The sanitised version of Cuba

Cayo Largo, Cuba

Cayo Largo, Cuba

I arrived in Cayo Largo (my first official stop) a week after my departure from Mexico. Threading my way trough the various islets (against wind and current), was not easy and on more than one occasion I came within centimetres of running aground.

Lessons learnt?

Don’t try any of the passes at night… Even if apparently well lit.

It was quite a relief to moor at a real marina for a few days because I was utterly exhausted (there is no sleeping when sailing within a mile of the coast) and my provisions, fuel and water were running low.

Marina Cayo Largo

Marina Cayo Largo

It must have shown, because by the time I had put the boat in some semblance of order (and gone through the check-in process), a local sailor and his wife came by to provide me with a hot meal, cold bear, basic provisions and a promise of fresh fish in the morning. Their generosity was overwhelming, and I have difficulty remembering an occasion when I enjoyed a meal as much as I did at that moment. Thank you again Liviana!

Cayo Largo is a pleasant stopover, but it is not the real Cuba, at least as far as I’m concerned. It is a resort island filled with tourists on all-inclusive holiday packages from Italy and Canada. There is nothing here other than resorts and their associated infrastructure. Not even the workers live here (most are from Isla de la Juventud). There is no doubt that the staff are good at their jobs… Everyone, everywhere, is so nice.

But my more cynical side suggests the catalyst for such efficacy is access to hard currency. But I’ll ignore that detail for the moment…

If you have a week or two to spare from your hectic work schedule and want a place to relax and recharge the proverbial batteries, then this is the place!

Service second to none. Well done!

If you want to see a more authentic and less sanitised version of Cuba, then you will probably want to sail on… which isn’t necessarily the best thing to do, but it is what I did.. regardless.

From Mexico to Cuba

My first stop in Cuba, Cayos de San Fielipe

My first stop in Cuba, Cayos de San Fielipe

It took 48 hours to cross the Yucatan Channel and arrive at the anchorage of Cayos de San Fielipe, and I only just made it before a dreaded northerly!

Paddling ashore I met with the three station guardians and asked whether it was OK to anchor here a while to shelter from the weather.

Not only was it fine, but I was immediately invited to share a meal, watch baseball on TV and converse. Quite a welcome and despite my rather elementary Spanish by late afternoon we were all fast friends.

The new group of island custodians arrive

The new group of island custodians arrive

The workers here are on ten day shifts and I happened to arrive on their last day. By morning the supply boat had arrived with the new crew and I went through the introductions a second time.

Only this time it seems my commodities and cash were the ones being openly welcomed to Cuba.

After the sincere generosity of the former station custodians, I was more than happy to hand over the few small items that the new crew requested: a lighter, some rope, cigarettes and coffee.

The next morning they visited Eileen by row-boat loaded with their catch of the day, offering what I thought would be a fair exchange for my previous handouts.

The good and the bad

The good and the bad

How naive… 10 US dollars later I was again on my way to Cayo Largo. My first contact with the locals having produced decidedly contrary feelings.

A Cuban Yin and Yang?

24 hours in Cozumel Mexico

Why is everyone heading the other way?

Why is everyone heading the other way?

At dawn, on the 10th of March, I found myself motoring through crystal clear waters off southern Cozumel, heading toward the small town of San Miguel.

Curiously, everyone else seemed to be going the other way!

As I watched, vessel after vessel, a seemingly endless procession, sped south.

What was going on?

Apparently nothing… or should I say “business as usual”…

Tourist activities galore!

Tourist activities galore!

On closer inspection all the boats were heavily laden with tourists preparing to partake in various activities including snorkelling, para-sailing, scuba diving or whatever else is the latest in seaside resort entertainment.

Even a submarine?

Even a submarine?

There were so many water craft, it felt like the start of some huge regatta.

Where did all these people come from?

Just two of the four cruise ships visiting Cozumel

Just two of the four cruise ships that were visiting Cozumel

There were literally shiploads of them. Mostly from the US… All I could compare it with was Aruba, but an Aruba on steroids!

The town was similarly awash with visitors, shopping for all those must have tourist accoutrements. One dollar maracas, bracelets with your name woven into the design, 6 T-shirts for 20 US…

OK, not my cup of tea perhaps… and no prejudicial jumping to conclusions. This could be fun… I’ll just sit down, relax, have an ice cold corona and check the weather forecast.

Boats at anchor off San Miguel

Boats at anchor off San Miguel

Strong northerlies descend upon the Yucatan Channel at this time of year and unfortunately the anchorage off San Miguel is very exposed. While a sailor could probably find shelter to the south of the cruise ship terminals many prefer to make a run for Isla Mujeres (approximately 40NM further north).

This was not an option for me, as my next destination was Cuba and I had every intention of getting there with a complimentary current.

If I intended to escape the uncomfortable northerly and take advantage of the closing weather window to Cuba, I had just 24 hours to visit Mexico.

Unlike Honduras where check in and out are a breeze, Cozumel’s procedures can politely be called challenging.

Despite what you may have read elsewhere, here’s the latest on what is required.

  • Visit the port captains office and fill in their arrival form;
  • Catch a cab to the airport (50 pesos) to see (in this order)
  • Immigration (306 pesos),
  • Customs (free),
  • The office of Agriculture (to confiscate your fruit).

Let me diverge at this point and explain that some cruisers try to give the last two a miss by only visiting the immigration office in town. But do you really want to risk being on the wrong side of Mexican law?

A temporary stop at the ferry terminal

A temporary stop at the ferry terminal

Besides, as happened in my case, both Customs and the Office of Agriculture might be rather keen to visit your boat. Kindly giving me a lift back to the port, I brought Eileen alongside the ferry terminal so they could carry out their inspection.

Everyone was rather chuffed about the whole affair.

  • Then it was off to the hospital for my obligatory health stamp (even if nobody checked my health),
  • and finally back to the port captains office to return the forms and finalise check-in.

There is slightly less running around for checking-out.

  • Be sure to provide a crew list, a copy of your registration papers, and the stub of your immigration entry form for the office in town,
  • go to the bank and pay another 471 pesos to the Secretaria de Communicaciones y Trasportes,
  • and collect your Zarpe at the port captains office.

Why it took an hour (upon producing the requested documentation at immigration), to just have a stamp placed in my passport is a mystery I prefer not to dwell upon.

At my age you start worrying about your blood pressure.

Only results matter. I had officially checked in and out, even if it took most of the time I was in Cozumel to do it. What more could I want?

Mickey Mouse arrangements for cruisers

Mickey Mouse arrangements for cruisers

I suspect it might be a bit easier for cruise ship passengers to stopover for 24 hours than it is for cruisers… or there wouldn’t be so many of them…

A slow routine sail to Honduras

Arriving at Guanaja, Honduras

Arriving at Guanaja, Honduras

After ten days in San Andres, it was time to make the next little hop on my clockwise tour of the Caribbean. If five days at sea and 400 nautical miles can be called a “little hop”. It’s all relative (so they say).

At this point in my wanderings, days at sea are just part of the general sailing routine. Not that I don’t enjoy routine, in fact I’m rather fond of it.

There is comfort in the predictability of routine.

Plus it’s easy to describe.

And this ladies and gents, is the route I took...

And this ladies and gents, is the route I took…

To the point that I need not even go into detail but merely state that the latest passage to Honduras was a “routine run”.

Most sailors I know will agree that any extended solo passage that might be loosely termed “routine”, will be made up of several obligatory elements including at least one;

  • Cetacean visitation,
  • Avian visitation,
  • Rare celestial observation,
  • Close encounter with a commercial craft, (of the cargo kind)
  • Fisherman’s tall tale of “the one that did (or didn’t) get away” to recount to landlubbers,
  • Tantrum,
  • Sundry gear failure with ad-hock work-around (later described as ingenious repair), due to general “wear and tear” on the boat. Also the cause of the aforementioned tantrum.

And that’s it!

For better or for worse, I’ve missed out on all the social drama of crewed passages.

The importance of being “Nobody”

On my way to San Andres, Colombia

On my way to San Andres, Colombia

Another five days of monotonous routine and solitary introspection at sea. No matter, the excitement can always wait until after I have set my anchor.

Though it does make me wonder how other crews manage similar voyages. If a couple, I don’t suppose it makes much difference. One is on watch while the other sleeps. I guess you need at least three to make passage making a sociable event, otherwise it’s inevitable there will be long hours of solitude.

I wonder whether too much of this is healthy.

Fortunately, in San Andres, there were plenty of opportunities to socialise.

Nene's Marina certainly has character.

Nene’s Marina certainly has character.

My first impressions were positive. How could they have been otherwise when the first words directed at me (in English), as I anchored off Nene’s Marina were; “I admire you”.

That from the captain of a motor launch slowing for a closer look at Eileen.

I must say, being seen on a Yarmouth23 certainly does have its advantages. Too bad I can’t take her with me everywhere and prolong the admiration. All too soon I’m relegated the to the lofty status of “Mr Nobody” from the moment I step ashore.

Or even before I step ashore, given that I have to paddle there on my humble kayak.

Which, come to think of it, is just the way I want it to be.

Being nobody I get to:

Life is a beach in San Andres

Life is a beach in San Andres

Unobtrusively take photos of fellow nobody’s at the beach;

Wandering about town...

Wandering about town…

or in town for that matter.

I onlly went there looking for Aguila girls!

I only went there looking for Aguila girls!

Be proverbially growled at for sitting too close to the supposedly reserved VIP section of the bar in this establishment (where only the “beautiful people” are supposed to party).

Don't even contemplate it buddy!

Don’t even contemplate it buddy!

Be literally growled at for wanting to sit too close to the section of the wall reserved for dexterous local fauna…

I'm busy.... Doing nothing...

I’m busy…. Doing nothing…

Do nothing… other than sit and patiently wait out the bad weather…. (growling).

My conclusion?

A pleasant stopover. Somewhat bureaucratic (especially for sailors), with a distinct social dichotomy between tourists and locals. But is that not the norm?

I’d have only seen the one side (guess which), had I not chanced upon a resident sailor who took it upon himself to show me the “real” San Andres.

And where is this real San Andres?

All over… It’s where you get to enjoy good company, good food, good wine, and great music, without having to call for “la cuenta por favor” before you leave.

With a little help I was able to see the real San Andres

With a little help I was able to see the real San Andres

It’s in the houses and homes… not the hotels.

A rare privilege indeed Damien.

Thanks!

 

Sailors, Prostitutes and Backpackers!

Cafe del Mar Cartagena and the historic centre.

Cafe del Mar Cartagena and the historic centre.

My visit to Cartagena was a disappointment. Not that it wasn’t interesting. Wandering about the historic sections of the city kept me busy for hours and it certainly can’t be said that the town isn’t photogenic.

My disappointment stems from the fact that Cartagena is a rather popular tourist destination, and all that that implies;

  • The fake landaus, (I say fake because there is nothing remotely traditional in their construction)
  • The price hikes, (my reference being Santa Marta)
  • The hawkers, (“Hello my friend, where are you from?”)
  • The prostitutes, (supposedly representing 50% of the local females in the old town after dark). Don’t believe me? Here’s the reference.
  • and the way everything is neatly geared to maximise the extraction of hard currency from short term visitors.

Dare I say that it’s just another tourist trap? Yes…

It isn't over until the fat lady.....

It isn’t over until the fat lady…..

In Cartagena’s defence though, it certainly can not be said that this is the only city where the above criticisms hold true.

It didn’t help that the marina (Club Nautico) is currently a construction site offering little more than a secure place to leave your dinghy at a premium price. I’m told it should all be completed by July so don’t let that small detail deter you.

Of the visitors there seemed to be two main types;

The older wealthier version making use of the up-market hotels, and the youthful backpacker occupying the small inexpensive hostels on the old towns perimeter.

I’ll leave out the yachting community for the moment.

And I’ll say nothing more of the secret service ;)

The other side of town...

The other side of town…

I was surprised to see so many backpackers! I’d thought them extinct. At least they appear to be a dying breed in Europe, (having been replaced by the wheely bag generation and the ever present trustafarians), but no…, backpackers are alive and well…, it’s just that they have changed continent.

Backpackers do what they have always done… Drink and hang around meeting other backpackers in what (to my eyes at least), is the grittier, but infinitely more interesting parts of town. But what’s a trustafarian I hear you ask?

Cartagena street art

Cartagena street art

That would be the neo-hippy white wantobe rastafarian with a trust fund. A growing phenomenon in the Caribbean and abroad. I could almost be one, except I don’t usually hitch-hike across borders these days, have the prerequisite passion for reggae music, the dreadlocks, the weed habit, the tubular cotton bracelet rack displaying my wares for sale, the musical instrument, the juggling apparatus, or the all important “trust fund” waiting for me back home.

For what it’s worth though, I do have hairy legs…! Harrumph… ;)

These tourists are the “bread and butter” for yachtsmen making Cartagena their home away from home. I was amazed by the number of yachts offering passage to budget travellers to or from Panama. At between $300 and $500 US per person for a one way trip, and yachts large enough to accommodate up to 25 passengers, you can see why many captains linger here.

You can also see why I wouldn’t…

Enough said…

Santa Marta to Cartagena

Let's have a drink or six before I leave Santa Marta!

Let’s have a drink or six before I leave Santa Marta!

And so, the intrepid (in hindsight, a more appropriate adjective would be half-witted), adventurer left his newly found Moët & Chandon converts behind and set sail for Cartagena.

Why?

I’m still asking myself the same question, though impending alcohol induced liver failure does come to mind…

The sensible thing to do, given that it was blowing a gale, would have been to stay an extra day, or week for that matter. I certainly had the incentives. However, my departure documents stated I was leaving “pronto”, and who was I to contradict what was signed, stamped and dutifully bound in triplicate.

Changing my mind would mean having to repeat the whole week long check-in rigmarole, much to my agents joy, and my wallet’s distress.

Santa Marta to Cartagena via the mouth of the Magdalena River off Barranquilla

Santa Marta to Cartagena via the mouth of the Magdalena River off Barranquilla

I left it to Eileen of Avoca, (once again), to do all of the hard work of taking me from point A to point B. Having set her try-sail, stay-sail, wind-vane and other hyphenated sail-things, I thought it best to settle down below to nurse what was rapidly becoming a contender for the title of “mother of all hangovers”.

On route, I spent as little time on deck as possible. Partly because there was very little traffic to worry about, but mainly because I didn’t like what I was seeing there.

Surf…

I’m not generally worried about big seas, the exception being when those seas break, as was the case a mile out from the mouth of the Rio Magdalena. It’s not the first time I’ve been among breakers with my Yarmouth23. You would think that I have learnt by now how to avoid them (breakers that is, not hangovers…), but no…, It’s much easier to sit through yet another lesson on white-water induced cork dynamics. In fact, I’m thinking of taking a double major in it.

Through Boca Grande and on to Cartagena

Through Boca Grande and on to Cartagena

Thankfully the turbulent effects of the river were short-lived, even if Eileen didn’t seem adversely effected by it. By morning (24 hours after leaving Santa Marta), I found myself motoring tranquilly through Boca Grande.

Safely docked at Club Nautico, it was time to play tourist.

Foremost on my (predictably one-track mind? but let’s say…) agenda, was discovering whether Aguila girls prefer Cartagena to Santa Marta?

 

Santa Marta Colombia

Too lazy to go further than the beach or town square.

Too lazy to go further than the beach or town square.

Let me try to impart some useful information on Santa Marta in the form of pros and cons for yachtsmen contemplating landfall here.

Starting with the bad news:

  • It’s about ten times more expensive (about 250 US dollars) to stop in Colombia than in the windward islands. Why? Because it’s bureaucratic. By law you must employ an agent to do all your paperwork and it can take up to a week before it’s completed.
  • There are no Aguila girls.
  • You can’t go anywhere with your yacht once you arrive. Not without repeating the red tape and expense. Not even a little day trip to nearby beaches.
  • There are no Aguila girls.
  • The beach down town is fine for a walk, but I doubt my immune system would handle a swim.
  • There are no Aguila girls on the beach either…
  • While the town can boast being Colombia’s oldest, there really isn’t much left architecturally to support the claim.

So I spent my mornings by the seaside, and my afternoons in town at a café just soaking up the atmosphere. Which brings me to the pros:

  • Santa Marta has a great vibe! It’s a lively place. Vendors, tourists, street artists, restaurants, bars, you name it, it’s there and it’s all thriving. Even I had difficulty being bored once I’d worked up enough courage to leave my boat for the day.
  • It’s safe and it’s friendly.
  • If you are a little more adventurous than I am (which isn’t difficult), there are interesting places to visit just a short bus or taxi ride away.
  • But I’ve saved the best for last. While there were no Aguila girls in Santa Marta, I did find the next best thing. Two in fact.
  • Aguila Light girls!

The rest of my stay in Santa Marta is a happy drunken blur. Apparently Aguila light girls are no lightweights when it comes to partying.

Two reasons to stay in Santa Marta

Two reasons to stay in Santa Marta

Oh, and if the next time you ask a pretty girl in Santa Marta “what would you like to drink?” and she answers “Champagne of course”, you know who’s to blame. ;)

The hunt for Miss Aguila

Playing tourist on the beach in Santa Marta, Colombia

Taking bad photos on the beach in Santa Marta, Colombia…

Here I am at last on the beach in Santa Marta by the marina, camera in hand, and we… (that is, the camera and I)…, are not amused…

Royal anthropomorphisms aside, this was supposed to be a post full of images highlighting the bikini clad delights of Colombia enjoying sun, surf and sand. Let me assure you that nobody could be more disappointed than “yours truly” that I’ve not been able to deliver the goods.

Where oh where could those Aguila girls be?

Where oh where could those Aguila girls be?

I had to scour the Internet to find this photo as a stopgap to prevent my readership from lynching me while my search continues.

Could it be that the Aguila girl is a myth?

Because the only Aguila girls I’ve found so far look more like this…

No I'm not mistaken... It does read Aguila...

No I’m not mistaken… It does read Aguila…

Perhaps Santa Marta is where former Aguila girls go to retire?

In which case, there is still hope!

Bronze statues along the sea side promenade.

Bronze statues along the seaside promenade.

It’s academic whether the historic statues in the likeness of natives, prominently displayed by the seaside, should have been enough to dispel the naive preconceptions I apparently enjoy harbouring after watching too many beer ads.

But, as I’m not the appreciative artistic type, I’ve never really been all that interested in trying to understand it.

Friends of a more cultural and cerebrally inclined nature would frown upon my unadroit ignorance and lecture me on how the modern world is clearly reflected in the arts…

Art refects life or is it the other way around?

Art refects life or is it the other way around?

Yes… Perhaps I can see that… I might be making artistic inroads after all…

But I’d still like to find out where the Aguila girls are hiding. So I’m off on a bar crawl tonight to see if any are to be found where they keep all the Aguila.

What do you rate my chances as?