Know what to expect to enjoy a visit to Cuba

Aug 4, 2016 by Guest Writer

After spending the three weeks this summer in Cuba, cruising between Havana and Varadero, I write this to spread the word and make other captains and yacht owners’ experiences a little easier.

It starts with setting realistic expectations.

The three most important things I can share relate to information, communication and money.

  • The lack of information or misinformation on how to come into or cruise in Cuba is substantial. Know that there are few, if any, restrictions imposed by the Cuban government on bringing a yacht to Cuba. Issues appear to be created by America due to the embargo. American companies still cannot trade directly with Cuba, and this becomes a major issue for yachts regarding insurance.

It will take time to gain an insurance policy that covers a yacht in Cuban waters, although it is possible using European companies.

Crew and guest visas are automatically provided on entry, though it is best to use a local agent and provide that person with crew and guest lists before any trip. Visas were 75 pesos when I was there, up from 15 recently due to the opportunity of income from tourism. Canadians have been the biggest tourist group, and officials now say Americans have already become second biggest, overtaking Europeans, who have direct flights.

A cruising document is also provided upon entry for moving between ports.

Yes, there are numerous documents to complete and officials to have aboard, recording the same information at arrival, prior to departure, between each port and again at arrival at the next port, but this should be expected for a country that is still evolving. This is no different than what is required in many other countries around the world. Still, it is different than cruising in the Bahamas or Mediterranean.

Paper shuffling is unproductive and time consuming, but at least all the officials come to the yacht unlike in the United States. Coca Cola, chocolates and apples are all good consumables to share with officials.

Typically, visitors will see the following officials aboard at each stop, regardless of whether it is initial clearing in or simply domestic movement. All were exceptionally friendly. All had the best interests of Cuba in mind and appeared to ensure the yacht had a positive experience.

There will be a doctor for health status; port authority for clearance in and out; customs and immigration; veterinary for animal products, including frozen meat; and agriculture for plant, fruit and vegetable products.

Capt. Rapley at the world-famous cabaret show at the Tropicana in Havana. PHOTO PROVIDED

Capt. Rapley at the world-famous cabaret show at the Tropicana in Havana. PHOTO PROVIDED

Do not bring tropical fruit or vegetables into Cuba. Do not bring meat that is not in its original sealed and labelled packaging. Eggs and chicken are sensitive items due to bird diseases around the world. They may be confiscated, ordered to be eaten only aboard, or prohibited from being used or disposed of while in Cuba.

Provisions availability is basic. The fruit and vegetables available are dictated by the season, but what is there is great. Bring in what will be needed, except rum and cigars.

  • Internet and cell phone access is challenging. We had one issue while in Cuba, which was due to a contact outside the country assuming Cuba was like their country, on broadband with 4G networks.

U.S. mobile phones do not work in Cuba. There is no data option on any phone so we cannot connect to the internet by cell phone. Satellite phones are frowned upon and may be requested to be bagged and secured while in Cuba. However, ours worked for phone and internet just as they do elsewhere in the world.

Internet is not readily available. In Varadero, we accessed internet at the hotel. Havana has hotspots, which didn’t work in the cruise ship terminal in the port. The same goes for Marina Hemingway; we could not obtain the local ETECSA internet provider.

It appears that any email account with a U.S.-based server does not work. The same seems to be the case with websites and social media. Some work and others don’t.

The only people with dialup-speed internet is tourism companies and other companies approved by authorities. If anything is urgent, it is best to phone rather than wait for email response.

We must take into consideration that no one is sitting behind a desk awaiting emails. It takes days for answers as email is usually checked only once a day. Emails arrive one day, checked the next, and then responded the following. The concerned party was available all day, every day, by phone.

Cuban yacht agent Plácido Vega and M/Y Fortuna Chef Maree pick up provisions at a fruit and vegetable market in Havana. PHOTO/CAPT. TODD RAPLEY

Cuban yacht agent Plácido Vega and M/Y Fortuna Chef Maree pick up provisions at a fruit and vegetable market in Havana. PHOTO/CAPT. TODD RAPLEY

It appears that only U.S. mobile phones do not work in Cuba. It is quite easy to obtain a Cuban SIM card from the local yacht agent. We also found our Bahamas and UK mobile phones worked as phones only (to accept and send calls and texts).

  • Cuba is a cash society. Based on discussions we had with locals, it is not because of dodging taxes or a black market system but because people live within their means. They don’t have credit cards or loans to run up debt.

The American embargo ensures U.S.-issued credit cards do not work in Cuba. That also includes credit cards from foreign financial institutions that are owned by America or American banks.

For cash, there are two forms of peso: the local peso and the Cuban convertible peso.

The convertible peso, also called CUC, are for tourist and luxury items. Locals get paid in local pesos at a current rate of one CUC to 24 pesos.

The euro is the easiest foreign currency to convert, although the U.S. dollar is converted with additional tax due to the embargo. Everything is more expensive to tourists than locals, although local products and services are relatively cheap compared to buying in the U.S. or Europe.

In general, Cuba is value for money, with most basic things generally cheap. For example, beer is $1-$2, leather handbags $20-$30. Luxury items are considered anything American, if it is available, as well as shampoo, sunscreen, cooking oil, etc. We saw name-brand sunscreen at $25 a bottle, about the amount the average Cuban worker earns in a month.

Bring plenty of cash, as there is no guarantee a foreign credit card or ATM card will work. Expect there to be unexpected costs, enticing experiences that were not budgeted and trinkets to buy.

If Marina Hemingway in Havana is full (which it is in peak times and during fishing tournaments), the only current alternative for large yachts is the cruise ship terminal in the port, which is expensive as a yacht is treated as a cruise ship.

Capt. Rapley picked up guests from the airport in a vintage car ‘for the wow factor’. PHOTO CAPT. TODD RAPLEY

Capt. Rapley picked up guests from the airport in a vintage car ‘for the wow factor’. PHOTO CAPT. TODD RAPLEY

A realistic alternative is Marina Gaviota in Varadero, which holds 1,060 yachts, but it is a day trip or hotel overnight to Havana. There is no guarantee of shore power or dock water at any marina.

Our average dockage costs in June:

  • Marina Gaviota in Varadero: just under CUC$2 per foot
  • Marina Hemingway in Havana: just under CUC$3 per foot
  • Havana Port Cruise Ship Terminal: CUC$4,000 for four days (port agency fee was CUC$1,500, irrelevant of length of stay or number of people aboard)

Patience please

The Cuban people are friendly and appear happy and healthy. As much as the propaganda distributed to the Western world has been negative regarding President Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the people of Cuba have all been educated in a free system and all receive good healthcare. There does not appear to be anyone on street corner begging or homeless. Tourism is strong, with Canadians and Europeans having visited Cuba for decades.

The hardest issue for Cuba going forward will be the rapid increase in the number of tourists and the probability of those who are looking to make a quick buck from slicing and dicing local assets. Let’s hope Cuba doesn’t get overrun as many other Caribbean islands have.

It does take time to get things done due to lack of communications and automation, but having authorities come to the yacht is typical. Paperwork is repetitive, with multiple copies required to distribute.

Permission is required to launch tenders, and locals cannot come aboard the yacht without a permit, but a yacht agent will make all this paperwork run smoothly.

Capt. Todd Rapley runs the 100-foot Palmer Johnson M/Y Fortuna. Comments on this story are welcome at