Kayaking Cuba

Lee Jeffries


Is Fidel Castro sitting on the western hemisphere’s biggest paddling stash? Our correspondent investigates.


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. Which begs the question: If my government really wanted to keep me away, why did it post all 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 canvass, 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 idea 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.

Old Soviet army trucks make excellent shuttle rigs.
Old Soviet army trucks make excellent shuttle rigs.

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. She’s beautiful, outgoing, and invariably the center of attention. 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 double 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 flushing 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.

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.”

This man worked on an American-owned sugar plantation before the revolution.
This man worked on an American-owned sugar plantation before the revolution.


Twice in Havana, we’ve seen the police whisk away people who had the temerity to speak with us. With Cubans regularly attempting 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 inland 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. The only exception being the spacious new ones used to carry foreign tourists, which are explicitly forbidden to carry Cubans. 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 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 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 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. People here know better than to speak frankly with foreigners.

In Cuba there's always time to tango before unloading the boats.
In Cuba there’s always time to tango before unloading the boats.


Day three, and my hunt for Cuban whitewater has, until now, been an unmitigated failure. But I can feel my luck changing. I’ve been hanging my contraband GPS unit out the bus window, tracking our location and, especially, our altitude. It’s looking good. We’ve just climbed past 1,200 feet, and the Caribbean Sea lies just 16 miles due south. The streams shown as thin, straight blue lines on our roadmap must fall at a rate of almost 80 feet per mile. This is whitewater country.

But the mountain stream I have my eye on is no longer; most of it is buried under the Hanabanilla Reservoir. By the look of the forested riverbed far below the causeway, there are no scheduled releases. We’ll do our paddling on the reservoir, launching in a cold rain from our once-grand hotel. Mist rises from the tepid lake, and as the sun sinks away and a fat moon rises over the ridge, the feeling is ethereal. We follow the hotel’s dim lights back to shore, where we stand knee deep in the lake, munching potato chips and passing a three-dollar bottle around our circle. I’m no connoisseur, but I’ve never tasted better rum.

The next day we paddle our sea kayaks up a long, narrow arm of another reservoir. We exchange greetings with fishermen in boats crafted from driftwood and 55-gallon steel drums, and explore a deep mangrove cove where vines hang from above and tendrils of sun stream down as if from the high windows of a cathedral. We follow the lake as far as it will go, ending at a small eco-lodge on the creek that feeds the reservoir. I head upstream to scout the potential whitewater. It’s not much: a short, technical creek that would rate Class III or IV if there were enough water to run it, which there isn’t.

Back at the lodge, the Seakunga crew is sitting in circle, huddled under blankets against the unseasonable cold and smoking 12-inch Cohiba Esplendido cigars. Another three-dollar bottle is making the rounds. Andy tells the first joke, and we spend the next three hours telling every funny story we know. When an old woman walks by, Isa asks for una chiste. The woman sets down her bucket and asks, “How many people from Pinar del Rio does it take to milk a cow? Twenty-two. Two to hold the udders, and 20 to lift the cow up and down.” When everyone stops laughing, I think maybe we’re not so different after all.

Plenty of music, cigars and dancing. Not enough kayaking.
Plenty of music, cigars and dancing. Not enough kayaking.

I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing out on Cuba’s best paddling. It’s not that the paddling is bad; it’s perfectly fine. But our route so far—a tidal river, the reservoir attached to a rundown tourist hotel, a stretch of nondescript coastline between a tourists-only restaurant and a luxury hotel—seems to have more to do with the central planning commission’s idea of a proper tour than it does with paddling.

This impression is bolstered each time we encounter another tour group that has nothing to do with kayaking Cuba. We meet a group of women on a salsa-dancing tour in Havana, and four days later in Trinidad they sashay to our table to say hello. Later we cross paths with a group who have spent the last few days learning the words and percussive rhythms of the Cuban anthem Guantanamera. This is the second time we’ve encountered the music girls, and their harmonies are getting tighter.

The next afternoon we arrive at our last paddling stop, yet another tourists-only hotel. The coast here is a succession of deep, rocky coves and fabulous coral. Tom and Jackie snorkel for an hour and pronounce the reef world-class. Meanwhile I wander off in a 14-foot single kayak, enjoying my first real taste of autonomy in nearly a week. As I nose into sea caves and examine sea urchins clinging to the pocked limestone cliffs and boiler rocks, I get that tingle in my gut, the buzz of exploration. I paddle half a mile straight out into the Caribbean, using the setting sun as my compass, then paddle back to sit with Ray and watch the sky change from gold to orange to purple. We paddle hard back to the hotel, steering in the twilight by the tiny red and green navigation lights marking the hotel cove.

The crew relaxing on the Hanabanilla Reservoir in central Cuba.
The crew relaxing on the Hanabanilla Reservoir in central Cuba.

Karl and I stay on a few days by ourselves, exploring Old Havana and learning more about the country and how it operates. The most important revelation comes when I decide to rent a bicycle. The only place in the city to rent them is inexplicably closed, so I retreat to a park across the street to assess my options. Soon enough a man in a tri-colored Rastafarian hat sits at the other end of my bench. He looks exactly like the Bob Marley of the Legend album cover, except that instead of Jamaican-accented English, he speaks in Spanish without looking at me. “What do you want, my friend? Do you like blonde girls? Black girls?”

I tell him I want a bicycle, which phases him only for a second. “Wait here,” he says. It takes him three tries and half an hour, but soon enough I have my bike and a new appreciation for Cuban capitalism. It’s another of Cuba’s little ironies. The system, ostensibly designed to eradicate capitalism, instead promotes it. The entire country seems to run on what Karl dubs “the elemental capitalism of the hustle.”

That evening on the Malecon, I buy some peanuts and share them with Rafael, another Rasta hustler from El Oriente, the even more impoverished, eastern end of Cuba. From what I could glean from Isa’s French-language Lonely Planet guide, El Oriente boasts the wettest, steepest terrain on the island. In the worn pages, between blurbs about Fidel’s mountain hideout and a description of the three-peso note bearing Che Guevara’s iconic likeness, I’d deciphered a few lines about the big eastern rivers and the tropical storms and hurricanes that occasionally inundate the region. That’s it, I thought. The place for whitewater. Now Rafael fills in the blanks—the timing of the rainy seasons, the names of the big rivers and of his three brothers, who can get a car. Yes, the rivers have rapids, he says. And then he repeats the words that every whitewater boater longs to hear from a local: “You don’t want to take your little boat in the rapids. You would be hurt, for sure.”

Rafa can get you what you need.
Rafa can get you what you need.

Check out more digital features from C&K:

Rush Sturges: The Athlete and the Artist

The Altai Experience: An international team’s kayak expedition through Russia’s remote Altai region

Fuel’s Gold: Paddling through America’s hydro-fracking boom at the high-plains confluence of Big Oil and Big Muddy.