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Don Causey note: Last month, we put out a call for an early report on those trips to Cuba the Orvis Corporation has put together, and subscriber Keith Hampton heeded our call. There were a few hiccups, but overall it was a smooth and interesting trip, he says. Spoiler alert! The fishing was somewhere between good and excellent.
My wife, Susan, and I just returned from Orvis’s first client group trip to Cuba. The dates were October 14–21. We had a very enjoyable and unforgettable adventure, and I would like to pass along some details and information to fellow subscribers. Our Orvis trip leader was Jeremy Kehrein, the Orvis Sporting Travel program manager. I have done business with Orvis Travel for a number of years, have participated in quite a few Orvis group trips, and have traveled with Jeremy numerous times to diverse destinations such as Mongolia, Brazil, and Belize. All of my dealings with Orvis Travel have gone well. I consider Jeremy a close personal friend, and his Spanish-language skills are a big asset when traveling in Latin America. Orvis’s pre-trip planning materials and suggested packing list were good and thorough. Most of my Orvis group trips have been majority male, but this trip, though not designated a “couples trip,” ended up being all couples. The trip is designed for up to ten people. Initially, ten were signed up, but two dropped out because of delays in getting details finalized, leaving four couples. One of the couples had to cancel at the last moment because of a health issue, so we had only six participants—four dedicated anglers, one less-serious angler, and a non-angler. Orvis partnered with Cuban Educational Travel (CET) to arrange tours, ground transportation, and guides in Cuba and with ABC Travel to provide charter air service from Miami to Havana and necessary travel documents, including our visas and Cuban health insurance. We traveled on people-topeople visas, which require a specific itinerary and meaningful interaction with Cuban citizens. Our trip was designed to be fully compliant with OFAC and all US and Cuban requirements for this type of travel. Thus, our eight-day trip included four full days of fishing and four days that included various tours and meetings. The trip began in Miami the morning of October 14. We live in Texas, so we flew to Miami on the 13th and stayed at a hotel near the airport, where we met Jeremy. The next morning we met the other two couples and a Miamibased employee of CET, who guided us through the check-in process at Miami International Airport. Everything went smoothly, and we arrived in Havana early afternoon. We were met at the airport by Matt, a Havana-based American employee of CET, and Rafael, our Cuban tour guide. Our first stop was at a paladar, the Cuban term for a privately owned and operated restaurant. After lunch, we checked into our hotel, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The hotel was built in 1930 and is very nicely maintained. The rooms were large and comfortable, and there was a large outdoor plaza with two bars and a nice breeze coming off the ocean. We had a couple of hours to relax and then met with a Cuban history professor who gave us an overview of Cuban history from the time of Columbus to the present, followed by a question-and-answer period. Afterward, we went to dinner at another paladar. The next morning we took advantage of Hotel Nacional’s extensive breakfast buffet and then checked out of the hotel and went on a walking tour of Old Havana. Later in the afternoon we went to visit the Ernest Hemingway ranch on the outskirts of Havana, then made the roughly two-hour trip southeast to Playa Larga, which is on the Bay of Pigs. Rafael and our bus driver returned to Havana, and Matt remained with us in Playa Larga. We met our fishing guides Felipe (the lead guide) and Lazaro. We also met some high school students from just up the road in Jagüey Grande who were involved in a mentoring program led by Felipe in which they learn to cast, fish, tie flies, and develop other skills that might lead them to become fishing guides. The young men demonstrated their casting skills (pretty darn good, one could cast well with either hand), and we were each gifted a bonefish fly and a tarpon fly they had tied. Our cabanas were very clean cinder block buildings consisting of a living room, bathroom, and bedroom with two long twin beds. Unfortunately, there were some issues with our accommodations. There were separate ACs in the living room and bedroom, and in all three of the units the living room AC was not working well. At least all the bedroom ACs were working well enough for us to sleep comfortably at night. The mini refrigerators in the cabanas were also not working well. Water pressure varied between low and lower. We experienced a couple of power outages, though none were lengthy. I am not sure if any real effort was made, but the problems with the ACs and refrigerators were never resolved. A new angler pavilion was not complete as had been promised, though progress continued on it during our visit. During our stay in Playa Larga, we had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which was pretty basic—coffee, juice, breads, and fruit, and they would cook eggs to order. The anglers had lunch on the boat—a meat sandwich on a dry bun, with maybe some fruit or pastry that the guide had picked up from breakfast. Plenty of water and some other beverage choices were available. On two nights we had dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was OK, but unremarkable. Three nights we had dinner at paladares in Playa Larga. Susan had planned to fish one of the four fishing days, but she changed her mind and decided to investigate the non-angling activities along with Elizabeth, the other non-angling spouse.
They took Cuban cooking and salsa dancing lessons, relaxed on the beach, and toured two other cities that were within a couple hours’ drive of Playa Larga—Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Matt accompanied them. Jeremy fished with me one day and went with the nonanglers on the other days. They reported that they thoroughly enjoyed all of these activities including shopping, meeting with local officials and citizens, sightseeing, and enjoying much better lunches at paladares than the anglers had on the boats. Since this is for The Angling Report, I should devote some of this report to the fishing. It was outstanding. Our guides were excellent. They all had extensive knowledge of the fishery, as well as the area and the country in general. All spoke very good English, not just “fishing English,” so plenty of conversation about a variety of topics took place. We fished in the Cienaga de Zapata Parque Nacional (Zapata Swamp National Park). Our outfitter had exclusive fishing rights to the part of the park where we were fishing, so we did not encounter any other recreational fishermen. We did observe a commercial boat operating illegally in park waters. The guides reported it to the appropriate authorities and we later heard that the boat’s nets were confiscated. We fished three days on the Salinas flats and one day on the Hatiguanico River. The flats are restricted to eight anglers per day. Because of the size of our group, this posed no practical restriction. If, however, this had been a full trip of ten and all were anglers, up to eight could fish the flats and two or more would fish the river each day. The trip from the hotel to the flats was 21 km and took approximately an hour, which should give an idea about the condition of the road. The trip to the river also took approximately an hour, but all of it except for the last few miles was on paved road. On the flats, I was expecting good bonefishing with a possibility of shots at permit and tarpon. We fished from small Beavertail skiffs with tiller outboards, which worked well in the extremely shallow water of the flats but could give you a pretty good pounding if you had to cross open water when the wind was up. They also seemed kind of tippy for a big guy like me. The flats were as beautiful as any I have seen anywhere. I did not fish the same flat twice. I was particularly impressed by the virtual absence of trash or other man-made debris. The bonefishing was very good. We all caught numerous fish that probably averaged around five pounds. No one caught anything that would approach double digits, but no real small fish were caught either. We encountered singles, small groups, and large schools. I think anyone who enjoys fishing for bonefish would really like this fishery. As for permit, no one spent a lot of time looking for them. Jim and Lindsey did not try to find permit. Jay and I did try, and our guides were able to lead us to some fish. Jay had a shot at a pair and I saw around a dozen and had a couple of shots. But even unpressured permit are still permit, and neither of us hooked up. A little time was spent looking for snook, but with no success. I think what surprised all of us was the quality of the juvenile/resident tarpon fishing, and for an unapologetic tarpon junkie like me, this was indeed a pleasant surprise. We all spent time looking for tarpon each day, all found them, all hooked up, and all landed fish. Lindsey caught her first (and second) tarpon. We didn’t see them out cruising on the flats. They were at the edge of the mangroves and in clearings and channels. We sight-fished, fished rollers, and did some blind casting. The fishing was so good that we all spent around half or more of each of our flats days tarpon fishing. During these three days, the four of us had many eats, jumped around 50 fish, and brought about a dozen to the boat. Most of the fish landed were 15 to 25 pounds, but some in the 30s to 40s were jumped, and fish that looked like they would go around 60 were spotted. On the river, we were fishing deeper water (which was clear but had a tannic stain) for tarpon and snook. We fished from 17-foot Basstracker aluminum bass boats. No snook were landed, but the tarpon fishing was excellent. We fished rollers and blind cast with intermediate and sinking lines. I think we had 60-odd hookups with 20 fish to the boat among the four of us. Most of the fish brought to the boat were from 10 to 20 pounds, but there were a few larger ones, and the largest was 80 to 90 pounds. The guides told us that the tarpon fishing is not always that good. We considered ourselves quite fortunate. We all caught more tarpon than we ever had before on a single trip. Rafael and the bus returned on the 20th to take us back to Havana. On the trip back, we stopped at what we believe is the only fly shop in Cuba. The proprietor, Don Yoyi, also does woodwork, and the shop was full of beautiful wooden fly boxes (ornamental vs. practical), carvings, fly-tying stations, and paintings. He is a very engaging individual, made us coconut water and brewed us coffee that he grew in the backyard. We all also received one of his fly boxes that he had made specifically for the members of our group. Back in Havana, we met with a Cuban singer/songwriter who gave us an overview of the history of Cuban music and, along with another Cuban musician, sang several historic and contemporary Cuban songs. We ate lunch, did some more sightseeing, and checked back into the Hotel Nacional for our final night, followed by dinner at another paladar. On the 21st, we visited a classic car restoration shop on the way back to the airport. This was very interesting, as the owner explained to us some of the processes they go through in restoring the cars as well as what it is like to run a private business in Cuba. The check-in process back at the airport went without a hitch, and we had an on-time flight back to Miami. Overall, I think everyone had a great time. The issues we had with the government-run hotel in Playa Larga were not enough to significantly diminish our enjoyment of the experience. One other negative that I probably should mention is that all of the public restrooms that we encountered in Cuba were in a pretty deplorable state. Toilet seats and paper were rare, so if you need paper, you should be prepared. Without exception, the Cuban people that we encountered were warm, friendly, inviting, and very desirous of friendly relations between Cuba and the United States. The fishing was great. The food at the paladares was consistently very good. The non-fishing activities were informative and enjoyable. I would not hesitate to recommend this trip, as long as you are not expecting five-star accommodations during the fishing part of the trip and you can roll with the punches. We paid $6,150 per person for the trip plus $650 for the charter flight and travel documents. Commercial flights to Havana are supposed to begin in December. Enjoy!