Last time we spoke, we had just arrived into Santiago de Cuba on the South coast. Although, overall, it was a good sail, it started with a really unpleasant slog into wind to reach the windward passage, bumpy and uncomfortable for the first ten hours or so. As we turned the corner along the South coast, the seas calmed and we were able to free the sails and complete the rest of the trip in relative comfort.
For the voyagers amongst you, Santiago is a Port of Entry with an easy entrance. The floating jetty mentioned in the pilots has disappeared, but the marina appears to have been dredged and has plenty of water alongside. The shallowest we found was rounding the red marker next to the marina as we left, when depths dropped to eight feet. Funnily enough, we cut the corner on the way in and headed directly to the marina from further up the channel and had twenty feet plus the whole way. Take a look at your charts or call ahead to the Marina - some people there speak good English, although not all The formalities here are easy enough, although there is perhaps more of a sense on inconsistency and officialdom. Certainly, if you are a large group of young people on a boat, expect customs to come aboard with toolkits to take apart bits of he boat they want to inspect - we saw it happen to a group of young British crew - although with customary good humour. For us, being OLD, we weren't inspected at all - the norm is the usual cursory inspection followed by the dog. We were obviously so uninspiring that we they only checked us when we left!. By the way, if you are merely passing through Santiago, here, they take your Despacho and return it when you leave. If you can hang onto it it may speed your departure - ours was with the harbourmaster in Santiago and had to be returned to us by pilot boat, delaying our check out by a couple of beers.
On arrival, there is a good chance that you will be put on one of the three docks, the right hand (as you arrive) which has decent power and water or either of the other two, which do not. As soon as there is space available on the main dock, you can move. Depths are good - about 15 ft right up to the entry to the small boat dock, the marina staff will advise. If leaving the boat for some while and you are on the West side of the dock, it is possible to tie a long warp over to the fuel dock to hold you off - it can be a little swelly in here when a large tanker passes, but nothing too serious. Marina price for a 40ft boat was about $15.60 a day.
Talking of fuel, the fuel dock only has three feet alongside, so if you require fuel it will be shipped to your boat in large 50 gallon containers. Marina staff will help you get it into your tank. We filtered the diesel but there was no dirt or water - it turns out that the tanks are very new. Fuel cost is 1CUC/litre. You can decant the fuel directly from the hose on the tank, or fill jerry cans and transfer it that way. This has the advantage that you can see exactly hw much you have been delivered .. if you get my gist. The fuel is brought in from an outside company, who may not be quite as scrupulous as the marina.
That takes me on to Santiago. This was our first really big city - Cuba's second largest - and in many ways it shows. Architecturally different again to the other large towns we have visited, Santiago has a charm of its own. Typical of any Cuban town or cit, it bustles with life from dawn to well past dusk. The streets here are narrow and hilly with mountains and the sea as a backdrop. There are old tram tracks in many of the streets dating back to perhaps a more prosperous time. These days the streets are filled with mopeds and incomprehensibly driven cars. Fortunately several of the streets are pedestrianised, lending themselves to giving you a slightly longer life expectancy. Firstly the bad, then the good - this being a city and a tourist spot at that, here we saw our first real beggars and touts. Called Jinteros/as here, they ply their business with a typically Cuban enthusiasm. More often than not, they are very friendly and won't bother you after a polite 'no thanks' but sometimes, unusually for here, it can be a little 'full on'. The locals here aren't keen on their city's reputation for Jinteros, so they will often try to protect you from the worst, so its not too much bother.
The best, its full of life, especially after dark, with squares full of people, clubs with latin rhythms blaring onto the streets competing with a cello recital in a rooftop classical music bar and the latest soap opera on the television. Its so easy just to grab a spot in a square and let the whole thing just drift over you. It would be very difficult to feel, or indeed be, lonely here.
Its also possible to get food here. Provided you can spot the signs and work the system, there is an ample supply of fresh fruit and vegetables in the city market, which is shared by three large fresh juice stands - all at Cuban Peso prices. These stands sell everything from lemonade to mango to tamarind to freshly squeezed orange juice which you can either drink there or fill your bottle directly from the orange squeezer. A one and a half litre bottle cost around 30p UK. What's even better is it starts fermenting in the bottle after a day or two - v tasty!
Following a trip up to the Castillo del Morro, the fort guarding the entrance to the harbour - another of Cuba's Unesco World Heritage Sites, it was time to hit the road, sorry sea, for another overnight trip along the coast to Cabo Cruz. From here on, we would be mostly out of sight and sound of people and into some of the last uninhabited archipelagos in the Caribbean, the Jardines de la Reine.
So followed a lovely couple of days anchored in Cabo Cruz. Gin clear water and a huge reef to anchor behind and for once, no visit from the authorities. That's not to say we were ignored, I'm sure our every movement was monitored night and day, but it wasn't necessary for us to clear in and out unless we wanted to visit the town. We were told by some other cruisers that the Guarda were not currently allowing visits by boaters, although ironically, if you were on land, you could drive up there in your hire car and spend a week on holiday. I think this is more due to the fact that the guarda are responsible for you whilst you are in their area and the anchorage is a long way from town. In order for them to keep an eye on you boat, you have to move close to shore - too shallow for us, or negotiate that one of you will keep an eye on the other's boat - too long winded for a couple of hours shore leave and paperwork, so we decided to give it a miss. So following a lovely couple of days R&R, we moved on to the 'desert islands' proper.
That brings you pretty much up to date. For the last week, we have been sailing between totally uninhabited islands and seen pretty much no other boats, Shaka and the odd fisherman excepted! We have dived for lobster and fish every couple of days, with lobster being in such abundance it is verging on being a pest. It is certainly no longer the meal of dreams and already is inspiring much culinary innovation in order to camouflage the source of the meat. But how bad can life be when that is one of your problems?
Apart from that, all is well on board and also aboard our 'buddy boat' Shaka. Despite the fact that strong winds have muddied up the water a bit, the solitude and unspoilt beauty make this a really special place. Couple that with the absolute profound silence when the wind drops and you have one of the top cruising spots in Caribbean, maybe in this hemisphere.
Anyway, enough from me, another week or so here, then we should arrive in Cienfuegos - more then!