Planning on sailing to Cuba? Go soon and take plenty of patience with you
advises Brenda Webb.
Sailing away from Hemingway Marina in Cuba, with 15 knots of wind on the beam under sunny skies, the smiles on our faces were wide.
The past six weeks spent exploring this fascinating Caribbean island and its southern archipelago had been an amazing experience for this Kiwi sailing couple. Heading north for the summer, David and I were taking with us thousands of photos, hundreds of wonderful memories and plenty of cheap Cuban rum.
Cuba was definitely one of the most interesting countries we’d visited in our eight years of cruising but also one of the most frustrating. Fidel Castro’s communist regime seems determined to lay a difficult web of red tape for cruising yachts to navigate their way through.
We knew before we went to expect long-winded check-in/out procedures so weren’t surprised, and it would be hypocritical to complain as New Zealand has complex Immigration rules that frustrate many.
We arrived in Cuban waters in early March, after a fairly lively sail from Mexico. In Cienfuegos, our port of entry, clearing in involved onboard visits from ten officials (Customs, Immigration, Health, Agriculture, Veterinary, Police, Port Captain, Dockmaster and two sniffer dogs (explosives and drugs) with their handlers and, owing to several other yachts arriving and leaving, the process took all day.
Stories vary between cruisers about protocols and procedures. We heard that officials in Cayo Largo confiscate any fresh produce. In Cienfuegos ours was thoroughly checked, as were all our dry goods and tins, but nothing was taken. While our check-ins and -outs always seemed to take forever, others were more fortunate.
Cruising friends who opted to only visit one port — Hemingway Marina in Havana — had their clearing in over and done with in less time than our “re-check” took. Luck of the draw, I guess.
Once issued with our cruising permit (despacho) we figured the worst part was over. Wrong — in the four ports we visited, officials insisted on coming on board to do paperwork as well as search our boat, Bandit. At Cienfuegos, Cayo Largo and Havana we had to take Bandit to the dock. On the isle of Juventud we anchored off and therefore had to bring two huge black-booted officials to Bandit. Having just spent the day in Nuevo Gerona provisioning, there wasn’t a lot of room in our tiny tender and one black boot landed firmly on my fresh tomatoes — oh well, tomato pasta for dinner!
What we found overall was that Cuban officials are exceptionally polite, friendly and helpful. The only exception was in Havana where, on both check-in and -out, the coast guard fellow asked for gifts or money, which was disappointing as his colleagues were all entirely professional. With Hemingway Marina charging an additional ten percent for gratuities on top of the bill we were happy to firmly say no to his persistent requests. (NB: This charge is “discretionary” but we were pressured to pay it.)
When issued with the despacho you must state on it the ports you want to visit and if you haven’t put a port down, then it’s difficult (but probably not impossible) to go there. We spent much of our time in isolated anchorages in the southern archipelago between our official “ports” and were never bothered by officials. However we did hear that officials are far more vigilant on the north coast and unexpected visits from the coast guard are the norm. It’s worth noting also that many areas on the north coast are out of bounds.
Having got through entry formalities in Cuba we then had to get our heads around the monetary system. Cuba has two currencies: the CUC (convertible peso), which is equal to the US dollar, and ordinary pesos or moneda nacional. It’s not always easy to get money from ATMs (our New Zealand debit cards would not work) so we were pleased we’d taken plenty of euros, which we then changed for CUCs and pesos at cadecas. We understand VISA cards are okay but, obviously, not American ones.
Using local pesos wherever possible is definitely the way to go; we used them at the fruit and vegetable markets to buy a week’s worth of provisions for less than five dollars. Peso restaurants serve a pretty bland diet of pizza or toasted sandwiches but at one dollar for two it’s a dirt-cheap way of eating. Those with a sweet tooth will love the soft-serve ice cream at just a few cents.
Stories about the average Cuban wage differ; we were told it is about US$20 a month. We found Cuba an incredibly cheap country but it pays to be careful, as there are plenty of locals around happy to take gullible tourists’ money. Always check whether the price quoted is in CUCs or pesos — it does make a huge difference!
Cuba had always been the focus of our sailing season in the Western Caribbean and we fell in love with it. Formalities aside, we found the people incredibly friendly and helpful, the scenery beautiful and the music and dance culture fantastic. Yes there are political issues and frequently we cursed the communist regime when we saw desperately poor people, sub-standard housing, sick unneutered and stray dogs, and sickeningly thin horses (slaughter is forbidden).
Our month-long visa soon ran out. Extending it was not a problem… only (like everything here) time consuming. We didn’t understand how much paperwork we needed — proof of medical insurance (difficult when you can’t find an internet café with a printer), boat papers, marina documentation and pre-paid stamps bought from a bank — miles from the Immigration office! Once we had all this, getting the extension was a simple process carried out by ever-helpful and friendly officials.
From a sailing perspective the southern archipelago was magical, with gentle winds, spectacularly clear water, fantastic snorkelling and abundant fishlife. We spent several weeks in and around Cayo Rosario, Cayo Hicacos and Cayo de Dios.
The anchorages were fantastic and crayfish (spiny lobsters) abundant. Be warned though — you can be fined for taking crayfish as it is “government property”. Despite this, most evenings, under cover of darkness, we had local fishermen turn up hoping to exchange a bucket of crays for anything from a length of rope to a bottle of rum.
Cienfuegos was a good place to leave Bandit at anchor to explore the once thriving and now beautifully restored town of Trinidad, while on the north coast both Hemingway Marina and Varadero provide safe marinas to leave boats for travel to Havana and Viñales.
After much deliberating we opted to double back from Cienfuegos and cruise the stunning southern archipelago again, then go around the western tip of Cuba and up to Havana. The southern coast sailing was kind but once around the western tip we found ourselves with both opposing wind and current and it was a real bash up to Havana. The few anchorages we visited were mangrove cays with distinctly murky water with the possibility of lurking alligators. Swimming and snorkelling were definitely off the agenda!
Inland travel in Cuba was easy, with buses cheap and reliable and casas particulares (private homes with rooms to rent for around $20) a great way of getting to know the locals. Being able to speak basic Spanish was hugely rewarding and helpful — especially the time we left our passports on Bandit when heading to Viñales for a few days. After much paperwork, phone calls by our casa particular hosts and a cap-in-hand visit to Immigration, we were permitted to stay.
Our advice to cruisers thinking of visiting Cuba is GO.
Go while it’s still a fairly authentic experience.
Go before Cuba opens itself up to more tourists.
Go before it becomes just another Caribbean island.
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