With the easing of the travel ban to Cuba and opening of the U.S. Embassy, getting to Cuba is now easier and legal, sort of.
We just returned from visiting Cuba, and it was an experience you should try. But only if you make it an experience. If you want to go to Cuba and take a ride in a 1950’s American car, smoke a Cuban cigar, sip a fine rum and catch a bonefish all in three days, don’t go. To truly have a great and memorable experience you will need to spend a minimum of seven days in Cuba.
Getting to Cuba has become easier. By the time you read this article scheduled non-stop flights from the U.S. should be in the planning process. We went through Mexico because the U.S. carriers weren’t booking their flights. Once they start booking, your travel will be down to one day. That will make your trip more affordable and less tiresome.
We spent a total of two days in Havana, then six days fly fishing on the island of Cayo Largo only a short flight south of Havana. The two days in Havana were an eye-opener. It is a contradiction of beauty and deterioration. The beauty can be found in its wonderful people and what remains of some beautiful buildings. Everywhere we went, we met proud and, in many cases, hard-working folks. The people of Cuba have endured decades of living on less and less. According to our tour guide, the average wage for those employed by the government, which is almost everyone, is a buck-fifty per day. That wage scale doesn’t allow for buying much. However, since there isn’t much to buy, some of the population gets by on that amount of money.
She further told us the reason there isn’t much to buy is that Cuba imports 85 percent of what it consumes. Their only exports are cigars, coffee and some fruit. That type of trade imbalance leads to lots of shortages and few private-sector jobs. This lack of any disposable income, materials and skilled labor are some of the causes of the crumbling and deterioration of Cuba’s infrastructure and beautiful architecture. In a city of 2½ million people, you would expect to see many construction projects underway. I saw only two or three very small projects.
For employment, there are the government jobs, service industry positions and a small but growing number of private businesses. Those businesses are mainly paladors (small restaurants) and casas (Cuba’s version of bed and breakfasts). Since commercial banking is virtually non-existent in Cuba, the financing for new ventures has to come from sources outside the country. Hopefully, with the easing of relations with Cuba, the U.S. will be able to help. All the Cubans we talked with are excited about Americans coming to visit. Since tourism is Cuba’s main industry, they are hopeful the new tourists will provide additional funds to improve their way of life and motivation for the government to start rebuilding their country.
The American embargo did not stop the rest of the world from visiting Cuba. Nor did it bring down the government. It did, and continues to, make life very difficult for the people that we should have been helping. Again, the Cubans are very proud and only want an opportunity to work, not stand in line for government handouts. Maybe if the politicians on each side of the Caribbean got out of the way the problems would get fixed by the tourists and residents of Cuba.
The second part of our trip was to fly fish the waters of Cuba. I did that, and it was memorable. If you are planning on fly fishing, I highly recommend you book through an outfitter. Be sure to use one that has lots of experience in working with the Cuban government. We used our friends at Yellow Dog Fly Fishing, based in Bozeman, Montana. They partner with an Italian company, Avalon, who has been working in Cuba for many years. These two companies provided a truly great fly fishing experience.
Our group stayed on the small southern Cuban island of Cayo Largo. As I said, it was fantastic.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is going to be fly fishing in never-never land. While Cuba has not been overrun with fly fishermen, it has been fished. The fish won’t just jump into your boat.
This is saltwater fly fishing, and you need to practice casting a saltwater rod before you go. Practice in the highest wind you can find, making all types of casts. The wind can blow, at what seems gale force, and unless it is pouring down rain or lightning, you fish. We had winds high enough to make the flats so rough that I wouldn’t get on the deck to cast. Our guide did find some protected areas and was able to put us on lots of fish for those windy days.
For equipment I recommend 8-, 9-, and 10-weight rods. If you can only take two, leave the 8-weight at home. Take a big variety of saltwater flies, plus lots of leaders and tippets in various weights. Also, take some wire tippet for the barracuda and sharks. The reason to take an excessive amount of gear is that the guides don’t have much, if any, to share. The guides, just like the folks in Havana, have very little of anything except great guiding skills. These were some of the best saltwater guides I have ever been around.
Once your fishing vacation is over, I suggest you leave all of the flies, leaders and tippets you can spare. Also, remember the guides are working for only tips. Tip accordingly.
The first few days of our fishing was very windy. However, that didn’t stop our group of 12 people in six boats from catching lots of fish. During the three windy days, bonefish, jacks, snapper, tarpon, a 26-pound barracuda and a shark were only a few of the species caught. One duo managed to land eight different species in one day. Catching a shark had been one of my long-held desires, and my guide helped me realize it. Of course, we had a discussion about who was going to reach down to take the fly out of the sharks mouth; I still have all my fingers.
Days 4-6 saw a lessening of wind and the addition of clear skies. When that happened, the hunt for permit began. For those of you who haven’t fly fished in the saltwater, you need to know fly fishing for permit can become a sickness. Permit are more finicky than a 2-year-old about what and when to eat. I know people that returned from a five-day trip targeting only permit and came home without even a strike. Yet we still chase that species. When permit weren’t in our sights, there were plenty of big bonefish and tarpon. The fishermen in one of the boats, not mine, managed to land five tarpon before lunch one day. While they were doing that, my partner and I boated 13 bonefish along with numerous jacks and snappers.
The best day for me was the last day. It was the best not because of high numbers of fish landed but three species landed. If you don’t know, the holy grail of saltwater fly fishing is known as the grand slam. The grand slam consists of landing a permit, tarpon and bonefish in one day. I had always thought it was a silly challenge to chase. That was until my guide put me on permit the last morning. He worked himself into a frenzy watching my limitless number of bad casts to catchable permits. With his expertise, I finally hooked and landed a permit. Once that fish was landed, the chase was on. With his expert guiding I managed to catch, and land, two tarpon and several bonefish. I will now tell you the grand slam is not a silly challenge, and when you achieve it you are expected to buy drinks for everyone.
All of the fly fishing, catching and camaraderie was great. However, for me the greatest experience was fly fishing in a location that is now easily accessible but not over-run with people. When I’ve fly fished in the Bahamas or Belize, there were always lots of boats leaving the docks heading for the flats. You are among boats and other fishermen all day. At Cayo Largo, that wasn’t the case. There were six boats leaving the dock every morning going to locations the outfitter and guides had agreed upon the night before. The area was so vast that seeing another boat only occurred when we would meet for lunch.
That was the experience that made traveling to Cuba worth the trip.
Reach Don Oliver at firstname.lastname@example.org.