms of bays you can enter as the Coastguard will chase you out. We went straight from Los Morros to Hemingway overnight.