Sailing from the US to Cuba

April 2008

Sailing from the US to Cuba is only a short journey of under 80NM and so, not too strenuous in a new boat…I hope.

A little background

After a very stressful and strained 3 months buying a bigger boat – Catalina 47′ – in New York, trucking Reality down to Miami to fit her out for ocean passages, then sailing out of Miami and down to Marathon (Florida), finally, we’re ready to leave.

During the 3 months, Naiad – our home-built 34′ Motor Sailor – also sold in Australia.

Catalina 47', sailing, Miami
Thought I’d throw this photo in: After a week on the road from New York, gorgeous Reality arrives in Miami

Today is the very last day that my 90-day Visa Waiver expires.

We didn’t plan on taking this long to buy a boat in the US. Especially, after many months of email exchanges with yacht brokers and pre-organising to see 8 boats, before flying out from Australia. Guess the brokers just didn’t believe that we were serious buyers.

The Sail

Heading out of Marathon around 2pm bound for Cuba with a light breeze and clear skies, it’s such a relief to finally see the U.S. coastline fade away in the distance.

Varadero, Cuba

Marathon (US): 24° 41.684’N 81° 07.264’W
Varadero (Cuba): 23° 07.868’N 81° 17.919’W

All is well until around 5 hours into the sail when we start hitting the Gulf Stream. This brings 3-4 metre confused seas and unfortunately, the wind also starts gusting to 30 Knots.

I’m sick for the rest of the trip and until we sail out of this area, around 8 hours later.

Cuba’s horizon

Such an exhilarating and exciting feeling making out the faint outline of land on the horizon, when you see a new country slowly revealing itself in your view!

At about 5 am, I start calling the “Guardia” (Frontier Guard) on VHF as we are 17NM out of Cuban waters. An approaching vessel to Cuba must call when reaching the 12NM zone.

No one answers. The Marina doesn’t answer either so we have to slow Reality down for the next 4 hours. You’re not allowed to just enter a country unannounced, especially Cuba.

Finally, just after 9am and only 3NM out, a voice answers our call and directs us to the Quarantine dock.

Clearing Customs

Waiting another couple of hours at the Quarantine dock, officials arrive…an entourage of 9 officials and 2 sniffer dogs.

The doctor boards first with paperwork and asks if we are “strong” – of course we reply, so she’s happy. Following the doctor are the sniffer dogs and handlers, which board Reality one-by-one, each spending 10 to 15-minutes going through the boat – we really look like drug runners.

The rest of the officials come down below and plonk themselves around the saloon table then proceed to spread paperwork everywhere…Cuba is re-known for its paperwork.

The Agriculture officer counts all our fruit and vegetables then advises that we can keep everything – nothing is mentioned about our pot plant on board.

The female Customs officer goes through our fridges and advises we cannot have eggs. Given the option of cooking up four-dozen eggs in ten minutes or she will confiscate the eggs – the eggs are confiscated. The officer then return a dozen to us and almost orders me to cook the eggs on the spot.

Advising that all our meat had to be confiscated or “Sello”…I understood this as selling and didn’t know why they’re telling us to sell the meat. Checking this word’s meaning in a dictionary, it is “sealed”.

All the meat is sealed with a lead staple and so, cannot be consumed whilst in Cuba.

One of the Customs Officer starts looking through our CDs and DVDs and I remember that we have couple of X-rated DVDs on board. Of course the officer finds these and shows the head customs officer. With a look of disgust on her face, we’re advised that these are illegal in Cuba, must stay on the boat, and not to give the DVDs away or sell any.

The irony is that the female officers wear skirts up around their waists almost, with pole-dancing heels but are disgusted with the DVDs. Have since learnt that modesty is not the dress code in Cuba. The shorter and tighter the dress, and higher the heels, the better…regardless of age, shape, or size.

Mini skirts, pole dancing shoes, and heavy eye makeup are all the go in Cuba. I don’t fit in.

Finally the entourage leaves almost 2 hours later. Shaking hands, the officers welcome us to Cuba. All for the bargain basement price of USD$120.

Money in Cuba

Although arriving safe and sound, we don’t have any Cuban money as it’s not available in the US (of course). Nor can we get Canadian dollars, which is the preferred currency.

We soon learn that this country operates on 2 currencies…one for the locals and one for tourists – two totally different note and coinage systems and is the way in which the government controls and basically keeps its people very poor.

Locals are not allowed to posses the tourist Peso and tourists are not allowed to possess the local Peso.

If Cubans somehow happen to obtain tourist Pesos, these can only be changed in a bank at the government’s exchange rate. Of course, the exchange is very low and not equal to the true value.

Cuba is expensive

As an example, to change US dollars incurs a 20% commission. A cash advance from MasterCard incurs a 10.5% commission, plus whatever your bank at home charges.

There is no black market for US dollars here as the government made this currency almost worthless. Although, there is a thriving black market for food and goods, to which the officials turn a blind eye.

Rum is cheap in Cuba but groceries are expensive, for tourists anyway. Even Cuban cigars are expensive, which doesn’t stop me buying some.

Cuban rules

It’s extremely difficult to experience the country as Cubans are not allowed to associate with tourists and vice-versa.

Apart from not being able to speak Spanish and kind of getting by with a little Italian, locals just won’t talk to us as they’re very scared.

Apparently, locals snitch on each other and “Block Rats” even exist. People that turn in neighbours to authorities that have tourists in their homes.

As a tourist, I cannot invite a Cuban back to the boat for coffee or dinner. So, apart from the superficial contact with taxi and bus drivers, shops assistants, and officials, which only lends itself to just scratching the surface of the people and understanding the country, this is the extent of mixing with Cubans, so far.

Havana, Cuba, locals
Havana locals

Tourists are not allowed to ride the local buses and they are not allowed to stop for us…we have special tourist buses.

Walking along the dusty road for kilometres trying to hail down local buses, not one stopped.

For me, this is worse than Apartheid when I travelled through Africa in 1985. At least in Africa, I could hop on a “Blacks Only” bus (yes, this was the label) and the locals would just laugh and joke about a “white” person on their bus.

At the marina, we are under 24-hour surveillance, and locked up with an armed guard at the gate.

The rule is to show the ‘Customs’ people at the marina our bags each time we return from the shops, but most times they are not bothered. Not sure if the guard is for our own protection, or just to keep an eye on what tourists are up to, or keep the Cubans out.

Cubans are so poor. An average worker earns the equivalent of USD$7 per month and a doctor earns USD$35 per month. Apparently, a bag of rice is worth almost a month’s wage. So, people are unable to crawl out of poverty’s abyss…very sad and depressing indeed.


The horse and cart is still a preferred method of transport here although if you have ever seen a documentary on Cuba, you’ll remember the old 1950s Chevys that scream up and down the streets of Havana.

The cars are so decrepit and rusted out that it makes you wander how they’re still on the road – a novelty to see nevertheless. Cubans are not a throw-away society.

You see many more cars in Havana than the outskirts although not too many new ones, of course.

Havana, Cuba, truck
Rustic transport – Havana

As one “tourist” Peso is equivalent to USD$1 (minus the 20%), this also makes transport expensive. The US is much cheaper for transport.

I’m thinking that the local buses must also be expensive as every day the streets are lined with hundreds of people hitching lifts in and out of towns, and just to get around the area.

I want to hitch but I doubt that anyone would pick us up anyway. There are loads of women hitching on their own, which makes me think it is a safe country in which to stick the old thumb out.

A day in Havana

Taking a bus from Varadero to Havana for the day – almost three hours away – forgot my iPod on the boat. Tragic, but can still hear the music in my head whilst the bus ambles on at a moderate pace stopping to pick up locals along the road.

I love Havana and its plethora of wonderful old architecture, everywhere.

The city is alive and bustling. People are vibrant.

If you wander around all day, you only see a small pocket of Havana.

Havana, Cuba, sailing, Castro
One of Castro’s abodes

I would love to stay longer but we’re on a tight schedule, so this is not to be…this time.

As expected, the city is full of tourists and where there are tourists there are beggars, which managed to fleece us of Pesos.

I just can’t help it, and anyway, they are so poor compared to us that what does a few Pesos really matter?

It is such a shame that most of the beautiful buildings here are crumbling, with some propped up by scaffolding.

Only very few are restored to their original state of grandeur. This place would be a feast for the eyes if only the government pumped some $$$’s into the city.

Strolling around for a while, we checked out the shops…well what resemble shops.

Many are very run down, the merchandise is very dusty, and looks as if it has been sitting on shelves an age. The Cubans wander in and out of these shops all day, without buying anything as of course, nothing is affordable.

It feels as if the locals just visit the shops to see what’s available and what they can’t afford.

Havana, Cuba, local, cigar
Cuban cigar seller

Without any sort of city map, we walk down the never-ending streets and apparently start wandering out of the tourist “Safe Zone”.

A guy from within his shop came rushing out to advise us to be careful further on as we would be mugged…ignorance is bliss! The friendly shop owner then invites us back to his place for dinner. So there are Cubans that will brave their comfort zone to make contact with us gringos.

As we don’t have a back to the marina other than a bus and don’t know the bus times, we have to decline – I’m gutted.

Returning to Varadero

Returning to Varadero around 9 pm, our bus driver does not stop at the marina. So, a walk back of a couple of kilometres in the dark as there are not street lights.

The sound of guitars playing and a small party is going on at the marina.

A shame having to decline yet another invitation today, but can’t join the party as we set sail early tomorrow and pretty tired.

Boats in this marina are mostly Canadian-owned. Owners leave their boats here, fly back and forth from Canada to spend winters cruising Cuba, whilst using Varadero as a base.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More posts on the Caribbean and USA at Image Earth Travel.


62 thoughts on “Sailing from the US to Cuba

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    1. I guess 2008 wasn’t too long ago in some respects but yes, I suspect that loads has changed in Cuba since it was opened up.
      Yeah, it was a pain…think they wanted everything for themselves as to be honest, they’re quite poor, but you know what it’s like when you provision a boat.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yeah, trying to remember I don’t think I’ve ever taken a tour. Oh. Well. Sienna. Part of the bus. Doesn’t count. Though the young guide was very good. She didn’t talk all the time. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Sometimes there isn’t any other way. For instance, if you’re trekking up a volcano, mountain, or into the jungle and you need guides. Guess these are different to when you sit on a bus and get taken everywhere, dropped off for an hour then picked up again and move onto the next country. But, tours are perfect for people that aren’t comfortable with solo-travelling or haven’t got the confidence.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. Absolutely. 🙂 Thinking about it, we took a guide in the Amazon and Lacandon forest. I climbed the Popocatepetl volcano without guide, but one team member had climbed before. And when we climbed Mont-Blanc I hired half a dozen Chamonix guides. (Good thing I did, we would have died otherwise) 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    5. Wish it were an expedition, but it was rather civilized. Plane to Leticia, motor boats along the Amazon, walking a bit in Colombia, Brazil, Peru. Not sure I did a post. Lemme see. No. Not as such. Scusi.

      Liked by 1 person

    6. That will be fun. I already a beer meeting scheduled with Julie Riso somewhere near Chicago, and Lisa Dorenfest when she comes back from her several year round the world sailing trip. Time and exact place unknown. Join us.

      Liked by 1 person

    7. Sounds like you’re a social butterfly flitting to all these meetings! 😉
      I don’t know Julie but I’ve had contact with Lisa and found we have mutual sailing friends. That sounds great, if I can, thanks for the invite! I can’t make it to the US as quite busy up until next July, but somewhere in Europe might be OK.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Nilla, so nice to read an unromanticized account! People who come back glowing about Cuba aren’t thinking about the people who have to live there every day, and whose children have very few options in life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Aix.
      As I’ve mentioned before, I try to keep my posts real and objective. If I’ve had a good experience, I’ll write about that and similarly, I’ll also write about a bad experience. Travelling isn’t always rosy, as we know. 😉

      For me, visiting Cuba was quite sad at the time, because of what I saw and only hope that things have improved even a fraction for the Cubans – wonderful people.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am always puzzled when photographers and travelers started to cry about the opening of relationships of Cuban and US government as they would see it as a lost of the world in the island. Certainly it can have its attractive but it is built over tough conditions for the citizens. Recently seems the US government is going to revert to its previous politics so sadly it seems that although with a high education and high culture Cuba is still going to have tough times. :c About the DVD’s in my experience the persons with more “moral” reservations are the ones that like to watch others but exonerate themselves of those rules so not surprised. Enjoyable post and very honest. : )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that whilst the concept of opening up countries is a good thing, depending on which countries enter to do business, the new wealth may not trickle down to the needy of the country but stays at the top echelons or exported out. At least Cubans may be allowed to travel outside of Cuba now, if they have the money.
      Very true Francis, many people in glass houses. 😉 Thank you, I always try to be honest about my experiences when writing…if I’ve had a great experience, I’ll write about that and similarly, if I’ve had a bad experience, I’ll also write about that as it happened.


  3. I’m so glad we found you! Your blog is wonderful! I just got back from Cuba myself and had the most amazingly wonderful time. I can only imagine how wonderful arriving there under sail would be! We’re in the process of closing on a Catamaran out of Fort Lauderdale and hopefully will get a chance to make this same passage someday! Thanks again for sharing! Looking forward to hearing more of your adventures! Katie & DJ

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your kind feedback! How did you find me?

      Just read your Cuban experience, which brought back many memories.

      Not sure if you’ve check out the rest of my Caribbean sailing posts. Good luck with the purchase of your Catamaran and look forward to reading future sailing adventures! Nilla


    1. Hey Sarah, I’m glad I painted an accurate picture of what I saw, but it’s a tragic existence for the Cubans. I’m not sure if things have changed in Cuba after 9 years. Typically, when a country is opened up, it’s the big overseas corporations that take everything and not much trickles down to the needy local.


  4. Cuba sounds interesting – all being well I’ll be doing a three week tour in the new year – it really is sad that Cuban’s can’t invite whoever they want into their homes or make friends with whoever they please (tourists), this is such a cultural contrast to what many of us are used to but I’m looking forward to experiencing this unique part of the world!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes but not by boat – too hard and expensive. I would fly in and travel through the country independently.
      Although now that Cuba is open for business, I’m not sure whether the changes would be great, Jackie.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice post Nilla! I just came back from Cuba – but not sailing🙂.. unfortunately, lots of things are pretty much the same.. most people want to work in tourism so they can afford a decent life, as they can buy now with CUC, if they have them..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Christie for your feedback as always. 🙂
      I often wonder what Cuba is like nowadays compared to when I sailed there in 2008. Sometimes it’s best not to re-visit a country. Hope you enjoyed your time there and able to travel independently.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. We did enjoy our time there very much! I would have liked to stay in Havana for few days, but we don’t always have enough time for what we like.. next time, for sure🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    3. You’re correct, not much time in one day. We stayed in Varadero, and visited Havana for a day also.. Yes, I would return, I would like to visit more, especially the fortresses in Havana, but not only. I saw lots of options for accommodation (in Havana), and understood they are all safe, same as travel options through the country – just maybe in “Cuban time” LOL

      Liked by 1 person

    4. Ha, ha “Cuban time”, think that’s a Caribbean trait.
      Sounds like you really enjoyed your time there and you’re making me want to return. I’ve always said I wouldn’t return in a boat, too expensive, time-consuming, and complicated. Although a back pack sounds like just the trick. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s quite challenging to visit a new country by boat as there’s so much paperwork, as you can imagine.
      Having lived on a couple of boats for 21 years’ straight during my life, I can say that I don’t mind the lifestyle, but it does have it’s up and downs – like any lifestyle. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Wow, now that’s hard work. Went out on a trawler overnight in the ’90s in Northern Queensland and saw first-hand how hard fishermen work.
      Yeah, my back isn’t the best but I persevered for many years and still do. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      I’m currently re-vamping some of my old posts to my new format. I have another 5 to go in the Caribbean Destinations, which are a continuation of the sailing adventure back in 2008, so stay tuned. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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