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Cruising in Cuba

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  2012 Cruise   vintage Cuba travel poster  
  Ports of Entry (important)
  Tourist Visas & Vessel Importation
  Cruising Permits
  Crossing the Gulf Stream    

2012 Cruising Notes

 2012 Notes

     We recently completed our sixteenth cruise in 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 the old Russian Ladas and new Chinese models. The operators of the 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. And 20 pesos to 1 CUC.

     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 $4-40 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 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

*Maria La Gorda is no longer a Port of Entry. Vessels arriving from Mexico must check-in at the marina at Cabo San Antonio (Los Morros). Also, 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.

TOURIST VISAS      The fee for a tourist visa in 2012 remained at $20 CUC per person. Visas for all nationals except Canadians are valid for one month and can be renewed for one additional month for $25. A tourist visa for Canadians will be issued for three month and is renewable for three additional months, the price is also $20 CuC. 

     The boat, regardless where it is flagged, is permitted to stay in Cuba while the owners return home. Be aware, however, of the 365 day limit that Cuba places on vessels staying in the country. After 365 days (cumulative time), your boat will incur an importation tax of 5% of the vessels assessed value. If you do not pay the import fee you will not be able to re-enter with that vessel. In 2012, there were far fewer Canadian vessels in Cuba since their 365 day limit had been reached. Many of these vessels are now wintering in other Caribbean destinations such as Mexico.





     If you plan on cruising the coast then you must have a cruising permit. This is issued by the Guarda Frontera upon departure from the PoE. Make sure the marina harbourmaster is aware of this so that he can inform the Guarda Frontera, this should ensure that the Guarda have the permit and stamps for you when you check out. NOTE: Currently, this permit was "to cruise the waters of Cuba", it did not permit you to go ashore except at a designated marina. We hope this will change in the near future.

Cuba Cruising Permit

Three seals of approval on the outside cover of the permit. Inside there is a series of small boxes.

cruising permit for Cuba

     A Guarda Frontera officer enters the date/time of arrival and departure in each box. This procedure should be short as NO search is required by the officer. If they insist then a crewmember should accompany the person doing the search.


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North Coast:


South Coast:

  Cabo San Antonio — Cabo San Antonio Marina   Santiago — Santiago de Cuba Marina
  Havana — Marina Hemingway   Cienfuegos — Cienfuegos Marina
  Varadero — Marina Puerta Sol Darsena   Cayo Largo — Marina Cayo Largo del Sur
                 — Marina Gaviota Veradero   *Maria La Gorda not a port of entry.  
 Cayo Guillermo restricted depth *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




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 Cuba

The 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 should find a west flowing counter-current.

On our 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!


Provisioning for a winter cruise in Cuba

   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 Cuba and then, 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 just 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 in very short supply these days.

   If you have a freezer then you will be able to purchase frozen meat in Cuba—mainly chicken and pork. It is often available from the chandleries at the marinas and also some of the currency stores. Prices will be in Convertible Pesos (CUC). Butchered pork is available at the markets and is 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 Ships Chandler at Marina Hemingway often has fresh eggs. Stock up when available. They come in flats of 36 so I suggest bringing some empty dozen-sized egg cartons and transfer the loose eggs into these for for safe storage. I have never seen eggs for sale in a market but I have, on occasion, bartered for a few. American-style cheese is usually available at the chandlery but expensive. Cubans rarely eat cheese and what they do have is very different to the cheeses we are used to. The cheese they eat is not unlike rubbery feta compressed into a block and can have a strong smoky flavour.


   At the markets you will find fresh produce but only that which is in season. Unfortunately, the supply is very erratic as there is no shipment of goods from one part of Cuba to another. Hope to find: 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 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 is available everywhere and is cheap. Wine and colas are not cheap so bring your own mixes and table wine. Until recently fruit juices, in UHT boxes, were not readily available for purchase. It is still for sale but in tiny boxes and limited assortments. Most paladars will have fresh, seasonal juices which are cheap and delicious. 

   On-site at Marina Hemingway there is a small grocery. By comparison, it is well-stocked but expensive. Likewise, the grocery stores in Havana will have North American and European goods but will be 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


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. 

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 (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 about $6-8CUC, 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.



For up-to-date cruising information use

Cruising Guide to Cuba Volume 1

by Yacht Pilot Publishing



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