Sunday, 29 November 2009

To Cuba. Travel report no. 52.

For corresponding photos see Picture Gallery no.52
By Diana, 29th November, 2009.

From Rio Dulce via Belize and Mexico to Havana, Cuba.

Back in Guatemala

Our plane back to Guatemala City arrived late afternoon 28th September. Instead of our usual cheap hotel we felt like more comfort and had a night in the Holiday Inn, which turned out not to be much more expensive as it included transport from the air-port, and a big breakfast. The next morning we made the 5 hour bus trip to Rio Dulce, as always a bit excited to see White Admiral again. She was in fine shape, straining at the ropes, ready for a new adventure. It doesn’t take long to get her ready when she is in the water, so two days later with everything in place, and a big load of shopping aboard we were ready to go. It was a bit nostalgic leaving Monkey Bay Marina which has been a good home for White Admiral since April 2008, but now we are heading slowly back home to Norway.

After shuffling the boats around, we drove out of the marina, waving goodbye to the American manager John, who had looked after us well, and headed off down to the El Golfete lake, motoring into a light head-wind, then through the spectacular gorge as Rio Dulce winds its way out to the port of Livingston.
In Livingston the check- out procedures are straight-forward, although this time it involved a fine, which we knew about beforehand as it was a cheaper way of doing things than paying for an extension!

Departure problems.

After lunch, Stein discovered a diesel leak in the starboard engine. He couldn’t fix it on the spot, but having two engines, we decided to stick to our plan of leaving the same night for Placencia in Belize. We do not often enter or leave harbours in the dark, but we did so this time, as it only involved taking a course to a buoy which is easily seen in the dark. We found ourselves motoring into a headwind at 2 knots with our one engine, then thunder and lightning erupted around us, and to top things off we suddenly heard a scraping noise under us, and found that we had a fishing net in the propeller! No choice but for poor Stein to jump into the water with torch and knife and cut us free with the boat heaving up and down in the swell. I watched him with heart in mouth, and was very glad to see him get the net off, without bumping his head into the propeller. I was now ready to turn back to port, get the engine repaired and wait for better weather, but Stein is always the optimist, and persuaded me that things would get better, which they did. It was a squally night, with some torrential rain showers, but we managed to motor-sail most of the night, and arrived at Big Creek the next morning as planned. This is the port of entry for Placencia, one of the places where yachts can check in. We know the routine here, and managed to check in efficiently, despite the alcoholic port captain trying to make us cheat by giving him a tip instead of paying the exit fee in advance! We like to have our papers in order, so we don’t take any chances with that.

Visitors from Scotland.

Now we were free to enjoy Belize again and motored to the anchorage south of Placencia, the pleasant, colourful village which we have visited earlier. We had a good long walk to find the two geocaches hidden here, and Stein made a temporary repair to get both engines going again. Then it was early to bed after a night of little sleep. We now had only two days to get to Belize City, as our good old friends, Anne and Alistair Balfour, and their 16-year old son Adam, would be arriving to join us for a couple of weeks. The weather had improved, and the first day we sailed close-hauled into a light north-easterly, with a little help from the engines, but made the disappointing discovery en route that Stein’s repair was not strong enough and diesel was leaking again. Then as we approached the anchorage at Garbutt Cay, a mangrove island, the echo sounder stopped working and we had to get out the reserve. Sometime it feels like something always needs repairing, but that is part of life on a sailboat...
The next day was at last lovely sailing towards Belize City in a light easterly breeze. Early in the day, we got a text message from the Balfours that they had boarded the plane in Scotland. We could not get any more messages to or from them, and thinking we might have made a mistake in their arrival date, headed right to Cucumber marina near Belize City instead of another island stop, in time to meet the afternoon plane from Houston. Of course, no Balfours appeared, they were spending the night in USA! They arrived as planned on the 4th, and were dully installed in White Admiral. Our itinerary was first to go north to Caye Caulker with its laid-back, holiday community, then out to the atolls of Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef, outside the main barrier reef.


The next morning began with a fresh easterly breeze, which we had to motor straight into. After a couple of hours, we had a stop at Swallow Caye, which is a reserve for manatees, the plant-eating mammals which have been nearly eradicated in many countries. Belize has protected these animals since 1937, amazing foresight! We rowed about in the dinghy for an hour or so, and had a couple of sightings, a dark shadow under the surface, or a snout appearing for a moment, but once back on White Admiral, one did pop up so that we got a good look at him, and we declared the expedition a success!
The rest of the afternoon was a pleasant sail up to the western anchorage at Caye Caulker. This proved to be poor holding, we woke up in the middle of the night a long way off-shore, fortunately there were no reefs behind us. We re-anchored at that spot, then at 7 a.m. drove back into the bay where the anchor took hold on the fourth attempt! (The problem was caused by short, dense turtle grass.) A pleasant day was had in Caye Caulker, walking, shopping and a great meal at Rosie’s, a simple restaurant where one can choose fresh fish, lobster or conch from the grill in the street. With a rum punch or Belize’s Belikin beer, life could have been worse!

Turneffe Atoll

We were off to the atolls the next morning, again close-hauled sailing in a fresh breeze. Our delight at catching a small tuna fish, was soon overshadowed, when our whole new fishing reel was pulled off the deck and disappeared into the deep! A case of the really big one that got away… So out with the old one again. At Turneffe atoll, we revisited our old fisherman friend Milo, who had taken us through the north part of the atoll earlier in the year. He provided us with fresh conch meat in exchange for a pair of pink croc shoes! We had hoped he would guide us through the shallow atoll again (depth mostly 2-3 m), but his canoe had been stolen recently, so this time we had to do it on our own. Fortunately, I had taken a few way-points (GPS readings) en route; we follow these plus kept a good look-out with the sun just behind us, and avoided the many coral heads. A lunch stop behind a coral patch was very popular with our guests, not only because of the pretty coral reef, but we were able to swim with some friendly dolphins!

Lighthouse Reef

Once through to the east side of Turneffe atoll, we had a squally sail with gusts of up to 30 knots, had to tack a couple of times, so didn’t make our destination before nightfall. Fortunately, there are some buoys put out for diving boats in the lee of Long Caye, one of the islands on the west of Lighthouse Reef. With our flashlight we were lucky to find a buoy immediately and get tied on for the night. We noticed that schools of quite large fish were attracted to the light, and when we threw in a lure, a horse-eyed jack was hooked and tomorrows dinner secured!
Next morning we cast off and motored through the passage in the reef to a less exposed anchorage in 2 m depth not far from the island. Long Caye is a flat, forested island with mostly mangroves along the shore, lots of iguanas and hermit land-crabs, a couple of deserted resorts which seem to have gone bankrupt, and the Huracan Diving resort, which was closed for most of the hurricane season (so why the name, we wondered!), hence no rum punches or cold beer to be bought there, either... Tourism seems to be in a decline in Belize, hopefully a temporary situation due to the financial crisis. Anyway, the island is criss-crossed by paths which allowed Anne to get her weekly jog, while the rest of us wandered about.
Leaving Long Caye, a large dive boat was now tied to the buoy we had made use of, luckily for Stein who got his diving bottle filled, a good exchange for some cheap wine bought in Guatemala. After a couple of hours motoring across the south end of the lagoon, we anchored at Half Moon Caye, the pearl of Lighthouse Reef and a protected nature park. (It has the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site.) Even though we have been here three times before, it is a lovely place to revisit, with its curving beaches, palm trees and colonies of frigate birds and blue-footed boobies.

The Great Blue Hole; beautiful and expensive

From Half Moon Caye, it is possible to sail up inside the eastern side of the reef right up to the north of the island, which we did, stopping overnight at the famous Blue Hole for a second time. Here Stein and Adam did a buddy dive together while the rest of us enjoyed the great snorkeling; every kind of reef fish can be seen here, including many Queen Angelfish, a beautiful fish that justly deserves its name. We didn’t leave early enough the next morning and were spotted by a rangers’ patrol boat who wanted a park fee of 30 US dollars from each of us, which seems like a ridiculously high visitor’s fee!
At the north end of Lighthouse Reef, the waters are really full of coral heads, so we had to leave by a rather scary, north passage through the reef nearby, sail around Sandborne Caye and the North Point lighthouse before reentering from the north-west into the anchorage off Northern Caye. This has another lovely beach, and yet another deserted resort we also have lamented about in the past... A bit like a ghost village with empty cottages, all the furniture in place, and beach chairs fading on the verandas.
We decided to sail back to Caye Caulker the next day to give us some time for visiting Mayan ruins, before the Balfours return to Scotland.
This turned out to be a lovely day, but only with a very light easterly breeze, perfect for gennaker sailing. Not often we get out this huge, light sail, but it looks great once the ropes are all sorted out and it billows out in the breeze showing its colours. But by lunch-time the wind had definitely faded, and we had to give up and motor the rest of the way. First we stopped the boat for a swim; lovely in the intense heat. In fact these two weeks were about the hottest we have experienced in the Caribbean, with at least 30 centigrade during the day, and only a couple of degrees lower at night. This made sleeping difficult for guests coming straight from autumn in Scotland. Different sleeping arrangements were tried out in the cock-pit and the bow trampoline, but the most successful was for Anne, who spent the last week sleeping in the rubber dinghy on the front deck!

Lamanai’s Mennonites and Mayan ruins.

Safely anchored back at Caye Caulker, this time on the east coast inside the barrier reef, we could leave White Admiral for a day to take a mainland trip to the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. An early morning water-taxi took us to Belize City. With two huge 300 horsepower outboard engines, we arrived a bit wind-swept. We had arranged to hire a car, which duly arrived with a lovely Belizean young lady at the wheel. To get to Lamanai is about a 2 hour drive through flat, rather dry landscape, but the last part we noticed was much more cultivated, horses and carts began to appear in the roads, and we felt we had stepped back in time as we saw men in blue overalls and straw hats, and ladies in long skirts and brimmed hats. One of the men hitched a lift with us, and could tell us a bit more about this Mennonite community, originally from Germany, who live and work here in an old-fashioned pious way, inter-marrying and keeping the German language.
We heard later from other Belizeans that the Mennonites are very hard-working and are responsible for a large part of Belize’s agricultural exports.
Lamanai was as expected an amazing sight, a huge area full of Mayan buildings and temples, most still hidden in the dense jungle. A few have been excavated, and stand as memorials to an advanced culture, long before the time of Columbus, with the remains of homes, meeting places, play-fields and religious temples. Particularly the temples make one wonder at what can be built without modern equipment, but with huge amounts of physical labour. The Mayans obviously had a great sense of esthetics and symmetry.

The last day of the Balfours’ holiday, Anne and Adam spent enjoying some of the facilities of Caye Caulker, which consists of some small restaurants and souvenir shops. Shopping is not Alistair’s thing, and he and I went off for another day on the mainland visiting Belize Zoo. We managed to find a bus from the rather insalubrious bus station in town, which took us for next to nothing the 20 miles to the zoo. This is an absolutely delightful natural area, with big enclosures for the native animals of the country. The highlights were the big cats, particularly the beautiful jaguars, and the Harpy Eagle, one of the biggest eagles in the World, and the one with the biggest claws!

Xcalak and Tulum, Mexico

After waving our friends off on the early morning water-taxi to Belize City, Stein and I were back to our original crew, and ready to set off for Mexico and Cuba; new and exciting destinations! First we had to clear out of San Pedro, the biggest tourist town in the north of Belize. This was only a few miles away, but took us three hours, motoring into a blustery 25 knot wind from the north. Here we did a little more geocaching; we now have two “Travel Bugs” as new crew, and spent our last Belize dollars. Checking out was uneventful, except that we had one of the most unpleasant officials ever, a lady with long, patterned finger nails, who was making life embarrassingly tough for her junior colleague who was trying to learn how to do the paperwork.
On 20th October, we were off to Mexico, despite the still unpleasant and unstable weather. It was only 25 miles along the coast to the nearest port of entry, but with the wind still against us, it took most of the day to sail. We did one long tack out to sea, and another tack back to the coast, before heading through a well marked passage through the reef just outside the small town of Xcalak in southern Quintana Roo district. This coast is also known as La Costa Maya.
The barrier reef continues from Belize along the southern part of the Mexican coast, and provided good protection also in the Xcalak anchorage. This was the first time we have met a female port captain, a pleasant change from the last official we had met, Susie was smiling and cheerful and made us feel welcome. Apart from her, Xcalak had little to offer, an out-of-the way, broken-down little town, with one restaurant open, where we had a beer. The little tourism the place used to have, has almost disappeared with the financial crisis and the ongoing fear of swine influenza! So off we went again the next afternoon, for an overnight sail along the coast, now with the wind more easterly, giving us a good sail until the early morning, when the wind died away, and we motored the last few hours to Tulum. Here we only stayed a few hours, as the anchorage is known to be poor holding and just off the beach. But we took time to visit another famous Mayan ruin, one of the few built on the coast, and one of Mexico’s big tourist attractions; another impressive collection of ancient stone buildings standing on a high cliff overlooking the blue Caribbean. The wind had now picked up again and gone more southerly; perfect for an overnight sail to Isla Mujeres, an island off the north-east point of the Yucatan Peninsula, and a good place to set off for Cuba.

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is a cheerful, bustling, Caribbean style island, no high rise buildings or American food chains allowed. This gives it a Mexican feel, and we enjoyed local food, and a drive around the island in a rented golf-buggy. Mexicans obviously don’t worry about the warning from the American manufacturer that these should never be used on ordinary roads! The Mexicans seem friendly, but have an awful lot of bureaucracy as regards sailing yachts. We spent a whole morning trotting from port captain’s office to photocopy shop to bank to immigration to get our papers for leaving the country, and were supplied with six ‘Zarpas’ (the clearance paper) and six crew-lists! By an amazing coincidence we met Australian Jeremy, a solo-sailor who had just arrived from Cuba in the port-captain’s office. The coincidence was that his yacht “Southern Hemisphere” was the only one in the place who had been in Cuba! We were keen to get information about Cuba, so invited him for dinner, and this proved to be a win-win for us all as he gave us charts for Cuba, and we gave him a guide for Mexico and Belize. He gave us the good advice to stock up with almost everything, as supplies are so hard to get in Cuba, so we did a new round at the supermarkets the next day, and we did indeed have good use for most of this stuff later. Jeremy is a 28 year old bachelor, and could also tell us about the pretty Cuban girls in a country where Western men have no trouble in finding new partners! (Stein assures me he is happy with his 65 year-old wife!)
We left Mexico on 25th October, after only a week in the country; as we were expecting Stein’s mother Eli, and cousin Stein “Buster”, due to arrive in Havana on 4th November. We were a bit unsure how long it would take us to sail along the north coast of Cuba against the prevailing wind.

Across the Yucatan Channel to Cuba

The Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba has a bad reputation. There is a strong north-going current up to 3 knots (the start of the Golf Current), and with the prevailing north-easterly wind, this creates a lumpy sea, which becomes much worse if there is a strong northerner. We had the usual wind as we headed off on a northerly tack, and soon changed to make a long tack south of our course, a slow, uncomfortable sail. In the middle of the night we changed tack again, the wind having fortunately gone a bit more east, so now we managed to make a better course, and the next day as the wind went south of east, we had a day of lumpy, but fast sailing. We realized that we were going to arrive after dark in Cuba, something that we try not to do, but we could see from our chart that there were no reefs in this area, and our digital chart seemed to be very accurate, so we motored round Cape San Antonio into the bay in front of Los Morres. Not only was it now pitch dark, but black clouds had covered the moon, and the rain was pouring down as Stein let down our anchor. But it was lovely to be still again and to be in Cuba!
The next morning we drove over to the jetty to check in. We were a little apprehensive, having been told about the Cuban bureaucracy, but in fact clearing in turned out to be less problematic than in Mexico, and the officials were very friendly. When they appeared we were surprised to find them dressed with masks and rubber gloves, which they apparently always do until a yacht has been declared healthy by the official doctor. I suspect they themselves thought this was stupid, because when we took a picture of them, one of them asked us not to show anybody in case they think that Cubans are crazy!

Double money and strict regulations

The area around the west point of Cuba is a national park, with very little population. We took a long walk to the lighthouse, partly along a lovely beach, and partly on a road through forest with hundreds of yellow and blue land crabs hiding in the bushes on each side, the most we have ever seen. We also saw a deer and many birds. There was no village, but we had a drink and changed some money at a small hotel. We became aware that there is a strange double economy and even a double monetary system here; Pesos Nacionales (CUP) which are used by Cubans, and Pesos Convertibles (CUC) used by tourists, the latter 24 times the value of the former. Restaurants and the few supermarkets (not very super!) use the tourist pesos. Almost all the population earns the equivalent of 15 – 20 US dollars a month, but are also given free housing and a certain amount of food per month. In addition, there is the good education system and health service, so poverty is not desperate, but with Western eyes everybody seems poor... One of the bad side effects is that women prostitute themselves for the tourists in return for a nice dinner and a few dollars, so a male tourist can very easily pick up a girl.
Our first day of sailing along the north coast of Cuba was the best of this period, sunshine, light SE breeze, and lovely scenery. It seemed strangely deserted though, the reason being that no Cubans own a boat! Foreign yachts are few and far between, and regulations demand that we check in and out of every port of call. Our first stop after Los Morres was the small fishing village of Los Arroyos. We anchored at sunset, well off-shore to avoid insects, and planned to check in in the next morning. However, after half an hour we heard a shout, and saw a rowing boat with two officials approaching. Two young men from the local Guardia came aboard, took off their shoes, and proceeded to check our papers. They were very polite and enjoyed a Coca Cola and biscuits, and arranged that we could come for a walk ashore the next morning. So at 8 a.m. we dinghied in, past the small fleet of simple, very rusty fishing boats, and started to walk up the main street. We only got as far as the Guardia’s office, when we were called in to talk to a senior official with the news that there had come “new regulations” and Los Arroyos was no longer a permitted stopping place for foreign yachts, so we could not go for our walk! Our next planned stop was also prohibited, there was in fact only one populated place we could now visit en route to Havana!
Now the wind was less favourable and we motor-sailed along the coast, inside another barrier reef, with nice smooth seas. We found ourselves a night anchorage at Caya Justias, where we rowed ashore (supposedly illegally) to a deserted beach, one of the most beautiful imagineable, with soft, white sand, lots of shells and backed by whispering pines. Another day’s drive took us to Caya Levisa, where we could check in and have our papers stamped. This is a pretty tourist resort, with cabins along the beach, and a nice restaurant and bar. We had a drink and a swim, saw only a few foreigners from Europe, but no Cubans except those who work here.

Marina Hemingway

Another night’s sailing took us along the coast to Havana (Habana), mostly tacking against the NE breeze, the last few hours motoring along the coast. The entrance to Hemingway Marina is narrow and well- buoyed, with breakers on each side even on a calm day. Again we were received by polite and friendly officials, and paperwork which took about two hours, before we could tie up in Channel 2.

We have never seen such a big marina, with four long channels, each at least a kilometer long, edged by solid concrete walls with room for boats on each side. It was built by American Mafia money in the 1950’s when Havana was heading to become the biggest gambling centre in the Western Hemisphere. (Fidel Castro and the Revolution in 1959 stopped all that.) Now the marina is mostly deserted. We heard that there used to be quite a lot of visiting yachts from USA; 10-15 daily was usual in 2004 (Florida lies only 100 n.miles straight north), but after the last Bush Government tightened the embargo with threats of fines and confiscating boats, sailors have been frightened off.
There were only two other foreign boats with people aboard; “Star”, a three-masted vintage sailing yacht from St.Kitts & Nevis in the West Indies and “Caroline”, a large motor yacht registered in George Town, Cayman Islands. Steve and Irene on Star are an American/English couple and old hands at sailing. They had come to visit their daughter Pearl, who was studying anthropology at the University of Havana for one year. We enjoyed some drinks and cups of tea together, and exchanged sailing yarns, before they left three days later.

Norman on Caroline is a 70 year old Canadian, a retired ship builder, who freely admits that the reason he is in Cuba is the women! He has lived part of the year here since the early nineties, and could tell us unending tales of life and politics in Cuba. He is also the only person we have seen with a car on his rear-deck! This was not in use at present, as he only gets half a year permission to use it at a time, and has to leave the country for at least 24 hours before this can be renewed. He now had a hired car instead, and took me on several trips to buy food. This involves quite a long drive round different road-side vegetable stalls to see what is available. We returned his favours with lunches in our cockpit, something he obviously enjoyed.

Visitors from Norway

Eli and Cousin Stein (“Buster”) arrived as planned on 4th November. This time we would not be sailing, as it is just too much hassle in this country, but instead use Hemingway Marina as our base and see a bit of Cuba. Havana is a wonderful and fascinating city; lots of old, grand Spanish architecture, some of which is ready to collapse, but other buildings have been restored and look magnificent. Around the city are broad boulevards, often with double rows of large trees down the middle; it must have been one of the most beautiful cities in the World when it was built. Eli at 93 is no longer up to much walking, so she had to see it mostly by taxi, but the two Steins and I spent some time just strolling through the old streets and plazas, with groups of musicians playing at numerous corners, and pretty girls in colourful Latin costumes trying to get a peso or two being photographed with tourists.
We also hired a car for two days and drove inland, off the beaten track to see what ordinary towns look like. On the whole, they are very simple, most people seem to live in small blocks of flats, there are few shops and petrol stations, lots of revolutionary slogans, but hardly any ordinary advertisements. On the positive side; we so no shanty towns of ramshackle shacks like one sees in poor communities of other Latin-American countries. There are areas of ugly industry with belching chimneys and the quality of the main roads vary considerably, from broad motorways to narrow roads full of pot-holes.
Eli found the roads too hard on her back, so the second day she preferred to stay on the boat while the boys and I explored the coast east of Havana. At one stop for a swim, we were approached by a local guy who had spotted Cousin Stein’s Adidas T-shirt. He asked if he could exchange it for a couple of large shells, but we had to explain that Buster could not have lunch in a restaurant without his shirt! However, he was kind and gave the guy his Adidas swimming shorts after the swim, which were received with enormous gratitude. Just an example of how difficult it is for ordinary Cubans to get any decent clothes.

Lifted ashore

One might think that in this country of cheap labour, it would also be cheap to leave a boat in the marina, but not at all! It is in fact much more expensive than the other Caribbean countries. All the money goes straight to the government; the employees get the same small wage no matter how much work there is. So those who work in the marina try to make a private contract to look after your boat for an extra price, making it even more expensive. Much as we understand their need for extra money, we also have to be careful with ours, so we didn’t rush into making contracts. We had seen that there was a small boatyard in the marina, where we wondered if it was possible to be put up on land. The very helpful boss, René, had to consult with the chief of the marina, as this was not usual, but we finally got permission to leave it in the yard, for less than the cost of leaving it in the water. We have also arranged to have her anti-fouled before we get back.
It is always a slightly anxious moment to see White Admiral hanging from the hook of a mobile crane, and this one was smaller than we are used to, but the lifting went with no problems; she is now safely stored in the securely guarded yard, and we don’t need to worry about salt water, wind and waves.

Hotel Acuarius

Due to an important business deal, Cousin Stein got increasingly busy on his mobile phone and decided he had to fly back to Norway after only one week. Stein and I had already arranged to return on the same plane as Eli, so that was no problem to us, although we missed his cheerful company.
For the last four days we were more or less forced into some unusual luxury, as it is not permitted to live aboard once the boat is on land. We moved into, a lovely hotel in the marina grounds. For the daily price of 78 Pesos (about 50 Pounds or 500 Kroner) per night, all three of us could stay in the one big room, with all meals included, even alcoholic drinks! So it was very good value, with a big swimming-pool, lots of food and red wine. During the day, Stein and I spent most of the time doing jobs on the boat, with breaks at lunch to join Eli at the hotel. I painted the cockpit benches white, and Stein repaired and painted some areas of minor damage on the hull, as well as the usual engine maintenance, flushing fridge and engines with fresh-water and other jobs to keep our boat in good shape. Norman kindly drove us to the José Marti International Airport for the evening plane to Schiphol, Amsterdam on 20th November.

Now it is home to work, see family and celebrate Christmas.

That is our sailing and travelling over for 2009. It has been a great decade!


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