Word flashed around Key West as it always does. Jimmy Buffet didn’t invent the cocoanut telegraph, he just named it. The year is 1990 and boats are crossing the Florida Straits. As America poised to restart a “people to people” contact policy with Cuba, we at the southernmost point were already sailing for Marina Hemingway….. After all, it’s only “Ninety Seven Miles South.”
The 90’s found us – much to the amazement of the rest of America – enjoying the warm hospitality of our closest Caribbean neighbor. Havana became our best kept secret. At times, on offseason crossings, we ran across not another Yankee visitor, not a single American. No political agenda motivated our trips…. we came to fish and dive.
We made friends and became willing purveyors of much needed hope to a populace suffering through a difficult era, “The Special Period.” Bonds formed with a warm, cordial people under the watchful eyes of suspicious overlords.
We brought baseball bats and medicine, powered milk and shampoo, multi-vitamins and microwaves. On one trip we landed a new bike and traded it to a young boy for his rusted Chinese relic. On the eve of Christmas’s official re-emergent, we served a traditional turkey dinner dockside and chuckled as an amazed marina guard paused, puzzled by the first dinner plate he’d ever held without beans.
After rounds of fresh mint Mojitos, Cohiba cigars, and some of the finest music in the world, we set off. In sight of Havana’s skyline we caught sails, marlin and wolf-packing wahoo prowling a stone’s throw beyond the surf line. On the south side we stalked endless sandy shallows for schools of bonefish, permit and tarpon, and on a mountain lake, an old Cuban pointed out sunken tree trunks where largemouth bass—imported from Lake Okeechobee and the King ranch in Texas- grow to mutant proportions in waters that never chill. We dove pristine reefs and swam among colorful clouds of tropical fish, hovering over Elkhorn corral gardens.
Fishing and diving off Cuba’s shores is “magnifico.” Bass rich reservoirs spill into snook laced rivers, scarcely angled. On crystal flats schools of permit roam, never having seen a fly. Off the rugged eastern coast migrating tuna pass close, funneled through the Windward Passage, while off the lonely west side whale sharks gather, gorging on snapper spawn. Warm, clean, nutrient waters bathe the shores with visibility at many dive sites exceeding infinity. With more shoreline than Florida, out-islands, marshes and mangrove lined estuaries, flowing rivers and deep water reservoirs…… Cuba is indeed a sportsman’s Eden.
Cuba is also a land to love. Havana at night is magic. Outside the cities, green forested mountain ranges hide lush flowered valleys. The interior’s rolling central plain rises to terraced mango and avocado orchards, stopping short of sheer rock cliffs, separating miles of snow white beaches. And exotic towns like Santiago and Trinidad de Cuba are home to 500 year old cathedrals and ancient Morro castle forts, keeping silent watch over the harbors.
I return after a nine year hiatus to a people with every reason to distrust Americans, instead they welcome us as relatives reuniting after a family spat. Besides, everyone in Cuba has a cousin in Miami.