Cuba: A Dry Run

North of Havana is a fantasy world of mangrove-lined cays and green water flashing with tropical fish—perfect sea-kayaking country. But the line between what's permissible and what's not in Castro's kingdom falls in a gray area, and comings and goings by water always mean trouble.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

NOBODY ELSE, IT SEEMS, is interested in going to Santa Clara; the station's deserted. A cold front is moving down from the States, and a shank-of-the-night fog haloes the few lights. Beyond the station is a little plaza where a teal, late-fifties Cadillac is parked next to a horse and carriage. I have a momentary fantasy of my grandmother Barbara as a pretty brunette waving from the car.

A man with a thick mustache hurries down the platform, hands in jacket pockets.

"You need a room," he says. "In a private house."

I nod.

"Follow me." He goes for one of the kayak bags and staggers under its weight. He leads us toward an idling yellow Lada. A thin man in a red baseball cap turns to us from the driver's seat. He has a long, flattened nose like a boxer's, shaved head, sad black eyes. "Fernando," he says by way of introduction.

The car sputters through the misty streets of Santa Clara. Adam shoots me a look. He thinks we're being handled, passed from one intelligence agent to another. Could this be true? Probably not. We're probably paranoid. Navigating Cuba is like steering a deeply keeled ship through a sea of icebergs; just a fraction of the territory is explicit. The rest is below the surface, inscrutable to the stranger.

We arrive at Fernando's house, with a comfortable front parlor and a long, narrow courtyard open to the hazy sky. In the kitchen we sit at a heavy antique table, and Fernando serves us espresso in china demitasse cups. I like Fernando right away. He has the loose-jointed movements of an athlete, and a brisk heedlessness as he crushes raw sugar into a splash of coffee. He smokes cheap Cuban cigarettes and listens with great attention to our plan. It's evident that he loves the sea, and he seems fascinated by the idea of a long kayak trip. He says he'll help us get to Caibarién. A friend of his knows the entire Cuban coastline, he adds; Fernando will invite him to dinner tomorrow night. As Fernando talks, I notice that his key ring is a miniature red-and-white fishing buoy.

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