Tom’s Amazing Experience in Cuba: It’s Not Just About Fishing

Cuba’s bonefish habitat is vast, unspoiled, and does not see heavy fishing pressure.
Photos by Tom Rosenbauer

For the past two Decembers, I have been lucky enough to host an Orvis Adventures trip to Cuba, and for an all-around experience, the trip is so satisfying on many levels.

First, I had always wanted to visit Cuba. I think the country holds a special fascination for people who grew up in the 1960s, and it’s part of our history. Although time has not quite stood still in Cuba, because it is a Caribbean island nation that has not been overwhelmed with resorts or the other trappings of modern tourism, you see interesting sights every time you turn your head. Eventually, there will be more development (and the Cuban people want and need this for the most part), so I consider myself fortunate to see Cuba before it is overrun by American tourists. Currently, you don’t see many Americans there at all: I think we were the only Anglos on our flight into Santa Clara, and I did not meet a single American tourist in our travels in Cienfuegos and Trinidad.

It’s totally legal for Americans to visit Cuba now, even though our current administration has tightened some of the travel restrictions. Customs and immigration, both coming and going, are less of a hassle than visiting Canada these days—and you can legally bring back as much rum, artwork, and cigars as you can carry. Orvis hosted trips fall under the People-to-People cultural-exchange classification, which means if you have meaningful cultural exchanges with the Cuban people you are not going to get into any trouble with either the Cuban or the US government. And I would not have it any other way. The art we experience on these trips, the amazing music we enjoyed, and the conversations with Cuban people on architecture and history fully round-out this trip. And of course, the fishing is like you dream about. I am already daydreaming about next year’s trip.

1950s-era American cars are seen constantly on the streets, either as taxis or everyday vehicles.

I’ll get to the fishing in a minute. But first, here is a sampling of what my group did this fall. It was exciting because this was a new venue for us: Instead of going to Havana and seeing the amazing sights there, we traveled to Trinidad and Cienfuegos on an experimental trip because most of my group had already seen Havana and wanted to see more of the country.

  • We enjoyed a walking tour of Trinidad. This city has a lot of history, but it is also the center of the artisan trade in Cuba, with amazing art galleries, pottery studios, and handmade goods produced by Cubans exploring their new freedom in private enterprise.
  • We were treated to a private concert by a singing duo, Lia Lorente and Pachi Ruiz, who played and sang both traditional and modern Cuban music. They were even joined onstage by their son and daughter, making for a heartwarming experience.
  • We visited the archeological site of San Isidro de los Destiladeros, where they are restoring an 18th century sugar plantation. It was a sobering experience, as much of the tour was about the use of slave labor and how the slaves lived. History is not always uplifting, but our tour guide was tried to give us a sense of what it must have been like for a slave living under these conditions.
  • We visited the Cienfuegos Botanical Gardens, which feature amazing plants and trees from around the world—and the birding was also spectacular.
  • We also went on a walking tour of the historic heart of Cienfuegos. This city is referred to as “The Pearl of the South” and is one of Cuba’s only cities to display both French and Spanish architecture. There is no other place in the Caribbean that contains such a remarkable collection of neoclassical structures.

There is music everywhere in Cuba.

In between those activities, we toured the countryside and saw what small towns in the Cuban countryside are like. We talked to local people on the street, listened to street musicians, and talked to artists. And we ate. Man, did we eat. On the Orvis trip, you don’t eat in any hotel restaurants or get any fast food. All of our lunches and dinners (when we’re not fishing) are in paladares—privately owned restaurants, usually in homes—where we were treated to everything from traditional Cuban meals with fire-roasted pork, beans and rice, plantains, and yucca, to more gourmet offerings such as wood-fired red snapper and crab. And we drank a lot of rum. The favorite was Havana Club Siete Anos.

One memorable dinner was at Don Alexis. We had been there the year before and were excited about returning. You walk into a tiny space with a wood-fired grill and writing from appreciative patrons completely covering the walls. There are a few live turtles in a corner. (Don Alexis swears they are only pets.) Dogs run in and out. Don Alexis himself is a whirlwind. He greets you like family with hugs and smiles and is then constantly in motion. One minute he is searing shrimp on the grill, and then he runs to the open kitchen and washes a couple dishes. He makes drinks at the bar. He serves appetizers. He returns to the grill and places a big red snapper over the fire. He plays the bongos with the band. He goes back to grilling. And so it goes throughout the meal. Although his family helps out with some of the serving chores, Don Alexis is really a one-man floor show. And his food is spectacular.

A classic Cuban banquet, similar to the spread a Cuban family might have for a holiday gathering.

And then there’s the fishing. We all enjoyed the cultural part of the trip, but we were about jumping out of our skins in anticipation of the last five days of our trip. Cuban bonefishing is similar to what you find in The Bahamas: great habitat, with a variety of sizes—from small fish in large schools to very large singles or doubles. Although you can catch the small ones in muds over open water, most of the fish we concentrate on when fishing the flats average three or four pounds. I have caught bonefish there up to eight pounds. What makes the fishing so great is that Cuban bonefish have not experienced as much pressure as those in other parts of the world, and they do what you expect them to—when you present a fly to a Cuban bonefish with a reasonable presentation, it eats. Sure, they’re spooky when you drop a fly line on top of them or place a weighted fly too close. But they don’t look at a fly and bolt in the other direction, as bonefish do in some parts of the world. In fact, Cuban bonefish, even when spooked and swimming away, will often take a fly on the run. You don’t see that in many other places today.

You’ll see permit and tarpon on the flats, as well. Orvis Adventures’ Jeremy Kehrein caught a grand slam (a bonefish, tarpon, and permit on the same day) the week before we arrived. There are also numerous barracudas (one of my favorite fish to catch on the fly), sharks, snappers, and jacks. The area we fish is in a protected national park, and only five boats per day are allowed on the water. You seldom see another boat, and if you do it will be one of your buddies. The guides rotate the flats and stay away from each other, so you fish in total solitude for the entire day.

You can find true solitude on the Cuban flats.

We also got to fish a very special tropical river for tarpon and snook. This year, we saw literally thousands of tarpon rolling, and we seldom went five minutes without seeing fish. These are juvenile tarpon, which means they run from a few pounds to close to 80 pounds. Most of the fish we caught were in the 5- to 20-pound range—big enough to put a nice bend in your rod and give you spectacular jumps, but not so big that you spend more than a few minutes playing them. I did hook one of about 40 pounds that took a bit longer to play, and the hook pulled out before I landed it. These are not easy fish to interest in a fly, as baby tarpon can often be snotty, but there are so many of them that you are bound to hook up eventually. You’ll go through streaks where they won’t touch a fly, then suddenly, they’ll eat voraciously. Why? I don’t have a clue.

I love Cuban fishing guides. They are extremely professional but always fun, and they never yell at you for blowing a cast. Unlike a lot of saltwater guides, who run the engine and take you to a flat without explaining what is going on, Cuban guides start the day with, “What do you want to do today?” Look for tarpon? “Si.” Fish bonefish all day? “Si.” Fish the channel for barracuda? “Claro que si!” Want to wade instead of fishing from the boat? “No hay problema.” The fishing is challenging enough for an experienced angler (especially with the chance for permit on the flats or the opportunity to wade-fish very shallow water) but Cuban guides are so relaxed that it is the perfect first introduction to bonefishing for a novice. They’re supportive, patient, and great teachers.

The fishing for baby tarpon can be spectacular.

A trip to Cuba is not inexpensive, about the same price per week as The Bahamas, Argentina, Chile, or New Zealand. (Currently, flights are inexpensive.) But I can’t imagine a richer experience or better saltwater fly fishing.

Orvis Adventures is hosting trips to Cuba on February 2-9, April 6 – 13 and October 19 – 26 in 2019. Tom Rosenbauer is hosting a Cuba trip in November or December 2019. Most or all of last year’s customers on Tom’s trip are re-booking, but there are still a few open spaces. Contact Orvis Adventures at (800)547-4322 to be contacted when we have the date finalized. The trip is limited to ten anglers.

Watch for an upcoming Facebook Live on Cuba featuring Tom and Jeremy Kehrein of Orvis Adventures!

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