Jalan-Jalan Yacht


Posted: April 23rd, 2013 under Cruising.

Cuba – 15th April – Bahia de Vita

It is a week since we arrived in this tiny bay after what was a really good passage. We left Southbay beside Duncanstown in the dark in 20 + knots of wind and headed to a waypoint on the Grand Bahama Bank which would take us safely out into the Old Bahama Channel and deep waters, which was a relief after sailing in an average of 3 metres in the dark. We managed to keep up a speed of 7 knots all the way, although at times had to use the engine to get over the swell. Apart from a few rain showera which helped wash the salt away the sailing was excellent. We had made good time and arrived in Bahia de Vita in Cuba just after lunchtime. The approach to the marina was interesting and fortunately the weather was calm enough that we had no issue getting into the neck of the channel. It reminded us of an entry we had had at Colraine on one occasion but happily this one was far less challenging. The channel is a long one with a few markers which initially are fine, but then the channels widens into a large basin with lots of shallow patches. We had been prewarned that it was tricky to find the right buoy to follow but between John’s eagle eye and my conversation on the radio with the marina as to which way to turn, we made it to the berths. They have a Mediterranean system which was hilarious for us to do now that since the solar panels restrict our access at the back of the boat.

No sooner were we tied up than the officials began to arrive.
There was the harbourmaster, doctor, drug officer with his sniffer dog and the customs man. The boat began to feel a bit overcrowded. Patience was the name of the game and fortunately for us they all spoke a little English so we got through the questions and the paperwork. Janet, the lady in the marina office is delightful and speaks excellent English. She has kept us on the right path regarding car hire etc.

We caught up on some sleep and next day headed to the town
of Guardalavaca where we rented a car. It is very expensive to hire a car here and to be honest after a week of travelling around some of the eastern area of Cuba it is not something we would rush to do again. However without a car you are at the mercy of the transport system. This is o.k. if you have all the time in the world to get around but it can be a long haul on some pretty basic roads.

Our first foray in the car was illuminating with regard to road conditions and traffic. Basically there isn’t much traffic which involves cars. Pedestrians, vintage cars, tractors, lorries and animals are the mode of travel here. We found ourselves a bit lost quite quickly but as a result found a heritage sight at Bariay where apparently Columbus first landed in Cuba. The workers in the park all spoke some English and were very knowledgeable and welcoming. We spent a lovely few hours there and learned a lot about Cuban life from them all.

We had decided to visit one of the oldest towns in Cuba called Baracoa. The guide books said the journey would take us through some beautiful scenery etc, etc. We had a map in our guide book and opted for what appeared to be the quickest route. It was unbelievable. Once we got to the hometown of Che Guevara i.e. Moa the road just kind of petered out into a track. It was through the National Park Humbold and 4 – 5 hours later we had only covered 40 miles. It was very nerve wracking and really we should have had a 4 wheel drive rather than a Kia!!! Eventually we arrived in Baracoa and were luckily directed to a lovely casa Particulares, Casa Colonial. Poor John was shattered as he was the only driver!

Baracoa was interesting, but like so much of Cuba is basic. It did however have a few cafes and bars in the historic area. It actually only covers a few hundred yards.
The hospitality offered by Yllani and Gustava in their casa was lovely. It is easier to arrange to have your meals in these places as eating out can be difficult and a bit risky for a variety of reasons, but mainly hygiene. A lot of places have to get water from a stand pipe in the main street and carry it back to their homes in containers.
Dinner on the first night was a huge plateful of lobster (delicious), next night it was a local type of fish, which was meaty in texture – a bit like monk fish. It had been cooked in a coconut salsa and was yummy. We had also discovered the chocolate museum where we indulged in a cold chocolate float. First chocolate and ice cream we have had in months!

Everyone we spoke to about the road we had driven reiterated that it was a very bad road and quite well known (wish they had said that on the map). So for the return journey we had been advised to go towards Santiago de Cuba as the roads were better, apart from La Farola.
Oh boy – the scenery was absolutely breathtaking but so were the bends and drops. Described in the guide book as a feat of Cuban engineering – it was certainly something else. Vigilance was the name of the game, if for no reason other than to avoid the folk who would leap out of nowhere to try and sell you a banana or some cocoa.

As you drive round there is a constant reminder of Cuba’s troubled past. There are lots of rocks and walls painted with the likenesses of dead revolutionary heroes or slogans from the government about how people must work hard in order to be better people. We have noticed that people are always working at something and you rarely see anyone just hanging about unlike down the island chain. People have to walk very long distances to get from a to b and rely heavily on people stopping to pick them up. To begin with we were a bit wary of doing this but now we are getting better at doing it and have met some lovely people. The buses are divisive. Local folk can get into lorries which are the basic form of transport and they just hang on to the bars around the edge. They resemble cattle trucks back home. Sometimes landrovers act as a bus of sorts. Mostly in the countryside people use horses or bullocks with a cart in tow which can seat lots of people. Poor animals are skin and bone.

In the towns houses have electricity and maybe water but for many of the areas we have driven through there are no such amenities. In rural areas most of the houses are wooden shacks with either thatched or tin roofs. You see many people walking without shoes but wellies seem to be popular in rural parts. Shoes are a very expensive commodity in Cuba.

We have also learned the hard way that you should not expect to find a petrol station in every town and definitely not in rural parts. After getting lost a couple of times we found ourselves running on air and having to freewheel down hills in the hope that we would make it in to Santiago de Cuba to a gas station.
We stopped to ask for directions to the station and 3 young Cubans got in to the back seat and took us there. It was a bit of a hoot really but would have been a real pain if we had had to push the car anywhere in the heat.

As a result of the various detours made on the return journey we were struggling to get back to the boat before dark. To make things worse we drove through dreadful deluges of rain. The roads are not designed to drain the water from the surfaces very readily and so aquaplaning was the norm for a few hours. Driving in the daytime is interesting as you negotiate round walkers, horse drawn carts, bullocks , men on horseback, cyclists and any other mode of transport you can imagine that is pre 1950’s. However once darkness falls it is positively hazzardous. The guide books suggest it is not something you should do – for good reason. There are no reflectors on bikes or pedestrians and as there are no street lights you cannot see things easily. It is exhausting having to concentrate so hard for so long. Of course there is the inevitable pot hole just waiting to catch you out on a regular basis!! Would recommend a KIA now though – it has been through a lot and met the challenge.
Then there is the road police. Seems like a hire car is an easy target to be stopped fairly regularly for the tiniest violation e.g. double yellow lines means no overtaking – yeah we got that bit but we didn’t think it meant the bullock and cart as well – it did.
Still he was a nice man and let us away with a warning!!!

The nearest town is Guardalavaca which appears to be a dedicated tourist resort Cuban style. As I hit the big birthday on Saturday we headed there to try and find something to do. We ended up in a small café beside the local tourist trap market where a group of musicians were playing. John made a request and I sat, mortified, as they serenaded me with Happy Birthday and the others in the café joining in. It was lovely and did help to make me feel that it was actually a special day, even if it wasn’t being spent with the family and friends.

Girbana was another town we visited. It used to be the main port but is now just another area where there is little to do. Not sure what people find to do workwise in towns like Gibara. It is quite difficult to get to as the road is a tad basic from the main town of Holquin. The government have opened a beautifully refurbished/renonvated hotel but not sure if the tourist would happily pay $100 a night to stay in the area. Once again while we were there we were reminded of the work ethic in the country. We had left our very dirty, rented car outside a casa Particulares and when we got back to it someone was washing it. He just smiled and gestured that it had been needing done and he would be finished soon. We paid him the equivalent of a $1 which for him is more than he would make in a few days at work.

The wages are very very bad in Cuba. Office staff will work for about $30 a month. The hours are long and it is six days a week for most people. Folk who manage to get jobs in hotels,etc where they can get access to ‘cucs’ can do okay via tips. Those not so fortunate get paid in pesos and struggle just to put enough food on the table. It is a very humbling experience to observe this lifestyle and to note that most people are o.k. with their lot. Everyone we have met so far has been very friendly and welcoming. Even the policia who have stopped us several times for various reasons!

We had hoped to travel further and visit Trinidad but have decided that we shall stay in and around this area and get to know it a bit better and perhaps not get lost so often.
We still have a few bigger towns to visit here and hopefully check out some of the gorgeous beaches we spotted as we were sailing up the coast.

Internet and the age of telecommunications hasn’t really arrived here yet and so staying in touch with folks is proving really difficult. Indeed just getting access to a weather forecast is challenging. Before we leave we will have to drive for an hour to get to the town of Holguin, locate an internet office and use a machine which is grindingly slow. All the communication is monitored apparently in Havana – control being the name of the game. It feels a bit like having your hands cut of when you cannot stay in touch. Tourist hotels have access but if you are not staying there you are denied access to the service. To the ordinary man in the street access in to the internet is unaffordable as you have to pay in ‘cucs’ . If the government ever decide to allow internet into everyday life it will probably be the equivalent of another revolution as Cubans will see another way of life and what is available in other areas of the world. However saying that, the people we have met and shared conversations with have been very aware of what is happening in other parts of the world and have meaningful conversations about things. Many speak excellent English and it is humbling to be reminded that we do not have another language.

Today we met 2 different men who spent about an hour each with us giving us a plotted history lesson and a political one as well. They just stop you and start up conversations as they get a chance then to practice their English.

Our thoughts are turning towards the next part of the season. We shall leave Cuba soon when there is a weather window and think about getting down to Antigua and then home before the hurricane season starts again.

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