05/08/2007, Pasa Boca Chica, Cuba
We’ve been very busy preparing the boat and ourselves for our return trip home. As part of these preparations, we’ve made a conscious effort to plan this last leg of our two year journey to include new destinations. On the trip south, you may recall we traveled through the Bahamas after we left the United States and picked our way down the Caribbean island chain. On the trip north, we have revisited a couple of familiar spots but the majority of stops have been new to us – Rodney Bay, St. Pierre, Barbuda and Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Unlike many of our cruiser friends, we’ve decided not to return to the Bahamas before crossing over to the US. Instead, we are traveling along the Cuban northeast coast to the US. Cuba is not well traveled by cruisers so gathering information about sailing there has been challenging.
Prep for going to Cuba Before leaving Canada, we both thought it would be interesting to visit Cuba on Amanzi. At that time, however, we didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get sailing information about the country. While in Grenada and traveling up the island chain, we made enquiries with people who’ve been out cruising for years about this elusive country. The responses were all the same, ”we’ve meant to get there, but haven’t done it yet” or “we plan to go there soon.” .
Searching online, there was very little information about traveling the coast of Cuba by boat. However, I did recall there was a big marina in Havana – Marina Hemingway. I contacted the Commodore of Cuba’ s International Marina about cruising. We received a welcome to Cuba and details of ports of entry and email contacts. Things were beginning to look up. The guide,Cuba: A Cruisng Guide , by Nigel Caulder is an excellent guide. Although it was written 10 years ago and updated in 1999, we discovered that a number of places mentioned in the guide are currently closed to vessels; yet, the navigation charts of places where vessels can go are well- detailed.
The other obstacle to the cruising community traveling in Cuba, specifically Americans, is the US’s trade embargo with Cuba that’s been in place for many years. Because of US law, Americans are not allowed to visit Cuba. If they do, they are unable to spend money in the country. To go by sailboat, it’s not possible to enter the country without spending money simply because there is a cost to the cruising permit. Because of lack of information, Canadians have also avoided coming to Cuba by sailboat in case they are denied entry to the US following their visit. After hearing so many stories and talk of what would happen if we went, we decided to get the word straight from the horses mouth, so to speak. While in St Martin, we called the US Border Patrol and Homeland Security office. We were told that as long as we are not American citizens, we are not on an American registered vessel and are not planning to import anything to America from Cuba, there is no problem with traveling to Cuba then entering the US. So, with that reassurance, our cruising guide, and helpful contacts, Cuba was on our itinerary.
It’s funny when you make up your mind about something that has taken some time to decide, things related to that decision often present themselves. While in Luperon (DR), we met a couple from Israel who had just arrived from Cuba. You can imagine, we were very excited to talk to them. So with our cruising guide in hand, we paid a visit to s.v. Northstar in the anchorage. After brief introductions, we asked them if we could find out about Cuba. The first words from Haviv’s mouth were emphatic Don’t Go! We couldn’t believe it! We had made up our minds and now we met someone who was about to burst our bubble. Sitting down with Haviv and Ada, we learned that they had a difficult time in Cuba for several reasons. Firstly, the sailing was very rough because of the weather and they had sailed into the wind the whole 500 miles from the US via Cuba to the Dominican Republic. They experienced the checking in and out procedure to take up to 5 hours. And food was almost impossible to purchase. Although they found the country beautiful and the people friendly, it was not what they’d expected. They expected travel to be easier. However, after a few more conversations, they pointed out several anchorages where they truly enjoyed themselves.
Destination Cuba Undeterred and more aware of where we were going, we did a 3-day (300 nm) passage from Luperon to our first port of entry – Puerto Vita. I had emailed the Marina Vita days before to say we were coming. After rehearsing a few sentences in Spanish to describe who we were, I was thrilled to get a response. Oh, Oh, their response was in Spanish. Not sure what they said, I repeated my phrases. I think the port officials must have chuckled because they responded in broken English and guided us into the Marina. We could see a woman on the dock waving us in. Haviv and Ada had mentioned the friendly dockmaster, Tina. They were so right – she gave us a wonderful welcome. In fluent English, she explained what we had to do and the check-in procedure.
Arrival After about an hour, a number of people in uniform came to the boat for our check-in. They greeted us with courtesy and warmth and to our surprise, everyone had a little English. So between their English and our limited Spanish and the Spanish- English dictionary, we got through the process in two hours. The procedure included inspections by the Doctor, Harbour Master, Customs and Immigration official, the Veterinarian, someone from the Dept. of Agriculture, and two guards with well-trained dogs looking for drugs. Although there were a large number of officials relative to other places we’d visited, everyone was polite and professional. Officials in neat uniforms waited their turn to come aboard in two’s, so we never felt overwhelmed, except Buddy. It was evident there was a great deal of paper work to this process. I’d compiled copies of crew lists and relevant boat information in Spanish and English and from the smiles and nods, this was very much appreciated by everyone.
A piece of paper with Cuba’s Customs’ stamp was placed inside our passports and several receipts for the check-in procedure were left with us. We weren’t expected to pay until we had visited the bank 17 km away, the next day. Following the check-in, like an Ambassador, TIna invited us to visit the marina and gave us an orientation to both the marina and generally to her country. Her guidance and advice helped us plan our next days in this new country.
The main shopping street in Santiago de Cuba on a Saturday afternoon – the street gets closed to vehicle
A little of the countryside After a couple of days at anchor, we were ready to hit the road, see the country and learn a little more about the culture. We took a road trip to Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city on the south coast. It’s a city surrounded by the Sierra Maestra mountains where Castro planned his move in overthrowing of the government in 1959 and start the Revolution.
Our immediate impressions of the country – Cuba is a complete contrast to any of the other Caribbean islands. It has a different feel than its cousin in the southeast – the Dominican Republic. From the window of our bus, farmers were working their fertile fields with oxen or horses, people and/or harvested crops were being transported by horse and cart, families in 1950′s American cars traveled the roads, and shiny, new rental cars with foreigners. There was no garbage in sight. In the communities, you could hear live music in the streets, see large scale murals on billboards all around, towns and cities were centred around plazas with statues of heroes and art galleries and museums were in every community. This country celebrates its history and promotes its culture through the arts.
Our view from the roof terrace of the house where we stayed in Santiago de Cuba. “Particulars” or Private houses are allowed to rent rooms to visitors a great way for a cuban to earn Cuban tourist dollars called the CUC
As tourists, we noticed a number of other nationalities being tourists too – Germans, British and Canadians. I don’t think I realized the tremendous number of Canadians who come to holiday here. In fact, at one resort area, I saw so many Canadian flags on backpacks and hats in the market square, it made me wonder if there were many people back home. It was comfortable and familiar to be around such friendly people – my people. Every time local Cubans asked us where we were from, they warmed to us immediately when we said Canada. We’ve been made to feel very welcome here. And recently, it brought a smile to my face to see a local Cuban walking along the sidewalk wearing an I am Canadian t- shirt. It seems that Cuba is Canada’s Caribbean island.
The check-out process merely took half an hour, much shorter than we expected and we were issued our Cuban cruising permit. We left Puerto Vita by mid-morning with full sails up, making our way northwest to our next anchorage 150 nm away. These are big jumps compared to traveling in the Bahamas, but we’re looking forward to the smaller spectacular anchorages that are coming up.