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

CAIBARIÉN AT LAST. It's a quaint port town with pink and aqua houses and an ancient Spanish church. The cross streets end at smooth water, the dark cays laying along it like sleeping seals.

But the officers at the Guarda say we can't paddle the coast, not even with our fishing permits. We can, however, head inland to Lake Hanabanilla, a ten-mile-long reservoir surrounded by steep jungly hills. Why don't we take our boats there?

In Cuba, even on a lake, you don't just shove your kayaks off the shore and paddle. You get permission from a state-run resort hotel. You pull up the circular drive and a bunch of uniformed porters carry your boats through a green marble lobby and down to the dock.

We paddle hard for a few kilometers, glad to stretch our muscles. Then we drift, weightless at last, and the quixotic nature of our expedition dawns on us. I look at Adam. We start to laugh.

"And then we went lake paddling in Cuba," Adam says. "Cómo se dice 'idiotic'?"

But it is beautiful here. The water is silk-smooth, and the mountains are lush and cradle the lake. Egrets perch in the trees along the shore. We hear salsa drifting across the cove from a shack covered in bougainvillea. We hop out of the boats into the cool water. We splash around and dive for the bottom. The kayaks drift away on the warm breeze and we have to swim after them. A few miles farther on we meet a decrepit ferry crowded with Cuban tourists. They hang off the rails and wave. It looks like a refugee boat, and the irony doesn't escape me: Three oceangoing vessels passing each other on a tiny, bounded inland sea.

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