Saturday, March 15, 2014

Cuba sounds too hard, we’re going to Mexico. Mexico sounds too hard we’re going to Cuba....

We listen to people, read Noonsite and follow blogs and Karen (the Admiral) came to the conclusion that cruising in Cuba, particularly on the North coast is restrictive, difficult and not worth the hassle even though it was one of the destinations that we had longed to visit since arriving in the Caribbean all those years ago. So, always one to follow orders (in fact the only one on the boat that seems to understand that concept, but that is another story and not one for the internet), I set up a plan to cruise the Keys and then head across the gulf to Isla Mujeres to cruise Mexico and Belize on our way to Guatemala for the hurricane season.

Well, the Admiral then continued her research and found out 300 odd foreign vessels had been impounded by the Mexican Government for lack of correct paperwork, so now Mexico is too dangerous, so following orders I work out a plan to cruise the Keys to Key West and then across to Marina Hemmingway just west of La Habana (Havana to us Gringos) and then developed a list of ports and anchorages to visit on the north west and south coasts to take us to the Caymans, the Bay Islands in Honduras and onto the Rio. This would allow time for the Mexicans to sort themselves out and we would do Belize and Mexico next year.

So after waiting to get everything sorted in Miami, here’s what happened... The Admiral forgot that we like 15-20knots and less than that this puppy does not fair so well, and to avoid the 6ft seas an order to delay departure came down from the Admirals stateroom and we set off under motor to Rodriquez Key on the way to Marathon, hoping to gain a nice beam reach from there to go to Varadero, Cuba. On waking in Rodriquez (which was quite a nice little anchorage) however, it seems that the wind gods do not always get the Admiral’s orders and the Captain (that’s me who is supposed to be responsible for all sea going decisions) check out sea states and wind decided to turn to port (left) and head straight for Varadero under motor against all recommendations from sailors on how to cross the Gulf Stream to Cuba (the green line on the chart plotter below).

New Chartplotter Screen Capture! Very Cool!!

All in all a great decision (in fact the best decision of the cruising season so far and the only one made by me, but maybe I am biased) as we arrived in Varadero, to a Harbour master speaking English and about 20 people to take our lines in a very protected harbour and a secure marina.

Of the 20 odd people, we found 2 Cubans, the rest appeared to be displaced Canadians doing a ritual we later found out was called a boat dance. Then we were told to stay on the boat while the officials were called to clear us in. This we had heard was a long winded process involving doctors, veterinarians ????, customs, immigration, port captain, Guarda, boat searches etc and something we were sure would cause some difficulties and possibilities of expectations of “tips”. After 20 minutes, the immigration officer arrived and asked for our passports and visas. After we explained we were coming direct from Miami, he looked at us a bit suspiciously (no one comes direct from Miami in a sailboat across the Gulf Stream) and departed. 20 long minutes later he returned with our passports and gave us our tourist card and explained “no stamps” in the passport for which we were a bit disappointed. Next the Guarda officer turns up with a trainee, fills out some paper work, does a quick search of the boat (to make sure we are not smuggling Americans in I suppose) and after asking us if the boat was new (which made house proud Admiral puff up her chest and explain it was almost 7 years old) says we’re done, all good free to enjoy Cuba etc.

We sat on the boat for a while longer waiting for more officials, when the harbour master and his off-sider arrives to complete our docking contract and it appears that we were indeed cleared in! We then could choose our own berth and move from the customs dock. We chose the first dock, which apparently our friends on Quetico had only just left from days earlier tied up and started to get to know a bit about the place from our new friend Robby, a German single hander who helped us tie up and drink our “We’re Here Beer”. He then took us by the hand and lead us to the Cadeca to change some money and a tour around Santa Marta ending up at a nice little restaurant with $2 prawn cocktails and “Chicken Gordon Blue” for lunch and of course the local beer.  With that the sun went down over the harbour entrance on our first day in Cuba.
Sunset from Where II
Next day we took the $5 Hop on Hop off Bus down the Varadero strip to the one destination Karen had been hanging for since our departure from Miami. That’s right, the Plaza America shopping mall. Well it had been like 5 or 6 days since her last mall....
Karen at Plaza America - Shops at Last!
Of course, she wasn’t the only one having fun, I was like a pig in sh!t with all the classic American cars around. Unfortunately, I had a techno melt down and deleted the photos from this day, but I have managed to put together a bit of a collection since.

Convertible Alley - Varadero

Beautiful Buick
While in Miami, we took delivery of some Generator parts for Rob and Cathy (Quetico) which we were keen to get to them, but as usual, their agenda got them to Cuba 2 weeks before us and they had moved on to Marina Hemingway just outside of La Habana. So we spoke with Robby and got instructions on how to get to marina by bus and by the old American peso taxis and so we walked up to the bus station (about 45 min) and booked our tickets for the next day, hoping they would be there as neither of us had a phone or internet. Robby had also kindly given us his phone card number to ring the local taxi in the morning to get to the bus station.

So we were up and trying to ring at 7:00am for the 8:00am bus. Of course, the reason we don’t plan is it never really happens like that and this was no exception. Firstly we had got the phone card instructions wrong, so after unsuccessfully trying to get a taxi we headed off by foot at 7:15. Yes that’s right with just enough time to make the bus. Now it was just starting to warm up, but if that was not enough, God put on a little shower to lift the humidity and by the time we made it to the bus station with 3 minutes to spare, we were hot and sweaty and hoping that this would be the worst of the day.

Wishful thinking!

 We made it to La Habana with no problems (we were on a bus for god sake) and even managed to get off at Habana Vieja (Old City) even though we could not figure out what the bus driver was telling us. We walked past the Museum of the Revolution and the Edifico de Bacardi and even found the Capitol Building just as Robby had described. Yes!

Then things started to go down hill...

From his description we could not tell which old American cars were what. (Did I mention, there are a lot of old American cars here)
Immaculate Chevy
We walked around the capitol looking at cars we suspected were taxis (due to the taxi sign in their front window) and we even spoke to one of the drivers but when we heard he wanted 15CUC (about $15) each and Robby said it would cost about 45 pesos (I think about $2) we kept walking, and walking until with paper in hand, I finally asked a driver if he was indeed a peso taxi going to where Robby had written on our instructions. Well, my Spanish and his English were on par, so after a couple of minutes of frustrating non-communication, he told us to just get in.
Our First Peso Taxi Ride through La Habana
Once he had dropped everyone off on the route (these guys are more like the mini buses in Grenada and can almost fit as many people in their cars as the Grenadians do in their vans – some even have a 3rd row of seats in a sedan), the driver said for $20 each he could take us straight to the marina. But being the smart travellers we are and not wanting to be ripped off, we said we just wanted to go to the Playa which was the end of the route and should have cost 20 pesos. He tried to explain something, which kept sounding like he was trying to rip us off (but probably wasn’t) so we ended up getting off God knows where and walking, I mean how far could it be?....

“A long way” is the correct answer when you don’t know where you are in a strange country where you can’t speak the language....

We walked for about an hour when I finally succumbed to Karen’s numerous requests to ask someone for directions, I mean I know how to say “Where is..?” but to try and work out the forthcoming directions from our saviour is very difficult. Luckily for us it was just go back to the street you have just passed and turn left, “it is just down there” seemed to be the implications.

After about ½ hour more when we came to a T intersection, I got up the courage to ask an armed guard the same question. Same answer and same implication, “Down here turn left”- implication –“It’s just down  there”....

About another ½ hr of walking through the Embassy residential area and the same question. This time the answer was simpler – it’s just down there, but the implications of the tone of voice seemed to be more “My God, you could not possibly be thinking of walking that far....!!” But bugger it, after walking 2 hours we weren’t giving in now!

15 minutes later we arrived at the entrance of the marina, but wait, that’s a factory or something and the guards helpfully point us in the right direction, and no, neither one of us are stopped at the gate mistaken for a jinatera/o! Now let’s just hope Rob and Cathy are there and have a cold beer... Thankfully, they were and I think, being dehydrated as I was, I drank all Rob’s beer (using the fact that they said they were in no hurry for the part and our sweating body and sore feet to guilt them out). So it was off to the Yacht Club where I developed a passion for Mojitos and photos of Castro, Che, Hemmingway and a famous fishing rod adorn the wall. Of Course I bought a burgee to add to my collection.
Fidel and Friends
Dinner was at Don Tiburon (the Shark - as any Australian Hyundai fan would know). This is a small paledor (private restaurant run in one’s house) near to the marina that is highly recommended and after eating there is certainly recommended by us! The menu was extensive and the prices in pesos (21 to the dollar)...
Eat like a King for under $5
We ate langosta (lobster tail for about $3.50) and were entertained by Don Tiburon himself, a catcher of some renown in Cuba, telling us stories and showing us photos, including some of Castro himself.
The Don
 He then drove us back to the marina proudly in his Jeep... with the Ruskie motor!

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