Rather than the normal “It’s wonderful” blog post, I was asked to do a dump on information that would be useful for those exploring Cuba. I’ve tried to keep it at the big picture for folk and haven’t detailed individual casas or the alike. I dare say there will be other specific questions people may have. Just fire them in and I’ll try and help as best we can.
I’ll say now that the limited cruising information on the S coast is hearsay from those we met in the Marina as we chose to park up at Marina Santiago and explore Cuba by bus rather than lose Easting before our hike down to Panama. I can make no comment on the N coast or up towards Havana by sail. Take said information as you see fit.
One thing to note. Throughout Cuba we were treated more as guests rather than “bloody tourists”. The Cuban people may not have a lot of material possessions but they make up for it in pride in their country. Never be scared in asking for advice or help from one. They will, as we found on numerous occasions, go out of their way to help you. Maybe we just got lucky but I don’t think so. Great people.
Port of Entries
There are only 7 ports of entry and you must clear in at one of these before you do any further travel. They are Marina Santiago de Cuba, Puerto Vita, Cayo Coco, Varadero, Marina Hemingway, Cayo Levisa, Marina Cabo San Antonio, Cayo Largo and Cienfuegos
You must book in at one of these before you travel further.
Noonsite gives you details of having to raise the Cuban Coastguard by radio at the 12mile line. However, I’d emailed the Marina to tell them of our arrival and asked for direction. What I got back was rather different. Come straight in, calling the Marina directly on Ch72 three miles out, anchor at a designated lat/long and await medical clearance.
In the end, I decided to call the Coastguard as well on Ch16 but had no luck raising them over a period of several hours. I found out later that down by Santiago they don’t even have a radio and get the chat from the Harbour Master!
All marinas are manned 24/7 and you should talk with the Harbour Master ( a person of influence) as you approach. Don’t just anchor up. He will get upset and certainly here at Santiago, will direct you to move. Note that all marinas are permanently staffed with Customs and Immigration officers. If you annoy the Harbour Master, they will know about it. Just saying………
We played nice and were directed to anchor 100m off the Marina. Someone that didn’t play the game and ignored the gradually more annoyed Harbour Master calling them on Ch72, were directed to up anchor and to go to the formal anchor/check point, a couple of miles away on the other side of the bay. They got to wait a while before the doctor was sent out too.
The doctor came to the boat and we were asked a number of questions about the health of the crew. No big deal. Temperatures were taken. She inspected the boat including the cleanliness of the loos, happily giving advice out. Having been in Cuba for a month and seeing the general standard of loos (few flushing, generally foul and rarely with seats), I’d now comment – bloody cheek!
Food stores were checked with particular interest in fresh veg and meats. We had meats from Puerto Rico which were noted down. This required a visit from another official to do a further inspection. When queried, we were told they are more interested in meats coming in from DR and Haiti where they think potential infection may be carried from. She also commented on a few rusty tins that we had in storage. We assured her that we would eat them soon.
Once the doctor had left us (asking a “little gift” before she left – more on this later) we were moved to the dock to allow the Customs officials aboard. Our passports were taken off us by the Immigration officer in a bit of concurrent activity whilst we were searched.
Although we were inspected and searched pretty comprehensively to the point of unworn short’s pockets being searched, it was done professionally and politely. Only issue we had was when they found my 2nd passport (carried because of my previous business endeavours) but that was soon explained. The search took about 45 minutes.
We also had a drugs dog brought on board, the impact of it largely spoilt by the squeals of delight from Hannah as the dog came aboard. It spent more time being petted than searching the yacht.
Immigration was easy and all the normal stuff. Clearing papers from your previous country. They are interested in where you have been in the last six months. How long are you going to stay? Where? Travel intentions? They loved it when I told them our vague plan then asked them for advice on improving it. They got the map out to discuss options. It took about 30 minutes and I left with four visas, permission for Lou and the kids to come ashore and some good information.
Visas are given in 30 day chunks. I believe you can also get 90 day visas but from the chat in country, people found that getting extensions was easy.
Last “official” chat was with the Marina Harbour Master.
1. Dinghies to be used between your boat and the Marina dinghy dock or other foreign yachts only. No exploring with them. Tried to get an idea why on this and got “It’s just the rules”.
2. Cubans nationals may not, under any circumstance, visit your yacht.
3. No hand held GPS equipment may be taken off your yacht. I didn’t like to tell him that even our compact camera has GPS these days, tagging each pictures with a location………….
4. And then the more normal ones on rubbish dumping, black water, oil and the rest.
My general comment here is all the staff we met during the entry are just doing their job, one which here is a significantly more comprehensive than other Caribbean countries. You are probably going to be the only boat they will deal with in a day and they will do their job properly. Go through it in good humour with them (Ernesto, take heed….!) and it all goes quickly.
Note that the Custom and Immigration officers are permanent fixtures at the Marina and do 24hr shifts. Once you are alongside you will find that they are both helpful in information on local requirements and interested in you and your travels as well. All of them are expecting that as the country opens, the “rules” are going to have to be relaxed and updated. However, no one in any position of authority thought that this would be happening soon.
Other than the doctor, sadly the very first person that we met in Cuba and in a position to cause you mischief (she signs off on food stuff inspection, med kit checks and alike), we have not been asked for money, other than a very few beggars. Asking around the marina, all had been asked for a “gift” . Most people gave her between $5-10US or equivilent. One boat that had $3 left, other than a $20 that they weren’t prepared to give her, were told that $3 was a poor offering and “surely” they had other currency. We have had a quiet word with one of the Harbour Masters about it as most people are unhappy with her.
However, you will interact with a lot of Cubans who may ask if you have kids clothes, old shoes, fishing gear and the like. They will asked for it in a no obligation way. Up to you how you play this. The odd t-shirt and fishing hooks were v gratefully received. We will be staying in touch with one person who was very helpful to us. Hopefully a parcel will get through to them in due course.
This is a cash society. Do not expect to be able to use your credit card for anything other than, perhaps, your westernised hotel. And check on that.
Cuba currently has two currencies.
CUC – Convertable peso. The foreigners’ currency. Currently 1.1CUC to 1 Euro.
CUP – Cuban Peso. What locals use. 25CUP to 1 Euro.
If you are visiting any tourist site and any of the major cities, you will be expected to pay in CUC. Tourist rates are completely different to local. E.g. The 30 minute ferry from the marina to city costs us 1 CUC per head. The locals pay 1 CUP.
If you get out of the areas used to seeing tourists then you will sometimes be able to use CUP. Most of these incidences for us involved buying street food from vendors.
DON’T BRING US DOLLARS! The exchange rate has an 8% cost attached and then there is a further 10% penalty charge for using the great capitalist enemy’s currency. Euros, UK Sterling and CA dollars are the preferred currencies.
I would suggest that to minimise ATM transaction costs, bring as much cash as you can.
There is a Cuban aspiration to combine the two currencies. I don’t think it will happen soon.
Credit Cards and ATMs
Mastercard will only be accepted within a bank for cash withdrawal. It will not work in any ATM nor be accepted in hotels. American Express? Not a chance.
Visa (both credit and debit) is accepted in ATMs and ours worked without incident.
Bank issued debit cards may or not be accepted. Maestro cards, a fairly standard European type are not.
Note that the most cash you can withdraw in one transaction is 150CUC with a 4.50CUC charge on each transaction. You can, however, leave the card in and make further withdrawals up to your own card daily limit.
Internet and Phones
Although there has been internet available in Cuba for some years at a very few internet cafes, Wifi is only just starting to make an appearance. At time of writing (Feb 16), Trinidad has had Wifi available in the town square for four months, Havana and Santiago for about 18 months. To use Wifi you are required to buy an access card from an ETECSA office, the communication provider for Cuba. This means standing in a long queue. The shortest time I queued was 45 mins. Cards are available for periods of 30mins, 1hr and 5hrs. Price is 2CUC per hour. The offices often run out of cards. My advice is to buy a good stock when you get the chance.
Wifi hot spots are rare. Trinidad has one which is the main square. Santiago has one in the main square by the Cathedral and another at the ferry dock. Havana has several as many of the larger tourist hotels have been equipped to act as one. If you find the ETECSA office in a town, you are probably at the only place wifi may be available. Data speed is reasonable but not fast. Don’t expect to be able to upload large files.
Although Cuban phone sim cards are available, they are not available with a data package. Foreign sim cards do get access to an EDGE service but the roaming rate is prohibitively expensive. Be very careful and check your rate before you think about using it.
By Sea – Anchoring and exploring the Cuban Coast
The “Rules” state that cruisers are only allowed to touch land at the port of entry locations, detailed above. Crazily restricted and it is nearly as restrictive in real life. You may also land at some designated tourist sites (Trinidad is one) but they are few in number. You are allowed to anchor around the coast but the restrictions in landing on the mainland remain. They don’t like you to drop your dinghy and explore, especially if you are on the mainland. Bit disappointing not being able to visit villages……. My advice, straight from an Immigration Officer is not to flout this.
To sail around the Cuban coast you need a Despacho from the Immigration Officer you booked in with. On this you will need to have detailed each and every anchorage you want to use on your trip. They will allow visits to the islands off the South coast where you are out of sight of land but for the rest, it seems to be at the grant of which ever Immigration officer you get. The officers in Santiago were, I think, pretty on side and certainly a Danish boat in with us was surprised at how helpful their one was, to the point of suggesting pretty anchorages and snorkeling sites. Have a good idea what you want to do and be prepared to discuss it with them in detail over a few days before you go firm with your final plan.
One thing to remember is that most Cuban officials don’t want to make a decision, particularly involving a tourist and the default setting is “no, you can’t”. The other thing to remember is that your boat will be tracked by the Cubans and you will be asked why you went elsewhere if you try it on. The in country security network they have is excellent……
The main road linking the East and West of Cuba is a dual carriageway running only for the first few hundred km E out of Havana. Thereafter the road changes to a single carriageway. The main roads running to major towns off this spinal corridor are again single carriageway. These roads would equate to a poor A road in the UK. Country side roads off the main roads are normally packed dirt only. There are rarely road markings. There are more horse and carts using the roads than lorries and traffic is never heavy.
Cubans are safe and considerate drivers. Due to the unaffordability of new cars or even replacement parts, they baby their vehicles. They drive conservatively with big gaps and frequent use of the horn to make sure everyone knows where they are. We have driven about in a 43 year old Lada, a 58 year old Plymouth and a Buick of the same era. I won’t say any of them would pass a UK MOT (not even close) but they are still running because they are looked after carefully. Don’t expect seat belts.
Taxis – there are a few yellow cabs using Chinese imported cars, mainly in the cities. Expensive, modern and they will have a meter (not always used) and seat belts. Most cabs are older cars and all would be classed as classics. Some of the Havana taxis are spectacular. Pricing is a matter of discussion before you get into the cab and they are happy to bargain. You’ll often have a few drivers competing for your business. Use it to your advantage. You can ask pricing for single trips but they are equally happy to discuss day tour pricing as well.
Don’t tip if you have agreed a price. It is not necessary.
Hire Cars – expensive. Don’t expect anything more than a basic compact for about 60Euro a day. We were told there are significant additional charges if you want to drop off at anywhere other than your original location. However, with the ability to design your own trip and really go off the main bus and therefore tourist routes, if you can afford it and you are brave, a great way to look around.
Train – although we know one person who recommended taking the train up to Havana, even the locals we spoke to just smiled, shook their heads and directed us to get the bus instead. The guide books say only for aficionados; I’ll concur. Dirty, smelly, holes in the stained floor for a toilet and slow.
Buses – Note here that there are few buses travelling between the cities and you need to book your ticket ahead. We got caught out in Trinidad, ending up spending an extra couple of days there before we could get on a bus going back to Santiago. Book either at the Omnibus Station or at a Cubancan office. Pay in cash and you will need your passport.
There are three main bus companies.
The Omnibus (Viazul) is the government owned long distance intercity service covering the nation. They use older Chinese buses but these are perfectly serviceable and the ones we were on had aircon. This is the only bus service that charges 1/2 fare for a child. Stops are made at bus stations in most towns so if you have time and want to explore the towns along the main routes, this is the service I’d recommend.
Cubanacan is the company you book either Transgaviota and Transtur tickets through. These use newer buses and pick up from hotels only. Their hub is Havana and you are able to use them to and from there only, with a few limited routes outside Havana, mainly tourist destination to destination. Stops are made at their own posh cafes and restaurants which are well run but expensive. Check about lunch on longer trips (Santiago to Havana). It is generally included in the price.
All services stop regularly, generally no more than every 1.5 hrs.
For an idea of pricing from our trip.
Santiago – Havana. 17hrs. 51CUC per person. Lunch included
Havana – Vinales. 5hr. 16CUC per person
Vinales – Cienfuegos. 8hrs. 32CUC per person
Cienfuegos – Trinidad. 1 hr. 6CUC per head but we got a taxi for the same price. More fun going by a geriatric car with no seat belts and sounding if it was powered by a tractor engine!
Trinidad – Santiago. 12hrs. 33CUC per person
Scooters and bikes – Both were available for hire in the main towns. We used neither and can’t comment on pricing.
In the cities there are western hotels none of any great standard that I could see and pretty expensive. Havana price is around 130CUC for a double room per night.
Our preferred accommodation were Casas, houses that Cubans have been given permission to rent out rooms. It is a superb way to meet Cubans. The accommodation is generally interesting and very clean. One of the houses we stayed in had a 7m atrium and we slept on a bed which was 150yrs old. The neighbour of another one we stayed at unfortunately had a cockerel that started every morning before 0300! All had very friendly families, happy to help us in advice on what to visit or do in their town.
Pricing for a night varies between 20 and 40CUC a night dependent on room size. It is a good idea to book ahead. Vinales (pop around 1000), one of our stops, is very popular and frequently fills up. Researching ahead also allows you to select casas with better recommendations. Alternatively, if you don’t want to waste time searching for your next casa if you are not travelling to a set timetable, don’t be shy to ask for help from your hosting family in recommending or helping you find accommodation in your next port of call. Many have friends and family that they can quickly arrange something with.
Remember internet is not widely available and you don’t want to waste time in searching for and booking casas when you have a city to explore.
Note that the Cuban government takes the vast majority of the room price you pay to the family. The family make their money with you having breakfast and we were happy to support them by accepting the offer. All charged 5CUC a head – well worth it – we were always stuffed when we left the table.
Most casas offer you dinner as well. Price is normally about 8-12CUC a head for a three course meal, drinks extra. We ate at two casas, both excellent meals, but we found that we preferred to eat out to enjoy the street atmosphere.
Restaurants will have a fairly standard fare (burgers, pizza, rice and bean dishes, pasta (limited but the seafood choices are excellent) Prices vary little between restaurants and you will normally be asked for between 8 and 15 CUC for a main.
Finding a Casa
Google Casa Particular and the government site will come up. Not great to navigate around but it covers the whole country. http://www.cubacasas.com
Another site is http://www.cnccuba.com
Many casa are now on Tripadvisor. Check their ratings.
There are also a few houses appearing on Air BNB. We didn’t use this resource.
Stocking up – Food, Booze etc – Before and During
Food in Cuba is difficult to find, limited in choice and expensive in the “supermarkets” there are. Bread, eggs, dried beans and limited fruit and veg are generally findible but don’t expect anything fancy. Meat of any great quality is difficult to find – chicken is your best bet. If you are going to tour, try and stock up the boat before you come.
Once you have arrived, the boats in the marina found that if they kept the requirements simple, the best way not to get ripped off was to get a local to do a shop for you. Plenty of them are willing to help. They will be looking for a goodwill gesture in return. Eggs are wonderfully cheap. 2CUC for 30, about a quarter of what we are paying here in Jamaica currently. Chicken is cheap too but don’t expect it to arrive in anything other than a bloody plastic bag.
You will be advised off street food by the various officials at the Marinas and told to stick to restaurants. We used the same rules as for the rest of the Caribbean. If there is a pile of locals buying from a stall, the food is probably good enough for you. Seemed to work for us and you will pay in CUP rather than CUC.
Rum is cheap, filthy cheap. You can spend as little as 3CUC on a bottle of white rum (what they will use for drinks in bars) but be able to get a litre bottle of good sipping rum for 10CUC. I wish I had loaded up but I was being sensible. More fool me.
Top end. Havana Club 7yrs at 19CUC a litre – outstanding
Mid. Havana Club Especial at 10CUC a litre. – best value
Bottom. The base brown Havana Club at 5CUC a litre. Perfect for mixing
There are other brands of rum available occasionally but Havana Club you will find everywhere.
You will be offered cigars wherever you go and most of them will be fake. Think you can buy a box of Cohibas for 45CUC when they are 300+CUC in the official shop? Really??
The advice I got from a Canadian Havana resident was to buy direct from a farmer if I could (what is known as a Pura cigar) made by him from the tobacco he is allowed to keep. Farmers lose 90% of his crop to the government for officially made cigars.
In Vinales, I paid 40CUC for 21 No4 equivalents in a simple cedar box which his family made that are simply superb. I got another 50 Panama size for 15CUC from a friendly local that were what he smoked. Still pretty good but nothing of the quality that I got at the farm.