According to the CIA World Factbook, Cuba has more coastline and rivers than every other Caribbean island combined. The factbook also notes that it is illegal for me, or any other U.S. citizen, to visit this untapped paddling motherlode.
If my government really wanted to keep me away, it should not have posted that information about rivers and coastline on the Internet.
That brief catalog of geographic data ignited my Cuban paddling fantasies, and unsubstantiated faith stoked the fire. Faith is all I had, because the usual sources of boating beta don’t exist for Cuba. Detailed topographic maps are almost impossible to find—the Cuban military, which even now is preparing for an eminent Yanqui invasion, is disinclined to share them. Even getting to Cuba, for Americans, entails difficult logistics, considerable expense and, not incidentally, a criminal act.
So in an era when sea kayakers are probing the coasts of Kamchatka and South Georgia, and whitewater boaters are paddling in such places as Kyrgyzstan, Reunion Island, and even Iran, no one seems to have explored Cuba’s rivers. The entire island, 800 miles long and ridged with mountains rising 6,500 feet from the blue Caribbean, is a blank canvas, a sea paddler’s wonderland encircling a vast whitewater trove—a place where a boater with imagination and a Class IV skill set could discover new classics. The thought consumed me.
When reports surfaced that Fidel Castro was on his deathbed—the old revolutionary had temporarily transferred power to his younger brother Raul on July 31, 2006—I decided it was finally time. Though there is not a single whitewater kayak in the country of 11 million people, sea kayaking has made some small inroads, if only within the strictly regulated context of the tourist industry.
While the 45-year-old Cuban Democracy Act—better known in the United States as the trade embargo, and in Cuba by the stronger term bloqueo, or blockade—has kept American companies away, Canadian and European tourism firms have been doing business with the Castro regime for years. Seakunga Adventure Tours, a small outfit based in Vancouver, British Columbia, offers week-long sea kayaking excursions, and a few weeks after the elder Castro fell ill, I picked up the phone and booked one. My plan was to sample the island’s best sea kayaking, and at the same time lay the groundwork for later whitewater exploration. Along the way I’d see a piece of history that’s not likely to last, the communist neighbor that has vexed, and outlasted, nine American presidents.
I booked a ticket to Cancun, Mexico, on expedia.com, and then purchased a Cancun-Havana round-trip on Cubana de Aviacion through a travel agency in Canada. The whole process took 35 minutes and enough money to get to New Zealand. My physical self would spend just enough time in the Cancun airport to catch the first half of the Redskins-Cowboys game at the Jose Cuervo Tequileria. The theoretical me—the one represented by the stamps in my passport—would spend ten days in Mexico.
Our first kayak outing takes us six miles up the Rio Canimar to Rancho Guayanara, a collective farm now specializing in ecotourism. The river meanders inland through tangles of mangrove and a shallow limestone canyon, and our ebullient French-Canadian guide, Isabeli Thibault, sets the mood for the rest of the trip, flitting from one paddler to another. She sings in French and Spanish, then swoops up to Ray, our Cuban guide—foreign tour groups here typically travel with one western and one Cuban guide—and teases him in a mixture of Spanish and English. My high school friend Karl, who came to Havana a day early and was rewarded with private salsa lessons ending at 4 a.m., is already smitten.
Our group of nine also includes guide-in-training Laura, a quiet British Columbian newly married to a Cuban jazz musician. The six clients are four American men plus Tom and Jackie, married scuba divers from Bristol, England who seem more culture-shocked by their North Americans tour mates than by Castro’s Cuba. We fill three battered plastic Necky tandem kayaks and three singles, which Ray proudly declares are the only rental kayaks in the country.
We cruise close to shore, stopping to study a tiny, iridescent red frog and flush a yellow-breasted something. We paddle through the concrete remains of a loading dock, all that’s left of a sugar plantation that thrived before the revolution. Later a great blue heron plays leapfrog with our little flotilla.
The island is…..a sea paddler’s wonderland encircling a vast whitewater trove—a place where a boater with imagination and a Class IV skill set could discover new classics.
It’s a beautiful place, but one that could be anywhere from Georgia to Belize, so I suggest to Ray that when we return to Havana, we take some photographs of the whole crew paddling along the Malecon, the city’s iconic waterfront boulevard.
“Are you crazy?” he says. “Do you want to get arrested? You cannot put a kayak in the water anywhere on the northern shore of Cuba.”
Cubans regularly attempt the 90-mile crossing to Florida in rafted inner tubes; the authorities would never take a chance with something so seaworthy as a kayak. Until we reach the south coast in three days, all of our paddling will be on rivers and lakes.
The next day, we’re winding into the mountains of Cuba’s southwest coast in our new European-made tour van, to a lurid reggaeton soundtrack originating from Isa’s iPod. Suddenly the bus lurches to the side of the road, the doors swing open and a pretty girl of about 20 climbs aboard. In this land of scarcity, where 1950s Fords and Chevys share the road with late-model Russian Ladas and horse-drawn carts, picking up hitchhikers is the obligation of every Cuban who owns a vehicle—unless that vehicle happens to be one of the spacious new ones used to carry foreign tourists. Ray and our driver Francisco defy this ban at every opportunity. For the next six days, our little bus will house a revolving cast of withered old ladies, sun-blackened field hands, and a disproportionate number of attractive young women.
The road east from Havana is lined with billboards selling the Revolution. In Cienfuegos, on the south coast, the door to a public toilet declares, “The commander in chief orders: Homeland or death. We will win.”
It’s hard to get a good read whether the people are buying it. Language isn’t a barrier; all four of the Americans in our group speak Spanish. It’s just that no one wants to talk. The intent of the law is clear: Tourists are here only to spend money. They are not to interact with Cubans, lest their ideas dilute the nation’s revolutionary ardor. The people we pick up are unfailingly polite, and Ray’s expert flirtation draws shy smiles and the occasional sharp comeback, but there’s no real conversation. Twice in Havana, we’ve seen the police whisk away people who had the temerity to speak with us.