Puerto Vita, Gibara, Santiago de Cuba

10th - 15th April 2004

Finally approved by all the authorities in Puerto Vita to be let loose amongst the Cuban population, we decided to explore the village near the marina.   During our walk through the one-street town of Vita, we were quickly approached by Severino, a local fisherman.   After some confusion, we realised he was offering us the chance to eat dinner at his home that evening.   The practice of offering meals and accommodation to travellers in their homes is very common amongst the Cuban population, who are always keen for an opportunity to earn some US dollars.   Some of the establishments are licensed and have a baffling amount of paperwork to complete and high taxes to pay, others are unlicensed.

The day-to-day economy of Cuba runs with two currencies, the Cuban Peso and the US dollar (sometimes also substituted with the confusingly named "Interchangeable Peso", which has the same value as a dollar but is worthless outside Cuba).    Cuban salaries are paid in Cuban pesos and the dollar equivalent of the average professional's monthly salary, for say a doctor or professor, is less than the cost of renting a bed-and-breakfast room in a house overnight ($20).   Hence the Cuban's enthusiasm for working with tourists.   Apart from staple foods bought at the market and for Cubans only, transport, some bars and restaurants, everything else has to be purchased in dollars.  

Severino took us to his home for a cup of strong Cuban coffee and introduced us to his wife Yousy.   We returned that evening to sample authentic Cuban food.   A typical meal is usually pork, chicken or fish served always with rice and beans and as it seemed to be tomato season in Cuba, well that was almost all that was for sale in the markets anyway, a tomato salad.    Eating in the so-called "paladors", the local word for a house where meals are served to visitors, is an excellent way to catch a glimpse of the Cuban lifestyle and chat to the locals.   

Dinner at Severino and Yousy's house.

Phil made friends with the workers at the marina, while he was fishing from the dock.   The security guard managed to persuade him to part with one of his precious lures and whilst demonstrating to him how it worked, Phil unexpectedly hooked a barracuda too, so the guard was doubly happy when he left with a lure and his supper!

We'd been a bit disappointed that our first landfall in Cuba was in a spot so remote from towns of any size.  It seems that most of the tourist resorts are located in out-of-the way locations.   We decided to head further west up the north coast as quickly as possible.  Our next port of call was Gibara, a town about 10 miles west of Vita.  The port was supposed to be OK for calm weather and as there had been no wind for days, we hoped it would be OK.   

We anchored in the bay, which seemed fine and within minutes the Port Captain arrived in a rowing boat manned by a local fisherman.  Each time you arrive in or leave a Cuban port, the authorities (who became known as "the men in green") have to check your documents, stamp your cruising permit and make notes on the document about whether you've been good whilst in their port.   The cruising permit and tourist visa are, in the words of the officials who cleared us in to Cuba at Vita, "good everywhere in Cuba".   However, we quickly realised that the port officials on the north coast seemed to work from a manual entitled "30 reasons to keep the Gringos aboard their boats"!   In Baracoa reason one had been used ("This is not a port of entry, you can't go ashore).  Here we encountered reason number two (No boats at anchor - except local ones of course - to be left unattended)!  

First the Port Captain asked why we were stopping in Gibara if our papers said we were going to Havana. We replied that we wanted to visit the town, to see Cuba. He asked who would be looking after the boat when we went ashore. We were very puzzled as in every place we've been to, it hasn't been a problem to leave the boat at anchor for a trip ashore, what would be the point of stopping otherwise?  After several minutes of debate, he shrugged his shoulders and left, it seemed we would be allowed ashore after all. We needn't have bothered having the argument because as soon as he left, the wind picked up to a constant 25 knots, with gusts to 35 and swell coming into the bay to accompany it.  If it had been safe enough to get up the anchor, we'd have left with or without our cruising permit being stamped. We couldn't contact the Port Captain as he had no VHF radio.  However, in the end we took anchor watch all afternoon, the anchor held fine but it was quite scary. By evening the wind died down and the swell reduced a little, then we ended up beam on to it all night, so didn't get much rest.  Our visit to Gibara was not a great success.  When the Port Captain returned at the appointed departure time of 7 am, he smugly asked if we enjoyed our visit to the town. Hmm.

The weather forecast was for unsettled weather with strong winds for the next week, so we decided our best option was to return to the protected port of Vita, anchor there and hire a car to visit some of the parts of Cuba we'd missed by hire car instead.   On arrival we were greeted like old friends.  Of course we had to pay £7 a night for the privilege of using our own anchor near the marina and once they heard our plan to tour by car, reason 2 from the manual was used again to make us move the boat back from the anchorage into the marina before we left.    The nice lady in the marina did, however, only charge us the same price as for anchoring, which helped.


As soon as we left the marina for our three day tour with the hire car, we encountered our first Cuban traffic jam - an ox cart stuck across the road!   We made our way along surprisingly good roads through Holguin to Santiago de Cuba, and quickly decided we were glad we'd opted for the luxury of the hire car, instead of relying on public transport.   The poor locals seemed to travel incredible distances squashed in the back of trucks, usually with no seats or protection from the baking sun or rain.   Throughout our trip, we passed locals hopefully waiting at the side of the road, in large crowds at major junctions, for some form of transport to arrive.  It seemed that the Cubans travelling overland have to use the same flexible time planning system as we do sailing and need even more patience!   The option of travelling by train may seem more desirable once they manage to buy a ticket, which can apparently take anything from three days to a fortnight!  Tourists, of course, are whisked to the front of the queue as the dollar price for tickets is the same as the peso price (i.e. 26 times more expensive).

Cuban Traffic Jam

Normal public transport for locals

De-luxe public transport for locals

It was novel to travel along roads not littered by advertising billboards, however each small settlement we passed seemed to have put a great deal of effort into a roadside display demonstrating their enthusiasm for the revolution, sometimes in the form of posters of revolutionary heroes, often with gardens alongside.   

We soon reached Santiago de Cuba and the last section of the journey was on a "motorway".    Finding the motorway was tricky, as there were no road signs at all indicating the access roads but once on the six lane highway we were able to travel quickly provided we kept a good lookout for cyclists and horses, which were often travelling the wrong way up the carriageway.

Santiago's queue for train tickets

Sunset view from the terrace of our home in Santiago de Cuba

In Santiago's busy streets we tried to find one of the "casas particuliares" or bed and breakfasts, we'd been told about.   We found ourselves heading the wrong way up a one-way street and were stopped luckily not by the police but by Michel, who spoke excellent English.   

As luck would have it, his mother-in-law Elvira also had a room to rent, just around the corner and we decided to park up the car and stay there, as it was just a few minutes away on foot from the centre of the city.  Before we headed out to see the city, we were able meet Michel's brother-in-law, a kidney specialist, who earns the equivalent of $15 a month.   Our room was $20 for the night.   Michel spoke excellent English, being an English Professor but preferred to work in the dollar based tourist industry, giving tours when cruise ships visit the city.    

Michel took us for a walk around the centre of Santiago to help us get our bearings and showed us the main landmarks, the bars where you could dance to local music, the main square called Parque Cespedes, full of tourists and hustlers, where you could see the beautiful cathedral and the town hall where Fidel Castro made a famous speech after the Revolution.

Elvira preparing our dinner

One of Santiago's many bars with live music and dancing

As the sun set that evening it was fascinating to sit on the terrace above the house and watch a cross-section of Cuban life being lived on the roof terraces of the houses nearby, girls rehearsing a dance on one roof, people exercising on another, locals doing the same as us and just watching the world go by.

Next morning we were awakened by loud screaming and on investigating discovered that the neighbours were butchering their pig on the roof.    Michel was interested that we were so surprised by this and asked, "Don't you slaughter your pigs on the roof of your house in cities in Wales?"   Our reply, "Erm, no, not allowed", left him puzzled.

Fresh bacon for breakfast anyone??


Changing of the guard at the mausoleum


Before we left the city to continue our tour by car, Michel took us to the famous cemetery, Cemetario Santa Ifigenia, to see the impressive changing of the guard ceremony at the mausoleum of the revolutionary hero José Martí.

We managed to cram in a visit to the Bacardi museum and the Carnival Museum, where we augmented our musical instrument collection aboard with some Cuban maracas and claves.    Too soon it was time to leave Santiago de Cuba and continue our adventure by road.

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