Pirates and Spanish galleons, gangsters and chrome-glistening Chevrolets, folk heroes such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro: Cuba has long held a fascination as Suzy Carmody discovered

After a month cruising in Jamaica aboard Distant Drummer, our Liberty 458 cutter-rigged sloop, we were in Montego Bay and waiting for a fair wind to carry us north across the Caribbean Sea to the island which was once the jewel of the Spanish Crown.

We’d planned to break the passage from Jamaica to Cuba at Cayman Brac, a rocky island about 80 miles east of Grand Cayman. However, north-east trade winds funnelling through the Windward Passage were forecast to veer and strengthen during the week making the anchorage there untenable. So we set a new course direct to Cienfuegos on the south coast of Cuba, and as we departed Montego Bay and headed north-west the conditions for the passage could not have been better.

A fresh breeze on the starboard beam and a moderate sea made for a fast reach across the Cayman Trough, then as the wind eased and veered in the lee of Cuba we poled out the jib and had a beautiful run up to the Cuban coast. We entered the lagoon at Cienfuegos and zigzagged our way between the red buoys which mark the channel to the city on the eastern side of the bay. Anchoring outside the marina we went ashore to complete the entry formalities, which were straightforward as the marina is a one stop shop for the harbour master, customs and

History on every corner

Cienfuegos was founded in the early 1880s by French settlers from Bordeaux and the lavish architecture around the central Parque Jose Marti reflects the city’s Francophile roots. We admired the grand interiors of the cathedral, the theatre and other civic buildings before wandering along shady, colonnaded streets. Curious peeks into doorways unearthed an eclectic assortment of food, clothing and hardware for sale in the dusty rooms.

Murals in Cuba. Photo: David Glenn

Cienfuegos is midway along the south coast of Cuba and is a good base from which to explore the island. Trinidad, an hour and a half’s drive away in a vintage Chevy colectivo (shared taxi) is a well preserved and restored Spanish colonial city; the horse carts, cobbled streets and almost complete lack of modern buildings make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The mansions built from sugar fortunes during the 19th century are open to visit, and there are plenty of restaurants to retire to for a well earned beer while listening to trovadores singing traditional Cuban ballads.

Santa Clara is another easy day trip from Cienfuegos. Located in the centre of Cuba it is best known for the monument to Che Guevara which lies just west of the city – his remains and those of 16 other Cuban and Bolivian revolutionaries are interred in the crypt.

For cruisers approaching Cuba from the north Havana would be a natural stop on the itinerary, however as we didn’t plan to circumnavigate the island we decided to leave Distant Drummer in Cienfuegos and visit the capital city by road. As we spilled out of our crowded colectivo, this time a dilapidated Lada, after the three hour drive, we found Havana’s riotous history immediately reflected in its streets.

Palaces, churches and old forts lie cheek by jowl with crumbling Spanish houses, stout women sit on corners smoking fat cigars and the rhythms of rumba and salsa pour out of all the bars. Every second car is an American classic in varying states of decrepitude; a gleaming Chevy, a brightly painted Dodge or a dull, rusty Buick with missing hubcaps.

Havana Vieja (Old Havana) is the 17th Century heart of the city and the only place where we came across crowds of tourists. The area has been extensively renovated and traditional Spanish houses have been repurposed as art galleries, gift shops and hotels boasting ‘Hemingway drank here’, interspersed with ramshackle buildings sprouting weeds.

Classic American car in Havana. Photo: Delphotos/Alamy

Guarding the west side of the narrow entrance to Havana harbour, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza is the oldest fort in the Americas and is now home to the excellent Maritime Museum. We drooled over chests of pieces-of-eight and gold ingots the size of hockey pucks displayed beside beautiful porcelain and glassware, all carefully recovered and restored from the wrecks scattered along the north coast of Cuba.

Silent mangroves

Back in Cienfuegos we prepared for a voyage through the Jardines de la Reina, a string of mangrove islands which lie on the edge of a broad, shallow shelf that stretches from Trinidad to Cabo Cruz. These remote uninhabited cays were ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and are now a national marine park.

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Provisioning for the trip had its challenges: the mercado in Cienfuegos was great for buying eggs and fresh fruit and vegetables, but finding meat, fish and other groceries was more challenging. Supermarkets stock large quantities of a very limited variety of goods, so there might be whole aisles of toilet paper and jars of olives, powdered milk and soap powder, but if you want a tin of tuna – come back next week. The only item on sale with a range of choices was rum, of which we soon became connoisseurs.

We departed Cienfuegos bound for Cayo Breton, the northernmost of the Jardines islands. After a great overnight sail with a northerly breeze and a favourable east-setting current we rounded the red buoy which marks the break in the reef at the entrance to Canal de Breton, dodging a large iron shipping buoy that was adrift close to the marker and then passed inside the reef. As we approached the island the sandy bottom shallowed gradually and we dropped the pick in 3m of water. Although we were still some distance from shore this turned out to be a blessing because we were out of range of the clouds of sand flies on the island.

Distant Drummer off Santiago. Photo: Suzy Carmody

It would be easy to get lost exploring the convoluted channels that weave through the maze of mangroves at Cayo Breton but the tall light tower at the west end of the island provides a landmark to navigate back to. With surprisingly calm weather, we relished the sublime stillness of the lagoon with a silence so intense it felt as if it was pressing against your ears.

One afternoon we visited a nearby fishing platform. We thought it was abandoned and were surprised to receive a hearty welcome from Pablo and the other lobstermen who manned the station. They filled our arms full of lobster and invited us for lunch the next day.
We brought a bottle of rum and they served us a platter of grilled lobster and delicious garlicky fried fish – one of the best meals we ate in Cuba!

The island of Cayo Granma in the Bahia de Santiago. Photo: imageBROKER/Alamy

Skippers cruising through the Jardines islands can choose a route either inside or the outside the cays; the former is more sheltered but scattered with unmarked reefs and sand bars and requires good light and eyeball navigation, the latter more exposed to the wind and swells of the trades. Several passes enable passage between the islands, some of these channels are marked with buoys but others are poorly charted and local knowledge is valuable.

The mild weather continued as we left Cayo Breton and motored along the outside of the island chain to Cayo Caballones. While navigating in the Jardines islands we found the Navionics charts to be quite reliable so we were not unduly alarmed when the depth sounder shot up dramatically from 1,000m to 10m as we passed through the gap in the reef. Approaching the island the gradient flattened and we anchored with less than a metre of water below the keel. Looking down into the super clear water it felt as if we were perched right on the sand.

Cienfuegos Marina. Photo: Suzy Carmody

The next day we spent hours snorkelling on the patch reefs along the shore. We were amazed by the vast number of fish; large schools of snapper and grouper, shoals of black and white sergeants and clouds of reef fish patterned in countless combinations of yellow and turquoise.

In the late afternoon when the zephyr of wind dropped the sea surface became as smooth as glass. Racing across the crystal clear water in the dinghy was like skimming across the coral on a flying carpet. We turned into the lagoon and enjoyed sundowners drifting lazily with the current through the mangroves.

The Jardines de la Reina is a national marine park and although anchoring without a permit is not officially allowed, the park wardens generally turn a blind eye. The only place we found this to be enforced was at Cayo Anclitas where tourist boats buy permits to anchor and do not appreciate cruising boats trying to do so for free. Fishing is strictly not permitted in the marine park with the exception, of course, of the state-run stations for lobster fishing.

Classic 1950s Americana outside Havana’s El Capitolio government building. Photo: Renato Granieri/Alamy

At Cayo Caguama, the southernmost island in the Jardines, we went ashore to visit the park ranger station. As we watched the wardens feeding rice to the dozens of iguanas with whom they share the island they told us about the turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs at the shoreline of the beautiful white sand beach.

Ritual and ceremony

We left before daybreak the next morning for Cabo Cruz. As the sun came up, the light southerly breeze dropped and we motorsailed outside the reef for the 60-mile passage to the south-eastern tip of Cuba. The channel entrance at Cabo Cruz is well buoyed and the pounding surf clearly delineates the reef edge.

In Cuba on arrival in a harbour it’s necessary to register with the Guarda fronteras, and on leaving a local despacho will be issued for passage on to the next port of call. The harbourmaster took our papers and dismissed us, but a couple of hours later reappeared rowing a small fishing boat, complete with his dog. The pair came on board to inspect Distant Drummer, the main concerns being the smuggling of drugs and people.

Women in Santeria religious costume. Photo: Suzy Carmody

We waited a couple of days at Cabo Cruz for a cold front to bring northerly winds for the passage to Santiago de Cuba. We had a fabulous sail for the first part of the voyage with 15-20 knots from the north-north-east. In the afternoon the wind eased and veered as we passed into the lee of the Sierra Maestra but, as the sun set, katabatic winds rolled down from the mountain peaks gusting up to 30 knots. After a boisterous night we were glad to see daybreak over the magnificent Castillo del Morro which guards the entrance into Santiago.

We passed through the sinuous, narrow channel into the harbour – relieved not to encounter one of the many oil tankers or large cargo ships. Several times a day a small ferry goes into the city from close to the marina. After disembarking the ferry we took a taxi to the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery to visit Fidel Castro’s grave site, then headed back to town via the old Bacardi rum distillery, now home to the state-owned Havana Club brand.

We strolled up the hill to the old town, another mix of partially derelict and beautifully restored Spanish buildings. We wandered lazily, before stopping at a terrace cafe shaded by ancient trees at the Plaza de Dolores. It was a perfect spot for people watching while sipping mojitos; señoritas promenading, old ladies gossiping on a park bench and a troupe of musicians playing.

One evening in Santiago we had the opportunity to attend a Santeria ceremony. Similar to voodoo, Santeria is a religion based on Catholic beliefs blended with spiritual concepts of the Yoruba faith from West Africa. After entering the temple we prostrated ourselves before an altar before walking through to the back yard where we hugged a huge tree decorated with symbols and candles. Three rugged men beat a frantic rhythm on drums and the Balalawo (shaman) danced and chanted songs of praise to the tree. Much rum was drunk and we were totally embraced in the vibrant rituals.

Cruising the south coast of Cuba was fascinating. Half a century of strict socialist dogma has cultivated an extraordinary resilience in the people. In Cuba there is a shortage of everything yet everywhere we went there was music, dancing and laughter. Ironically the poverty of the communist years has preserved the beauty of the country, from the fabulous cars to the colonial architecture in the cities, as well as the undeveloped coastline and unspoilt archipelagos of this enigmatic island.

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