Tate, Dani and the Great Flush

After our decision to head to central America instead of the lesser antilles, Dani and I had a sort of nagging excitement to get there. I know that is a very uncruiser like emotion to have but it was there none the less. It was exacerbated by the fact that we had no cruising guides, no special notes, no real advice on where to go or how to get there. The only thing we knew was that we wanted to drop the hammer and get there.

A second gulf stream crossing loomed like a cloud in my mind. You know, like a big grey thunder boomer over on the edge of the horizon that you really don’t pay much attention to while you’re basking in your sunbeam.

The closest port I knew of in Mexico was Isla Mujeres and so we went with it. We’ll just go there. Right. Without much access to Internet in Cuba we didn’t even do much research on the place. We just lumped all our hopes on making landfall there like laundry in a basket and thought no more of it.

A weather window emerged… Some gentle easterly winds followed by south winds. South winds in the north flowing gulf stream should make for calm(er) seas than if the wind was northerly and so I was okay with it. I thought, oh well, we’ll just burn some diesel on this one but its time to get out of Cuba. We paid the marina bill and decided we’d ship out on Monday morning. Our plan was something like this:
Total track with GS
Well, actually our plan was to duck south after we cleared the tip of Cuba and make some southing before heading further west but things didn’t quite work out that way in the end. But about clearing out of Cuba…

I’m sitting there at the desk of the harbor master who presents the bill and I pay it dutifully using the VERY last of our CUC pesos (the last of our “Cuban” money) we’d set aside for this. We get a stamp and a receipt and all that good stuff then the harbor master gets this terrible look on his face. Like he’d been sucking on a lemon. He stares real hard at the bill and apologizes, “Oh no, I’ve charged the wrong number of days…” He had shorted the marina one night, the last night we’d be staying. I looked at him and said, “Well do I need to get some more pesos?” He got that screwed up lemon face pucker again and there was a crushing silence. I wondered if he’d committed some sort of sin in the communist bureaucratic system that was simply unsolvable. The clock on the wall clunked its second hand along sounding like a rock tumbler. Finally the dock master gets a sly smile and says, “Can you leave early?” I ask how early. He says, “Tomorrow before the other dock master arrives, perhaps 6:30am.” I nod. He goes on, “I will be in hot water if he notices. Make sure if he notices you tell him you had some sort of…” And I cut him off mentioning that my rudder had some real problems that needed looking into before we left. He flashed me a sly smile, I slid him a tip.

We also made out like bandits on one other count exiting the marina and I’m not sure how we did it and no one reading this should assume it will be the same for them, but I’ll relate our renegade exploits. This blog is sort of a warts and all affair anyway right? When clearing into Cuba they tell you that as American’s, you must buy Cuban health insurance EVEN IF YOU HAVE YOUR OWN. We agreed. All the other boats in the marina seemed to have some guy come around after a couple of days and fill out the insurance paper work and they are charged for it at a rate of 2 or 3 CUC/day/person. This roaming boat insurance seller simply never materialized at our boat and we never said anything about it and no one else did either. This saved us a lot of money. Dumb luck I guess.

Being mindful of the dockmaster’s good reputation, we got up at 5:30am and made ready to head out in the dwindling morning darkness. We had said goodbye to all of our Cuban buddies. The interesting mix of people, black white, and brown but all of the same behavior and language. So different than back home where racial differences preceded behavioral ones. We would miss the way they sat in a sort of malaise until you said “Hola!” and then they’d show a great big smile almost without fail. We said goodbye, slipped our lines, and went to clear out with Immigration and Customs who gave our boat a quick once over and then repeatedly asked us if it were correct that we were really going to head straight to Mexico. “Of course” we confirmed. So finally the man gave us a Zarpe (an official document saying you’re cleared out and must leave) saying in broken English, “Give to Mexico.” We motored out of the marina, hoisted our sails and set a course to the west-southwest.

Those predicted east winds filled in and we hoisted our spinnaker. We had fine sailing and beautiful weather during those first few hours. It was glorious. Until it wasn’t…
Mondays Wind map with route

That first day included our first major mishap during a sail. We came into the lee of one of the mountains of Cuba that blot the western coast and the wind dropped so much that the vane couldn’t hold a good course so we started hand steering. So enchanting was the landscape (or so we told ourselves this was the reason) that we let ourselves drift just far enough off course that the spinnaker flogged and went forward around the forstay and wrapped itself up into a hideous mess confounded by tangling with the jib sheet which was also wrapped around that stay. As if that weren’t bad enough… We drifted out of the lee of that mountain and the wind kicked up and we sighted lighter colored water straight ahead. What a mess!

Water color is more important than you might think. It isn’t just about matching your evening attire to it so the photos come out right, and it isn’t just about picking your favorite colors or ooohing and ahhhing over the beauty of it all. No. When the sun is high and the sky clear, the water color reveals depth. The more blue, the deeper. Then green. Then a sort of sandy color finally, which means something shallow. This was literally the first time Dani and I had seen such water color depth guessing conditions and seeing what seemed like a color SOOO much lighter than the bluer-than-blue we were in just a quarter mile ahead in the middle of a kerfluffle was daunting. We got the motor started and Dani steered while I tried to unwrap the tornado of a spinnaker which is not easy in a bit of breeze. I kept trying to see which way to unwrap it but I couldn’t and it kept getting worse. Flustered, steaming and quite unhappy I retired to the cockpit and considered getting a martini to you know, calm things down, but instead I took the helm and Dani trompted up to the front of the boat and somehow (God bless her little hands) unwrapped the spinnaker as I motored us around the “shallow” patch.

Dani asked, “Couldn’t you just see which way to untwist it?” Of course I couldn’t, maybe my eyes are getting worse I had responded. “Yeah, we def need to get you some prescription lenses,” she went on. She kept talking about it as she is apt to do when plotting a solution for something while I took off my shades and looked at them as though they’d betrayed me. Then I noticed it. Sunscreen smears. I washed them and put them back on and suddenly I was all Eagle-Eye again. Let this be a lesson to all. On a boat, so I’ve read, a disaster is almost always a series of events that converge in a terrible event. If even one of those events is stopped or alleviated you can disconnect the disaster chain. Wipe those shades!

As it turned out, the shallow water wasn’t so shallow either. We were just being over cautious and had never navigated by sighting depths like that. We later crossed over more and more lightly colored parts of the water very slowly testing the depths. We have a lot to learn about colors of water. Nothing we went over that looked shallow registered very deep on the depth sounder. Better safe than sorry though, we do know that Cuba has many reefs and some aren’t charted, its a real “keep your eyes open” sort of joint.

So with the spinnaker up again, we made good way. And discussed the impending sunset while making a mutual decision that such a spinnaker tangle at night would be unacceptable and that we’d take it down and put the jib up at night. Which we did. Which slowed us down terribly. So terribly. And the wind shifted so we got pushed north and had to gybe to head back on course. But we didn’t tangle up!

Tuesday morning we put the spinnaker back up and made good our south west course. Nothing so wild or hairy occurred. Only a great many sail changes as the winds were unsettled. They spun around the clock and changed from light to heavy and back again as though taunting us. In this one day, we changed sails more times than we had in our previous two passages combined.

Motoring through flat seas

And finally that evening at some point when I came on watch, I looked out at the glass flat sea and said, “Time to burn some diesel.” Dani protested because we figured we had only between 20-25 gallons on board from looking at the sight glass, but I wasn’t okay just drifting around in the lee of Pinar Del Rio for a second night. This motoring enabled us to make good the 84 miles of progress on the second day through a totally flat and calm sea that looked like a black blanket of velvet laid out all around in the moonless sky.

Tuesdays wind map with route

When we came out of the wind hole by passing beyond the western tip of Cuba, Sundowner made a great groaning sound and leaned over as the wind hit her. Strong south winds. Our plan had been to beat south at this point but with south seas running 4 feet and wind in our face it was just not happening. We decided to take a hike west as fast as possible and hope to get past the gulf stream. Sailing into a port to wait for better weather would mean “clearing in again” and we weren’t doing it. So we again changed sails and took off.

The next twenty four hours were some of the most frustrating sailing and motoring I’ve seen in my short sailing career. Wind from the south ranging from 20kts to light and variable. Constant direction shifts from southeast all the way to south west. Waves mainly from the south west (where we were supposed to be going!). The waves varied from a swell all the way to 1.5m choppy little short ones that would slap Sundowner in the face and all but halt her forward progress. And as if the slap across the bow wasn’t insult enough this would of course send spray into the air and slosh water down the decks wetting everything with salty spray. And then there was the killer. The flush.

When we crossed the Florida Straits, it wasn’t so bad. The gulf stream didn’t seem all that big of a deal. We made very little easting because of it. But out here between Cuba and the Yucatan was a different story. It was like fighting a raging river. I started getting OCD on the chart. Calculating things. I figured at some point in the night, the current was pushing us north at about 3kts. And based on this estimated we’d be 30 miles off course if we could get across it! We fired up the motor and motored, but this didn’t help. Wind, waves, and current all against us, all we could do was head 230 degrees by the compass which barely put us going due west on the GPS. Hours ticked by. Dani came on watch and looked at the chart, “We’re going to be flushed into the gulf!” And there it was… I felt like a wad being flushed down a commode at great velocity and little control of my final destination.

Then the fear of the motor running all those hours set in. Would we have fuel to motor into port at the end of it, would we even have enough to make it to the coast?! Dani checked the sight gauges again. She popped her head up out of the engine room, “Something is wrong!” What is it I had asked. She told me, “One of the tanks sight gauges hasn’t moved at all.” Oh shit. I figured out why instantly, one of the gate valves to the tank was still closed, which in turn destroyed our estimate of our diesel reserves. Luckily, it was in our favor. We had started with an almost full forty gallons in the port tank but had assumed it was only 15. This gave us the required gas to get across the nasty little jump. We had cleared the toilet bowl and sailed right out of the strongest part of the gulf stream by morning. And as it happens so often with sailing, the beautiful sunrise brought calmer seas, calmer emotions, and a sense of well being as our little BetaMarine chugged along.

Wednesday's wind map with route

The last part of the night when the seas and current had backed off a little we could “point” closer to our true course and made up some of the 30 some odd miles we’d lost. And the next morning we just motored straight south luxuriating in the sound of diesel turning into horsepower. We made it into Isle Mujeres and dropped anchor in ten feet of water, tired, but happy.

Thursdays wind map with route

The crossing wasn’t just treacherous for us. Along the way, somewhere in the second day, we picked up a passenger who was obviously not in the right place a the right time.

Dove's first attempt in GS

Dove's second attempt in gulf stream

He stuck with us a whole day until a bigger ship passed by and made his escape sensing that we were just too slow. Or maybe he thought Dani smelled funny. Who can account for bird brain tastes?

Cruise ship after GS

Isle Mujeres turned out to be beautiful. The water, the temperature, the swimming, everything we wanted.

Isla Mujeres approach beautiful water

On the second day we dinked over to El Milagro to find Julio who handled our clearance procedure for 50 dollars plus the official fees. This was straight forward and we felt “worth it”. All the officials came to us, stamped everything, and no one felt it was worthwhile to come inspect our boat. So we cleared in just like that…
Mexican flag

We still have to go to Cancun to get a Temporary Import License, but beyond that, we’re all settled in. Sundowner rides happily in the free and well protected waters. Despite warnings of “Bad holding” she has been stuck to the bottom since we arrived.

Sundowner Finally anchored

You can see our anchor at the end of this video. Oh who am I kidding, this video is way more about Dani swimming around like a mermaid than anchors.

We’re happy here in warm Mexico. We have a lot to report as soon as we can catch up on the blog. We love ya’ll. Until next time… Enjoy a Sundowner for us!

Vinales – The Jewel of Cuba

After our experiences in Havana and the small towns that sit beside it, Dani and I were wanting to wonder farther afield and find a “rustic” Cuban experience. I had many thoughts on this and our cruising guides offered a bewildering number of suggestions but a discussion with some other Americans that went rock climbing near Vinales in the Pinar Del Rio region sealed the deal. These guys told me the prices and how much fun they’d had there over the course of a couple of beers. I had ants in my pants type excitement as I skipped home to the boat, popped my head in and announced to Dani, “We’re going horse back riding in Vinales!”

Dani is a detail oriented type of gal and so such an announcement with no background doesn’t always go over well with her but I think she saw the glow of genuine excitement in my face and so she smiled real big at me and said “Great!” And then we started talking about it and sorting through the details.

There were two powerful reasons that I was thrilled that Dani was on board with this plan. One is that I’d always wanted to see Pinar Del Rio. (I’ll get into why in a bit). The other is that Vinales turned out to be the jewel that we sought in Cuba. A surreal type of experience that you know will linger in the halls of your mind where you keep the really precious memories. But so often I get ahead of myself…

The Americans had given us the name/number of a taxi that brought them the 200km to Vinales from Havana. (2.5hr) They had paid 15CUC per person for a one way trip. We had one of the super helpful bartenders at the yacht club call and arrange transport. We were to meet at the front of the marina at a time. We packed our bags and got there and stood beside the rode where many taxis stopped and tried to get us to take them. Finally one very old Buick (guessing a 1953) stopped and said they were the guy (but there were two of them) so we negotiated a price (40CUC para dos – or 40 bucks for the both of us) and we left. The trip there was beautiful, if not sketchy due to substandard roads.

Horses and buggies are running along major highways. People on bikes are pedalling. People stand on the highway near overpasses. Like 30-50 people per intersection all waiting for rides. We never figured out where they were going on how they were going to get there. Our car just kept going past it all except for a few stops to refill the radiator.

Finally we arrived at the Casa de Pedro y Elia. A “Casa de Particular” which is a private home that has a room to rent for tourists; this distinction is denoted by a blue anchor like symbol. If the symbol is red it means only Cubans can stay in that room for rent.

Upon arrival our drivers demanded 80CUC. This was our first real international broken language attempt at a rip off. Dani and I said almost in unison “40CUC PARA DOS”. I think the guys understood we weren’t having it and I gave them 40. They grumbled and got back into their car and then one actually said to us, “Call for ride back.” Stress was a little high even though this seems a piddling incident. It was the first time for us.

Luck was on our side though because Elia, the house’s matron, came right out, hugged us, kissed us, negotiated a price (20CUC/night – The negotiation started at 25CUC), showed us the room and then immediately brought out some glasses of some sort of juice that was fantastic. Oh by the way, the view instantly removed stress and zen was attained almost instantly.

The casa had another little building on the side with more rooms. And some really swank lawn art. Check out that Cohiba Cigar bench.

By Cuban standards, the room was also excellent. Two beds with a full shower and the HOLY GRAIL, a toilet seat. It also had a working AC unit. We were told later by some other people staying there that the Casa de Particulars all over the country are homogeneous in amenities but that the state of repair is different and this was the best they’d seen.

After settling in and getting our bearings, Pedro, the man of the house, showed us a little excursion map on the wall. He spoke slowly and I was actually able to converse with him in my broken Spanish and my phrase book. We pointed to the horses and he told us he’d arrange it for us. We agreed on a price and a time. (20CUC/person for 4 hours of riding).

Dani and I grabbed a beer. Sat on the rooftop for a while and conversed with the parrot while soaking up the scene from the casa. We were really in Cuba proper now.

We spent the rest of that day touring the small town. It is full of Casa de Particulars and is obviously a tourist destination despite it not being crowded. Most of the people we saw wandering around who were clearly tourists were French with a sprinkle of Canadians and some Aussies were in the room next door.

We shopped. We ate, we just sort of bummed around. We walked down the road to where there were farm houses.

And we returned that night to have dinner which was served at the Casa for (12CUC for the entire meal). This meal was enormous. It was like Thanksgiving. We attempted to tell them it was too much but it just didn’t matter. More food just kept coming out. I wonder if it is just a flat rate designed for four people or something. I can’t tell. But it was excellent and the people serving it were very kind. Almost like having dinner at a relatives house.

The next day was Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras!). And this one was one we’ll probably always remember because it was the day we set out into the farms and cliffs of the Pinar Del Rio region.

Pinar Del Rio is famous for many reason but the two that I had known it for were
1) The tobacco crops grown in these fields are said to produce the finest tobaccos in the world for cigar wrapper leaves. (the wrappers is arguably the most important leaf)
2) The incredible limestone cliffs that are in the state of slowly (over eons) collapsing back into the land.

It is truly a beautiful landscape as you wonder out into it. It is filled with people, homes, tobacco crops, sugar cane, and corn.

Dani and I met up with our horse guide (also named Pedro) who brought us horses to ride. Dani’s horse was both terrible and fortuitous. You see this horse probably had one leg in a glue factory already, but then, Dani having not ridden much or in years was happy with a slow old horse that walked so slow she could shoot photos from. We joked that the horse (Senor May-En-Geux phonicly) had been alive when the Spanish arrived in Cuba and has just been passed down through the ages.

My horse was a bit better.

Into the mountains on horseback!

The sheer faces of the limestone cliffs were stunning. I could see how rock climbing would be great here.

We ran across many people along the way. Some Cubans were working. Some were tourists on hikes or other horses. The hills were alive and buzzing with activity without feeling crowded.

Our guide brought us to a casa ontop of a little hill where a farmer named Devaldo lived. It was obviously a tourist trap sort of scheme but I couldn’t help buying Dani, Pedro, and I a rum and coconut. Notice the rat chained to the tree.

Devaldo spoke English well. He showed me how to roll a cigar and I bought some of his cigars which were unpressed. It was an interesting experience for me to see the farmer himself making the cigars.

The farming here is so so different than what my knowledge of American farming entails. There aren’t tractors or combines working the land. Instead there were honest to God oxen drawn plows.

Some places were just too rocky to cultivate.

Deeper into the valley we visited a Cuban national park.

As you can tell, safety isn’t exactly at first world standards. This bridge was an I-beam and the hand rails were bailing wire.

Across the bridge is a cave entrance which was rather welcoming due to cool air that it exuded. We had to pay 2CUC each to enter. The guides walked along with some LED flashlights leading us through a natural limestone cave.

At the end of the path is a pool of water which extends something like 10meters and that people were swimming in. It was pitch black except for flash lights. Dani and I weren’t brave enough to take a dip. It may have been because we forgot our bathing suits.

Back on the trail after the cave we walked the horses all through the farm land of the region. I’ll let the scenery speak for itself.

I had to stop here and snap a photo of Dani with this palm tree for scale.

The fabled tobacco of the region. The top leaves are my favorite as they gather the most sunlight and create spicy wrappers. I know this might not mean a lot to many people, but this photo is of the pinnacle of something. The very source of the finest in the world. It is akin to seeing the wineries of Bordeux.

After our ride we came back to town and chatted about what we’d seen and worked on sealing it off into our memories. Dani and I both agreed it was something truly special and worth every single penny.

We made our way to town bought a bottle of rum and went back to the Casa for dinner then made drinks and sat ontop of the roof at the house while I had a cigar and we dreamed our dreams.

Cuba’s beauty, its friendly peoples, and its completely different ambiance has drawn from us whatever stress we’d carried with us. Whatever fear of the unknown or the stress from major life changes evaporated.

Our Spanish is growing. Our love of the wild places is multiplied. Our hearts turned to our plans which included the island of the Antilles and we wondered about it. You know, that is the great thing about being out here, “living the dream” is that we have freedom and I intend to FULLY leverage it.

Without having said it aloud, I think Dani and I both decided independently and then through hints to one another and finally in conversation that the islands could wait. Our attention is turned to Central America. This is the weight that Vinales Cuba put upon us.

Until next time…

PS. We LOVE all of your comments and emails but please know that Internet in Cuba is difficult at best. We can’t always respond but our appreciation is still here.

PSS. We´re clearing out tomorrow and headed west!

Old Havana ~ The City of Fumes

Before the late 1950’s Cuba and America were actually on pretty good terms and business was booming. So much so that most of the cars driven in Cuba at that time were American and would be considered classics today. When relations took a turn for a worse however and trade for Cuba was completely cut off (in writing with the U.S. but in reality with most countries except the similarly communist Soviet Union) car importation came to a screeching halt. Because of this the majority of cars you see on the roads are, from a distance, beautiful American classics. Up close however is another story.

While we love hanging out at the marina near the ocean, strolling to Jaimanitas for $1 lunches and chilling with Fuster’s Roosters but we were itching to get ourselves to Havana. Since the boat can’t stay in Havana Harbor without paying the same rate as large commercial vessels we had to park the boat roughly 15 miles away in Marina Hemingway, too far to walk both directions. You can almost smell Havana in the air, it was so close yet so far away.

Being “budget cruisers” we had to carefully execute our taxi plan for Havana. With round trips ranging from $4 to $40 you can see our need to be picky. Neither Tate nor I need the nicest of accommodations and in fact I would have gladly rode in the back of a truck hauling grain if it would’ve saved some money. We’ve heard that as soon as you leave the Marina gates you can get a taxi to a place halfway to Havana called “Playa” for $1 ($.50/each) and from there you can pay another dollar to get all the way into Havana. There are also bus options for pretty cheap but they are confusing and can take way over an hour. Or if you prefer you can take a very nice newer car for $20 one-way.

With our hopes high and our pockets full of small bills we proceeded to walk the half mile to the marina walls and in the process were stopped by a 1950’s white mob looking taxi trying to make a deal. It started at $20 then was dropped to $12 which was still too pricey for us. He spoke absolutely no English and we spoke such bad Spanish that he thought we wanted to go to the beach (Playa). We politely said No Entiendo enough times and he drove away, but not very far. Just before the marina exit he waited for us and said he would take us to “El Capitolio” for $8 one-way. Thinking that this was a great deal even in America and not confident in our Spanish to ever make it to this mythical “Playa” we took this deal.

The interior was bright red and light blue with splitting vinyl seats, and rusted floorboards. The headliner was missing and diesel fumes filled the interior, but we were happy. We rode with our heads out the window and got to Havana for $8 in around 20 minutes.

Diesel fumes? But those old American cars were gas weren’t they? Yes, they WERE. Overtime time after the original gas engines died the Russians supplied the Cubans with a variety of diesel motors, tractors and other farm equipment. Because of this most of these American cars now all have diesel engines in various states of disarray and THE FUMES ARE INTENSE. Not just inside the cars but out on the street, inside houses…pretty much everywhere. I’m no environmentalist or expert but the emissions floating around in the air of Cuban cities is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. There’s nothing like it in America. But that’s ok, we aren’t in America we’re in Cuba and riding in the back of a sweet white and red mob car that was surely a beaut back in its day.

The road to Havana had some pretty interesting sights with old churches and ocean waves crashing right up onto the street.

Statue’s pop up all over the place, can someone identify who this is?

Real Life Barbie cars.

The Hotel Nacional built on top of where a fort used to be. We’ve been told there are tunnels under this hotel in that big rock foundation.

And then a portion of a fort still intact used long ago (1500’s to 1800’s as a lookout and to protect the entrance to Havana from large sailing ships such as pirates or enemies.

Finally after a quick stop to fill up a quickly deflating tire we were dropped off near El Capitolio and set off to explore this wild new place, albeit breathing shallowly from time to time. Havana has an interesting mix of architecture ranging from buildings that looking strangely similar to our own…

To just absolutely grande old Spanish designs full of details and scale that take your breath away.

This is the biggest door I’ve ever seen. There a door inside the door taking up the bottom right quadrant that’s actually in use.

Just like in New Orleans there are horse carriage rides offered for around $40/hr to tour the city.

And just like in New York there is a (actually many) statues of Jose Marti, a great leader during Cuba’s successful fight for independence from Spain beginning in 1895. A cause so passionate he died leading a charge on horseback for it. Cubans even today greatly celebrate Marti’s life and writing as evidenced by many books, paintings and memorials prolific around the country.

After excusing ourselves, “Permiso”, from this bustling center full of venders, taxis, panhandlers and tourists we made our way to Obisbo Street or the main drag.

This area, while also full of tourists was a site to see and is actually quite famous for, of many things, being a haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately we are unseasoned travelers and we stopped relatively early on our walk down the street to a restaurant that I swear looking like a joint in New Orleans. The food here was subpar and pricey for this area but still inexpensive for U.S. standards. The waiters seemed unhappy and slow even though we tried our best to speak Spanish, something we have tried to do mostly while we are here. Tate had a Cuban sandwich (his first since coming to Cuba), I had shrimp and rice and we each had a cocktail and a beer. The total bill was $21.

A bit later after we left we saw a fun looking joint with a band, cheaper drinks and a happy crowd. Lesson learned…walk an area a bit first then make your decision. Tate had suggested this but now it’s a rule.

Tate has mentioned it before but visiting Havana was a lifelong dream of his. So many American movies show what fun Havana was in the early to mid 1900’s and he has read many naval and history books detailing its rich history back to when Spain took control over the island in the early 1500’s. I’m sure this city resides in the vivid imagination of many men, from the youngest to the oldest. One of the top three things he wanted to see was La Floridita. When Hemingway lived in Havana in the 1940’s he frequented a little bar called La Floridita.

Entering the place was a blast from the past and unfortunately this joint is absolutely, positively a tourist stop. Cameras are going off nonstop and there really isn’t any relaxing to be had, at least when we were there. Also with the drinks being $6 each (DOUBLE the price of the most expensive places we’ve been) quite a lot has changed since Hemingway drank into the afternoon writing his masterpieces.

Just look at these star shaped lights with individual glass panes and welded metal frames, straight up out of the 40’s or 50’s.

There was another room that looked to be a dinner hall or perhaps a place to be rented for special occassions.

We chilled at the bar while we had our drink and relished in our accomplishment to making it this far. Regardless of the current environment, we were sitting at the same bar Hemingway frequented nearly 75 years ago. It was worth every cent to have this experience. As soon as the Canadians (there are TONS of them in Cuba) sitting next to us at the bar started a rant about Communism we knew it was time to bid a Adieu and farewell to this lovely piece of history. Checkout this life sized statue of Mr. Hemingway at the end of the bar, it’s as if he was actually there.

Another of Tate’s top three reasons to visit Havana of course had to do with cigars. The best in the world are rolled here and he was on a mission to smoke a certain four that read about over the years that appealed to him.

Right next door to La Floridita was the Havana Club. We had no idea what was inside but to his great delight it was a full on Cuban Cigar store. Stores like these are regulated by the government and all the cigars sold have to meet set standards.

It was here that Tate was able to find the “Ghost Cigar”, the Partagas Lusitanias. Apparently it is very hard to find these cigars even in Cuba because they are so good. He had to go snooping around the humidor to find a hidden box pushed back on the top shelf. The cashier didn’t want to acknowledge they had this treasured cigar until he actually showed her the box. Of ALL the cigars (and let me tell you it’s a lot) he has said this cigar was by far the best he’s ever had in his life. He regrets not buying the whole box, but at $10 a cigar he restrained (Dirt CHEAP comparatively to the U.S.). I encourage him to smoke whatever he likes while he is here as fine tobacco is a great pleasure to him and he’ll probably only be in Cuba once.

Another of the four was the Bolivar #1. This one is easier to find around the country side but does not disappoint.

We had a spot of rum in a room with a giant open air window overlooking the busy streets below while he smoked these cigars. After we leisurely strolled further down Obispo until we got to the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Mr. Hemingway lived for a while. We walked up 6 flights of stairs to make it to the roof top where they serve $3 drinks and the most beautiful view of the city and ocean. We skipped the drinks and instead partook of the view.

A GIANT statue of Jesus overlooks the Havana.

Across the water way we could see a steep stone staircase leading up to an entrance to the fort. Imagine arriving by a large ship and rowing to shore in dinghy to have to climb these stairs. It’s scenes like this that make the forts that protected Havana some of the strongest in the world.

Draw from the rooftop by the sight of cannons (Tate’s 3rd reasons to visit Havana) we walked just a bit further through a square where vendors were selling the same gov’t regulated used books and made it to the fort section that was on this side of the water you see in the 1st photo above. This waterway was incredibly protected on both sides with cannons facing out.

Since this blog reads like a history lesson here a bit more food for thought. Why all the cannon power you ask? From the 1500s through the 1800s after the Spanish conquered the island and took control Havana was used as point midway between South/Central America and Spain where large Spanish ships carrying gold and other precious goods from various conquests of the Americas could stop to make repairs, do business or wait for good weather to cross the Atlantic to Spain. During these years the city became very prosperous and business was booming with the exportation of 1/3 of the world’s sugar and the importation of slaves. A lot of money, in gold, was changing hands in Havana and the forts around the city and near the water protected those interests. Imagine the lure for pirates…the real pirates of days past.

The drawbridge into the fort with the drained mote below.

This section of Havana is obviously old with limestone pavers and weathered walls.

Unfortunately like most of the cities a lot of it is falling apart. Stressed from years of political unrest, revolution and now Communism there just aren’t enough funds to keep up these grand old buildings. Literally there are cracks in in some multi story buildings that appear they could collapse at any time. Working toilets are rare and the water plumbing leaves a lot to be desired. But I’m not complaining. I’m sure there isn’t another place on earth like this and I am SO happy to have been a part of it and see it in its current state.

Over the past 10 or 15 years more and more “newer” cars have been imported from Russia, Korea and other countries. I’m not sure what this one was and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t built for 6’2″ Tate but it was taking us home for $10. $18 round trip to Havana, fair enough.

We had considered spending a few nights in Havana at a $25/night casa de particular (a room to rent basically in someone’s house) but after spending a day there we decided against it. While I’m sure we missed a ton of what Havana has to offer we saw what we had set out to do and we only have a limited amount of money and time. One has to draw the line somewhere and it was there.

Next post Tate will take you on a trip through Vinales where we DID stay a couple of nights and also “reveal” where we are going from here. Stay classy.

Jaimanitas Cuba

NOTE– Though this post is from Tate´s account, this is Dani´s writing.

Overload. This is a word I’d like to use to describe my experiences thus far after departing the US (Los Etados Unidos). We have been doing and seeing so much nearly every day that I have a very hard time figuring out how I ever had the time or by god the energy to work a 40 hour a week job while also refitting a boat. It seems so far away and unthinkable at this point. The language barrier, local foods, different customs, weather and even the money thing (which I should be good at) has been a sensory overload to both Tate and myself. Wild. This place is wild. Along with processing the newness of being in a foreign country (and I mean foreign…You’d never know Key West was only 90 miles away if it weren’t for the fishing boats that show up) I have been processing how to transition from a refit blog to a travel blog.

Leaving the refit behind was the easy part. You couldn’t PAY me to write a single more thing about boat problems. If you are itching for that kind of thing we have over 300 posts on those topics alone, LOL. Now I have a whole new world to share but how to filter out all of the details? Do I pass the overload onto you or only show bits and pieces? I learned in the early days that perhaps the world didn’t need to see Tate turn every screw so I cut back on the photos of such things. But there aren’t screws out here, there are beautiful, interesting and vastly different sights captured on the end of my camera. For now since I’m not a seasoned travel writer I’ll post everything I want, please let me know if it’s too much or if you have suggestions for how to make these better. The last thing we want is our blog to read like 90’s home videos.

Tate touched lightly on the language barrier but I want to emphasis this. If you don’t speak relatively good Spanish you will have a hard time getting anything done outside of the marina walls. The officials and locals Cubans who frequent the marina tend to speak O.K. English…enough for the normal “You need this?” or “What can I get or do for you?” but once you venture outside the walls, say to the left “just over the bridge” into the town of Jaimanitas you will find yourself alone in the Cuban Spanish dialect world.

I was actually very surprised at this seeing just how close Cuba is to the United States and also how many Europeans who speak English travel here frequently. A local explained to me in Spanish/English (He knew a little Ingles and I knew a little Espanol) that there were no Spanish-English Translations guides anywhere in Cuba since for a long time the government didn’t want people speaking English. We looked in Havana for one but to no avail. All the books we saw were the same “regulated” looking books as ever other store. Cubans also aren’t allowed to travel beyond their city limits without the “permit” to do so being a job or a relative etc though I have been told that most Cubans don’t work since there aren’t a lot of jobs. (The government supports the people with food and healthcare etc so there really is no NEED to work) The lack of access to language resources coupled with the restriction on travel may be a reason why so many of the local residents do not speak any English at all, or very little.

I have been able to bridge the gap somewhat using our little Lonely Planet “Latin American Spanish” translation guide as well as pulling from my two years of Spanish in college…10 years ago. We can make our way around without too much trouble and let me tell you I have learned more Espanol in the week and a half I’ve been here than ever before. I am LOVING learning another, useful, language.

So back to Jaimanitas. Naturally pushed away from the marina walls by $14 “Hawaiian Pizza” (hate to say it but it was the worst pizza I’ve ever had) and the even worse all you can eat buffet for $16 a person that was fully stocked with shredded cabbage, radish, lots of rice, corn and every salted meat you can imagine we ventured outside the walls to the left, just over that bridge into a quaint little town we’ve grown to love called Jaimanitas (“Yama-nitas”)
River by Jaimanitas
Welcome to Jaimanitas Sign

We were tipped by our exploring American friends that there are little places to eat down alleyways that charge roughly $1 for a full plate including a meat or eggs, rice, beans, cabbage, a potato like thing and tomatoes. If you are really feeling frisky you can order a $1 Cervesa (beer) and total your meal for two with a $1 tip for $5. And really the $1 tip is extravagant but it’s hard to leave less.
Cheap food for 5 dollars two people

We were told these little restaurants were the first step for Cubans to own private businesses (this is a communist country if you didn’t know, google it) and we have enjoyed these $5 meals immensely taking the 10 minute walk from our boat and eating like kings while also supporting the local business. The food at these places is regulated and owners are only allowed to serve the same basic stuff. Food in general in Cuba is interesting…It’s very hard to find anything like we have in the States and let’s just say this IS NOT THE PLACE TO PROVISION. I cannot stress that enough. The local “store” on the marina grounds has rum, soda, cheese puffs, dried beans, strange canned things (not chicken), minimal toiletries and that’s about it. No fresh anything except apples, some salted meat like bologna and on occasion $8/kg for beef. We plan to walk 20 minutes to the nearest Supermercado (Supermarket) next week sometime to see if the selection is better. I’m low on bread flour.

Another thriving local business is the farmers market from 8-12 on Saturday mornings. We came a little late so missed out on the pineapples but they had plenty of onions and other vegetables. I’ve never seen anything like it. The people were so proud of their crops that they brought in from who knows where, some on horse and carriage to sell to other locals. We were the ONLY white folks in the area. Some of the crops were ok while some were molding and rotting. None of the things sold look like anything sold in the US. But it what they have here and we thoroughly enjoyed.
Onions at the local market

We did visit the meat side of the market where slabs of meat hung on hooks in the open air or were laid across a large wooden stump used as a cutting block. We purchased 6, fresh never frozen, chops for $4. These were later used in a gravy roux Tate made and were DELISH.
Buying meat at the local market

After spending a little time in town you can’t help but notice all this funny tile work.
Jaimanitas tiled bus stop

Like the yellow brick road you can’t help but follow this colorful mosaic artwork and it just gets grander and grander.
Incredible Fusters wall in the neighborhood
Incredible Fusters wall in the neighborhood

There’s nothing unusual about a Crab Wall.
Crab wall in the neighborhood

Or Japanese Ju Jitsu down a random Cuban street.
Jujitsu wall

Everybody needs a family doctor at some point.
Family doctor with large mosaic heart

Nothing wrong with a little admiration
Patriotic Tile
Fidel's return in mosiac

Then all signs point to here, the meca of all mosaic mecas. We had found the Doctor Sues de Cuba.
Entrace to Fusters house

The artist name is Fuster, and this is his HOUSE.
Walking into Fusters house
Mosaic Hands and a man
Large mosaic heart

From the history we were told by his childhood friend Fuster (last name) grew up as a poor Cuban boy in the nearby town of Santa Fe. He always dreamed of a mosaic town and told his friend one day he would accomplish it. But with no money or means he poured his soul into his paintings until one day about 20 years ago he had made enough money to buy his own house, which is what you see in the pictures. He slowly started his mosaic work in the 1990’s on his outer wall when a neighbor bet him he’d never start his life’s dream. The rest is history. He has opened his house up to tourist and works with many of the local schools on neighborhood beautification projects. This was quite the spectacle with brightly colored mosaic walls, people and animals all over the complex.
Large Mosaic of mother Mary and Jesus
On the second story of Fusters place
A mosaic giraffe
A mosaic alligator

Most interesting to me was the way he cemented and tiled the rooftops. We were told this started as a favor for a neighbor with a leaking roof.
Fuster tiled roof
Fuster roof fish
Fuster roof fish

The entire complex is 3 stories high with various curly connectors and roofs about. This 3rd story view gives you a nice look at the nearby ocean, The one we sailed across just over a week ago, who knows maybe we could have been seen from way up here.
The entire Fuster complex from the 3rd story
Viva Cuba as seen on the 3rd floor

The people of Jaimanitas have been super welcoming and we’ll always remember this place as our first “trip” outside the US.
Jaimanitas houses and shed
Typical Jaimanitas housing

Not too much farther down the road from our $1 plate meals resides a place that is starkly different and with a $10/person entrance ONLY fee we had no idea what to expect. The place was Club Habana, that’s “UH-bana” for you gringos.
Club Habana sign and old car
Club Habana from the front a grand view

I think this was an old country club that has been converted into a hotel for tourists to come visit. Seeing how the average monthly salary of a Cuban is $15/month the entrance fee alone shows you this isn’t a place for locals.
Biltmore Yacht Club sign
Habana Club Stairs

Our entrance fee gave us access to the bars, the pool and the BEACH. We stopped at the bar first for a mojito and a “Cuba Libre” (rum, coke, lime: Free Cuba)
Bar in Habana

Then we made our way outside for the first white sandy beach I’ve seen since last year’s family beach trip to Alabama. The architecture was super grand and the scenery serene. That’s Havana in the background.
Club Habana in the back
Dani outside on the beach

It’s still pretty cold for swimming but just sitting outside in the sun beams listening to the rustling palm trees was perfect enough. Some people did get in the water though…wearing speedos. They are probably from a town whose river is currently frozen, far north in Europe or Russia.
Tate outside near the palm trees

We have ventured further and further outside our comfort zone and into the interior of Cuba. Tate will write about our visit to Havana and we are going to try to taxi a ride 200km away to Vinales, Pinar Del Rio which is the land of world’s best cigar tobacco and amazing limestone formations. We hope to rent a room for a couple of nights ($25) and hike the country side, possible also on horseback. I can’t wait. Google this place if you want to see more.

Two days ago on Valentine’s Day Tate hired Wicho and Javier. Wicho plays the guitar and sings while Javier plays the violin (one of the best I’ve ever heard and he’s only 22, playing for 14 years). They are quite the pair and played beautiful music for 2 hours during a little get together with friends on our side of the marina.
Wicho and Javier playing music

The rate was VERY reasonable so if you are coming to Marina Hemingway I highly recommend you look these guys up and hire them if you want live Cuban music. You can contact them via phone or just ask around:
Wicho 52463327
Javier 52717980

The internet here is slow and regulated to one working computer in a hotel that you buy time for. Posting blogs can be difficult which is why I have combined so much in this one and ask you to google things instead of posting links. Until next time.