There is something about Cuba…
Maybe it’s the allure of traveling to a forbidden (or once forbidden) land that creates the attraction for many citizens of the US. Is it the rebellious pride that comes from telling friends, family, and acquaintances that you are traveling to Cuba, or that you’ve just returned? And then seeing their face as they admire your courage. I won’t forget the airline representative’s concerned scowl as she checked my wife and I in for our flight from Bozeman to Havana… “Aren’t you afraid of traveling in Cuba?’ As if the Cuban people are savages ready to lie, cheat, and steal… or worse. No doubt the residue of unfair stereotyping communist criminals with nothing but hatred for the United State.
The time warp could also be the attraction. The image of ‘50’s and ‘60’s era American automobiles, painted in bright colors, racing around the streets of Havana and the countryside of Cuba. Gangsters, dressed all in white complete with fedoras, smoking cigars, drinking mojitos, and playing craps in the casinos. The idea of reliving the glory days of Havana, when it was the playground of the rich and famous from around the world, is a fun thought. A memory of a time when tourism, gambling, music, and alcohol fueled the country. A time before political ideologies separated two countries well beyond the 105 miles of the Caribbean Sea.
When our government announced it was softening the travel restrictions for US citizens to Cuba, my wife and I jumped at the opportunity and adventure. While travel to Cuba for tourism is still strictly prohibited, there are 12 general travel licenses that allow US citizen to visit Cuba. These licenses range in purpose from education, research, humanitarian, and religious visits. The most common travel licence is ‘people to people’. Armed with our people to people licenses from the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, we boarded the Alaska Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Havana.
This trip was much simpler, and less stressful than my first visit ten years ago. For my first visit, I snuck into Cuba with a group of fellow anglers, also from the US, through Cancun Mexico. I will never forget my experience entering Cuba - we each took turns getting buzzed into a small cubicle, with locking doors on either end. Once in the cube, we handed over our passports to a Cuban agent (who spoke no english) in a bulletproof glass protected booth at overhead height. The agent then proceeded to stamp, stamp, stamp, and stamp. The fear of them stamping our passports was amplified by the inability to see what they were stamping so aggressively. Then the relief once the door buzzed on the other end and we were freed from the cube to riffle through the pages of our passports to find them without their deadly tourist stamp - This time, my wife and walked up to the immigration agent and we were greeted in english. I used the opportunity to impress my wife with my mastery of the spanish language. The agent stamped our passports and welcomed us to Cuba.
We collected our bags and exited the airport. As per instructions on our itinerary, we quickly connected with our guide in Havana - Fredo, and our driver for the next two weeks - Manual. Fredo speaks perfect english and we could sense his eagerness to share the culture and the history of his city. Manual is less fluent, but we could see that he understood what we were saying. He would wear a permanent happy grin for the next ten days.
Our first evening in Havana was spent by quickly unpacking and cleaning the air travel grime in the comfort of a hot shower. A change of clothes and my wife and I were off to explore our surroundings. Cars from the era when the US was still involved with the economy whizzed past on the historical streets of Old Havana. We strolled through the Parque Central to La Capitolio, the capitol of Cuba. The building is a smaller carbon copy of our US capitol building in Washington DC. We later discovered they had the same architect. While we explored, armed with cameras, the people of Havana moved through the city on their day to day routines oblivious to our wonderings.
Hunger soon took over and a desire for a mojitos, so we stumbled into a restaurant on the second story of a main street. The mojitos would serve as the benchmark for all mojitos for the rest of our staying Cuba - they were the perfect combination of sweet, tart, and minty. Fresh ceviche and fish fillet satisfied our appetites.
Touring in Havana
The next couple of days we followed Fredo around Havana, learning about the culture, the history, and taking in all that the city and the people have to offer. We learned about cigars at the Partagas factory and rum at the Havana Club factory. We visited with local artists in their studios, as the painted and made prints. We visited the many haunts of Ernest Hemingway, including numerous bar he made famous as he strengthen his addiction to alcohol. The Revolution Square was highlight for me. It was the place that Castro infamously would drone on for hours about the virtues of socialism and communism. Everywhere we went, we were reminded of how beloved fellow revolutionary, Che’ Guevara was/is by the Cuban people. The iconic image of a bearded, beret wearing Guevara was adorned throughout the city (and country). Our take away after two short days in Havana, was that the Cuban people, despite being economically depressed, were as happy or happier than most Americans.
We questioned our guide about the politics of the country. We were curious what they thought of their leadership and the lack of freedoms that we take for granted - like free speech, free press, and the ability to elect our leaders. He fired back with the things Cuban’s take for granted - free education (including university studies) and free health care (one of the best in the world). I guess it’s all about trade offs…
We hadn’t come to Cuba only for the history lessons and the political education. We came there to fish. So after two days of a jam packed schedule of tours and sightseeing, we ventured south to the Bay of Pigs.
Fishing in Cuba
The drive from Havana to Playa Larga, the beach town on the northernmost end of the Bay of Pigs was comfortable and fast. It was fast because Manuel drives fast. We jokingly tagged him Manuel “Andretti”. The drive gave another snapshot into life as a Cuban. The infrastructure was quite impressive. We traveled on a four lane highway for most of the trip. At each intersection or off ramp, large crowds of locals were gathered with baskets of fruit and vegetables, or with handfuls of luggage, all waved cash in the air, in the hopes of being picked up and transported to their destinations. We observed dump truck of stone and gravel traveling south. Then returning north with a load of human cargo. The infrastructure was impressive, but the public transportation was less than adequate.
We arrived at the deep blue waters of the Bay of Pigs. The bay was calm and glassy as it reflected the sky. I found it difficult to imagine how such a tranquil place could have made such an important mark on world history. On April 17, 1961, 1400 Cuban exiles launched what became a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs. I can say that once you see the terrain, it becomes clear why the invasion failed. There is one road that runs north/south along the bay. The invaders were forced to use this avenue to make their way north, to their west was the open waters of the bay, to the east was the dense snarled jungle swamp. They had no cover and were sitting ducks. They had no chance.
The area today is steeped in the reverence of the Cuban soldiers that gave their lives for socialism. Concrete monuments mark the spots each soldier feel. As we drove through the area we noticed hundreds of these monuments throughout the region.
Fast forward fifty years, and the region today has embraced tourism. Many of the locals have opened their homes as hotels and paladars (local restaurants). Tourist from around the globe travel to Playa Larga and Playa Giron to enjoy the impressive beaches, easy access to great scuba diving, snorkeling, bird watching, and my favorite - fishing.
We checked into the Playa Larga Hotel and were shown to our cabana. The concrete block building is indicative of the communist influence from Russia. It was well build, no doubt, able to withstand the strongest of hurricanes. The cabana can be described as a suite, with a spacious living room with mini-fridge, satellite tv, and air conditioning. In the back, the bedroom was also equipped with an air conditioner and two twin beds (which we pushed together). The bathroom was clean and comfortable, and most importantly had hot showers.
The next day we woke before the sun, after a quick breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, and toast… with plenty of coffee. Manual and our guide, Lazaro, picked us up at the cabana and we began to transfer into the Cienaga de Zapata national park. The 45 minute drive kept us on our toes. Manual Andretti navigated the beach road like he was in an off road rally race, stopping only briefly so Lazaro could point out the flamingos, egrets, and herons wading the tide pools along the road.
Once at the launch, we rigged rods as Lazaro prepared his boat. We rigged two 8 weights for bonefish, a 10 weight each for permit, tarpon, and barracuda. When Lazaro pulled the boat up to the dock, he mentioned that today would be a great day to fish ‘outside’. The wind was coming from the north and the barrier islands would be protecting the outer flats from wind. Ten years earlier, I had fished this area (with Lazaro, story to come) and I remember the outer flats being beautiful and perfect habitat for big bonefish and hopefully a permit. Plus, I could see that Lazaro was excited to get out there, and being a guide myself, I know to always trust the guide. If he wants to go outside - we go outside.
The skiff ripped across the ivory white flats southwest of the launch. As we approached the barrier islands Lazaro pointed the skiff toward a hidden channel that would take us to the otherside. Once in the channel, I had flashes of 10 years prior to my first trip the Las Salinas. Back then, there was only one boat with a motor and we each took turns on the day we (guide and client) used the boat. When it was Lazaro and my turn, we came to the same area looking for tarpon. I’ll never forget that day. We searched and searched and didn’t see many tarpon. Mid day we found a school, but they were deep in a mangrove lagoon that the boat could not get to. This is when my respect for Lazaro elevated. He dropped the anchor. Stripped down to his underwear, and dove in. He swam into the mangrove lagoon and began thrashing the water. On que, the school exited the lagoon and swam past the bow of the boat. By the time Lazaro had made it back into the boat, the tarpon on the end of my line had tired, and we boated the only fish for that day. During lunch that day I would retell that story to Lazaro and share laughs with him and my wife.
The boat slowed, and glided onto the flat. Lazaro climbed onto the polling platform as I freed the mantis shrimp from the guide on the rod. Instantly, I spotted a school of bonefish and fired a cast. As soon as the fly hit the surface of the water the school eyed it and charged to eat. The line tighten and the first bonefish of the trip was on. As the 5 pound bonefish spun the reel, I thought to myself ‘we have 6 days of this to come’.
For the next half an hour, I hooked a few more fish. Nearly every bonefish we spotted gobbled up the fly. After a handful of fish to hand, it was Kristin’s turn to get in on the action. She jumped onto the bow and began to search. As we drifted down the flat, each of us hunting for the next fish, I glanced to the deeper side of the flat and convinced myself I glimpsed two permit scooting to deeper water. I asked Lazaro how often he saw permit on this flat, he remarked not often and when he did, they were typically smaller fish. What felt like a minute later, I scoped the unmistakable black sickle shaped tail of a feeding permit - ‘there’s one’. ‘Yes, yes’ Lazaro muttered with excitement as he pushed the boat in it’s direction. But, like permit so often do, it disappeared. Puzzled and slightly disappointed, the boat resumed the hunt down the flat.
A short distance later, Lazaro’s voice heighten, ‘two big fish coming’, ‘its permit, its permit’. Kristin has great eyes and she picked them out before I did. When she raised her rod in their direction, I too made them. Two permit of 20 pounds of better were slowly cruising our direction. Lazaro steadied the boat and said ‘go fur dem’. Kristin confidently double hauled the perfect cast a few feet in front of them. As the fish drew closer she slowly stripped the fly and the flat exploded! Kristin freed the line from any possibility of catching on her toes, fingers, reel, or anything else that could end the battle prematurely.
As battle ensued, I’m still not sure who was more excited, Lazaro or Kristin. As she concentrated and battled the fish into submission, Lazaro would chuckle under his breath and mutter ‘normally there is only small ones here’. He must have said those words a dozen times.
Forty five minutes later, Lazaro jumped from the boat and grasped the fish’s tail. The 28-30 pound beauty was in hand. Wow, what a start to the day and the trip.
The rest of our day was very relaxing. After we landed a few more bonefish, the goal turned to tarpon. Kristin was on pace to earn her first Grand Slam. We searched and searched, yet we only found a few tarpon, none that were willing to eat. But, disappointment never enter our minds… only eagerness for tomorrow.
The north winds persisted on day two. So we made our way to the outer flats for round two. Kristin led off the morning fire shots at bonefish. The morning clouds added an extra challenge to spotting the ghostly fish, but she was able to hook and land a few. One memorable fish was tailing and feeding aggressively in the break waves of a shallow flat. Kristin placed the fly perfectly on a dinner plate off the nose of the fish and of course it ate. The line quickly tighten before ricocheting back to the boat. Puzzled, she lifted the line to see the fly was still on the end of the line. Wierd. How did the fish not get the hook?
Lazaro resumed the drift and I couldn’t help from focusing on the deeper water. I wanted to see another permit. My desires were rewarded with a large school of tailing permit just on the edge of the flat. ‘Permit at 7 o’clock’ I alerted the boat. ‘Yes, yes’ Lazaro saw them and moved the boat into position. Kristin graciously suggested I grab the rod, and I accepted. Lazaro had positioned the boat for the perfect 11 o’clock shot. I stretched out my cast and gently settled the fly a few feet ahead of the lead permit. The fish saw the fly and moved to eat it. I felt the tug and stripped the strike. Nothing?! The school charged the fly again. Again, the line tighten and I pulled back to set the hook. Nothing?! WTF?! A third time the school moved to eat the fly and a third time I felt the fish on the other end, and set the hook. Nothing?! By now the school was close enough to the boat to see the scowl on the my face and bolted to the safety of deep water. As my heart settled back to its normal rate, I questioned Lazaro… ‘Did you see the fish eat the fly?’ ‘Yes mon, he ate’.
I checked the fly and discovered what the issue was. The fly was intact, but there was no hook. The bonefish that Kristin hooked a few minutes prior to the permit episode, had broken the hook. It had either crushed it in it’s crusher or the hook had been weakened and broke. Either way, I learned a valuable lesson.
The morning grew long with no more permit and only a few bonefish to cast to. Lazaro suggested we relocate to the inner lagoon to search for bonefish. We were happy we did. The bonefishing was superb. We each boated enough fish, that we lost count, and another productive day came to an end.
Day three the wind had shifted to the prevailing easterly direction, so the outside flats wouldn’t be fishing. Lazaro took us to his favorite area to the north east of the launch to hunt of big single and double bonefish. Our day started slow, as the fish were difficult to see because of lingering clouds. Despite the sighting challenge we boated a few fish. By late morning the skies had cleared, the tide was on the rise, and the bonefish were on the feed. Nearly every fish or school we found was eager to eat the shrimp fly on the end of our lines. As the day grew long, our casting arms grew tired and it was time to head back to the lodge for a cerveza.
On the 4th day we headed to the Rio Hatiguanico on the northern end of the Cienaga De Zapata park, to fish for tarpon with Felipe Rodriguez. Felipe is another one of the top guides in the area, but what he wants to be known for is his fly fishing school. The students of the school are the local youth who have interest in becoming a fishing guide. Felipe teaches them to cast (a few of his students can cast farther than most fishing guides I know), to tie flies, how to rig rods, how to poll a boat, and other necessary skills to be a successful fishing guide in Cuba. His vision for the future is really… Cuba needs to be training the next generation of guides if it wants to continue to create memorable experiences.
We arrived at the river. Geared up and loaded into the Tracker boat. A long boat ride to the main channel gave Felipe that opportunity to tell some stories and share his passion for both teaching the youth in the area and the sport of fly fishing. Once we hit the main channel, Felipe put the hammer down and we ripped down river to one of his favorite fishing holes.
Shortly after the engine was quiet we spotted a few juvenile tarpon rolling near the boat. Kristin gave me the first shot at them. I cast my ten weight, loaded with a fast sinking head and a chartreuse baitfish pattern. A few casts into the morning, and I felt the unmistakable tug on the other end. The fish rocketed out of the water and spit the fly. The same scenario would happen another half a dozen times before I was able to get one to stick - a healthy 15 pound tarpon was brought to the boat.
Kristin took over as fish continued to roll in every direction. She jumped a few before getting one to stay on the end of the line. Three to four jumps and Kristin had tired out a 10-12 pounder enough for Felipe to grab the lip and hand it to Kristin for the glory shot.
After putting a few fish in the boat, Felipe was anxious to move down river to the zone they see the ‘big’ fish. The boat stopped about a mile for where it empties into the ocean and within minutes we saw tarpon rolling on the surface. Felipe eased the boat into position and we began launching casts as far as we could. At first we took turns on the bow, but found that we could easily both be casting - one on the bow, one on the stern. We plugged away for awhile, casting in the direction of the rolling fish. Despite long casts, the fish stayed just out of range.
Kristin was taking a break to enjoy a fresh mango, so I assumed her position on the bow of the boat. I asked Felipe about a fly change, and he dug through my fly box and pulled out a fly I had been gifted a few days earlier by a German man who had just finished a few days of fishing on the river… ‘This one will work’ Felipe shared as he handed me the fly. A few casts later, I felt a surge of energy at the end of my line. I gripped fly line with my left hand pulled as hard as I could to set the hook deep into whatever was pulling on the other end. Sixty feet from the boat, the river’s surface erupted as a silver king blasted into the air… “Holy shit!” was all I could say as I laid eyes on the 80+ pound beast. As the fish reentered the water, I stripped the line again in an attempt to drive the hook deep into it’s boney jaw. The line peeled a short distance more, before the tension was gone. The entire rush took less than 30 seconds, but for me, time stood still.
Reinvigorated, Kristin returned to the bow and continued to ‘chuck and duck’ with the heavy line and fly. Astute to the difference the fly change made, she asked for an fly change too. Luckily, I had a classic ‘Black Death’ fly in my box… that closest fly to what had just been eaten. After Felipe tied on the fly and checked his knot, Kristin was back at her cast and stip routine.
A fish rolled within casting distance and Kristin quickly retrieved her line to cast in the direction the fish had shown itself. The perfect cast landed on the water as the ripples were softening. She counted the fly down… 7,8,9,10… then started fishing the fly. Her line tighten. She pulled back. The hook was set as a mighty tarpon jumped into the air. She ‘bowed’ to the king like a pro and the fight was on. For the next 45 minutes a tug of war unsued. The mighty fish broke the water at least 5 more times. The excitement was high for everyone in the boat. A few times we had the fish close to the boat… not quite close enough for a ‘leader’ landing, but close enough to estimate the size of the beast… 75-80 pounds is what Felipe estimated. It was difficult to guess who was more exhausted, Kristin or the tarpon. Neither were willing to give an inch. Deep into the battle, Kristin was giving the fish every bit the 10 weight could handle, when the line went slack… the line was intact, but the hook has pulled free. I can still feel her disappointment as write about the moment.
To take a break from the moment, we motored down river to mouth, where the river met the sea. According to Felipe, tarpon could be found cruising the transition zone. We didn’t see any signs of fish, so we ventured back to the zone we had been seeing them. Felipe ask if we wanted to race back to where we found the baby tarpon, and finish our day fishing for them. Both Kristin and I had gotten a taste of the giants that swam in the dark water beneath the boat… we were not going anywhere else.
As Kristin drank a beer and relished the battle that had prematurely ended, I made a few last casts. In fact, I called ‘last cast’ before launching a deep cast. The fly settled and I began to strip. The fly moved a few feet before the line tightened yet again and the water exploded. “Felipe, I don’t think we’re going to be back in time for the van”, I howled as the fish tail walked toward the sea. This one stayed on through the first powerful run, and I have to admit, I felt I had a chance at bringing it in. My attention focused to the task on the other end. I was ready for a lengthy battle. The fish breached another time and what too often happens, happened. The fly boomeranged back to the boat and the fish swam free. I wasn’t disappointed, and maybe even a bit relieved that I wouldn’t be spending the next hour playing tug of war.
We returned to the Park Headquarters and shared our stories with the other angler’s boat and our driver Manual, before heading back to the Playa Larga. The hour long drive was just the right amount of time to get a little nap in, before jumping into the Bay of Pigs.
That evening we ventured into town for dinner. Don Alexis’ place was the first recommendation, and it was a great one. Alexis had five fresh seafood options to choose from - Tuna, Wahoo, Shrimp, Snapper, and Swordfish. I had the wahoo, Kristin had the snapper. Alexis took great care of us, and the food was the best we had in Playa Larga.
Day five we headed back to the flats. More bonefish were landed, but the highlight of the day was a 20 pound snook. We had been search most of the morning for bonefish, with enough success to keep us casting. On this morning, we fish the outer flats, characterized by white sand that the bonefish could easily cloak themselves on. The sighting was the most difficult we had experienced thus far in the trip. Regardless, we boated enough fish to make it an epic day in most parts of Belize or Mexico.
Mid day, just before lunch, the fish dried up. We were not finding the fish and the few lagoons we tried to access the water was too low to get the boat into (or for bonefish to swim into). Lazaro approached a mangrove island and instructed me to grab the rod we had rigged for barracudas and jacks. He had me blind casting to under the mangrove branches in search of a snook. He was convinced they lived here. We worked about a quarter mile of the mangrove island, then rounded the southern tip, onto a soft bottom flat. In the middle of the flat was a dark, auburn brownish fish, shape that could have been a fish. Lazaro saw it too, but I sensed he was as uncertain as me… if it was a snook, it was a HUGE snook.
He polled the boat closer, and at the same time we made out the large pectoral fins as they slowly held the fish in place. My fly landed about 8 feet to the right of the fish, a bit farther than I was aiming for… but it didn’t matter. As soon as the fly landed, the fish moved in for the kill. I was only able to strip once or twice before I saw it’s mouth open wide and inhale the fly. Game on! Lazaro quickly moved the boat away from any obstacle in the fish’s path. And after a short fight, Lazaro had the beast in his hands. Looking back, I’m positive he was more excited about that fish, than giant permit Kristin caught on the first day.
It was our last day of fishing in Cuba, and I deferred to Kristin’s choice of location. Redemption must have been on her list, because she wanted another chance at landing a giant tarpon. So we joined Felipe for another day on the river. The fishing wasn’t the only motivator, she developed a deep respect for Felipe and the guide school he had created. We made plans to meet up with some of his students at the end of our fishing day. The conditions on the river were nearly identical to the day we fished there earlier in the week, but the tarpon didn’t want to cooperate. So we optimize our time learning more about Felipe. He was an amazing person. He was a teacher for many years, but always loved fishing and meeting new people, mostly tourist, who were traveling through his southern Cuba. It was enjoyable to feel his passion for educating the next generation of fishing guides in Cuba. He sees a career as a guide as being extremely beneficial to his students. They will have an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families, beyond what the socialist government provides. It is important to note, that as guide, they get paid $35 US per week. But, they often earn over $50 US per day as a tip... much more than most citizens in Cuba.
On our way back to Playa Larga, we stopped to meet a few of his students. He was very proud of them and their abilities. They each took turns casting for us. I must admit, they could cast every bit as good as most professional guides I know in the US, and a few of his students were much better casters. We shared some more laughs with the students before heading on our way.
The rest of our trip was spent traveling back to Havana, with one more day of sight seeing around the city. For our final evening in Havana, we visited a local club where members of the Buena Vista Social Club and other noted Cuban musicians performed. Before the night was over, we were dancing on stage with them, laughing and appreciated the kindness of the people of Cuba.
For more information about Damien's return Hosted Trip to Cuba in the spring of 2018, Hosted Trip - Cuba.
Check out our video of the trip: