As Canadians we had to get out of Uncle Sam’s territory for six-months out of every twelve-month period. We wintered in Cuba for the month of January every year for over a decade, and returned to our native waters for the summer.
Here is what we learned about navigating to and from Cuba, her customs and her people, many of whom we call friends.
Capitaine Sandra welcomed us to Puorto Esperanza on our first visit. She waved us in to shore and offered to help us find anything we needed. She calls Sampatecho "barco magico" because we seem to magically have anything she needs for small repairs around her home.
How to enter Cuba, then and now:
Nowadays, you can only enter through an international Harbour. If you are going to Cuba from the USA you’ll be sailing into Havana’s Marina Hemmingway. And that is where you will probably stay. The Government has restricted coastal cruising, putting a stop to going ashore except for at the few international marinas. Before embarking on a coastal cruise, you must submit a cruising itinerary which has to be approved and be forewarned, they will keep track of you and do not take kindly to deviation. Be prepared for visits by the Coast Guard.
If you would like to see more of Cuba you’ll have to get around on busses, taxis, or hitchhiking.
Or perhaps try your hand at a bicycle taxi? Just for fun, we took the driver for a ride
If you want your independence, consider hiring a driver, it is more cost-effective than renting a car and they know where they are going, have their own insurance, and you get a built-in tour guide this way. Be sure, however, to get a firm price before you set out.
When we started going we would go into Marina Hemmingway and then cruise along the North shore to the West and visit out friends in Puerto la Esperanza. Unfortunately, the smaller villages are now out-of-bounds for cruisers.
Puorto Esperanza with a view of Vinyales in the background
The Entry Process
As you approach Marina Hemmingway (during daylight hours), call the marina on VHF channel 77. They will answer in English, French, German or Spanish with directions into the harbour. It is very tricky at night and the reef is impassible in a strong “norther” so time your arrival accordingly. Your first stop will be the Customs dock for inspections, immigration and a briefing by the Coast Guard (la Guarda). The officials are friendly, knowledgeable and professional. The guards and even the drug dogs wear little hospital booties so that they don’t scratch the teak or gelcoat. The doctor will shake your hand and turn your hand over to check your nails, he’ll look deeply into your eyes. He very casually sort of checks you over. He gets you to smile, to see your teeth. It seems like a visit more than a checkup. They will keep any firearms for you and have taken our flares and returned them to us when we leave, as a safety precaution. Cuba has very strict gun control. By coincidence, they don’t have any mass shootings (hmmmmm). We have a hanging basket with fruit and everyone is very curious about apples, which they don’t have in Cuba. We normally give one or more to each inspector who are very very grateful. The apples also address any requests for “gifts” which may occur.
This information is true and accurate as best we know, but the rules change every so often. A new rule last time, for example, was that Americans had to pay a whopping $7 per day for health insurance while visiting their country.
Take provisions enough for any meals you’ll have aboard because you won’t get the selection you are used to. You can find eggs, fresh fruit, veggies, pork and fish in limited quantity and selection but beef is impossible to come by.
Eating out is very reasonable too. There are many restaurants near Marina Hemmingway. There are also more and more Paladar’s opening all the time. These are “restaurants” operated out of peoples homes and the food is excellent! While the menu may be limited, you'll always have beans and rice. Try the yucca. Its fantastic!!
Cigars a plenty
If a deal seems too good to be true it probably is! The basic, no label, people’s cigar ,available at little bodegas, is fine if you are not an aficionado. If you want something more special, don’t buy it in an alley. Government duty free is a good deal, or if you become friendly with someone there they will probably be able to get you a great deal on a Romeo y Julietta or Cohiba. YUM!
This is our friend in his tobacco drying hut in Vinyales
Best gifts for Cubans
Love the feeling when someone’s face lights up like it’s Christmas day? Take these:
Tools – Gently used tools are much needed. They will be shared community wide. Nuts & bolts, nails, hooks, you name it would be very very welcome as well. Not to mention wood glue!
Fishing Gear – This is a REAL WINNER! Cubans love to fish and can make do with almost nothing but fishing line, lures and sinkers are like gold and a rod & reel can be the start of a career.
Pain Killers – Tylenol, Aspirin, Advil - doesn’t matter! They have no access to the kind of over the counter pain killers/fever reducers, cold/flu medicines that we do. I can’t stress enough how much they would appreciate your on-board pharmacy.
Baseballs – It’s a national pastime there too. Fun fact – did you know that Fidel played professional baseball and even in the USA?
These happy kids were playing ball with a stick and a rock until we strolled by and tossed them this equipment.
Soccer Balls – Popular worldwide and Cuba is no exception.
Apples - Take plenty of apples to share – they can’t get them there. Many have never tried one!
Be careful not to take so much that you’ll be dinged for “importing” by the officials. Import duty is 25% and they take this very seriously. Keep it to what seems like normal ship’s stores and be discrete handing it out.
Don’t expect the locals to speak English.
Though many do, especially if they work in the tourist industry, and deal with other Canadians. Because of the US ban, the majority of their other tourists come from Russia, China or the EU and even if Canadian there is a large Français speaking contingent. A lot can be said through body language, gestures, drawings and the like. Our Spanish was rusty the first time we went.
Learn a few basic Spanish phrases – you’ll be glad you did and they will be so pleased to see you try! Even if you have a cheat sheet in your pocket.
Here are our top 5 helpful sentences (spelled phonetically):
- Thank you! – Gracias! (grassy ass) The people are so kind and welcoming. You’ll need this most.
- No, thank you – No, por favor Start with this but move to saying simply “No” with conviction. Look at them when you say it. They will assume you are rich because they have fantasies about the wealth that we experience. You may be harassed at a market or even on the street to buy someone’s wares. Use this, too, if you are receiving unwanted advances. Our son, in his mid 20s, was followed by flocks of women. They would call out to him “Que mango!” (what a hunk, we guess) If they simply will not leave you alone you can break out “the big guns” No mi molesti! Which means “get away from me!”
- Where is: Donday esta you’ll need this to find a bank (el banko), the toilet (el banyo), beer (servesas) or whatever. See our key words list here too.
- Where can I buy - Donday puedo comprar Ice is pronounced yelo, bread is pan, rum is ron, fruit is fruitas, chicken is pollo, meat is carne, fish is pescado.
- Do you speak English? - Habla ingles?
This is one of our Cuban families. They farm Tobacco & Sugar cane among other things.
We recommend Kathy Parsons book: Spanish for cruisers
She includes some classic blunders just for the fun of it such as:
“Excusado, passa la ropa!” Does not mean toss me the ropes/lines it means “hey toilet! throw me your clothes!”
Places to go around Havana
Fuster’s Studio is located in Jaimanitas, very close to Marina Hemmingway. He’s the Picasso of the Caribbean and internationally acclaimed. He has tiled the whole city neighborhood with amazing ceramic art. Link to his website
National Ballet of Cuba - This is well worth your time but be warned, there is a dress code. You can not get in with short pants. I wore shorts, couldn’t get in so ended up buying pink polyester pants from a gay guy on the street. We still couldn’t get in so I gave them to a German that spent his last dime on his ballet ticket, was flying out the following day and had no more Cuban money and no long pants. I thought he was going to cry! (with joy)
Shopping – The principal shopping district in Havana is located in the heart of Old Havana; Obispo Street! It is crazy busy and if there are cruise ships in town, I’d stay clear but you can find lots of art and souvenirs.
Tropicana for a peek at pre-Castro Havana you can visit the Tropicana. All the glitz and glamour of old Havana. The show is like Vegas with acrobatics, showgirls, musicians. It’s an outdoor setting with catwalks through the trees. On arrival, they give the ladies a rose and gents a cigar with bottle of rum on each table
Havana Club Rum Factory How is rum made? Find out here. See a model railway. Taste a fresh sugar cane Mojito with some great entertainment.
Partigas Cigar Factory This is a wonderful place. It’s very entertaining as well as educational – located directly behind the Capitolio. A word about cigars: You’ll meet dozens of “street hustlers” offering Cohibas & Monte Cristos at fantastic prices ($50/box). These are almost never genuine cigars and may even just be banana leaves. Caveat Emptor.
Havana National Museum of Fine Arts has incredibly modern work from the unique perspective of the Cuban people. There are several museums in the same area if you prefer classics. One of the “silver linings” of the embargo is that Cuba has evolved their own unique culture and art is considered a real profession with real income whereas we choose to starve our artists.
The museum of history has interesting artifacts too
Guide Book/Cruising Guide:
For a REAL cruising guide; we highly recommend Captain Cherryl Barr’s Cruising Guide to Cuba. She has sailed Road to the Isles thoroughly gunk-holed the coast of Cuba for the past 10 years. No one knows the coast and approaches more intimately.
Paper Charts: If you do cruise the islands and coves, take it really slow. There’s no SeaTow or Tow Boat US here. Paper charts are available from Blue Water books in Ft Lauderdale. They have photocopied the official Cuban chartbooks which unfortunately are not available in Cuba.
The truth is, internet sucks in Cuba.
You can buy a little card from a hotel and sit and use their wifi. Their connection isn’t great, though, so if wifi is important to you and your business take a look at our SkyMate satellite communications system and you can access the email or weather from anywhere on earth at any time of day. Activate your SkyMate service with a variety of affordable connection plans found on our website. It has been invaluable for our business and keeping in touch with family and friends The all new Mazu iPad app from SkyMate gives you easy access to a wide variety of communication and navigation functions.
Safety & Security
There is very little crime in Cuba, but maybe lift and lock your dingy at night because “the opportunity makes the thief” and a dingy and motor might be far too tempting. When you go to town, don’t bother wearing a lot of gold and jewellery when walking the streets. You already appear to be very wealthy to Cubans – no need to flaunt it. Drugs, gangs and violent crimes are almost unheard of but petty theft is not uncommon so don’t invite it.