Is a fly fishing trip to Cuba safe? Yes, if you book smart and follow the “rules”
by Skip Clement with boots on the ground images by Rick Bannerot
La capital de Cuba es La Habana. My last visit there was in the spring of 1958. At that time, Fidel Castro was a barely mentioned communist malcontent living in the mountains. I had no idea that he loved baseball as much as slaughtering fellow countrymen, and would become a tyrannical communist dictator who disturbed world order. But neither did the CIA or Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar; the U.S. backed dictator of Cuba from 1952 to 1959.
Castro died, and eventually, the U. S. followed the world and moved forward. It was long overdue and overwhelmingly embraced here and abroad – promising things were foreseen. Now, we are taking steps backward and, so far, the retreat from the path to normalcy has done nothing but help Cuba stay a broken country, stall capitalism and some form of democracy.
Current, and we do mean current, U. S. travel policy has shown to be a moving target, so making plans for a fly fishing trip requires paying close attention to booking arrangements: travel to, in-country experience plans, and the angling adventure itself. Is it safe? Again, yes, if you follow the “rules.”
State Department, November 9, 2017: “ . . . cumulatively seek to channel economic activities away from the Cuban military, intelligence and security services, while maintaining opportunities for Americans to engage in authorized travel to Cuba and support the private, small business sector in Cuba.”
Beware of your responsibilities and beware of who you entrust with managing your fishing stay in Cuba. We strongly suggest you make ALL your travel and stay arrangements with a company that has strong roots in the U. S., experience in Cuba, and provides a Spanish speaker as your full-time designated host. Be confident that the company you booked with has legal counsel that specializes in sanctions in Cuba and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) policy.
Being cool, booking on your own
There are, as any Google search will reveal, several other fly fishing trip booking options. If they are “mothership” operations, they are owned and operated by the Italians/Argentinians with Cuban employees. The “Cuban” ground lodges (Avalon et al.) are “mostly” also owned and operated by Italians/Argentinians with Cuban employees. They are not always compliant with regs, but there have not been any problems reported involving U. S. citizens.
Your success in Cuba, from a fly fishing standpoint, will be as good as it gets. Most folks’ experience with a self booked hotel, or in-country lodge arranged stays have been reported as good with only a few issues reported. However, you may not be compliant booking that way, and you have no advocate if things go “sideways,” you’re on your own – off book. Without a Spanish speaking, U. S. citizen trip host, you are not connected to a corporation in the states that will be responsive to your needs.
What you do have is a valid passport that allowed you into Cuba. And you’re good to go, so to speak, provided you complied with complicated restrictions and paid what “they” said you owe before leaving.
The important thing here is, did you comply with “people to people cultural exchange provisions,” you know, the box you checked on that AGREEMENT form you signed?
You’re right, it’s only a slight gamble, but lose, and you’re slightly pregnant.
Booking, take it seriously
To narrow the story – get a clearer picture of fly fishing tomorrow in Cuba, given our erratic governance issues and restrictions, we visited with the two dominant outdoor/fly fishing travel operations, Orvis and Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures – solid citizens with both resources and connections in Cuba.
Paraphrasing, here’s what two experts had to say about fly fishing in Cuba: Jim Klug, owner of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, and Jeremy Kehrein, Orvis Adventures’ Sporting Travel Program Manager. In acapella: “Cuba is still a broken country, and that makes planning a fly fishing trip something that must be paid close attention to.”
Both Jim and Jeremy lauded the fly fishing experience and that it was a year-round fishery with highlight months for the grandest of grand slam species, Spookus easyus (bonefish), Buttkickus fishus (tarpon), and Nohookus permitus (permit). Yellow Dog and Orvis have blocked-off the premier months, but the bookings fill up fast.
The one feature that puts the country of Cuba in a political plus column, according to Klug and Kehrein is devotion to the conservation areas you will get to fish. It’s pristine and bountiful like the Florida Keys were when Zane Grey fished them in the 1920s
Klug believes the best cultural experience is days in front and post angling. Orvis thinks a day and a half in front is enough. Yellow Dog and Orvis both provide Spanish speaking trip hosts that keep clients clued as to what is doable in-country and what is verboten by U.S. or Cuban law – it’s complicated. They are also your advocate if something goes sideways. Remember, Cuba is a communist country.
Featured Image: Florida Keys size tarpon found in one of thousands on mangrove cays in Cuba. Copyright 2017, Photos by Rick Bannerot.