It has always been very important to me, when bringing people to Cuba to fish, that they are able to discover and experience some of Cuban life and culture. But the fishing packages are usually a week long, and with travel to and from the locations, most travelers are hard-pressed to add more days to their already long vacation. Finally, after lots of time and energy trying to create this kind of trip, we were approached by an outfitter that had all the pieces of the puzzle put together.
In April of 2018, I led the first combination cultural-fishing trip of this kind, along with six great guests from different parts of the U.S. There was some hesitancy on my part, especially regarding some of the individual pieces of the itinerary. In truth, almost all of it was exceptional, and what wasn't we have been able to change. And this is the best part of this particular package.....that our guides and hosts on the ground in Cuba are able to accommodate our wishes, and customize our trip as we go along.
Using the outline already created by our partner outfitter, and then making some small changes and additions, I think we now have what we want. It is my belief that travelers to Cuba gain the most knowledge and enjoy themselves the most, when they really get a chance to meet the Cuban people, and to gain insight in to their way of life. So, although we see the tourists sites, we have made a concerted effort to add in events where we truly do get to experience Cuban life, and to meet local people and children.
Our trip to Cuba would go something like this: Guests land in Havana and gather at the small guesthouse in old town that we reserve for this trip. Typically, other groups stay in large hotels where they are herded around with masses of tourists. We stay in a small but beautiful colonial house, owned and staffed by a local Cuban family. Our first afternoon and evening is generally free, so that travelers can rest a bit after their long trip and get acclimated to their surroundings. I generally will meet with the group for a drink, and most often will reserve space in a nice restaurant for a casual meal.
The next day the trip starts in earnest. After breakfast at our casa we are joined by our Cuban guide. He will explain each days activities, and then we are off and running. In two days spent in Havana, we do a walking tour of Old Havana, seeing all the old squares and learning the history of this nearly 500 year old town. We also tour a cigar factory, guided by an expert in everything tobacco and the art of rolling these world-renowned cigars. Our guide also arranges for us to tour all the districts of Havana in vintage American convertibles, all from the 1950's, which is a real treat. We will also venture to the outskirts of Havana, and visit the ranch where Ernest Hemingway lived for many years. We learn about the popular religion Santeria from a local expert, and visit a Cuban elementary school if possible. All meals are included during our time in Havana, and we eat in beautiful privately owned "paladars" (restaurants) where we sample very typical Cuban cuisine, often accompanied by great music. We also take the time, of course, to stop at some of the city's best bars to sample Mojitos, Cuba Libres, Daiquiris and local Cuban beer.
For those groups that are interested, and who have the time, we add in the region of Vinales. Only a two and a half hour drive from Havana, this is an amazing rural area where most of Cuba’s quality tobacco is grown. Life here is laid-back, and gives visitors a glimpse in to how Cubans in the countryside live.
I want to highlight two very special things that we try and do while in Havana. I wanted guests to have the opportunity to interact with young students, and our guide Alfredo has organized this. If it works with the school's schedule, we visit a classroom and talk with the young students. Often, they have had some English instruction, and will want to ask us questions. I always talk with the teachers and administrators at the school about their needs, since supplies in Cuba can be difficult to obtain. Guests willing to participate can buy and bring things like colored chalk, pencils, erasers, calculators and other basic items so needed by both students and teachers. This is a fantastic part of our trip.
One other activity that we always try and organize is an evening in the apartment of a local Cuban couple, who are outstanding musicians. Again, if schedules are accommodating we might dine with this family, and then enjoy an evening of them performing Cuban ballads. Dayami and Javier are completing their degrees in music at the university of Havana, and seem to be rising stars on the Cuban music scene. They are mesmerizing in their talents, and lovely people to be around.
Now for the fishing! On our third morning in Havana we check out of our casa after an early breakfast, and travel south- east about 90 minutes to the Rio Hatiguanico. There we are met by our Cuban fishing guides, and with them explore this fantastic Tarpon river. As with Tarpon everywhere, we can never predict how fishing for them can be. That said, the Hatiguanico generally has Tarpon every day of the year, and they range in size greatly from true babies in feeder creeks, to very active adolescents, to some true giants. Guests should expect to have at minimum multiple shots at rolling pods of fish in the 20-40 pound range. There are also Cubera Snapper here, Jacks, and Snook all that can be encountered during our time fishing for Tarpon.
After our day on the river, we travel another hour or so to the small town of Playa Larga, on the important and historic Bay of Pigs. This is a quaint, typical Cuban town in many respects, where travelers to Cuba will relax and enjoy the beauty of the area from private Cuban guest houses. We will do the same, and have accommodations directly on the beach so that we can relax in the warm water after fishing, with Pina Colada's in hand. For three days, we will leave early for the 40 minute drive through the remote access to Zapata National Park, where we again meet our guides and launch in our skiffs. The fishing here is varied, and can change with the weather and tides. There are massive interior flats where we expect to encounter many Bonefish and even some Permit, channels where we should have shots at juvenile Tarpon and Snappers, and outside flats where we could encounter virtually all flats species.
After fishing, I have tried to build in ample time for us all to relax on the beach a bit, and decompress from our days on the flats. Late in the evening, we will dine at one of the private restaurants on the beach, or in a nearby village. Some of this is truly entertaining, and guests always enjoy these evenings. There is always pork and chicken on the menu at Cuban restaurants, but in Playa Larga count on fresh fish, lobster, shrimp and octopus as well. Our last evening in town we typically will join all the people who have helped in this part of our trip, from fishing guides to our logistical staff for a pig roast. This is a great send-off and punctuation mark to our week in Cuba.
On day 8, we travel back to Havana for flights home. Times for this are determined by individual flights, and we may use several cars if there are big differences in peoples departures.
This trip is very special, but I do want to make the point that it is not for everyone. We purposely do not stay in 5 star hotels or eat in the fanciest restaurants. This is by design, and meant to immerse guests more in to Cuban culture. And, I also have to say that things come up in trips to Cuba, and we have to be able to go with the flow. Travelers who need every single thing to go as planned might find this uncomfortable. That said, my job is to smooth these things over and make any challenges only a bump in the road instead of an obstacle. Please reach out if you have any questions. For those who already have a group together, we can customize these trips even more, and see more of Cuba if that is desired.