TITSNBN – Cuba Part 1…..

February 6th – 12th, 2015 (-5 on UTC)

Dear Friends and Family,

I noticed that some of you may not have received the Ship’s Blog on how we got from the Bahamas to TITSNBN (aka: Cuba).

The link is here: https://svbeachhouse.com/ships-log/bahamas-to-titsnbn/

Also, it is the Ship’s Blog post just prior to this one.  As a reminder for those of you who did not see the previous post – “TITSNBN” stands for – “That Island That Shall Not Be Named”.

We last left you having checked into Marina Gaviota, Varadero Peninsula – Cuba. The first full day we spent was in quest of finding some assistance from the local boat yard. Let me set the scene. Marina Gaviota is located at the very Eastern end of the Varadaro Peninsula on Cuba’s north coast, about 85 miles East of Havana. The peninsula runs more of less parallel to the north shore with a large bay to it’s south side.

The Marina (which is still under construction) is apparently under the ownership/control of the Cuban Military and will eventually be able to accommodate 1000 boats (so we were told). Raoul Castro (Fidel’s brother and current President) is in charge and has personal financial interests in the property. The Peninsula is 10 miles or so of 4 Star “All Inclusive” Hotels which the boaters all jokingly called, “The Tourist Prison”.

It’s not that you can’t leave the Peninsula, we did, but that they try and control all the prices and businesses where the tourist dollars flow. Sixty Five Percent of the tourists are Canadian. The Cuban’s enjoy their fun loving nature. The Germans are next. The locals say they are not overly friendly in the sense that they are not outgoing (which the Cubans definitely are!). Next in line is the British, French and other European tourists, closely followed by the Russians.
The Cuban youth (more likely most Cubans), DO NOT LIKE the Russians. We found them in our personal experience to be at best classless and rude. How’s that for a ringing endorsement? They acted like stero-types out of a cold war movie.

So after inquiring at the shipyard about getting some mechanical assistance (where we were told “manana” – tomorrow), we walked around the hotel area and met the local boaters. Most of the boats in Cuba are from Canada and Europe. Despite all, there are lots of Americans. Apparently, before 2001, there were LOTS of Americans. Now, the Cubans are very hopeful due to President Obama’s recent statements that the Americans will return….in big numbers. The Cubans like Americans.

We were told by our Dutch friends, Tom and Anneke that there was a Canadian gal named Debbie Armstrong who is the “Mother Teresa” of Cuba. Debbie, who we met the next day, was flattered by the remark. Debbie was a wealth of information and lives on her boat in Marina Darsena (Varadaro). Debbie told us, that the Cubans have closed Marina Darsena to International Boats upon arrival as they want all of them to go to Marina Gaviota (where the Cuban Army/Raoul Castro) have a financial interest. The trumped up reason was that the “incinerator for international garbage at Darsena no longer gets hot enough”. Ah, welcome to the third world….:-)

Debbie Armstrong – (seen far right with Pink top) – Holding court with the cruisers to get the lay of the land aboard Beach House. Marina Gaviota, Varadero

Since we were stuck awaiting “Godot” (as it turned out), we decided to have a look around for ourselves. We hired a car and took a two day tour to the South side of the island to visit the towns of Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara.

The roads were overall pretty good and we heard that the major highways were built by the US back in the 1950’s. Care had to be taken as occasionally, the pot holes were an issue. Seeing all the crummy Russian Lada’s and a wealth of American 1950’s automobiles was quite a hoot.

Our first stop was the south coastal town of Cienfuegos.  It was an old historic town with lots of Spanish Colonial architecture. We first visited the Marina and the Club Nautico and quickly realized in essence…they were (politely stated), “down trodden”.
The wayward home for boats on the south shore at Cienfuegos Marina
The Plaza in the \”New\” part of Cienfuegos – Note the Classic Car in the foreground. Cienfuegos was very clean in the new areas and definitely ready for it\’s close up….:-)
In small ways, Capitalism is making a big resurgence. These young artists were very \”market savy\” young entrepreneurs

We soon found our way to the “new” part of the town which is only 200-400 years old. Nicely being restored, it is now and one day will be – quite the tourist destination. There is lots of history about the Revolutions of the late 1860’s and Jose Marti’s revolution of the years around 1895-8 which was a precipitator of the Spanish/American War. We found the people everywhere we went to be open and friendly. They just love Americans and were thrilled to see more and more Americans arriving on their island…more on this later.

From Cienfuegos, we drove to the historic Colonial town of Trinidad. Founded in 1514, the town just celebrated it’s 500th year anniversary!

\"The The main Plaza in Old Trinidad. The city has just celebrated it\’s 500th birthday!

The central area is a walking tour only and quite the tourist scene. There are just dozens of busloads of tourists in much of Cuba. Who knew?
Trinidad has a very old world charm and for the most part, Cuba reminded me of most of the Central American countries and Mexico that I have visited. An interesting feature is that this is a rare island in Latin America where there are no indigenous people mixed into the gene pool. About 60% are of direct Spanish heritage, 20% mixed race and 20% Africans who were freed and descended from slaves. Cuba was the last place in the Caribbean to abolish slavery which was part of the first Revolution in the late 1860’s.

The indigenous peoples either died of disease or were enslaved by the Spanish after they conquered the island. According to our guide, there is racial discrimination in Cuba, but not so much in the economic sense. It seemed to be more of a situation where they just didn’t want to mix socially.

We stayed in what is called a “Casa Particular” where we stayed on the second floor of a private home. One other young couple was there who were from Israel and we had some great conversations. They were doing a “gap year” after their army service – seeing the world on a shoestring budget. They wondered why we were staying in a “Casa”? We told them that there were so many tourists in town, we could not find another hotel room. To give you an idea, the “Casa’s” fee was 25 dollars/night! It was clean, but not overly comfortable. Hence, we stayed one night. The Iberostar (a very lovely old Colonial Hotel) was booked solid at 450.00 USD/night!

En route back to the boat, we stopped at Santa Clara. This is where the monument to Che Guevara is and his mausoleum. It is here, that his bones and those of his 40 ill fated companions are interned. It is sacred grounds to the “believers”. They were killed in their attempt to spread the revolution to Bolvia, supposedly with the assistance of the CIA. Some locals believe it was Fidel who ratted out Che to the Bolivians.  He was jealous of his cult of personality which was known. Perhaps we\’ll never know?

Che and his companions remains were turned over to Fidel Castro in the late 1990’s which is when this monument was built. Santa Clara was chosen as it’s the city where the decisive battle was led by Che to overthrow the Batista Government. When we drove back to Marina Gaviota, we saw a hotel that was built by Batista for his Generals. It looked like a nuclear blast facility on an immense scale.

Memorial and Mausoleum to Che Guevara and his Bolivian Guerillas
Photos of Che – which of course rings greatly of propaganda – are everywhere. His image is the most reproduced of any image in the world!

Che is a mixed bag in Cuba. His picture is EVERYWHERE. Fifty photos or drawings of Che to every one of Fidel you see in the countryside. Fidel has no monuments to himself as he realized they might become used as a symbol to show some of the people’s displeasure with him. Che has become the iconic symbol of “revolutions” everywhere.

His image is on everything and for sale. So much for the anti-capitalists. The young kids don’t think much of him and realize that he was at least as bad a guy as a force for freedom in Cuba’s history. They “respect” Fidel and Raoul Castro, but believe that – “they are the past”. They are VERY much looking forward to the day when normalization with the US will occur and are a well educated people who will embrace the West in a very big way. The people, especially the kids under 35, have no reservation about telling you their opinion of everything Cuban. From “Hawkish Cuban Americans” to the excesses of Fidel, Raoul and Che the youth will unabashedly discuss all things Cuban. And oh by the way, they singularly despise the Russians……nuff’ said.

After seeing the “Soviet Style” Mausoleum to Che, which includes an almost terrarium like display by his internment – representing the forests of Boliva where he died – we did the long drive back to the boat. Along the (in fact both ways), we saw huge block (read that as very UGLY) Soviet era schools and housing mixed into the sugarcane fields. They are now all in complete disrepair with only squatters living in them. Very eery looking.

We saw dozens of these Soviet era style school and housing blocks. For the most part they were completely abandoned except for the squatters

When we returned to the boat, we needed to do maintenance and took the day to try and follow up with the boat yard. Again…..”Manana”. This would be the theme for our getting a bit of mechanical assistance while in Cuba.

The next day, a weather window started to open, so we checked out of Marina Gaviota and spent an evening with a Canadian and another American boat at Cayo Blanco. Quite tricky in the anchorage, but pleasant and quiet. This is the place where one of the dozens of “day cats” bring the tourists to snorkel and sun on the beach. When I say dozens, I mean dozens of these 80 foot Fontaine Pajot day catamarans.

There were dozens of these big 80 foot Fontaine Pajot Day Charter Cats. Whether the weather was good or not, they were usually full of people staying at the \”tourist prison\”, heading out to Cayo Blanco

As we could not get any assistance for the foreseeable future, we decided to try Havana – 85 miles to our West.

The wind was light and the current with us – most of the way. When the current turned against us, about 20 miles East of Havana, it really slowed us down. We arrived late in the day at Marina Hemingway, named by Fidel for the late author whom he met once in Cuba. Hemingway and all things Hemingway are an industry in Cuba. More on this in our next Ship\’s Blog.

Ernest Hemingway used to come here by boat to what was then known as Monte Carlo Marina. Fidel Castro renamed it after Hemingway\’s death to Marina Hemingway

We again went through the very formal check in procedure. This time with a dog (whom I was convinced was just the Customs guy’s house pet) who supposedly sniffed for narcotics and gunpowder. Every time you arrive or leave a Cuban port, they thoroughly check the boat. We suspect they are concerned with smuggling people out by boat, but today, Cubans are allowed to leave the island. First, If they can afford too – the average Cuban makes 15.00 USD/month and secondly, If they can get a visa. Ecuador is the only country in the world where Cubans are not required to have a visa and as such, they do travel to Ecuador the most. They can apply for a visa to the EU, Canada and even the USA. The USA visa costs 160.00 USD and there is no guarantee it will be issued. Overwhelmingly, they are not issued and as such, due to the price, most Cubans do not request a US visa.

The last thing that happened as we arrived here, different from Marina Gaviota, (and we were warned) about officials asking for “gifts”. We did experience this. I’ll leave it at that.

Next, we would try and find some mechanical help in the big city and while waiting, we did a tour of Havana! Can\’t you just here Lucy and Rikki Ricardo doing the rhumba in the distance?…:-) Stay tuned for that experience – a real eye opener – next!

Scott and Nikki (written from Puerto Morelos, Mexico)