Monday, April 21, 2014

Valle de Vinales

26th –29th March 2014

The bus ride from Cienfuegos to Havana took around 4 hours, arriving just after 1 pm. Our original plan was to visit Havana for one night, hire a car, drive out to Vinales for a few days and then return to Havana for five days.  As luck had it when we arrived at the bus station in Havana the bus to Vinales was leaving in 45 mins, so we asked about getting a ticket only to be told that the bus  fully booked, but the lady said to hang around as there were often “no shows”.  With half a dozen or so other hopefuls, we waited and waited. Then at the very last minute the ticket lady hailed Annie and handed her the last 3 tickets.


This next sector  took a little over two hours with the bus making a stop for refreshments, a usual practice as we were discovering. And the drivers also stopped a few times to do some roadside vegetable shopping. Liam was seated with a lady from Vinales, and it turned out her uncle ran a Casa Particular.  After making a quick phone call  it was sorted, our accommodation was arranged. There are over 400 Casa Particulars in Vinales and the bus was met by dozens or more very enthusiastic owners eager to secure some customers for their vacant rooms. It was a very raucous scene with people jostling and shouting while we passengers attempted to gather our bags.


Walking to our casa, Delia, the lady from the bus, informed us that her uncle’s house was now full, but a good friend across the street  at Casa Fernandez could fit us in. It worked out fine, albeit the roosters in the yard next door were very vocal at sunrise.

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Vinales is all about rock climbing, walking trails, horse riding and generally taking things easy. It’s set in a stunning valley  with limestone hills called Karsts, the valley  stretches for many miles and is a rich tobacco growing area. Agriculture is a big employer here, though tourism really dominates local activities.

Four kilometers out of town is the Mural de la Prehistorica, so we decided to head out there on the hoof for a bit of exercise, although we didn’t get far before the CUC signs flashed before a passing farmers eyes.


He already had a local woman and her small child in his buggy heading  in the opposite direction to us but he quickly ditched his passengers, made a u- turn and came back offering us a ride. We took up his offer only because the woman had already caught another lift to wherever she was headed and it was damn hot walking.


From quite a distance we spotted the “artwork”, albeit a little on the strange side, painted on the side of a cliff. It shows three humans, a giant snail, dinosaurs  and sea monsters which apparently depict the history of evolution. Spanning 120m long the mural took 18 people four years to paint.There are differing opinions on the mural, some say it’s a stroke of genius whilst others think it’s a monstrosity.



With lunchtime  fast approaching we took a taxi to a nearby paladar  recommended to us by some Canadians who are regular visitors to these parts. The food was tasty and there were lashings of it, just what the doctor ordered.

Later that arvo we signed up for a 3 hour walking tour, taking in a tobacco plantation and some pleasant trails through the nearby countryside. A farmer demonstrated his skills at rolling cigars and we all sampled a puff. The lady of the house told us she enjoyed 5 cigars each day, all home grown and rolled.

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Along the main street of town there were stalls being erected, a carnival of some sorts was scheduled for a few days time and people were busy preparing their offerings.


Vinales has a reasonably famous, in local terms anyway, music/dance club, so naturally we went along. It was a good show with 5 dancers and a lively band, and some locals also joined in the spirit and took to the floor. The Spanish are excellent dancers. We kept to our seats, salsa is definitely not our forte.

Another organised tour saw us revisit the mountain mural, go to another tobacco farm, explore some caves that fleeing plantation slaves used for refuge, call in to another set of caves and take a brief boat ride along an underground stream, and then stop for a  very good lunch. Add in a couple of well patronized bars  and we felt we had covered most of what scenic Vinales has to offer.


We saw some memorable things here. Pairs of oxen pulling ploughs were commonplace with not a tractor to be seen in any fields. And oxen were also prominent in carting rocks, sand, bricks and generally heavy loads in their rickety wagons. Bicycles easily outnumbered cars, and the cars were usually decades old. Local buses were also old and always in terrible condition. And, as with everywhere in Cuba we have visited, the people were smiling, welcoming and gracious, they are terrific hosts.

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Even though  our visit was short we enjoyed our time here. Now Havana beckoned and we were eager to get there.



Picture Perfect Trinidad

21st - 24th March 2014



Most of our first day in Cienfuegos was spent getting the lay of the land, celebrating Liam’s birthday with both lunch and dinner ashore and sorting out plans for some up-coming land travel. Having spoken to those who have gone before us, Cienfuegos seemed to be a  good place to leave the boat. It was a landlocked bay with the option of taking a marina berth or leaving GWTW on the anchor, we chose the latter. There is a charge made for anchoring outside the marina  just as there was in Santiago de Cuba, but  at 10cuc per day as opposed to triple that to tie to the concrete marina dock, it was a no-brainer as to which one to take.

We met Candido, an enterprising local guy on our walk into town. He offered his services for taxis, shopping or trips further afield. His name had also popped up in a conversation we’d had with a fellow cruiser the morning we’d arrived,  and came recommended as a reliable fellow to do business with. We decided that we’d take him up on his taxi service for a the 79km ride out to the town of Trinidad  the following day.


Our wheels for the trip were a red ‘52 Chevy, a real classic. The three of us piled in and  Fangio , not his real name, was off not sparing any of the horses.The last time we’d had a heart stopping drive like this was in a dusty old Merc heading over the Atlas mountains of  Morocco. The springs in the back seat were way past their prime, and with the rear windows up and no handles to wind them down, it wasn’t the most comfortable place to be. But our driver came prepared and soon produced a pair of multigrips and, leaning over the front seat, proceeded to attach the tool to a protruding bolt and wind the windows down. Fresh air flowed through and the comfort factor improved markedly.


The drive out took us past the sugarcane  fields, over green hills and then along the coast road where there were mile after mile of squashed crabs, road kill of the most bizarre type and the smell  emanating from the hot tar did little for our olfactory nerves. Arriving into Trinidad the next task was to find a place to stay, We’d decided that a Casa Particular was the way to go, the Cuban version of a B & B. Our driver took us to have a look at a couple. They were all very neat and clean but as Pete was with us we needed two rooms so the final  one was the winner. Casa Reina, just down from the bus station  in a quite street, had everything we needed for our 3 night stay. Two comfortable bedrooms with ensuites, and a wonderful roof top terrace  with views over the sea, the mountains and the town itself. It was a real gem just 5 mins walk to the centre of town and all for the princely sum of 24 CUC per night  including breakfast.

Trinidad is a very well preserved Spanish colonial town that was declared a Unesco world heritage site in the late eighties. The town prospered as a result of the fortunes made from the surrounding sugar plantations and mills in the early 19th century.  By the mid century Trinidad was  producing one third of Cuba’s sugar, producing enough wealth to finance the magnificent buildings that give the town it’s character. After settling in to our Casa it was time to start exploring. Our first stop was the Don Pedro cafe for a coffee. A rustic little place set in a leafy courtyard it was just what we needed after the drive from Cienfuegos. Next up we headed over to Plaza Mayor in the centre of the historic part of town which is surrounded by some beautiful buildings and cobblestone streets.



Cars are not allowed to enter but there seemed to be no problem with horse drawn vehicles or tractors.  Just off the plaza we visited the Museo Romantico and the Museo  Historico Municipal. Both  were once owned by  wealthy sugar barons. The interiors were decorated with period furniture from Europe, and china from around the globe. They were really magnificent.



The rest of our afternoon was spent strolling the labyrinth of small streets where there was a “Kodak moment” at nearly every turn. Passing a small bar in one of the back streets we stopped for a mojito or two and were entertained by a group of musicians. They were so good that we bought their CD. Cuban’s sure do know how to sing.

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Day two of our stay saw us taking in the rural countryside on horseback. Our steeds didn’t move at a cracking pace, which yours truly was very happy about, but as they plodded along  in the hot sun we had plenty of time to soak up our surroundings and passed many homes that would never make it onto the Unesco list.



Our destination was the Javira waterfall, about a an hour away our guide told us, though the trip took closer to two.

He had failed to mention that we’d be stopping at an El Ranchon, (rural restaurant) along the way. As it turned out it was a welcome stop for our arses as well as our thirst and we downed a couple of glasses of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.Then it was on to the waterfall, well water trickle really as there had been no rain for months, but the pond at the bottom was lovely and cool. On the way back the horses certainly knew they were heading home and  they picked up the pace  a notch or two. Even with another stop at the ranchon they got us back in just under an hour.

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Trinidad, we discovered, has more eating establishments and music venues than any other town of it’s size that we’ve been to. Some of the restaurants were very upmarket and had extraordinary table settings. More silver, glassware  and antique crockery than you can imagine.

Of course we didn’t eat at those ones but we did manage to find a couple of other good ones, one with a pig on a spit which was delicious and another where we had the best lobster pizza ever, way better than the ones I make on the boat.


The biggest and best music place was not as we had assumed, in a building, but was actually on the grand staircase next to the cathedral. It kicked off about 9pm and really rocked. Loud music and around a dozen dancers clad in white outfits salsad the night away. It was great to take in the energy and vibrancy of the performers as they worked up a serious sweat going through their routines.



After a couple of busy days in Trinidad we felt we’d seen enough and were ready to head off. Rather than take a taxi we settled on a comfortable Viazul bus to take us back to the boat in Cienfuegos where we’d start making plans for more land travel. This time to Havana, the real heart of Cuba and also  to the rural town of Vinales in the tobacco  growing area west of the capital.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Marea del Portilla to Cienfuegos

Cays, Crustaceans and Friendly Fisherman

14th – 20th March 2014

Continuing westward along the south coast this stretch of the coastline was particularly pretty.The terrain is steep, reaching heights of 1,972m as the lush green mountains of the Sierra Maestra  plummet down to the ocean’s edge.This stunning topography, sans trees of course, continues underwater where depth’s bottom out at 7,680m. The change in elevation from the mountain tops to ocean’s floor is the greatest, in the shortest distance, anywhere on our planet.

Rather than sailing overnight we elected to anchor in the bay of Marea del Portilla, a lovely calm spot surrounded by mangroves on the oceanside and a backdrop of dramatic hills inland.  As we entered the anchorage a couple of fisherman casting their nets gave us a friendly wave and then went back to the task at hand. A few ramshackle homes dotted the waterfront with bathtub sized  fishing boats pulled up on the rocky shore.


It was a bit of a rural scene with dogs barking, roosters crowing and the odd pig fossicking around under the trees.There wasn’t much of a town from what we could see but  as we weren’t going ashore it didn’t matter. At 9pm, while watching a movie in bed, we heard Spanish voices at the back of our boat. It was pitch dark, very windy and light rain had started to fall. 

To our surprise, holding  on to the side of GWTW were two uniformed men and a civilian woman in what can only be described as a very poor excuse for a rowboat, it looked very much homemade, and not by a shipwright. Our unexpected visitors were the Guarda Frontera (coast guard) who had seconded the services of a local home owner. After they politely introduced themselves in broken english they clambered aboard, boots and all, to check our papers. The woman spoke a little english and we asked her where the Guarda had come from as we knew they were no officials stationed in this bay. Her answer was another surprise, they had driven 16 miles from a town further along the coast, knocked on her door and told her to row them out to our boat.They stayed a little more than 10mins, stamped our papers and clambered back into the signoras’ boat, sitting regally in the middle, as she rowed the two burley men into the black night and back to the shore. Talk about service to your country! How did they know we were there? I guess big brother is watching.

IMG_0183 Our next stop 40 miles further on was the isolated town of Cabo Cruz. Literally at the end of the road on this part of the peninsular there was not a tourist bus within cooee. Arriving early afternoon we dropped anchor inside the reef which skirts the cape and it’s lovely lighthouse.  As we ‘d planned on stopping at some uninhabited cays over the coming week this would be the last township for a while. So we piled into our trusty dinghy and ventured ashore to check it out. One of the locals enthusiastically waved us in to a very rickety looking wooden dock, still it did the job and the dinghy was secure. Cabo Cruz seemed pretty quite this Saturday afternoon, maybe that’s how it always is.


Cubans are quite social  and people of all ages were down on the beach, loud music blearing out from speakers while the wafting smell of BBQ’s filled the air. The sports hounds stayed home, front doors open, watching baseball on TV while others chattered over their front fences. It seemed an easy pace of life in Cabo Cruz. Being the only foreigners walking around we were met with many holas (hellos) and smiling faces. By chance we ran into the local Guarda man, an elderly fellow who was far more interested in shaking our hands and welcoming us to his town than he was in seeing our papers, though he did stress that we should not going into anyone’s house.  We guessed that not many cruising boats stop here let alone come in for a stroll about. He even pointed us to the only restaurant in town so we could enjoy a cervaza (beer) or two. Town was pretty low key. Most homes looked well kept and were painted in pastel colours, paths were swept and lines full of washing flapped in many of the yards. In the main street there was a school, a small children’s park , a clinic and one shop which seemed to sell just about anything and everything.

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For a place that was so far off the beaten track the waterfront eatery was busy with groups of people dining, drinking and chatting amicably. Pete and Liam downed a thirst quenching Buccanero, while Annie enjoyed a softie, and we all settled on deep fried fish and chips for lunch. After quite a wait, nothing happens fast in a government run restaurant, our meals arrived, a modest sized snapper each and an ample serve of fried banana chips, potatoes are in very short supply in Cuba. While not exactly fine cuisine it hit the spot, as did the bill…total cost  for the three of us 48 Pesos, a little over AUD$2, drinks and all. Clearly, this was not a tourist scene and all dealings were in pesos, the currency of the locals. Had we known in advance we would have spent up big!

Later, as the sun was setting back aboard GWTW, a couple of refreshing sundowners were being enjoyed in the cockpit. But unbeknown to us, we were being stalked by 3 stealthy swimmers. We spotted them a few boat lengths away and soon they were settled on our transom, keen to trade some booty. Cubans we’d been told, can get into all sorts of trouble from the authorities if they are caught on foreign flagged boats, but that didn’t seem to worry these guys.


They produced a few good sized fish, some lobsters and vegetables and following much discussion we offered them 10 CUC for the 8 lobsters. A smart polo shirt, a few bars of soap and 3 beers were also thrown in to sweeten the deal. The lads seemed pleased  with this and enjoyed a few rounds of rum  with Liam and Pete. They stayed for nearly an hour and  attempts to make conversation were very difficult when no one spoke anything other than their native tongue. Pete produced his Spanish phrase book and some progress was made, albeit very limited and quit stilted.

It was now getting fairly dark and time, we thought, for them to move on, though they seemed in no hurry. When they did head for home, a lengthy swim of several hundred meters, they left the veggies, offered us the fish and gave us back 5 CUC. We were a bit confused as no one has ever given us back money once a deal has been made. Turned out they simply wanted to have a friendly chat with the people from overseas and make a little money on the side.

Over the next few days we stopped at a few uninspiring mangrove cays. They were all well protected anchorages but with little to keep us there. You can only look at mangroves for so long. Cayo Grenada and Cayo Cuervo were the pick of the bunch, the former having a lovely beach and the ruins of a failed resort on the northern side and the latter a crescent shaped sand spit at one end, a perfect spot for sundowners and a beach fire.

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We exchanged a large bottle of Santiago De Cuba 15 yr old premium rum, 4 bars of soap and some old mooring lines for 6 lobsters, 4 plate sized snappers and 1 jumbo snapper at Cayo Grenada, you should have seen the fisherman's’ eyes light up when we gave them the mooring lines. It was like kids at Christmas.  And at  Cayo Cuervo the trade was another bottle of rum, more soap and our crappy old dinghy towel that one of the fisherman really had his eye on, for a half bucket of shrimp and 4 good sized  lobsters. All these fisherman worked on state owned well weathered trawlers. They were extremely friendly and  most appreciative of anything we offered them.

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Leaving the cays we made for a reef pass at  Canal Boca Grande where we stopped for a delicious fresh-as-it-gets shrimp, lobster and crusty bread lunch and a swim in the sparkling clear waters, the best we’d seen since leaving Cabo Cruz.

An overnight passage of 100 miles would see us arriving in the city of Cienfuegos with an early morning  birthday celebration for Liam, as he notched up another year.                                    

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