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Bulletin - Vol 8 No. 6
November/December 2005


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Los Faros de Cuba - Cuban Lighthouses - Part I

by Garry Searle, LoA Inc SA representative

Morro Lighthouse, located in Los Tres Reyes de Morro
The Morro lighthouse towers above the castle grounds.

Without knowing why, I have always held a fascination for Cuba. I was born in the first few months of the revolution, so possibly as a baby I listened to the radio broadcasts as Fidel Castro faced up to the nearby super-power. When I read that Cuban lighthouses were still manned, some even lit by kerosene, I had the perfect excuse to make the trip.

My first obstacle was an almost total lack of information. I discovered that photographing military or harbour facilities was prohibited. Obviously, many lighthouses are near harbours and as Cubans are always wary of US attack, most are combined with a military post. Slightly worried that my camera might land me in a Cuban gaol, Denise Shultz was kind enough to write a letter of introduction for me as a member of LoA and lighthouse enthusiast and undaunted, I continued my research. With lighthouse navigation lists, a set of nautical charts I purchased and a cruising guide, I put together a list of almost 40 lights I wanted to visit. I was not to see very many in the end, but that's another part of the story.

Morro Castle
Morro Castle as seen from the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta fort across the bay. In the 17th Century, a chain was stretched between the two castles to seal the harbour.

Havana is an amazing city, a mixture of beauty, colour and old world charm and hardship. The US trade embargo has done nothing to oust Castro from power and instead, as a result, Havana today offers the tourist the unique opportunity to travel back in time. Wandering the narrow cobblestone streets around the old part of the city, every step you make offers stunning views of beautiful, yet decaying architecture. I couldn't help but to visualise how elegant Havana would have been in the twenties, when it was the exclusive retreat for presidents, movie stars and gangsters.

Morro lens
The original French lens and clockwork with an emergency lens at top left in the Morro Lighthouse.

One of the most distinctive landmarks in Havana is the lighthouse at Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro, the Castle of the Three Kings on the Bluff or simply Morro Castle, built between 1589 and 1630 which includes the first of the three towers that used to burn wood to warn mariners. When the English invaded the city in 1762, the castle withstood a ferocious attack for several weeks until a mine was exploded inside the castle walls. The lighthouse was completely destroyed and a new tower, built in 1764, was wood-fuelled until 1820. 

Within the present day castle, the unpainted masonry tower stands 25m tall. This latest tower was built by the Spanish in 1845 and replaced the older tower of 1764 with a more modern one. Its bivalve lens displays two white flashes every 15 seconds from a focal plane of 44m. Electrification was completed for the centenary of the lighthouse in 1945, but it still uses the original clockwork mechanism and keepers maintain a watch to wind the mechanism and to change the globe where necessary.

Morro Lighthouse
The very narrow steps leading into the watchroom of the Morro Lighthouse.

Reports I had read indicated that many Cuban lighthouses were un-maintained. As a national symbol of Cuba and a tourist attraction in the country's capital, Morro tower was in very good condition. Water on the inside of the tower seemed a problem, although this was compounded by the fact that my arrival coincided with the first tropical storm of the season, 'Arlene'. The slate floors, timber window frames and banisters, the lantern and lens were well cared for. The attendant in the tower was very friendly and let me wind the mechanism and light up as the sky grew black and the clouds burst in an afternoon downpour.

Faro Roncali
My guide in front of Faro Roncali. He sought permission for this photograph because we were pointing in the general direction of the military base.

Next morning, I picked up a hire car and headed off to the western tip of the island. Driving in Cuba is not to be taken lightly, the available maps are terrible, the roads worse and direction signs, if they exist, are 50 years old and faded beyond reading. You share the road with all sorts of vehicles; carts pulled by oxen, horses, cows and tractors, trucks, bicycles and motorcycles. Every vehicle is a shared resource and at the entry and exit of each town there are 'bus stops' where an official hails down all passers by and allocates passengers dependant on their destination. Tourists are the only vehicles exempt, but hitch-hikers line every road. I wouldn't stop initially, but later, when a local couple and their two children at a fuel stop found my soft side with their pouting, I quickly found that with locals in the car I could at least be confident of where I was going.

Faro Roncali
Faro Roncali was built with French influence in 1850.

I turned off the main road toward the lighthouse at Cabo Francis, and the road deteriorated immediately. Barely wide enough for two cars to pass, potholes a foot deep, I persevered for 40km until a turnoff when, according to the map, the road quality dropped even further. Although only 9km from the lighthouse, at that point, I regrettably turned back and headed off to the next lighthouse on the list. After settling in to my accommodation, I made enquiries as to visiting Faro Roncali, on the western tip of Cuba. Possibly due to it's remoteness, I had to have a guide. Using my limited Spanish, I arranged an appointment with the guide at 9am the following day.

After producing my passport, and filling out the paperwork, the guide and I first headed off to report at the military post, and after that to the lighthouse. The road along the Guanahacabibes Peninsula was so badly scarred by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, that the 60km drive took us over 2 hours - a long time sharing a car with a guy who spoke almost no English and with me speaking even less Spanish.

Faro Roncali keeper's quarters
The keeper's quarters at Faro Roncali, with my red Skoda rental car. Tourists have special "T" number plates, so you can never blend in with the locals.

Overlooking the Yucatan Strait which separates Cuba from Mexico, the Roncali Lighthouse is located on Cabo de San Antonio (Cape San Antonio) that marks Cuba's westernmost point. Every 10 seconds the lighthouse emits two white flashes which can be seen from a distance of 30 kilometres. The conical masonry tower is 23 m high and was built in 1850 by a French naval officer of the same name. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed inside the tower - "no possible"- was the reaction I got, and even after pushing my Spanish to the limit (which is not very high), I couldn't push any further. I gave the keeper an Australian lighthouse postcard, which he seemed to appreciate, and was given a tour of the weather room manned by military. On the return journey we approached a checkpoint with a chain across the road. As it was just after lunch and the hottest part of the day, the young guard was taking a bit of a 'siesta' and I had to blow my horn to wake him up. After we again reported to the military, I bought my guide a refreshing beer before returning to the comparative luxury of my 'resort' room where I started to plot my next lighthouse visit.

All photographs by Garry Searle



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