A Passage around the ‘Wild-West’ end of Cuba – January 2015
Having made use of the information/reports previously submitted to Noonsite for our recent anti-clockwise loop around Cuba, I thought it only fair to add my own findings to the mix for the benefit of those who are to follow. By Bob & Lesley Carlisle of Yacht Moon Rebel.
Published 9 years ago, updated 5 years ago
We’re a British-flagged 35’ long-keeled yacht, with a 1.80m/6 feet draft; so imagine – slow but solid.
We first arrived/checked-in at Marina Hemmingway and it was a busy (ten people & two dogs) but surprisingly quick and painless exercise, though as others have mentioned, everyone – well, OK, not the two dogs – asked for their ‘present’; we’d been in the US and got used to a ‘tipping’ culture, so perhaps our willingness to provide a small ‘present’ helped?
Do note that the cost of visas, cruising-permits, etc. isn’t paid on check-in, but will instead be included in your marina account, which you’ll pay on departure. When you do come to leave Marina Hemmingway, there will be a 10% ‘present’ added to your total bill (including on the said visa & permit costs too); this I wasn’t happy about and instead insisted that it was removed and gave a $10CUC cash present instead.
Warning: Here and elsewhere, the first question appears to be: “Have you arrived here from Haiti?” We met two yachts who’d said “yes” and both were confined to their boats for 72 hours; the Cubans won’t ask for a departure/clearance, so like with drugs: Just say No! On the subject of drugs, the Cuban officials are very serious about them and apparently come down heavily, even for possession of very small quantities.
For anything you need in and around the marina, look/ask for ‘George with the blue Lada’; he can arrange gas refills (including Camping Gas) diesel (20% cheaper and reportedly cleaner/fresher than the fuel dock’s) and taxi rides too; he proved to be perhaps the most honest/reliable ‘agent/fixer’ that we came across in our whole two months in the country.
Note: €1 = $1.1CUC = $24.00CUP
There’s a ‘Cadaca’ (Pronounced: Cad-a-car) for changing money in Jaimanitas, the village/town about one mile east from the marina – walk into the village centre and turn left, ask anyone and they’ll point you the way to the Cadaca. You will only have to queue for perhaps ten minutes to change money at the Cadaca here, whereas we saw people queuing for over two hours at the Cadaca in Havana and other banks had similar lines outside them too.
Getting to Havana
To get to/from Havana private taxis will ask for $30CUC, but negotiate and the going-rate into Havana seems to be $10CUC, whilst coming back it was $20CUC. Alternatively, the hotel on the south side of the marina’s canal-2 has a shuttle-bus which goes into Havana at 10:00, 11:30 & 15:30, with return, runs at 14:30 & 17:30; whilst we now understand that this bus is only for hotel guests and not the yachties, nobody queried our using it and the driver was pleased with the tip we invariably gave him. If these shuttle-bus times don’t suit then walk out onto the main road, head east and wave down a maquinas (Pronounced ma-keen-oz) shared taxi, these are big, old, battered, 1950’s US cars with a small ‘taxi’ sign on the windscreen and run along fixed routes. From the marina/Jaimanitas, a Maquina will take you the three miles to the town of ‘Playa’ for $10CUP, where you catch another one (directly across the road) that’ll take you on into Havana for $20CUP per person. The city of Havana was wonderful, allow time to it visit several times as even if you just retrace your steps, you’ll still see something new/different/interesting every time you go.
The hotel with the shuttle-bus also has internet ($6CUC/hr.) but you have to use their computers and may well have to wait a while for one to come free. If you want to use your own laptop on Wi-Fi, then you’ll need to take it with you to one of the (not many of them) bars in central Havana which offers Wi-Fi – it won’t be free.
In either event, get a weather forecast just before you leave as it may prove to be the last one you’ll see/hear for a while. Heading around the west end of Cuba, we got a couple of broken-up NOAA Navtex predictions for the Gulf of Mexico and managed some weak/intermittent NOAA shortwave broadcasts on our SSB receiver; none were good/local, but it did at least provide us with a vague indication of what was going on out there.
Get your food shopping done in Jaimanitas and Havana too; it’s the last chance you’ll have to buy much of anything. In Jaimanitas there’s a reasonable (though Havana’s are much better) array of fruit and veg stalls, plus a decent butchers, bakery and eggs shop. Having stocked your larder/fridge and got your weather forecast DO NOT depart if there’s a risk of getting hit with a Northern along the NW coast of Cuba!
The start of “the Loop” – Western Cuba
We left Marina Hemmingway in light NE breezes (a Northern due in 3 days’ time) and with a fair current under us (a back eddy on the Gulfstream?). We motored quickly along the north coast, initially motorsailed WSW, then as the wind increased to F4 and veered east, we sailed swiftly – still a fair current – toward Cuba’s SW tip at Cabo San Antonio. Even when the wind increased, we were in the lee of the off-lying reefs, so it was fast & fun, until just as we needed to turn further south, the wind veered south of east; with both wind and current now pushing us away from the reef’s shelter, it very quickly got rough and unpleasant.
Our Pilot Books (Nigel Calder’s and Frank Virgintino’s) both advised of the dangers in rounding Cuba’s SW capes with winds out of the south – heed those warnings! Sadly, they also advised us not to be on the NW coast in a Northern and these veering winds proved to be a precursor of our Norther’s earlier than forecast arrival.
Cayos de la Lena
With a Northern blowing, don’t try even to approach Marina Los Morros, at Cabo San Antonio, never mind trying to moor or anchor there; after the Northern had passed through, we tried to go there to ‘check-in’ and found there were still <1.5m swells rolling straight into it. Instead, head to the Canal De Barcos in the Cayos de la Lena about 4 miles to the NE.
Both our Pilot Books gave the same approach/entry waypoint (21º55.5N, 84º48.5W) and contrary to what our charts indicated, if you track in on 245-degrees from that waypoint, as advised by Mr Calder, you’ll be in depths of over 4m the whole way into the canal. Once inside, we went perhaps half-way down it, in depths of 4 – 6m, before anchoring at 21.55.29N 084.49.19W in thick, heavy mud; the wind howled across the top of the mangroves, but we barely felt a breath of it as we sat in wavelets getting as high as 3” – bliss.
We’d bounced around outside for a while, waiting for the daylight before entering, but there was probably no need as even in the daylight there were few decent reference points to eyeball and we certainly weaved well on/off the direct approach line in the heavy seas, so there must be plenty of width to the entry channel too. We shared the canal with a few friendly and brave (I wouldn’t take one of those rust-buckets to sea!) fishermen, though our limited Spanish and their non-existent English precluded many conversations.
The up-side of a Northern around there is that in its aftermath (according to the Pilot Books and it certainly worked for us) other than a lumpy run down to Cabo San Antonio, we made a fast overnight sail/motor-sail, in flat seas, along the bottom, past Marina Maria La Gorda and were well on our way to Isla Juventud until the winds eased and came back into the east, whereupon we swung north and sailed up to Cayos San Felipe.
Cayos San Felipe
When the wind returned to the NW (WTF?) as we approached we swung a bit further to the east and anchored perhaps one third of the way along Cayo Real’s southern shore (21.57.42N 083.35.05W) finding surprisingly good shelter from wind & seas and good holding too in 3.5m over mud/sand; we were, perhaps 150-200m off the beach? – come in slowly and directly from the south, as the shoals come out varying distances from the beach, though in daylight they will be easily seen in the crystal clear water.
Marina Siguanea (Isla de la Juventud)
A slow and easy beam/narrow reach day-sail in light winds took us down to the marina and we anchored outside for the night before going in by dinghy the following morning. The Guarda Frontera Officer reported that there was 1.5m minimum in the approach channel, but when we went in/out by dinghy, it looked a lot less than that to us; unless you’re on a catamaran, don’t expect to get in there.
We anchored just N of the approach channel in 2.7m, good holding, but a bit sloppy/bumpy/rolly, even in the light winds and positively uncomfortable once they reached NE F3/4.
There were a check-in office, a diesel-dock and a taxi driver offering us a round-trip ride to Neuvo Gerona for the bargain price of $100CUC, but nothing else to be seen/done. Even though we were already checked-in to Cuba, the Guarda Frontera insisted on visiting/lightly searching the boat before stamping our cruising-permit; they weren’t keen on the dinghy ride in an F2/3 breeze, so I don’t know what happens when it’s windier? Apparently, they make a second trip out when you come to check out too, but having been so initially underwhelmed, we just got our fuel and got asked for both the in & out stamps together. There is a hotel a mile or so to the north that may offer more/anything? We were told they had no internet, so didn’t bother going to look.
Punta Buenavista (Isla de la Juventud)
Rather than roll around off Marina Siguanea in a rising NE breeze, we headed north aiming for Punta de Barcos; we were just off here (about 10M north of the marina) by which time the breezes had reached F5 and the seas had got nasty and life had stopped being fun, so we turned into the bight on Buenavista’s south side to ‘see what it was like as an anchorage’: In the prevailing winds, it was brilliant! We spent two nights at (21.46.52N 083.05.39W) with winds from E and NE, blowing up to F6 gusting F7 through one night; very good holding, over thick mud once again, perhaps one third of a mile off the northern shore (anchored just about south of the small beach) in 3m/10’ of water.
Punta de Barcos (Isla de la Juventud – NW corner)
When the wind forgot to blow for a few hours, we finally motored our way up to here – stay close inshore (along with the 3m contour) to avoid the worst of the head seas. We followed the matching approach waypoints/60-degree track given in both Pilot Books and found the depths that they were advising – 2.6m approaching near high tide & 2.4m departing near to low tide; though we were (if you even manage to see it!) a lot further off the marker flag, then the 150-200m suggested by Frank V. We found the wind/wave protection (NE F5 gusting F6) poorer than under the lee of Punta Buenavista, but if anything was coming from even fractionally west of north, this would certainly be a better choice. Holding was once again good, in 2.8m/8’ over stiff mud.
N Calder reports it OK for a night-time entry and having now been in, I would have to agree; there are no points of reference or differences in the water’s colour, so you are just watching/trusting in the compass & GPS repeater, so light or dark really wouldn’t make any difference. We were using a Maxsea-CM93 chart-plotter, which has proven accurate throughout Cuba.
Cayos de Manteca
We anchored at 22.00.05N 082.43.63W about 1/3 mile offshore and a similar distance north of the Manteca Passage Channel buoys (Manteca’s the more northerly of the two main passages from Isla de la Juventud through into the Batabano Gulf). In a NE F5, whilst the wind howled through our rigging, we sat comfortably in 3m over clean sand, though it got a little bumpier as the wind veered further east in the early morning.
Note: the buoyage through the channel here and in the Quintasol Passage further south is towards the Gulf, not towards Isla Juventud – the Green buoys/posts are on the NORTH side and don’t try to ‘guess’ their colour based on the top marks as these aren’t always (often?) correct.
Both the Calder and Virgintino Pilots record this to the S/SW of the Quintasol Passage at 21º55.30N, 82º39.70W. On the way back north from Cayo El Navio, I motored over that position to double-check and found nothing; however, there is a wrecked coaster or fishing boat (partially visible above the surface) about 1/2M further to the east of that waypoint, so perhaps that’s the one they mean?
Cayo El Navio
With strong easterlies persisting, preventing us from outrunning another potential Norther (what’s their effect going to be this far along Cuba’s south coast?) we headed south from Manteca, for about 8 – 10 miles and anchored in Cayo El Navio (21.53.05N 082.36.24W); it looked promising on the charts and proved even better in reality.
We nudged in to anchor about 400m offshore in the centre of the bay – good holding in 2.7m/9’ over sand/mud – protected from north, through east to just west of south; in addition (though we never had to test the theory out) it appears to be a straight SW run of five miles, from here to a large E/SE facing bay (Jucaros?) on the east side of Isla de la Juventud, which looks likely to offer anchoring depths and reasonable protection from the W/NW. As with seemingly everywhere else we’ve been so far, there was no beach to land a dinghy on – wall to wall mangrove trees do begin to lose their appeal as a view after a while – but the shelter was excellent.
Passage De Cabo Cruz
This route through the barrier islands is described/detailed in the Nigel Calder Pilot Book and being immediately south of our anchorage at Cayo El Navio, we decided to ‘give it a go’ rather than heading the five miles back north to the Quintasol Passage. The marker posts/stakes appear to be fewer than when NC used it and even close to high tide we were finding >2m of water when still 3-400m short of the ‘most western stake’ – assuming the twig we were looking at was it? If you’re on a catamaran or have a shallow draft monohull it may still be a feasible route, but drawing 1.8m, I hadn’t the nerve to keep going (Do Tow-Boat US accept call outs to Cuba?), so we turned back out and went north to Quintasol, which is easy, straight and provided that you haven’t assumed that the green buoys are to the south, you will find plenty of water in the passage too.
Canal de Rosario
Whilst both the Nigel Calder and Frank Virgintino Pilot Books give the same starting-point (21.42.61N, 081.59.12W) and course from there (155-degrees) for this passage, the Calder book reports ‘good depths’ all the way, whilst the Virgintino Pilot talks of it being ‘tricky’ & ‘very shallow’ near the red & black beacon; we were concerned that the channel may have silted-up in the intervening years? Once again, we made this passage in daylight (just) though once again it’d be just the same in the dark – even when the water was 5m deep, it was so clear that it looked like the keel was just skimming over the bottom! We started at the waypoint given, held strictly to the 155-degree course and even at close to low tide, we never registered a depth of less than 2.7m/9-feet. We inferred from the text and photograph in the Virgintino Guide that he might have passed very close to the east of this red beacon? However, when holding to 155-degrees, we were about a ¼ mile to the east of this marker post when we passed it; so perhaps Mr Virgintino had found shallower water due to drifting to the west of his recommended line?
Having negotiated the canal, we anchored less than 150m from Rosario’s western shore in over 4m of water, though when the mosquitoes began feasting on us before the anchor had even dug in, we promptly lifted it again and re-anchored further out, now in 5.5m of water at 21.38.10N 081.56.43W.
This has been the first anchorage of the trip that we’ve not properly ‘tested’, as the wind has only blown E/NE F4; it’s comfortable and secure in those conditions, though there was a 1+ knot tide running through (we’re close to full-moon) so we’ve been sitting across the wind a bit. Civilisation must be getting close once again, as having seen only one other yacht since we left Marina Hemmingway, tonight we’re sharing the anchorage with seven big catamarans (presumably they’re Charter boats from Cienfuegos?). They’re certainly proving useful though; once we moved further away from Rosario’s shore than they are sat, we’ve not had a single mosquito disturb us!
If starting at the Isla Rosario anchorage, do not sail directly to it, instead head well east to find some deeper water, then approach on about 155-degrees and you should find a minimum depth of 3m/11’ all the way to the northern entrance. Both the Calder and Virgintino waypoints work fine, though ignore the Virgintino Google earth photograph, which gives the correct coordinates, but suggests that they dog-leg through the reef? There are widely-spaced and paired red and green buoys marking the passage and it’s wide, straight and deep – we ran about 160-165-degrees through the middle and were mostly in 6-7m depths, dropping to 4.2m, presumably as we were crossing the reef itself; once outside, we held the same course and were in 100m+ depths within only 5-10 minutes.. When heading east from here to Cayo Largo, particularly in rough weather/big seas, do not try cutting the corner at Cabezo de la Estopa, once you’re inside the 200m contour, you’re only moments away from being inside 20m, with the seas picking up accordingly.
Cayo Largo Entry/Exit
The east entrance buoys are slightly further offshore than our charts showed, but the passage is wide with 6-8m depths, coming in on 115-degrees as F Virgintino advises. Whilst we went east of his recommended line across the 5m+ area once within the reef, we picked it up again at the 5m contour and followed his recommended line at 60-degs, with 3m+ all the way to his entrance waypoints into/through the north channel without any problems. The entry waypoints in FV’s book were particularly helpful; at the junction of the north and south channels, as the buoyage is very confusing, but all becomes clear once you start heading NE.
Cayo Largo Marina
When the winds are blowing NE F6/7 (yet again!) it’s a well-protected, albeit expensive (CUC$0.80/foot) place to dock. Water and electric were charged extra, but the water as noted by others has a distinctive and very unpleasant taste, while the electrical connections look somewhat exciting; in the four days we were there, we saw the onboard shore-power sockets and power-cables of two boats being rapidly disconnected, whilst smoke billowed from a locker, so use them with care! The showers ashore were clean, but very tired/basic and had thumb-switches for the lights which were inside the small cubicles – I don’t know if the lights work or not, I wasn’t touching the switch to find out!
There are currently two pontoons, though a third (further south) was under construction when we were there; it seems that the northern pontoon is for the local day-trip boats and visitors should secure to the southern (soon to be central?) pontoon. There’s plenty of depth (3.3m/11’) and ample manoeuvring space, but the pontoons themselves – even on our 35-footer – are very short and splayed-out where they meet the main dock, so go in bow-first; unfortunately, they look to be a similar length on the new pontoon they’re building too.
The very pleasant, helpful and English-speaking Guarda Frontera Officer arrived about ten minutes after we were secured, and had finished his paperwork and search within fifteen minutes; a lot easier/quicker than Isla de la Juventud. The marina’s office staff too were friendly, helpful and fluent English-speakers; whilst you need to go elsewhere for personal internetting, the Marina Manager will pull up Passageweather through his online connection so you can at least get a current weather forecast.
Note: The times shown on the marina’s (actually everywhere in Cuba) Passageweather pages are UTC, not local time, so whatever weather’s coming, will arrive earlier (5 hours) than you expect.
There’s little to see/do at the marina; unless you fancy taking a boat trip out to the reef? Whilst most everything is priced at a premium, the bar overlooking the marina does sell cold Cristal beers for the ‘standard’ $1/can, so who cares about the rest?
Perhaps the biggest plus about Cayo Largo is that a visa extension can be obtained within half a day and without standing in slow-moving lines, as seems to be the case in Cienfuegos, where it seemed to be an average of two days standing in slow-moving lines to get one: The bank in Cayo Largo sells the necessary stamps and never seems to have more than three or four people waiting in line there. Hand in your passport, visa card and stamps to the Guarda Frontera Office at the marina and they will deliver and return it to/from the airport with the extension period added; our original visa period still had over a week to run so we expected to ‘lose’ several days, but they came back with a further thirty days added to the original date. We also met two yachts here (1 German, 1 Netherlands) who requested and were given a second thirty-day extension here in Cayo Largo; it may have been a one-off, but it could save you an exit/entry to achieve a third month’s stay.
Cayo Largo to Cienfuegos
Once you’re out of the marina, the eastern exit through Cayo Largo’s reef is deep, wide and easily achievable in the dark, so too is the re-entry back through the reef a few miles to the east of Cayo Largo; this latter one though is unmarked, so in the dark you’ll have to input some treble-checked waypoints (as we did) trust to them and motor through the middle on 015/195 degrees. Once back behind the reef, we sailed through in the dark with no difficulty, seeing minimum depths of 5.5m and generally 6.5 – 8m along the way. This route gets you out of the Caribbean swell and perhaps, more importantly, the foul current; once we cleared the reef again well to the north of Cayo Guano Del Este, we punched 0.75 – 1.50 knots of head current all the way to Cienfuegos.
Western Cuba Summary
All in all, after the rave reviews we’d heard from others about their experiences sailing around western Cuba, we were disappointed with our trip; though I suspect that your experience might prove to be a bit better if you make the passage in March/April rather than January/February? Our passage was dogged by strong Trade-winds on the bow, interspersed with a new Northern/Cold-Front dropping out of the Gulf of Mexico every three or four days; it was just too much like hard work and nothing much besides mangrove trees to see.
The entrance is easy with deep water until well after you’ve closed out the Caribbean swells – lucky for us, as we arrived during a violent 30-40 knot squall! – you’d have no difficulty negotiating it, the entrance channel and crossing the bay even at night. We anchored off the marina (I really wouldn’t like to be alongside there in strong winds from anywhere west of north, the boats were ‘bouncing’ against the dock). We – and others we saw – had difficulty getting the anchor to bite/set in the first place, but once dug-in it stayed secure; we had 50m of chain out in 5m of water, but securely sat out a couple of 40+ knot squalls. Squalls aside, the bay is just too large to provide good shelter from the winds, so the anchorage is rarely ‘glass-flat’ though is does invariably seem to blow 5 or 10 knots less than out at sea, so it never got really ‘rough’ either; as noted, if the wind’s not out of the east, it’s probably more relaxing on anchor than in the marina?
The Guarda Frontera is based in the marina, but visited us at anchor in their own RIB soon after we were anchored; just two Officers, both spoke some English – as do the marina’s Dockmasters; they have a decent VHF radio too – and it was a quick and painless process. We saw yachts that were doing a full check-in/out of Cuba and the process seemed to be the same for them too, so it’s a lot easier/quicker (and less ‘presents’ – none were asked for here) than getting in and out of Havana. You do need to go ashore and ‘sign the marina Contract’ – there is a CUC$0.25/foot charge for anchoring in Cienfuegos – but we didn’t do that until almost 48 hours after we’d arrived and nobody seemed too bothered.
A Warning: On arrival, we followed the recommendation submitted by others and searched out ‘Pedro with the horse-drawn taxi’ to obtain some cooking-gas. He duly supplied it within 36-hours, but his quoted price of $30CCUC to refill a US 20lb bottle changed into a demand for $60 before he would return the bottle; to add insult, the bottle was barely 3/4 full when he did eventually bring it back. So, whilst Pedro can get you gas quickly, it is the most expensive gas we’ve found anywhere in the world; even Gibraltar and Italy were cheaper than Pedro! Enquire elsewhere – I’m sure there are more trustworthy suppliers, the security lads on the gate filled bottles for several people whilst we were there at $1.50/lb. and though others have reported slow/non-existent delivery through the marina, their price-schedule claims that they can/will supply gas at $2.50/kilo, though I suspect (as with many items in Cienfuegos) that they perhaps mean $2.50 per pound?
The marina’s sited about 3km from the town centre, it’s a pleasant (though often a bit smelly – I suspect the town’s sewage system discharges untreated into the bay?) flat walk of perhaps 30 minutes. Alternatively, you can hire a bicycle taxi which will take two people and their bags for anywhere between CUC$2 an $5; the starting price invariably seems to be $5, but in the cool of the morning they’ll take you for $2, then later in the day, depending on how hot the day is, how tired you look and how heavy your load of shopping looks, they’ll want CUC$3 or $4 – I thought it was a great pricing policy!
The town’s market-hall is on Avenue 51, one block north and a touch east of the main town-square (Parque Jose Marti) where the cathedral and other main/prestige buildings are located; it’s not easy to spot as it’s inside a big building. The produce is good quality, lasts well and is priced very reasonably, though it appears that everyone’s weighing scales have a tendency to significantly over-weight, whilst the vendors themselves, despite Cuba’s marvellous education system, have serious problems adding up the total too; even allowing for that, prices are still reasonable, depending on availability/demand – on one visit we had four or five vendors offering us eggs at less than $0.50/dozen, a few days later, the price (only one supplier that day?) was $3.00/dozen. Always a fun and friendly place to do your shopping though. We later got eggs from the marina’s store at $1.80/dozen and found they lasted much better and longer than those from the market.
The Internet is available at the Hotel Jagua – the modern/boxy building just south of the marina – where you use their computers and the internet cards cost $4.50/hr.; as with everywhere that we’ve managed to get online in Cuba, the connection-speed varied between slow and painfully-slow. If on visiting the Hotel Jagua from the marina you walk down the main road (Cala 37) to the east of the sculpture park, you will pass a nice looking (Government owned?) restaurant called Cochina or similar, with a small plain bar behind it. This bar sells some of the best-tasting beer – on draught, no idea what brand – that we found anywhere in Cuba & for the unbelievable price of $6CUP a glass!
If a short visit is enough to satisfy you, or you want to stay overnight, then you can get a bus to Trinidad ($6CUC each way) from the ‘Terminal de Omnibus’ on Avenue 56; buses depart every day at 12:15, 14:40, 15:15, 18:00 and return from Trinidad at 07:30, 08:15, 15:00 & 16:00. The journey takes about one hour, so either stay overnight, or you’ll only get to look around for a couple of hours; the third option is to take a taxi there in the morning $30CUC, then return by bus – if there are four of you, it’ll be easier to just taxi-ride in both directions.
Similarly, you can visit Santa Clara and see the Che Guevara Mausoleum & Museum on buses which depart at 08:45 & 16:45 but NOT 09:15 as the Tourist Office might tell you and return from Santa Clara at 17:00, again, the price is $6CUC and the journey about an hour. Having gone for the 09:15 bus and suffered disappointment, the very helpful/English-speaking lady at the Cubacan Office (east side of Cala 37, on its corner with Avenue 52) arranged us a taxi to take us there, ferry us around all day (the sites are widely spaced) and return at a time to suit ourselves for $50CUC; alternatively, the taxis around the marina ask $30 each way. Perhaps the ‘best/special’ prices offered by the touts and taxis around the marina are not very ‘special’?
Cayo Machos Fuera
Arrived off here at about 07:30 after a slow overnight sail/motorsail from Cienfuegos, on arrival it was blowing a solid NE F4 and the anchorage off the west side looked untenable; I can’t believe the anchorage on its north end would be any better? Definitely a ‘late season’ anchorage when the winds are blowing south of east.
Good shelter and good holding off the south side of the island, just to the east of the canal entrance; we didn’t see anything going in/out of the canal, so can’t comment on what the entry depths are like nowadays.
We arrived at the canal entrance around half-tide, whilst the floating hotel’s still there; it looked to be shut-up/closed? The two marker buoys mentioned in the Virgintino guide were nowhere to be seen. We tried running in on the course advised by Mr Virgintino, but we were already into depths of >2m when still 3-400m off the entrance and running out of nerve we turned out again. One for shallow drafted boats, or perhaps you might scrape in nearer to high tide? I note the Calder guide suggests a depth of only 1.60m+ tide, rather than the Virgintino guide’s 1.80m; it could be that if the hotel’s now closed, the reduced traffic might’ve allowed the entrance to silt up a bit once more?
‘Worth A Mention’ Island – 20.47.63N 078.45.75W
Having motored on eastward from Cayo Ancilitas, intending to stop instead for Cayo Chocolate, we noted this horseshoe-shaped island marked, but un-named on our charts, nor did either the Virgintino or Nigel Calder Pilot Books make any reference to it either. It looked to offer no worse and potentially better protection than Chocolate and as we were pushing, wind, tide and getting bored, we turned to starboard to have a look, approaching/leaving on a track of 150/330-degrees from the deep water, the water shoaling gradually all the way to where we stopped. The bight of the horseshoe itself appears to be closed off by a shallow bar across it, but there are sand/coral bars extending out west from both peninsulas, so we anchored between them in 3.1m finding good holding in sand and some weed with excellent protection from the F4 NE/ENE winds that blew overnight.
Canal de Pingue
Some of the buoys were missing and they don’t look like they’ll be lit at night, but if you follow the tracks advised on the charts & pilot books, the passage is easy enough. Having negotiated the first sector, we departed the lagoon via the second section of the Canal de Pingues too, rather than the more southerly Canal Rancho Viejo. This section is unmarked, but again use waypoints/chart-plotter and track 090/270-degrees and there’s no problem; the really shallow bits in both sections are visible in decent sunlight and I don’t think we saw less than about 14m of water through either – it was shallower in the lagoon in between.
Having come through the northern sector of the canal into the lagoon, we turned east for 2M and anchored in about 7m over sand and some weed at position 20.44.638N 078.15.598W. Nothing to see other than another million mangroves, oh and a green-flash at sunset if you believe in them; but it provided good shelter from a typical F4 NE/ENE breeze blowing through the night; you might get further inshore, but our chart suggests it’s a reef/coral bottom further east and you’d definitely be closer to the mosquitoes.
Cayo Pasa Honda, position 20.40.203N 078.06.081W
Having cleared the Pingues Canal’s eastern section, we sailed 112-degrees to anchor up here in 7m over sand and a bit of weed – holding was good, tested by a solid NE F5/6 and a squall from the SW; further inshore the depths quickly drop to 4m and you’ll be anchoring amongst coral heads too, so stay out, away from the mossies and enjoy. This was perhaps our favourite anchorage of the trip, good holding, well sheltered from NW right through to SSW and even a tiny beach to relieve the tedium of the mangroves; aim for the beach on about 110 degrees on entering to keep clear of shoals to both the north and south of the bight. There’s a large and deep lagoon within the island which you can access by dinghy (tilt the engine) from the anchorage at half-tide and above, though to use the larger entrance 1M to the south, you’ll probably need to be at high tide; there must be a deep water entrance to it somewhere though, as we saw dolphins inside the lagoon.
Cayo Guincho, position 20.36.791N 078.06.081W
The opposite end of Cayos Mate from Cayo Pasa Honda (4M due south) anchored in 7m over sand and a bit of weed – the chart says we’re ‘over the reef, but no indications of such from the anchor or chain – holding was good, tested by a solid EEN/EES F5/6 and a couple of F5 squalls from the S. This is another secure/well-protected spot and there are two small beaches on the south side of the anchorage to relieve the unrelenting view of mangroves, though we never bothered to visit either. Less shelter from N/NW than Pasa Honda to the north, but better protected to west of south by a shoal which runs out a good ½ mile from the headland to the south; it’s very shallow (inches deep!) and swings north of west, so get well to the west and slightly north of the anchorage before approaching/leaving on a SE/NW track.
We anchored there for twenty-four hours but never tried going ashore and no officials came out to check our papers – it was a breezy/bouncy day for the long dinghy ride to/from the village. We simply sat behind the reef in 3.5m; the bottom’s sand with odd coral/rocky patches, but you can see the bottom clearly, so it’s easy enough to find a sandy-spot to drop the anchor in and we found good holding, despite the wind rattling through, the reef dissipated 95% of the waves & swell so it’s comfortable/secure enough, albeit a bit noisy with the swells booming against the reef only 200m upwind.
If you’re going east, then heed the Pilot Books and travel at night hugging the shoreline; we never went inside the 20m contour and were rarely less than 1/4M off the shore, but we tried hard to stay inside the 200m contour and shaped a course that curved inshore between even the smaller headlands, rather than just going point to point between them. In this way we gained about ½ knot most all the way, but once you drifted further offshore – sometimes little more than a further 200m out! – you would be pushing half to one knot of foul current. Keep a close watch on the echo sounder and the difference between your GPS and Log speeds and steer accordingly. We motored the whole way, though we did manage a few hours of motor sailing when either the Trade Wind or the night-time katabatic wind overpowered the other. The inshore counter current lasted until just east of Guantanamo Bay (stay outside their charted exclusion zone) whereafter we were punching headwinds, seas and current the rest of the way to Punta Maisi – it was horrible, even in light weather!
Marea Del Portillo
An easy entrance, with all the, charted navigation marks in place and we felt it was both wider and deeper than suggested in either of our Pilot Books? We anchored in the bay to the east side of the entrance – the west end looks like it’ll always get swell rolling into it? – and anchored 200m off the village in about 5m of water, finding very good holding and well sheltered too; we sat out an ESE F6/7 blow and barely noticed it’s passing.
Within a couple of hours of our dropping anchor we were visited by first the Health Inspector and then the Guarda Frontera Officers, both of whom had co-opted Gilbert, a local fisherman, to row them out to us. Both visits were easy, friendly and, straight-forward, with Gilbert assisting in breaching the language barrier; if you’re just passing through, the check-in/out are both done then, but as we were waiting for a day or so, the Guarda Frontera retained our Despatcho and returned on the day of departure to do the check-out inspection; once again, that was quick, friendly and no hassle. The Guarda Frontera Officers come from Pillon, about 7M further west; so to leave you go to Gilbert’s House (the white one just behind the concrete pier) the day before your departure and he or his parents will telephone the Guarda F for you and arrange for them to visit a couple of hours before you want to leave.
The Guarda Frontera had no objection to our going ashore here and even gave us directions on how best to get to the hotel at the west end of the bay for internet (Enteca cards @ $4.50/hr.). It’s about a two-mile walk to the hotel, though we got innumerable offers of lifts as we ambled along and returned in the back in a horse-drawn cart full of palm-fronds. We didn’t see any shops in the village, but Gilbert’s parents seem very able to get the basics, plus fresh fish, bread, fruit & vegetables; Gilbert also got our jerry-jugs filled with diesel @ $1/litre, which though we filtered it, appeared clean/free of water.
They’re nice people, so please say ‘Hello from Bob & Lesley on Moon Rebel’ if you stop there. There is a bus stop out on the main road (no idea of the schedules) so you can no doubt get a bus to Pilon and/or points east; ask Gilbert or his family, I’m sure they’d know.
Marina Punta Gorda, Santiago de Cuba
An easy, deep entrance from the sea and straightforward buoyed approach up to the marina. No free berths when we arrived and the permitted anchoring area behind the red/green buoy to the west seemed to have hard/patchy holding and it (and the marina too) are in an almost direct line with where the strength of the afternoon breeze blows in through the bay’s entrance, when the Trade Winds picked-up ‘fresh to strong’, we laid a second anchor for added security; be sure you’ve got yours dug in properly.
You can also anchor immediately to the east of the marina and here you’re much better sheltered in the afternoon, but space is limited between deep (<15m/50’) water and the marina pontoon, also we were told, that the bottom is very soft mud: “Drop the anchor and let it settle for 10 – 15 minutes before digging it in.” A further advantage of this easterly anchorage was that it didn’t seem to catch the fallout from the nearby power-station to the same extent as the boats anchored further west; by the time we left, the deck and topsides were yellow and spotted like a leopard (two treatments with oxalic acid cleaned it) and had an oil-streak (we still can’t get the last of that off at all) all around the waterline where a slick (twice in ten days!) of heavy black oil drifted down the bay, through the western anchorage and out to sea.
Diesel is available via the marina if you need it, but be warned: It was delivered in very dirty/leaking jerry jugs to the pontoon @ $1.20/litre in yet more of Cuba’s ‘magic’ cans; the ones marked ‘50 litres’ apparently holding sixty and their 20-litre cans all hold twenty-five! Of the ninety litres we ordered/paid for, we received perhaps 81 or 82 litres of what also proved to be the dirtiest diesel we’ve found anywhere in Cuba and with water in it too, so be sure to micro-filter it at least twice before putting it in your tank.
Food at the Punta Gorda Restaurant just west of the marina was very average, but it was a pleasant place (lots of locals to meet) for a couple of beers; we never ate at the marina’s restaurant, but again it was pleasant spot for a beer, though hold onto it tightly as the afternoon breeze will blow your can off the table!
There are truck-buses running between Punta Gorda and Santiago, but the schedule’s very erratic and we never managed to catch one; the taxi drivers loitering outside the marina will run you in, wait around for a few hours and bring you back again for $15-20CUC, though the opening-quotation might well be $30-40CUC; we would highly recommend Osmar as a taxi driver (cellphone number 53483984 – the marina office will phone him for you).
You’ll need to get to Santiago one way or another though, as there’s no shopping or internet to be had in Punta Gorda and not much to see/entertain you either. You can visit Granma Island in the entrance – the marina runs a free ferry boat across to it – which made for an interesting 1 – 2-hour stroll, though you’ll spend most of that time being hassled to visit one or other of the island’s restaurants for lunch. We didn’t succumb, but those who did all reported having received very ordinary meals and extortionate bills at the end of them: $30+ CUC per head! The Hotel Nacionale in Havana was cheaper!
Whilst there were lots of things about visiting Cuba which we enjoyed, being on the boat and the landing restrictions associated with that, tended to detract rather than enhance the experience and contrary to the rave reviews we’d read/heard in advance of our going, we were particularly disappointed with the cays along the southern coast. Yes, you can have one, or indeed several cays all to yourself, but what are you going to do there? They are almost invariably just a clump of mangrove trees, interrupted if you’re really lucky, by a 50m stretch of grubby, coral/shell beach and being mangroves, the water’s not very clear either.
Our time there was during a period of strong easterly Trade Winds, interspersed with a seemingly never-ending series of Northern out of the Gulf of Mexico and this severely limited our snorkelling excursions; but Cayos Tablones, Rosario, Largo and Cabo Cruz all looked like they’re probably good in better conditions.
With the benefit of hindsight, whilst we might be tempted to visit later in the season, with a check-in at Santiago, a cruise through to Cayo Largo and check out/departure from there, a more likely scenario would be to sail to one of the marinas, leave the boat there, travel by land for a week or two, then return, check-out and sail elsewhere; we enjoyed more good sailing, better snorkelling, better walking and far more interesting scenery in the first few days of being in the Bahamas ‘Jumentos Cays’ than we had in two months in Cuba; the Jumentos Cays would also make a good/discrete departure and return point for a short visit to Cuba too.
If you do visit and wish to take some gifts along then load-up with redundant mobile phones (doesn’t matter if they’re locked, the Cubans can apparently ‘unlock anything’) USB memory-sticks, fishing hooks and line, snorkeling equipment, pens, soap, disposable razors, disposable cigarette lighters, deodorants – indeed any and all sanitary items are in short supply. Chocolate bars, beer, ‘real’ Coca-Cola and rum are always well received too.
Bob & Lesley Carlisle
Yacht Moon Rebel