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 taxing…I hope.
Varadero, Cuba

The Sail

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

After a very stressful and strained 3 months in the U.S. buying and fitting out Reality (Catalina 47′) for ocean passages, finally, we were ready to leave…on the very last day that my 90-day Visa Waiver was up!

Headed out of Marathon around 2pm bound for Cuba with a light breeze and clear skies. Such a relief to finally see the U.S. coastline fade away in the distance.

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

All was well until about 5 hours into the sail when we started hitting the Gulf Stream, which meant 3-4 metre confused seas and unfortunately, the wind also started gusting to 30 Knots.

I was sick for the rest of the trip and until we sailed 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 coming into view!

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

No one answered and I couldn’t raise the Marina either so we had to slow the boat down for the next 4 hours as you are not allowed to just enter a country unannounced, especially Cuba.

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

Clearing Customs

We waited another couple of hours at the Quarantine dock for the officials to arrive…an entourage of 9 officials and 2 sniffer dogs.

The doctor came aboard first, she did some paperwork and asked if we were “strong”, of course we said yes, so she was happy. Following the doctor were the sniffer dogs and handlers, which came aboard one-by-one, each spending 10 to 15-minutes going through the boat – like we really look like drug runners.

The rest of the officials came down below and plonked themselves around the saloon table and proceeded to spread paperwork everywhere…Cuba is re-known for its paperwork!

The Agriculture guy counted all our fruit and vegetables then said that we could keep everything; nothing was mentioned about our pot plant on board.

The Customs’ officer (lady) went through our fridges and advised we couldn’t have eggs. Given the option of cooking up 4 dozen eggs in 10 minutes or to confiscate the eggs: confiscate the eggs. The officer then returned a dozen to us and almost ordered us to cook them on the spot.

Advised that all our meat had to be confiscated or “Sello”…we understood this as selling and didn’t know why they would tell us to sell this stuff. Checking this work in a dictionary, its meaning is “sealed”. All the meat was sealed with a lead staple and thus, could not be consumed whilst in Cuba.

One of the Customs Officer started looking through our CDs and DVDs and it struck me then that we had 3 X-rated DVD’s on board. Of course he found them and showed the head customs officer. With a look of disgust on her face, advised that these were illegal in Cuba, must stay on the boat, and not to give the CDs away or sell any.

Finally the entourage left almost 2 hours later: shaking hands, the officers welcomed us to Cuba. All for the bargain basement price of USD$120.

The irony is that the female officers wore skirts up around their waists (almost) with very high heels but were 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 here…every man’s dream?

Money

Arrived safe and sound but without any Cuban money as not available in the US (of course). Nor could we get Canadian dollars, which is the preferred currency.

We soon learnt that this country operates on 2 currencies…one for the locals and one for tourists: totally different notes and coinage system. The way the government controls and basically keeps the people very poor. Locals are not allowed to posses the tourist Pesos and tourists are not allowed to possess the local Pesos. If Cubans somehow happen to obtain tourist Pesos, they can only change these in a bank and given the government exchange, which is very low, and not equivalent to the true value.

Cuba is expensive.

For 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 at the other end).

There is no black market for US dollars here as the government has made this currency almost worthless. However, 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 didn’t stop me buying some.

Havana, Cuba, locals

Havana locals

Cubans

It is 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 Italian, locals just won’t talk to us as they are very scared. Apparently, locals snitch on each other and there are even “Block Rats” here (people that ‘dob’ neighbours in to the authorities for having 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 such as 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.

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

We walked along the dusty road for kilometres hailing down local buses but not one stopped. For me, this is worse than Apartheid when I was travelling through Africa in 1985. At least in Africa, I could hop on a “Blacks Only” (yes, this was the label) bus; and the locals would just laugh and joke about a “white” person on their bus.

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

The rules 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, just to keep an eye on what tourists are up to, or keep the Cubans out.

The Cubans are so poor. As an example, 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 cannot crawl out of poverty’s abyss…very sad indeed.

Transport

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

The cars are so decrepit and rusted out that it makes you wonder how they are still on the road; a novelty to see nevertheless. 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” Pesos is equivalent to USD$1 (minus the 20%), this also makes transport expensive (US was much cheaper for transport).

I’m thinking 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 wanted to hitch but I doubt that anyone would have picked us up anyway. There are loads of women hitching on their own, which makes me think it’s a safe country in which to stick the thumb out.

Havana, Cuba, sailing, Castro

One of Castro’s abodes

Havana

Took a bus from Varadero to Havana for the day, which was almost 3 hours away.

Forgot my iPod. Tragic, but still could hear the music in my head whilst the bus ambled on at a moderate pace, so all was well.

I love Havana as there is loads of wonderful old architecture here.

The city is alive and bustling. People are vibrant. If you wander around all day, you’ll only see a small pocket of Havana.

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’re so poor compared to us that what does a few Pesos really matter?

 

It’s such a shame that most of the beautiful buildings here are crumbling, with some propped up by scaffolding. Only very few have been 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.

Wandered around for a while and checked out the shops…well what resembled shops. They’re very run down, the merchandise 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 for a local. 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 just kept walking down the never-ending streets and apparently started wandering out of the tourist “Safe Zone”. A guy from within his shop came rushing out and told us to be careful further on as we would be mugged…ignorance is bliss! Then he proceeded to invite 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 anyway back to the marina other than a bus and not knowing the bus times, we had to decline – shame.

Got back to Varadero around 21:00hrs as the bus driver wouldn’t stop at the marina, so, had to walk back a couple of kilometres in the dark – no street lights. The sound of guitars playing and a small party was going on at the marina. A shame having to decline an invitation to join as we are sailing early tomorrow and pretty tired. Boats in this marina are mostly Canadian-owned. Owners leave their boats here, flying 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 at Image Earth Travel.

28 thoughts on “Sailing from the US to Cuba

    • 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.

      Like

  1. 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

    • 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

  2. 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

    • 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

    • 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

    • 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

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