Unlike its swell sucking central Caribbean neighbours in the Dominican Republic and Bahamas; Cuba is guarded from the full brunt of the Atlantic, which is why it's often overlooked when thinking about a warm water surf trip. But if you're willing to travel, hunt and poke around off grid, you'll find a diverse number of untouched setups – and an area that at least a few locals call the 'Mentawais of the Caribbean'.
In fact, last year, Erwan Simon from surfEXPLORE launched an expedition to Cuba in search of remote waves. Of course, that troop began in the country's capital of Havana -- widely regarded as having decent(ish) surf and the country's burgeoning wave-riding Mecca. But it didn't take long for Erwan to tap into the local scene and head to the country's east in search of a playground. And while it's not quite comparable to the Mentawais, it sure is remote, empty and full of hope.
Spot guide: Cuba
We caught up with Erwan to talk about the trip and all images you see throughout are from that excursion.
Hey Erwan, thanks for talking with us – so where abouts in Cuba did you head to?
I travelled there with my good friend Gael Vilain we began in Havana as many people do but then headed to the side of the country - the eastern part.
And what was the aim of the trip?
I always wanted to visit Cuba. Music, architecture, people, culture, nature, rhum and cigars - it is such a vibrant country with a strong history.
With Gael we surfed the famous spots near Havana but Cuba is a big country - the biggest island of the Caribbean and the eighth in the world.
With local surfer Frank Gonzalez we visited a secret area. He is one of the best surfers in the country and we went to a mysterious region
As an experienced surf traveller and explorer, I wanted to see something different of course. When surf media talks about Cuba it is always about Havana... but that's just a really small stretch of the huge Cuban coastline.
We headed east. We did some research and we collected interesting info. With local surfer Frank Gonzalez we visited a secret area. He is one of the best surfers in the country and we went to a mysterious region.
According to him it is the Mentawai of the Caribbean, and now I think it is partly true because there are still plenty of quality waves to be found in this huge country.
But that's crazy, it's not really been prominent in surf media, ever - why do you think that is?
I think there are 2 main reasons. First - even if it seems to change a little bit, Cuba is still a communist country. Many things are under the control of the government.
Surfing is not considered as an important sport by the government so there are no surf shops and it is really difficult for the locals to get surfboards, fins, wax...
There is a nice group of friendly local surfers at Havana city. They usually surf at the spot of la Setenta or nearby. Obviously, the average salaries are really low - it is difficult for them to get anything from outside the country.
One local surfer, Hector Cruz, told me he started surfing eight years ago with the help of a foreigner. It is also difficult for the locals to explore their own country with a limited budget.
Second - Cuba is so big! [laughs] Have a look at the map. Most of the people go to Havana and Varadero because it is well known and easy to access. In this area the surf can be fun but average. Not so interesting. Also there are many outer reefs, islands and islets around Cuba. You need a boat and good conditions to explore. It will take many years.
Gotcha, so the infrastructure just isn't there. But talk us through some of the wave types – top-to-bottom? Barrels? What was on offer?
There are loads of different sorts of waves. At la Setenta it is a sort of volcanic reef with corals. It is sharp reef and the waves break next to the rocks.
Most of the coastline near Havana city is like that. Fun waves on a shifty peak but hard to go in and to go out. You can easily cut yourself. Polluted as well.
Cuba offers beachbreaks, rivermouths, rocky reefs, coral reefs and boulders reefs. Good variety.
We had a lot of fun on few left-and-right peaks breaking on a mix of black sand and boulders. Juicy and punchy waves. Ripping sections with occasional barrels. Chest-high to over-head size. At almost every surf spot, I ended up walking on urchins.
And what boards were people riding?
Most of the locals ride shortboards at la Setenta. Old shortboards given by foreigners. There are few beginners with bigger boards. Old boards as well.
Cuba isn’t the first place you think about when thinking of surfing frontiers – how accessible were some of these spots and what were some of the challenges?
Cuba is a touristic destination. Focused on the clichés of Havana. In this area few spots are easy to get to. But the quality of the waves can be frustrating. When you want to go further along the coastline, you realise some places have no roads or there is no boat to access the outer reefs.
Little by little you can find better waves. Little by little you realise that Cuba can offer really good surf. You realise what you found is probably just a little piece - the tip of the iceberg. There are many quality waves to be discovered.
Everybody knows The old man and the sea written by Ernest Hemingway. A classic book with a realistic and minimalist style focusing on surface elements with deeper meanings through simplicity. It is the iceberg theory. Just like the waves in Cuba.
At first you surf average waves near Havana city. You take nice photos of the typical old buildings and old cars. Then you go further in the country to find something different. You go deeper and you start to understand the superb potential of surfing in Cuba.