Our visit to Cuba began at Marina Hemingway on the north coast then anticlockwise to Santiago de Cuba, where we exited the country. We sailed 100nm direct from Key West. This distance travelled around Cuba was almost 800nm over five weeks in January/February 2016. Sailing west around the western tip was sometimes rough against the Gulf Stream, but we travelled with suitable winds (around 15knots).
Travelling east along the southern coast was challenging against the prevailing easterly winds. Every four or five days a winter cold front would blow from the northwest allowing us a chance to take advantage of the northerly wind before it reverted back to easterly.
We found the bureaucracy consistent; checking in and out with the Guarda Frontera at each major port was efficient, usually friendly and no money was ever exchanged. Only at Marina Hemingway did anyone inspect inside our boat. Departure from Santiago de Cuba was straightforward and a port clearance issued by the Harbourmaster with no departure fees.
Cuba is very different from many countries we’ve been with regard to eating and provisioning. Unless your boat requires rum, canned corn or bottled water, you won’t find any sailing spares at ‘chandleries’. Food is difficult to find, particularly fresh vegetables and fruit, most of which we found were over ripe and didn’t last long. Of course there are restaurants and local eateries but be sure to check the prices before you order.
But Cuba is so interesting! Old cars; restored buildings of Cienfuegos; colourful village of Trinidad; dancing duos and bands; images of Che and Fidel; architecture of Havana; blue waters along the coral reef; touts of Santiago – Cuba is a wonderful place to visit and the one thing I regret is not staying there longer.
Travelling in Company
We teamed up with another yacht for this trip which made our experience much more enjoyable and as it turned out we needed their help. Travelling costs are shared, local information, weather reports and other ways to help each other out is always useful. For example, when our outboard engine packed in and we couldn’t get an impeller, our friends were there to act as our lifeline to the shore. Meanwhile we could provide them with weather information as internet is hard to come by in Cuba.
Cruising Guides and Navigation
For our trip we referred to Nigel Calder’s Cruising Guide to Cuba, plus Frank Virgintino’s Free Guide to Cuba. We found the anchorages and sailing conditions to be as per the guides, however, some discrepancies with costs, processes, etc., as these have changed over time.
I recommend you make sure you have all online information saved into PDFs before you arrive in Cuba.
We used Navionics charts on our Raymarine chart plotter and iPads. We found the accuracy to be very good and had no problem generally. Buoyage was generally good, but in some cases markers were missing, moved or improved but generally these charts were spot on. In many occasions, our depth sounder would fluctuate from very deep (over 500m) to 10m in a very short time frame causing us to zoom in on our charts. Not sure why this happens, but skipper pondered whether it was a reflection from the different water temperatures below.
Clearing in and out
Cuba has eight ports of entry and Marina Hemingway on the north coast is a popular port of entry and the one we entered Cuba. The entrance should be entered in light winds as its narrow with dangerous reef on either side. While there on a 25kn northeasterly large breaking waves washed across the entrance. Once in follow the channel and turn left at the number nine marker to pull up at the Guarda Frontera dock.
The officials were welcoming, the dockmaster(s) spoke reasonable English, and they are used to foreign vessels so we were processed in less than one hour receiving a thirty day upon arrival visa. They didn’t stamp our passport but included the visa in our passports. The Guarda Frontera guys are less likely to speak English. They asked us about our GPS equipment and Satphone. They taped up the keypad on our satphone telling us we couldn’t use it in Cuba (with all due respect to the authorities, we could still use the satphone – even taped up – primarily for weather information as we had no other method of sourcing accurate weather forecasts).
At check-in you will be asked for a list of the places you want to visit. I prepared a list of all the main ports and most of the anchorages we wanted to visit. I referred to Nigel Calder’s Guide, Frank Virgintino’s Free Guide and Active-Captain for useful anchorage information. This list was provided at Hemingway but it was never referred to again. Of course our route changed and we went to some places not on the list, but it wasn’t a problem.
Entrance fee is payable to the marina at CUC$25 each. Despite what is written in some guides, Cuba no longer charges a CUC$25 departure tax (since May 1, 2015).
We left Hemingway with our despacho, plus our cruising permit which was handed to us as we departed. This document was handed in at each major port, stamped when arrived and retained until you leave.
You will be required to clear into each major port, but the small islands on anchor aren’t a problem. We got off our boat at Cayo Dan Felipe and Cayo Cantilles to meet the park staff. The only time anyone boarded our boat was at Hemingway, Siguanea on Isla de la Juventud, and Cienfuegos. Only at Hemingway did they inspect inside our vessel on entry and departure. Santiago officials never came to our boat.
Marinas and anchorages
We stayed at Marina Hemingway and Marina Cayo Largo and anchored outside Marina Punta Gorda at Santiago, Marina Cienfuegos and Marina Siguanea.
Information on ActiveCaptain or in Frank’s Free Guide to Cuba are fairly accurate. Cost for berthing/anchoring as at January 2016:
- Marina Hemingway – $0.50 per boat foot; extra for potable water and electricity (110v) on Canal 1; good showers, poor water pressure in toilets; internet cards and service from nearby Hotel Acuaria
- Marina Cayo Largo – $0.80 per boat foot; electricity available (110v); dubious quality of water; small floating docks; shower and toilet are dismal. Anchoring nearby is just deep enough for a 2m keel; internet from nearby hotel
- Marina Punta Gorda (Santiago) – $0.45 dockside or $0.25 on anchor per boat foot; no internet; cold showers (when they have water); no fuel dock; 10kms from town
- Marina Cienfuegos – $0.20 per boat foot to anchor; didn’t use showers and toilets; fuel dock available
- Marina Siguanea – nothing here but a Guarda Frontera post, but you can get fuel. There are docks but they were filled with dive charter boats.
Visas and Travel Insurance
We arrived late in Santiago due to bad weather and our 30 day visas had expired. We needed to get an extension of another 30 days. We were told we couldn’t have this done at the marina, but had to go into the city along Calle Aguilera 1km south of the Hotel Melia Santiago to a small blue immigration office upstairs of. SEPSA office. It’s important to note that you don’t just turn up at the immigration office with your passports as advised by the Marina staff.
First you must go to a bank (we went to the Banco de Credito in Plaza Cespedes) and purchase enough ‘stamps’ for your visa (CUC$25 per person). Second, be sure to have your travel insurance certificate with you as you will not be given an extension without one (even though no one checked this when we arrived). Third, wear appropriate clothing and footwear, and fourth, don’t go at lunchtime!
We went to the bank, obtained the stamps and went to the immigration office. Neither crew thought to take travel insurance certificates as this was the first time we’d been asked for it.
Fortunately I had a digital copy of our travel insurance on my iPad which was accepted. The woman officer approved my extension but wouldn’t do my husbands because he as was wearing thongs, ‘chancletas’ (jandals or flip-flops). We had to return after lunch with better footwear!
If you don’t have travel insurance you may have trouble extending your visa.
Communication and Language
Knowing a little Spanish is very useful and will make your visit much more pleasurable. I speak a little so had no trouble getting around or general conversation. Sometimes though I couldn’t understand what was being said to me. Usually the officials or marina staff will speak a little English.
Etecsa internet cards can be bought from from hotel receptions or Etecsa offices. These are a reasonable CUC$2 for one hour or CUC$10 for five hours and as long as the Internet is available the signal is good enough from the berth at Marina Hemingway. You won’t find internet on any of the islands or smaller communities. We had no internet at Marina Punta Gorda at Santiago, but did have internet at Cayo Largo.
Although we didn’t use an international phone card while in Cuba our friends did and the cost was around US$6/minute.
Cuba has two currencies – the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the National Peso (CUP). The CUC is equivalent to the USD and used by tourists. At this time Euros are the best at this stage to exchange at €1 = CUC1.04, while the USD is slugged an additional 10% tax and the rate not so good.
The CUP is the local currency used by Cubans, but tourists can also use pesos to pay for general items such as market food and to pay for rides in maquinas (the old car taxis). The exchange is USD$1.00 = CUC$1.00 = CUP$24.00. We managed to live on CUC$1000 for the five weeks we were there which included berthing, travel expenses and meals.
We did notice that where we may have been charged CUC$1 for whatever, the locals would pay CUP$1 – around 1/25th of the price. Be sure to check prices at restaurants, bars and local eateries.
Here is a good link for more information. http://www.visitcuba.com/travel-guide/travel-tips/
Food and shopping
Food is difficult to obtain in Cuba so the best advice is to take your own. Upon entry at Hemingway the inspectors didn’t look in our fridge or freezer although I told him we had meat, eggs and vegetables on board from the USA. No problem. A short taxi from Marina Hemingway is the Flores mercado where you can buy frozen chicken, canned goods, rice, pasta, etc. Outside Flores was a small veggie market (agromercado) which had enough choice for us – carrots, tomatoes, egg plant, onions, lettuce, cucumbers, capsicum and sweet potato. The rule we followed was if you see it, buy it! Bread can be found generally, but eggs are harder to find.
You will have no problem buying beer and rum. These can be found everywhere. There is a small supermarket and chandlery at the Marina but don’t expect much. The “chandlery” sells nothing whatsoever to do with sailing, except for rum, other alcohol, fruit juice and large cans of food.
After five weeks our diet changed from plates of salad and meat (which we love) to simple meals of fried rice, coleslaw and pizza. You can always buy cabbage, but carrots aren’t easy to find. Of all the main ports we visited Cienfuegos was the easiest place to buy food (ie: you could walk into town). In Santiago you’ll stumble upon mercados so take the opportunity to pick up items such as powdered milk, pizza bases (made locally and great value), plus frozen chicken.
Hemingway Marina had a lady who could do your washing although we had no need for this and hand-washed our clothes. The only time I used a service was at Santiago marina where a lady named Rosie who lives nearby washed and dried sheets and towels for around CUC$2 for a small load (or CUC$6 for sheets, towels and pillow cases). She has a small twin tub machine and can’t fit too much in. Take your own washing powder. Rosie’s husband offered to sell us bananas and eggs, and apparently could arrange to have your cooking gas bottle filled too.
Our bicycles made it easier to get around the marina and around the nearby village of Santa Fe but we didn’t venture into Havana with our bikes.
The old cars, or maquinas, can be flagged down and depending on where you are you can pay CUP$30 (equivalent to CUC$1.50) to get to Havana via Playa, or CUC$10 if you want the taxi to yourself.
Local buses are available although we didn’t ride one. I believe they cost CUP$1 but take a long time and are quite full.
You can find toilets in most places, but be sure to take your own toilet paper, and don’t expect toilet seats! Tap water isn’t always available too. Where possible we would enter a restaurant for a drink and use their toilets, sometimes a small fee is required to the attendant. You’d be lucky to get the trifecta (toilet seats, water and toilet paper at the same time!).
We filled up with fuel before we left the USA as it was much cheaper than Cuba (US$2.07 in Key West). Our next fill was at Siguanea on the Isla de la Juventud where fuel was CUC1.10/litre, although he gave it to us for CUC$1.00 as we bought over 100 litres. Cayo Largo has diesel for CUC$1.20/litre.
Cienfuegos has a fuel dock and the price was CUC$1.10/litre. At Santiago de Cuba, they don’t have a fuel dock and you must jug it from town using a mini bus. Although the bowser read CUC$0.73/Litre, we paid CUC$1.20/litre.
(Note: Depending on how much fuel you carry, we paid US$0.48 per litre at Punta Real in Puerto Rico – a good place to fill up if you’re going east).
Touts and tipping
Our experience with the Santiago touts. A few times we heard the line “I know you from the marina. I work in security”. Don’t be fooled as after we were hooked the first time, we heard this phrase again and again. This is the same in most countries so just tell them no.
We were often asked for soap and shampoo, pens and of course money. We avoided giving handouts to children as we are not comfortable encouraging this. Of course small unexpected gifts are most welcome. I handed out small koalas to some delighted children while my friend gave away some glittery beads he’d received in the USA. These are appreciated and you’re always rewarded with a big smile.
Tipping is always appreciated wherever you go and if we had a meal we usually rounded up the cost of our meal, or left a dollar or two.
When you are sailing around, fishermen or swimmers will approach your boat to give you lobster, fish or vegetables. Often they would ask for nothing in return, but in some cases ask for clothes, razors, soap, cigarettes, beers, tennis balls or kids crayons for a feed of lobster, prawns or fish. Usually they request you don’t take photos as they are not allowed to do this.
Our five weeks in Cuba were 80% sailing or on anchor; 5% officialdom or provisioning and 15% sight-seeing. Cuba is worth the trip but be prepared to sail hard and spend days waiting for the wind to change. Be sure your vessel is fitted out with necessary spares (eg: a small outboard impeller was all that prevented us from getting ashore). Ensure your rigging is sound. Potable water isn’t easy to come by (we have a watermaker) so make sure you can carry enough as not all marinas have potable water.
To learn more about Cuba, I would recommend buying books before you arrive. If not you can buy books on Cuba’s interesting history (in English) from many tourist places, particularly in Havana.
Most of all, enjoy Cuba!