Brett & I were excited about returning to Cuba to see if it had changed in the 15 years since we were last here. Will be interesting seeing it from the sea side and taking inland trips by car to small towns in Cuba, something we couldn’t do then. With America starting to open the doors to Cuba we wondered how different it would be even in another 15 years.
The passage from the Bahamas took us south thru the Windward passage between Cuba and Haiti to Cuba’s southern coast and clearing Customs and Immigration at Santiago de Cuba; past the restricted Guantanamo Bay. The coastline all the way to Santiago de Cuba was very rocky and mountainous with a few small towns. There were fishermen all along the coast who row out to their fishing areas sometimes many miles away. The only light they have at night turns on when they see our boats navigation lights.
Our first glimpse of Puerto Santiago de Cuba is a small tourist town, Ciudad del Mar, high on the hilltop and the impressive Castillo Del Morro, guarding the entranceway to the port. Approx 1 mile up the river was the marina and another 3-4 miles up was the port and city of Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba with a population close to 1 million.
The marina was definitely a lot busier than we thought it would be with 16 boats either docked or anchored close to the marina. Our Rose had to raft up to us at the marina to clear in as there was no room at the pier for them. At $18US a night each we stayed rafted up so it was easy to go and do things on land.
The whole clearing in process with Customs and Immigration in Santiago de Cuba was very confusing and took many hours to complete. On entry we were put in quarantine, not that we knew that at the time, anchored on the other side of the bay till the medical doctor came by boat to question us on our state of health. The fire drill then began with instructions to move over to the marina where more officials would board the boat or just never turn up. The best was the Sanitation and fumigation officers who walked around with a spray can but decided the boat was very clean so sat and had colas and muffins with us. Customs and the drug sniffing Labrador, King, did not end up coming to our boat, there were other boats that needed their attention. We were presented with 30 day tourist visas and told we could now go on land.
The marina staff were all friendly and liked to sit and talk; us learning Spanish and them English. We had some big action one day when 2 boats dragged in the anchorage off the marina, with some strong winds. The marina staff asked Brett & Richard to help with the rescue of one of the boats as there was some difficulty getting it to re-anchor. This definitely helped us build a close relationship with the staff.
There are many local people standing around near the marina gates. Why? I guess when the new gringos arrive in town they hope to get some of their business. Cubans have become very entrepreneurial in setting up businesses and getting work from tourists and other Cubans, something that has only been allowed openly in the last 5 years or so. Yes the doors are opening for these people and they say life is improving, but slowly. People are paid monthly and very little; between $10US & $50US and depending on their jobs receive rations for main staples like rice, flour etc; according to the people we met.
Pedro who lives opposite the marina organized a day trip to the city to exchange money, visit the international hospital for a chiropractor visit, wander the streets of the city and then back to his house for dinner with his family. Pedro and Rosa put on an incredible meal and were very generous people. A night of good food & dancing.
While Cuba’s medical system is advanced they do not have chiropractors. The whole process we went thru to learn this was very interesting but ended up being a complete waste of time on getting Brett’s back sorted.
Here’s Brett going to the public hospital by ambulance with his own nurse after his first consultation of many to come. Why by ambulance because that’s just the process. We followed in the Muskovich.
Michael Angelo, a soft spoken Cuban took us on a tour of the city of Santiago de Cuba, which is busy with a great vibe and a lot of history in the many plazas and parks around. Lots of Cubans about working and limin’.
Moncada Barracks was a military barracks and in 1953 Fidel Castro attacked the barracks, proof being the bullet holes near the front doors. This was the start of Castro’s Revolution. The building now has become a boarding school for young children and has an area set aside as a museum to learn about the start of the revolution.
There are many stalls selling food on the side of the road in Santiago. I’m glad we don’t need any meat.
We saw so many different ways of getting around Santiago and surrounding areas. So awesome.
In Cuba most of the restaurants are govt. owned and typically more expensive. After our city tour Michael Angelo and his wife who have a private restaurant above their home invited us to the restaurant for a seafood dinner. He ended up setting up a table in his living room as a storm came through and it was too windy up in the roof top restaurant. We had fish, lobster, shrimp and octopus with salad and rice, dessert and of course rum & wine and it was $70US for 4 people.
Castillo del Morro, at the entrance to the port had been built in the late 1500’s as a defense against pirates. You could see why when you stood high on the hillside. By 1775 the fear of attack had diminished and a part of the fort was converted into a prison for political prisoners, including a torture chamber. It was used again in 1898 as a fortress during the Spanish-American war. It is in remarkable condition with many different levels each with amazing views out to the coast and up towards the city.
We made a trip to El Cobre, 18 kilometers away to see their Basilica; Patron Saint of Cuba where people from all over the world bring offerings to ask or thank her for protection. The drive to El Cobre was like we had moved back in time with a lot of horse and carts, people working the land on the side of the road by hand and the old American cars driving by.
Cayo Granma is a Cay opposite the marina where we wandered the narrow cobblestone streets lined with houses and had lunch at a govt run restaurant. Hurricane Sandy had caused a lot of damage on this small island with ruins sitting where homes used to be. This small Cay actually has a population of 1000, no cars, a school for small children, church, dentist and doctor and a few private owned restaurants. Entry onto the island is by boat only.
Time to move on. To move from one Cuban port to another, on departure you are presented with a despacho for presentation to The Guarda Frontera or coast guard office of future anchorages and marinas in Cuba. The Guarda Frontera will find a local boat to row out to sailboats to check and document your information and then clear you in and out of that anchorage. The despacho is obviously the way the government tries to know where we are in their country. But who knows where the information goes and how long it takes to get anything done with it. There is no charge for this “service”.