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Cuba: A two week cruise along the West Coast

By Craig and Joanna Pollak — last modified Aug 20, 2018 09:05 AM The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of noonsite.com or the World Cruising Club.
US citizens are only allowed to stay in Cuba for two weeks. Craig and Joanna Pollak of SV Rambunctious made full use of that time cruising from Havana along the West coast to Cayo Largo Del Sur.

Published: 2018-07-26 00:00:00
Countries: Cuba

Cuba: A two week cruise along the West Coast

Sunset at Cayo Buenavista

West Palm Beach, Florida to Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba

We were initially going to go upwind and head to Grenada from West Palm Beach FL for  the hurricane season via the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, DR, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, and all the Windwards and Leewards. However, whilst heading south from Lake Worth Inlet in order to make the Gulfstream crossing, we decided to head instead to Bocas del Toro, Panama via the Keys, Cuba, Grand Cayman, and Providencia.  It was already way too late in the season, and this route would be quicker and we thought more fun. After a quick stop in Ft Lauderdale for a repair and a trip to Blue Water Charts, we set off.

The USCG requires a permit to head to Cuba.  You can go without it (I have friends who have), and 999 times out of 1000 there would probably be no issue, but if they did catch you, the penalties could be severe. We decided to apply for our permit, which we sent to [email protected]”. There are a number of reasons to obtain permission, and we used “journalism” (this article) and “aid for the Cuban People”.  The USCG 7th district is in charge of this area and Petty Officer Joseph D. Wilson is in charge of the permit process. We found him to be quite helpful and responsive ([email protected]). The link on the USCG site directed us to Form 3300 with an expiration date of 12/31/2020. We soon discovered that this form is out of date and Form 3300 with an expiry date of 5/31/2021 is the correct one. We received our approval in about a week, and we were off.

We decided to depart Florida and head for Cuba from the Dry Tortugas for several reasons. We thought there would be a better chance of not firing up the ‘iron genny’ from there, and we’d never been.

We left Key West (Fleming Key) at 2am and arrived in the Dry Tortugas the same afternoon. We spent the night there, did a little snorkelling the following day, and departed for Marina Hemingway at 5pm. We were initially able to sail on a beam reach in 15 knots of wind quite comfortably. By 4am, this had become a close reach, and by 6am the wind had abandoned us. We motored the last 5 hours to Cuba, and arrived after a pleasant 17-hour journey at 10am.

Days 1 and 2, Hemingway  Marina and Havana.

The check-in procedure was easy, relatively quick, and pleasant. There were initially four customs officers, including a doctor who inquired about our health and took our temperature. We have a cat, which was largely ignored, apart from asking for a few health documents. These officers were followed by a second set of inspectors with a drug-sniffing Cocker Spaniel. We were then taken to the office for our photos to be taken, passport ‘stamps’ (they’ll only stamp your passport if you want them to), and directed to our dock. We were greeted there by the dock master and another official who asked about our fruits and vegetables (no problems as long as they are for personal consumption). He also asked about the refrigerator and freezer contents (meats must be frozen and for personal consumption, our leftover cooked meats in the fridge were not a problem).

By this time our guide (and now friend) Damien Gonzalez Aguilar was waiting for us, but due to a misunderstanding, with his red 1956 Ford Fairlaine convertible, so we decided to forgo a shower and nap and get right to it. Damien can be contacted by requesting to “friend” him on Facebook, then text him on ‘Messenger’ and he’ll respond in a few days if you use our names.

There are two Cuban currencies the Cuban peso (CUP or moneda nacional) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). Cuban nationals use the former, whilst the latter is for use by visitors. The CUC is worth roughly $1 and there are roughly 25 CUPs to one CUC.

Internet is very difficult and expensive here. For example, a 1 hr WiFi card in Havana is $4 CUC, about $4.50 USD.  We found 1hr internet cards in Cayo Leviso, Maria la Gorda, and Cayo Largo del Sur for $1 CUC.

This sprawling, 500 year old city really is best seen with a guide. Damien speaks excellent English, and has an encyclopaedic memory of the history of Havana and its forts and buildings. Many taxi drivers take their clients to restaurants where they receive a commission. Damien instead takes his clients to the places they’ll most enjoy, incredible meals with fantastic service and breath-taking views. For example, one of the best meals I’ve had in years was lunch at a restaurant called “Vistamar”. It was much closer to Marina Hemingway than Downtown Havana. The entree was floured, sautéed red snapper covered in Parmesan cream sauce for $13.50 CUC ($15 USD) in a beautiful, meticulously set restaurant with the most spectacular view of the Straights of Florida from a 2nd story balcony overlooking a pool). It seems the “fish” dishes in restaurants near Havana are usually “billfish”.  You have to ask  “que tipa de pesca?”  I guess white marlin, blue marlin, striped marlin, and sailfish would all be included. the red snapper was a substitution for billfish. We invited Damien to have all our meals with us, and were rewarded with long, in-depth conversations about the day-to-day life and struggles of these oppressed people, the economies here, (CUC vs CUP), international relations, politics, and sports.

The guides are not cheap ($200 CUC a day, but that day can last until the wee hours of the morning if you choose) but vital. We learned that the 20 minute taxi ride from Marina Hemingway to downtown Havana would be about $25 CUC, so there and back would already be 25% of the daily cost of a guide, and we’d never have been able to find all the wonderful buildings, historic sites, and restaurants without one.  Money well spent, so much so that we spent an additional 9 hrs with him the following day.

We also have one humorous side story. After the first day’s activities, we were enjoying a drink in the cockpit and struck up a conversation with a couple who were strolling the docks. They introduced themselves as Pat and Addison. We were making small talk and they asked what Cuba cruising guide we were using. I responded that we were using the Waterway Guide written by Nigel Calder and some other guy. They asked what I thought of it, and I said I liked it except for one issue. We chatted about that for a bit until Addison deadpanned “just so you know, I’m the ‘other guy’. Very funny. As it turns out, over the next 2 weeks there were several places where what I was seeing on my paper charts and chart plotter would have stopped me from going - but I trusted Addison’s waypoints, went, and had no problems. Many thanks to Pat and Addison Chan!

We brought soccer balls, crayons, pens and pencils to give out to children, which is unbelievably rewarding. Driving around the poorest sections of town, finding a small boy who desperately wants to play soccer with the bigger kids kicking around a tattered old ball, and giving him an inflated, brand new soccer ball still in the box is an experience we won’t soon forget. We also brought some 12oz bottles of Suave shampoo (fruit-scented seems to be the favourite), and wish we had brought apples and pears, which are expensive in Cuba, and more ‘movie theatre sized’ candy for the kids. We’d also bet that inexpensive fins and dive masks would be a big hit with kids in the more remote fishing villages. These gifts are obviously not required or expected, but it is very rewarding.

Day 3 to Bahia Honda.

Courtesy of sy RambunctiousWe set sail for Bahia Honda , which is about 37NM west of Marina Hemingway. The channel is wide and well marked, and we set anchor in 15’ of water off the abandoned Guarda Frontera (Cuban Coast Guard) buildings. We were told we were not allowed in most of the harbour which is littered with sunken freighters, tugs and dry-docks, or on shore. We choose to cook some dinner, interact with kids who swam out to greet us, and enjoyed a sundowner. (sy Rambunctious pictured left)

Day 4 to Cayo Levisa.
We left for Cayo Levisa, about 27NM west of Bahia Honda. Our Genset raw water impeller had shredded, so we got a late start around 11am and arrived in Cayo Levisa at 3:30pm using the Pasa Alcranes. This is a beautiful resort, but with terrible buffet-style food and bad service. You are supposed to check in with the Guarda Frontera if they are around, and we were told they’d be back at 8:30 the following morning, which morphed into 10:30. We tried to intimate to the hotel staff that we wanted to leave before then, but they seemed to want us to wait for them, so we did, and got an 11:30 start the next day.

Day 5 to Cayo Restinga del Palo.

We sailed 30 NM from Cayo Levisa to the uninhabited Cayo Restinga del Palo. 
It was pretty tricky running the South side of Cayo Levisa, and we touched bottom for a moment once before making it out into the bay and deeper water. We came in through Paso Honda which was deep (average about 25ft) and picked our way back behind Cayo Restinga del Palo and anchored in 15ft of water, basically in the Pasa de la Leha, around 7pm.

Day 6 to Cayo Buenavista.
Before setting off we made some repairs and then left for Cayo Buenavista through Pasa de la Leha using Addison’s (Waterway Guide 2017 - Cuba by Addison Chan) waypoints (although there is a typographical error in the Waterway Guide and the N latitude on both should be 22, not 23 degrees). We motored the 40 NM to Cayo Buenavista via Pasa Ronconda by 4:30pm using our Yanmar in virtually no wind.

Day 7, to Cabo del San Antonio.

We headed out for the 39NM trip to Cabo del San Antonio in the Golfo de Guanahacabibes. We were required to check in with the Guarda Frontera here, which is when the fun began.

Back in Cayo Levisa, I had thought it odd that the Guarda Frontera had wanted to keep my “despacho”, but there was a huge language barrier. My Spanish is poor, and he didn’t speak any English.  In order to make sure everything was OK, I kept asking the Guarda Frontera in Cayo Levisa in Spanish if I needed that paper, and I kept telling him in Spanish that I was going to Cabo San Antonio, arriving there on Sunday night. Then I repeatedly told him we were continuing around on the south side of Cuba to Cayo Largo del Sur, then checking out to go to the Caymans - followed by a big smile and a questioning “OK ?” He kept saying “si...perfecto amigo”

It wasn’t perfect. The Guarda Frontera in Cabo Del San Antonio was already aware that I didn’t have my despacho and was waiting for us. He kept saying (through a translator) that I gave the Guarda Frontera in Cayo Levisa my despacho. I kept insisting that he took it. The Guarda Frontera started out as a mean guy, but after a 1.5 hr wait, he turned into a joking pussy cat and gave us a new despacho. As it turns out, I learned that upon arrival in a new port, the Guarda Frontera takes your despacho, which you must retrieve before leaving that particular port.

The restaurant/bar at Cabo del San Antonio was closed, so no meals or drinks on shore.

Day 8 to Maria La Gorda.

We  left Cabo del San Antonio for  the resort at Maria La Gorda through Pasa Sorda and the Bahia de Corrientes. We covered the 40 NM in pretty sporty conditions, arriving at 3pm. We checked in with the Guarda Frontera there with our beautiful new despacho and had an on-shore meal and some beers. And oh, the food was as bad as at Cayo Levisa.  We dined with a nice German couple and we ordered Mahi Mahi, chicken, and pork. It was virtually impossible to tell the pounded-flat, gray meat on one plate from another despite the variety we ordered. The location was great though, and the snorkeling was spectacular. We’d definitely return.

Day 9  Maria la Gorda.

On day 9, we hung out at Maria la Gorda and caught up on some internet chores, snorkelled in the crystal clear waters, and prepared for our 75NM trip to Cayo Siju which would require a very early start to ensure a daytime arrival.

The Guarda Frontera check-out agent that I got was particularly unreasonable. ToMaria_la_Gordaget to Cayo Siju, a common next stop, requires a departure from Maria la Gorda (pictured right) that is not between 8am and 5pm, and by his responses I suspect he’s dealt with this issue many times before. At noon, I asked for my despacho (yeah I finally figured that part out) and he asked when I was leaving. I had planned on midnight, but by his tone, I sensed an issue so I quickly backed it up to 9pm. He said in English “this is not possible”. I was only allowed to leave Maria la Gorda between the business hours of 8am and 5pm. These times would bring me to the shallow waters of the Cayos de San Filipe either way too early, or way too late. I immediately replied that I’d leave at 4:45pm. We returned at 4:45 and checked out. He shook my hand, looked me square in the eye, and said in Spanish “you must leave now - not tonight”. I said OK no problem, and left immediately. I went 3 miles around Punta Caiman, which put us out of sight from the resort, and grabbed a Maria la Gorda dive site mooring ball (which is mentioned in the cruising guide as perfectly acceptable as long as you are willing to leave if it’s needed), made dinner, and crashed until 12:30am when we departed for Cayo Siju.  No problema.

Day 10 to Cayo Siju.

We got an early start on Day 10 to cover the 75NM to Cayo Siju in the Cayos de San Felipe via the Bajo de la Cucana (the sandbar that must be crossed to enter the Golfo de Batabano). We arrived at 2:15pm after 14 hrs (plus 45 min last night to run around Punta Caiman to hide from the Guarda Frontera).  Most of the Cayos de San Felipe is either nature preserve or a National park, and is quite beautiful.

Day 11 to Nueva Gerona.
We headed for Nueva Gerona on the Isla de la Juventud and covered the 45NM by 4pm.  We started off close hauled to avoid the shallower waters of the Bajo de la Cucana on the north side of the Cayos de San Felipe islands, before bearing off a bit and heading towards Nueva Gerona. This supposedly, is a quaint, beautiful old town, which can be used (if given permission by the Guarda Frontera) as the first re-provisioning stop when traveling West around Cuba from Havana. The Guarda Frontera agent in Maria la Gorda had called ahead to Nueva Gerona to alert them of my arrival in 2 days, so I felt relatively confident they’d let us in. If not, we had a spot to anchor near the mouth of the Las Casas river, which leads 1.5nms to the town, so we knew we were covered in any event. In the 300nms we had travelled since departing Havana, this was going to be the first grocery store we could visit. Unfortunately, the Guarda Frontera officer I hailed on the VHF gave me an immediate “No. This is not possible. The next place for despacho is Cayos Largo del Sur.  Do you understand?” That was a wasted shower. Oh well.

Day 12 to Cayo Campos.

It was  37nms to Cayo Campos via Pasa de Quitasol. We were able to sail close-hauled down to our destination, which is home to 500 Cuba_Cayo_Campos_Congrejo_MonkeysCangrejo monkeys (pictured left) who are cared for by park rangers Daniel, Juan Miguel, and  Roberto. These guys were awesome.
It’s amazing to see a hoard of monkeys, many carrying babies on their backs or stomachs, descend upon the beach for feeding time. While not tame, there is a fair amount of trust and many will eat right out of your hand. Our new friends cooked us a fantastically delicious meal of a huge red snapper and some lobsters on their little grill. The Ranger Station is a run-down old shack with no A/C in the most mosquito infested place we’ve visited yet. They work a schedule of 1 month on, 1 month off for $12CUP/month. We enjoyed their company so much, and although strictly forbidden, we invited them the 2 miles back to our boat. We gave them lots of stuff, shampoo, 3 lbs of coffee, some snacks, a bottle of white wine, which we drank with dinner, and a 100’ old halyard I had. This was probably our favourite stop in all of Cuba.

Day 13 to Cayo Largo del Sur.
This was to be out last stop. We fought a 1.25kt current all day, and travelled the 45nms via Canalizo Aguardiente and Pasa de Ballentos to arrive at 6:30pm. The entrance is straightforward, and we anchored outside, off Playa Sirena. Thank goodness. The mosquitos at the marina were even more ravenous than those at Cayo Campos. They had no menu and only 2 choices for dinner, chicken or lobster. We both ordered the chicken, which was 1/2 of a chicken with rice and coleslaw for $5 CUC.  I honestly don’t know if I’ve had better chicken anywhere in my life. It was so good we ordered it again the next day for lunch before departing.

Day 14 Cayo Largo del Sur.

On our last day, we brought the boat into to the marina area using the “new channel” (as opposed to the “old channel”) for fuel, lunch, and Guarda Frontera checkout. All went smoothly, and we departed for Grand Cayman around 2:30pm.

Overall, we enjoyed our 2 weeks in Cuba, with the highlights being Havana, Cayo Campos, and Cayo Largo del Sur. We are very glad we decided to come and see it for ourselves. We do wish however that we were allowed off the boat more to see more places and interact with more people. In our 14 days and 11 stops, we were only allowed to get off the boat  at 6 of them and where there were people, including Havana. As we’ve already done it, I think for us that with the $150CUC per person entry fee, we might skip it next time unless they open it up more, although we are not sure, and it’ll be a game time decision.

Cuba_Craig and Joanna_ Cruiser Report

Craig and Joanna Pollak
SY Rambunctious

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