We landed in Santa Clara, in the center of Cuba, our flight approximately half as long as our wait for a Cuban visa in Ft. Lauderdale. Not only would we paddle and snorkel in Cuba’s warm, clear water, but we would visit an island that has been essentially closed to residents of the US for my entire life. Kevin and I had been thinking about Cuba for several years, and Tommy Thompson’s Cuba Adventure Company trip promised a blend of nature and culture. In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration had blocked individual people-to-people tours to Cuba, but group people-to-people tours were still permitted in December. Cuba…only 90 miles from Florida but a world away.
Tommy cheerfully greeted our group and introduced our Cuban guide, Bernie, who would help us understand life in Cuba. Tommy suggested that we practice patience, flexibility, and understanding when things didn’t go as planned, a prescient warning for our paddle on Lake Hanabanilla. As Tommy and Bernie explained the week’s program, our Chinese-manufactured tour bus carried us south towards our first night’s stop. We arrived at our government-run hotel and were told that all guests had been shifted to a nearby hotel. Our first lesson in flexibility.
Once ensconced in our rooms, we quickly found the hotel bar and its mojitos. We discovered that all Cuban bars serve Havana Club rum, not Bacardi, which is known internationally. (For a detailed explanation on why, check out the book Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten, Penguin Group, 2008.) Cuban mojitos tend to be much less sweet than those served in the US.
The next morning we woke up to driving rain and the news that the axle on the kayak trailer had broken. Surely this development was related to the patience and understanding Tommy mentioned.
After some delay, we loaded ourselves and our gear into our transport: a Russian army truck filled with rows of hard plastic seats. Rolling over the unpaved roads left no mystery about the term “Russian massage.” In Cuba, I found, almost any transportation is good transportation. Transporting both goods and people is a serious challenge for Cuba because both cars and fuel are in short supply. This leads to food shortages and makes it difficult for people to get to their jobs.
Slightly worse for wear, we arrived at Lake Hanabanilla ready to paddle. The rain had given way to clear skies, and we launched on a glassy lake. However, the dark clouds that glowered over our destination foretold a stormy paddle. Soon, we struggled against wind and waves as a squall passed over us. Wet and weary, we landed at our “glamping” site and settled in for the evening. By far, this day’s paddle and “glamping” was the most challenging part of the trip.
By noon the next day, we dried out our gear at a hotel overlooking the lake. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of fried fish and tostones at a paladar, a family-run restaurant unlike most of the government-run establishments geared to tourists. Many of Cuba’s tourist establishments were originally built for visiting Soviets back when USSR and Cuba were strong allies. Cuba’s economy drastically changed when the USSR withdrew economic support in the early 1990s. Today, Cuba’s tourism economy is growing, including visits from Russians nostalgic for the Cuba they remember.
The next morning, we drove to Guama, our launch site for our next paddle. Adjacent to our put-in lay what every paddler wants to see: a crocodile sanctuary, fortunately surrounded by a chain-link fence. For mere pesos, they allowed us to feed the crocodiles by dangling meat on a homemade fishing pole over the fence. (No, this would not happen in the US.) The sound of the snapping jaws resounded over the lake.
We went next door for an obscenely large lunch, including sauteed crocodile. (Tastes like gator.) During our stay, we had numerous large meals in restaurants geared to tourists. Since Cubans receive rations for limited quantities of food, the over-feeding of tourists was unsettling. In general, Cubans live on very little, approximately $30-40 per month, which means that most people must somehow supplement their official salary. It is not unusual for surgeons, for example, to drive a taxi to make ends meet.
After lunch, we paddled through mangrove-lined channels to Hotel Guama. I was especially looking forward to visiting Guama and Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lake). Fidel Castro had supervised this recreation of a Taino stilt village, and he appreciated the birds and natural beauty of this location. I wish we had more than one night to explore the creeks and bays of this quiet place.
The next day we headed towards the Bay of Pigs, a place name most of us had encountered in high school history classes. It struck me that, of our entire group, only my mother remembered these events in Cuban and US history. Despite its name, the Bay of Pigs is beautiful, and Playa Largo is known for its snorkeling and diving. We dipped our fins in to see for ourselves.
Signs throughout Cuba remind visitors and residents of the revolution. Prominently placed billboards highlight quotes from Fidel Castro and others, and images of Castro and Che Guevara appear in many locations, urban and rural. The revolution and its heroes dominate the Cuban landscape and historical memory. So, while the Bay of Pigs might seem like ancient history, constant physical reminders bring it into the present.
We spent the last three days of the nature part of our trip in Guajamico on the southern coast. For those of us who salivate at the idea of snorkeling, this was heaven. Each day’s short paddle brought us to secluded beaches surrounded by colorful limestone cliffs, and from there we could don snorkeling gear and swim out to beautiful reefs. One day’s schedule even included a ride on horseback from the beach to our lunch spot, with the Escambray Mountains as a backdrop.
And then the kayaks were put away, and it was time for Havana. Our guide Bernie left us, and Meylin joined us. After a week in quiet rural areas, the sights and sounds of Havana were quite a change. We stayed in a historic colonial building, now Hostal Las Maletas, with high ceiling and tall windows.
In addition to the classic car tour and visiting the historic squares, we visited the Museum of the Revolution. Not surprisingly, the museum had its own interpretation of history and US involvement.
And, of course, we had drinks at Hemingway’s daiquiri bar, La Floridita.
I loved this trip to Cuba, and I feel like I have just scratched the surface. I grew up during the Cold War, and Cuba seemed like such an alien place to me, like the communist USSR and Russia. Yet, I recently discovered that my grandparents honeymooned there, when Americans sought to escape the restrictions of Prohibition. So Cuba is part of my family history as well. This trip fulfilled the spirit of the people-to-people ideal. I’m already planning my return.