Almost Paradise -
June 10, 2004
The reader who has followed our entries about Cuba over the past few weeks has probably sensed that we have mixed feelings about the country. Our views vacillate because much of what makes Cuba an attractive cruising destination is due to the fact that it's not the most convenient place to visit by boat. The reefs are unspoiled, the anchorages are pristine and uncrowded, and the local people are open and friendly largely because very few foreign pleasure craft ply these waters -- and for good reasons. A big deterrent has been the US government's "trading with the enemy" prohibition, strengthened and extended in scope by the Presidential proclamation of February 26, 2004. But there are also many made-in-Cuba deterrents: cumbersome regulations, poor communications, and scarce services. Collectively, these irritants and inconveniences are the price cruisers must pay for having the place to themselves.
Is it worth it? We think so. Sure, there are mountains of paperwork and legions of officials to deal with; supplies are often scarce (but amazingly cheap when you finally find them); and cyber cafes are few and far between. This is enough to turn some cruisers off. We know of one Canadian couple who checked into the county at Santiago de Cuba on the south coast, did a day sail to the next anchorage to the west, were refused permission to land by the Guarda Frontera, and promptly sailed to Jamaica. (We later visited the same anchorage and, after lengthy negotiations that thoroughly taxed Eileen's Spanish-speaking abilities, were allowed to go ashore.).
This brings into focus the question of why we're out here cruising. What aspects of this lifestyle do we find most important? For us, it comes down to experiencing natural beauty and meeting interesting people. It's hard to beat Cuba on these two counts.
Much of the Cuban coastline is virtually deserted. On both the north and south coasts, we've shared miles upon miles of beach with only shore birds, brightly coloured crabs, and the odd iguana. Probably the most unique place we visited this past spring was Cayo Megano de Nicolao, described in one of our cruising guides as "a lovely reef anchorage right out in the middle of nowhere". We suspect the writer of the guide had only visited the cay at low tide. We stayed overnight there and watched the small patch of sand disappear as the tide rose. Now THAT'S being out in the middle of nowhere! There was lots happening under the surface, however. Snorkelling, we followed dense schools of brightly coloured fish through a labyrinth of vibrant coral. David speared a couple of lobsters for dinner and we didn't even mind the rolling swell that snuck around the end of the reef (well, not for ONE night, anyway).
Most of the Cubans we've met are fishermen. Typically in the more remote areas, a fishing crew will spend ten days at sea and then have five days off in port. When we've shared an anchorage with a Cuban fishing boat, the crew have usually been eager to visit and socialize. Invariably, they want to know what life is like where we're from. One time, we anchored a mile from a fishing station, thinking we were respecting the fishermen's privacy. Two older fishermen rowed their crude wooden boat against the current to come alongside and invite us over for a cup of coffee. They were apologetic that they didn't have any fish to give us because they had just shipped off the day's catch. We towed them back to the station with our inflatable and enjoyed an evening of bright conversation (aided by frequent consultations with our Spanish-English dictionary). The next morning they rowed back to give us a big snapper they had caught after we had left the night before!
From our selfish perspective, we're happy Cuba is largely undiscovered by other cruisers. Perhaps it's not such a bad thing that it's a tough place to visit because, unfortunately, it often seems that the very act of finding and enjoying Paradise results in its irretrievable loss.