Cuba Suite: Let Them Eat Lobster!

Food in Cuba was rationed. Yet, we literally gorged and overdosed ourselves on lobster. We had so much that we even fed it to the cat. I canned it, made pizzas with it; I sought a hundred different ways to prepare lobster…we had to become creative. And it was all free! We couldn’t pay for it; they wouldn’t let us pay for it. Our money was flatly refused.

Although there were a lot of negative facets for Cubans as they went about their daily lives, the government certainly did something right—maintaining, conserving, and even growing the lobster population. There was quite a strict fishing policy in place to preserve this resource they knew to be a valuable asset to their export economy as well as to their coastal ecology. We had found the nirvana of lobster central, but by pure accident.

We set sail from Havana a few days after Christmas, 1988, for points west on the coast. We weren’t really sure where we were headed. Detailed and current charts of the coast and harbors didn’t really exist, and what did exist was mainly the property of the military. A Spanish couple on their sailboat in the Marina Hemingway had some information, and they generously let us copy it.

Our original plan was to sail around the island of Cuba, or as much as we could, and obtain proper authorization to do so. We insisted with several inquiries to the harbor officials for such an authorization, and they just seemed mystified. It seemed there wasn’t any set procedure for this, and that we could just “go.” This seemed odd, and too good to be true. That’s not what we had read according to other cruisers’ accounts, and we really wanted to cover ourselves from bureaucratic entanglements. We insisted they provide us with some sort of permit, or written permission, duly stamped in triplicate, that could undoubtedly satisfy some prickly bureaucrat we were bound to come across down the road.

Most tourists in Cuba at that time were either from Canada or European communist eastern bloc ally nations, visiting via group-organized guided tours. They would typically stay in official government tourist designated resorts. Renegade individual tourists such as us, were not common, and consequently the Cuban system didn’t really have set rules on how to handle us, nor our request to travel freely about the country.

Eventually Michel established a rapport with Señor Antonio Pardo, the “Jefe de l’Aduana” (Customs Chief) at the Marina Hemingway, and together they set about creating an “official” travel plan. The two of them poured over charts, identifying viable harbors for us to enter, pointing out the military stations that were off limits, noting dangerous rocks, coastal outcroppings, and coral reefs that needed to be avoided. Together they came up with a guideline itinerary, and Señor Pardo said he would inform harbor officials along the way of our possible visits, that we would be free to roam with no timeline to maintain, and that authorities wouldn’t question our presence.

Thus after one night at sea, we targeted the fishing village of Santa Lucia, west of the Marina Hemingway, en route to the western tip of Cuba. This would be our first attempt at entering a Cuban harbor with no viable chart and just a bit of sketchy information. Towards late in the afternoon, we were pretty sure we saw two channel buoys that had been indicated to us. Since unknown reefs were an ever-present danger, our depth sounder was always on. We tried to call up a harbor authority on the VHF radio, but there was no response. Once we were inside the channel, we flagged down a fishing boat and they very kindly led us the rest of the way. The channel was lined with mangroves and eventually—at a bend in the waterway—the fishermen waved us onward. Not to worry, they reassured us, it was deep enough for our keel. We wouldn’t hit high ground. More mangroves suddenly provided total shelter from the breeze while we continued to motor in a still, peaceful calm. Finally, in a short distance, we eyed some factory smokestacks, a few barges, a crane, a few fishing skiffs, and a military vessel all nestled quietly in a snug muddy little bay, or more like a cul de sac. A Guarda Frontera officer waited patiently onshore. It looked pretty drab but it was what we wanted: our first real look at a slice of the real Cuba. There was no turning back now.

The Guarda Frontera officer was most polite and congenial. He briefly looked over our passports and papers, and confirmed that everything was in order to his satisfaction. He indicated a gate behind him, and that we were free to come and go as we pleased. As we typically proceeded when in a new place, Michel would set out first on a quick reconnaissance tour. Upon his return, we gathered up the two kids and went on a brief walk about the village. It was indeed a walk into a past, frozen in time. Santa Lucia had the feel of a frontier-era town. Most of the houses were windowless wooden-slat huts—some with thatched palm leaf roofs—all lining dirt-trodden streets. There was a simple bakery, an egg stand, and a shoe cobbler, and since most daily necessities were rationed, people were waiting in line, as we had previously seen regularly in Havana. One villager passed us in an oxen-drawn cart, while another diligently transported a pig in a wheelbarrow.

Most traffic was on foot while an occasional soldier passed by on a motorcycle sidecar or in a jeep. There was a 1940s era (we were later told) aerial skyway mining tram that crossed a good portion of the village, transferring copper from a nearby mine to a dumping spot in the harbor. Sean and Brendan were in awe of all of this. Although rundown Havana was definitely not as modern as Florida, Santa Lucia was indeed a completely different reality. We drew stares dressed in our comparatively bright, colorful clothing, accompanied by our young redhead and blond-haired boys. It was obvious we weren’t local.

We later made the acquaintance of Oscar, a young man who pointedly made his way to our dock and volunteered to guide us around. A tad suspicious that this was a planned tactic to restrict our movements, he turned out to be a most congenial host and a valuable resource. He showed us where and how to buy food, and gave us a tour of the local copper mine—a true walk back in time as 50 year-old machinery and techniques maintained the daily operations. Oscar also graciously took Michel to his family home, introducing his mother who spoke some English. They plied him with “dulce de limon,” Russian wine, and engaged him in political propaganda discourses on the Cuba of today.

Curiously, foreigners in Cuba could only use U.S. dollars to purchase items. They were not allowed access to local pesos. Furthermore, there was no reason to exchange money for Cuban pesos since foreigners were only allowed to frequent “Diplomercados”—stores reserved for tourists that only accepted payment in dollars. However, Michel was determined that we have some pesos in hand. We didn’t know what lay down the road and he didn’t want us to be restricted or hindered for any reason if we lacked some local pesos for some purchases. Besides, traveling as we were, outside of the official resort circuit, there were no Diplomercados around. Although in theory there was no way for a foreigner to exchange dollars into pesos, I learned to never underestimate this Frenchman on a mission. He found a black market money exchange connection in Havana, and as it turned out, our original exchange of $100 went a very long way over the next few months.

Thanks to Oscar, we learned that we could get some supplies in the “bodegas”—the little local food shops—to procure such basic necessities as bread, milk, etc. The shop tenders were most courteous and anxious to make our acquaintance. We were always waved to the front of the line, and since we had no ration tickets, they wouldn’t let us pay for items. We couldn’t anyway. Shopkeepers didn’t dare accept our pesos since that would put them in a difficult situation. There wasn’t any way they could spend any extra pesos even if we did pay. Rarely did people use money since they used ration tickets for most of their daily necessities. Consequently, we left Santa Lucia with our $100 in pesos intact.

After a few days, it was time to move on, and Oscar was able to give us more detailed coastal chart information. Most importantly, he mentioned we might like to stop at Ensenada El Cajon, a lobster fishing station, or a "Casa de Pesca." And indeed, we never would have stopped there if it hadn’t been indicated to us. It was literally a few rickety shacks on stilts, nestled together along a freestanding dock, out in the middle of nowhere, in a large body of shallow water. Although seemingly completely open to the weather elements, coral reefs broke the ocean swell, providing protection for this outstation. Since leaving Santa Lucia, much of the coast was peppered with underlying coral reefs, and thanks to Oscar’s indications, we were getting the hang of navigating through such mazes, blazing our own trails. Thus, we glided up to this dock and tied up our lines.

No one was around, yet it obviously wasn’t abandoned. There was a generator, a cold storage room, signs of daily life, several aquariums holding lobsters, and even a cat with its litter box, and food and water dishes. Someone would surely show up soon.

As it turned out, we had arrived over the New Year’s holiday, and day or two later a fishing boat did come in with four men on board. Our presence surprised them, and they duly radioed authorities to confirm who we said we were. Once reassured that our presence was “legal,” they couldn’t have been more gracious. We ended up staying several days and they fully included us in their daily routines. Every evening the dock came alive with frenetic activity as big trawlers came in and unloaded their huge catches of lobsters. Once a boat docked, each one set about his duties feverishly—unloading and sorting, talking loudly, shouting, and laughing. Michel, Sean, and Brendan gleefully joined in the daily fray and the fishermen rewarded us with buckets and buckets of lobsters and fish. It was too much. We ate lobster every night and then we began using all our known tricks to save more for a rainy day—preparing and cleaning lobster for freezing, cooking, and canning. Never would such an opportunity come our way again.

Lobster fishing played a prominent role in Cuba’s economy as a valuable export (as I was reminded from the many television commercials I had seen in France with the lively jingle touting the tasty treat of “lobsters from Cuba”). The fishermen were very mindful of this. The government issued strict guidelines regarding the legal size of lobsters that could be caught, the times of year they were allowed to be fished, and rules regarding juvenile and females with eggs that were to be thrown back. Consequently, there was an abundant lobster population, despite the huge amounts hauled up daily. Their population in Cuba was not diminishing, but instead, thriving.

We developed a genuine friendship and rapport with the men as we settled into their daily routine at this coastal outpost “island.” They were eager to have us try their cooking, and I would reciprocate offering some of my bread and cake. They also treasured a bottle of whiskey we offered—a rare treat for them. Sean and Brendan became very comfortable, whiling away hours with the men, helping them with various tasks, picking up some spotty Spanish, sitting with them in the evenings, and even watching the movie video ET with them at one point. The boys learned to snorkel here, reveling in daily outings in the clear turquoise shallow depths.

Diving for lobsters

Later, we learned that we had been quite reckless when we first arrived in the area. Before finding the station, we were anchored for a day or two in a nearby shallow area, protected by mangroves. Anxious to discover the waters, and lobsters, Michel and the boys did some exploratory snorkeling, mostly as an introduction for the boys. The fisherman later told us that was a very dangerous thing to do since a type of Cuban crocodile inhabited the waters, especially near the mangroves. Now, at the Casa de Pesca, Sean and Brendan snorkeled in safety near the dock.

Our cat, Bagunça, even had a rare treat and was able to “go on land.” We didn’t usually let her off the boat if we were at a dock, for fear she would panic, run, and get lost on land. Not only that, we were warned that Cubans eagerly caught stray cats and ate them! Since the station was a space other than our boat, and thus more room for her to stretch her paws, she was able to explore a bit without our worrying about her getting spooked, lost, or becoming someone’s dinner.

After a peaceful, enriching five-day stay, it was time to move on. There was much more to see and discover in Cuba. We needed to fill up on diesel fuel and the fishermen were able to accommodate us. Like with the lobsters they showered upon us, they refused payment for the fuel as well. For the same reason we couldn’t pay for food in the bodegas, we couldn’t pay for either of these. The government provided the fuel for the trawlers and the fishermen were state employees. So, how would they justify receiving extra cash for fuel or lobsters sold to us? And, there wasn’t much they could buy with any cash anyway. Like the bodega shopkeepers, they met their needs with rationing tickets they used on the mainland.

As we did often during our travels, we regretfully bid farewell and looked forward to our next targeted stop: a real tropical island, deserted beach, something we missed after living anchored for three years in the Florida Intracoastal Waterway.