During a spring 2017 cruise with my boyhood sailing friend, John Winchester, we explored the captivating south coast of Cuba and the Gardens of the Queen. The voyage offered us insights into the island’s natural beauty, history and the current life of Cubans living under the “Revolution.”
Day 1 – Fly to Cienfuegos, Cuba
I (Bill Barton) and been considering sailing doing a sailing exploration of portions of Cuba’s south coast for over a year. It began to look as if travel to the long-isolated island would be further restricted due to a changing political climate. From the sinking of the US battleship Maine in 1898 in Havana Harbor and the beginning of the Spanish American War to the era of Post WWII casinos, the Tropicana Club and growing US tourism via the Pan Am Clipper to the Cuban Missile Crises to decades of a US embargo, the island has long been entangled in relations with its neighbor just ninety miles away across the Straits of Florida. By May of 2017, it was time to act.
To save time we opted to charter a boat out of Cienfuegos in the middle of Cuba’s south coast. Two places topped my list to see. First, Trinidad (Not Trinidad & Tobago), the oldest port in the new World, having celebrated a 500th anniversary in 2014. Hernán Cortés, the famed conquistador, put in to Trinidad to recruit men in 1519 for his expedition expedition that would lead to the fall of the Aztec empire. Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Second, the “Gardens of the Queen,” the 70 mile long archipelago some 60 miles south of the the mainland Cuba Coast. These uninhabited islands are likely much as they were before Columbus became the first European to see them during his second voyage to the New World in 1494. Columbus stated these were the most beautiful islands he had seen, leading to him naming them in honor of his sovereign, Queen Isabella. Today, the string of remote islands is recognized as one of the most pristine and healthy barrier coral reef systems left in the world. The remoteness of the archipelago along with Cuba’s use of natural farming (many cannot afford fertilizers or pesticides) keep the waters pure. They are a Cuban Marine Protected Area; the Cuban Constitution mandates protecting their environment. Undoubtedly, our journey would be very different than the Cuba that Americans were drawn to in “vacationland” travel posters of the 1950s.
Day 2 – Exploring Cienfuegos and Provisioning
In the early morning I was awakened by the soft Spanish calls of, “Pan, Pan” from the man pushing his bread cart through the neighborhood streets. We spent the first of our two nights in Cienfuegos in a delightfully pleasant, two-bedroom, “casa particular.” We were able to book the room from the States using Air B&B, one of the few reservation methods possible. Casa particulars are one of the new forms of privatized business first allowed under the regime of Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother. Cubans could open their homes as guest houses, with a cut going to the government. The woman running the house fed us an endless breakfast in the flowered courtyard of her home.
We headed in to downtown Cienfuegos, a city of 150,000; the main pedestrian mall/street was bustling with locals going about their errands. We had hopes of padding out the groceries supplied by the boat charter company; however, as with all of Cuba, the majority of food stores had little on the shelves. Cuban rum, at bargain prices, was easily available. Lines for the basics can be long. Items sell out quickly. The other items in adequate supply were the large tubes of pork and of cheese, hunks sliced off and sold by the weight. Our daily sandwiches over the next week would be comprised of this fare.
Wanting to see a bit more of the surrounding communities, we hired a horse drawn taxi buggy and driver for the afternoon. We asked to roam out into his own neighborhood and chatted along the way. Only if you get a Cuban truly alone will they open up and tell you some of what they think about their situation. Working in an industry associated with tourism (many Canadians and Europeans do travel to Cuba) can you make some money. They are frustrated that they work hard in school only to get a job on subsistence government wage with no chance for advancement and a feeling of being trapped on the island. Amazingly, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates (99.8%) in the world, a goal set and achieved by Fidel Castro. Our driver asked, “Why did I study so hard in school?”
I ask our driver about a colorful billboard with the “CDR” logo (Committee for Defense of the Revolution) and he explains that there are always people watching and listening everywhere to report on you if you speak badly of the government or the Revolution – in the eyes of Cuba, the revolution started by Fidel Castro is ongoing. Nonetheless, everywhere we roamed the Cuban people were always warm, friendly and helpful. Fruit and vegetable street vendors, a butcher selling from his front yard, people in the street waved and chatted.
Heading back to the city center we passed a bustling farmers market with the best supply of fresh foods we had seen anywhere; we sauntered through and bought fruits ad vegetables we would be thankful for in the days to come. The walls of the market showed iconic paintings of Fidel and Che Guevara – leaders of the Revolution.
By late afternoon we were back at the marina to have a run through of the catamaran we had chartered. The foods we had ordered through the charter company were aboard; to our dismay a number of requested items were missing. No milk, no butter, little fresh citrus except an abundance of limes and few vegetables except a plethora of onions. When we would ask about a missing item, the simple reply was, “Welcome to Cuba.” In Cuba, don’t expect to find what you want. They had not seen fresh milk in three weeks!
We ate dinner ashore and returned to our casa particular for the night. We would be back aboard before sunrise for an early start.
Day 3 – Cienfuegos to Cayo Blanco de Casilda
We rose in the dark of night taking our duffles and groceries from the farmers market to the boat. We had arranged a 0600 meeting with a member of the Guarda Fronteras, the Cuban Coast Guard. Whenever a vessel enters or leaves a port on mainland Cuba, you have to check out or check in with the Guarda. They control what enters the country, and, make sure you do not take a Cuban with you as you sail away from the island. The officer arrived on time and was as polite and friendly as could be. We filled out a day by day cruise plan of our itinerary so that they could keep track of us.
We set off across Cienfuegos Bay passing a crowded, early morning ferry. The “pocket bay” of Cienfuegos exits into the Caribbean Sea through a narrow channel. The watchful barracks of the Guarda Fronteras are perched above the channel and adjacent to the 1742 Fortress Jagua, built under King Philip V of Spain to protect the bay from the pirates of the Caribbean. On entering or leaving the bay, should you have any question as to the political leanings of the port, you see emblazoned on the seawall below the Guarda barracks the words, “BIENVENIDOS CUBA SOCILISTA.”
Passing out to sea we see several of the small fishing boats typical of Cuban waters. Heading east we sail along miles and miles of undeveloped beach with the magnificent Sierra Escambray mountain range. To the east of these mountains are the Sierra Maestra, once the hideout of a young Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries.
It is a good fifty miles to the tiny Cayo Blanco de Casilda, our destination for the night, and the last remnant of civilization we would see for several days. We anchored in the lee of the island by late afternoon and went ashore to the one and only building on the island; it is a restaurant that services tourists who come out on a day boat from Casilda for lunch. The rustic affair is staffed by one man. Being the off season, and late in the day, he prepared a four course meal of lobster, shrimp, rice, beans and salads galore. Back aboard we settled for the night as evening squalls scurried past in the distance.
Day 4 – Cayo Blanco de Casilda to Cayo Bretón
Again we would have a long day’s sail of fifty miles to reach the beginning of the Gardens of the Queen. Thankfully as we got under way shortly after sunrise, a 20-25 knot favorable breeze came up. With main and genoa set we were making 6-7 knots as we headed further offshore. The Sierra Escambray mountains faded into the distance and nothing but sea surrounded us.
Part of why the offshore archipelago is so unspoiled is that few Cubans have access to a boat and fuel to reach the area; generally, only government boats head out so far. We had been told that because the islands are uninhabited (and there are no Cuban nationals who could come aboard as stowaways, that we could come and go amongst the islands with no Guarda check-ins.
By mid-afternoon, low-lying Cayo Bretón appeared. We came around the western tip of the island and dropped anchor on southern, Caribbean Sea side. A satellite view of the island reveals an almost ethereal, wispy island with a maze of winding channels and pools amongst either lush mangrove or patches of tangled dead roots. We hopped into the inflatable and entered the maze under outboard power. Around each bend new birdlife was revealed, pelicans, double crested cormorants, egrets, herons and even arctic terns. The arctic terns perform among the world’s longest annual migrations from the arctic to the antarctic, following the warmth of the sun, an annual loop of some 25,000 miles, in this case with a stop in Cuba!
Back aboard we marveled at our unique anchorage, deserted tropical island on one side and an endless expanse of sea on the other. At dusk, a government lobster boat happened by. By law, in Cuba, ALL lobsters belong to the government; they are a lucrative catch which natives cannot avail themselves of. Following a chat between boats, two of the fishermen rowed over and we traded a bottle of Cuban rum for two huge lobsters for our dinner. The transaction would be frowned upon by the authorities; but, tasted oh so good!
Day 5 – Cayo Bretón to Cayo Cuervo
Looking for an adventure, we hoisted the anchor and headed for the shallow and challenging Estero Bretón, a narrow channel through the heart of Cayo Bretón that would allow us to pass from the the south side of the Gardens of the Queen back to the north. The charter company had tried to discourage us from making the shallow passage without local knowledge; but, I always love the little adventure.
I am reminded that I am actually the second member of my family to sail these waters. As a young teenager I was lucky to know my great uncle, Samuel Eliot Morison. Uncle Sam was renowned as among the foremost maritime historians in the United States. In 1939, together with his wife and other Harvard professors, he sailed from Portugal to the Caribbean, retracing the routes of Columbus and his voyages to the New World. He did the voyage in his ketch, the Mary Otis, including the same area we are now exploring in the Gardens of the Queen, to which Columbus had been the first European. From his voyage, Uncle Sam would write, Admiral of the Ocean Sea chronicling the life of Columbus and winning Sam one of his two Pulitzer Prizes.
Once through the Estero Bretón we turned east, heading for one of the region’s more intriguing isles, Cayo Cuervo. A satellite photo gives one an eagle eye view of this nearly perfect circular coral atoll. The ring of islets and coral has one opening, through which we would sail into a brilliant turquoise sea, completely protected from wind in any direction. It turned out that the government shrimp boats use Cayo Cuervo as a harbor of refuge close to 100 miles from their home port of Cienfuegos. Three or four of the craft used the opposite corner of the basin to pass the night. They did swing by and offered to provide us with a bit of food if we need any.
A swim into the refreshing water was a delightful end to a day of sailing.
Day 6 – Cayo Cuervo to Cayo Cinco Balas to Cayo Alcatracita
Along with the shrimp boats, and sharing a parting wave, we headed back westward and seaward, towards a passage through the chain of islands. We wanted to make a mid-day stop inside the barrier reef on the Caribbean Sea side of the Gardens of the Queen. Passing between the northwest tip of Cayo Boca Grande and the eastern end of Cayo Cinco Ballas, we turned back east and searched for a break in the barrier reef. Fining a break we passed into the shallow waters between the island and barrier reef – here the charts offer little help; one must rely on a sharp-eyed bow lookout spotting coral heads and wending between them. The water was crystal clear, perhaps clearer than I can remember anywhere. We slowly moved to a protected spot on the back reef with the continuous sounds of waves on coral from the front side.
We took the inflatable Zodiac to within twenty feet of the back reef, donned mask, snorkel and fins and plunged into the waters. Visibility was astounding; it was easy to see 100 feet or more! Swimming along the reef a big southern stingray with its venomous, barbed tail attempted to burry itself in sand to hide. The larger females measure up to five feet across and eight feet or more in length. Schools of powder blue tangs surrounded us in a myriad of color. French angel fish, dazzling parrot fish and more were everywhere. The corals were stunning, live and brilliant, not having suffered bleaching events like so many reefs worldwide. Intricate undulations of yellow brain corals, purple sea fans with stalks of club finger coral in front. Delicate soft corals looking like a sunlit garden.
Circling around to the front of the reef larger, predatory fish patrolled, some lone, others in schools. An octopus changed color and hid amid the coral. A large shark, a true sign of a healthy coral reef system, left its resting place on the bottom and meandered after me for a couple minutes. This is how a coral reef should look; indeed, the Gardens of the Queen were living up to their promise!
Back aboard, we raised anchor and headed further back west to Cayo Cinco Ballas. Again we found a break in the barrier reef and crept our way in to the shallows beside small Cayo Alcatracita. Another Zodiac ride took us in to the white sand beach. In the sand we could see the tracks of large iguanas and even the trails of the heavy tail of the Cuban crocodile. As we walked the shoreline we pondered what would happen to these islands if Cuba reopens to US tourists. Surely there would be huge pressure for development. It would take careful planning to keep development out and preserve this unique place of natural beauty and wildlife. A unique organization in New York, Ocean Doctor, is already working with the Cuban leaders to formulate plans for this eventuality.
Day 7 – Cayo Alcatracita to Trinidad
Today we have another long sail, back to mainland Cuba and the town of Trinidad. We were underway before sunrise, making use of a fair breeze, sailing northward until the Sierra Escambray mountains revealed themselves in the mists over Cuba. An owl, green heron and other birds visited us on the way as we drew near to the coast. By midday we were entering the outer harbor and could see the yellow bell tower off of Trinidad’s main square above the trees in the distance. Following a slender, snake-like channel into the inner lagoon, we anchored and rowed ashore to clear in with the local Guarda Fronteras.
We found a classic, blue 1955 ford taxi and took the short ride to Plaza Mayor in the center. Along the way we passed a huge billboard with an image of Fidel and the motto, “Patria o Muerte,” stating simply, “Fatherland or Death.” The ruling party is omnipresent!
Stepping from the taxi to the river cobblestone street of Trinidad is a magical moment where you feel transported in time. This UNESCO World Heritage Site began as a town in 1514, supplied crew for the expedition of Cortés to conquer the Aztec empire in 1519, rose in prominence and wealth until the late 1850s when the sugar plantations grew in size and moved away. It is literally as if time then stopped. Nothing new was built, What remains is in far better condition than Havana. It is probably the best example of Spanish colonial architecture in the world. Whether strolling the center, or wandering into the barrios, past homes and pick-up soccer games in little village squares, or past families playing dominos at a card table in the street, everything is enchanting. Music seems to be everywhere, music is an important part of life here in Trinidad.
After an afternoon and early evening exploring and we found a rooftop terrace paladar, or restaurant, atop a home. These paladars are another form of privatized business under the Raul Castro changes. Fresh fish, rice, beans and vegetables were delicious. A local band played music into the night with a backdrop of the town’s main cathedral. We talked with the band members of famous Cuban and American jazz artists. It felt like the perfect day.
Day 8 – Trinidad to Cienfuegos
Up early again to make the run back to Cienfuegos, a decent sail, hugging the coast, passing fishermen, white sand beaches and sunshine. Along the shore, makeshift tents were set up by fishermen who swim out to spear fish along the coast. Flocks of seagulls soar over whitecapped waves as we sail westward. Finally we pass the Los Colorados lighthouse and soon turn into Cienfuegos. We return to the ornate, but tired Cienfuegos Yacht Club and tie up back at the marina. We spend a final night aboard.
Day 9 – Flight Home
With a few hours in the morning we take a Russian-built Lada taxi to the city center and tour the elegant Plaza José Martí. In the center of the open plaza is a towering statue of José Martí, the father of Cuban independence; he is recognized as a leader of the Cuban War of Independence from Spanish rule. We spend an hour in a quiet museum on the side of the plaza. By chance we then discover free concert in a secluded garden off the far end of the plaza. We walk in and take a seat under sunlit fuschia bougainvillea and listen to the Cuban rhythms and ponder the challenges facing Cuba in the years ahead, both for its people and its stunning natural beauty and rich historic fabric. A voyage to rememeber.