Want to know exactly what it feels like to go through the customs process after sailing to Cuba? Come along. We’ll walk you through. Show you exactly who boarded and what they wanted to know. We’ve included a lot of great tips in here for you as well to make the check-in process easy if you’re planning your own trip to Cuba. I hope many of you are. You will see from our sneak peek “exploring Cuba” footage in here that it was an incredible voyage and destination for us. If you can’t go on your own boat, SailLibra will be making two trips to Cuba this spring. Check them out! www.saillibra.com/join-a-sail/
“How much does it cost to stay at Marina Hemingway?”
“What are the facilities like?”
“Do you have to call before you can come in?”
These are all the kinds of questions we’re been getting from all kinds of curious followers after our voyage to Cuba and we LOVE to answer. While the experience of Cuba, in and of itself, was amazing, the experience of just getting in to Cuba was, itself, eye-opening and kind of exciting. Okay, very exciting. We were coming into a country that, until only recently, was closed off to Americans for over fifty years. Naturally people are curious! So, we wanted to give you all a little glimpse, and some tips, on navigating the customs in Cuba:
Fly Your Q Flag
As we were approaching shore, we hoisted our bright yellow “Q flag” (meaning, quarantine, because you have not been properly checked in yet) on the port side of the boat. [UPDATE! We learned from some folks who commented that we should have flown our Q flag on the starboard side. Don’t pull an Annie! Fly yours on the right side! You’re welcome. : ) ]. We also had a Cuba one ready to hoist the minute we got docked. We were so excited to be going to Cuba!
It was a good thing, too, that we were flying our Q flag when we came in because we didn’t get advanced permission to enter.
Calling Before You Enter
We were under the impression you needed to hail the customs officials on the radio (Channel 77) before you entered and we certainly tried! However, after seven failed attempts to make contact, Phillip could not get a response. We texted Captain Ryan via the Delorme, as he has been to Cuba several times, to see what he thought about the situation. His response? “Their radios are total crap. They probably can’t hear you. Just go in and dock at customs.” No one was answering and we had a clear window to make the entry, so that’s what we did and no one at customs seemed to mind at all that we didn’t have advanced permission to enter.
Navigating the Entrance to Marina Hemingway
The entrance to Marina Hemingway is well-marked and fairly easy to navigate when the conditions are calm. It is about 3/4 of a mile long, but very narrow (approximately 100 feet wide), with very unforgiving reefs on either side. Phillip is also always adamant that I tell people, when talking about the entrance, that the markers (three red on starboard and three green on port) are ON the reef itself, not inside of it. Meaning, if you hug the markers, there is a chance you could hit the reef, so shoot straight for the middle. Here is a map of the marina entrance:
I also made a video from footage a Libra crew member took when Captain Ryan was making his way through the entrance to Marina Hemingway this past December in some pretty harrowing conditions. The video is a good visual rendition of how short and narrow the entrance is (and how quickly you can be pushed through it when it’s blowing 28 out of the north!). Phillip and I would call this the “pucker factor.” Yipes!
Docking at Customs
After you make it past the reef and into the channel, you will turn left at the end and head toward the customs dock which is a large, bright turquoise concrete wall.
We found the staff who worked there (often two young men) were very polite and courteous in helping you secure your boat and disembark. They took each of us into the customs office to verify our passport and vessel registration.
One agent came aboard to fill out paperwork on the boat for our visas and to “check the boat.” I’m not sure what he was looking for other than a stowaway, weapons, drugs, big piles of money. I really can’t tell you. But whatever he saw seemed satisfactory to him and he was on and off in under five minutes.
The doctor then came aboard to ask us some medical questions, check our temperature and look around the boat as well.
He asked if we had had any stomach aches or fever. He took our temperature. He asked if the head was working properly and to see our first aid kit. He also asked if we had any narcotics on board. This man, too, was very polite and welcoming. We offered each of them a cold drink and snacks. Phillip said he tried to offer both the doctor and the young man a few dollars but they waved him off.
Getting Your Passport Stamped
I opted to get my passport stamped but they will ask you if you want it stamped or not.
Ka-chunk! Happy Traveler Annie. I can’t believe I got four stamps just this year: Portugal, France, Mexico and Cuba! With my Bahamas stamp from the 2015 Abacos Regatta that makes five total. The world is so big! With so many more ka-chunks in store!
The Canals at Marina Hemingway
The marina is huge! Able to accommodate some 230 boats, I believe was the number (and they said it fills during the big Hemingway billfish tournament in February). We were surprised, however, to find it was very empty when we were there, particularly as that was supposed to be Cuba’s “high season” for tourists and cruisers. Captain Ryan had told us Canal 1 (which is where they try to put all of the newcomers) is a little rough as it still gets a lot of the wind fetch from across the Gulf and it is not as close to the facilities. We later learned by “facilities” Ryan meant the fancy pool at the hotel, which is where he likes to be (the south side of Canal 2).
Upon Ryan’s recommendation, Phillip asked the young man at customs, after he assigned us a spot in Canal 1, if we could dock in Canal 2. The young man tried to get the Port Captain, Jose, on the radio to ask about the switch but could not hail him. Remember what Ryan said about the radios. Ryan also told us a lot about Jose. Just wait, he’s going to be your new best friend! Apparently, what spot you will have on the dock falls distinctly under the determination of the Port Captain because the young man at customs said he could not move us without Jose’s consent.
Thankfully as we were motoring our way toward our spot in Canal 1, we saw a team of guys waving us in and Phillip urged me to ask them if we could move to Canal 2. He thought—as there is one common thread among men of all nationalities—that the request would be better received coming from a blonde at the bow than the captain at the helm. Turns out he was right. Jose cocked his head to the side for a bit, thought for a minute, then said “Okay!” and steered us over to a spot on the north wall of Canal 2. Here is where we docked, spot 227:
Phillip and I were very pleased with this location as it was within easy walking distance of the showers, bathrooms, snack bar, marina office, etc. It was also well-protected and still a short walk from the convenience store by the road and Hotel Aquario on the south side of Canal 2, where you can spend a very enjoyable day lounging by the pool, eating at their restaurant there and using the wifi when they have it.
Can you spot Plaintiff’s Rest in this picture?
That’s her mast in the center of the photo! We like to keep her close by and feeling like a part of the family.
You have probably heard others mention it as well: the dock walls in Cuba are unforgiving. Just bare concrete, no rub rail or bumpers. Bring extra fenders to make sure your boat has a nice cushion against the concrete.
The Welcome Committee (Port Captain and Agricultural Department)
We jokingly began calling them the “Welcome Committee” because after you were there for a few days and you got to watch a lot of new boats come in, you noticed each time a new one docked, this crew of 7-8 marina folks would magically appear: the Port Captain, the agricultural guys, the trash man, the marina security guard, and then often 1-2 guys who work on boats around the marina offering to do work for the new gringo that just came in! They’re happy to do anything for you to earn some cash. We had a guy offer to do our stainless, our varnish, even scrub our bottom. While we did not take any of them up on the offer (we like to do our own work on Plaintiff’s Rest), assuming they are hard and diligent workers, you can get a lot of work done on your boat on the cheap at Marina Hemingway!
We met two Port Captains at Marina Hemingway, Jose and his brother Gabriel. This is Jose:
Great guy. Now why am I handing him Bengay? Because Captain Ryan told me to bring him some. “He’ll be your new best friend,” Ryan said and boy was he right! Jose loves Bengay! It’s actually for his wife who apparently has a lot of issues with arthritis and this magic cream makes her feel much better. I love making new friends, particularly in Cuba, so I brought him two tubes and Jose was doubly happy. He was also super nice in general. Jose made sure Phillip and I were happy with the slip and facilities. He told us about the restaurants in the area, the hotel across the way where we could get wifi, the marina hours and so much more about exchanging money, how to find a driver, what things should typically cost (so we wouldn’t get have to pay the really high tourist rates). In general, you just felt like Jose was looking out for you. And, like any good professional in hospitality, he remembered our names and greeted us with a smile every time he saw us around the marina. Jose also referred us to a driver at the marina. A super nice guy named Jorge who offered to drive us any time we needed and exchanged money for us. As I have mentioned before, we felt the people in Cuba were incredibly welcoming and helpful and we had a great experience at Marina Hemingway.
Here is Jose writing out the exchange rate for us and CUCs versus pesos. He was very helpful. We did hand him a few CUCs here and there more as a tip than anything and he was very grateful, but he never asked directly for anything. The agricultural guys, however … they were the only ones to explicitly say: “Now if you haaaaave anything for us,” they said with a playful cock of their heads. And, we were happy to give it. As you all have probably seen from the Cuba voyage videos we had bought a TON of chocolates, candies, and little toiletries to give away to the Cubans and I had made little goodie bags up of them, so we were happily handing them out left and right and the Cubans were very appreciative.
The men from the agricultural department were also very friendly and polite. They boarded the boat, asked us if we had any perishable foods or produce aboard, any pets or living plants.
Because we had been told by friends and fellow cruisers not to bring any produce into the country, Phillip and I had tried heartily (and did a pretty darn good job) of eating all of our fresh produce during the voyage.
We did have a few things we couldn’t get to that we tossed overboard before coming into Cuba. Once the agricultural guys peeked in our cabinets, lockers and fridge and saw that all of our provisions were dried goods, non-perishable, they were content. Mostly they just asked questions and took your answers as truth. We gave them some goodie bags a few CUCs and they were on their way.
The marina is very large and easy to maneuver. There is a big fuel dock at the end of the pier between Canals 2 and 3:
We had barely put a dent in our jerry cans on the deck during our voyage so we did not need to fuel up in Cuba; however, Captain Ryan advised he has fueled up at Marina Hemingway before without any issues.
We were told the water in Cuba can be a little sketch. If your immune system is not ready for it, you’re going to have a bad couple of days. The good news? The clinics are free and it’s probably not going to kill you. But, on that recommendation, we decided not to chance it, so we did not drink the tap water in Cuba, nor did we fill our tanks or wash our dishes with it. We bought a few large (2 gallon) bottles of water at the convenience store at the marina and drank on those during the time we were there (9 days) and that worked just fine for us. And, when wine only costs about $4/bottle, you really don’t acquire much thirst for water.
The marina is really well run. There is a trash can by each boat that is emptied each day. We even got to know the garbage man who came by every day to take it out as he always said hello. There is also a security guard that walks the docks often and checks on the boats.
It’s a good thing Captain Ryan told me, because I was so naiive, thinking I would have plenty of wifi in Cuba. I’ll only be off the grid for 4-5 days while we’re sailing I told him. “You’ll be off the grid until you get back to Key West,” he told me. And he was right and thankfully I did enough work ahead of time before we left Pensacola that it did not end up being too much of a problem and it was really nice to truly disconnect, no Facebook, no Instagram, no nothing. Trying to get a steady, consistent wifi stream in Cuba is not easy. You buy wifi cards at Hotel Acuario, 2 CUCs for one hour, and it is still a little spotty, particularly if other people are there trying to get on too. Phillip and I had to split the hour because we found we were kicking one another off even when using two different cards at the same time. Also, there were several days when I walked over to buy a card and they told me they simply didn’t have any. “Manana,” they said … two days in a row. What can I say? It’s Cuba. They just don’t have all the luxuries we do all the time. Wifi is definitely one.
You’ll love this too. I didn’t snap a pic of the wifi card but it has a little grey strip that you scratch off like a lotto ticket to get the password for the Hotel Aquario wifi. I didn’t realize it was a scratch strip (or what the heck it said in Spanish) so I kept typing in “rasguno aqui para contrasena” AS the password. That says “scratch here for password.” The lady at the hotel desk got a huge laugh at me when I went to her for help because my “password” wasn’t working. Don’t pull an Annie in Cuba folks! Be smarter than the scratch-off card.
The Marina Facilities (Showers and Bathrooms)
Okay, so you do have to bring your own toilet paper everywhere you go. Seriously. Do. I was surprised the first time I went to the facilities and found no paper in my stall. I went to the next and the next and the next and there was no paper in any of them! Then I saw it. On the way into the restrooms, by the door, there was a little table with a single roll of toilet paper (almost gone) sitting on a platter. I soon learned this was the group roll for everyone’s use in the restroom. We found this was common in many other restrooms around Cuba as they really have to ration certain commodities because they just don’t get much of them. It did become habit soon, though, and as you walked into a restroom the first thing you would do would be to look around for the “group roll” and tear yourself off a small section before you headed to the stall. If there was no roll (this happened often as well), you pulled the one out of your bag that you had brought (because you bring toilet paper everywhere you go!) and you used that. Not a big deal, but definitely something you would want a friend to tell you before you found yourself in a paperless dilemma. Now you know!
The facilities themselves are not the cleanest but they work. The water was either warm but did not spray well in one shower stall, or not warm but sprayed well in another. It was not a spa experience, but if that’s what you’re after, Cuba may not be the place for you. What we liked about being on the north wall of Canal 2 was that it was a very short walk to the bathrooms and showers (all contained inside a little snack bar hut on the end of the pier between Canals 1 and 2).
They also sold wine, cokes and a few little snacks there and we found it was a fun place to relax at the end of the day (to smoke our Cuban cigars!) and watch the sunset on the north side of the hut. That is where I’m sitting here, just outside of the snack bar.
And this is our Marina Hemingway sunset view:
We met several other cruisers while sitting there and shared some great “coming into Cuba” stories. The snack bar is definitely good cruisers gathering ground.
While there are some things about Marina Hemingway that are not as nice as marinas in the states, in other areas, Marina Hemingway has them beat hands down. One of those was the laundry department. There is a really nice gal who works in the snack bar who does the laundry for cruisers. We brought her four incredibly stinky bags of our sweaty, grimy passage clothes and towels, and she washed them all in one day, while we were out enjoying the town, for a total of $12 CUCs. They smelled amazing when we got them back and they were all still warm and folded. She even folded my underwear. What does that tell you?
We had heard the going rate for money exchange in Cuba USD for CUCs is 85%. Meaning, you take them $100 USD and they will give you 85 CUCs in return. Your dollar doesn’t stretch quite as far in Cuba. There are places in town where they will exchange your money. We met a very nice Canadian man who stays in Jaimanitas (the neighborhood just outside of Marina Hemingway) three months out of every year and he took us to the small bank where we made our initial exchange of USD for CUCs at a rate of 87%. Jose later put us in contact with a very nice driver at the marina, Jorge, who offered to exchange our money for us. Jorge is trying to save to send his wife to Panama and it helps him to exchange money for you and stockpile more USD. He made the exchange for us at the best rate possible: 90%. One note, though, do only try to exchange exactly what you think you will spend as you cannot use or exchange the CUCs anywhere else once you get back to the states. Here are a few so you can see what they look like:
CUCs versus Pesos
Pesos are the national denomination. 1 CUC is equivalent to 24 pesos. These are what the Cubans spend and they pay a lot less for their commodities (because they have much, much less to spend). Consider the “CUC” rate that you will pay the tourist rate. Where a Cuban might buy a loaf of bread for 10 pesos, the same vendor will probably charge you 1 CUC for it. Why? Because that’s still a very affordable rate for you (about $1.25 for a loaf of bread) that you are happy to pay, so why shouldn’t he? The tourism that is coming into the country definitely benefits the Cubans and they are seizing the opportunity to earn more than they probably have in decades. Now, you are more than welcome to negotiate (and you probably should on some things, such as room rates, taxi fares, etc.). We were told often by folks who had been there a while that they were paying better rates on some things, so feel free to try and talk vendors down if you would like. It is likely they will compromise.
Cost to Stay at the Marina
This is our actual receipt from Marina Hemingway:
You’ll see they charge a $75.00 visa per person and a rate of $0.70/foot for our vessel. The power and special use permit costs were also nominal. This was for a 9-day stay at Marina Hemingway. While it is not as inexpensive as, say, Mexico, in all, we found Cuba very affordable. And we loved every minute of our stay there!
I have plenty more stories, photos and footage from Cuba to come, but we had received so many specific questions about these types of logistics, we wanted to put out an informative post first. We hope you have found some of this information helpful if you are planning to sail to Cuba as well. Any other questions, feel free to leave them in a comment below and we will do our best to answer.