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.

Marina Hemingway Cuba – Land of No Seats

Cuba, the forbidden fruit. It has been all I hoped and I had feared thus far. The island is an amazing destination rich with natural beauty born of both its location and its peoples. However, it is also just as poor and backward as I thought I might find it. It has been a surprising personal revelation that the poverty and deterioration has not dampened my experience and may actually be enhancing it.

Individual moments and experiences might better explain this than any generalized statements. For instance, as we sat in a small paladore (someone’s home which has a restaurant built into it), flies were buzzing around. They just seem to infest Cuba. In the United States, I might be appalled by this, why weren’t there fly traps and fly papers and other modern marvels to keep such pests at bay. But there just weren’t. And so I let it slip right out of my thought stream and instead enjoyed the massive rustic Cuban meal being served to me.

Much of the island is like this. A mix of things. Toiletries may not exist but a bottle of rum is 5 US dollars. And we’re not talking rot gut. We haven’t yet figured out how to buy “real” provisions, but a giant meal for 1 US dollar is a short walk away. There are flies, but there are a lot of smiles.

In many ways, Cuba is much more clean than a lot of the US. Even in the little local streets that Dani and I stroll around exploring. There isn’t litter. And so far, everything has felt very very safe. The marina is guarded and apparently it is a mortal crime to mess with tourists here. No one has ever appeared threatening. In fact we feel safer here than we did in Key West by virtue of the fact that we are tourists. It is very hard to explain. These things are more gut feelings than anything objective. As we used to say at my job, “A gut check.”

Anyway… I digress and let me stop with the anecdotes and tales of the interior and get one with the subject of Marina Hemingway.

So we’ve been here in Cuba right outside of Havana for a little over a week now and things are just finally starting to settle down. I don’t mean things as in events but more so that our minds are starting to come to terms with our new environment. Travelling from the US to a foreign country is bound to induce a bit of culture shock for anyone. And it certainly did for me. This was compounded by many factors, but the most telling for me personally was the language barrier. I knew a few words of Spanish when I got here that were limited to movie quotes and the infamous US advertisement slogan yo queiro taco bell. Now I know how to order from a menu, ask where things are, ask to exchange money and even make a very short and badly punctuated anecdote to the locals. But I’m really getting ahead of myself. Lets start back where I left off, on arrival.

Apologies to my non-sailor friends and sailor friends alike. This being a personal travelogue that has a readership that has come to expect technical data, I am compelled to add details that might seem tedious to someone reading just for fun. Likewise it may seem a bit hard to harvest the technical tidbits included for those reading for research. I have decided that perhaps I will attempt to highlight the differences between technical and personal by preceeding portions with TECHNICAL:. Let us know if this works for you. We considered breaking the blog posts but that is a lot more work. So please feel free to skip/skim the sections you may not find pleasant from here on out.

TECHNICAL: Arriving to Marina Hemingway is a logical first stop for a departure from Key West if you are visiting Cuba. The reasons are many… Cuba has what are known as Ports of Entry (Hemingway) is one of them. You can ONLY clear into the the country in one of these ports. Hemingway has a seabuoy at approx 23,05.40N, 82,30.60W. From the buoy you steer 140 degrees magnetic to enter a very narrow channel marked by red and green tall buoys. I would NOT attempt this entrance at night or in foul weather as there are breakers on either side and you could surf right into shoal. Some of the buoys are NOT in place. A boat was on the rocks the day before we arrived when the captain attempted to follow the buoys instead of the course. The dockmaster answered on channel 77 and spoke very good English. You cannot enter from sunset to sunrise. We arrived at approx 3pm local and cleared in with no problems at all. When we approached the sea buoy I put on deodorant, washed my face, shaved, and put on my nicests pants and we cleaned up the boat. I believe this makes a big difference as some people here before us reported the authorities were not as nice to them when they showed up with empty beer cans rolling around the bilge. We asked specifically for a spot on canal 1 which has no water or electricity connection but it was 10 percent cheaper. The rate we are paying is 50c (CUC)/ft/day. There are other fees but they are not as drastic as our dockage will be. As predicted the authorities kindly stamped our VISA but did not stamp our passports.

On the way in…
The seawall:

The entrance canal:

Passing by canal 2, the primary visitor canal.

Canal 1 where we keep our boat.

Sundowner, all tied up.

Perhaps one of the most shocking events of our initial entrance into the canal was the first boat on canal one. It had an American flag flying and there were 3 guys shouting hello as we passed on by. We’d heard there were not many Americans in Cuba but here are the first people we see and guess what… Decidedly American. But it was a good thing as they came down and welcomed us, chatted, and gave us many good tips about what they had been doing and how they were doing it.

TECHNICAL: You cannot pay for things in Cuba with dollars anywhere we have found. You must convert your money to the Cuban currency of which there are 2 types. CUC is the currency that tourists are expected to use. The official exchange rate was 87 or 86 to 100. So you’d get 87 CUC for 100 dollars. However, there is a thriving black market for conversion and talking to a few friendly locals has won us connections to convert between 92.5 and 95 instead. Converting to CUP (the locals currency) is a bit harder. Get small denomination CUC bills and head to the local market and buy a few things, they will give change back in CUP which you can spend on things in the non-tourist areas. The exchange rate is 1 CUC = 24 CUP. Confusing I know.

Despite me champing at the bit to explore, the first order of business was sleep. So we slept the sleep of the dead that night after saying goodbye to the Americans. The next morning we walked down the way to check out the bathhouse. Cuba may well be forever in my mind “the land of no seats”. There are no toilet seats anywhere. The bathhouse was my first brush with this phenomenon. Dani and I discussed it after both having been mystified. Dani suspects the seats just wore out over time and weren’t replaced but other more seasoned travellers to Cuba later told us they just never ordered the seats. I wonder if maybe there would be a market to sell seats here. Maybe some new way, like sell a toilet seat on a sling. You just carry it with you and your ass will never need to touch someone else’s seat, just have your own personal throne cushion on your back at all times! And if there are no seats, guess what, there is also no paper. And no soap. We quickly learned to always “bring your own” so to speak everywhere we go. But! The showers did work and the water is hot. A luxury by our standards.

As we milled around the bathhouse afterwards chatting to some folks I looked out over the water and saw something amazing. Right out over the breakers was a tall ship, a three masted square rigged vessel, sailing towards Havana. I don’t know if it was some stroke of fate that we’d see it right then but something told me that our trip to Cuba was right. The Spanish Mane was alive and I was part of it now.

While I stood there lost in my thoughts of history, wavering between past and present, Dani struck up some conversation with the locals. I guess that is an understatement. She totally befriended them with her smile and earnest attempt to practice Spanish. In fact, we stayed there in front of the bath house chatting with these two fellows. One was a captain of a passenger vessel and the other a marina security guard who was as eager to practice English as Dani was to practice Spanish. And so they worked together and learned. Later that night we ran into some of them again and had a few drinks. People in Cuba are very friendly!

And finally, here is the part I know you’ve all been waiting for… I walked to the cigar shop. Yes yes I know many of you will frown at this but it had long been one of my dreams to enjoy Cuban cigars.

The little government owned Cigar shop at the end of Canal 1 in the marina turned out to be a pleasant surprise and a nice escape from the rain that had begun on our walk down. It was well stocked with wine and liquor along with the cigars. Have I mentioned that rum is like 5 bucks a bottle here?
Dani and I purchased a bottle of wine and I bought a few cigars and we retired to the little room set aside for smoking. We offered the woman working there some of the wine and she was our fast friend after that. The bottle was a big Chile Cab, it was 8 bucks but tasted like 20-30 dollar bottle.

Beside the cigar shop is a sad little grocery store and also the Cuban version of a surf shop that we haven’t even bothered walking in. But the Cubans have there priorities straight as far as I’m concerned. The cigar store is nice and the “other” nice building in the marina turns out to be the Cuban yacht club. We’ve found that it is safe, clean, cheap, and the bartenders speak very good English and will try to help you in anyway they can.

And check out this photo on the wall there:

Not all of the fun in the marina has been “going out” though. Sometimes you just have to sit back and relax in the cockpit for a Sundowner.

We’ve also had friends over who’ve been teaching us new skills that I’m sure will serve us well on our continued adventures. For instance, we harvested and opened our first coconuts.

The marina is full of coconut trees and no one seems to care if you take them. They make great coconut water to drink straight or put in the fridge and we’ve also done the whole “lime in the coconut” with rum thing. It tastes great.

Not to be outdone by these guys teaching us the ins and outs of coconut grabbing, I took it upon myself to return the knowledge transfer and I actually cooked a roux and made a big pot of rice and gravy one evening. Our friend Tyler at Burning Man had a mission to bring the secrets of roux to the masses and so now I’ve taken up his flag and I’m going to slowly spread it around the world. All I need is a bumper sticker for my propane pot that says, “I <3 Gumbo".

Fresh foods from the local market. (More on that later)

Along the parts between Canal 2 and 3 is a large complex of condos and also a hotel. The hotel has internet access for 6 dollars an hour and you have to use their computers unfortunately. Bummer, but it has been sort of interesting being “disconnected.”

Dani at the hotel bar as we wait to buy an hour of Internet access:

The hotel and the walk to the hotel are pretty cool though and well worth it as the road is scattered with some really interesting artwork.

I think that about covers the marina life here. We have been doing LOTS of other stuff though and its going to take a while for us to catch up. I know now why so many cruising blogs are “so far behind”.

But, coming up, stay tuned, etc for:
Dani’s take on the town of Jaimanitas and our review of exploring some parts of old Havana.

Hasta luego.