Matt Heron spoke to the Club in November about fly fishing in Cuba. He mentioned that he had two spots that had opened in early February due to a cancellation. I called my daughter as asked her, “Cuba?”. She responded, “Tarpon ! ! !” so we were on our way to Cuba.
I was forewarned so was not disappointed and had a great trip. I have spoken to others who had higher expectations and were unhappy so I am going to forewarn you. Cuba is a very poor country. It is a Communist country. They want your money, but are very gracious about it. Most of Havana has fallen or is falling into ruins. Even the best parts of the city. I would highly recommend the Cathedral district as it has kept its 1700’s charm and you could spend a day here looking for the Chicken Lady and have a great time. There are no panhandlers and no homeless encampments so the parks are beautiful and the city is safe. About every fourth person is in some type of uniform and everyone receives the basics. Their basics may be at a lower standard than our basics but everyone is taken care of. Everyone looks fit, healthy and if anyone is overweight, they are a tourist.
CUCs (Cuban pesos) cannot be purchased in the US and US dollars can’t be exchanged in Cuba. You need to exchange your dollars for Canadian or Euros before you go and then find a place to exchange that money for CUCs. It made it easier to just figure 1 CUC = $1. Note that the hotels will only exchange your money if you are staying at the hotel but there are other places so we didn’t have a problem. And don’t forget to reverse the process on the way back and get your Euros for CUCs before you leave Cuba. Note that the gift shops (limited, don’t get excited) at the Havana airport accepted US dollars.
If you want good Cuban food, go to Miami. Cuba does not have great food. It is not bad food (Mongolia) but very plain. Little or no seasoning and a lot of frozen vegetables. I now think of the Birds Eye Classic Mixed Vegetables (corn, carrots ,green beans, and peas) as Cuban vegetables. You find them in your omelet at breakfast, your salad and sandwich at lunch and your soup and entrée at dinner. If they could figure a way, they would be in your dessert as well. We did find one restaurant, Italian owned, that was excellent and it’s worth a visit and you are right on the Malecon; La Dolce Vita.
People told me about the Cuban rum so I was looking forward to trying some really good stuff. Rum is not my drink but I’m flexible. Turns out Cuban rum is not a favorite either. If you ask for Coke or cola, I found people to be defensive because they are thinking the red-and-white can and they are not going to have it. Ask for tuKola which is the locally produced cola and definitely acceptable. You can even ask for tuKola dietetica.
Cohiba Esplendidos are the same price in Havana as they are in San Francisco, New York, London, etc. If you are standing looking lost or at a map, someone will very kindly approach and offer to help you find your destination. You are expected to give them a couple of CUC (Cuban Pesos). If you mention cigars, they will escort you to a building and expect a commission. The best recommendation I received was to find a cigar club and have the retired little old lady roll you a dozen cigars. It should cost you about $3 each but always, always negotiate the price before you make the purchase. We didn’t do that because I was traveling with 4 American men who had Esplendidos dancing before their eyes. You can negotiate but the room will fill with people assuring you of how great their price is. I did ok with our group purchase and got 25 Montecristo Churchill’s for $5.60 each. But did better on my own and got 25 Partagas for $1.60 by walking away from their deal and letting them call me back. Bring or buy a cigar cutter and matches.
We had a non-stop flight on Alaska from LAX to Havana at a very low cost. They are trying to fill up the planes. Most of the passengers paid the $100 at the gate to upgrade to first class.
Our weather was warm, not hot and humid but not miserable. As long as the ocean breezes kept blowing, life was good. Two afternoons fishing, the breezes went away, the sea was like glass, and it got hot. We were prepared for rain but it never happened.
Matt arranged for us to stay in an Airbnb on our arrival and departure which saved us a fortune as hotels are expensive and booked a year in advance. You can’t book Airbnb in Cuba, it has to be arranged before you land and it was an enormous savings. Our Airbnbs were located close to large hotels so we could go to the hotel or find a restaurant to eat and catch a cab. Our first stay was a little run down and there was no water pressure to speak of. (Warning, they turn off the water pressure at night.) But our host was gracious and helped us navigate our first night in Havana. ‘80s rock music is very popular and the Eagles are gods. Many people learn their English from the lyrics which gives them a skewed vision of Americans. They love Americans, don’t like the Russians and think we are crazy for electing Trump and a pro-Russian. You will not find pictures of Fidel except for one billboard that was put up after he died welcoming you to Cuba. They don’t want to commercialize his image. You can buy Che Guevara shirts because he was Argentinian so who cares?
Second day we were off to Cayo Largo which is another island on the south side of the main island. Cayo Largo del Sol was the resort and there were about 200 hundred people staying there from Canada and Europe. We were the only six fishermen.
The night of our arrival, we had a band playing in the lobby welcoming us, champagne, and met our designated hotel manager who took care of us for the week. It was all very festive and made us feel totally welcomed. Our manager found us every day to make sure that we had everything we needed and to take care of anything we asked for. It’s like having your personal concierge. In addition, the staff at the resort made sure that we were well taken care of. One night, we had asked for our dinner reservation to be changed. Four people confirmed to me that it had been taken care of per our request.
The resort has an open air lobby complex including a small shop, the buffet restaurant, another restaurant, sports bar, 24 hour snack bar and the swimming pools. All of the rooms are in separate buildings with 6 rooms to a building. It is an all-inclusive package so your meals, drinks, everything except for tips is included. You just show your blue wristband and you’re good. The “back” of the resort is the incredible beach. The band plays at every meal and there is a show every night in the bar at 10pm. There are direct flights to Cayo Largo and next time, we all decided to skip Havana and just go to the resort.
This is a new fly fishing venue for Avalon (Italian company who has been running the fly fishing in Cuba for years.) It is a marine protected area which means no commercial fishing and everything is catch and release. We caught bone fish, tarpon, jacks, snapper, snook, barracuda, and an alligator. We saw rays, lemon sharks, hammerhead sharks, and lots of permit.
Matt warned us that we needed to take everything with us because nothing would be available for use or purchase at the resort where we were fishing. We each took 2 8wt, 2 10wt and I took a 12 which I didn’t use. Plus reels, leaders, flies, etc. The list goes on for pages. We were saying that we didn’t really need that many rods but then 4 got broken during the week and we decided we were good. Plus Vero, our guide, set us up with two bone, two permit, and two tarpon rods each with different types of flies. You fish one at a time so we were always prepared. 99% of the time, we were sight fishing and casting to fish. I need to include that we cast to lots of permit and saw them go for the fly but inevitably a Jack, bone or snapper would grab the fly first. The guides try and look for permit that are riding a ray (eating behind a ray) so you have a better opportunity for just a permit to go for your fly. My daughter had her flies tied at Bob Marriotts and I had mine tied by Shawn Reese at the California Fly Shop. We had six boxes between us; two bone, two permit and two tarpon. We got the flies on the list plus extras which were favorites of our tiers. And, just like home, the guide looked at the boxes and asked if we had anything else. Mostly we fished shrimp patterns for both permit and bonefish.
Incredible fishing with pristine white sand beaches and turquoise water. It was so beautiful it made your eyes hurt. You had lots of opportunity for wading but we found that we could cover more water, especially since Vero really only wanted us to cast to fish, so we didn’t wade. I have heard my friends talk about catching 4 and 5 pound bone fish and what a rush it is. We were catching those plus fish up to 8 pounds every day. My “big” fish was a 10 pound bone. Tarpon came in all sizes. My daughter caught 4 but didn’t land them (couldn’t get the strip set) that were each 20+ pounds. The guys all caught baby tarpon as one sector was a tarpon nursery. Matt’s guide told him to cast to the alligator floating in the mangroves. He wanted Matt to cast onto the alligator’s back and slide the hook until it set. Then with no pressure, Matt just pulled the gator to the skiff and the guide wrapped two knots around its nose and pulled it up onto the boat for pictures. This could have gone wrong so many ways.
I want to thank Bill Ward who worked with me to get my casting ready for salt water – a new experience. Shawn Reese, California Fly Shop, for advice, rods, reels, flies, everything new I needed for salt. Matt Heron for being such a great host. It can be tricky with the paperwork for Cuba and he made sure that we were all well prepared and taken care of before and during the trip.
On our first night in Havana, Stewart told us about the statue of the Chicken Lady; a nude bald headed woman wearing high heels, holding a huge fork, and sitting on a chicken. It was in a square somewhere around the Cathedral. We decided this was our quest for our last day in Havana. We also wanted to ride in the old cars. The outside of the cars look great but they have been maintained with pirated parts from other cars and a few washing machines. It isn’t as glamorous as it looks in National Geographic. And the cars pretty much go between the two main hotels. The other mode of transportation that I enjoyed was the pedi-cabs which are all over Havana. The big thing in Cuba is to be a “guide” so they all want to give you a tour when all you want is to get from point A to point B. The general feeling is that if they point out a few points of interest, they can charge a bit more. Again, a little money goes a long way in Cuba so we didn’t feel we were being taken advantage of. There was little agreement on where the Chicken Lady was located but we finally found her. There was very little information we could find out about her; a Romanian woman sculpture had won the commission. Once we got home, we found out that the statute represented the emancipation of women prostitutes in 1950s Havana. Prior to Castro, poverty forced women into prostitution to earn money to feed their families. Hence the nude woman, the bald head (often a punishment for prostitution was a shaved head), the high heels and the fork. The Rooster represents the American men.