By O. Ross McIntyre and Helen Whyte
After a day of paddling the Flats, the only kayak bus in Cuba arrived at the crocodile farm, bar and restaurant at Guama. Here amidst the crowds of tour-group visitors we watched as our kayaks were padded with neoprene foam and stacked like cordwood across the gunwales of a long motor-boat. We boarded another like it propelled by twin 85hp Yamahas. I feel nervous when told that I will be staying at a hotel on an island, especially when arriving late in the day on what could be a one-way boat. I had to trust Jay that this would turn out better than my first visit to Venice.
After a 15 minute cruise at full power down a dredged canal and across a lake we entered a lagoon with several islands, on which stood numerous small octagonal thatched-roof houses. Substantial pilings lifted them above the boggy ground. It is a recreation of something one could expect to find in Tahiti or some other island in the South Seas.
It was at these docks that a Russian submarine once delivered the nuclear warheads intended for the tips of missiles that never arrived in Cuba.
Located at a site that is rich with artifacts from the Tiano culture, these indigenous people had chosen the spot as a redoubt prior to the arrival of the Spanish. This hotel was a post-revolution “make work” project devised to support a population without work and it certainly provided a lot of jobs. Just hammering in the million or so log pilings to bulkhead the shore of the lagoon and canals must have kept plenty of workers busy. They need to be replaced soon.
Presiding over the entire area is a large conical thatched building with considerable grace for its size. It is the restaurant for the place and is a noteworthy building, a Cuban equivalent, let’s say, of Old Faithful Lodge. Cuba is proud of it, and has put it on the face of the CUC one-dollar coin, the money used by tourists in Cuba.
The boat pulled up to the steps of the hut used for guest registration at the Horizontes Guama hotel. Skylight filtered through a hole in the thatch and fell on a table next to the desk where we waited for our room assignments. Meanwhile our kayaks were unloaded and placed next to the lagoon. We then set out on boardwalks pieced together from various sizes and qualities of hardwood, over crooked bridges, through a stand of bamboo and around corners to our accommodation. Each of the small thatched cabins has two units each comprised of two rooms plus a bath. The interior walls are of beautifully finished dark hardwood, probably mahogany.
On the ground between the cabins and crossing the island channels there is a maze of pipes. The cabins are served by above ground septic tanks with long distance piping to a distant disposal, fresh water arrives in other pipes. And 4-6 inch red pipes provide water to fire hydrants and hose stations. Solar hot water panels are located outside of all the cabins. Such are the problems in creating modern cabins on ground that the Tiano people chose because it was safe from enemies. Repairing the hotel after repeated hurricanes is a triumph of optimism over geographic reality. Even without hurricanes just replacing rotting boards in the elevated walkways and bridges and renovating cabins must take a large crew. A walk-about indicates that assigning more workers to this task would be a good idea. But romantic? You got it.
We ate dinner in the restaurant and discussed the day’s activities and tomorrow’s schedule and, while we ate, inspected the huge vault over our heads. The “lantern” at the top of the conical restaurant roof is supported by a truncated vertical shaft surrounded by multitudes of symmetrical ribs, much larger and stronger than those in an umbrella but using the same principle to support the roof. It was hard to take my eyes off the beautiful construction.
In the morning we paddled away from the hotel and crossed the lake to enter a channel much different from the dredged one used by the motor boats. Here we were alone, following the gentle turns while looking for wildlife and getting our fill of blooming water lilies, trees in blossom and birds. We could hear the distant speed boats as they brought new guests to the hotel, but here we seemed many miles away from that frenetic activity. I especially focused on the numerous openings in the underbrush through which paths came down to the water. I’m certain that longer observation of these would yield interesting sightings, perhaps by the cousins of those housed in the crocodile farm out on the highway. I also was impressed that from time to time there was higher land with changed vegetation, evidence that perhaps out there one could find dwellings or possible campsites.
Soon we were back to the highway and bus. Some of us circumnavigated the wire enclosure containing lots of crocodiles, many of them formidable beasts lying on the mud with their mouths open (crocodiles do this as means of cooling off on a hot day.) An ancient one-lunger diesel connected by a flopping belt to a pump of the same vintage, popped away as it raised water that sloshed down a gutter into the crocodile enclosure. Nearby, where a leak in the pipe sprayed water was a pan that collected the spray and could be used to fill the open top water jacket on the diesel. Though one may see these engines displayed working at country fairs in the U.S., this is the first I have seen in a long time doing useful work.
After lunch at the “roadside attraction” restaurant, we headed southeast down the coast to a place where snorkeling was good and where across the road a large cenote filled with brackish water offered swimming out of the surf. It was a place filled with vacationing local people and I noted that Jay was in earnest conversation with a group of men in the parking lot. Later he told us that he had been told about roads that could provide access to a “back door” waterway to the Horizontes Guama Hotel and that the men had agreed to show him a route to a possible kayak put-in. Such an approach to the Tahitian styled hotel would be far more in keeping with the mood of kayaking Cuba groups than the speedboat trip.
Then we headed northeast on the road to Cienfuegos and circled the bay and city to arrive at the Russian-built Pasacaballo Hotel overlooking the narrow channel into the harbor. After settling in, Helen and I went to the deck at the top of the hotel for a look across the bay to the city and the hills to the west. While standing amidst hotel features painted in various bold colors, we could spot the base and dome of an uncompleted nuclear power station, abandoned when the Russians closed out their support of Cuba in the early 1990s. We had seen photos of a building identical to this, but with smoke coming from the dome. In Chernobyl.
The next morning we put our kayaks in the water at an attractive restaurant, bar and recreation facility that provided access to the Bay. Paddling toward the city of Cienfuegos but keeping to the right shore, we first passed the ends of two long concrete docks that extended from a large complex of modern but abandoned buildings. Windows broken, trim falling loose and weeds growing where they could, this complex had been an important Russian navy installation. Jay explained that on a previous trip he and others had gone too close to the shore end of one of the docks and had been warned off by a watchman who appeared out of nowhere. It was at these docks that a Russian submarine once delivered the nuclear warheads intended for the tips of missiles that never arrived in Cuba. We passed on, not pausing to examine the remains of two sunken Russian submarines abandoned during the Russian exodus.
Our goal for the paddle was the lagoon to the east of Cienfuegos Bay where a large flock of flamingoes resides on the shallow flats at its edges. After passing under a highway bridge, we entered the lagoon. Crossing in front of us as we entered were a number of small rowboats, each one quite low in the water with a load of tourists. While all were intrigued with the large flock of birds feeding actively in the brilliant sunshine or parading in single file to a new spot to eat, my focus was on the rowboat captains.
These fellows were somehow able to leave the dock at a thatched hut on the left bank where they picked up their passengers, cross the entrance to the lagoon, row several hundred yards into it and return their loads to the starting point without sinking. In blistering heat, using oars made by inserting a plywood blade into a kerf cut in the end of a shaft that had begun life as a small straight tree! And maintaining about 2mph while doing so! I felt guilty moving so easily in my Kevlar kayak.
Before we returned, we stopped at the thatched hut, put our kayaks on the rough beach and climbed a hill behind it through horse pasture for about a quarter mile to a hut next to the road. There we had a welcome Bucanero while we watched 1950s cars, now taxis, deliver vacationers to this spot for their trip to the flamingoes. While sipping our drinks we observed a peacock strutting in full glory before the hens while another peacock moped in the background, its tail feathers looking like they had been caught in the blades of a fan.