In 2015 we sailed from Belfast to the Bahamas as we do every winter. But this time we had something extra in mind. We wanted to get to Cuba, a dream I've had for many decades. In the southern Bahamas there is a mostly uninhabited chain of islands called the Jumentos by some, the Raggeds by others. Near the southern end of that chain we stopped at Johnson Cay waiting for a wind that would carry us to Cuba.
To go ashore in Cuba you must be checked into a marina. There are 15 of them.
We, of course, chose the closest one: Marina Vita. From Johnson Cay it's only 70 miles to Marina Vita. We enjoyed our visit there so much that we have since returned twice.
Wanting to arrive in daylight, we leave in the evening and sail over night. The morning sun is well up in the sky when we arrive at the entrance to Bahia de Vita.
That white tower you can barely see in the distance is the lighthouse marking the entrance to the bay. The winding channel is well marked all the way to the marina which is around to the left.
When you first arrive you are instructed to anchor outside the marina and wait for the doctor to check you out. Dr. Rolando was ferried out and spent about an hour with us filling out forms, determining we were not a health threat to the Cuban people and chatting about baseball, music, restaurants and local farmers' markets. We were then free to relace our quarantine flag with a Cuban courtesy flag and tie up, med moor style, to the long concrete dock with substantial cleats.
For the rest of the day a steady stream of officials come by to welcome us to the marina, check our produce, check our papers, and bring a cute little spaniel aboard to sniff for drugs. We were told that the water was free and safe, the electricity was free and that we could help ourselves to free ice at the end of the dock. In the marina office we paid for a week's stay at about $30/day in 2015 but higher now. We also were required to purchase medical insurance cards as our US insurance would not work in Cuba.
The marina is located in a perfectly sheltered creek.
The marina office, rest rooms and bar/restaurant are at the top of a steep stairway.
The marina provides several types of boats for guests at nearby hotels to use. The hotels are run by Gaviota which also manages the marina. Tourists arrive by bus nearly every day.
Some go out on one of the large catamarans that are basically floating bars.
Others race around in these little speed boats that look like floating bumper cars. There are also a few sport fishing boats and many small boats in reserve.
We made friends with Aba and Antonio who were running a sport fish boat named Albacora. I gave them some extra lures I had and they gave os marlin and mahi mahi. In 2018 they had a new boat, Delfin.
We went out fishing with them. This is Aba tying on a lure that we brought them.
We caught a nice mahi mahi.
The marina grounds are extensive, well maintained, secured by a guard post and quite attractive.
There is a restaurant on the grounds that is solely for guests of the marina.
As we were the only guests for the nine days we were there, the restaurant only opened when we made a reservation the day before. Then the chef and waiter would be brought in to serve us.
This is the very friendly waiter, who speaks excellent English, waiting for us to finish our meal so he can go home.
We wanted to tour the countryside but were nervous about driving a rental car. So we hired Victor with his lime green Russian Lada to show us around.
This is Victor. In Spanish his name is pronounced Beaktor.
This is Victor's car parked in Holguin next to his friend's tan 1948 Oldsmobile. (We also got a ride in the Olds.) The Lada is much faster than the Olds. That's why Victor likes it so much. He's a safe but aggressive driver.
In 2018Victor replaced the tired Lads with a 1959 Dodge Coronet. It has a Mercedes diesel engine which, sadly, developed a cracked cylinder head and is temporarily out of commission in Victor's driveway.
One day in 2015 we had Victor take us to Santiago across the island on the south side. Along the way we stopped at the village of El Cobre in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra.
Cubans and others make pilgrimages here to visit the basilica known as El Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre.
Many visitors leave votive gifts. Common objects left include replicas of rafts, representing safe journeys to America, and photos of activists who have been imprisoned by the government.
Victor wasn't terribly familiar with the city of Santiago. We wandered around for a while, had lunch in a pleasant restaurant that honors a local poet with one of his poems painted on the wall. Our English-Spanish dictionary was no use in deciphering the poem. Victor looked at it and said it's just nonsense. Poetry was not one of his favorite classes in school.
Fearing that he was letting us down with his limited knowledge of Santiago, Victor left the restaurant and found a local who agreed to lead us to some popular sites on his motorcycle. Our first stop was at the farm house where Fidel and his colleagues planned their failed assault on the Moncada barracks. The farm house with its bullet holes is now a national landmark.
Fidel, Che and others fled to Mexico after that debacle. They returned in a cabin cruiser named Granma that is another national landmark.
Our next stop was the Valle de la Prehistoria with 27 bizarre acres of dinosaur statues.
It was built when Jurassic Park was the hit movie of the year. The thinking must have been that it would be a great tourist draw. We only saw a small part of it and were quite charmed by it. The locals don't seem to notice.
When you visit Santiago the Morro Castle is a required stop. We were much more taken with the views from the castle than the fort itself.
A day trip to Santiago is criminally insufficient. We need to go back and spend several days.
Holguin is close enough to the marina that a day trip there gave us plenty of time to enjoy the city.
This is Holquin.
We love old style Cuban music known as Son. I found some CDs with groups I had never heard of and bought them anyway. CDs in Cuba are $4 each. They were all excellent. I should have searched for more.
We visited the cigar factory where every step of the process is done completely by hand, like most things in Cuba. We stopped at their major league baseball stadium which, unfortunately, was closed that day.
The locals were all excited about their team's prospects. They'd just come from behind to win an important playoff game and were hoping to make it to the next round.
This is the entrance to the Holguin stadium.
On the city streets you see hundreds of old American cars, as you do everywhere in Cuba.
Many are used as taxis and kept in showroom condition.
Others are just every day transportation.
But most Cubans rely on public busses to get around.
Or they ride horses or in horse drawn carts.
On our way back to the marina we stopped at one of the many fruit stands along the side of the road.
On our last day with Victor he took us to the village of Santa Lucia near the marina. Our first stop was at the Bariay Monument National Park. This is where Columbus first set foot in Cuba on October 27, 1492.
Just inside the entrance to the park is a typical campesino bunk house. The guides there will slice open a coconut with a machete for you then give you a ride through the grounds on an oxcart.
Or you can ride their horses if you prefer.
A group of Taino indians still live at the park where their ancestors met Columbus and his crew. They give guided tours and lectures about the history and archaeology of the site. But first they put on a little skit for visitors, even if there are only two of us.
The skit, about a warrior from a neighboring tribe trying unsuccessfully to steal away the chief's daughter, ended with a celebratory dance. Of course they insisted we join in. All resistance was futile. Here's the whole dance troupe.
A Cuban artist put together a commemorative sculpture garden in the park symbolizing the clash of cultures begun with the arrival of Columbus.
The columns of old world architecture are arranged as a wedge penetrating new world icons.
On our way to lunch at a Paladar we stopped to watch some locals playing baseball in Santa Lucia. One game was what would be Little League in the US.
The young pitcher was throwing some serious heat. On an adjacent field was a game between older players, some of whom, I'm sure, maintained hopes of making it to the Cuban big leagues. The local team is Rafael Freyre.
I would give those guys a good chance to beat our local minor league team, the Portland Sea Dogs. On our second visit we brought two dozen baseballs and a bag bats which we presented to Taco, the team manager between the double header games. In 2018 we brought gloves and caps.
Lunch in 2015 was across the street at the paladar Bambu.
The chef and his wife live on the ground floor. On the second floor he cooks and she serves.
I rated this meal of assorted seafood and side dishes as one of the best I've ever had anywhere, and one of the least expensive. We returned there the next year.
In 2018 we had an equally good meal at another paladar in town, Yeni.
On our last day at the marina in 2015 we hired another taxi for one last shopping trip. I wanted to buy a guayabara shirt, and we can always find a use for another bottle of Cuban rum.
Here we are being dropped off at the marina gate. The next day we got our exit despacho and sailed back to Hog Cay in the Bahamas. We hoped to be back the next winter, and we were.
We visited Cuba again in 2017, returning to Marina Vita for a 12 day stay. I’ll post just a few of the hundred plus photos I took during that visit to give you a hint at the fabulous time we had.
We again used Victor and his green Lada to chauffeur us around. Our first trip was to Guardalavaca where Victor lives. He drove us around the area then dropped us off for lunch at La Maison, a paladar near the end of an unmarked dirt road where we had paella and caribbean octopus. The restaurant overlooks the hotel beaches of Guardalavaca.
Our next trip was a long one, to the seaside city of Gibara.
There’s a well protected harbor filled with small fishing boats that are rowed or sailed to the offshore fishing grounds. Outboards are prohibited.
Unlike the slghty larger city of Holguin, Gibara is wonderfully quiet with few cars or motorbikes.
Across from the city hall is a pleasant plaza lined with dozens of underwater photos of the reefs and sea life.
Along the seawall are ruins from Spanish colonial days.
The city is a cultural center for the area. There’s a film center.
They’re renovating the grand old theater.
A paladar that is reputedly the best in the province is in Gibara. Unfortunately it was closed the day we were there. We returned to Holguin for lunch at a paladar there that specializes in traditional peasant dishes like rabbit and “sleeping beans.”
Along the way back we stopped at a sort of private street organ museum in Holguin.
Two days later we returned to the area around Guardalavaca to visit with a campesino (peasant) and his family. The “peasant” has a 17 acre farm and orchard that has been in his family for three generations.
Royal palms decorate his pastures.
The campesino gave us a tour of his orchards showing us the trees ripe with oranges, lemons, limes, almonds, mangoes, guavas,
bananas, plantains, papayas, coconuts and sugar apples
I had never seen a “sugar apple” so he gave us one. It’s about the size of a softball and is filled with a sweet pudding. Delicious. On the tour he also pointed out his aloe vera, pineapples, sugar cane and manioc. After the tour, his wife treated us to a small brunch with fresh bananas, manioc chips with local cheese and guava paste, and expresso from beans they roast themselves.
Every Saturday there is a farmer’s market in the town of Santa Lucia near the marina.
For less than $3 we filled a canvas bag with fresh, local vegetables. There are two baseball fields next to the farmer’s market. Both fields had games between teams of young boys. We stayed to watch for a few minutes.
The next day we returned to the baseball stadium to watch a game between teams of older boys. The local team goes by the name Rafael Freyre, the new name for Santa Lucia honoring a local hero of the revolution. The visiting team was from Callixto Garcia near Holguin. We rooted for Freyre of course, who were mostly in green shirts.
After Freyra won 7 to 3, we gave the Freyre coach two bags filled with balls and bats that we had brought with us. We then had an excellent seafood lunch at the local paladar Bambu. After lunch, Victor insisted that we return to the stadium for a minute. The same teams were playing the second game of a double header. When we arrived, the Freyre coach presented us with a ball signed by all the players and coaches of the team. It is a prize we will treasure forever.
Our final trip with Victor that year was to Holguin where we spent the night in a casa particular.
It is owned and run by a Medilis Fernandez, a charming lady who is also a medical doctor. Downstairs is the living room, dining room and kitchen.
Upstairs are suites for Merilis and her daughter Amanda along with three other suites that she rents out. Ours was very comfortable with a private bath, costing $25/night. Our plan was to visit the Casa de la Trova in the center of the city. It features live, older style guitar music. Unfortunately we got the times mixed up and arrived there after the 4:30 show had finished and long before the 10:30 show would begin. We had bought several CDs that afternoon with similar types of Cuban music so it wasn’t a complete loss.
The next morning we walked around the city. Across the street from the casa where we stayed is a large organoponico.
It’s a community garden growing organic vegetables and selling the extras from an attached market. A few blocks away is a shady park with a view of an amazing bronze mural depicting the history of Cuba.
There’s even an Odd Fellows lodge in Holgui,
There’s much more of Holguin I could show you but I’ll finish with our meeting Reymundo Destin Los Toros.
Rey is a local poet who gives private English lessons. He loves to talk with native English speakers whenever he can to improve his accent and vocabulary. He stopped us as we were heading back to the casa and we talked for awhile. He asked if we had seen the crocodiles. We had never heard of crocodiles in Holguin so he took us to a small zoo with two crocodiles who were so still we thought they were sculptures until one blinked.
Rey told us all about his love of the English language and after reciting one of his poems, in English, he gave us a hand written copy of it. When I learned that he didn’t even have a Spanish-English dictionary, we walked back to our casa where I gave him the big one we had brought with us. Doing things for each other “is the Cuban way.”
We were already making plans for our visit in 2018.