Leaving Cabo Cruz at 11.30pm allowed us to get a good start on our 110nm easterly trip to Santiago de Cuba. There were few lights on shore in the wee hours and we could see the cliffs and white beaches in the moonlight. Making good speed in the calm conditions the following morning, we motored along admiring the impressive mountains and cliffs along the south coast in daylight.
By 6pm we passed under the fortification El Morro and the lighthouse on the east bank of the entry to the bay of Santiago, the oldest city in Cuba, having recently celebrated its 500 year anniversary. Weaving our way through the darkness we dodged small fishing boats in the channel for about a mile until we dropped anchor in a cove next to the marina, after which we went ashore to check in with the officials then went to the bar for a drink or two.
Our visas expired the Saturday before and we needed to get an extension of another 30 days. We were told we couldn’t have this done at the marina and had to go into the city along Calle Aguilera to a small immigration office. It’s important to note that you don’t just turn up at the immigration office with your passports as advised by the Marina staff. First you must go to a bank (we went to the Banco de Credito in Plaza Cespedes) and purchase enough ‘stamps’ for your visa (CUC$25 per person). Second, be sure to have your travel insurance certificate with you as you will not be given an extension without one (even though no one checked this when we originally arrived). Third, wear appropriate clothing and footwear, and fourth, don’t go at lunchtime!
From the bank, we obtained the stamps and went to the immigration office. Neither crew thought to take travel insurance certificates as this was the first time we’d been asked for them. Fortunately I had a digital copy of our travel insurance on my iPad which was accepted. The woman officer approved my extension, but not Wayne’s. I queried why she wouldn’t process Wayne and in Spanish she tried to explain that it was because he was wearing thongs, or ‘chancletas’ (jandals or flip-flops), on his feet and they would not serve him! (They didn’t realise I was also wearing thongs on my feet but these were hidden under the desk). The fact that it was lunchtime meant that Wayne and the crew of Sweet Sensation had to return at 2pm with travel insurance information and decent footwear. After exiting we noticed the dress standards on the wall outside, in Spanish of course.
We found a small wifi station used by students near the Hotel Melia Santiago and sat there until it was time to return. Back at immigration at 2pm, Kevin loaned Wayne his Crocs so his standard of dress improved tenfold. Although it’s debatable whether Crocs are considered better footwear than thongs. Our visas were finally extended.
The Marina Punta Gorda is 10kms from the ciudad de Santiago. It has no fuel facility since Hurricane Sandy washed away the fuel dock, so as we needed 140 litres of diesel, the only way was to have a local guy drive all over town filling jerries with diesel in the back of a mini bus. The water tank at the marina ran out of water the day before so none of us could have showers either. Wayne, Kevin and a couple of other yachties needed around 600 litres of diesel between them. While they faffed around all day in the heat back and forth getting fuel, Chris, Graham and I took a pleasant walk west along Calle Aguilera until we reached Plaza Cespedes in the centre of Santiago. Along the way we stopped at a large bakery and the guys inside were happy to give us some freshly baked buns in exchange for some bars of soap from Graham’s stash (a much demanded product by Cubans). This walk away from the tourist area allowed us to peak into Cuban homes and meet some friendly people.
Once in town and outside the Hotel Casa Granda, a young man named Roberto said to Graham “Hello, you remember me? I work at the marina in security”. I didn’t know him from a ‘bar of soap’ but nonetheless he seemed pleasant and showed us where we could get a cheap cup of tea and not pay hotel prices. Afterwards he walked alongside us through the plaza, showed us the oldest building in Cuba and we walked to the waterfront along the oldest street in Cuba and he seemed okay at this point although I was wondering why he wasn’t at work. I knew there were touts here but for some reason his opening line had me guessing. Although he wanted us to go elsewhere, we wanted to return to the hotel for some internet and had to walk up a hill. I was hoping
he’d leave at this point. It was a steep hill so we stopped for a refreshment at a supposedly inexpensive ‘local’ eatery. Deciding to have some food because we were told it was ‘much cheaper than the hotels’ we stayed for a simple meal of beef and rice. It was all going swimmingly until we received the bill which equated to around $US60! We were definitely stung by this tout and the eatery but we had no choice but to pay. He didn’t offer to pay his share either. You win some and lose some…
In Cuba, the place to get decent internet is at the hotels. But even the marina and hotel next door have no internet. At the Hotel Casa Granda after we’d given Roberto the slip, we sat in the shade on wrought iron rocking chairs to download weather information for the next ten days. After this we hailed an old Chevrolet taxi who returned us to the marina.
Back at the Marina which had resolved it’s water problem, we all had cold showers then met at the bar. We had to laugh about the way tourists are targets in this two tier economy (locals pay 1/25th the price as tourists in many places). Comparing notes, it seems that both Kevin and I were approached by other men with the same line “I know you from the marina, I work in security”. This line was again used on us when we went back to the city later that week. An obvious scam!
Here are a selection of street scenes from around Santiago de Cuba:
The following day all of us took a ferry across the short distance to Granma Island. We could have dinghied across the short distance but in Cuba we are not allowed to take our dinghies anywhere except the marina’s dinghy dock. Plus the marina charges $3 per person too. The island has a cobble road around it, humble homes and a few paladars or local eateries. Hurricane Sandy caused much destruction to this island and the marina back in 2012 and there is still evidence of this.
At the ferry dock at Granma is a restaurant where tourists have lunch without walking around the small island. Floating nearby on polystyrene blocks was a local woman with a cute puppy with flowers in its hair. She was holding out her hand requesting soap or money. We didn’t eat at this restaurant, rather walked around the island in about 30 minutes.
Along the way I handed out small koala souvenirs to some children; one little boy’s eyes lit up when he was handed one. A young guy clung to us like a tight fist around a wallet hoping we’d eat at his “much cheaper” establishment. Hmm.
We agreed to go for a cold beer but were suspicious, after the scam of the day before. After reviewing the menu which listed simple meals at double the price of that at the marina plus more expensive beers, we decided to head back to the marina for a lunch!
Our final day in Cuba, Saturday we got rid of the trash, had a long cold shower and prepared the boat for departure. The checkout procedure was straightforward – we paid the marina our anchoring fees and the harbour master arranged our port clearance. I was surprised no-one came aboard to untape our Satphone and to make sure we didn’t have any Cubans hiding in our cupboards.
I enjoyed Santiago. So much different from Havana and full of colour, sounds, smells and people like much of Cuba. After five weeks sailing around Cuba’s coast we raised the anchor for the last time. By 6.30pm we had left the anchorage at Punta Gorda, passed the Castillo El Morro and lighthouse at the entrance to this impressive bay, and headed south east towards the large island of Hispaniola. I’ve enjoyed my time in Cuba; the people are very friendly and easy going and the history, of which I’d like to know more, is most interesting. Next time I’d like to do more land travel and see the interior.
Over the next few days we continued motor-sailing a distance of almost 500nm from Santiago de Cuba, bypassing Haiti and onto the Dominican Republic. As our voyage was against the prevailing easterly winds, we did our best to make way in the rough, tiring and uncomfortable conditions. We stopped overnight once on the west coast of the Dominican Republic to allow stronger winds to pass, then the next day continued our trip for the final 180nm to Casa de Campo on the south coast of the Dominican Republic. Here we’ll stay a short while to fuel up, food up, and maybe some internet before we continue our trip to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.