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.