Cruising Cuba

April, 2008

Deciding to push on with some relaxed cruising in Cuba as time is melting away.

For safety and the insurance company, we must 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 takes almost 4 hours for officials to get all the paperwork completed.

A valuable lesson learnt…officials require a day’s notice.

Cayo Frances

As the morning is now lost, decide on a short sail just to make it feel as if we’re 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 are about to learn…

Today’s original destination is only 30NM further along from Varadero.

On finally reaching the spot and motoring around for half an hour trying to find a safe anchorage or a break in the reef, decided to head to the next place instead. We just can’t locate the entrance and with fading light, it isn’t a good time to be wandering around aimlessly around reef and shoals!

Caribbean: Sea sunset, sailing, Caribbean
Sunset at sea

Cayo France, CubaPicking a place on the chart that we ‘think’ looks safe, arrive only to find it is just as hopeless as the previous spot, and now it’s 9:30pm – we have to push on…very stressful.

The problem with cruising in this area is that everything (charts, information) is so outdated, vague, or non-existent that it is extremely difficult to find safe anchorages.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 3-metres of water…a little disconcerting with reef around.

Decide 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 your position or where to avoid.

Finally arriving at Cayo Frances 133NM away, so much for the 30NM sail! Here, we are 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, CubaStarting early this morning as a full day’s sail is planned.

The boat zooms comfortably along even reefed, at a cool pace of 7.5knots in 15Knot winds…love this boat, she’s excellent.

I imagine this is as when you let the reins of a race horse loose and unleash its spirit – Reality flies along with her passengers in the cockpit. Smooth as – a magic carpet. Also helps to be on autopilot.

Today’s destination is Cayo Coco about 61NM South-east.

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 at the last stop. Although, as we approach Cayo Coco I call up the Guarda on the VHF.

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

After discussions back and forth for about 20 minutes, I persuad the Guarda to let us anchor for the night, although, we are told that we “must not step foot on land” – unbelievable!

Caribbean: Sea, sailing
Caribbean blue

We bought a cruising permit for Cuba, which supposedly allows us to anchor anywhere and go to shore, but still we’re not allowed. Although we’ve gone 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 proves to be too shallow for Reality and we motor 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 decide to head back out to sea and push on.

The Guarda kept calling asking if we’d anchored yet. When I advise that we are sailing on to Puerto De Vita, he seems relieved…perhaps he would have too much paperwork to do if we stayed.

Settling in for a long sail and plotting the course to Puerto De Vita, we hope that the weather is 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 is kind and the boat sails 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 along the way, which seem 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.

Arriving at Puerto De Vita an hour after sunset with only the lighthouse to guide us in…we realise that the channel into the river isn’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 make 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 anchoring close to a commercial dock but out of the way, showered, and crashed after the long sail.

The officials…again

The next morning, we are 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 are really cool and we can stir each other as they speak some English…both have a great sense of humour, which always helps.

The Purser came and we feel obliged to buy some goods just to keep her happy. Most of the vegetables in the cold room are either growing roots or mouldy.

To enter the store room, we are accompanied by 6 people all watching each other making sure nothing underhanded is happening – remarkable.

This also takes several hours of course and we are 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

Catching a cab to a huge resort hotel – the largest in Cuba and can accommodate 2000 guests – need 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 the 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 is receiving my emails.

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

Walking past a tiny thatched hut, a very old lady motions for us to come inside. Entering the dimly lit house, we’re invited to sit down. The withered old lady with sparkling eyes, promptly starts speaking Spanish. I can only pick up snippets of the conversation.

The elderly man is 93 and smokes a huge fat Cuban cigar, on an old torn leather lounge that’s probably from the 1930s.

He starts speaking in Spanish and getting into politics – quite animated.

His wife (80), points to a picture on the wall of her 2 children. Tears started welling up in her eyes, she expresses the ache in her heart for them but sadly, I can’t understand what 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 have seen loads of changes in Cuba. And it also helps that they are comfortable talking with us and not afraid.

An hour later, they advise that we were walking in the wrong direction for the village and have to head back the other way.

The lady gives us a few cooking bananas, which we wants to pay for but only have 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 motions that this is all of her life savings! It’s heart-wrenching and I just want to give her something – anything. My heart goes out to her…

Giving her some tourist Pesos and showing her US dollars, these are both useless to her but give her some anyway…it feels hopeless.

As we leave, I feel 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 online, 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 you can’t even look around the place. Some don’t allow us use their internet even though it isn’t 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.

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 package tours are like.

Back at the marina, we meet the Manager, who shares some history of the country and mentions that things are 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 with a few locals talking to us openly, at last.

All are 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 feels 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

Deciding to push on and as this is the last exit port, we arrange to have the paperwork completed, which isn’t so painful this time. The same two officers on our entry to this port make this really enjoyable.

Sailing out of Puerto De Vita and into fresh head winds, we haven’t been able to get any weather forecasts, so decide to tack right out to sea hoping to gain a better approach down the coast.

Well, 22NM later, the wind gusts to 30 Knots, the sea starts building and becomes quite rough. Noticing the jib starting to rip and as it’s too rough to repair the sail underway, we decide to head back into the river – I hate turning back and especially, wasting a full day.

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

Can’t work this country out…they tell us we can 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 have to take a cab to the resort again to get more money.

The resort takes 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 yachtie we caught a cab with is very angry as he’s 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 check 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 are not stopping in this country again, and head straight for Haiti.

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

6 responses to “Cruising Cuba”

  1. Francis.R. Avatar

    It felt a bit like falling in pirate waters. I always dislike when rules are no clear intentionally in what seems an effort to rip-off visitors…

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yes, indeed, I much prefer black and white rules, none of this grey and make it up on the fly, depending from where the tourist is, legislation.

  2. Agness of Fit Travelling Avatar

    Cuba is spectacular and sailing there would be a dream come true for me!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I probably wouldn’t sail there again but visit backpacking.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Agness.

  3. seasiangirl Avatar

    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 🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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.

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