17. June 2023

Cuba’s wild south coast

As we approach Cuba on an early morning in May, after three days and three nights on the open sea, we immediately realize that everything is different here. In the bay off Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern edge of the big island, men drift across the water on truck tubes, a paddle in one hand and a fishing line in the other. The sailing itself should also be somewhat unusual here in Cuba.

Entering Santiago de Cuba

“For us Cubans, there’s been no fuel for weeks, so the fishermen can’t leave, the roads are empty and we barely have gas to cook with,” says Norbert, the harbormaster at the state-owned Marlin Marina, after we’ve moored Mabul at the badly damaged pier. In Cuba, there is not only a lack of fuel, as we soon realize: In the marina, the small grocery store is closed, there is no water running in the showers and toilets, and in the local market of Santiago de Cuba we find only a bit of cabbage, a few tomatoes, eggplants and papaya, and a man offering his thin pig for sale. What little there is to buy is also expensive, as scarcity is combined with rising inflation. For us, this means that we change money every few days because the exchange rate fluctuates so much. For a hundred dollar note, we get a whole mountain of Cuban pesos in return.

Santiago de Cuba market: a man tries to sell his pig

Cuba is in the worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. We knew about these circumstances and prepared accordingly, loading Mabul with medicines, food, footballs, clothes and fishing gear – best thanks at this point to everyone who donated money for Cuba! -, things that we gradually give away or exchange. Fortunately, with our solar panels, wind generator, watermaker and Starlink internet, we are largely self-sufficient (barring the fickle whims of Elon Musk). For the Cuba leg of our Caribbean trip, however, we had to prepare especially well. Because while there were supply options on all the other Caribbean islands we’ve visited in recent months, we’ll be on our own for weeks on Cuba’s southern coast. For the first time, our shopping frenzy on Martinique and Guadeloupe is paying off and we are feasting on the coffee and canned goods that we had purchased so abundantly on the French islands.

Tomb of Fidel Castro

The entry formalities in Santiago de Cuba are quickly completed. Here we also welcome our guest on board: Alex’s friend Christoph, who has come from Germany and will sail with us to Cienfuegos. Together we visit Fidel Castro’s grave, dance to Cuban music and drink rum, which is the only food – if rum can be called such – available everywhere and in abundance. After a few days, we set out on a 24-hour sail. It takes us along the steep coast west to Cabo Cruz. There is no wind and so we have to sail the whole way under engine, that should remain the motto while we are sailing in Cuba. Arriving at Cabo Cruz we seek refuge in the bay from constant heavy thunderstorms. The weather has changed radically compared to the Lesser Antilles. The constant trade winds further south can no longer be relied upon here, but clouds form every day, and not infrequently they are unloaded above us.

In Cabo Cruz the coast guard visits us with a drug dog.

In the morning we see a small boat rowing towards us: three men in uniform, a dog. It is the coast guard, who wants to see our documents. The love-starved dog is actually a drug detecting dog, but it behaves so clumsily that it almost breaks its foot in a fixture in the cockpit and barely makes it up the steep companionway after racing through the cabins like a maniac.

After two days we leave Cabo Cruz behind us and continue our journey across the shallow sea plate that begins behind the cliff. It is often only a few meters deep and interspersed with mangroves, so we have to navigate carefully. We almost never hoist the sails, since the wind is as if shut off. But we have all the more fishing luck and with Christoph, who brought his own fishing rod, I finally have a partner to pull the wriggling creatures on board and eat them. The waters are richer in fish than ever before on our trip and so we pull a fish out of the water every few minutes. Although most of them are barracudas – they seem to bite on everything – and we throw them back into the sea – fish poisoning ciguatera says hello! – but we also catch some mackerels, which we eat as sashimi or process in lemon juice to ceviche or fry in the pan.

Christoph and Karin are in fishing luck in Cuba

However, our destination is not the small islands with their mangrove forests, which we encounter everywhere on the sea plate, but the Queen’s Gardens, a fantastic diving area. It begins where the sea plate ends and the sea drops again hundreds of meters. The Queen’s Gardens, or Jardines de la Reina as Christopher Columbus named them in honor of the Spanish queen, is an archipelago that extends over 2000 square kilometers and has been a huge marine protected area since 1996. Reef, silky and nurse sharks, red snapper, grouper, giant trevally, whales and many more can be seen here…The reefs have deep valleys and diverse corals and were one of Fidel Castro’s favorite fishing and diving spots. Here you can dive all year round, there is almost no current and the temperature is around 29 degrees Celsius. Shark sightings are almost guaranteed. Since the area is a marine protected area, the number of diving tourists is limited. However, with our PE100 diving compressor Poseidon on board we can dive here – we think…

Alex tries to bring down the coconuts of the only island palm tree

It takes us a week to reach the Queen’s Gardens. Because with Mabul we are on average with five and a half knots per hour on the way and thus slower than with a bicycle. During this first week we don’t meet a soul and drop anchor in front of lonely islands in the evenings. On one of these mini islands we come across a rusty boat and a palm tree full of coconuts, which Alex and Christoph bring down with climbing and throwing techniques. Furthermore we catch so many fish that at some point we stop casting the bait because the fridge and freezer are full. We already suspect that a spectacular underwater world awaits us at the Queen’s Gardens. Since the area is huge, we orient ourselves to the dive sites of Avalon, the only dive provider in the region. The dive spots are easy to find on the internet and after a week in the wilderness we see the white buoys of Avalon. At one of them at Cayo Anclitas we moor Mabul.

Karin is attacked and bitten by a turtle

However, our first dive attempt ends in a minor disaster. I jump into the water with snorkel and mask to look for the best entry to the reef. Suddenly I feel something pulling at my foot. Maybe Alex, who swam after me? But when I look back, Alex is standing on the deck. A shark? Again I turn my gaze underwater and see a huge sea turtle diving. Immediately I swim back to the boat and we have a look at the damage: The turtle’s beak shows up as a bloody bite wound on both sides of my ankle, diving is out of the question, at least for me, that day. Shortly after, a diving instructor from Avalon appears and drives us out of their territory and away from their buoy, although the local park rangers of the marine protected area had given us explicit permission shortly before. Frustrated, we chug a few islands away and drop anchor in the calm waters between a reef and a small island.

Mabul lies lonely in one of the most beautiful diving areas in the world: the Queen’s Gardens

The next day we make a new dive attempt and drive with the dinghy out of the calm water between reef and island, to the reefs edge. Since there are three of us, someone can always stay in the dinghy to collect the two divers after the dive and drive to Mabul, where we fill the tanks with air for the next dive. This first dive leaves us amazed. The world we find under water is simply stunning!

Encounter under water

Infinite and untouched, royal gardens of soft corals, sponges and sea fans, swarmed by colorful reef fish and with sandy bottoms used by nurse sharks as a place to rest, spread out below us. Fish approach us curiously to inspect the visitors. On one dive, a suckerfish accompanies us for a whole hour, as if just waiting for the right moment to attach itself to us. Only when we resurface and climb into the dinghy, he lets go of us. The variety under water is so impressive that we stay at anchor for a week and let ourselves be enchanted under water several times a day.

A sucker fish accompanies us through the whole dive

One morning we notice that we are no longer alone, but an old barge with lobster fishermen has dropped anchor a few meters away from us. Soon we start talking to them, exchanging medicine, footballs, soaps and rum for lobsters. In the evening, the seven men invite us to their boat for a lobster dinner. They tell us about the rising food prices, about the lobsters that they all have to deliver to the state authorities, which they then sell to the hotels and abroad, and about the male friendships without which life on the boat would be unthinkable. The next day they show us their “casitas”, slabs that stand on stilts in the water a few meters deep and in whose shelter the lobsters gather. The fishermen dive down, tilt the plate and chase the backward fleeing lobsters, then catch them with their hands and a small net. They encourage us to do the same and so Christoph and I spend a morning diving after the lobsters, occasionally catching one. At the end of our hunt we return to Mabul with so many lobsters that the menu plan for the coming days, even weeks, is set.

Cuban lobster fishermen take us on a lobster hunt

After a week of thoroughly diving the long reef, we travel on. First we go to Cienfuegos, from where we moor Mabul in a marina to make a short land detour to Havana.

With the pink Chevrolet through Havana

For the first time after many months we sleep in a bed on solid ground. We let ourselves drift through the city life, drive in an open Chevrolet of the 50’s through the city, which is decaying in many places, visit the Teatro Grande, the Malecón and the Finca Vigía, the house where Ernest Hemingway lived, wrote and drank for decades. Finally, we travel to the Valle de Viñales, where Alex recovers from the flu and I explore the valley on horseback. A farmer shows me how he rolls his tobacco into cigars and he shows me how to smoke them in the style of Che Guevara: You dip the back part in honey, which serves as a natural filter.

Smoking Cuban cigars Che Guevara style.

After a week ashore, we return to Mabul and begin our last leg in Cuba: a several-day long journey from Cienfuegos to Cayo Largo. Cayo Largo, or the Long Island in English, stretches 25 kilometers and is part of the Canarreos Archipelago. With its snow-white powder-sugar beaches, turquoise, crystal-clear sea and a multitude of excellent dive sites, the island is actually a popular vacation destination, but since the pandemic it has hardly been visited by tourists.

An airplane pays a visit to Mabul off Cayo Largo

First, we pay a visit to the island’s sea turtle center and are greeted by “El Russo”, an employee who has been caring for the turtles for thirty years. In one part of the center, hundreds of turtle eggs lie precisely marked and buried under sand. Every year they would dig up 10 – 12,000 eggs from their nests on the beach and rebury them here in the sandy soil of the center. This is because the beaches are eroding more and more, so that the water regularly washes the eggs into the sea before the turtles have hatched, El Russo explains.

On the beach of Cayo Largo we release small turtles into the sea

After the little turtles hatch in the center, they are first brought to the different tanks and then to the beach to start their journey to the sea and into life. Thanks to the small center, loggerhead, hawksbill and green sea turtles get a chance to live and there is also a unique species here: several albino turtles, but they stay in the tanks of the center, because they would have little chance to survive in the open sea. Once El Russo has led us past all the different tanks where smaller and larger turtles paddle wildly, I show him my turtle bite, which has not healed even after three weeks. The turtle expert is amazed. He has never seen anything like it in his thirty years at the center. Now is the mating season of the hawksbill turtles and they are very short-sighted and probably thought I was another turtle. They would have either felt disturbed in their lovemaking or thought I was a female turtle…. “To make up for the bite, we’ll give you twenty freshly hatched turtles to release into the sea on the beach,” El Russo suggests, and so we return to Mabul with a large flock of small turtles. Shortly after, we take the dinghy to the beach to release the tiny ones into the wild.

Off to life!

Cayo Largo is not only a turtle paradise, but also one for divers. Since all buoys were destroyed by wind and weather in the past years and never replaced, we cannot moor at any dive site with our sailboat or our dinghy. Diving on our own is therefore out of the question. We therefore dive with the local dive operator and are led into a world of countless reef and nurse sharks.

Shark encounter in the Jardines de la Reina

During one dive we also encounter a clingy grouper that curiously approaches us. He has a deep gash on its back. Although we are in a marine protected area where fishing is prohibited, our dive guide explains that there are always boats whose crews hunt the local fish with harpoons. Unfortunately, in a country whose coast guards have to defend their territory in rowing boats, such unauthorized attacks usually go unpunished.

On the way to new shores: Three day crossing to Mexico

After a month and a half along Cuba’s wild southern coast, it’s time for us to sail on to Mexico. Too often our conversations revolve around good food, fresh vegetables and tacos. In Mexico, another of the most impressive diving areas in the world awaits us: the cenotes, the caves of Yucatán and the healthy, fish-rich reefs off Cozumel. One diving paradise follows the next – in between is a three-day ocean passage. As we will soon notice, it is not without its challenges….


Distance covered: 800 nm
Time traveled: 5 days 10 hours
Average speed: 5,4 kt
Engine hours: 90 hours

More photos from Cuba can be found in these galleries:

Santiago de Cuba
South coast
Diving Jardines de la Reina
Diving Cayo Largo

Related Boatcast episodes:

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