April 2009

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Scenes from Viñales: Part 1

We had coffee at a little outdoor café in Palma Rubia, waiting for our taxis to arrive. Every so often one or the other of us would stand in the middle of the dirt road, looking up the valley to see if anyone was approaching. When the three taxis finally did arrive, it was with great flair. They came roaring down the red dirt road, dust flying everywhere, and came to a screeching halt in front of the café. What an entrance. It was as if John Wayne and the cavalry had just arrived to escort us through Indian territory.

While we’d been waiting, a Cuban guy in his mid-20s had been ingratiating himself to us, giving us “insider” tips on which restaurants to go to in Viñales and such. Once the taxis arrived, he offered to give us a tour of what he said was his family’s tobacco farm in exchange for a lift into Viñales.


Scenes from Vinales. Photos by David Lansing.

Scenes from Vinales. Photos by David Lansing.



This was a bit trickier than it sounds because Cubans can get fined for traveling with tourists. Our taxi drivers didn’t want anything to do with this arrangement. But we convinced them that the Cuban was our official “guide” and reluctantly they agreed to let him come with us.

Once we got to Viñales, we instructed the three drivers to wait for us near the main square, the Parque Martí, while we followed our new Cuban friend out into the countryside. None of us had the faintest idea where we were going (or for how long we were going to have to walk). It didn’t matter. It was pleasant passing by the panaderia (which had maybe a dozen hard rolls, at most, for sale) and saying hello to the the women carrying sun umbrellas as they brought their children home from school for comida.

Eventually we made it out into the tobacco fields where the bright green plants, no more than two-feet high, were growing in long rows. In the middle of the field was the storehouse, called the casa del tabaco, where the harvested leaves, tied in bunches, and hung on poles all the way up to the rafters. Our Cuban friend told us that when the tobacco leaves dried they would be sprayed with a mixture of honey and water or cocoa and water as part of the hydrating process so the tobacco wouldn’t become brittle.

I don’t know. I’d never heard this before. Spraying tobacco leaves with honey? At this point we were all beginning to wonder if this was truly our friend’s family tobacco farm or if he’d just escorted us out into the country and taken us to the first casa del tabaco he’d come across. Maybe he didn’t know a damn thing about growing tobacco and was just making it up as he went along. It was hard to tell.  

Hardy, in a very diplomatic way, told the guy we appreciated the tour but now we were all hungry and wanted to get back to Viñales for lunch. Which is when the pitch came. Our friend would be happy to sell us some excellent cigars, the type you cannot get on the market he told us, if we would just follow him to his grandfather’s house.

“So this is what Cuban communism has come down to,” Hardy said as we ambled back towards the town square. “Everyone trying to hustle cigars.”

I think our Cuban friend figured out that we weren’t going to buy any of his grandfather’s cigars. By the time we made it back to the Parque Martí, he’d disappeared. Probably just as well. Now we needed to figure out where to have lunch.  

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The plan was to get an early start and take Unplugged’s tender to Cayo Levisa, a tiny island in the Los Colorados archipelago on the northwest end of Cuba, and catch the morning ferry to Palma Rubia where we’d hire taxis to take us up to the famed Valle de Viñales where they grow most of the tobacco for Cuban cigars in dusty red earth.

We’d done our due diligence the afternoon before. We knew the ferry schedule, knew how much it would cost, knew how to go about getting several taxis for the half-hour drive to Viñales, the old Colonial town in the middle of Pinar del Río. The only thing we didn’t know about was Eliaz.


The boys confer with Eliaz on the Cayo Levisa dock. Photos by David Lansing.

The boys confer with Eliaz on the Cayo Levisa dock. Photos by David Lansing.



Eliaz was the baby-faced Cuban immigration officer who met us on the dock at Cayo Levisa and promptly let us know that it would not be possible to take the ferry to Palma Rubia.

Por qué?”

Because we did not have permission to take the ferry.

Yes, but we had permission to sail to Cayo Levisa and we have permission to visit Viñales.

Perhaps. But we did not have permission to take the ferry to Palma Rubia and if you do not have permission to take the ferry, then you cannot go to Viñales. Simple as that.

If this were Mexico, we would have slipped Eliaz $20 or $40 and been done with it. But it is a tricky thing to offer a mordida in Cuba. Particularly to a young man wearing a loose-fitting green army uniform who looks like he has never shaved.

This is when it is good to have a lawyer on board. Which we did. Ian. The only problem was that Ian was British and spoke little Spanish beyond “Otra cerveza, por favor.”  Still, Ian and the boys, with Fletch translating, gave it their best shot. Perhaps if our captain came ashore, they suggested, and brought the proper paperwork?

Eliaz shrugged. “You have permission to go on land from Cayo Levisa?” he asked.

Claro,” Fletcher lied.

So Hardy radioed Craig and the Unplugged’s captain returned with several pieces of official documents as well as Malin and the girls. The documents were useless. But Malin, who is Swedish by birth and, like most Scandinavians, seems to speak about a dozen languages, proved invaluable. She smiled. She flirted. And she spoke wonderful Spanish.


Our Swedish bombshell, Malin, center, "negotiates" with Eliaz.

Our Swedish bombshell, Malin, center, "negotiates" with Eliaz.



Soon Malin the Magnificent, Ian the Barrister, and Captain Craig were following the little Cuban bureaucrat, Eliaz, down the dock to an office inside the Cayo Levisa resort where calls were made to the Cuban authorities at Marina Hemingway.

While this was going on, the rest of us hung out along the white sandy beaches, which wasn’t the worst place to be, waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen. Every ten or fifteen minutes, Malin or Ian would come out of the office and give us an update. A call had been made. Papers were being searched. The proper people were being contacted.


Malin on the white sand beach of Cayo Levisa.

Malin on the white sand beach of Cayo Levisa.



 Meanwhile, the morning ferry had come and gone.

After an hour or so, news came from Havana: With a small payment made, we could go to Viñales. More negotiations proceeded as we hired a fishing boat to take us over to Palma Rubia. Half an hour later, we were crossing the channel. Someone on the fishing boat even offered to make us mid-morning mojitos. Lovely. We accepted. Now we just have to hope that there will actually be taxis in Palma Rubia to take us up to Viñales.


Our British solicitor, Ian, enjoys a mid-morning mojito.

Our British solicitor, Ian, enjoys a mid-morning mojito.



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We’d been out diving near the island of Cayo Levisa, about a hundred miles west of Havana, looking for lobster. Fletch came across a juvenile or two but wasn’t able to pull them out of the rocks. So we were in the tender on our way back to Unplugged when we came across an old battered fishing boat, its hull rusty and peeling paint, called Tres Amigos.

It’s dicey to make contact with a Cuban boat at sea. The authorities at Marina Hemingway and Cayo Levisa had warned us not to let any boats approach us and to avoid making contact with fishermen. We couldn’t quite figure out if they were worried the fishermen would seize Unplugged and make us sail them to Miami or thought we might contaminate the Cubans with our tales of capitalism.

Anyway, we decided we’d slowly approach Tres Amigos and if they didn’t use a speargun to take a shot over our bow, ask them if they had any lobsters to sell us.


Cuban fishermen offer us their catch. Photos by David Lansing.

Cuban fishermen offer us their catch. Photos by David Lansing.



The fishermen leaned against the railing, watching with curiosity as our tender approached. They said they didn’t have any lobsters yet but they did have some fish, so we asked them if we could buy some from them. A few minutes later, one of the fishermen came back with a bucket full of yellow jacks. He started tossing them at us as if they were baseballs. I don’t know how many they gave us; maybe four or five, enough to easily feed everyone aboard Unplugged. Then, just for good measure, they tossed us a couple of large conch as well.


Cuánto?” Fletch asked.

But the fishermen wouldn’t take our money. They kept waving away the pesos I offered.

Nada, nada,” they said.

Where else in the world can you pull up next to a working fishing boat and have the crew chuck you twenty pounds of fish and not want something in return?

So we went back to Unplugged all giddy and everything, anxious to give our booty to Donovan, the chef. But Marianne, a crew member who is generally in charge of organizing the meals, didn’t seem too thrilled by our bounty.

“I think Donovan already bought some fish today,” she said in her lovely Australian accent. Still, she took the fish and conch from us.

We were still feeling like we should have given the fishermen something, even if they didn’t want our money, so Hardy suggested that we get a couple of bottles of booze and some other treats—cigars, candy—and go back out to the Tres Amigos.

Which is what we did. But this time we got a completely different reception. There was only one guy on the boat. The others were all out diving or in small pangas. The guy on the boat seemed upset that we were back. He didn’t want us to approach Tres Amigos. We showed him the bottles of Scotch and rum, but he just shook his head and wagged his finger at us.

Es un regalo,” Fletch yelled.

The fisherman said no and kept waving us off. Go talk to el jefe, he shouted, pointing to one of the pangas where an old man was standing in the boat yelling instructions to the other fishermen.

We motored over to the boss. The minute we pulled up alongside his panga, he reached down into his boat and pulled up the most enormous lobster I’d ever seen. He handed it to us. And two others. Still, he would not take the booze or anything else we’d brought.

Nada, nada, nada,” he said, waving us off.

So we’d come back out to Tres Amigos to thank the fishermen for the jacks they’d given us, but instead of taking our gifts, they’d given us lobsters. Which made us feel even worse about things.

Obviously there was some sort of Cuban regulation at play here and our presence was only making these fishermen nervous and upset. We’d seen a military boat in the area earlier in the morning and maybe they were afraid they were being watched. Or, even more likely, concerned that someone on Tres Amigos would report back to the authorities that they’d taken gifts from a bunch of gringos. Whatever the deal was, it wasn’t good. They didn’t like us being there.

We left.


Hardy with a lobster before it was returned to sea.

Hardy with a lobster before it was returned to sea.



Back at Unplugged, Marianne was even less thrilled to see our lobsters than she’d been with our fish. “We’ve got lots of lobsters,” she said. She took the biggest, noticed it was a female with eggs, and put it back in the water. The others soon followed. Evidently she’d already returned the conch. Which disappointed Kim because she was sure that one was just a shell, without the conch inside, and wanted to take it home with her as a souvenir. Oh well. Better, I’m sure, that it all went back into the sea. 

I don’t know what happened to the jacks we’d brought back but I can tell you we didn’t have them for dinner that night. It seems everyone’s gifts–ours as well as the fishermen’s–were not appreciated today. 

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Yes, we don’t have your luggage

We checked out of the Saratoga in Havana early on Sunday, but since the plan was to spend the day in Habana Vieja before taking a late afternoon taxi to Marina Heminway, about 20 minutes up the coast, we decided to leave our luggage with the bell captain, Jorge. Which, I have to admit, made me a little nervous. But Jorge is a good guy and he even speaks a little English, so when he took me back to the room where the luggage is stored and showed me that our things were all together and would be “muy seguro,” I thought, What the hell. What could go wrong?


Our luggage at the Saratoga before Jorge got his hands on it.

Our luggage at the Saratoga before Jorge got his hands on it.



Now you’re probably thinking that I was worried about losing what was inside my luggage, but no, what I was more concerned about was the luggage itself. Shirts, pants, underwear—I lose that stuff all the time. But my rolling duffel bag? I love that thing. So much so that, over the years, I’ve bought several others from luggage.com and sent them to friends as birthday gifts (never underestimate the thoughtfulness of a really fine piece of luggage as a gift). It holds more stuff than you can imagine, is very lightweight, and although it’s gone through more airports than a French model, it still looks brand-new.

The other thing I love is my aluminum briefcase (which I sadly left at home). The Zero Halliburton felt too modern for Havana; instead, I used a camera backpack that was big enough to hold not only my camera and lenses but also a video camera as well. And no matter how much I trust the bell captain in any hotel, my camera gear never ever gets left behind. Fortunately it didn’t this time either. But its big brother, my rolling duffel, did. When I returned to the Saratoga late in the afternoon, Jorge nervously rubbed his hands together when I asked him to get my luggage and take it to the waiting mini-van. “Si, claro, Señor David,” he said, “I would be happy to but no si puede.


The crew of Unplugged awaiting our arrival at Marina Hemingway.

The crew of Unplugged awaiting our arrival at Marina Hemingway.



Why was that? I asked him. “Don’t you have my luggage?”

“Yes,” he said, “We don’t have your luggage.”

Seems my rolling duffel bag had decided to join a German tour group that had left on a bus for the airport just before I’d arrived.

“So my luggage is gone?”

“No, of course not,” said Jorge. “It is at the airport.”

“With the Germans?”

“Exactly,” he said with a smile, as if this cleared everything up.

“How do we get it back?” I said.

“Ah,” said Jorge. As if he hadn’t thought of this possibility. “Perhaps I could make a call.”

Meanwhile, Hardy started going ballistic. First he yelled at Jorge then he moved on to the concierge before settling in at the reception desk where he demanded to see the general manager of the hotel, “Immediately!”

The receptionist rang a bell on her desk and went back to her work. No manager ever appeared. I’m not even sure there was a manager. Chain of command seems a foreign concept in Cuba.

But Jorge now seemed genuinely interested in getting my rolling duffel bag back from the Germans. When he came back from making his call, he was positively ecstatic. “Good news!” he proclaimed. “Your bag is still on the bus!”

I wasn’t quite sure how this was good news.

“Are they bringing it back?”

Well, yes and no. First, Jorge explained, they had to take the Germans to the airport. Then they had to wait for another tour group that was due within the hour. After that, this group would have to be taken to their hotels. The whole process could take awhile. 

“But today some time we will definitely get your luggage,” Jorge said. “So while you are waiting, perhaps you would like to enjoy a mojito in the bar and watch a beisbol game.”

Which is what I did. And, an hour or so later, my rolling duffel bag did, in fact, return to the Saratoga. Just as Jorge promised. I called Hardy, who was already on Unplugged with the rest of his guests, and told him I was on my way. “Save me a cocktail,” I told him.


Shaisee saves the afternoon with a cocktail...or two or three.

Shaisee saves the afternoon with a cocktail...or two or three.



And half an hour later, as I took off my shoes and boarded Unplugged, there was a crew member, Shaisee, holding a tray with not one but three cocktails—Scotch rocks, gin and tonic, and a glass of Montrachet.

“I wasn’t sure which you’d prefer,” she said.

Not to disappoint her, I took all three. God bless Jorge. And god bless Shaisee. 

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We’ve made this journey to the Jardines de la Reina three years in a row but it seems to be the general consensus that we won’t be back again next year. Which adds a little poignancy to our last evening in this pristine paradise. I think one of the things I’m going to miss most is the time spent with our guides, particularly Keko and Jimmi.


The Halcon at sunset in the Jardines de la Reina. Photos by David Lansing.

The Halcon at sunset in the Jardines de la Reina. Photos by David Lansing.



At the end of the trip the first year we handed out the tips for the guides and each of us gave a little speech, thanking them for being so patient with us and for teaching us so much about not only fishing but about life in this little Garden of Eden. When we were finished, it was Jimmi, I think, who stood up and told the story of how, after the first morning of fishing, the guides had gotten together and tried to figure out what they were going to do with us.

“You were the worst fishermen we’d ever had on the boat,” Jimmi said, laughing. “But you have learned quickly. And now you are not so bad.”

High praise.

That year we spent most of our time spin-casting and also did a fair amount of trolling—activities the guides hate. They only take you trolling if they know there’s no other way you’re going to catch a fish.

This year there was no trolling and maybe a half-day, at most, of spin-casting. The rest of the time we were fly-fishing. And not doing too bad of a job. The total count included 65 bonefish, 12 tarpon, and 28 assorted fish included barracuda, red snapper, jacks, and a few other species (although I’m not sure we should really have included Pedro’s accidental parrot fish or the itty-bitty jack Fletcher caught since the lure was almost bigger than the fish).


Fletcher showing off his itty-bitty jack.

Fletcher showing off his itty-bitty jack.



At dinner Pedro gave me a bleached conch shell as an award for being “El Rey de los Pescados.” He was being generous. You’d have to say the real king of the fish was Pedro himself who, although he only caught a single red snapper in the first two days of fishing, made an incredible comeback and actually ended up having caught the most fish. Or you could make a case for Geiser who, having never saltwater fly-fished before, still managed to catch a tarpon every day for the first four days of the trip.

Nonetheless, I’m going to treasure my conch shell. As well as my time spent on the Halcón with the boys.

And now it’s time to head back to Havana. The girls arrive late tonight. After a weekend showing them around, we’ll hop aboard Unplugged for another week cruising along Cuba’s northwest coast.

But before that adventure begins, here’s a video of some of our time spent fishing in the Jardines de la Reina. 

Fishing in the Jardines de la Reina, Cuba from David Lansing on Vimeo.

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