It all started after a lengthy phone call with a friend who has traveled to Cuba for leisure for the last decade. He's a gringo who thinks he's half Cuban. He knows the ins and outs and the hustles. The perfect companion for the most unlikely stand up paddle destination. You see travel by Americans to Cuba is off limits but special arrangements can be made. He led a famous surf cinematographer to the capital of Havana several years back. But this mission was much more bold. We intended to go way east deep into the tropical jewel of Cuba. A land filled with endless rivers, bays and babes. Had they ever witnessed a stand up paddle board this deep into Cuba?
Ready Set Go...
Last minute special visas and 24 hours' notice and we are on the next flight to the capital city of Havana, Cuba. If you ever tried traveling with a pair of standup paddle boards in tow it's an absolute headache. Everything suddenly becomes twice as difficult in the last minute rush. How do we load them in the car? How do we strap them to the cab? How do we convince the airline they are just surfboards? How do we convince the Cuban authorities they are not American weapons of mass destruction. When you travel with SUPs be prepared to sweat while pulling them thru the airport. And if you thought you were sweating leaving the US wait till you're dragging it thru the airport in tropical heat. That's when it really gets fun. The comfy sweater for the airplane doesn't seem like such a good idea anymore
After a long zigzag red eye flight pattern to Havana we arrive in the morning. Tired and curious if the sups even made it. It's not every day Cuba Customs comes in contact with two gigantic bags resembling missiles. We retrieve our hand luggage fairly quickly with the rest of the passengers from our flight. Tick tock …no sups… one hour… no sups… two hours …no sups. Ok it's time to start asking questions. The official looking fellow has informed us customs has taken them to a secondary inspection. Will they confiscate them? Three hours slowly roll into Four hours. No one can give us an answer and all we can do is wait, and wait some more. We watch the passengers from the following flights enter the baggage area, collect the bags and go…. Tick tock….over Five hours and they finally appear in a dark corner of the baggage claim with 3 handlers slugging them along. A quick hand off and it's a miracle. We got em…now let's get the fuc* out of this hot sweaty airport. As day turns back into night its party time and it's hot, extremely hot. High nineties with off the charts humidity. Ten steps with a sup and hand luggage outdoors and you're dripping sweat. Welcome to the tropics. Nothing a frosty Cuban Bucanero Beer can't cool down.
Once you understand the history it all makes sense. Imagine going into a time warp 50 years back. Except instead of everything being brand spanking new it's all 50 years older. Amazing rundown Mansions and castle styled buildings. Winding down the avenue you get an idea that this place has some history. It reeks of old world charm and beauty. You begin to imagine of just how amazing the capital city was in its golden age. Tons of old 57 Chevy's and Cadillac classic cars on the road with one broken down every other mile. Basically nothing has been upgraded or updated in decades except for a few new shitty Chinese buses and cars. And due to a total embargo of goods by the US and collapse of the Soviet Union along with it generous subsidies the material world of the USA is nonexistent. No Apple stores, no mega malls, no 7-11. Just a few government run stores with empty shelves of Korean saltine crackers, Chinese pickles, Vietnamese tuna cans, and mayonnaise…Ahhhh but the silver lining …what they lack in food they make up for in inexpensive quality Rum…. Just above barren shelves of foodstuffs are 10 large shelves stacked with endless rows of Rum and to the right of those large fridges filled with ice cold local beer …so this is pure socialism at its finest. …. And around every corner a large billboard praises the great emancipation from the Capitalist Pigs donning a face of Che Guevara or Fidel Castro. Viva La Revolution!
Havana has one big hotel. It's expensive and has lots of rules. We don't like rules so the other option is a casa particular. These are government approved rooms for rent in a local house. You arrive at someone's doorstep with a symbol resembling an anchor hanging from the house and they invite you in and gladly give you a room within the house. They call it a casa particular and this is how most small budget travelers do it in Cuba. The family will even make your meals for a small charge right at their dinner table. The whole thing seems weird and scary as you are literally in their household with the mother, daughter, grandmother, father, and anyone else who resides in the small quarters. But the Cubans immediately welcome you with warm friendly smiles and laughs. Some of the coolest and most hospitable people I have ever encountered. A few rums with grandma and suddenly you feel right at home laughing and sharing stories. Find a zone to store the SUPs and its shower and time to hit the matinee.
The Matinee then Hazy
A matinee is what Cubans version of a day party is. They go from around high noon to 7-8pm daily. It's the party before the party. And in Cuba whether its mon- sun you can bet there is a matinee going on somewhere and its jam packed with a sasla band, dancers, and warming everyone up for the real fiesta that goes from 11pm-??? You see, there really isn't a lot to do in Cuba other than dance, smoke cigars and drink rum. This one happens to be in an old theatre and it's packed. Everyone smoking and drinking on a Tuesday afternoon like its midnight on a Friday at the hot spot back in the states. I'm beginning to like this place. Several hours drinks and salsa dances later things become very hazy and suddenly its morning.
The Flight east without the Stand UPs
After a long and hazy night in the capital of Havana hangovers levels the following morning are already running into the stratosphere. It's hot, humid and we have lots of work to do in order to get the standup paddle boards to our final destination in the wild east. News arrives the small puddle jumper plane will not take them so we will have to arrange a car to transport them clear across the country by road and reconvene with the driver at the drop point. No easy or inexpensive feat. We strap the boards down to our driver's car and agree on the details of the meeting point and he's off. Again we wonder if we will ever see the boards again. We board a rickety Russian 747 for the short flight east and maintain cellular contact with our driver. Several hours after we land at the meeting point we begin to receive calls from the driver. He has been detained as the police view the car with much suspicion. His 15 hour drive has now become a 23 hour drive as he is detained over and over in nearly every city regarding the explanation of the large surfboards on the roof but arrives at the meeting point the following day driving nonstop thru the night. Amazing! After collecting our SUPs and renting a vehicle we have only five hours by road to reach our final destination and the standup paddle boards have made it.
The Mountain Pass
The bulk of the drive is mainly flat but the last leg requires the crossing by road of a large mountain range. We begin to slowly ascend high into the tropical mountains. Amazing rivers wind underneath the road, ripe mangos falling from the trees. Now we are getting deep into the heart of jungle. The elevation climbs higher and higher and suddenly the tropical hillsides are peppered with waterfalls and pine trees. Some of the most amazing scenery and views I have ever encountered. Raw and unspoiled. What will the coast have in store for us? With the forecast calling for no swell we eventually are met with a calm ocean. But this is the beauty of the standup paddle board mission. A calm ocean is our friend. And with endless rivers, bays and coves we would need months to truly explore them all so we would have to make the most of our short trip.
Day -1 First Visitors to the New World & First Stand Up Paddle
Everyone stares at the vehicle with its Stand up Paddles boards strapped to the roof as we begin to make our way down to the first bay located near the center of town. A large majestic bay with a full blow fiesta and stage on the beach. Everyone is drinking rum and swaying to the sounds of reggatone. Dozens of kids are wading in the shallows. This looks like a great spot to commence the first stand up paddle. A quick conversation with the locals and it suddenly comes to our attention the stage and oversized fiesta is in celebration of the 499 anniversary of the city being founded by Spanish explorer Diego Velazquez in 1511. However it was first discovered in 1492 by Chirstopher Colombus when he arrived in the Americas. Columbus later wrote in his logbook " the most beautiful place in the world ...I heard the birds sing that they will never ever leave this place". Columbus left a cross in the sands of this very harbor and that cross still sits in the town today. We quickly unpacked the sups and just as Columbus sailed in over 500 years ago we embarked what probably was the first sup in the very same bay. A quick loop of the bay and return to the beach. Lets let the locals have a try.We release the SUPs to the curious and anxious children and all hell breaks loose. Like a piece of meat thrown to the piranha they claw and clamor to stand on the board. Wrestling each other for the paddles. Eventually the larger meaner kid wins with a friend in tow and gets the first taste of standup paddle in the wild east.
Day-2 the 200 ft. Palms, Sharks and No Photos
Time to do some exploring, the next day we drive for hours to another amazing bay. As we bump down the unpaved road we discuss rumors of the abundance of sharks in these oceans and their ability to swim up into the rivers. Unfortunately our rumors where met with fear as we encounter a man peddling a bicycle with the 8 foot blue shark strapped to the back fresh out of the water half a mile from our destination. The coast was crisscrossed with dozens of rivers spilling into the ocean. Did he pull it from the ocean, from the river? New Rule - Keep the falls to a minimum and climb back on the board fast. We finally reach the bay and the policeman gives us the evil eye. He watches us as we drag the sups and gear from our dirt parking lot 200 yards down the beach and stake out a nook in the shade. The policeman slowly follows and doesn't seem to like our boards or cameras. He gives us the full shakedown and tells us we need to go back to the car and show him our papers and give him an explanation of our business here. At first he says we cannot paddle out past the waves. And his most golden rule. NO underwater photos. He assured us if any underwater photos were taken everything we had would be confiscated. After showing him our paperwork and cameras we parted ways with his final warning of the underwater photos. Did they have some top secret underwater base? Who know but the locals assured us they would review our cameras and to take the policeman's warning very seriously. Damn it. So much for the underwater shaka self-portrait I had planned. We finally get out boards in the water and get our first views of this majestic bay. Cristal clear blue water and these amazing palms across the bay. I am no expert on palm trees but the bay had to be at least several miles to the other side and these palms shot straight into the air hundreds of feet. As if they had been growing for centuries. Some of the wildest and tallest palms I have ever encountered in the tropics. After an hour of paddling Thunder began to roar in the mountains behind us. Storms a coming…lets back up and get outta here before the fuzz comes back to check out cameras.
Day-3 The Missing Ship
As we sipped cold beers in the majestic bay we could see the faint outline of half a rusted freighter ship sitting in the distance near the old fort. Could make for an excellent paddle so we load up the van and head in the direction of the ship. We come to an old fort situated at the mouth of the harbor. Amazingly it's a rusted bow section of a gigantic ship. Where the other 3/4 of the ship went is anyone's guess. Maybe it sunk to the bottom of the sea or was salvaged. Either way the bow looks like it's gonna make for a great paddle. As we wind our way down a cave stairwell we are met with the laughter of small children swimming in the water and gawking at our giant floating surfboards. The cave opens to a launch and we hop in and paddle toward the huge ship. After doing a few laps around the thing we get a bright idea to jump off the bow. A couple locals warn us it's very shallow but what the hell. It looks fun so let's do it. Just as we make our way up the ship we notice a local in a speedo at the bow of the ship. He looks very fit and begins to perform Olympic style handstands on the top tip of the bow. After putting on a great show we are eager to get up there and jump of this thing. As we make our way up the rusty backside of the ship we being to notice that tropical heat and rusted metal is not a good combo. It feels like we are walking on a frying pan. HOLY SHIT! It's HOT!, we quickly run to the front taking directions from the local at the bow and it becomes clear the cracks, holes, dips , sharp edges and rust is so bad that a false step could leave to falling thru and that was a mistake we did not want to make. Jumping off the bow does not seem like the greatest idea and it's now become life or death and the scalding heat on our feet are increasing with each step. Finally we reach the bow and make a leap into shallow water and come out alive. Mission accomplished. And probably the last time we do that.
Day-4 Barreled in the Rocks
The coastal road winds along the waterfront and seems to reveal a new private beach, cove or bay around every corner. After about 45 minutes of driving I notice an interesting rock outcropping that is literally hanging over the water by about 20 ft. Almost in the shape of a wave it's a giant rock barrel. I assume it must have taken hundreds if not thousands of years for the river to shape rock into the form of a wave. Looks cool so since there are no real waves lets go get barreled in the rocks. After unloading the paddle boards we make the short paddle over to the rock formation. After shooting the tube a couple times we circle around and take in the beautiful bay and river mouth. Some surf would be great but getting barreled in the rocks will do for today. Time for some cold bucanero beer.
It's finally time to say goodbye and after stashing the paddle boards with a local for safekeeping upon our return we make plans to celebrate our departure. After circling the town in our van we pick up a solid crew of locals and begin bumping up and down the st with the stereo full blast, When in Rome. It's Saturday so thousands of people are in the street drinking, dancing and listening to music. A salsa band has set up shop in the street and it looks to be an all-night affair. As the rum flows everything becomes hazy and suddenly its morning. The wild east was amazing and we will be back soon. The wave and stand up paddle potential is looks limitless. All we need is some swell and a little luck. Until next time…