Thursday, March 22, 2018

Beautiful and remote – Los Jardines de la Reina

We just arrived yesterday in Cienfuegos, the “Paris” of Cuba, after a wonderful part of our Cuba experience, mostly under the water at Los Jardines de la Reina. It really is some of the most beautiful coral gardens I have ever seen. Apparently Christopher Columbus thought it was so beautiful that it deserved to be named after the Queen of Spain. The water is so incredibly clear and the reef so pristine and healthy it was a joy to spend hours just drifting through the gardens.

After leaving Cayo Cuervo we headed south and enjoyed a slow sail in about 10 knots of wind out into the ocean through a gap in the reef back into the rolling ocean swell. From this pass it was only about 5 miles to where there is a section of the reef that is submerged so we could sneak inside and get some protection from the south easterly swell and anchor near Cayo Alcatricito. There is nothing useful on our chart so we had to do it all by eye and it’s pretty scary as you pass over reef in such clear water it looks like it can’t possibly be deep enough. For once we used our headphones so we can easily communicate and we navigated through what looked like the deepest water and then made it to the sand and weed where the bottom flattened out and gently shallowed to the shore, so we edged our way in as close as we could with just half a metre under the keel. It was still a pretty long way out but the winds were expected to be light and the swell was our major issue. When we arrived we were totally on our own but by the time we launched the dinghy two French yachts arrived.

We went straight off to explore a narrow pass on the eastern end of the reef near Cayo Alcatraz Grande and couldn’t believe the water clarity and beauty of the reef when we hopped in the water. We spent several hours up there and then went to the end near to where we came in. The French were also here; I don’t think any of the yachties got out of the water before 6pm. We saw sharks and big snapper and very curious barracudas. The sharks were nurse sharks and Caribbean reef sharks and more interested in us than we are used to – hmmm glad to have a big stick  (spear) with us……

The next morning we took the dinghy to explore the mangroves and went right around the Cayo – we had read that there may be some crocodiles, but we didn’t find them just a lot of damaged mangroves – I suspect hurricane damaged. We walked for miles along the beach on Cayo Alcatraz then headed back to the reef for the calm afternoon at the reef. I don’t think I can remember such perfect snorkelling conditions. Then to end the day Andrew spotted a slipper lobster just strolling along – I quickly grabbed a pair of gloves and he made a great meal.

That night a fishing boat came into the anchorage at sunset and quickly rowed over looking to trade lobster or fish for rum. Fantastic – two lovely snappers in exchange for a bottle of rum that cost us 2CUC in Santiago. I through in a couple of limes and our last orange that actually came from Bob and Nan’s tree in Alabama – I think they’d approve! The fishermen were really happy too.

The next morning we decided to go and check out the western end of Los Jardines and had a gentle motor sail down to Cayo Breton. This was a little easier to get into with deeper water over the reef but a much more open bay. There is a a pass through the mangroves which we went to explore and found water deep enough to take Askari right inside if we felt the need but the bugs would most definitely be full on – lucky for us we had light conditions so were able to stay outside and took the dingy out about 2 miles across to explore the reef. We found the loveliest spot with huge boulders and such incredible fans with plenty of fish and a rather large shark that was sufficiently interested in us that it actually sent us back to the boat.

The reef was lovely but we had a problem – the beer had nearly run out! So we opted to make a longish trip to Cayo Blanco de Casilda for a quick overnight pit stop before heading on the further 40 miles to Cienfuegos and the bit city. Cayo Blanco is a tourist resort island (it looked pretty deserted though) and we arrived in pretty bad light.  The pilot book and our chart differed significantly so we went slow and then anchored in 3m of water where the chart said we had 0.1m. All good until I went to swim on the anchor and we were right next to a wreck – so we had to start all over again in a new spot.

An early start the next morning and a leisurely motor sail in a straight line directly to Cienfuegos. You enter the harbour through a narrow winding channel and then a huge lake opens out – city on one side and cliffs on the other. We passed the huge Guarda Frontera station and made our way to the Marina, where we went alongside for a couple of hours while we did our clearance and then anchored off with about 12 other yachts –mostly French. Ashore that evening we ran into John and Ada from Rhapsody and went for a celebratory Mojito together at the marina bar. We’ll now catch our breath and then go and explore – I find the transition coming back to a town anchorage after being out ‘in the wild’ a little bit challenging, but it feels good to be here and Cienfuegos is supposed to be really in

Monday, March 19, 2018

Freedom and food in the Cayos- 17th March 2018

After leaving Manzanillo we spent 5 relaxing nights in the Cays, away from the coast we can anchor wherever we please and there's no Guarda so no check in and out, but also no services or settlements so we will now need to be totally self sufficient until we reach Cienfuegos. The south of Cuba is a maze of coral and mangrove islands and careful pilotage is required along with a good look out. Some of the main channels are marked and often there's a stick on a shallow patch or marking an entrance the fishermen use.

Our first day out from Manzanillo was lovely and calm so we motor sailed West in about 7 knots of North East wind. We did a few boat jobs along the way while marvelling at the emerald green water - I really haven't seen water this colour. A cold front was due to clip the north of the island and we were expecting light Westerly winds that afternoon which came in just as we approach Cayo Rabihorcado -this gave us the unusual opportunity to anchor on the East side of this Cay.

The beach on the east side of Rabihorcado is just stunning and the water so clear with a huge shallow sand bank covered in rays and turtles. We went ashore and swam in the crystal clear shallows - it felt like heaven. There wasn't much to see on the reef; weed and some coral and we went to explore the anchorage on the other side by dinghy; it was also nice but not as spectacular as where we were.

We had a perfect calm relaxing night and then left the next morning at 9am heading further West. It was a bit cloudy early in the day and very light winds that completely dropped off by mid-day to officially zero and a glassy sea. Andrew caught a small snapper and I had a pedicure, then after lunch we caught a much larger crevalle jack. Woohoo the fridge was full of fish…..

We worked our way into the protected Cayo Granada, which is vitually totally encircled with mangrove and reef, with just a narrow channel of submerged reef that you pass over. It was eerie quiet with the calm lagoon and not a sound. We went to explore the two wrecks in the centre of the bay and braved snorkeling in the murky water and found huge numbers of fish and two nice wrecks with some soft corals. On one side of the bay there's looked to be a sand peninsular - but when we got there it turned out to be stinky mangrove mud with horseflies. The land breeze from the north east came in early evening - zero wind to 16 knots and the smell of smoke arrived within 10 minutes.
Wrecks to explore

Pretty but stinky!

Jack fish

 I cooked up the snapper with a breading mix Dianne gave us in Beaufort. I would never have bought something like that but wow, you just wet the fish and zip it in the powder and it was like real battered fish. Andrew was so excited and the fish was delicious.

 A long run was ahead of us the next day so we followed our track out of Cayo Granada and set a course through the Cays toward the very protected Cayo Cuervo. We went through two really narrow canals during the day, we snuck close to Cayo Malabrigo, which looked like the perfect sand atoll of the San Blas in Panama. We took a diversion from the charted route to save time and picked our way through the reef round two larger cays near to Cuervo - we had to do this to try and ensure we had good light to get over the submerged reef at the entrance - much like at Granada. It was all fine and then as we approached the Cay we saw a strange sight on our AIS - a yacht, wow people for the first time in 10 days! Then the name came up Rhapsody…. Omg it couldn't be our friends John and Ada we last saw in the Canaries and first met in A Coruna, we grabbed their card and confirmed it was their MMSI. They did the same and immediately called us on the VHF - what a totally amazing coincidence. So much so that with all the excitement we missed a huge shoal in the centre of the bay - woops, luckily it was just mud and sand. We had a lovely catch up with John and Ada over sunset, sharing all our adventures since we were last together. They left early the next morning and we decided to stay for a few days to wait for the perfect weather to go and visit La Jardines de la Reina.
Buoyage is quite good

Old friends - John and Ada

Cuervo actually turned out to be a busy and fascinating anchorage as it's a fishing base. The shrimp trawlers mostly go out over night and return in the morning unload the catch to a mother ship, get food or provisions from a supply ship and all work together. The mother ship then takes the catch back to port while they are out fishing. There are boats moving around nearly all the time and a lot of singing and loud talking. They are all numbered and mostly identical boats - C5 was the boldest that would come pretty close to us - really wanting us to go over and trade shrimp. We got used to the boats and even though at first I felt a bit nervous with so many of them (up to 13 one evening) but there were all friendly and a safe distance away from us.

Catching Lobster
Our catch

We got on top of our maintenance and laundry in this safe spot and spent a calm morning out on the reef on the southern side of the bay. The water was fairly clear here and the coral quite nice but there was lobsters, lots of lobsters!! In the space of half an hour Andrew caught four - so exciting, we are definitely not going to run out of food out here.

Saturday morning we pulled our muddy anchor that was so well set after a couple of windy days and headed south!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Exploring Golfo de Guacanayabo - March 12th 2018

Manzanillo Plaza
We had a lobster omelet for breakfast then pulled the anchor at Cabo Cruz. We headed north into the Golf de Guacanayabo. There was one patch of uncharted shallow bombies (19°50'4N / 77°44.6W) that gave us a scare as we left the anchorage however we managed to just skirt by them. This is the hard bit in the morning when the light isn't so good in these kind of sketchy places; we generally try and follow our track, however today we were heading on a different course.

It was a beautiful day and the weather was stunning yet again. I made bread as we motored along passing the Cayos de Limones and the town of Niquero, which looked very industrial, before arriving at the Cayos Balandras.

We knew the wind was due to pick up in the next couple of days and we might get the effects of a front coming down from the US, so we went in search of a nice secure anchorage and found the perfect spot just off Cayo Pragua. We had our own sand beach, the wind dropped off completely and it was just oh so quiet with just the odd fishing boat rowing by out towards the channel, we even saw one guy in an inner-tube from a tractor tyre 5 miles offshore fishing (we saw this often in the harbour at Santiago too).

Then about 5.30pm a motorised fishing (quite rare) boat approached us, containing two Guarda. We thought we were far enough away to be ignored. They were friendly and all ready to clear us until Andrew suggested we might like to stay a few days for protection from the wind. The Guarda called the harbour master on the radio who then wanted us to move to the anchorage off Niquero - Andrew was very firm and explained we couldn't go there as it was too shallow unless we were in a spot with no protection from the wind. After a lot of radio calls it was agreed we could stay one night but we needed to go to Niquero to clear out in the morning at 7am. Damn - our perfect anchorage was being taken away from us.

7am we reluctantly pull anchor and motored around to Niquero, it was relatively calm but some chop as we launched the dinghy. Andrew went to try and find the Guarda base and found the dirtiest of waterfronts ever at the commercial dock, got covered in oily shit trying to get ashore and then spotted the Guarda rowing out to us. The same jolly guy dropped off our cruising permit and only a bit of oil on our deck - then we were free to leave. It was all fine, and in the end and you have to accept the rules when you are in a foreign place.

We headed out into the channel and the wind was pretty strong directly from the North as we went through the scary Balandas channel with big waves breaking on either side of us. Then we tacked all the way up the coast to Manzanillo - it was pretty tough going, however in the afternoon the conditions eased off and we had a leisurely sail into Manzanillo.

The wind in this part of Cuba is heavily influence by the land and tends to be from the East (SE or NE) from around midnight until mid later morning and then we get a Westerly (SW or NW) seabreeze in the afternoon that dies off at sunset. If there is a northerly or north-easterly gradient wind the wind at night can be strong but it eases off as it gets subdued by the seabreeze effect during the day. We are now getting used to this pattern as we select our anchorages.

We approached Manzanillo, which is a small town that has a great set of protected Cays five miles out to the west. There was no protection off the town in the NW winds as we arrived so Andrew called the Guarda to ask if we could go to the Cays and clear in tomorrow. The response was we should clear in and then we can anchor wherever we like - it was now about 4pm so we needed to move fast to get this all done before dark. We had picked out a spot at the Cays on the way in so we had a plan. It was the fastest dinghy launch, check in, dinghy stow and off ever - all done in half an hour. They were the most friendly team and the fishermen at the compound pulled up our dinghy and took care of it.

The anchorage at the Cays turned out to be perfect overnight, however the next few days we were expected Easterly winds so we moved over to the town for the next two nights. We went ashore on Saturday morning to explore this lovely, if not a bit rundown town.

Not far from here is where the leisure yacht Granma was shipwrecked carrying revolutionists including the two Castro's and Che Guevara who then escaped into the Sierra Mastra, leaving most of the other 82 rebel soldiers dead. The region is now named after that yacht, which was originally named for the Grandmother of its original American owner. Celia Sanchez, known as the first lady of the revolution is from Manzanillo and there's a lovely monument to here rising up from the town in the form of painted ceramic tiled steps with plaques showing doves and flowers.

On the Saturday morning we found street vendors everywhere pushing carts of vegetables, a few motorbikes, mainly horse drawn carts and the odd car. The roads are wide, avenue like with crumbling old buildings that were once very beautiful and others that are more like beach shacks made of wooden planking. It's kind of eerie as the infrastructure is all there for lots of traffic but the town streets are mostly deserted and quiet.

In the centre of town is a lovely Parque Cespedes - complete with city hall, museum (cultural centre), cathedral and a few small restaurants. This same theme as Parque Cespedes in Santiago and felt very familiar. However, the central feature here is a stunning tiled pagoda and lovely shaded trees - oh and wifi of course. I watched a your girl facetime with her grandmother looking on over her shoulder in absolute amazement at what she was seeing, lost for words almost crying - I guess a family member.

There was a lovely buzz around the centre of town and we found the fun Dinos Pizza - they just sell beer and pizza; and only ham n cheese pizza. Just 5 tables - these private restaurants are only supposed to seat a max of twelve people and are not allowed to sell lobster or chicken breast as they are reserved for tourist restaurants. After lunch we ventured into the barbers shop just off the square- we waited on a really old couch with a teeny tiny box tv showing English premier league football whilst the guys around us were getting very smart haircuts, including shaved in patterns, big quiffs and shaved smooth forehead lines. Andrew managed to explain he just wanted a grade 3 and cut in top. It was perfect and cost a total of 10 local pesos (approx. 40 cents) - a world record! That put things into perspective as we went a bought a couple of cases of beer (still a CUC a beer - same in a shop or restaurant), some cheese (8CUC) and some veggies (less than a CUC).

The town on Manzanillo is famous for it's Saturday night street party and pig roast, we had planned to go along however it felt a bit sketchy to leave our dinghy ashore at night with the fisherman, even though they had been great. We haven't seen another yacht for over a week and there were no other tourists in the town, so we felt a bit conspicuous with our shiny white palace anchored off this very poor town, so we opted to listen to the music from the boat instead.

We had a lazy Sunday and went for a walk on the Malecon - ocean promenade. We found a spot for lunch -another pizza place and ridiculously cheap but really quite terrible food. The locals didn't like it either (many pulling faces and pushing food away) and yet there was still a huge line of people waiting to get in when we left. Manzanillo is a really interesting town and a great place to stock up but don't go there for the fine dining!

Monday morning we decided to venture West so cleared out - very early as we hadn't realised the clocks had changed. Andrew took some sweets for the girls in the office but they were refused - all very official in the big city! The fishermen got them and were happy. They all came down to wave Andrew off - what a cool place - we again have had our hearts warmed by the lovely Cubans.

Askari Anchored behind the fishing fleet at Manzanillo

Using internet in the plaza

Cultural Centre Manzanillo

Haircut in Manzanillo

Street front in Manzanillo

Statue at fishermans compund Manzanillo

Local sail boat

Niquero - not so nice

Manzanillo shore front

Mill at Manzanillo