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  CRUISING NOTES

  2014 Expedition (New)   vintage Cuba travel poster  
  2012 Cruise
  Ports of Entry (updated)
  Visas, Insurance and Fees
  Vessel Importation  (Rescinded)    
  Cruising Permits (updated)    
  Crossing the Gulf Stream
  Provisioning
  

2014 Expedition

Cuba 2014

Our expedition to Cuba this winter (2014) was very rewarding. Not only did we enjoy the company of more cruisers, better food, access to day-to-day items that we couldn’t buy in other years but we also completed research for Volume 2 of the Cruising Guide to Cuba series. To do this, we covered a lot of ground including car trips into the interior in order to visit as many unique, out-of-the-way places as we could.

What stood out the most was the number of tourists that we encountered. There were buses loaded with visitors in colonial towns and villages and even cruise ships in remote ports that, until now, rarely saw foreigners. An upside to all this appears to be more restoration of Cuba’s beautiful historic buildings in places you wouldn’t expect. Helping this along is the fact that Cubans now own the home they live in. As a result of ownership there is more pride and – paint. Many of the ordinary stuccoed cinder block buildings have been brightened up in beautiful Caribbean pastels and surprisingly, many for sale signs.

The farther east we travelled the better the food became. Now that farmers are allowed to retain more cash received from the sale of their produce there is a huge incentive to grow more produce and more varieties. This year was the first time in our many visits to Cuba that we ate lamb (ovejo). It was mouth-watering when cooked in yerba buena (mint) sauce. We were delighted to find that, like the south coast, shrimp grow large and plentiful along Cuba’s northeast coast—look out Aussies, the Cubans are throwing shrimps on the barbie and they are positively delicious. At times, pork and chicken were the only meats offered. This is odd considering that cattle are grass-grazed by the thousands in Oriente (the eastern half of Cuba) but beef never makes it onto the table. It is still illegal for Cubans to eat beef and what little might be slaughtered makes it no further than a few hotels. And yet, some all-inclusive hotels apparently serve nothing but hot dogs. “Where’s the beef?” is another Cuban mystery yet to be solved.

The price for a good restaurant meal in a (paladar) was cheaper this year than in other years. Meals ranged from $1 to $10 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) though you could pay much more for the same thing if you didn’t shop around. For $1 or $2 you can get fried pork, chicken or fish with seasonal salad, rice and plantain or malanga. For $10 it is possible to have a lobster supper with a mojito included. For about $20 per week a live aboard couple can eat very well provided they stick with fresh pork, organic produce, herbs and spices, eggs, bread and other food staples that are available from farm markets, street vendors and bodegas (ration stores where rationed items such as sugar, rice, beans are sold when available).

Diesel had increased to $1.40 per litre but it could be had on the black market for $0.90. Dockage rates remain unbeatable with an average price of 0.40/ft/day for a boat less than 45 feet. The customs fee to enter a boat into Cuba increased in early January 2014 to $55 (up from $20). This, however, includes the exit fee and the cruising permit which were sold separately—still a bargain compared to the Bahamas and many other Caribbean islands. And compared to Mexico, the check-in procedure is a breeze.

The above-noted prices are in Cuban Convertible Pesos. In 2014, the average exchange rate for the Canadian dollars was 1.14. After the 10% discount on the USD the exchange on that was also about 1.14. National Pesos (MN) (used for all local purchases including some restaurants) were exchanged at a rate of 1 Convertible for 24 Nationals. Cuba is planning on reverting back to the Peso National as its single currency. This may occur as early as summer 2014. Credit cards are still not widely accepted but there are more ATM machines in the large tourist centres. Since cash remains king in Cuba, banks are open 7 days a week.

There has been no change to the cruising restrictions on foreign vessels. Entering into pocket bays, anchoring off villages and going ashore is still not possible. Fortunately, the coastline is so extensive and sparsely populated that there remain plenty of cruising options and places to go where these limitations have little affect—this is particularly true on the south coast.


2012 Notes

 2012 Notes

     In 2012, we completed our sixteenth cruise of Cuba with a focus on the Western portion of the island (both north and south coasts). This enabled us to gather the details needed to complete Volume 1 of Cruising Cuba. 

     With each visit we see changes and 2012 was no exception. Some changes are working toward the betterment of the Cuban people while other changes may not pan out so well. Cubans are now free to travel within their own country however the cost of transportation for most remains high. On the positive side, any Cuban who has a car is permitted to drive it as a private taxi. Consequently, the roads are filled with more classics (1940's and 50's GM's, Ford's, Chrysler's) than ever. The operators of these classic cars accept fares in Pesos Nacional making it much cheaper to get around. The ratio is 24 Pesos (MN) to 1 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). It is now possible to get into Old Havana from Marina Hemingway for 30 MN. If you don't have pesos they will accept the equivalent in CUCs ($1.25CUC). This is about a tenth of the cost from a year ago. Note: In 2013, 1 CUC was equal to $0.95 Canadian and $0.85 USD.

     For a tourist and probably the locals, the dual currency definitely makes life more difficult. The problem becomes who accepts what currency, where to get it and will they have any. No country can operate for long with a dual currency system. The exchange rate for foreign currency definitely favours the Canadian dollar. At the moment, it pays to load up with Canadian cash (or Euros and Sterling) before heading to Cuba as one loose too much when exchanging US dollars.

     The restoration of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and the Malecon continues to progress. More of the old, narrow streets have been blocked to vehicle traffic. The shops along these pedestrian-only streets were well-stocked and some even have window displays of expensive, high-end European apparel! Shopping by Habaneros was unprecedented. 

     Many new "Paladars" (private restaurants) have opened creating competition which has resulted in better food and service. For the penny-saving boater it is now possible to eat at a peso paladar on a back street and have a good meal for 25-35 pesos (roughly $1.50 CUC). In Old Havana you will only find CUC paladars and the price ranges greatly...expect to pay $4.00-40.00 CUC for a meal (drinks not included). Shop around as the same meal could be available for half the price in the paladar across the street.

    The biggest change, however, was the apparent easing in U.S.—Cuban relations. What we noticed were large numbers of U.S. tourists in Havana, Pinar del Rio province and Trinidad on the south coast. American tourists are now able to fly to Cuba under the Dept. of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) "people to people" general license. This educational exchange provision does not, however, apply to individual tourists travelling to Cuba by boat!

     For years, the annual number of tourists to Cuba stood at roughly 2 million. The new OFAC provision is expected to cause this number to surge by 1 million in 2014. Cuba's answer to the problem is to add 10,000 new hotel rooms through 2016 and, in response to the high demand for accommodation created by U.S. tour companies, they will be raising hotel and other tourist service rates by 25 percent. Compared to other Latin American cities, Havana's already expensive hotels will be grossly overpriced.

     As well as Havana, the tourist towns of Viñales in Pinar del Rio and Trinidad are already sold out for the next season and beyond and there is no evidence that new hotels are being planned for these tourist hotspot. Without new infrastructure, the only way for Cuba to regulate the influx of tourists may be to introduce a visa system and/or limit airplane landing rights. 

     For the time being, everything seems focused on land travellers. The only exception is the new marina at the eastern tip of the Hicacos Peninsula at Varadero. This project has progressed over the past few years and is set to open in 2015. At this time, no other marina projects are underway and even the marina rebuild at Tárara has stopped.

     As for existing marinas, some have become quite run-down and services cut. This is particularly true of Marina Hemingway. There is no longer water or power available at canal number one so they are offering a 30% reduction to those docked in that canal. The swimming pool at the customs dock is now closed so there is no pool available to boaters (the pool at Hotel Acuario will cost $20 CUC/person/day. The biggest negative change, however, is the increased restrictions on where boaters can cruise. Today, all the pocket bays on the north coast are closed to yachts and throughout the country it is only possible to go ashore at designated ports where there is a marina or tourist facility. It is still possible to anchor in remote areas where there are no settlements. The few designated stops are: Puerto Vita, Cayo Coco, Marina Darsena in Varadero, Marina Hemingway, Cayo Levisa, Marina Cabo San Antonio, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, and Santiago. 

     Fuel was still available at Marina Hemingway, Marina Cabo San Antonio and Cayo Largo Marina. In 2013, the price was $1.20 CUC/Litre. Minor boat repairs can still be arranged at Marina Hemingway and the large, haul and storage yard at the new Gaviota Marina in Varadero is, for the most part, operational. The Sepsa security guards are gone from Marina Hemingway and a new system is in place with much fewer on-site guards so it is recommended that vessels be locked when owners are not aboard. Security is still very good at Marina Darsena in Varadero. 

     The fruits and vegetable markets are stocked in Havana but far less produce is available in out-lying areas especially on the south coast. 

     For now, the reefs remain in good shape but lionfish (an aggressive predator) have moved into Cuban waters—a bad sign for the future of small reef fishes. Lionfish were also seen in the canals at Marina Hemingway. 

     The number of yacht visitations this year remains the same...low. The predominant cruisers were from France, then Canada and Germany. Other European countries were also represented as well as a few U.S. flagged yachts. We will report on their experience with US customs as we get information from them.

 
 
 

PORTS OF ENTRY

Ports of Entry and Entry Procedures

     Boaters arrive on the shores of Cuba from many different regions. The most common sailing routes are those between Cuba and: Florida, Mexico, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. It is important to understand that Cuba has only *eight ports of entry (PoE) and your landfall must be at one of these designated ports. To arrive in any other location—regardless of your circumstances—will result in being turned away and with the likely-hood that you will not be granted entry into Cuba when you do finally reach a designated port of entry. This may sound harsh but Cuba has a set of rules and procedures for foreign boats entering the country and these rules are strictly adhered to.    For a listing of designated ports of entry follow this link:          Ports of Entry List

*Cayo Guillermo on the Northeast coast is now only an exit port. Maria La Gorda is not a Port of Entry. Vessels arriving from Mexico must check-in at the marina at Cabo San Antonio (Los Morros). Fuel is not available at Maria la Gorda. Baracoa is not a port of entry and has not been a PoE for at least 15 years. 

     The first thing you must do when approaching a PoE (roughly 12 nm) is to make contact via VHF—you may need to be much closer to shore as officials are often using hand-held radios. In most ports the harbourmaster will respond in English but often with a heavy accent. In all the years we have been entering Cuba we have not needed any advanced knowledge of the Spanish language. Once you have made contact, the harbourmaster will give you all the pertinent information for entering their port—buoyage, depth, courses, where to tie etc. After your vessel is secured the officials will come aboard. Everyone on your vessel must have a valid passport.

     Today, the entry process is relatively quick and easy (expect to spend a minimum of 2 or 3 hours—much longer if you have firearms aboard). All Cubans, including the officials, are pleased that you have come to Cuba and will be very friendly and happy to welcome you to their island. The number of officials and inspectors that will come aboard will vary from port to port. You should expect anywhere from two people to a dozen including drug sniffing dogs in the larger ports. It is recommended that a member of the crew accompany any official who searches your boat. Some officials may ask for a tip, you are not in away way obliged to tip them and in many ports a handout is frowned upon by the ranking official. At your port of entry you will be issued clearance for your vessel and a tourist visa for each crew member.

 
    
 
VISAS

VESSEL IMPORTATION

INSURANCE

     Tourist visas are issued upon arrival. In 2014, the fee for a visa was $25 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) per person. Visas are valid for one month and can be renewed for one month for an additional $25CUC. Canadians, however, are issued a tourist visa that is valid for three months and renewable for an additional three months. The fee for this visa is also $25 CUC.

     2014 UPDATE: We are happy to report that the importation fee has been rescinded. Vessels may remain in Cuba for 5 years. After 5 years the vessel's owner can ask for an extension.

     Health insurance is now needed for anyone travelling to Cuba. Visitors arriving from a country that provides national health coverage (Canada, Europe etc.) do not need to buy Cuban medical insurance. U.S. citizens are required to buy Cuban medical insurance. Expect to pay $3CUC/day per person. The total (based on the number of people and the number of days in the country) will be added to the marina bill at your port of entry. According to those who have paid this fee, it is considered good value. Should medical attention be required, facilities and service is good and will be undertaken at a tourist hospital. 

     For anyone wanting boat insurance for Cuba, it is not easy to obtain and can be expensive. At the present time, there is one insurer in Canada and another in Germany who will insure vessels for an extended period (more than a day or two). Dolphin Insurance is located in Vancouver, Canada and is much cheaper than the German company.


Outside Cover:  Three seals of approval

Inside the permit: a series of small boxes for Guarda signatures.

CRUISING PERMIT

Cuba Cruising Permit

cruising permit for Cuba

If you plan on leaving the marina and doing some cruising then you must have a cruising permit. The fee for this permit is now included in your entrance/exit fee. In 2014, the new entry fee was $55CUC which and this is paid to the marina at your port of entry. The break down is: $20CUC customs entry, $20CUC exit fee and $15CUC cruising permit. 

Checking into an out port with the Guarda Frontera should be quick as NO search is required by the duty officer. If they insist upon a search, then a crewmember should accompany the person doing the search. A similarly quick procedure is required upon departure.

Despite streamlining the fee payment and making it easier to pay (in the past it was paid to three different entities in three different locations) there is still the problem of anchoring restrictions and going ashore. We hope this will change soon.

 

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PORTS OF ENTRY

  PoE MAP

North Coast:

 

South Coast:

  Cabo San Antonio — Cabo San Antonio marina   Santiago — Santiago de Cuba Marina
  Havana — Marina Hemingway   Cienfuegos — Cienfuegos Marina
  Varadero — Marina Darsena Veradero   Cayo Largo — Marina Cayo Largo del Sur
                 — Marina Gaviota Veradero   *Maria La Gorda not a port of entry.  
 Cayo Guillermo Exit port only, depth restricted *Baracoa, near Cuba's eastern tip, has not been a PoE for at least 15 yrs.

 Puerto Vita — Puerto de Vita Marina

Return to PoE text

 

 

 
 
  GULF STREAM

Crossing the Gulf Stream

     The current that runs northward along Florida’s east coast is officially named the Florida Current and not the Gulf Stream, a name most boaters tend to use. Call it what you will, whether bound for the Bahamas or headed to Mexico or Cuba either way this virtual river must be crossed.

Crossing the Gulf Stream to CubaThe rule of thumb—do not to cross the Gulf Stream during a cold front—in other words when the wind is northerly. North winds create a terrible wind-over-tide effect in the Gulf Stream resulting in a motion that could be described as “putting your boat in a washing machine”.  After a cold front has past the seas settle quickly and prevailing easterlies return. The best weather window for crossing the Gulf Stream to Cuba is to have easterly winds of 15 to 18 knots or less.

Your best strategy is to make the crossing during the night, when the winds tend to be light, and reach the coast of Cuba in the morning. The axis of the Gulf Stream will be encountered at approximately 50 nautical miles south of the Florida Keys here the current reaches upwards of 2.5 knots. The roughest part of this crossing will be approximately 10 miles before reaching the axis and 10 miles after you have crossed it especially if the wind is gusting. Don’t be concerned about compensating for the current. You can easily make back your westing in the morning close to the Cuban coast. Here, you may find a west flowing counter-current.

On our many crossings to Cuba’s northwest coast, landfall is usually Marina Hemingway. We depart Marathon and cruise west down the Hawk Channel, our timing is such that we arrive off Key West just before dark. At sunset we head onto a course of 203°T. In the morning we awake to see the Havana skyline and then alter course to head for the fairway marker off Marina Hemingway. We have made about 20 crossings and on a few occasions have detected no current in the Gulf Stream! The crossing from Marathon to Varadero is also an easy one under the same suggested conditions.

 
 

Provisioning for a winter cruise in Cuba

PROVISIONING

   Prior to a departure for Cuba, you must have a well-provisioned pantry. You will be going off-the-beaten-path despite being only 90 nm from the United States. Assume nothing will be available to you in Cuba, especially outside of the large cities. In this way, any food or grocery items that you do obtain will be a welcome bonus. If cruising the coast, much of the time you will be anchored in bays where there is no habitation so you must be prepared. What you can expect to find in Cuba is an abundance of fresh seafood whether caught by you or procured through trade with local fishermen. 

   We stock a lot of bottled and canned goods: ham, chicken, fruit and vegetables, soups, sauces, mayo, jam, peanut butter, UHT milk. Tinned ham and chicken make a change from a daily diet of rich lobster and grilled fish. We also take packaged dried goods: rice, a variety of beans, pasta, flour, powdered milk, tea and coffee, yeast, spices, hot and cold cereals, cake mixes, fruit/nuts, chips, cookies, crackers. Rice and beans are rationed items in and there is not enough to go around. Cubans must supplement these staples buy purchasing them on the black market. Don’t forget chocolates, gum and candies, etc.—wonderful for the sweet tooth cruiser but also to give to the officials that come aboard and for the kiddies ashore. Items that are essentially not available in Cuba are: milk, butter, good bread, potatoes (though South American root vegetables are nearly always found at the market). Sugar and coffee are also rationed items.

   If you have a freezer then you will be able to purchase meat in Cuba—mainly chicken (frozen) and freshly butchered pork. Chicken is often available at ship chandleries and also some hard currency stores. Prices will be in Convertible Pesos (CUC). Fresh pork at the local market is always available and is very good. I learned the following from an Italian gentleman I met in Cuba. He told me "never purchase fresh meat that doesn’t attract flies. If flies are absent, assume there is some sort of pesticide on the meat. Cubans probably couldn’t afford a can of "Raid" but I always keep this little gem of wisdom in mind.

   The ship chandler at Marina Hemingway often has fresh eggs. Stock up when available. Sometimes you will find eggs at the local markets too. They come in flats of 36 so I suggest bringing some empty 12 and 18-sized egg cartons and transfer the loose eggs into these for for safe storage. A type of Gouda cheese can be purchased at chandleries and in some supermarkets at fairly reasonable prices. Some supermarkets also stock Cuban cheese a.k.a. frying cheese at a good price-when available. Cuban cheese is very different to the cheeses we are used to. It is somewhat like a very rubbery feta compressed into a block and if bought by the roadside can have a strong smoky flavour.

   At the markets you will find fresh produce but only that which is in season. Now that farmers are able to sell their produce and retain a good percentage of the sales, the supply at the weekly markets has increased by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, there is still no shipment of goods between provinces.

You will have no problem finding fresh tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, lettuce, onions, cabbage, carrots, garlic, coriander, bananas, plantains, yams, malanga and other root vegetables, papayas, pineapple, mangos, guava, and watermelon.

   You cannot over stock with toiletries. What you don’t use you can always give away or use for bartering. Cubans must spend what little money they have to supplement their food rations, rarely is there money left to buy toiletries. The elderly will approach you on the street or in bus stops asking for soap and toothpaste etc. You should load up with: soap, toilet tissue, toothpaste and toothbrushes, disposable razors, laundry soap,  shampoo and conditioner, Tylenol and or aspirin, cough-syrup, antihistamine creams for cuts etc., mosquito smoke coils and repellent, band-aids, hair colour…whatever you use take some of it with you. Popular gift items can include: nail polish, perfume and men’s cologne.

   If you take any medications, have your doctor prescribe all that you will need for an extended vacation as you will not be able get any medications in Cuba. In a medical emergency you will be taken to a tourist-only hospital. These hospitals are good and can handle any situation that may arise. Herbal tinctures and remedies are commonly used in Cuba and are inexpensive. I particularly like Propoleos, a tincture made from bee pollen. Good for all that ails you…this reportedly includes shingles.

   Beer and rum and colas are available everywhere. Wine too but it is not cheap so bring your table wine. Fruit juices, in UHT boxes, are readily available but have become more expensive. Most paladars (restaurants) will offer fresh, seasonal juices which are cheap and delicious. 

   On-site at most marinas is a small grocery. These shops are not all that well stocked but prices tend to be a little less expensive than in the main centres. Grocery stores in Havana and Varadero carry a selection of North American and European goods but these are expensive. It goes without saying that tobacco products are sold everywhere and are inexpensive.   

   Follow similar guidelines when stocking the boat with spare parts and supplies. Marine parts are virtually non-existent in Cuba. Cuban mechanics are miracle workers but there is only so much one can do with nothing.

 

By now, you should be getting the idea of what you need for a Cuba cruise.

 

      Dance yourself to Cuba
         
 

 

Tips:

1. At local markets, use Pesos Nacional but don’t convert too much, no more than a few CUC worth at a time. The $ symbol is the same for both CUCs and Pesos. In 2014, the exchange rate was 1 CUC for 24 Pesos. Note: There is talk of reverting back to a single currency (the Peso National) sometime in 2014.

2. Take your own shopping bags to the market. You cannot count on the vendor having them.

3. It is handy to have a bicycle for market trips. Have a carrier to bring your purchases back to the boat. (Don’t forget the bags).

4. If dining out, go to a Paladar (a privately owned and operated restaurant) rather than at a government-run eatery. The prices are roughly the same but what you get at a paladar will be much better. A good meal will cost $4-8CUC, drinks not included. If staying ashore, stay in a casa particular and absolutely eat at the place you are staying—it will be worth it. Note: In 2014, casas became known as Hostels.

     

       
   

For up-to-date cruising information use

Cruising Guide to Cuba Volume 1

by Cheryl Barr ~ Yacht Pilot Publishing

 
       
         

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