Cienfuegos to Puerto Frances : The south west coast.
2nd –13th April 2014
Our bus trip from Havana to Cienfuegos took just over four hours and the time passed quickly as we skirted rural farmland and sugar cane fields. We saw only two tractors working the many fields that flashed past our windows. Abandoned and rusting parts lay by the roadside, weeds slowly engulfing them. A stark reminder of the many hardships brought upon the Cuban people by their government’s ideals.
Arriving back, GWTW was a welcome sight. It’s nice to get away for a bit of land travel but always good to come home. We were a little nervous leaving her at anchor, alone for a week but she was fine, just a bit grubby from the industrial fallout further down the bay. Nothing a good wash-down wouldn’t fix. We stayed one more day in Cienfuegos doing a quick bit of sightseeing around town and a little provisioning before heading off towards the west coast islands. Cienfuegos has some beautiful buildings and they have been much better preserved than those in Havana. It was like night v’s day wondering the streets of such a pretty city compared to that of the nation’s capital.
With a lumpy seaway and a southeast wind, GWTW stretched her legs for the 40 mile sail to Cayo Guano del Este, an isolated rocky outpost staffed by two lighthouse keepers and their pets, two dogs and a goat, who followed them everywhere they went. The Cayo had a very grand lighthouse and we’d planned on going ashore to say hello and explore the surrounding reef, but the surge and strengthening winds kept us onboard. As the anchorage was becoming a little uncomfortable we spent only one night here before moving on to Cayo Sal the following day. Cayo Sal afforded much better protection from the prevailing southeast winds and the clear water and sandy bottom gave us peace of mind that our anchor was well dug in.
We spent a lay-day here, doing boat chores, exploring the little cay and snorkeling the reef in the warm clear waters. It was a wonderful change after being land-bound during our recent travels. On the south side of the cayo we came across the ruins of what once would have been a beautiful yacht. A firm reminder of the strength of mother nature. nature. Laying forlornly on her side badly holed and stripped of every last fitting both inside and out.
Our next stop was the island of Cayo Largo. We had a fast sail alternating between our jib and screecher as we crossed the reef-protected blue waters of the shallow banks. We spent only two days in Cayo Largo. It’s a busy resort island that attracts a plethora of wealthy European travellers drawn by the calm waters, dazzling white sands and from what we’d read the fabulous and inexpensive scuba diving nearby. The place certainly appeared quite out of step with the rest of Cuba. At one end of the island there was a dolphin enclosure where the tourists could pay to have their photo with these wonderful creatures. It was upsetting to see these two beautiful dolphins locked up in the small shallow pen while all their relatives roam freely in the ocean just a few hundred yards away. By late afternoon strong southerly winds had kicked in but we were snug in our little anchorage sitting close inshore behind a long sandy spit.
Our main reason for stopping here was to complete our check-out formalities. The immigration staff were very polite as was the marina manager who came to our aid as a much needed interpreter. When we had checked into Cuba weeks earlier on the east coast an official had neglected to stamp our tourist card (visa), and now when we wanted to leave the country it became an issue. The head of Cayo Largo’s immigration department was summoned and after his very animated phone call to HQ in Havana it was apparent that heads would roll back in Santiago De Cuba when they ascertained who was responsible for this apparently monumentos oversight. We were assured that it was not a problem for us and that our departure paperwork would be ready by 11am the next morning. We are not lovers of going dockside but the Cuban officials had their rules. Before they would give us our departure clearance from the country they needed to inspect the boat for any hidden stowaways. The dock was pretty dilapidated and we barely fitted alongside, a real tight squeeze with the wind pushing us onto it. Once again the officials were all very polite, they even put coveralls on their shoes before they boarded so as not to leave scuff marks from their black shoes.That was a first.
With papers in hand the next hurdle was to get GWTW safely off the dock. It ended badly. The maneuver was tricky with the wind pushing us sideways. As we let go the remaining port dock line and Liam thrust the throttles forward, the stern line found it’s way back into the water. After a loud bang, which had us puzzled for a moment, our port engine came to a sudden halt. A mooring line had fouled the port propeller, snapping a staunchion in the process…bugger! We limped back out into the anchorage and after several attempts, cats don’t steer that well on one engine, we had the anchor set. Liam was straight over the side to investigate any underwater damage and remove the offending line that was wrapped firmly around our propeller shaft. It turns out that as the line gripped the spinning prop shaft, it actually pulled the shaft and the engine aft causing the engine mounts to fail. They were still in place, albeit quite damaged. We could still use the engine, though we now had an uncomfortable level of vibration. It was a given that our starboard engine would be in for a lengthy workout until we could get the other one repaired back in the USA at the end of the cruising season.
After a crappy start to the day we chose Cayo del Rosario as our next destination, 20 miles to the west. It was a reef anchorage with good protection from the south, and we put the hammer down as we were now a couple of hours late and we were not keen on entering the reef pass in fading light. What transpired was one of our most nerve racking afternoons as we crossed the shallow banks inside the reef. Half way across our depth sounder alarm started going off in stark contradiction as to what was on our charts, the shifting sand banks were living up to their name. The wind had come up and now we also had short choppy seas making reading the water ahead of us nearly impossible. It was too late to retrace our steps so we furled the jib and pushed on. Our anxiety levels sky high with a possible grounding at any minute. Once we spotted a decent break in the reef we made a bee line for it and headed out to sea and the safety of deeper water. It was a lot rougher out there but that said, it was still a good call. Cayo del Rosario proved to be an excellent anchorage. Arriving just as a nasty squall approached we set the anchor as the rain and wind engulfed us, excellent timing!
The following day we just chilled out walked the beach and swam. Liam did some lobster hunting and scored a couple of nice ones after quite a bit of effort.They soon ended up on our plates for lunch.
Just on dusk we had an amazing group of visitors stop by. A very home-built looking 30 foot open boat with bare wood planks for seats and an old truck engine as a motor pulled alongside. In it were eight guys and a very pretty girl wearing a life jacket, they all looked to be in their all in their early twenties. The spokesman of the group, who had a good command of english, asked for directions to the next island which was only a few miles further on. It didn’t look like they had a chart or a compass let alone a GPS on board. They also asked if we could spare two AA batteries, we also gave them some packets of biscuits and a box of muesli bars. Then they asked about the weather for the next few days and did we know how far it was to Mexico!.Our answer of around 300 miles didn’t seem to faze them at all. So what was going on here? Was this happy group making a run for a new life away from Cuba? We definitely think so.
When we asked what their plans were, their response was “some adventure travel”.The seaworthiness of their boat made us think that they were unlikely to get very far. Feeling more than a little sorry for these guys we also gave them a big bag of clothes we no longer needed (you should have seen the girl’s eyes light up when she spotted a couple of brand new bras in the bag!), along with some ropes and plenty of fresh water. They returned the favour with a few small lobsters, which was a really unnecessary but a nice gesture. Then they bid us a cheery farewell and motored off into the night. We often still wonder just where they ended up and if they made it to Mexico.
Next day we were on the move again, but stopped for a few hours at another anchorage further west along Cayo del Rosario, a reef described by some cruising friends as a “lobster supermarket”. After 30 minutes and no sign of prey, we moved the dinghy to another patch of reef to try our luck again.Bingo, this time we weren’t disappointed. No sooner had Liam dropped into the water than he spotted a lovely big lobster sitting right underneath us. You beauty! This spot turned out to be the best hunting grounds we’d ever had scoring five terrific sized critters in less than an hour. Liam might be the hunter but I quickly honed my shills as a keen-eyed spotter, somehow I’d acquired the knack of seeing those fine, long whiskers gently moving in the waters below.
Only two anchorages remained for us before we left Cuba and headed west to Mexico, Cay Matiese and Puerto Frances. As we were preparing to depart Cayo Matiese the next morning a small fishing boat turned up with three aboard, keen to do some bartering. They dropped two large tuna on our transom and asked for coffee in exchange. We didn’t really want the fish but also didn’t want to appear rude and unfriendly, so we graciously accepted them and offered the coffee, some cigarettes, soap and beer. They left very happy with the deal. It’s really hard not to feel for these people. Two of the men were well into their 60’s, the boat was in a very sad state and they wore dirty clothes, life is very tough for them indeed.
After a 50 mile sail in fabulous conditions we arrived at Puerto Frances, a wide-open anchorage with a reputation for excellent diving. No sooner than the anchor was down and set we both hit the aqua blue water for our last swim in Cuban waters. We had been in Cuba a little over four weeks and had crammed a great deal into time here. While we missed out on some sights we did feel we covered the major ones and had lots of opportunities to get a very real sense of the culture and lifestyle of most Cubans.
Cuba is so removed in so many ways from other places we have visited, the socialism being the dominant variable. Cuba is a third world country in most respects. Technology, communications, finance, agriculture and transport are decades behind most western countries, with no obvious improvements on the horizon. However, the most remarkable feature of the country is undoughtably the friendliness and warmth we constantly enjoyed from the people. They always made us feel really welcome and were genuine and courteous wherever we visited. Touring this country of contrasts was not always easy and might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for us, the overall experience was certainly worth the effort.