Monday, January 20, 2014

Varadero and Santa Marta - First thoughts

It felt odd that the marina was going to be our home for the next few months and we still had so much to find out about the area – how did we change our money? How did the money work? Where could we get some fresh food? How far were we from Varadero centre? How far was this from where Amanda’s mum and dad would be staying? Were we going to speak enough Spanish?

So we hopped on our bikes and headed into Varadero which is the local tourist resort, it is only about 10-15 minutes ride.  We found a main street running along the seafront with various hotels, shops/shacks and bars/cafes.  Being New Years Day it was quite quiet but most places were open.  With the sun beating down on us we probably managed to get half way along the strip that runs for around 10 miles.   We were joined on the road by horse and carts, old American convertible cars and even a hop on hop off tourist bus, odd how all these things fit together.

Later that afternoon we visited the beach for the first time, again it is easier to access by bikes, it is a beautiful golden sandy beach and the waves were crashing on the shore which a bit of a northerly breeze.   It was quite busy filled with both Cubans and tourists, making the most of the sunny New Year.  This was our first proper dip in the sea since the Bahamas the previous May, it was lovely to get back into the warm, clear waters.

Varadero Beach

The next day we did attempt a trip to the local village market in Santa Marta which is 10 minutes walk from the marina although we were told that we had yet more paperwork to complete, this time with the Vet, this was mainly about food waste and disposal on this whilst in the country, odd but another necessity.

Our first trip to the market was a disaster as we were unable to find it, we knew it was in Santa Marta but it wasn’t obvious where but it was nice to look around the village.  It was a hive of activity, with people bustling around on bikes, in cars and by horse and cart.  There were a few small supermarkets all of which seemed to have a queue outside, we have since learnt this is because only a limited number of people are able to access at one time.  So after an unsuccessful trip we headed back to the marina back on our bikes and out to Varadero to see if we could succeed in getting to the bank and using the internet, 1 out of 2 didn’t seem bad as we managed the internet, the queues for the bank were just too long and then they closed – gone were our easy days of going to the cashpoint and popping into Starbucks to get wifi.  We did also managed to purchases bus tickets into Havana for the weekend so we were at least getting to learn how some things worked, any small progress felt like a major achievement.

Round two at the market the next day and Debbie the local liveaboard Canadian who is super helpful took us into Santa Marta.  After stopping via the bank and teaching us the Spanish we needed to know just to join the queue we were then off to the market.  Unfortunately the market was very limited but we at least knew were it was located and also how it worked – you would think this would be straight forward but with two currencies in Cuba this is not quite as easy, the Convertible Pesos we had just obtained at the bank were not what the locals used at the market so we also needed some National currency, we at least knew for our next visit.  The good news was the few bits of fruit and veg we did manage to get were very cheap, fresh and would keep us going for a few days.  It felt like we were finally getting to see the real Cuba as we sat in a local cafĂ© and watched the world go by.

Cuba – New Year in Varadero, Marina Darsena

We had thought our first day in Cuba would be taken up with checking in with the various parties but it was actually quite painless.  First the doctor came on board he asked us various questions but mainly took details on the boat and then asked if we had been sick and he was quite happy with us just answering “no”, he then had a brief look around the boat and he took our passports and boat details to immigration – or so we thought.

An hour or so later the marina manager came and asked in the Coastguard had visited which they hadn’t so he went and hurried them along.  A young woman came onboard and had completed around 90% of our paperwork, we had prepared one sheet of information in Spanish including boat name, dimensions, type of engine, nationality, etc which was the majority of what they needed to know.  She then disappeared with this information and we continued completing paperwork with the marina manager. 

Next came the lady from Agriculture, she was to inspect our food, we were a little concerned as we had huge amounts of tins vegetables and beans and lots of treat filling every available space but she asked about fresh meat, fresh fruit and veg which we didn’t have and then about tea which she inspected and cereal but all was OK and she left happily with a signed document and a can of Coke.  We have since found out that people arrived from the States with various fresh fruit, veg, meat and they were able to keep it all, if only we had known.

Our box of goodies
We were still confined to the boat until our passports were return but within the hour the Coastguard return and presented us with our passports and tourist visas, this was all our Customs and Immigration paperwork complete, took around 2.5 hours, so not too bad.

We were now free and able to leave the boat but all we did was get off to wash the boat and have a little look around the marina.

That evening was New Years Eve and we were invited to join the other cruisers for a Pot Luck dinner although our contribution to this was limited as we had only just arrived and threw together a bean salad.  The food prepared by the other cruisers was amazing, a big chilli, fresh bread, spaghetti bolognaise, ribs and even some wonderful brownies for dessert.  We ate our dinner in the staffroom which had been prepared to be festive but funny that it had one light bulb and we ended up borrowing light bulbs from around the marina to ensure we had enough light, this was a sign of things to come where there is a shortage of many things in Cuba.  Although we did not stay up to see in the New Year to was nice to meet some other cruisers and enjoy the night in company before an early night.

Florida Keys to Cuba - How lucky are we

Amazing, after weeks and weeks of pushing hard to get south so we were in a position to leave the states before 31st Dec, the expiry date of our visa’s, a weather window opened up for us on the 30th !!!

Leaving the Key - 7 miles bridge

The forecast was for light winds, but with 90 miles to cuba we could motor all the way if we had to. In effect the weather was kind to us yet again and we sailed in light winds and calm seas all the way.

We arrived at the 12 mile territorial waters of Cuba and radioed the coastguard to gain permission to continue, no response so we pressed on anyway, about 6 miles out we managed to raise the marina. Mark tried to gain information about water depths in the approach channel but the language barrier proved too difficult, so we entered the channel warily with one eye on the depth sounder. We had minimum 4metres all the way so thankfully it had been dredged since our out of date pilot book was published.

We entered the marina and were directed to the quarantine dock to await processing.  

Florida Keys - Rodriquez Key and Boot Key Harbour – More generous people

Another first as we went sailing on Boxing Day, we crept out of Venetian Causeway in the dark with fingers crossed that when we reached the entrance we would be met by favourable winds and seas, we really needed to be moving south.  Our luck was in as there was not one Cruiseship docked meaning we could sneak through Government Cut and save ourselves time on our journey, I assume all the Cruiseships were out at some other exotic location.

We were pleasantly surprised with the sea state and after a little bit of bumpy start through the shallows we turned and had 15-20 knots of wind from behind, sails up, sun out and were bobbing along.  We had a fantastic day with wind all day, there is limited navigation as the seas are still are still shallow as you are in behind the reef.  There were a couple of other sail boats, a few fishing boats and some packed diving boats all making the most of the weather.  We sailed around 55 miles to Rodriguez Key which is a very small uninhabited island where we were able to get a limited amount of shelter, would have preferred more but this was our only option and we were not alone so we dropped anchor and kept our fingers crossed that the wind did not come up in he night.

Rodriquez Key - not much to see but a lump of land

Again up with the sun, sails up and off we set for another fantastic day sailing, 15-20 knots wind from behind, calm blue seas and the sun shinning. 
Beautiful water

Up with the sun

We were flying along over 6 knots all day.

About an hour out we had called in to the marina to ask if there were any mooring buoys, yes there were but they couldn’t guarantee there would be when we arrived but thankfully there was a buoy for us. 

Boot Key is bizarre, there are over 300 boats crammed into a sheltered harbour, it has a reputation as having a large liveaboard cruising community.  It is well set up for cruisers with lots of laid buoys, a large communal area with internet, tv’s, book swap, a good laundry, extensive dingy docks and lots of surrounding amenities.  But you walk out of the marina onto the main highway which runs the length of the Keys and it could be anywhere in America with all those big stores, fastfood places and general busyness, great for us to finish any provisioning but not the idyllic and quaint islands you might hope to get in the Keys.  Also there is no privacy on your boat as you can almost reach out and touch your neighbours

The best part of the visit to Boot Key for us was we met some more OCC members, Harry and Melinda are the OCC Port Officers and had kindly taken deliver of a oil seal for us.  We had a nice evening out with them to Dockside a local bar which Amanda had wanted to visit as it had photos of Macaws on their magazine advert unfortunately no Macaws at the bar.  We had a few drinks, some cheap dodgy bar food and shouted over the load live music.

Mark and Harry having a drink at Dockside

We were very grateful that Melinda took us in her car to do some final bits of shopping, wonderful to met such lovely and interesting people again, love it when people have so many stories to share.