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28th February, 2017

Santiago de Cuba

We sailed down through the Old Bahama Channel and later the Windward Passage, between Cuba and Haiti, on our route to Santiago de Cuba, waters I had not sailed for almost thirty years. I wanted to arrive the afternoon before actually scheduled, anchor and test out the suitability of the anticipated shore tender in readiness for an early start the next day. It also gave us the opportunity of picking up the ‘Son da Gala’Cuban band for the evening entertainment on deck, echoes of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Mrs R and I, along with another thirty six Sagnauts, left the ship early the next day, the main reason being the three mile tender run in to Cuba’s second city. Our tour took us out of the city, fortunately there wasn’t much ‘rush’in the ‘rush hour’, and so there was no delay to our arrival at the Los Helechos Gardens.

Here, on the outskirts of the city, there are said to be 350 types of ferns and 90 types of orchids, hidden from the adjacent noisy main road by a simple palm hedge. Our guide was charming and by the time we had reached the other side of the house I could actually hear, above the throaty roar of old truck engines, what she was saying. It was a horticulturalists delight and I was particularly taken by a clump of entirely four leafed clover, our luck was obviously in. 

Social commuting is even less sophisticated than in Havana at this eastern end of the island.  We had plenty of time to see pony and ‘tatty’trap, aged and somewhat less cared for American cars, and equally aged trucks.  These had body shells fabricated into ‘busses’, privately owned apparently and not necessarily with seating included.

We continued on into the Sierra Maestra National Park, which had once echoed to the gunshots of revolution. The most sacred site for Cuba is here, within the walls of the Basilica on a hill above the village of El Cobre. High above the altar is the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus, which tradition states was found by three fishermen floating in the sea in 1612.  A service was taking place when we arrived and this beautiful building seemed alive with the religion of these quiet and dignified people.

After a few more brief stops we came back into the city and headed for a museum, the oldest known house on the island dating back to the early Spanish colonial times, then lunch where we were entertained by the most superb lady singer and a small Cuban band. Later, free time to stroll the streets, while attempting to avoid the sometimes choking exhaust created by ancient unsophisticated engines.

The main square, with the colonial cathedral on one side, also had the elegant white painted Hotel Casa Granda on another. It was here that Graham Greene is said to have written ‘Our Man in Havana’during a protracted stay. There are reminders of the war of independence against Spanish rule and the architecture towards the centre is a mix of periods, even including touches of Art Deco, some refurbished, most not. The city, sweltering in the afternoon heat, with mountains in the background, a jumble of power cables and telephone wires running above the streets and between the buildings, felt like a time warp.

With everyone returned near enough on time we sailed the ship back through the narrow twisting entrance, before the darkness had completely descended.

Captain Philip Rentell

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.