By O. Ross McIntyre and Helen Whyte
While President Obama and Raul Castro were preparing to shake hands at the Pan American Summit meeting this last April 10th, our group ate lunch under the palm-thatched roof of a fine eatery just down the road from the airport in Santa Clara, Cuba. Nearby our modern Yutong bus, filled with kayaking gear and hitched to the only kayak trailer in Cuba, sat parked awaiting our return. This rig is something that would stir the hearts of the few who have dreamed about kayaking in Cuba or have at times actually tried kayaking the waters of the island. With miles of tropical shores bounded by warm, frequently turquoise waters, coral reefs, and island archipelagoes, this island would seem to offer an ideal environment for paddle-powered recreation.
However, there are only two well-known reports of kayaking Cuba. The first is by the irrepressible Peter Heller for Outside in 2002, who took a Klepper to Cuba and found himself hemmed in by the coast watchers ("you will be detained!"), and a 2007 report in Canoe & Kayak written by an American writer who had entered the country illegally. Shortly after his trip, that small glimmer of kayaking in Cuba vanished, the victim of cultural issues and bureaucratic smog.
As we ate lunch, our guide Jay Mothersill described how he launched Cuba Kayaking Adventures, the organization responsible for our trip. It was not easy, said Jay, an Ontario-based adventurer and kayak shop owner. Even with the participation of Cuban travel corporation officials, it took over two years of negotiating. He had to obtain permission from the government, coast guard, harbor-masters, ministry of tourism, ministry of transportation, in addition to licenses for importation of equipment to Cuba. Then his carefully packed shipping container filled with a rugged boat trailer loaded with new Kevlar kayaks, paddles and gear had to survive a train wreck in Canada and Cuban customs before he could wet the first carbon shaft paddle in Cuban waters. Finally, it was done and since last October Jay and his crew have done something that no one else in Cuba can do at this moment: trailer a kayak, launch it, and paddle it across restricted boundaries in a land where such boundaries are everywhere.
Four of us had signed on for this trip, the last of a busy and successful season for Cuba Kayaking Adventures. Jay had augmented the group with selected employees of the Cuban government corporations that had helped clear the way and are part the operation. In the next eight days of speaking with them we would gain some understanding of how Jay's ambitions were meshed with the Cuban way of doing business. Today Cuba sees tourism as a means of improving its economy and is seeking to encourage visits by foreigners.
After our lunch we boarded the bus. All those around our lunch table would paddle, with the lone exception of Domaso, the imperturbable bus driver. Watching his side mirrors clear obstacles is good for the soul. And to know that he remembers that he is dragging an additional bus-length of kayak trailer behind as he weaves his way through traffic that includes the odd horse-drawn vehicle is highly reassuring. A short distance down the road at a gas station/rest area we filled the refrigerator in the front of the bus with armloads of cans (Bucanero Cuban beer, soda) and bottles (water, rum) and put numerous five-liter water bottles into the overhead racks in the bus. We then headed west before turning south toward the Bay of Pigs.
The lonely highway south of the old sugar-mill town of Australia is a relatively straight shot through the heart of the Llanura de Zapata, a huge wooded wetland and National Park into which the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos) penetrates. As we rumbled along the blacktop with the kayak trailer snaking behind us, we passed monuments comprised of a vertical stone slab surrounded by cast concrete walls with cutouts that might have been designed to support an oil tank. Near Playa Larga (Red Beach for the Bay of Pigs landings) they increased in frequency. Each of these monuments is located where a Cuban soldier died in 1961. I wondered how the local Cuban people that we would be meeting during the next few hours would view the presence of a couple of Americans launching a boat in this storied location.
The road left the tree-crowded causeway and opened onto Playa Larga directly ahead, before bending south-east toward Giron. Our hotel for the night was located at the bend, a number of brightly painted small masonry cottages – en suite bathrooms (including toilet paper, soap and with air conditioning), arranged in rows next to a large reception/bar/restaurant building on the beach.
The bay was studded with whitecaps and before long our crew was erasing strain from a long day of travel with a swim in the lively water. Out there somewhere under the whitecaps was what is left of the first ship, the Houston, hit by the Cuban Air Force during the 1961 assault and run aground by its captain. After our swim I went to the small bar on the beach, arriving just as the bartender closed the door. I pointed to my mouth and he instantly reopened the door. He asked where I was from and when I told him, a huge smile resulted. As we left the beach Helen forgot to pick up her hat. A couple of hours later I went back to where she had left it and it was still there. My concern about how we would be greeted vanished.
Although suspicious of and sometimes angered by the U.S. Government, we experienced no hostility in our 18 days in Cuba. The CIA funded debacle that killed lots of Cubans on both sides of the conflict, as well as a few Americans, is simply referred to as an attack by "mercenaries." Today "Red Beach" is occupied by Cubans, and tourists from Canada, Europe, Central and South America and it is doubtful that one in a thousand of them knows about the Houston out there. Despite the strategically placed concrete pill boxes under the pines, added after 1961, this was a holiday crowd and the pillboxes were being used as receptacles for food wrappers and empty cans.
At dinner in the Playa Larga hotel, Jay described our itinerary for the next day, as we ate the substantial but unremarkable hotel meal. The bus would carry us part way down the gravel and stone covered causeway that led to a remote biological station near the end of the spit forming the southwestern shore of the Bay. Part way along the road we would put the boats in a shallow water flat and paddle amongst mangrove covered islands threading our way from one flat bay to the next until we reached the end of the road at the biological station. We should expect to see many birds as well as receiving a lesson in biological truth about life on the flats: "If it moves, something will eat it." The biologist responsible for the activities at the station and serving as the biologist for the National Park would join us as a guide, paddling one the group kayaks. We would leave right after our 7:30 a.m. breakfast.
The next morning Domaso piloted our bus and trailer over sharp beds of crushed caliche that had been used to fill low spots in the road until we were positioned next to our put-in. As the gear came out of the hatch at window level in the rear of the bus, he draped a pad over the bus exterior to prevent scratches. The same care was used to preserve the fine lines of our new Kevlar boats. We boarded in water deep enough to float them. There is nothing that will abrade a new boat faster than sharp coral and it is clear that the boats have had "ethical" treatment for the entire season. Each of us was handed a waterproof bag bearing our name and containing a high quality paddle, spray skirt, throw line and life jacket. Real organization and quality equipment underlay this operation.
In short order we were floating only a few inches above the bottom of a huge flat as we headed into the sun and the growing breeze. Small fish fled from the path of our six kayaks, two tandems and four singles. The biologist director was in a tandem and remained in the lead for the trip. Jay served as sweep except when he broke free to take photos of the group or had something important to point out.
After crossing the open water, we approached some mangrove-covered islets. One of the boats circled a minute islet and found itself the target of two buzzards protecting their nest. The birds flapped their large wings as they banked steeply in circles around the paddler's heads. Moving quickly away the paddlers escaped any "bombs" that might have been dropped in the encounter. Then we were within the narrow channel that passed through the mangroves between two islands. It was often less than one paddle length in width and the extraordinary proliferation of airborne roots marching out from each tree seemed to be doing its best to close the channel.
We emerged onto another flat, this one with a crowd of pink flamingoes standing in the shallows a quarter mile away. Our path took us close to them and they rose, a huge flock of pink flapping, and after the fly-by they resettled themselves behind us. Then we were onto another flat. Jay told us that soon we would find ourselves passing over a bottom comprised of huge numbers of jellyfish. He was right, a varicolored bottom seemingly comprised of some sponge-like structures, stones, and lumpy brown items was comprised entirely of jelly fish. Flipping any one of these objects over with the tip of a paddle revealed the intriguing colored maw of a jellyfish on the underside of the flipped object as it worked hard to reposition its expertly camouflaged self. Indeed, "if it appears to move it will be eaten.”