Traveling in Cuba. Viñales

 

 Cruisers traveling in Cuba

 

We came to Cuba by boat and that made it very difficult and expensive exploring the country by land because of the many restrictions on boaters and the high marina and transportation costs.

 

In Cuba, it is forbidden to just drop anchor anywhere you like, leave the boat and go to the mainland. (One more reason why Cuba is unique in the world of cruising.) On the north coast, you can drop anchor only near some of the many tourist-populated cayos and resorts, but you can then only visit the cayos, by law you cannot set foot on the mainland and explore the nearest village. Plus, there must be at least one adult on board at all times if you are anchored out, you cannot leave the boat unattended. The concern, I guess, is that a bunch of not very patriotic Cubanos might grab the opportunity (and the boat) and sail off into the sunset (or rather into the Gulf Stream and north).

 

If you want to explore the interior of the country, your only option is to leave the boat at one of the marinas, which are not many in Cuba, pay 20 dollars per day for a 40-feet boat ( $0.50 per foot per day), and find transportation to where you want to go. Here is the tricky part: transportation. From Havana to all main cities,  Santiago, Trinidad, Camagüey, Holguín, etc., you can get an air-conditioned tourists-only bus for about $100 per person one direction. Or you can rent a car (maybe air-conditioned if you are lucky) with or without a driver, between $90 and $120 per day. You can try to move around by cheap local bus, which is actually an old truck and people pile up in the open-air trailer under a canvass. We wouldn’t mind doing this, to us it sounds like fun, but it would take days to get anywhere, and we would still have to pay for the marina, $20 per day, so it is not worth it. Same problem with hitch-hiking…

 

We really wanted to visit Trinidad, a spectacular UNESCO heritage mountain village with spectacular colonial architecture in the south, but we calculated that for our family of four it would cost us over a thousand dollars to leave the boat for a few days in Hemingway marina, get on the tourist bus and pay for hotel or a casa particular in Trinidad for a couple of nights. So we didn’t visit it this time, we might sail there some other day.

 

Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

A photo journal.

The only place we visited in the country’s interior was Viñales in the Pinar del Rio province, less than two hundred kilometers west of Havana, thanks to Harley and April who we met at Marina Hemingway: it was their idea.

 

Harley and April aboard El Karma

Harley and April aboard El Karma

 

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway … stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway ... stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

Cooling off the car

 

For two and a half hours we look out the car windows. The countryside is charming: fresh green mountains, plains, little neat villages. None of the madness of the big city.

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Viñales is a small model-village in the mountains, a national monument since 1978 and a UNESCO heritage site since 1999. It is a main touristic destination, and so we were not very pleased to find here crowds of visitors, buses arriving every half an hour.

Main street and church in Viñales

 

The main attraction in Viñales are the two caves where runaway salves,  Cimarróns, lived in the 1800s. After entering in the first cave, we decided not to enter in the second… There is an entrance fee of $5 per person, the cave is in fact a few meter long corridor complete with fake snakes and frogs and a small restaurant at the entrance. Even if the cave is not big and impressive, its history is a fascinating one. The fact that this cave was the home for runaway slaves in the 1800-s was the most thrilling for me.

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A bunch of street artists ambush the cave exit and perform a  Cimarrón dance for inevitable tips.

 

Performance in the cave

Performance in the cave

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave's houses in Vinales Valley

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave’s houses in Vinales Valley

 

The caves are located in Palenque near Viñales, in a deep green valley surrounded by tall granite mountains and thick vegetation. It is an awe-inspiring landscape.

Viñales Valley

Viñales Valley

 

Looking up

Looking up

We get a bunch of very cheap and very sweet bananas from a local farmer on our way back in Viñales.

Bananas 24 for $1

Bananas 24 for $1

 

Back in Viñales, we hide from a torrential tropical mountain rain, enjoying a glass of cold beer on the terrace of a small restaurant. In Cuba there are two kinds of beer: Bukanero and Cristal. We like Cristal a lot better, but they didn’t have Cristal and served us Bukanero instead…

 

Una cervesa por favor

Una cerveza por favor

As we are sitting in the restaurant enjoying our cold beers, a car pushed by three people passes down the road. Poor people, having car problems in the rain. Oh, wait a minute, this is our car! Our driver, Erie, a very timid always smiling guy, was supposed to wait for us at some corner, but I guess he had a bad day with that car…

 

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

We managed to get back to the marina without anymore car problems on the way back, listening to old 80-s disco hits and enjoying, once more, the unspoiled Cuban countryside.

House near Palenque

House near Palenque

 

The history of the Caribbean runaway slave, el Cimarron, is a fascinating one. 

 

As the sugar production (sweet gold) was booming in the French colony of Saint Domingue in the 1700-s, black young women and men, African princes and princesses, were piled up on ships and brought to the islands to work the sugar cane plantations. The slaves lasted for about a year in unimaginable conditions, and so more ships with „fresh meat“ were arriving weekly. For the slaves, the only hope was to escape. But escaping was not easy and most of the times the runaways were caught and brought back to be killed in public as an example, or died from dehydration and exhaustion in the unforgiving tropical wilderness of the island. But some succeeded, some made it to the mountains, to the caves, to freedom. They formed small communities, away from the cities and the plantations, life as close to nature as one can only imagine. Nature was mother, doctor, protector. The caves were home. The Cimarróns were free, multiplying, organizing.

Inspired by the French Revolution, a black avalanche descended from the mountains in 1791 upon Le Cap and Port-au-Prince in the then French colony of Saint Domingue. Sugar fields burned with black smoke for weeks, heads of planters and their entire families rolled on the streets, boats, this time loaded with white refugees fled to Cuba and America.

In Cuba, the emancipation took longer, freedom for all didn’t come until 1886. The history repeated itself.

I have read two remarkable books (in Spanish) which I would recommend to everyone interested in the subject of the runaway Caribbean slave.

One is  Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave. Historia de un Cimarrón. It is the detailed and personal testimony of Esteban Montejo as told by himself in 1966, when he was 103 years old, and as such it is also a valuable historical document.

The other is Isabel Allende’s The Island Beneath the Sea, La isla bajo el mar, a beautifully written historical novel full of romance and intrigues, giving a poetic account of the Haitian revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti). 

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La Habana

La Habana, Cuba

 

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La Habana of our nostalgic imagination was a coastal vibrant city of music and love, with ancient colonial architecture, great cathedrals and plazas, museums and galleries, colorful facades with balconies looking over narrow streets where old Soviet cars and even older American ones roar like lions in the perpetual heat of the summer. Where grey-haired men sit in the coolness of parks under dark ever-green trees in small groups improving the art of chess or dominoes, children run around barefoot, and beautiful Cubanas in dresses of all colors like muñeca, illuminate the entire town.

Church in Habana Vieja

Church in Habana Vieja

 

For a few days we roam the streets, somnambulists enveloped by sounds and smells we could not have predicted, comparing our imaginary Havana with the one before us, trying to look all around us and remember.

La Habana is schizophrenical, a city of multiple personalities; getting to know her can be heartbreaking.

An old car parked in Havana

An old car parked in Havana

La Catedral de San Cristobal,  radiant in the heat of the summer, la Plaza de Armas,  occupied by book vendors under shady trees, el Capitolio, a huge poster of Fidel Castro hugging Hugo Chavez in the front, el Museo de la Revolucion,  rooms filled with black and white photographs and pages of the history of the Cuban Revolution, el Malecón, couples sitting with their backs to the city, kissing, el Museo de Bellas Artes, an interminable maze of rooms and corridors filled with Cuban paintings of all periods, la Galeria de Arte Contemporaneo, a surprisingly good exhibit of contemporary art, la Casa del Che, an empty ghostly mausoleum opposite the statue of Cristo, el Morro, heavy on the other side of the Havana harbor, indifferent to the rest of the city, forever facing the unpredictable seas. All points of interest are exactly as we expected: impressive in size and reputation. We visit them one by one like the tour guide suggests, blending in the steady flow of pink tourists with photo cameras, backpacks, sunglasses, and hats.

 

The Cathedral of San Cristobal

The Cathedral of San Cristobal

 

 But the atmosphere of this city, like a storm cloud, is heavy and charged with anxiety. What impresses us most are not the many points of interest turned touristic attractions but the aftermath-like ruins of the residential buildings. Everywhere, behind colorful facades hide dark humid interiors; the old apartment buildings are in a sad state of neglect and decay.

An apartment building entrance in Havana

An apartment building entrance in Havana

The care-free Habaneros of our imagination have been forever left to linger in the 1970s and the 1980s, succeeded by hungry sad people who have lost everything: hope, faith, and dignity.

A Cuban kid standing on a doorway

A Cuban kid standing on a doorway

We keep going. We only stop for beers, some ice cream, a small pizza and mango juice, and we are ready for the next place, dodging the inevitable taxi drivers offering rides and guided tours. We also start noticing strange things, some don’t make sense at all.

A goat in downtown Havana

A goat in downtown Havana

A beautiful woman with a bright dress comes out of a dark  suspicious apartment entrance where electrical cables form a dense tangled maize on the wall. Used baby diapers have been washed and are now hanging to dry on a balcony. A 15-year-old boy is sitting on the sidewalk flattening beer cans with a hummer, his friends pass by holding wooden planks and invite him to play baseball; he can’t, has to work. The little bakery is almost empty, so is the fruit and vegetables bodegas. The big news they announce on TV is that eggs will be distributed in the entire country tomorrow. An old woman explains that the upper floor of the building she lives in crumbled and fell over her up-stairs neighbors last year killing the father. A teenage girl is kissing a very old foreigner in the park. All refrigerators you see through open doors of dark apartments are the same made-in-China model. Things don’t make sense to us but we hope that at least they make sense to the locals. But the locals tell us they don’t really. „Hay que inventar.“, we hear them sigh often. It means, they have to resort to their imagination, they have to „invent“ ways to survive. On the positive side of it, this makes them very resourceful and versatile people.

 

A fifteen-year-old boy flattening beer cans

A fifteen-year-old boy flattening beer cans

Thus, we discover La Habana full of past glory and sad misery, getting to know her bit by bit. She reminds us of the Cubana posing all day on the corner of the Plaza de la Catedral in her traditional cotton dress  and a huge unlit cigar in the mouth, like Mickey Mouse or Spider Man in Disney World, waiting for tourists to take her picture for a peso. La Habana charms us, invites us, surprises us, shocks us. We are left with a wrong feeling inside. Having a relaxed authentic experience here today is almost impossible. We wish we could have visited La Habana in the 1980s.

La Cubana

La Cubana

 

More Pictures from Havana

 

Cuban girls

Cuban girls

 

A dog in the window

A dog in the window

 

Load of bananas

Load of bananas

 

A dead decapitated bird on a tree

A dead decapitated bird on a tree

 

A crumbling yellow facade. Woman with child

A crumbling yellow facade. Woman with child

 

A Cuban girl

A Cuban girl

 

A yellow facade

A yellow facade

 

El perro chino. Walking

El perro chino. Walking

 

Fish

Fish

 

 

Pregnant woman on a balcony

Pregnant woman on a balcony

 

Plaza

Plaza

 

Contemporary Art Gallery

Contemporary Art Gallery

 

Blue facade

Blue facade

 

Blue girls

Blue girls

 

Old cars

Old cars

 

Dog

Dog

 

Window

Window

 

Looking out from El Morro over Havana Harbor

Looking out from El Morro over Havana Harbor

 

Two boys

Two boys

 

Plaza Vieja

Plaza Vieja

 

Stairs and electrical box

Stairs and electrical box

 

El Morro from the ocean

El Morro from the ocean

 

 

Man behind peacock

Man behind peacock

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Cuba: An Introduction

Esto No Es Cuba

 

For years we dreamed of visiting and exploring Cuba. Starting in Havana with its rich cultural and historical heritage, we were planning to travel in the interior of the country as well and see authentic Cuban life in rural villages, away from the big city and the touristic resorts. This plan didn’t work for various reasons.

Before sailing to Cuba, I read a thick book: Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and I couldn’t help but admire Fidel Castro’s struggle against military dictator Batista and Imperial America’s interests and presence in Cuba in the 1950-s. Castro, Che Guevara and a  handful of rebeldes hiding in la Sierra Maestra started a movement that grew and spread and sparked a full scale revolution which overthrew an unjust cruel regime and implemented social and agrarian reforms in the early 1960-s. To us the Cuban Revolution, like the French Revolution (and any other revolution) was, and still is, the greatest event in any country’s history.

Che Guevara graffiti on a wall in Havana

Che Guevara graffiti on a wall in Havana

 

In Cuba, we were expecting to find „the accidental eden„: a country small and isolated but independent and dignified; a land unspoiled by big industry where all crops are organic and the food is healthy; a defiant welcoming people that stood undefeated and proud so close to an imperial giant. We wanted to show to our children that an alternative is possible and can work for an entire nation. An alternative to capitalism, consumerism, globalization; a whole different system organized around principals of equality and simplicity, where people were not reach in possessions but nevertheless educated, healthy, and happy.

We didn’t find that country and our romantic expectations all burst into pieces in just a few days.

Instead, we found a ruined place with building crumbling over their residents and streets resembling war trenches; dirty stores with almost no merchandise inside; people begging for a dollar or a T-shirt or a roll of toilet paper or anything at all, with tears in their eyes and no pride left in them, cheating, stealing and prostituting themselves to survive another day full of incomprehensible misery, afraid to speak out their indignation; a dysfunctional system that has abandoned its citizens in deplorable state to fend for themselves; and a government implementing its rule with police force, propaganda and cruel restrictions to basic human rights.

 

A street in Havana

A street in Havana

We arrived in Havana on July 24, just in time for the big national holiday: the anniversary of the Moncada assault 26 de Julio, but we didn’t see any organized celebrations and festivities.

The first Cubans we met were the immigration and border officers, a doctor, the dock masters, and a drug dog who one by one boarded our boat upon arrival. They all, except the dog, asked for propina (a tip) in a way we couldn’t refuse. One guy even returned our five dollar bill and said he couldn’t accept less than twenty… They also „liked“ our big garlic which they spotted in the galley and of course took some of it. This unpleasant situation lasted for a few stressful hours. One by one various officials boarded Fata Morgana and extorted American dollars from us. And this is the „normal“ procedure for all boats arriving in Cuba.

In the next few days we met more Cubans. We noticed that those who were corrupted like the border officials, or those who had relatives in America sending them money and things, managed somehow to live comfortably, but the ones who were trying to lead more honest life and had no relatives outside of the country,  lived in complete misery, even though employed.

The Cuban doctors, teachers, drivers, janitors all receive a ridiculous state salary, the equivalent of about 10 to 20 US dollars per month which cannot cover basic expenses like food, electricity bill, water. And pensions are even less.

 

Tita, 82 and Roberto, 83 in their downtown Havana apartment. Both retired. To survive, they collect fresh water and boil it at night, selling it in plastic bottles to neighbors the next day. ( The municipal water in Havana is dangerous to drink if not boiled)

Tita, 82 and Roberto, 83 in their downtown Havana apartment. Both retired. Tita’s pension is about $ 8 per month. To survive, they collect fresh water and boil it at night, selling it in plastic bottles to neighbors the next day. ( The municipal water in Havana is dangerous to drink if not boiled)

In Cuba, there are two currencies: the Cuban peso for the Cubans and the convertible peso (CUC) for the tourists, which complicates the crippled economy further and is insulting for the population. The convertible peso’s value is almost the same as the US dollar. 1 CUC costs 24 Cuban pesos. There is also food stamps for the population (as if the entire population is underprivileged or in a state of emergency, which they pretty much are). This is the only country in the world that distributes food stamps to its citizens outside wartime, which get them a small ratio of basic products like rice, beens, eggs (if there is any),flower, sugar, and salt but this is not enough to get by. And they cannot afford anything „fancier“. A bottle of 1.5L orange juice costs 1.5 CUC. One beer is 1 CUC. One bread is 3 CUC. So they are pushed to resort to alternative ways of providing for the family.

A truck driver makes about 360 pesos or 15 CUC per month. So, he will steal the truck’s fuel and sell it, as well as most of the load, property of the state. Thus, often, the goods don’t get to the stores and nobody wonders why. A construction worker makes about the same salary as the truck driver. So he will steal construction materials and sell them. Thus, buildings and roads are falling apart often killing residents, the whole infrastructure is crumbling, and nobody wonders why.

 

We tried to find and buy bread. This is the local panaderia, bakery. All they had was galletas, dried hard bread.

We tried to find and buy bread. This is the local panaderia, bakery. All they had was galletas, dried hard bread.

But if Cuban people today are stealing and cheating and prostituting themselves, it is because they are pushed to do so in order to survive, not because they are inherently bad. It is the last consequence in a chain of consequences. And in the base of the chain is, with no doubt, the American embargo.

In the years after the Revolution, as a response to a massive nationalization of American business and assets in Cuba, United States placed an embargo which prevents American companies from dealing with Cuba, as well as US citizens from traveling  to Cuba. It also sanctions non-US corporations trading with Cuba. Thus, during the Cold War, Cuba’s economic survival mainly depended on trade and assistance from the Soviet Union. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, Cuba was left hanging in thin air, alone. And the US embargo is still on.

 

A Cuban Girl

A Cuban Girl

The embargo is cruel, unjust, hypocritical, and simply ridiculous. Its stated reason for still being in effect after half a century is the lack of democracy and human rights in Cuba. At the same time, USA has supported and even helped to implement cruel dictator’s regimes in the region: Pinochet in Chile, a bunch of dictators in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, and many many others. Instead of helping to liberate the Cuban people from communist oppression, the embargo is causing poverty, famine, and suffering among the population.

But the embargo is not the only reason for the present malfunction of the communist regime in Cuba.

In such a deplorable economical state of affairs, a political system based on principals of „equality“ cannot function at all. Pretty much everyone is „equally“ poor. And in such an environment corruption on all levels easily takes root. The entire communist idea, the principals of the Revolution, got corrupted long ago and today the poor Cubans we met are placing the blame for their dire situation entirely on the Cuban government who seams has abandoned them, or more precisely, keeps them as slaves. „What do you think needs to be done?“, I asked a man (whose name I cannot mention here) after he invited me in his house with dirt floors and no windows which he shares with his daughter and four grand children, to show me how Cubans live so that I can show the world. Getting very close to my face, with an intense look, he answered: “ Fusillar a Castro“ (Shoot Castro).

A poor Cuban household in Jaimanitas, near Havana

A poor Cuban household in Jaimanitas, near Havana

Later that day we witnessed an arrest further down the street in Jaimanita, a small village near Havana where marina Hemingway is. An army jeep full of soldiers quickly appeared and  stopped in front of a house and all people walking up and down the street suddenly disappeared. The soldiers ran in the house and pulled out four middle aged men with handcuffs. Someone explained to us, the arrested were organizing something against the government, but one of the many „chivatos“ (traitors) who are all over the place betrayed them. We don’t know what happened to those men.

It is evident that a great change is needed for Cuba, if not a new Revolution, and fast. The country, like a small ship that has sailed a long way across storms and sharp rocks, is now sinking, but the captain is not letting an SOS signal keeping the passengers away from the life-rafts. And on the American ship, a humongous cruise boat near by, people are watching the spectacle and having a party.

 

A Cuban Man

A Cuban Man

 

 

daily prompt

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Sailing to Cuba

 

 

Sailing from Dry Tortugas Florida to Havana Cuba was our first offshore passage. We did 95 nautical miles in 29 hours, never used the engines, only winds.

July 23, Tuesday.

The morning of the first day is calm: flat seas, clear skies, very light winds. Our maximum speed is 2.0 knots. Minimum speed 0.0 knots. A few hours later, we could still see the lighthouse of Loggerhead Key behind us. Thus, we drift and wait for winds…

becalmed

becalmed

We expected a strong current to affect our course at night once we hit the Gulf Stream, but we don’t notice anything of the sort. Only stronger winds and more waves, which were welcome after a day of nearly deadcalm. Or maybe the fact that we first sailed west to Dry Tortugas and then south- southeast to Cuba made our crossing of the Gulf Stream, one of the most powerful currents in the world, easy. The full moon is a welcome companion and invaluable light source creating a silvery path for the boat to follow.

The next day, our average speed is 4 knots. The sea is beautiful, full of curious dolphins playing around the boat. Two cargo ships pass behind us booming slowly, metal giants going somewhere far. At noon, tiny fishing boats start to appear. Tall buildings emerge on the horizon. Hola Havana!

Cuban Fishermen

Cuban Fishermen

As we are slowly approaching our destination, we feel excited and proud, as we have just accomplished something very important. I face the shore line: Havana’s grey buildings to the left, green mountains to the right, and call out as loud as I can: „Cuba!“

Fisherman near Havana

A boy fishing near Havana

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Turtle Nest Expedition

 

 

 

Loggerhead Key is a tiny island in Dry Tortugas, across from Garden Key where Fort Jefferson is. A tall lighthouse, three times the height of a regular one, was erected here in the 19th century, about the same time as Fort Jefferson was being built.

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

 

There are not organized tours here, and so the island, its white sandy beaches, and the coral reefs around it are undisturbed by people most of the time. The only way to come here is by boat.

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

 

July 22, Monday

We drop anchor very carefully on a sandy bottom patch, making sure there are no coral heads beneath. Ivo and I take the kayak to check out the lighthouse and explore the place. Viktor and Maya stay on the boat to play video games…

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

 

On the island we stumble upon Mark and Suzy, Marine Biology Students doing an internship and a group of scientists studying the sea turtles.

Suzy

Suzy

Kristen Hart, a research ecologist, and her crew have just arrived to monitor some of the turtle nests on the beach.

They accept our offer to help with the turtle nest expedition. (Our help consists in caring a huge beach umbrella and holding it above the excavating researchers, taking pictures, and asking too many questions.)

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

 

In the next couple of hours, under the hot tropical sun, Kristen and her crew excavate turtle nests marked by a pole indicating a recent hatching.

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

They count the eggshells, mark the nest GPS positions, take samples from the unhatched eggs by opening them and collecting the smelly rotten yolks in a jar.

An unhatched baby turtle

An unhatched baby turtle

 

The nests contain exactly one hundred yellowish eggshells each, of which a few unhatched eggs in various stages of development, and couple of baby turtle body parts, meaning that most of the baby turtles successfully hatched and made it to the ocean sometime in the past couple of days.

We are so grateful to be part of this expedition… It is an amazing learning experience; we only regret that the kids didn’t come. We learn about the green turtles and the loggerhead turtles, their habitat, behavior, and reproduction first hand.

We spend the evening and a night of a full moon on the boat watching the light of the lonely lighthouse lazily circling around us. Tonight, enormous creatures will emerge slowly from the warm dark waters of the ocean hauling their heavy shells across the sands to find a familiar spot. A place where many many years ago they awoke buried among their one hundred brothers and sisters and with much effort their journey begun. At this spot, they will remember, their old mother came, many many years ago, and gently covered with sand one hundred round eggs, her most treasured possession. They will remember, yes, and they will do as she did. Tonight.

Full moon over the lighthouse

Full moon over the lighthouse

 

The next morning we go back to the island, this time with Maya and Viktor, to investigate the sands of the beach for new nests. Another short expedition.

Suzy leads us along the beach

Suzy leads us along the beach

 

Suzy leads us along the southeast beach showing us fresh turtle tracks and nests, explaining the difference between the green turtle and the loggerhead nesting behavior. I am glad the kids are interested and participate. This is an example of how they learn valuable lessons outside school, thanks to traveling. A natural history, ecology, and biology lesson they will never forget.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

 

They learn that green turtles and loggerheads have different patterns of walking on the sand and making their nests. That they dig sometimes a few nests before choosing where to lay their eggs. That they do this in the dark of the night to avoid being discovered and bothered by birds and predators. That they lay a hundred eggs or more, of which over 90% hatch successfully, but only a small fraction of the baby turtles make it to adulthood. The rest become easy prey for marine predators. That, if they make it, they can live to be hundreds of years old. That people hunt them in the past for they were an easy pray and had delicious meat until their numbers diminished dramatically. That today hunting and killing a sea turtle is a crime. That pollution, oil spills, and destruction of their habitat continues even now to endanger them. And that there are now programs and individuals out there who care about them and try to preserve them.

 

You can read more about the sea turtles of Dry Tortugas and the research and conservation efforts of scientists like Kristen Hart in Implementing the Dry Tortugas National Park Research Natural Area Science Plan: The 5-Year Report 2012.

 

 

 

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Dry Tortugas

 

 

 

The time has come to sail away. Leave Key West and start visiting other places.

First destination: Cuba with a short stop in Dry Tortugas.

 

July 19, 7:00 am, Friday, we leave our Key West anchorage and head west. From here to Dry Tortugas are about 70 miles. Light wind (about 10 knots) is pushing us from the east. We are not going very fast, 5 to 6 nautical miles per hour, but we are not in a hurry and after 3 jibes and 14 hours of uneventful sailing we enter a marine sanctuary comprising seven uninhabited undeveloped coral and sand islands: Dry Tortugas.

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Garden Key

Explorer Ponce de Leon originally named the area Las Tortugas (Turtles) in 1513 for the shores of the islands were (and still are) favorite nesting grounds for sea turtles. Soon after, as ships started cruising these waters, the place became known as Dry Tortugas to mariners indicating that there ins’t fresh water on the islands.

The Lighthouse on top of Fort Jefferson

The Lighthouse on top of Fort Jefferson

It is already dark when we drop anchor in the anchorage next to Garden Key, a small island entirely occupied by Fort Jefferson: an impressive 19th century fort. This must be the most dramatic anchorage just outside the massive abandoned monster of a building.

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Fort Jefferson

The steps leading up and down the 2 levels of the fort and the roof

The steps leading up and down the 2 levels of the fort and the roof

 

The story of Fort Jefferson is as pathetic as it is fascinating. The Americans begun its construction in 1846 and the idea was to build a military fort and thus control navigation in  the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty years later, as the fort was still unfinished, it became evident that the construction was a failure.

Maya, Ivo, and Vick looking out from Fort Jefferson

Maya, Ivo, and Vick looking out from Fort Jefferson

Too many things went wrong mainly because of the lack of drinking water: the water tanks collecting rainwater failed, the iron corrugated, the bricks crumbled, the sewage system didn’t work, the workers became sick having to drink mosquito larva infested semi-salty water. Nature defeated man.

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From the top looking down

Looking out a broken window

Looking out a broken window

 

Still, Fort Jefferson was put to use during the Civil War as a Union military prison for deserters. It housed the four men convicted of complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln including doctor Samuel Mudd. By 1880s, the American Army abandoned the project and in 1908 the area became a wildlife refuge; a National Monument in 1935; and a National Park and Sanctuary in 1992.

 

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Inside the abandoned fort

The next two days we explore the fort in and outside as well as the island kayaking from our boat to shore.

Viktor "pushing" Maya off the roof of the fort

Viktor „pushing“ Maya off the roof of the fort

The building is enormous, we didn’t expect this. We roam for hours through its dark humid corridors and chambers imagining life in those times. We go there in the morning and in the afternoon, when all the day tourists arriving from Key West packed  in a motor boat for a four-hour guided tour are gone.

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Running around Fort Jefferson

At this point, we hate those tourist crowds so much, we keep as far as possible, as if they were diseased cockroaches. I believe tourism has spoiled so many once remote natural wonders and historic sites transforming them into ridiculous crowded polluted money-making resorts and attractions.

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At least, they don’t play loud music and serve alcohol in Fort Jefferson, no disco clubs and casinos here. I hope they will never transform part of the fort into a hotel, but at this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do… For now, there is only the anchorage where boats can stay overnight and a small camping ground on the island with a few tent sites.

Getting to Fort Jefferson by kayak.

Getting to Fort Jefferson by kayak.

The only permanent residents here are various seabirds, billions and billions of hermit crabs with fancy shells, and a sea crocodile who comes out of the ocean before sunset to slumber on the hot sands of the deserted beach.

Sea birds resting on our boat

Sea birds resting on our boat

Mira with a hermit crab

Mira with a hermit crab

A sea crocodile on the beach at sunset

A sea crocodile on the beach at sunset

close up of the crock running back in the water

close up of the crock running back in the water

 

On the third day, we lift anchor (no motor on) and we sail very carefully among coral reefs for about two hours to the next  island, Loggerhead Key, where a tall lighthouse stays erected amidst a patch of palm trees surrounded by sandy beaches. Here, we spend a day and a night. And something incredible happens, it must be karma… You won’t believe it!

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

 

Inspiration

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