American travelers bump into Cuba’s rules on early cruise to southwest coast, but all runs smoothly later

Isla de la Juventud, Cuba – After a calm winter’s night at anchor on Cuba’s remote Siguanea Bay, 35 American travelers on the 150-foot motor-sailor Panorama II awakened before dawn and collected their snorkeling gear, prepared for a ride on a local boat to a dock on the southwest corner of Isla de la Juventud (formerly Isle of Pines).

On this day, the schedule, as arranged with and approved by top tourism officials in Havana, was not to be.

Communication about changing procedures is not an attribute of central government in Cuba, a country known for breakdowns in plans and mechanics, and disincentives for individual decision-making.

Military guards in charge of the island docks had received no written instructions from Havana (though an approving word would filter down for Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic trips in weeks that followed).

So, no local boat would be coming to tender us from our ship to shore as the sun began to rise.

Ever resourceful, expedition guides attempted alternative transportation, rolling out zodiacs that belonged to our chartered Greek vessel. Alas, the zodiac engines quit, and some passengers were rescued by the same local boat that had not been allowed to tender us ashore.

(Failure of the Greek ship’s zodiacs upset the Lindblad expedition team, as Lindblad is well known for its outstanding equipment. For the following week’s trip, the ship’s zodiacs were working well, reported a Lindblad spokesperson.)

Applauding the passengers’ spirits

Relaxing on Panorama II (Photo from Daily Expedition report by Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic)

Panorama II’s captain called off our morning journey to a white sandy beach for swimming and snorkeling at Punta Frances Marine National Park. Instead, we would cruise directly to Cienfuegos, our last city on the 11-day Cuba expedition.

“After such an inspiring day among the creativity, talent, and spirit of the local people, and after seeing the benefits from so many of the government institutions like art schools and hospitals, today we faced our share of difficulties,” said Expedition leader Tom O’Brien, as we motor-sailed east to Cienfuegos (toasting with a spontaneous round of Bloody Marys).

Earlier in the week we had been turned away from two seaside sites, including famed Gardens of the Queen Marine Park, which had drawn some of the passengers to book this voyage (See outstanding article on the Gardens in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic). Now, we had been out-maneuvered by the (polite and respectful) Cuban military.

O’Brien applauded passengers for their patience, flexibility, open minds, and “surprisingly high spirits.”

Why not? While snorkeling and swimming were out — in fact, we never dipped our bodies into the water during the entire week at sea — we remained a satisfied lot of travelers.

By its nature, expedition cruising on vacation is significantly more an adventurous trip than a relaxing one, and it draws a special breed of travelers who are flexible and patient about outcomes.

Though Lindblad/National Geographic expeditions are well guided by experts of the land, nature and photography, travelers do not know for certain what expectations will be realized, and when. That is part of the fun.

Deck at aft end of Panorama II (Photo from Daily Expedition report by Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic)

New expeditions, such as cruising the southwestern coast of Cuba, require an additional degree of open-mindedness, anticipating a surprise every day.

Our schedule changed almost daily from our printed itinerary. And twice, as we entered Cuban ports, passengers and guides lined up to have their temperatures taken by a local nurse. That was a first for me. In Cuba, at least on the southwestern coast, the government doesn’t want travelers bringing germs ashore.

Downtime, cruising on the ship Panorama II, was an opportunity to listen to famed National Geographic photographer Bob Krist, who was aboard to offer suggestions for taking pictures with sophisticated equipment or with your cell phone. “What makes a good picture of people? Light, shapes, shadows,” said Krist. “If you don’t like your picture, get closer.”

Next: Strolling Cuba’s Cienfuegos, buying art, making repairs with Duck Tape

 David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column is published in U.S. newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, and on Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise.   He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com

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