Día de los Muertos. It’s Alive!

November 1 is a very big holiday in Guatemala and Latin America. Some call it Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Others call it Día de Todos los Santos or All Saints Day. Many believe on this day, two worlds mesh and become one. Where the spirits of the dead return from heaven to communicate with family. In return, families prepare a local dish called Fiambre and gather by the grave of their relatives to celebrate.

The celebration culminates with the festivals of kites in Sumpango and Santiago. After weeks of preparation, locals gather to assemble and display the enormous colorful kites. This festival began in these cities about 40 years ago, but the tradition of building and flying the massive structures is an age-old practice rooted in Ancient Mayan culture.

Known as “barilletes gigantes” in Spanish, the giant kites of Santiago and Sumpango are incredible works of art constructed with cloth, tissue paper, and bamboo. Most of them contain religious or folkloric themes. The smaller kites range from 3-4 meters (9-12 feet) across and are the only kites that attempt to lift off in the afternoon. It’s harrowing to watch as they lift off, dip and dive over spectators and then rise; slowly drifting over a dramatic landscape.

Many believe that on this day, their dead relatives return to “check up on them.” Some attach messages to their loved ones to the kites hoping that the messages reach the heavens. Once the messages are received, the wind will tear the kites to pieces, which is symbolic of life and death. The kites are then brought back down and burned. The smoke helps guide their loved ones back up to the heavens. These days, it’s become more of a competition to see who can build the largest, most beautiful kite with prizes being awarded to the winners.

The largest barilletes can be up to 24 meters. That’s over 70 feet! These big boys never leave the ground. They’re assembled face down on the dirt. Once done, the locals gather around to watch as many more make ready the lines and hoist the masterpiece to a vertical position. The reveal is exciting. The crowd goes nuts with much-deserved appreciation.

Hugs as the crew celebrates the raising of the kite they worked so hard on.
The earth does not belong to man, rather man belongs to the earth.
Their kite says, “This is what I know. The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth.”

We chose to visit Sumpango rather than Santiago. It’s a little closer to Antigua. There are tons of options for transportation. Most of the tour companies have vans going. All of the local hostels and hotels also arrange trips and for the bravest of the brave, you can cram yourself onto one of the local chicken buses if you’re looking for a death-defying afternoon.

The organized shuttle we took was Q120 (around $18.00 US). That included transport to and from Sampungo, lunch, and a beer. If you want just the shuttle, it’s around Q75 or $11.00. I will say, the “lunch” was a terrible chicken salad sandwich and bruised fruit but the beer was cold. I wouldn’t go that way again. Having no idea what to expect at the festival, I elected to go the “safe” route.

Once we got there, food was everywhere! Delicious local tacos, burritos, empanadas, roasted corn and pork. Lots of pork. It was cheaper and WAY better than the chicken salad. Mel fed her sandwich to a local stray pooch who… refused it. The beers at the festival were ice cold and cost Q10. That’s just over a buck!

The trip from Antigua to Sumpango is about 29 kilometers. That means nothing on this day because traffic, breakdowns, and weather turn that trip from a 30-minute drive into a one hour commute. Picture Nascar featuring customized school buses, motor scooters with three or four people on them, and small cars vying for the same ten feet of dusty tarmac. Throw in a few bicycles and stray dogs and, well- you get the picture.

Once you “get there,” which consists of the driver stopping the van in the middle of the road to let you out, you’ll be greeted with a 200-foot dirt hill to climb. At the summit, prepare to walk a gauntlet that is 5000 of your closest friends shuffling through a dirt floor alley about 6 feet wide. Vendors line the sides with smoking hot grills and cooktops. It takes a great deal of patience and effort to keep from becoming one with whatever is on the grill. This is where most of the pick-pockets make their daily fortunes.

For someone who absolutely hates large crowds, this was the anxiety moment of the day. Luckily- Melody kept me from losing my mind. In a soft, loving voice saying, “Honey… shut up. Relax… stop pushing me.” Ah… total zen, right?

When that joy ends, you walk out onto a large dirt soccer pitch where you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Cold beers, tasty rum drinks, and the beautiful kites await. There are plenty of places to sit in the shade if you need a break. Most folks carried colorful umbrellas to protect them from the sun. That was a great idea and one I wish we’d thought of.

Sumpango Kite Festival in Guatemala

If you’ve had your fill of the kites and wanna actually see a cemetery bustling with the kind of activity only spirits can muster, take the fifteen-minute walk through town to the cemetery. Once inside the colorful walls, you’ll see hundreds of people celebrating at the grave sites of their lost loved ones. The ground is covered in fresh pine needles and, if you’re hungry, there’s a guy selling popcorn. Quite different from the somber tone in American cemeteries.

Now, for the security issues. When you google the festival or get to the point of booking a shuttle, you’ll find many people talking about the criminal element. You’ll read how some had wallets, passports, and cell phones stolen. Some will make it sound as if you’re walking into a war zone. You’re not. You’re walking into a small and very poor village in Guatemalan hills. Crimes are crimes of necessity and opportunity. You should behave as you would if you were going to a Soccer game in London or to New York City for New Years Eve festivities. Behave as if you were going to any big event, anywhere in the world where thousands of people are crammed into confined spaces.

A vendor selling her beautiful wares

To put it simply… Don’t be an idiot. Don’t wear your beautiful wedding ring or Rolex. Don’t wear 4-inch open toe shoes and don’t keep your wallet and passport in your back pocket. Make a copy of your passport if you feel you need to have it on you. Melody has a great sports bra that has a pocket inside. She kept our money in there. Yes, it’s bit awkward when she digs in there to get money for tacos, but hey… whatever works. Who doesn’t like boob money? For the record, we only brought a few hundred Q for the entire day.

To give you an idea, seven Quetzals equal approximately one dollar. Q300 amounts to around $43. We only brought that much in case of emergency. For instance, if our shuttle didn’t show for the ride home and we had to take a chicken bus. I kept my cell phone in my front pocket. Mel also brought a heavy canvas purse that’s about the size of an iPad and incredibly difficult to cut through. In it, we had an extra phone battery and some toilet paper. At no point did we feel unsafe.

If you have any desire to see Guatemala, and you should, because it’s an amazingly beautiful country, travel during this time and make sure to see one of the kite festivals. It will stick with you forever. If not now, then for Easter, Christmas, or New Years. They know how to throw a party around here.

I can’t speak to the festival in Santiago, but if you go to Sumpango, wear comfortable shoes that are good for climbing hills. Don’t take valuables. Tap into the section of your brain responsible for patience, and then… have a freaking blast.

The post Día de los Muertos. It’s Alive! appeared first on Vacilando.

Still is still moving

I’ve been meaning to post an update on our travels for a little while now but I’ve struggled. With all the devastation that’s taken place with Hurricanes Irma and Maria, I find it difficult to post about the beautiful town we’ve landed in. It feels irrelevant and trivial. As I start this for about the tenth time, Mexico is now digging out from a devastating earthquake and in the states, wild fires are raging out west. If I were a religious man, I’d say all we need now are the locust. (*Update 10/2/17: and now the mass shooting in Vegas…)

The political and social discord in America is bit unnerving as well. It’s understandable how one can find it daunting to remain hopeful with so much turmoil swirling around. For the last six years, we’ve purposely gone without a television. As a news junkie, I had to cut myself off. The sensationalism was too much. No news. Just drama. But every so often, during our travels, we’d dial up the interweb (when it worked) and dip a toe in to see what was happening. Not surprisingly a quick retreat to the bubble soon followed.

Now that we’re on land again (for the moment), current events and the “news” is front and center. And honestly, a bit depressing. In the interest of capturing that bubble before it floats away forever, I will try to type a post about our silly little life travels. Who knows, somebody may need the escape.

Palm Trees… Always good for an escape to include some palm trees.

First, let me back up a bit. In late August we, quite unexpectedly, sold Vacilando to a wonderful man from Panama. Once the reality set in that the deal was in fact going through, Mel and I were struck with a new reality; we had no idea what we were going to do.

As we formulated what we thought was a plan, things got murkier and murkier. Ultimately, we decided to head to Antigua for a two-week pit stop where we could regroup and process everything. After Antigua, we’d head north to Merida, Mexico. It’s close to Cancun, and an easy jumping off point when the time comes to fly back to the states. In addition, it’s got a rich history and culture, tons of great art, and great food. It’s a big town that we’ve always wanted to see. Porque’ No?

Last shot of V as we left our beloved Monkey Bay Marina and the Rio Dulce

With a loose plan in place, we spent the next few days selling and giving stuff away, and then several more days trying to decide how we were going to keep the things that we wanted. For the record, our boat was not cluttered with stuff. We had no hammocks hanging or quarter berths stuffed with plastic bins. In fact, some of our storage spaces went unused.

But…when you have to pack your life into ten bags, you realized rather quickly that those tools you spent all that money on are not coming with you. Those cool wine glasses? Nope. That collection of books with everything you’d ever need to know about diesels? Uh-uh. Nada.

This is how it looked when we started. And we hadn’t even gotten to the clothes or tools yet. S.T.R.E.S.S!

Once we stopped crying and arguing (which we never do), we buckled down and got real with ourselves. The bare essentials. After all, the only thing we really knew was that we were going to Antigua, Guatemala for two weeks to think through the process of getting all our stuff and our dog to Mexico.

Merida would be a good place to sit for a couple more months and figure out how to fly Jet back to the states without having him riding in the baggage compartment. After reading several horror stories, we decided Jet wasn’t being subjected to that.

This is what we ended up with. Mel on the night before we left. Bittersweet.

To get from the Rio to Antigua, we hired a private shuttle. It was about a seven-hour drive. The roads in Guatemala are okay, but you never know when a mudslide has taken out a portion of the highway. Sometimes construction can cause major backups as well. If you’re traveling Guatemala, you have to be flexible.

For this trip, the bus wasn’t an option. Again, Jet would have been resigned to the baggage compartment, which is hot and miserable. Sometimes the bus ride to Guatemala City alone can top out at 9 or 10 hours. I doubt he’d live through it. But, for $175 USD, we got our own little van and crammed it full of crap.

Our driver William, with Otti Tours was awesome. He was friendly and a great driver. He drove us right to the door of our Airbnb in Antigua. The expression on our host’s face when he saw us unloading all those bags was priceless. I quickly reassured him we weren’t moving in.

What are you eyeballing me for? You have the best seat!

I have to say, the first couple days in Antigua were spent sitting in front of the television watching as Irma destroyed the islands and our friends’ homes and businesses. We were texting, checking email and hoping against hope that things would be different.

Outside, the streets of Antigua were alive with celebration. September 15th was Guatemala’s Independence Day. And these folks know how to celebrate. They kicked it off early and the celebration went all week.

Guatemalan Independence Day festivities

One of the events is the run of Antorchas, when a group of youngsters from different schools dress up in blue and white (Guatemala’s colors) and run through the streets carrying a burning torch. The group of kids grows as locals join in to run with them. Some sing, some bang drums and some blow whistles and horns. It’s boisterous and fun to watch. I, too, wanted to join in and run with them, but I might have frightened them as the gringo loco running in flip-flops.

Throughout my life, I’ve seen high peaks and low valleys. Through all of it, there has been one constant, travel. I’ve been lucky or crazy enough to end up in some kooky place that I never planned to be in. Sometimes with nothing more than a few hundred dollars to my name.

Out of all the places I’ve been, Antigua sits firmly near the top. I think Mel feels the same. It’s beautiful beyond belief. It’s streets are alive and filled with color. The food is delicious and the people are fantastic.

Dinner at one of the amazing little local joints
The dormant volcano Agua to the south. She’s usually shrouded in clouds but we got lucky on this morning.

We’ve enrolled in one of the many Spanish schools down here, determined to make our time in Central America count. I love learning the language. It’s incredibly hard for me, but I’m trying… estoy intendando. Tonight, I have my first Guatemalan cooking class.

Mel at the Saturday farmers market

So where does that leave us? Well, like so many before us, we’ve fallen in love with this small city nestled in the hills of Guatemala. We’ve been discovering the incredible food, and we wake up every morning and feel as if we live in a fantasy land. Everywhere you turn, it’s a postcard photograph. Surrounded by volcanoes, one of which (Fuego) pops off several times a day, we keep saying, “Okay. We’ll stay one more week.”

Fuego likes to make a scene every day
Antigua has great knockers.

Now… we’ve bumped it up to, “Okay, we’ll stay a month, and then off we go.”

Well… we just rented an apartment. Is that bad?

Stay safe out there. Pray for all of our friends in Texas, Florida, The Caribbean, and Puerto Rico. So many have lost everything and they need help. Try not to get discouraged by the negative news. Stay positive. Stay focused and don’t stop traveling.

Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

This is never more true than at this very moment. So many with the broadest and loudest opinions have never left their home towns. Ignore the blasts from their trumpets.

Love you guys! Stay in touch. And… I say it all the time, we love hearing from you. Peace.

The post Still is still moving appeared first on Vacilando.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming…

(This post may contain affiliate links)

Vacilando is sold.

Some of you may know this and some of you may not, but a couple of months ago, we fairly quietly listed Vacilando for sale. I say fairly quietly, because we put up an ad on Sailboat Listings, then posted 2 Facebook posts about it. That was it.

You see, once we made it down to Guatemala for hurricane season and had a chance to take a bit of a rest, we noticed for the first time that Jet’s getting old. It’s hard to believe he’s over 10 because he still acts like a pup sometimes. During the trip down, he was a rockstar. I mean, seriously, we couldn’t have asked for more when it came to him (except the time he pooped in the dinghy and we had to… well, if you haven’t read our latest post, you’ll have to just read for yourself).

Anyway, he was a champ. He stayed calm in rough seas, tolerated getting in and out of the dinghy several times a day, and behaved himself with territorial stray dogs throughout Isla Mujeres.

But a couple months ago, Chris and I had a long talk. We didn’t like the thought of putting him through more tough cruising right now. His pannus (eye disease) is getting worse, and he will eventually go blind. To sail with him not being able to see would be cruel and stressful, and he deserves better.

In addition, with neither of us being “retired” yet, trying to work while cruising has honestly been tougher than we thought it would be. Finding good wifi in the states was a bitch, and in the Western Caribbean, even tougher.

I (Mel) had a great freelance gig come up while we were in Belize and we had to change our plans and stay in Caye Caulker an extra week because we knew I wouldn’t be able to get wifi further down in the outer islands. Even in Caye Caulker the wifi was slow, so it took me twice as long to finish the project than it normally would have, and time is money.

As you know, we released Chris’ book Burning Man in June, and it’s been tough to market it like we wanted from all the way down here (even though it did hit the Amazon bestseller list!). He has also been writing a few scripts for a TV show and unfortunately, the wifi here in Rio Dulce can be unpredictable at times, too. We are, after all, in the jungle. But the entertainment business doesn’t care that we’re in the jungle and that the howler monkeys took down a power line. They just want their script.

We have a few other potentially awesome things coming down the pipeline, and we’d like to be prepared for them.

All that to say… Vacilando is SOLD.

Yes, as of yesterday, the old girl no longer belongs to us, and has a new owner who we are confident will love her as much as we have. I’m not gonna lie… even though we knew this was the right decision, every time we got closer to a done deal, we had reservations. After all, this has been our home for almost 6 years.

We’ve laughed, cried, and loved on this boat. She has carried us safely through calm seas and angry storms, never judging us – just doing her job. She’s been our safe harbor in so many ways. It’s hard to let go of something you love… but it’s time.

As for what we’ll do now?

Well, the truth is, we’re not sure. We’ve run so many possible scenarios through our heads and our minds change daily… Get a catamaran? Easier on Jet, more room, we can just park it somewhere (with good wifi) and live/work on her until the time is right to go cruising again… Or maybe an RV? A “land yacht” where if Jet needs to go we just pull off the side of the road – no crazy dinghy rides looking for a place to poop. We can do a state and national park tour… something we’ve both dreamed about.

But to be honest, we don’t know if we’re ready to head back stateside quite yet. We’ve loved the challenges that being among other cultures has presented us, and we’d love to see more and learn more. Our Spanish is still pretty terrible, and we’d like to improve that.

All we know for sure is that we’re going to spend a month in a cool little place to decompress. You may hear from us, or you may not. We just need a little time to figure out our next steps and how to navigate our way through this new way of life, whatever that is.

We’re a mix of emotions right now, but we know there’s a new adventure around the corner, and we’re excited to see what it is.

To everyone who has inspired, encouraged, and helped us throughout the past 6 years…we cherish each and every one of you.

Thank you for coming along for the ride.

Vacilando out.

Sailing the Yucatan Coast: Bring Your Laundry

(This post may contain affiliate links)

Sailing the Yucatan coast was our most challenging sailing thus far.

While it’s not quite long enough to be a “channel” nor narrow enough to be a “strait,” it is a force to be reckoned with. At just over 200 kilometers (120 miles) wide and 2,800 meters (that’s over 9,000 feet deep), the Canal de Yucatan connects the Yucatan Basin of the western Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s the crazy thing about this body of water. At the surface, along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the current known as the Yucatan Current, flows north. Along the southern coast of Cuba, a counter current, aptly named the Cuban Countercurrent, flows east. Underneath the north flowing Yucatan current, the flow feeding the Gulf of Mexico, a separate countercurrent flows south drawing water from the Gulf of Mexico. That’s crazy right? Add the Campeche Banks (a large coral mass in the middle of it all) and you have all the makings for one seriously unpredictable body of water.

A little history of the Yucatan Channel: Back in 1973, some scientists discovered that a massive upwelling of water caused constant confused seas in the area. They theorized that something they termed “bottom friction” was a significant factor in these upwellings. Basically, when water flows from a depth of 9000 feet into the coastline shelfs, where depths quickly shallow to 150 to 200 feet, shit gets crazy.

That’s not how they put it, of course. That’s my paraphrasing, if you will. I don’t think “shit gets crazy” is acceptable scientific lingo. None-the-less…

Way, way back, when preparing for this adventure, I had done a lot of research on the north coast of Cuba and the Yucatan coastline. There wasn’t too much to be had on the Western Caribbean, but what I did find was that the water in this area was unpredictable and in a “constant state of confusion.” Think washing machine. I figured, “How bad could it be?” As long as the wind and current weren’t opposed and we picked our weather windows carefully, it shouldn’t be anything we haven’t seen.

Our departure from Isla was fantastic. The wind was blowing 15 knots from the ENE. The sun was shining. We made great time down to Hut Point. We wanted to anchor at Puerto Morelos, but we were informed that anchoring off the beach was no longer permitted due to the fact that they’ve turned the area into a marine preserve.

At around three o’clock that afternoon, we ducked into the break in the reef (that still never gets any less stressful) and dropped the hook in about 8-9 feet of water. The sand at Hut Point is a very thin layer covering a limestone base. We were forewarned, but followed the GPS points that another boater gave us for a decent spot to anchor with supposed good holding.

Once we backed her down and the anchor was set, Melody dove on the anchor and came up with a confused look on her face. “Ummm… the anchor isn’t set.”

“Huh?” I asked, confused because our Mantus has never not set. Ever.

“Yep – she’s not set. She’s just laying there on top of the bottom with about an inch of the tip dug in.”

I dove in to see for myself. Nope – not set! I start the engine back up and attempt to back her down again, hoping the Mantus would find something to grip into. Mel was in the water and watched from below the surface, ready to give me a thumbs up, but instead, nothing. The chain would pull tight, but the anchor would not budge – even lying on top of the limestone like that.

Not very comforting, but with a 10:1 scope laying on the bottom, we “slept” through the night. The beach off our stern provided a nice landing point for Jet.

Late that night, we were awakened by beams of light shining into our salon. We got up and popped into the cockpit and saw that they were coming from the beach off our stern. A couple of people were walking the beach with flashlights. We didn’t think too much of it until I took Jet the next morning for a potty break and I saw a couple of holes along the beach with boot prints nearby.

Our guess was they were poaching turtle eggs. Yes, that sucks. Hopefully they’ll realize, at some point, that the pristine water and abundant wild life is more precious than a short-term financial boost. But that’s not reality. The poverty is reality. Turtle shells and turtle eggs provide an income. It sucks.

The trip south from Hut Point to Puerto Aventuras, our next stop, introduced us to the infamous Yucatan Current. You see, it’s a graceful introduction at first, because on this short run south, one is still a bit tucked in behind the lee of the island of Cozumel and the ENE swell doesn’t fully smash you until the next leg. But, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Puerto Aventuras is an ex-pat resort/marina/development tucked away amongst the beautiful Mayan Rivera. We chose it because there are few other places along the Yucatan coast to stop, and we wanted to do some land travel to see some of the nearby Mayan ruins.

The inlet is a tricky, tricky beast. We called Gerardo, the dockmaster, on the phone and he talked us in and made sure we understood how to line up the range markers. There’s a reef on your port side coming in, and a stone jetty to starboard, and it’s pretty narrow, so the range is necessary, even in good weather.

His directions were spot on. We made it in without a hitch and were soon tied up to the wall and ready to check into the marina. The office manager, Gabriela, also made us feel welcome the minute we arrived. Once we got everything in order with the marina, we set out to explore the resort.

The inlet (looking out). As you can see, it’s very narrow, with rock jetties and a reef just below the surface if you stray too far on either side.

One thing that we noticed immediately was that it was more like being in Florida, or even Disneyworld, than in Mexico. There was a Starbucks, a Subway, a Dolphin Discovery, and a lot of Americans on vacation, speaking English of course. They took US Dollars in all of the restaurants, bars, and shops, and we quickly found out that usually if you paid in US Dollars, you were charged slightly more.

Our first night there, we decided to splurge and ate our first “American” cheeseburger since leaving Florida, and I will admit, it was delicious. However, our stomachs weren’t used to the grease and we quickly regretted it.

On day 3, we decided to rent a car and brave the inland roads to explore the ruins of Coba. We were advised by a few others that Coba was better than Tulum because it had the tallest of the Mayan pyramids, which you could actually climb, and it was far less crowded than Tulum. We decided to visit Coba.

The car rental was just outside of the resort gates and cost us $50 USD per day. The ride to Coba was great, and made it possible for us to stop along the road and eat in the small, family run eateries and explore the shops. It provided us the opportunity to interact with the locals, try our Spanish and see things we might not otherwise see.

Coba was awesome. The site dates somewhere around 600-900 AD, and it was pretty amazing to see such amazing pieces of architecture still standing after so many years. We did a lot of walking – the entire site covers a pretty good-sized area, and explored the many sites, alters, and heiroglyphics.

The pyramid was the highlight of the trip, and we climbed it to the top, where there were several other people taking photos, meditating, doing yoga. Pretty magical all around.

Heiroglyphics One of the Mayan temples at Coba. Just about to climb to the top. Taking in the view from the top.

On the way back, we stopped at a wonderful little local restaurant to sample some of the Mayan flavor. We also stopped at a honey shop to get some fresh honey, which is actually the Mayan’s biggest export in that area. (It was delicious!)

We had only planned on staying in Puerto Aventuras for a few days, but weather came in and they actually closed the inlet to all boats due to 25+ knot SE winds.

We met some wonderful people during our time there and developed some fast friendships. Our new friends took us in, cooked us ribs, and lavished hospitality on us as if we were family. Thank you Nell! Thank you O’Farrell clan! They were kindred spirits, and we had a blast getting to know all of them.

Me and Nell, who was gracious enough to entertain us from her penthouse Mel and Nell. The view from Nell’s condo was pretty spectacular

All told, we were in Puerto Aventuras for 11 days! Sitting for so long takes us out of travel mode and we didn’t really dig that, although Jet loved it when the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery would rush over when they saw him and they’d all have a dockside chat.

It was nice on day 11 when we finally awoke to see the yellow flag indicating the inlet was back open. We were off the dock within 15 minutes!

The trip south from Aventuras is where the Yucatan Channel unleashes itself upon you. Once south of Cozumel, the ENE winds push an already washing machine-like sea state to another level. With the wind at only 15 knots, the seas were over 6 feet. We’d be sailing along with what was supposed to be following seas, only to slam into a bow wave that would break over the entire boat. The next wave would scream up from the beam and roll us over hard to starboard and upon recovering, a special little friend would roll up from behind and slam into our stern, swerving us thirty degrees off track. Surprise! Welcome to the upwelling!

We did day hops to keep Jet from going crazy. Okay… me, too. To keep me and Jet from going crazy. Punta Allen, Bahia Espiritu, and finally the overnight run to San Pedro, Belize.

Punta Allen was, dare I say, the low point. We dropped anchor on the western side of the peninsula and decided to make the trek around to the east side town dock. We were so eager to check out this tiny little fishing village that we’d read so much about. After Puerto Aventuras, we needed a dose of “local” life.

We hopped in the dinghy with Jet, eager to explore (and give him a proper walk and potty break) and as soon as we rounded the corner, the east winds hit us, splashing us with salty chop. Sargasso grass started to clog the intake of our outboard, so every 15 seconds, I had to stop the dinghy to unclog it, which left us soaking wet and asking why we were doing this.

But that’s not the worst part. I guess the constant chop was just too much for Jet to take. Melody noticed that he was pacing and turning circles in the dinghy, just like he does when he’s ready to poop on the grass. She screamed, “I think he’s gonna go!” Before we knew it, he was shitting, and shitting, and shitting… all in the dinghy. Poor guy couldn’t help it. We had nothing to scoop it out with, so yes, folks…we used our hands. Welcome to “the glamorous life.”

By this point, we were all miserable. I thought about turning us around, but Melody was like, “Oh no, we’ve come this far, we should keep going.” So keep going, we did…the rest of the 5-mile dinghy ride.

I took off my shirt and Melody used it to wipe out the remaining mess in the dinghy while I continued to go 50 yards, then unclog the intake…rinse and repeat. Luckily I had another shirt in my backpack to throw on.

We beached the dinghy atop the huge mound of sargasso and tried not to think about how we were going to get out of there and back to the boat in the wind and waves.

The rest of the day was not the best. We were both in foul moods at that point, but we tried to enjoy Punta Allen as best as we could. It is a pretty awesome little village, picturesque in its beauty and in its quaintness.

Just after our dinghy ride…not our best day. “Downtown” Punta Allen.

The next day, we were off, headed for Bahia Espiritu.

When leaving the bays at Punta Allen and Espiritu, you punch due east, and even early in the morning before the afternoon winds pipe up, it’s a nasty slog out to safe water. Once past the reefs, you turn south and experience all that washing machine love all over again.

Bahia Espiritu was nice, albeit a somewhat stressful ride in through a few parts due to shallows. We draw 5 feet and were seeing less than that in one spot on our depth gauge, but we think the soft sand and wave action helped push us through, and we never ran aground.

We anchored in a little cove off of Isla Chal, and were able to anchor just about 150 feet off the beach! We didn’t even have to launch the outboard – we just rowed across. We were all in better spirits, and cracked open a couple of beers and stripped off our clothes because we had this awesome little island all to ourselves. Jet got to run around, and we looked for shells, relaxed, and swam until the sea nettles started getting us.

We had this little island all to ourselves. A carefree day.

The next morning, we were finally off to San Pedro, Belize. We loved Mexico, but were getting excited to get to Belize.

The apex of the sailing misery came on the overnight run to San Pedro. The winds were 15, gusting to 20 so I tucked in the first reef for the overnight hours. I wanted to keep the boat going fast enough to diminish the effects of the sea state as much as possible. It didn’t matter. The results were the same. Lift with a swell. Slam into the back of a steep dropping wave. Pitch. Seas abeam. Roll… way… over. Drop into the trough. Crashing waves astern.

Twenty. Four. Hours. Of. This.

When we arrived to San Pedro (Ambergris Caye), we were exhausted. Fortunately, the passage through the reef was easy. Active Captain notes and Freya’s bearings were spot on. We dropped anchor in the crowded harbor amid the discourteous tour boats, fishing charters and water taxis, and promptly fell asleep.

I think I now understand why most people elect to take the Bahamian route to Belize and the Rio versus the Mexican route. When we were in Cuba, I thought the north coast was some of the more challenging sailing I’ve ever done. That sailing pales in comparison to sailing south via the Yucatan Channel. No matter what causes that “upwelling” they discovered back in 1973, it deserves… check that. It commands respect.

The Yucatan coast is beautiful. The people are incredible. I long to go back. I hear from those who’ve done it that the sail north is better. I’ll need a few months to let my amnesia kick in for that thought to sink in.

Isla Mujeres: The Island of Women

(This post may contain affiliate links)

Our offering to Neptune worked. He must be a Havana Club rum fan because our exit from Cuba and the transit across the Yucatan channel was uneventful. We were now on our way to Isla Mujeres, a place we’d been wanting to sail to for a long time.

After fueling up, checking out and topping off our water tanks, we left the dock at Cabo San Antonio around 2pm. At approximately 2:15 pm, the wind went SW so we were close hauled in about 9 knots of wind for the rest of the day and through most of the night.

Once through the traffic zones just west of Los Morros, were able to relax a little. The tanker traffic was no longer an issue and cruise ship traffic wouldn’t become a factor until several hours later as we got closer to the Mexican coastline.

That evening, the moon rise was one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. The iridescent, grapefruit-like moon popped up on our stern and kept watch over us all night long. As it crept behind a wisp of clouds, it became a creamy, ball of light so bright I could almost read under it. It calms me when the moon shines like that on night passages.

The reason we had been pushing through Cuba for this weather window was because the Yucatan current, which normally runs quite fast and can make a boistrous ride), was predicted to be very light at just 1 knot. That’s a big deal.

We talked to a few friends who had done the passage in the past, and the current was pushing them at over 4 knots! They said that with their main up and their engine running, they were making only 1.3 knots… to the NORTH! It took them almost forty hours to do the one-hundred and ten miles or so. We didn’t want any part of that mess.

Sailing a course of 247, we arrived in Isla’s north channel after approximately twenty-two hours. The current didn’t really touch us until about twenty miles outside of Isla Mujeres when we went from 6.2 knots to 1.9 knots. It didn’t last long. We were back to 6 after about ten miles.

The Island of WomenMural on the North End of Isla Mujeres

Now, whenever you say the words Isla Mujeres to someone who’s been there, their eyes will gloss over a little bit and a faint smile will overtake their face. It’s a special little place. And I completely agree. But as I see it, Isla Mujeres (or “Isla” as we often call it) is really like two completely different islands in one. With two different identities.

The north end, Playa Norte, is surrounded by lovely beaches. It’s full of trinket shops, tiki bars, restaurants, and tour operators. You’ll see tons of sunburned gringos who had too much to drink and paid too much to rent that golf cart their swerving down the main drag. You’ll pay 30 or 40 pesos for a taxi instead of the local rate of 15.

You’ll be approached by vendors who want to sell you a catamaran cruise or a dive excursion to the famous underwater statue site. That said, it’s still a lovely section of town. Some great little breakfast shops are tucked back off the Rueda Medina and if you’re changing dollars to pesos, the north end is where you’ll find the banks. When we were there, the exchange rate was about 18 pesos to the dollar. Not too bad.

The Island of WomenMelody looking gorgeous on the North Shore

Isla’s main anchorage is where we landed first. It’s notorious for being incredibly busy and a bit exposed with bad holding. With our Mantus, We never really worry about holding issues but the busy and exposed was no joke. Tour boats fly by and wake you with aplomb. Overloaded catamarans pumping hip-hop into the sky will just about sideswipe you if are too close to the channel. It’s a bit unnerving at first but it settles down at night. The only thing to really concern yourself with would be a passing front.

With V bobbing contently on her anchor, displaying her bright yellow “Q” flag, we launched our dinghy, Chicken (as in Chicken Tender) and headed over to El Milagro Marina and Hotel. On the advice of many friends who checked in on their own, they strongly suggested we use Julio at El Milagro as our agent to ease the process. It took one friend of mine almost four days to complete the process on his own. For seventy-five bucks, it was well worth it to hire Julio. He’ll contact all the required agents and have them come to you at the hotel while you relax, drink coffee and get acquainted.

All in, it took us a few hours to complete the process with the total cost of $158.00 USD. That included our visas.


Almost every forum you’ll read says, “They never looked at our dog’s papers.” We had a different experience. In Cuba, they scrutinized Jet’s paperwork closely. In Mexico, the agricultural fella did the same. The USDA Health Certificate we had for him was dated January 18th and technically good for 30 days, although most cruisers report that they just use the same certificate throughout their entire travels with no problem. We arrived in Isla on March 14th. The Mexican official wouldn’t accept it.

We had to take Jet back to the boat immediately and he was to remain there until a new certificate from a Mexican Veterinarian in Cancun was issued. It took another two days to get and cost us an extra $45.00 US. We didn’t have to take Jet anywhere, but an official did make me dinghy him to the boat to inspect Jet in person. He was kind and very understanding about getting soaking wet in our tiny dink as we transited the chop of the main harbor.

Back at El Milagro, Julio took care of all the added paperwork that went along with this little glitch as well. We were nervous about leaving our original copy of the health certificate with him, hoping he wouldn’t destroy it, but in the end, we got our original back and a new health certificate from the proper Mexican official.

When all is said and done, even if you use an agent, you will still have to make a trip to Cancun to get your TIP (Temporary Import Permit), for the boat. The TIP is basically a permit (a decal) that allows you to keep your boat in Mexico. Once your check-in is complete, you have five days to get your TIP decal. Take one of the ferries across. We chose the car ferry because it was only six dollars each way versus eighteen dollars each way for the speedy ferry.

Isla Mujeres car ferry to Cancun

If you take the car ferry, you’ll need to cab it to the Port Captain’s office. You’ll need copies of all of your check-in paperwork, and they won’t make them at the office, so bring your own. If you don’t, as we didn’t, you’ll need to cab it to the small market down the road to make copies (1 peso each). Cost for the TIP was $60 US. It’s good for 10 years, and one of the benefits is that you can import parts for your boat duty-free.

Another good thing about the getting the TIP is the taco shack adjacent to the parking lot where the ferry drops you off. And trust me, it’s really a shack. Corrugated tin roof, crooked wall studs and rusting Coca~Cola signs mean you’re in the right spot. The guys who owns the joint is an absolute joy to speak with and he loves Americans. You’ll get the best tacos you ever had along with a Coke for about $2US.

Once all of our boat logistics were settled, we moved V to the back lagoon. With a nasty norther predicted, we didn’t want have to launch the dink to get Jet ashore in the three foot chop of the main harbor. We found a spot at Marina Del Sol, which is basically just a dock. A somewhat rickety dock with wide spaces between the boards and somewhat questionable power. But… it has some of the best people you’ll meet anywhere. Cruisers from Spain, Germany, New York, Wyoming, and Canada. They’ve been all over the world, landed in the Laguna Makax and got stuck. None of them seemed to be complaining.

Isla Mujeres map chartSimple map of the island (Printed Material from the Freya Guide to Belize and Mexico)

Gualberto (the owner) is a sweet man who speaks very little English. He loves dogs and pets in general. He was leery about Jet being there amongst his cats, lizards, birds and two dogs of his own.

One of the residents at Del Sol, Robbie, was instrumental in getting us a spot on the dock, which was becoming a difficult endeavor since everyone in Isla was seeking refuge from the coming weather. Robbie walked me along and said, “Flaco (Gualberto’s nickname which, in Spanish means ‘skinny’) has three rules. Follow them and you’ll be fine.” As I concentrated on not busting my ass on the dock, Robbie continued, “The birds come in to nest in these trees at night and he doesn’t like them disturbed so don’t use the bathrooms late. Don’t fuck with his iguanas, and don’t catch his fish.”

See, Flaco regularly feeds the small grouper under his docks. Catching them is a no-no. He runs a tight ship. The bathrooms are spotless. The patio is hosed down every morning. His brother Omar is a gem and once they know you’re not the nightmare gringos, they warm up to you in short order.

Our dock mates, Vlad and Carmen, Tommy and Karen, Bruno, Doty and James were so welcoming, we felt like we’d been there for months. The cruiser net on channel 13 starts at 8:30 in the morning and Tim on Tropical Fun did a great job connecting cruisers with needs. There are pizza nights, happy hour gatherings on the dock at Oscar’s, and Taco Tuesdays if you’re so inclined to join in. It’s a tight community that has it dialed in to help cruisers enjoy their time in Isla.

That second “island” I mentioned is the south end of Isla Mujeres, where Marina Del Sol is located. You’ll discover the local joints, the tiny markets and lavenderias where you can get your laundry washed and folded for around $10. Discover the small tienda where two Heinekens will cost you 34 pesos (about a $1.50 USD) verses 40 pesos each at the gringo bar in Marina Paraiso or Oscar’s. Two plates of tacos, rice and a couple of cold cervezas cost about 150 pesos or around $9 US. They speak only Spanish and they greet you with only smiles.

Mel and I did the touristy thing one day and took a trek down to the Turtle Sanctuary (Tortugranja) and Punta Sur. The turtle exhibit is small and some feel that it’s not worth the trip. It’s there to educate and inform people about the struggles that go hand in hand when tourism slams into a small island and exacts its toll on the ecological resources. It was only a few bucks and while it kind of felt like more of a “zoo” than a conservation effort, we still think that it’s worth tossing them a few pesos. While we were there, we treated ourselves to some Mexican ice cream (we chose the coconut flavor) in the parking lot and it was absolutely delicious!

Punta Sur is Isla’s easternmost point and the first place the sun touches every morning. There’s an old temple, and it’s the place where the natives used to worship Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon.

Ixchel, Mayan goddess of the moon

We were struck by the huge statues of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, and a very large iguana. Footpaths weave through the many artist sculptures perched among the bluffs. Still more paths and walkways led us down the cliffs to the waters edge where crystal-clear surf misted our faces with salty kisses.

One of the artist sculptures at Punta Sur in Isla Mujeres

After a long day of walking, we rewarded ourselves with a cold Modelo and some incredible tacos at a little place near the lake, but not before we made a little cairn of stacked rocks on one of the easternmost points and made a wish in the hopes that Ixchel would provide continued safe passages and adventures.

We fell in love with Isla Mujeres. It has everything a traveler or cruiser could want. It’s easy to understand how people go there, intending to stay for ten days, and end up staying for ten years. After just eight days at Del Sol, Melody and I were feeling the roots pushing out the bottoms of our feet. The friends we made after nights grilling and sharing beers and stories on the dock were sucking us in. We had many enlightening discussion about politics, art, and music with people from Serbia, Spain, Germany, and Mexico. Their viewpoints were interesting. Their delivery was calm and hopeful.

We talked about the battle for Isla to retain its identity while it fights off the assaults from developers. I hope she’s up to the challenge. One need not look further than the Florida Keys to see what “progress” really means. Just my personal opinion. I know, I’m full of opinions these days.

The last three days we spent in Isla were spent swinging on the hook in the lagoon. While only a few hundred yards from our friends at Marina Del Sol, our spirits felt the dock roots retreating. And on one morning, when it felt like it was time to go, we checked out.

We elected to check out of Isla and not Cozumel. Checking out in Cozumel would require us to take a ferry or our boat across. Both seemed like a lot of extra effort if you’re not already wanting to see Cozumel (we didn’t). We were also told checking out in Cozumel is more expensive. In Isla, they charged us 270 pesos to check out. Once you pay at the bank and return to immigration with a receipt, they’ll stamp everything and you’ll be on your way.

It’s nice to arrive, settle in and learn what a town is all about. Then, it’s just as nice to weigh anchor and get on with it. Travel. It’s travel for the sake of travel I guess. It wears you down and builds you up at the same time.

The next morning, we tuned in to the net and said our goodbyes as Punta Sur faded from our stern. We were headed for the small towns south along the Yucatan coast. It’s strange how quickly things change out here. The Mexican coast was the unknown. As we were about to discover, it would prove to be incredibly beautiful and more challenging than even Cuba. The Yucatan Channel would have much to teach. Until next time…

Cairn, or stacked rocks at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

This is how we do it

(This post may contain affiliate links)

Chris DiCroce - author and songwriter.

We’re going to put a quick pause on our travel posts to tell you about a couple of cool things going on around here.

First, we were very excited to celebrate our 5-year boat anniversary this past Memorial Day weekend! Yes, on Memorial Day 2012, we hopped on board Vacilando (then named Sonrisa), and sailed out of Panama City, Florida, bound for the Chesapeake Bay. We were green, excited, and scared shitless.

We’d sold our house and almost everything in it for what was supposed to be a one-year experiment. That “experiment” continues 5 years later, brought to you from the Rio Dulce River in Guatemala.

What the… heck. Where did the time go?

The talk of anniversaries is the perfect segue for me to mention another upcoming benchmark. Last June, the 12th I believe, Melody gave me an early and unexpected gift for my then-approaching 50th birthday.

After publishing two non-fiction books, my dream to complete and publish a work of fiction was stuck at the gate. I had started and abandoned several drafts in frustration. The looming “Big 5-0” hung like December fog around my shoulders. I was ready for anything that might help. Melody was ready to toss me overboard. Cue the heavenly lighting effects. The angelic choir… Ahhhhhhhhhh.

Ladies and gentlemen, the James Patterson MasterClass.

MasterClass offers a variety of online courses that are taught by celebrities, teaching you how they do what they do, each one for less than $100. James Patterson teaches a course on how to write a novel.

James Patterson Masterclass teaches you how to write a novel

One morning, I got a lovely email announcing that his course had been purchased for me. The accompanying note said simply, “Because your wife believes in you.” No pressure there, huh?

Secretly, I was already having reservations. I had never read a single James Patterson book. I knew nothing except that he was one of the best-selling authors of our time. But I didn’t read mystery / crime novels and I certainly wasn’t trying to write one.

That said, while on a 10-day production job in Atlanta, I delved into the online course, watching all 22 classes in about 3 nights. It was incredibly enlightening to listen to someone so successful in their field describe their creative process. I really enjoyed his delivery as well. He was no bullshit.

But the thing that changed it all for me, that clicked on the bright light, was how he did his outline. I won’t go into all the details here but by the end of July, I had the outline for my first novel complete. August through November was spent in the library writing and re-writing. In January, when we left the states on the trip we’re currently on, I had a finished manuscript.

We spent the past few months editing and working on the book cover design and our marketing plan, and last week, almost one year to the day, and with the help of my amazing wife, Burning Man was published on Amazon for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble for Nook. In the very near future, it will be available as a paperback from your favorite local bookstore.

For those of you with commitment issues, you can get the first four chapters of Burning Man for FREE at chrisdicroce.com.

As an additional bonus and further inspiration to buy the book, it comes with a FREE 5-song soundtrack that you can download when you purchase the book in digital format. How’s that?

With your help and the help of many others, Burning Man had an incredible launch. If you’ve already read it… and you enjoyed it… please consider leaving a review on Amazon. A positive review helps us immensely.

So, this is how we do it. Making a living while cruising is tricky, but doable. On Vacilando, we have several plates spinning at the same time. Melody sells her fantastic, handmade, nautical jewelry through Maggie & Milly as well as freelance editing/proofreading, and helping other cruisers learn ways to make money via her blog, Saving to Sail. If that’s not enough she’s about to add a few new twists to the equation.

Me? I write. The purchases you guys make keep us afloat. Literally. You’ve all been incredibly supportive, reading along, commenting and hopefully making us better at what we do.  Thank you. From the bottom of our keel. Sorry… my jokes have not gotten better.

Wishing you all peace and love.

Chris, Mel, and the Jet-pack

P.S. A special thanks and shout-out to Mike from Boat Radio, who not only has a fantastic radio show, but he has been an incredible supporter and a great friend. Last week, he had us on again as guests on his show – if you missed our interview, you can listen here, and be sure to listen to some of his other wonderful interviews with other cruisers! Boat Radio has had over 600,000 downloads in less than a year at the time of this writing, so go see what all the fuss is about!

Sailing Cuba’s Northwest Coast

(This post may contain affiliate links)

When we finally were able to get out the channel at Marina Hemingway, we were full of both excitement and a bit of anxiety about sailing Cuba’s northwest coast. We’d read and researched the trip to within inches of its life. We understood it was mostly a downwind run and we knew that entering the anchorages through narrow passages with few navigation markers would be tricky.

The reef that extends west doesn’t really come into play until you get to Cayo Levisa, and you are not allowed to go ashore anywhere on the north coast (west of Hemingway) except at the resort of Cayo Levisa and at Cabo San Antonio when you check in or out…but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

When we turned NNW at the sea buoy outside Marina Hemingway, we had the morning southeasterlies to push us along. The westward setting current I read about really wasn’t apparent yet.

Once we hit the waypoint we created letting us know it was safe to turn WSW, we beared off to a heading somewhere around 242 degrees. The wind stayed between 100 and 120 degrees on my wind indicator and our CAL loved every minute of it.

Sailing the north coast was some of the most spectacular as well as the most challenging sailing I’ve ever done. The mountains tower off the port side. They are lush and green. Completely unexpected.

Cuba's northwest coast

The winds here build so predictably, one could set their watch by them. SE from the land as the sun rises — a light 5-8 knots. Around 10am you’ll notice a shift to the east and a slight freshening. By noon, 12-15 knots of easterly winds fill in, and by mid-afternoon those winds are close to, if not every bit of 20 knots.

The sea state is easily provoked and before you know it, calm rippling one-footers have shockingly popped up to 5 feet. It’s all fun and games when you’re surfing and howling with joy on that downwind ride. Then you realize at some point soon, you have to turn beam to and transit over a reef where depths might be 8 feet at best. Those five footers now wanna wash you straight across that narrow channel or bounce your rudder off the reef looming just below. It becomes a whole different kinda howling.

The first stop west, and quite possibly my favorite, was Bahia Honda. I’m not sure why, because there is literally nothing there. They’ve done away with the guarda station there so we didn’t get boarded or even contacted when we entered the harbor.

Bahia Honda is a ship recycling port. The main landmark you’ll see when you get close is the massive, rusting hull of a grounded tanker at the harbor entrance. From a distance it looks like a chunk of coast line. The channel is “well marked” with good depth. Well marked in Cuba means one or two indicators somewhere close to where they should be.

Once inside, if you tuck in behind the shoal in the northeast pocket bay, you’ll be rewarded with calm water, fresh breezes and beautiful scenery. The water in Bahia Honda is deep but if you proceed with caution, you can find an area of thirteen feet to drop the hook a few hundred yards off the tree line. The bottom here is grass. (If you don’t have good ground tackle, you’ll have restless nights all along the north coast.)

Bahia Honda anchorageBahia Honda’s beautiful anchorage

The mountains of Cuba are green and rippled like you’d expect to see in Hawaii. They creep close to the coastline here. I was in awe and so wished we could have gone ashore to the small village of Santa Teresa just off the bow. We were teased by the sounds of roosters, dogs barking and pigs squealing.

Our second stop west was Cayo Levisa. The sail from Bahia Honda to Levisa might have been my best day sailing ever. The morning was gorgeous, the cloudless sky was a bright blue, and the water matched its splendor.

The ocean here is deep. Very deep. Thousands of feet deep, in fact, and it can be a bit nerve wracking. One minute you’re sailing in water so deep the depth sounder goes blank and the next minute you have a crystal clear view of the bottom when you cross into the shallows of twenty-five feet. At times, it looks as if you’re in five feet of water. Limestone flats and small coral heads pass by in the shadow of V’s hull.

On this particular day, the wind stayed at 120 degrees all day. The jib was full. The main was eased and drawing like a freight train. Our CAL hit 7 knots and hovered around that number all day long. We entered the reef on the east end of Cayo Levisa with the waypoints from the Waterway Guide to Cuba. While we did see some shallow spots of six feet or so, our trip into the anchorage was without incident.

Order the latest Waterway Guide to Cuba on Amazon!

The afternoon winds freshened as expected, but by that time we were already swinging on the hook. Our attempt to take Jet ashore was met with a member of the hotel staff telling us the guarda had already left for the day and we’d have to wait until mañana to “check in” and until then, we couldn’t come ashore.

Yes, even though we had already checked into Cuba at Marina Hemingway, you still have to “check in” at each port or anchorage in Cuba that you stop at that has a guarda station. All they do is check your paperwork and passports, and fill out a little paperwork of their own.  If there’s no guarda station, you might instead be boarded by guardas on boats to check you in, but not always.

We returned to the boat but within the hour were hailed by a whistling guard to come back in. The afternoon ferry from the mainland brought him back and he was willing to check us in that afternoon. It was swift and quite pleasant speaking with him. He asked me if I had any baseball gloves on board. He said his boy was playing little league and his glove was completely worn out. I so wish I’d had a couple of gloves to leave with him.

Sailboat in Cayo LevisaVacilando at anchor in Cayo Levisa Cayo Levisa docksThe dock at Cayo Levisa

With our check-in done, Mel and I walked the spectacular beach and had a couple cervezas in the incredibly upscale tiki hut at the ecoresort on the island. Completely beyond anything I’d have imagined. We entertained the idea of renting one of their villas on the beach, then we saw what they cost and promptly dispensed with any more of that foolishness.

Cayo Levisa beachThe beach at Cayo Levisa

Cayo Levisa Beach

The next morning, we were required to do a quick check out with the same guard that checked us in. We were told the ferry would arrive around 8:30am. We got up and over there way early so we sat with a local fisherman who marveled at a cat who simply would not leave Jet alone. This cat came within inches of a certain realignment several times. The check-out process went quickly and we weighed anchor around 9:30.

This next leg west was the longest leg of the journey and the one that had me most concerned. I knew the run to Cayo Jutias would take most of the day and that meant we’d be turning beam to into the anchorage well after those late afternoon winds got going. The sea state would be raging.

There are a few stops in between at Esperanza if you go inside the reef, or just inside the Pasa de la Laja, but it makes for a very short day and I wasn’t really happy with the protection either one provided for how far out of the way they were. While we weren’t in a rush, we were trying to make a really good weather window for our crossing of the Yucatan Channel. Had we not been aiming for that, we’d have stayed another day in Levisa or made one of the closer anchorages.

Overall, the trip to Cayo Jutias was uneventful. With the winds light and dead aft, I hoisted the main and fired up our awesome iron genny. We throttled up to 1800 rpm and maintained a steady 6.5 knots all day. That got us to the entrance at the Pasa Rocondora (about 8 miles west of Jutias) around 4:30 in the afternoon. Yep… The winds were 20 knots and the seas were every bit of 5 feet. We’d have three to four miles with seas abeam before we got in the lee of the huge mangroves that are Pasa Las Barbacoas.

We eased the full main and turned beam to. Jet took up residence in what we call his “battle station,” which is the cockpit well. It’s lined with a yoga mat so he doesn’t slide around when the boat rolls.

There really wasn’t an opportunity to reef down at this point. We had to deal with the conditions and steer the boat. Traveler down. Mainsheet eased. Throttle back. Vacilando screamed into the Rocondora, eager as we were to be resting on the hook. Mel drove us in while I called out headings and spotted the one red marker to starboard. She did a spectacular job of keeping the boat steady.

Once inside and in the lee of the mangroves, we turned northeast and doused the main and headed into the small cove, where we waved at some passing fisherman. With our Mantus firmly set, we poured some rum and enjoyed another spectacular sunset.

Day four saw us traveling inside the reef all day. We got going early. For the first few miles we had the escort of a few official looking Cubans in a well-armed launcha shadowing our boat. They never got closer than half-a-mile, nor did they contact us.

We were making great time under sail with the wind again at 120. Mel tossed a line off the stern with a shiny lure and within minutes was reeling in what turned out to be one nasty barracuda. We were told never to eat them because they carry the dreaded ciguatera toxin. I was later told that in Cuba it is safe to eat the small barracuda. We turned the snapping little bastard loose.

Once past Cayo de Buenavista, you enter the Golfo de Guanahacabibes where you can point a little more south of west. This is a big bay and if the wind is opposing the currents, it can probably get quite nasty. We got close to shore to avoid the afternoon swell, which does occur inside the reef. Don’t let ’em kid you that it doesn’t.

Around 2:30, the wind was blowing at 18 knots, heading for its usual climax as we entered the Ensenada de San Francisco and ultimately our anchorage at Ensenada de Anita. Again, Mel drove us into the anchorage as I prepared to drop anchor. There is some shoaling in the area, but the NV Charts will keep you honest. We didn’t see anything to be concerned about. We found 8 feet and set the hook.

On our last day in Cuba, we cruised out of the anchorage and immediately pulled sail, bound for Los Morros and Cabo San Antonio, the point at which our travel in Cuba would meet its official end. On our now familiar heading of 241 degrees (which you’ll carry most of the way) we passed clear of the Cabezos de Plumajes and landed at Los Morros just after noon.

The dock was freaky scary with its rusty chains dangling and opposing concrete walls but the dock hands are capable and swift to tie you off. The harbormaster was kind, funny and quick with the check-out process.

While he finished up with the official business, we took on fuel, water, beer, and one last bottle of rum. Word to the wise, Don’t buy rum or beer from the bar! Mucho expensivo. Ask them to open the small store attached to the bar if it’s not already open.

With full tanks and our papers in hand, we offered Neptune a little of our rum in exchange for safe passage and headed out the Pasa los Morros. Many folks come and go via the Pasa Sorda, but it’s a bit shallow and Mel and I were done with shallow. We wanted some deep water so we elected to go the one mile more to the sea buoy.

Sailing Cuba northwest coastLeaving Cuban waters was bittersweet

Melody and I were really quite sad to leave Cuba. We entertained the idea of turning SE and heading down the south coast. While it was tempting, we decided to go with the plan in place. We wanted to see Mexico and Belize.

We watched as the coast fell off our stern and then quickly regained a passage mentality as traffic separation zones, tankers, and cruise ships were now the order of the day. The ride to Isla Mujeres would have us transiting the famous, or should I say infamous Yucatan Channel where current is swift, the water deep, and the traffic stressful.

Once we crossed over the three nautical mile mark, we doused our Cuban courtesy flag and prepared for the night’s passage. Next stop. Mexico!

Wanna read our other posts about sailing to Cuba? Click here!

Cuba Stole Our Hearts

(This post may contain affiliate links)

Cuba stole our hearts

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time now, you know how I write. You know that I use profanity sometimes and yes, I can be a bit reactionary and opinionated. Isn’t that what a personal blog is for? Your opinions about something? Your firsthand experience?

This post is purely emotional with a dash of politics thrown in. How can you not glance at the political aspect of Cuba? But… mostly, it’s about Cuba’s sights and sounds. Its food and its people.

For the last 57 years or so, Americans have been “banned” from Cuba. Yes, there have been ways to get there via a third country or by some special exemption to the embargo, but legally, traveling to Cuba as an American tourist has been a no-go.

In January of 2016, former president Obama had the good sense to reduce the restrictions and basically open Cuba up to Americans. Thanks, Obama!

Yes, Cuba nationalized American financial interests without compensation, but that was in 1958. Castro — Fidel, anyway — is gone. The island of Cuba is ninety miles from the American coast. Does it make better sense for a terrorist organization or a hostile regime like Russia to get a foot-hold there?

I know Russia is a “sensitive” topic at the moment. But in my humble opinion, it’s far wiser for the United States of America to step up and use the diplomacy it’s been famous for to resolve a difficult issue. Maybe nothing will ever be fully resolved, but to make the effort means more to me than anything.

I, for one, am thrilled. I don’t give a single shit about the oil refineries that were seized in 1958. The U.S. oil industry has done just fine in spite of it. The minute I heard that U.S. citizens were able to travel to Cuba on their own vessel, I was in. I (selfishly) wanted to meet and talk with the Cubans first-hand. I didn’t want my impressions to be filtered through another journalist’s interpretations or blog posts, much like this one.

Sunrise over Havana as we entered Cuban watersSunrise over Havana as we entered Cuban waters

When we arrived in Marina Hemingway, Melody and I were riding a special sort of adrenaline rush. We had planned for so long to do something like this, arriving actually made me a bit weepy. Once we got checked in and safely parked on the dock, we had one beer at the Tiki Hut and the adrenaline disappeared. We promptly went to bed.

The next morning, we awoke refreshed and eager to explore. We took a right out of the marina and walked a couple of miles to the small village of Sante Fe where we stumbled upon a small cafe. A line of locals blocked a portion of the sidewalk where a guy served up delicious pork sandwiches. For a total of 5 pesos each (about $0.20), we devoured those things, then hopped in a crowded cab for a ride into Havana.

What struck me immediately was exactly what strikes most first-timers to Cuba: the automobiles. The streets of Cuba are bustling with the hum of 1950s American cars. Chevy, Ford, DeSoto, Oldsmobile, and Jeep. But the “hum” is a little different than one would expect.

Old car in CubaJust one of the many beautiful old cars we saw

This, our first Cuban cab ride, was in a 1952 DeSoto. What I never knew about these cool old cars is that most, if not all, have replaced their original American V8s with Russian diesel engines. That familiar Detroit “hum” was now a chugging, clunky, smoke-spewing shell of itself. A crime, right!? I know.

But gas is extremely expensive. None of the locals could ever afford to keep those thirsty American V8s. One driver told me buying a new engine was cheaper. Seeing these old convertible Chevys and Fords chug black smoke from their oily Russian power plants makes my head spin, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

When we got to Havana, scooters buzzed close. The streets were alive. Crowded and vibrant with activity. We walked around with wide eyes and an eagerness to eat something. Anything. Street food, sandwich shop, bread… anything!

The first place we found was on the corner of M17, just down the hill from the Hotel Nacional. La Baliza was a small, very local place that served hamburgesas. Basically it’s a hamburger, but since beef is nonexistent in Cuba (as far as we could tell) it’s made with ground pork mashed into a hamburger patty and served with cabbage and other spices. Along with that, they served pina frappes (frozen pureed pineapple) that looked delicious. We each had a hamburgesa and drank enough of those frappes to give us brain freeze. Our entire bill was equal to about 3 bucks.

La Baliza - restaurant in Cuba

With bellies full, we braved the heat and stumbled upon a local outdoor market where we ate another pork product and marveled at the pig heads propped up on tables. Other tables were stacked high with peppers, cabbage, potatoes, and tomatoes. Eggs were yet to be seen, as was bread. Beef was nowhere to be found. But pork? Lots of pork and chicken.

Pig heads at the market in Old Havana, Cuba

The people were incredibly welcoming and willing to engage us gringos with our sub-par Spanish and they were too polite to correct us when we completely flubbed their language.

Mostly, we just walked and walked… and walked. Mel took a stroll through the Panamerican Market and scored some Gouda cheese and fabulous bread. I would have joined her, but carrying a backpack through the market was not allowed. I waited outside and had almost as much fun people-watching.

We ended the afternoon in a place called the California Cafe, which we knew was a pricey gringo hut, but we did it anyway. The young waiter promised his mojito would be best we’d ever tasted or he’d give us our money back. He didn’t disappoint. It was perfect.

California Cafe waiter

Best mojito ever tasted, at California Cafe in Havana, Cuba

A 1956 Buick Riviera was our chariot back to the marina. We talked for a good long while with our driver Jorge and he was pretty candid about things in his country. Rarely will you find a Cuban willing to openly discuss politics. Although no one will say it directly, you are encouraged to refrain from engaging in open political discussions with the locals (so they don’t get in trouble). The reminders are subtle, but they’re there. This is still a communist nation.

Our conversation skipped quickly from politics to cars. In particular, his 56′ Buick. He was incredibly curious about our lifestyle. I invited him to come aboard for a cold beer, but he declined. Jorge wasn’t allowed to visit our boat. We met several people who I wanted to invite to the boat, but they aren’t allowed on board. Cab drivers have to basically “check in” with the marina security when they come to get you or drop you off.

Riding in one of the old car cabs in Havana, CubaJorge was very knowledgeable and we enjoyed our conversation with him

One thing we had heard and read was that the food in Cuba is terrible. I have no idea what they’re talking about. We found a small “restaurant” in the tiny town of Jaimanitas, just east of the marina gates, that rivaled any meal I’ve ever had.

Granted, it’s simple. There’s little in the way of presentation and you may not get a napkin. We ate chicken, rice, black bean soup, and cabbage salad. All cooked to perfection and fresh as it’s ever gonna be.

A typical Cuban meal with rice, beans, chicken, and cabbage. Doesn’t look like much but the flavors were delicious! They make the most out of what little they have.

Up to that point, we had been unable to find eggs anywhere. With the help from a local to communicate our request, the restaurant was gracious enough to sell us a flat of thirty! Real, unrefrigerated eggs with blazing orange yokes that tasted like heaven to me.

I’ve been ranting about the eggs in America since Melody met me. They taste like cardboard. Washed, sanitized, and chilled to their bland, crappy best… ye-ha. No thanks. Give me eggs with placenta still on the shell. Don’t wash ’em, and don’t you dare get those beauties anywhere near a refrigerator.

In our first few days in Cuba, we also had the pleasure of getting to know Victor and his wife Cathy on board s/v Kisma. Victor is a native Columbian with duel citizenship. Cathy is from Mississippi. They’ve been married for 42 years and they’re the cutest damn couple I’ve ever met.

Victor’s Spanish is impeccable of course, so traveling to the market with him was awesome. Passing local fishermen on the bridge, I’d ask him, “Victor, how do I say, ‘Did you catch anything?’” And he’d tell me. I’d ask, “Victor, how do I ask where the bakery is?” And… he’d tell me. Melody and I learned so much from him and loved every minute we got to spend with him and Cathy.

The local panaderia (bakery) in Jaimanitas, CubaMaking a new friend while in line at the local panaderia (bakery) in Jaimanitas. Our local market finds - we had some amazing meals with these simple ingredientsOur local market finds – we had some amazing meals with these simple ingredients

The thing that captivated me most about Cuba was the people. They smiled at us. They tried their best to understand my gringo Spanish. And they never once asked for a handout or gave us the wrong change.

I will be honest. When we first arrived, I expected to be hassled and hustled the minute I dared to escape the confines of the marina gates. The exact opposite occurred.

One night, Melody and I found ourselves lost deep in a neighborhood after the sun went down. I got nervous as two men approached us in the street. I expected the worst. Instead, one of the young men, knowing we were lost, tried his best to direct us back to the marina. When I said we were actually looking for a particular restaurant we thought was close, his eyes lit up and he said, “Ah… Si. Si!” Then he walked us to the door of the place.

In another trip to Havana, we met Ariel, a man with one leg, who walked with old aluminum crutches. He spoke incredible English and insisted on hobbling along with us to show us the neighborhoods Americans rarely venture into. With tour guide precision, he showed us Callejon de Hamel, the Afro-Cuban art district near the Hotel Nacional. He said Americans don’t often visit because the neighborhood looks sketchy. It did look sketchy but don’t let that stop you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the reception.

Chris and Ariel, our impromptu tour guide for the dayAriel was engaging and knowledgeable and we learned a lot from him about the Cuban way of life

He introduced us to the artists that created the work we were seeing. He took us to the bar where the Rolling Stones hung out. He was sweating his ass off trying to keep up, but insisted on continuing. He told us about the hospitals (and how there were separate, nicer hospitals for the tourists than the ones reserved for the locals), showed us the food lines and explained the government rationing and the ways of the Cubans that we might not otherwise see.

Then he needed a rest. As we stood together on the street, he said to me, “Governments will always be governments, my friend. But we are people. And people must always be people. We must be friends.”

That exchange will never leave me.

On another occasion, Mel and I wandered into a small house in Jaimanitas that had some artwork for sale on display. It was around the corner from the famous artist Fuster’s house that we were heading to see.

The homeowners invited us in and we spent an hour talking with Nelson and his wife Marianella. Their twin boys were the artists and they were magnificent, each in their own way.

We bought a piece of art but Nelson wouldn’t let us leave just yet. He insisted on showing us photos of himself as a young man in the military. He took my hand and said, “I spent many years in Russia learning how to make war. Efficient ways to wreak havoc and I’m glad we are friends. America and Cuba need to be friends now. It’s been too long.” I couldn’t keep the welling in my eyes a secret. I could only smile and nod. It was a fantastic moment.

artist-home-cuba-jaimanitasOur new friends Nelson and Marianella

This was our experience with Cuba. We didn’t seek these conversations out. We were advised not to engage in political discussions with the locals and frankly, I couldn’t give a shit about politics anymore. I wanted to see Cuba. I didn’t want to discuss how they felt about Americans coming to Cuba. I just wanted to immerse myself and be an observer. It was impossible to be invisible. The people draw you in.

The rest of the world has been visiting and enjoying this country for years. Cuba doesn’t need saving. They aren’t clamoring for the American hand of prosperity to drop dollars from the sky. What they need is an infrastructure that doesn’t collapse on their heads when a hurricane hits them. They need drinking water. They need their streets paved, and if you asked them, they’d tell you they could do it themselves.

I’m torn about Cuba. I know its people don’t have it easy, and I don’t understand the communist economy structure well enough to have a position on how it all might change for them. I do know that the day Starbucks and McDonald’s enter the picture, the Cuban people will be less healthy and probably less happy.

Their reefs, mountains, and inland areas have been unmolested. They have some of the last remaining species of birds and wildlife on the planet. I hope they value that and keep a tight grasp on mining rights and resort construction along their shores.

I’m not sure what this administration will do. Personally, I think Trump is the most dangerous man on the planet. If he decides to retract what Obama put in place, I’m not sure it will change too much for the Cuban people. For me, I would still go to Cuba with my middle finger raised as high as humanly possible so as to be visible from the Kremlin West (our White House).

I’m not a political writer. This is a travel blog. A sailing blog, and some of you get quite perturbed when I even tip a toe in the political theater. But, it’s impossible to talk about Cuba and not talk about the politics of Cuba. The politics of America’s relationship to Cuba.

Please don’t take this as an opportunity to post your political diatribes or tirades in the comments. I’ll delete them. I’m simply stating my opinions and my hope that the USA keeps the relations with Cuba moving forward and not backwards.

What I hope you take away from this post is what I hope you take away from every single post I ever write. Inspiration. If you’ve been dreaming about something, do it. Life is short. People get sick. And, whether you’re married to a supermodel or you have a trust fund of epic proportions, you never know when either one will run out.

If you’re thinking of Cuba, I would say book your flight. Stay one night in the fabulous historic Hotel National and take in Havana. Then, get the hell out and go stay in a Casa Particular — Cuban style. They’re about 25 bucks a night! You can’t beat that.

Engage. Try speaking your crappy Spanish. It’s okay. Mess it up. But make the effort.

If you go to all the Hemingway sites, be prepared to stand next to a hundred of your closest friends who also want an overpriced mojito at the Floridita. Go anyway. Drink the good rum. Buy a Cuban cigar and smoke the shit out of it. I’m not a big fan, but do it anyway. After all, you gotta go to know!

Much love, people.

Wanna read our other posts on sailing to Cuba? Click here!

Sailing to Cuba in 2017

Sailing to Cuba in 2017

Thinking about sailing to Cuba in 2017? You’re not alone. It’s the hot topic right now. If you speak to ten sailors in south Florida, nine of them want to sail to Cuba. For the longest time I was one of them.

Many, many people we’ve met feel the same sense of attraction to this island. For so many years it’s been open to everyone except the Americans. For decades, Canadians, Europeans, Australians, Japanese and others have been able to visit — but not us. In Jaunary 2016, President Obama removed the final hurdle for Americans like me to sail their personal vessel to Cuba. That did it. That became our goal.

When we were in the Tortugas this past February, Melody and I said about a dozen times, “I can’t believe we’re here.” The years of doing the east coast, the ICW and then landing in St. Pete were great, but if I’m honest, it seemed like we were a bit snake bit. The dream of sailing to the islands, any islands, seemed to be slipping. Our cruising kitty kept getting hammered. Each year we’d fall a bit short of our goal to shove off.

Not this year. Come hell or high water we were leaving whether we had five hundred bucks or five grand. We were going as far as the money would allow.

In thinking about this blog post, I was dismayed about how I’d get it all in. How does one cover the specific “nuts and bolts” that everyone wants to know and do it in an artsy kind of way that doesn’t read like a to-do list. I couldn’t.

So, I’m breaking up the Cuba posts into a few different chunks. This one is going to be the breakdown post. The Reader’s Digest post for lack of a better description. If you wanna know about the check in process, the cost, the channel into Hemingway and the docks, this is the post that will have it. We’ll tell you everything we learned in our 12 days at Hemingway Marina. The last four days of our sixteen were spent sailing and anchoring along the north coast to Cabo San Antonio. That will be covered in a later post.

Let’s get to it!

The Coast Guard 3300 Form: Getting Permission to Sail to Cuba

Go to a hundred different forums and on every one, someone somewhere will ask, “Do I need the Coast Guard 3300 form?”

Let me put it this way. Do you need insurance? If you have it and never use it, then maybe your insurance might seem like a waste. If you do use it, then it was a godsend.

Think of the Coast Guard form like this — if they stop you crossing the Florida Straights and you don’t have it, you’re screwed. Or, you’re inconvenienced, hassled, and quite possibly turned back. For what it took to get it, I would say do it.

It was simple. Google “Coast Guard Form 3300” and the first thing that comes up is the link to the form. Better yet, here’s a link for it right here. Print it out. Fill it out and fax it in — they provide the number right on the bottom of the form. The USCG will email you back with any questions they have. They asked me to provide an itinerary and under which of the 12 categories of permissions I was traveling. As a musician and writer, I filled in People to People.

Yes, there are some questions that might not be easy to answer at first, like “At which Lat and Long will you enter Cuban waters?” I googled that, too and found a position approximate of where the Cuban waters begin about 12 miles from their coast. Just fill it in. It’s not a test and they’re not going to chastise you if you aren’t exact. Some guy or gal just needs to see the boxes filled in. The actual permit is the application you filled out. It’s just returned with a signature.

Do You Need a License from the Treasury Department to Sail to Cuba?

The simple answer is that you do not need a license from the Treasury Department if you plan to keep your boat in Cuba for 14 days or less.

Under the current rules (although who knows what Trumpet will do), if you’re on a recreational vessel and staying in Cuban waters for 14 days or less, you can use license exception AVS (Aircraft, Vessels, and Spacecraft), which means you are considered a vessel on temporary sojourn. You can read the press release by the Treasury Department regarding vessels on temporary sojourn and the license exception here under the section titled “Travel.”

On the form 3300 there is a place to enter your OFAC license number and the Commerce Export license number. In those spaces, I entered “AVS” to indicate that I had a license exception and had no problems or questions from the Coast Guard.

Now, this stuff seems to be changing weekly, so do your own homework. I’m a believer in having more than is required. I made a copy of the press release that explains the AVS license exception and I highlighted the particular information relevant to us and stapled it to my 3300.

Charts and Cruising Guides for Sailing to Cuba

Here’s what we either already had or bought to aid us in our sail to Cuba:

The Garmin chartplotter was basically useless for this trip. The Garmin charts in Cuba are vague at best. There are large blocks of dark blues and red lines denoting reefs, but no good detail. The channel and sea buoy for Hemingway are accurate if that’s all you need.

Our iPad is loaded with Navionics, Garmin Bluechart for the Western Caribbean, and NV Charts for the Northwest Cuban Coast (Chart 10.2).  I found the NV chart book and electronic charts to be invaluable. They’re loaded with great information and detail, and we liked the usability.

The best tool we used to navigate Cuba fell in our hands by accident. Mr. Addison Chan, coauthor of the newest Waterway Guide to Cuba, happened to be docked on the sea wall at Marina Hemingway a few boats away from us. He and his lovely wife Pat joined us for some rum aboard V one night. When he found out we were headed to Isla Mujeres, he asked, “Will you deliver something for me when you get there?” I said, “Sure.”

It was the latest edition of the cruising guide he’d just finished writing with the help of Nigel Calder and a few other seasoned cruising veterans. He told us to use it if we needed it en route and I’ll tell you this, it’s the best damn book on Cuba out there!

We used his waypoints entering the tricky path through the shallows to Cayo Levisa and it was spot on. If you get the Waterway Guide and the NV Charts, you can do Cuba without a problem. Addison made it easy.

Order the latest Waterway Guide to Cuba on Amazon!

The Crossing to Cuba

If you’re a sailor, you know about the gulfstream. If you don’t… you will soon, and God help you if you get it wrong. We decided to cross from the Tortugas for two reasons. The first, and the most obvious, we wanted to visit the park. One never knows if and when one will get another opportunity to experience this lifestyle so we figured we’d do it while we could.

Number two, the crossing into Hemingway is a more direct route than it is from Key West. A crossing from Key West on a rhumb line of 203 degrees is approximately 100 nautical miles. That course has you beating a bit more into the stream than a departure from the Dry Tortugas. Our course was 166 T at a distance of 94 NM. To counter the effects of the stream, we steered a course of 175 T.

Before we left the Tortugas, the wind had been a steady 15-18 knots from the WNW for about 24 hours. It was slated to abate to 10-15 knots from the WNW for our crossing. We knew the seas would be up a bit but decided to go for it. The weather windows in February are small and close quickly, and we didn’t want to get stuck running out of water in the Tortugas.

Sailing from Florida to Cuba

For the most part, the crossing was uneventful although with big quartering seas, our auto helm had difficulty handling the course so we hand-steered for most of the night. Thinking the forecast would actually be correct, and the winds were going to die down a bit, we left around 9am. When the wind stayed in the high teens all night, we were forced to slow the boat so as not to arrive in the dark. A reefed main and rolled in jib does little to help the motion in those seas. Looking back, we should have left around noon and not at 9am.

Needless to say, we arrived at the sea buoy around 8:30am. The effects of the stream were not evident until we got to within 20-30 miles of the Cuban coast. At one point my heading on the GPS read 154 T. That will wake you up if your getting the least bit groggy on a watch. Not to mention the tanker traffic as you get close. It wasn’t too bad but we did have to jibe to miss two of them.

The Channel into Marina Hemingway

Sailing to Cuba - channel into Marina Hemingway

The first thing you’ll aim for is the red and white sea buoy that stands about a quarter mile outside the channel at a position approximate 23 05.4’N 82 30.6’W. This buoy is not easily seen and it’s closer to the reefs than it is to the channel. Don’t dick around here for too long. The ocean goes from thousands of feet deep to forty feet deep in a very short amount of time. When you get a visual on the sea buoy, you can try to hail the marina on 16. If they don’t answer, try 77. We tried for about fifteen minutes and finally raised the marina on channel 77.

Side note: I was told, and read in many places when researching our trip, to call the marina when you’re twelve miles out and request permission to enter Cuban waters. Good luck with this. They will not answer. For the most part, the radios in the marina are handheld versions. They won’t reach. I tried calling and got no response. When the St. Pete Regatta was coming in while we were there, we listened to several boats hail the marina, requesting permission to enter Cuban waters. Nobody received a response.

When the dockmaster answered our call, he was very helpful and spoke good English. He asked the name of our vessel, our last port, how many were on board, and whether it was our first time into Hemingway. When I said it was, he directed me to leave the sea buoy to starboard and follow a course of 140 T through the markers to G9, at which point I would turn to port and find the blue customs building immediately to my left.

This was all well and good except we were doing what everyone tells you not to do, entering with a boisterous NW wind and swell. Breaking waves will push you across the channel entrance, just as all the forums say they will. On either side of the channel, you’ll see breakers crashing and white water splashing 15 feet into the air.

We surfed in without incident although I did find the 140 bearing to be a little close to the reef. I may have not been on the correct angle when I picked up that heading. Needless to say, our CAL did a beautiful job of helping out on that one.

Check In & Clearing Customs

Clearing into Cuba was easy, fairly fast, and pretty painless. Docking at the customs/immigration building is straightforward, but do use ample fenders and keep them high.

We complicated our check-in a bit by traveling with a dog. Jet did great on the passage across, but needed to pee and poop as soon as we hit the dock. It’s difficult to explain to a dog that he can’t just jump off the boat and “do his thing.”

The custom officials took our lines and were pleasant, fun and amazed we had a dog that big on board. Once we swore up and down that he didn’t bite, the doctor took off his shoes and boarded first.

After a few mundane questions, a glance over all our boat documentation, passports, and Jet’s International Health Certificate, he took our temperatures and passed us on to the two young guarda frontera gentlemen. Those two guys were more amused by our boat name than they were in giving us any grief about our check-in. Apparently “Vacilando” has its own risqué meaning in Cuba. I had no idea.

We filled out the customs forms and headed into the nice, air-conditioned office where they took our photo and stamped our passport. We had to ask them to stamp it in lieu of the paper visa that they give most Americans, and they seemed somewhat surprised, but happily obliged.

Cuba passport stamp after sailing into Marina Hemingway

With all the formalities over with, they let me take Jet ashore to some grass where he took his first international poop. Ever the ambassador.

Finally, one more officer boarded with a cocker spaniel to search for… explosives? That’s what they said. After a lackluster effort, he tossed the poor dog haphazardly into the cockpit and left without so much as a “piss off.” He was the only one I did not particularly like. I hope he treats his wife or girlfriend better than that dog.

Anyway… I only mention all of this because we went to a seminar about traveling to Cuba where they said the Cubans no longer search with dogs. Um… wrong. If you have a pet on board, and he/she doesn’t play well with others, (see: Jet) make sure you have a plan.

Also… don’t bring drugs or pornography to Cuba. If you get caught with pot or other drugs, apparently it’s an automatic 25 years in Cuban jail. Not worth it.

Finally, we got our slip assignment, and upon moving to our slip in Canal 1, the northernmost canal, we were boarded by two more officials, the agriculture guys. They didn’t steal our apples, onions, or our garlic. They did look in the fridge, but didn’t take anything. Ironically, they were more concerned with the ingredients in Jet’s dog food than with any of the fresh produce we had on board. Not kidding.

They were pleasant, and the only officials who openly asked us for a tip. We were over-generous, handing them $5 because we hadn’t changed any money yet. Don’t do like we did. Politely decline or hand them a coke or a cold beer.

Once the agriculture gents left, we had to visit the dockmaster and get all the fees sussed out. Here’s a breakdown of the check-in costs (which you actually don’t pay until you check out):

  • Visa – $75.00 each
  • Cruising/Boat Permit – $55.00

The marina is $0.70 per foot/per day for a vessel up to 45 feet. For us, that came out to $24.50 per day. It’s $1.00 per foot from 45 feet to 74 feet, and it goes up from there.

Water is .06 per gallon and yes, we filled our tanks with it, using it to shower and wash dishes, and drank it after filtering it through our Berkey. It was fine.

The power pedestals are new and power is billed at $0.35 per KW. We didn’t need to plug in. Our solar kept us at 100% the entire time.

We spent 12 days in the marina, some of them waiting for a weather window. When we checked out, our final bill came to $510.16.

Make sure to write down what the power meter and water meters read as soon as you land. When a front was threatening, we asked to move to another dock. The dockmaster who moved us was not the same as the one who checked us in or out. Once we moved, another, larger boat took our old space. Upon check out, they tried to charge us for a couple hundred gallons of water that the larger boat had used. They hadn’t made note of us moving and read the wrong meter. Thankfully Melody had written down all of our meter readings. She’s a boss.

Money Exchange & Currency

Cuba has two different currencies: the CUC (pronounced kook), which stands for Cuban Convertible peso, and the Peso. The CUC is the currency that is designated for tourists. 1 CUC = 1 USD. The peso is designated for use by the locals. 1 CUC = 24 Pesos.

When exchanging, the US dollar is penalized 10% and then charged another 3% conversion fee. So, for every 100 dollars you exchange, you’ll get 87 CUC back. Some people try to outsmart the system and change to Euros or Canadian dollars (CAD) before leaving the states to skip the exchange penalty. Right now, the Euro is an attractive conversion, but you’ll actually lose money if you change to CAD first because for every 100 CAD you exchange in Cuba, you’ll only get 73 CUC back (at the time of this writing).

Changing money is easily done in the hotel on the south side of Canal 2. They’ll match the bank rates and save you the wait in line. Some locals will tell you they can give you a better rate, but be wary. One of the dockmasters who shall remain nameless offered to change money for us. We took him up on this since we had just arrived and didn’t feel like hitting the bank (and didn’t yet know about the hotel’s ability to exchange). He exchanged at the same rate the bank and hotel would have given us. Had I known better, I would have negotiated a better rate since he isn’t penalized when converting US dollars and therefore was pocketing that 13%.

One of our friends (who speaks fluent Spanish) was in line at a  bank waiting to exchange money when one of the guards said he’d do it for 91 CUC to 100 USD. A bold move tto make right in the bank, but he did it. I would not advise this.

Since there are two different currencies, when asking for the price of something, you’ll want to confirm whether the price is in CUCs or Pesos. We found that the touristy places typically gave prices in CUCs. The small, local places usually charged in Pesos.

When you stay away from the tourist areas like Havana, you’ll get Pesos back as change which is good, because you can get things much cheaper with Pesos if you seek out the local joints (i.e. breakfast for 10 Pesos, or roughly 42 cents!).

Many local places accepted CUCs (at the 24:1 exchange rate), but only if you had CUCs in small denominations (1s and 5s). For example, if you tried to pay for a meal that was 10 Pesos with a $20 CUC bill, they would have to give you 470 Pesos in change, and most didn’t have that kind of money on hand, so keep that in mind and try to keep small bills on hand for such occasions.

Some people warned us ahead of time that we might get ripped off, and that some locals would take advantage of unsuspecting tourists by short-changing them, or giving the change in the wrong currency, but we were never short-changed once. If we paid in CUCs and got Pesos as change, it always came out right.

It seems really confusing at first, but you get the hang of it after a day or two. Just be sure to keep your CUCs and Pesos separate.

Side note: At the time of our visit, there were no ATMs or banks where you could use your US-based card to access cash, so be sure to bring enough cash to sustain you for your intended time, and extra in case you get stuck for longer due to weather.

Clearing Out of Cuba

Whether you are clearing out of Cuba at Marina Hemingway or another port, the process is pretty straightforward, although different from some other countries.

If you’re cleared in at Marina Hemingway, and you’re headed right back to the states, the check-out process is simple. You’ll just visit the dockmaster, at which point he will give you your bill (which includes your marina fees as well as your visa(s) and cruising permit charges).  From there, you just walk to the other side of the lobby to the secretary/treasurer and pay her. She’ll give you a receipt, and you’ll be on your way.

Side note: The dockmaster will automatically add a 10% propina (tip) to your total bill. This gets supposedly split among marina staff. It is not required and you can request that this be removed — the dockmaster will give you no problems. We simply stated that we had been tipping the staff throughout our stay accordingly, and wished that it be removed. Especially since the bill included our visas and cruising permit costs. Sorry… not going to tip on those charges. By the way, standard tip at restaurants, etc. is 10%. Most Americans tend to overtip, but we found the standard to be well-received.

If you are continuing on through other parts of Cuba (like we were), the process is a little different. When you visit the dockmaster, you’ll need to give him your proposed itinerary for the duration of your time in Cuban waters. Be sure to list every possible anchorage you may be staying at.

Your itinerary doesn’t have to be exact, but it’s important to be as thorough as possible. Along the way, depending on where you anchor, you may have to “check in” at certain ports (such as Cayo Levisa) which is nothing more than simply showing the guarda your paperwork and passport. There is no money exchanged, but if you stop somewhere that’s not listed on your itinerary and the guarda frontera stop you, it could raise some eyebrows.

Once we got to Cabo San Antonio where we cleared out of the country for good, the port captain was super friendly and made it very easy. He looked over our paperwork, made a phone call to Marina Hemingway to confirm that we had paid all of our necessary bills, and cleared us out.

Marina Hemingway: Useful Knowledge

Google earth aerial photo of Marina Hemingway

Canal Preferences

You’ll hear stories about the dreaded Canal 1. “It’s horrible! The ocean will break right into your cockpit!” Not so. Canal 1 is quite lovely until a norther blows through. Since they only use the south wall of Canal 1, a strong norther will be pushing you onto the wall. And let me tell you, it’s a very hard wall. A nasty, jagged, scuffed up wall. That said, Canal 1 is closest to the bathrooms and showers (which are located in a building called the SnackBar).

We only requested a move from Canal 1 to the north side of Canal 2 because the front was going to be particularly nasty from the NE and it was going to last five days. Our freeboard is not so high that when low tide occurred we might have slipped under the lip of the wall. No amount of fenders would have helped.

The canals are long. Try for Canal 1 away from the tiki bar or the north side of Canal 2 for closest proximity to the bathrooms and showers. If you end up on the south side of canal 2, you’ll be on the same side as the hotel. Good for changing money but it’s a bit busy there and the walk to the dockmaster and showers is about half a mile. Canal 3 and 4? No mans land.

Wi-fi & Cell Service

This is gonna be short — don’t count on it. The hotel on site sells ETECSA wifi cards for $1.50 CUC. This is the cheapest we found. Each is good for an hour but if it works, it’s slow at best. Doesn’t really matter how close to the antenna you are. We have a booster and it didn’t make a difference. Some days it was great. Some days it didn’t work at all.

We have T-Mobile and although we did have cell service (very limited), calls were $5.00/minute while in Cuba (so we only made one very short phone call to let my mom know we arrived). We were able to send and receive texts under our unlimited plan at no charge but I’m not sure about other cell providers and what they offer.

Checking email in Marina Hemingway, Cuba

Taxis & Transportation

Cuba is a funny place. It’s not unlike any other big city. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you might get hustled. If you are a gringo standing outside Marina Hemingway and one of those cool 1953 Chevys stops and you say, “I wanna go to Havana!” They’re gonna charge you 20 CUC. Mel and I did okay. We never paid more than 15 CUC and our best was 13. At least know your Spanish numbers, it’ll help with change as well.

You can get a “local taxi” in a more run-down car for cheaper, often squeezed in among a few strangers. They only operate within “zones” so to get to Havana, you might have to take 2 or 3 different taxis. Our Columbian friend Victor can get a ride halfway to Havana on a local taxi for 50 Pesos, or about 2 CUC.

There are several local buses, but we never rode them. Honestly, after two trips to Havana, we wanted to stay away from the big touristy stuff. We did a lot of walking. If you don’t like to walk, your trip to Cuba will be expensive.

The hotel in the marina offers a shuttle bus but it seemed pretty pricey for where it dropped you off. Cabs regularly circle the marina so you’ll have no trouble getting a ride.

Old Chevy in Havana Cuba

Poop & Toilet Paper

Yes, it’s its own category. Bring your own TP with you. Everywhere you go. Havana, Jaimanitas, bars, restaurants… doesn’t matter. You won’t find toilet paper. The marina does a great job with what it has but I will be upfront about this. Most mornings, the water is off. You’ll walk into the bathroom having to “go” and the toilets will be full. Yes… with poop.

After searching the six or seven stalls, you’ll be confronted with the frightening reality. There is nowhere to poop unless you poop on top of other poop. Sadly, that’s the case. If you know how to remove the lid off the tank and flush the toilet by pulling the chain, you can sometimes get one last “flush” out of the toilet even when the water’s off, but don’t count on it.

Some mornings your anxiety will be unfounded as you’ll get there and find an unmolested toilet bowl. That is a good morning.

Your quads will get an awesome workout while in Cuba as well, because rarely will you find a toilet seat. They’ve been stolen or the establishment has removed them to keep people from pooping and then clogging the toilets with paper. Never throw your paper in the toilet. Toss it in the waste basket next to the toilet. The plumbing can’t handle it. Sorry… that’s the downside.

We met some of the regatta people from St. Pete Yacht Club who were simply stunned and completely mortified at this reality. They promptly left. Their precious posteriors just wouldn’t be subjected to such inhumanity. Not gonna lie, some of the women’s faces were priceless. Cheap entertainment at its best.


Marina Hemingway offers a laundry service inside the Snack Bar building on the western end of Canal 1. It’s a drop-off service, and somewhere along the lines of 5 CUC per load (wash and dry), although I can’t recall exactly, as we didn’t use the laundry service there.


Lastly but certainly not least is the weather. The entrance to Hemingway faces NNW. If it’s been blowing from that direction, don’t attempt the entrance. If it’s blowing hard from the east, you might also want to think twice. The break will be across the channel and it’s a bit intimidating, not to mention dangerous.

If you plan to visit Cuba in January and February, the weather will be the challenge. You may get stuck at Hemingway for longer than planned, or you might be lucky and get in and out without a hitch.

In February, the days were warm and sunny, and the nights actually required us to pull down the fleece blankets. We couldn’t have asked for better temperatures. The only hitch in our giddy-up was the front that kept us pinned in for an unplanned five extra days.

When we look back, we are glad we got stuck. We got to know Victor and Cathy aboard s/v Kisma, Jeffrey the Dutchman aboard s/v Running Free and Alex Peacock, captain of the tallship Lynx as well as so many others. We wouldn’t have changed a thing.

I know this was long-winded, but there is so much to talk about and more to come. If I missed something you wish I had addressed about sailing to Cuba, ask a question in the comments because someone else may have the same question, and we’ll answer it there.

Thanks for following along. We’re trying to update as much as possible. Internet access is sparse so thanks for your patience.

As always, stay in touch. Let us know where you are.

Much love,
Vacilando Crew

The Dry Turtles!

Melody and I have been wanting to visit the Dry Tortugas for years. This year, after getting our bottom job done and putting the unexpected jib expense behind us, we headed out Gordon Pass inlet. With Naples behind us and a light but steady northeast breeze, we pointed V toward the Tortugas.

We had a wonderful overnight sail, complete with plenty of dolphin sightings (which always excite Jet). When we passed into the northwest channel and Fort Jefferson grew on the horizon, any fatigue we had fell away. The water turned a bright Caribbean blue, and we were excited to finally see a new place we’d been wanting to go to for so long.

Tortuga is the Spanish word for turtle or tortoise. The Dry Tortugas is a national park 70 miles west of Key West. Seven small islands and some reefs make up the park. Yes, it takes a bit of effort to get there, but let me tell you – it’s worth it.

Garden Key is where Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry fort in the U.S. still stands. Built between 1846 and 1875, it was never actually finished. Settling issues cracked the fresh water cisterns and allowed them to be contaminated with salt water. Fort Jefferson was never fired upon, nor did it ever fire a shot.

There’s a great anchorage just off the fort but it can be tricky because:

  1. The anchorage can get pretty crowded
  2. It’s pretty deep (20-30 feet in some places), so you have to put out a lot of scope which can be hard to do in a crowded anchorage
  3. There is grass on the bottom in some spots which doesn’t make for good holding so you want to find the spots with sand

Once into the lee of the fort, we searched for a bit of water less than 30-feet to drop the hook and found a sweet little sandy spot in about 16 feet and watched our Mantus quickly sink through the clear blue water. Ahhh, now we can relax.

If you’ve been reading along for awhile, you know that we’ve battled with our dog Jet when it comes to trying to get him to use the bathroom on deck. He’s only peed on deck a handful of times over the past five years. We knew he really needed to go, since his last bathroom break had been about 24 hours prior and since we will be doing several overnight trips with him this year, we wanted to use the opportunity at anchor, with the boat not moving, to try to get him to pee on deck, hoping that it would “click” for him and future attempts would be more successful. The plan was to get him to pee, then launch the dinghy and take him for a proper walk and bathroom break shoreside.

Success! As he peed, we praised him and ran to get treats. Good boy! We did a quick rinse with the bucket, now let’s launch the dinghy. Oh, wait… he’s not done. Now he’s pooping on deck. Problem is, Jet’s not a “standing pooper” but instead a “walking pooper” and at that moment, he was walking – and pooping – all over the deck. Bow, side decks, cabin top, you name it, it got pooped on. “Ummm… good boy!” we said, mouths agape as we realized how much shit we now had to clean up. So much for relaxing. Watch what you wish for, I suppose!

The next morning, we went ashore to tour Fort Jefferson. The fort is busier than we expected, but I’d still recommend going. The ferry from Key West docks in the morning and unloads about a hundred eager passengers. Many snorkel on the beach to the southwest of the fort, some tour the fort itself, and others set up tents and camp overnight, something I had no idea you could do! The passengers (minus the few campers) leave on the afternoon ferry trip back and that’s when it gets nice and quiet again.

Fort Jefferson National Park in the Dry Tortugas

There are also a couple of sea planes that make a couple trips from Key West each day. I think we were a bit close to their take-off and landing strip but we had a great spot and there was no way I was pulling up the anchor. (If you haven’t already, watch our video at the top of this post to see just how close they get!)

One thing you might hear from others who have visited the Tortugas is that there are no bathroom facilities and you have to take all trash with you off the island and back to your boat, and that’s true to some extent. However, we found that if your trash was minimal and you asked one of the deckhands on the ferry, they’d usually be happy to let you throw it away in the trash cans that they carry back with them.

The restrooms on the ferry are also open to everyone while the boat is on the dock. Use it – they don’t mind as long as you’re courteous. You can even use the outdoor showers on the ferry designated for the snorkelers to wash the saltwater off. There are also outhouses on the beach at Fort Jefferson and while not glamorous, in a pinch… well, any place is better than no place. As far as the fort, it’s pretty awesome to explore and see it all.

Garden Key, Dry Tortugas anchorage

The mout that surrounds Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas

Inside the fort at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas

For me, the Tortugas always represented the place where I could see the legendary goliath grouper. These fish are rumored to reach 800 pounds and I have always been fascinated with seeing one in the flesh.

Not to disappoint, on our first morning in the anchorage, I just happened to peek over the side and nearly crapped my pants. One of the big boys was directly under our boat.  I think he was hoping for a Dutch Shepherd snack. Scampering for the GoPro, I did my best to get some footage. It was incredible. These guys are huge and he/she isn’t even the big one!

Goliath Grouper in the Dry Tortugas

On our second morning, after we brought Jet ashore for his morning constitution, we headed back to the boat when I spied a Cabo Rico anchored close to the beach. I jokingly said to Mel, “Honey, that’s a Cabo 34. How funny would it be if it was Joe and Maribeth?” Joe and Maribeth are friends of ours from our yacht club in Nashville who’ve been cruising the western Caribbean for the last year, and we’ve been following their travels since they were doing the same trip we are now doing. The last we had heard from them was probably a month before when they were Isla Mujeres, Mexico and preparing to head back to the states, so we knew the chances were slim that it was them.

I altered course and as our dinghy got closer, Melody noticed the Harbor Island Yacht Club burgee off their port shroud and we began to smile that special smile you get when you know the universe is conspiring in your favor. La Peregrina was indeed swinging on her hook a mere 300 yards from Vacilando.

We pulled up to their boat and knocked, and let’s just say that they were completely shocked to see that it was us. After a cold Modelo (Thanks Joe!), we headed back to our boat to drop off Jet, then came back over to visit more with our friends.

They were a wealth of information for our upcoming trip. The following morning we toured the fort again with them, and that afternoon we watched with tears in our eyes as La Peregrina headed north for Fort Meyers. They were headed home after an amazing year “of living dangerously” as they put it. Our paths will cross again, of this I’m certain.

There is no wifi, so we couldn’t get weather reports on our phones. We couldn’t even pick up Key West on our VHF for weather and that’s weird because we can usually pick up within 100 miles. Other boats in the anchorage had difficulty getting NOAA weather on their VHF as well. We don’t have an SSB radio on board, so the only weather we could get was via our Delorme InReach. Each morning, the park rangers posted an updated seven day forecast which was a great help in corroborating what we found via our forecasts.

For the most part, the anchorage is exposed to everything except the north and northwest. It can be crowded and sometimes you can’t put out the full scope one should have out to be prepared for a blow. When the big blow came through on our second night, it took everyone in the anchorage by surprise. 40 knots of wind and rain that swings the boat around at 2 am will put the fear of God in you. If it doesn’t, you’re a fool.

I watched a Catamaran drag off into the darkness, and not a person stirred on deck. I had my engine running and my nav lights on along with one other boat. Where I was planning on motoring, I have no idea. It’s all reef. All told, our Mantus drug about ten feet when the wind veered from the ENE where previously it had been all day from the south. I guess she popped out and then promptly dug back in. Oh, how that warms my heart.

Dry Tortugas National Park is an amazing place that should be seen and appreciated. We love that it’s in its natural state. There are no signs warning of heights and dangerous areas. No railings or glaring yellow and black stripes alluding to danger. It’s unmolested and it should stay that way.

We’ll go back at some point, that’s for sure. We missed the loggerhead turtles and the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key. We also didn’t dive the wreck that’s close by but we did enjoy the fort and the people who take care of it. The park rangers are great. Very informative and a joy to speak with.

Anyway, the Tortugas were a fantastic way to decompress and wait for the right weather window to cross the stream into Cuba. We spent three glorious days drinking coffee, reading, snorkeling, and watching the world go by. Then on the fourth day, the winds were in our favor and it was time to go. Havana here we come!