Cruising Cuba

April, 2008

Decided to push on with some relaxed cruising in Cuba as time is melting away. For safety and insurance, we have to be in Venezuela by the 1st of June, as this is official hurricane season.

Varadero, Cuba

The sail

Varadero: 23°07.868’N 81°17.919’W
Cayo Frances: 22°37.595’N 79°13.727’W

Checking out of Varadero took almost 4 hours for officials to get all the paperwork completed. A valuable lesson learnt…officials need a day’s notice.

Cayo Frances

As the morning is now lost, decided to do a short sail just to make it feel as if we were actually moving in the right direction.

The northern part of Cuba is an archipelago bursting with beautiful cays, ribbon reefs, and poorly or uncharted waters. Local knowledge is imperative here as we were about to learn…

Today’s original destination is only 30NM further along from Varadero. On finally reaching the spot, motored around for half an hour trying to find a safe anchorage or a break in the reef but couldn’t, so, decided to head to the next place instead. We just couldn’t find the entrance and with fading light, it wasn’t a good time to be wondering around aimlessly around reef and shoals!

Caribbean: Sea sunset, sailing

Sunset at sea

Cayo France, CubaPicked a place on the chart that we ‘thought’ looked safe and arrived only to find it was just as hopeless as the previous spot. As it is now 9:30pm, we had to push on…very stressful.

The problem with cruising in this area is that everything (charts, etc.) is so outdated, vague, or non-existent that it is extremely difficult to find safe anchorages. You can be in 200+metres of water (no Depth Sounder reading) then suddenly, you’re in 5-metres of water…a little disconcerting with reef around.

We decided to sail further out while in these waters, just to be safe.

In Australia, most of the reef is charted, which makes it easy to at least know where your position or where to avoid. Finally arrived at Cayo Frances 133NM away…so much for the 30NM sail! Here, we were able to anchor safely and sleep for the night.

Cayo Frances to Cayo Coco

Cayo Frances: 22°37.595’N 79°13.727’W
Cayo Coco: 22.5090° N, 78.4070° W

Cayo Coco, CubaStarted early the next morning as we had a full day’s sail planned.

The boat zooms comfortably along (reefed) at a cool pace of 7.5knots in 15Knot winds…love this boat, she’s excellent. It’s like what I imagine when letting the reins of a race horse loose and unleashing its spirit. She flies along with her passengers in the cockpit. Smooth as – a magic carpet. Also helps to be on autopilot!

The day’s destination is Cayo Coco about 61NM South-east of here. Usually, as we pass each lighthouse, we make an effort to call the “Guarda” just as a matter of courtesy, but as it’s proving too bureaucratic, decided to give this a miss the last stop. Although, as we approached Cayo Coco I called the Guarda on the VHF.

Caribbean: Sea, sailing

Caribbean blue

The Guarda started telling us that we couldn’t stop here and had to either return to the previous port (30NM back) or keep sailing to the next international port (170+NM’s East).

After discussions back and forth for about 20 minutes, I persuaded the Guarda to let us anchor for the night, although, we were told that we “must not step foot on land”. Unbelievable!

We bought a cruising permit for Cuba, which supposedly allows us to anchor anywhere and go to shore but still we are not allowed. Although we’ve been through all the crap and paid the fees to officially check into the country, technically, we’re still in quarantine whilst cruising in Cuba…just can’t work it out. When anchored, we “must” call the Guarda back. Everything is so controlled.

Anyway, Cayo Coco proved to be too shallow for Reality and we motored around for almost an hour and a half, trying to find the channel. With fading light, reef, and less than half a metre of water under our keel, we decided to head back out to sea and push on.

The Guarda kept calling asking if we’d anchored yet. When I advise that we were sailing on to Puerto De Vita, he seemed relieved…perhaps he would have had too much paperwork to do if we’d stayed. Settling in for a long sail and plotting the course to Puerto De Vita, we hoped that the weather would be kind.

Cayo Coco to Puerto De Vita

Cayo Coco: 22.5090° N, 78.4070° W
Puerto De Vita: 21°04.730’N 75°57.112’W

Puerto de Vita, CubaLuckily the wind was kind and the boat sailed along at a fast pace, which is always great; feels like we’re actually moving and not lolling around at 4knots (are we there yet?).

Out at sea there’s no reef to keep a look out for but only container ships to be wary of as they don’t always have people at the bridge; they’re so huge that often they don’t see small boats.

Passed many lighthouses on the way, seems to be an abundance here…one every 10 or so miles and with each one there is a Guarda of course. Lighthouses are comforting to see at night though.

Love watching the sunset at sea. The colours seem more intense and vibrant here than at home. Once the sun fades, there’s only darkness…pitch black, until slowly the sky raises its curtain to reveal a million stars. The moonrise at sea is also something to see. And has been rising at about 11pm, lighting up the whole sky like a beacon and shining a path of light down in front of us, which makes it easier to sail by and to contemplate life, during the endless miles. Thankful for my iPod!

Arrived at Puerto De Vita an hour after sunset with only the lighthouse to guide us in…we then realised that the channel into the river wasn’t lit!

With the skipper at the helm and me at the bow with a torch trying to spot the marker buoys in total darkness (no street lights or anything), pitch black, we made it in – extremely stressful coming into a new port at night without a lit channel. I have no nails left and am loosing hair in clumps…at this rate I’ll be bald by the time we reach Haiti!

Finally anchored close to a commercial dock but out of the way, showered, and crashed after the long sail.

The officials…again

The next morning, we were told to tie up at the jetty to check in. Hang on, haven’t we already checked in to Cuba?

Only 4 officials this time and one sniffer dog, thought we’d gone through this already…pain in the butt! It is so controlled here that it takes the fun out of being in this country, let alone cruising its waters. And every time we check in it costs more money, of course.

At least 2 of the officials were really cool and we were able to stir each other as they could speak some English…they both had a great sense of humour, which always helps.

The Purser came and we felt obliged to buy some goods from her just to keep her happy. Most of the vegetables she had in the cold room were either growing roots or mouldy.

To enter the store room, we were accompanied by 6 people all watching each other making sure nothing underhanded was happening, remarkable. This also took several hours of course and we were losing time again. Everything runs at a snail’s pace in Cuba. The Cubans walk at a snail’s pace. There’s no sense of urgency here and why would there be…there’s nowhere to go or anything to do, as no one can afford anything. It’s like they’re all just killing time.

Cuba: local house

Local’s house

Around Puerto de Vita

Caught a cab to a huge resort hotel (the largest in Cuba and can accommodate 2000 guests) to access the Internet. Wireless in Cuba is non-existent and there are very few Internet cafes. When you finally find one, you’re lucky if their connection is working at all. The government controls this as well and apparently filters emails in and out of the country, so not sure yet if anyone received my emails.

After an internet fix, we started walking to the small village to buy some bananas.

Walked past a tiny thatched hut and a very old lady motioned for us to come inside. Entering the dimly lit house, we were invited to sit down. The withered old lady with sparkling eyes, promptly started speaking Spanish. I could only pick up snippets of the conversation.

The elderly man was 93 and smoking a huge fat Cuban cigar on an old torn leather lounge that was probably from the 1930s. He started talking in Spanish and was getting into politics, and quite animated. His wife (80), pointed to a picture on the wall of her 2 children. Tears started welling up in her eyes, she expressed the ache in her heart for them but sadly, I couldn’t understand what had happened to both. A real problem not knowing the language as you miss so much insight into people’s lives. If we could understand Spanish, then it would be interesting talking to these guys as at their age, they would have seen loads of changes in Cuba; and it also helped that they were comfortable talking with us and not afraid.

An hour later, they told us we were walking in the wrong direction for the village and had to head back the other way.

The lady gave us a few cooking bananas, which we wanted to pay for but only had tourist money (useless to her). They’re so poor, she brought out a little rusty tin with some coins and a couple of notes (maybe equivalent to USD$10), and expressed that this was all of her life savings! It was heart-wrenching and I just wanted to give her something…anything…my heart went out to her…

I gave her some tourist Pesos and showed her US dollars. These were also useless to her but I gave her some anyway…it felt hopeless. As we left, I felt a real ache for these people living in their little thatched hut on the side of the road, with a few chickens and bananas in their back yard.


To stay at the resorts here you need to buy a pre-packaged deal from your country or the Internet, which is very popular with Canadians, English, and Europeans.

If you walk in off the street to one of these hotels or resorts, it’s not even possible to buy water or a coffee at a local restaurant; and won’t even let you look around the place. Some wouldn’t even let us use their internet even though it isn’t not free – nothing is free in Cuba. Every hotel or resort here has loads of armed security guards that are more like the military than security. As soon as you walk up to the perimeter, the guards almost pounce on you and start giving you the third degree…it’s unnerving and very aggressive.

A packaged tour delivers a controlled way of seeing Cuba, which is what the government wants. The guests are taken to certain places and only see certain things, although they’re allowed to zoom around in 4WDs or mopeds. They zoom past us as we walk along the dusty road. I can’t help but feel that they’re totally missing out on the real Cuba, but guess that’s what all package tours are like.

Back at the marina, we met the Manager, who shared some history of the country and mentioned that things were changing in Cuba albeit very slowly. Cubans are now allowed to travel within Cuba (province-to-province) or overseas. Cubans are also allowed to buy new cars – who in Cuba can afford an old car let alone a new one? New legislation has just been passed in the last week, but it seems the changes are only for the rich and not for the average Cuban earning USD$7 a month.

People seem a little more relaxed in this town and we’ve had a few people talk to us openly, at last. They’re all waiting for big changes, which they desire so badly; knowing they’re behind the rest of the world but want to catch up fast. It’s as if things are simmering just under the surface and ready to boil over at any moment. Locals are fed up with what’s happening to their country. Roll on the revolution!

Exiting Cuba

Decided to push on and as this is the last exit port, arranged to have the paperwork completed, which isn’t so painful this time. The same two officers on our entry to this port, made it really enjoyable!

Sailed out of Puerto De Vita and into fresh head winds. We haven’t been able to get any weather forecasts. We decided to tack right out to sea hoping to gain a better approach down the coast. Well, 22NM later, the wind gusted to 30 Knots, the sea started building and became quite rough. Noticing the jib starting to rip and as it was too rough to repair the sail underway, we decided to head back into the river – I hate turning back and especially, wasting a full day.

Customs advised via radio that we could anchor to repair our sail and didn’t have to check back into Cuba, as we’d already checked out in the morning. Although, after anchoring, we were told to tie up to the marina once again and had to go through all the crap paperwork, visas, sniffer dog, officials, and of course pay again. Unbelievable!

Can’t work this country out…they told us we could anchor at the next port but not go ashore whilst sailing the rest of Cuba, but this time, we have to check in all over again.

Caribbean: sailing, Catalina 47'

Reality under Autopilot

Using up all our Cuban money before we left (useless outside of Cuba), we had to take a cab to the resort again to get more money. The resort took a commission of USD$29 to withdraw USD$200 from our MasterCard (can’t wait to see what our bank at home charges) – highway robbery! The French yachty we caught a cab with was very angry as he was charged USD$24 for 2 minutes of phone time just to leave a message on someone’s machine. Phone calls in Cuba are also prohibitively expensive.

After repairing the sail, we checked out of Cuba the following day…an expensive 24 hours!

Now truly tired of Cuba’s bureaucracy and rip-offs, which is a shame as I’d love to experience more of Cuba, we were not stopping in this country again, and headed straight for Haiti.

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


6 thoughts on “Cruising Cuba

  1. The sailing would be amazing but all that paperwork and checking in and out puts a damper on things to say the least. I never realised Cuba was so poor and only now Cubans are allowed to travel overseas. Still, it’s a good story from your travels Nilla 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Gill, yes the sailing is amazing in good weather. 😉
      It’s not just the paperwork but also the time taken for the check-ins/outs, cost of this procedure each time, and the overall inconvenience. I can understand checking into a country the once, which is standard but not at every single port, especially as we went to the trouble of buying a cruising permit.

      This was back in 2008 so not sure of the new liberties Cubans have since its opening last year but yes, they are extremely poor.

      Liked by 1 person

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