Saturday, January 25, 2014

Entering Cuba

Posted by Scot.  Written Jan. 6, 2014.

Motoring in to the Marina Gaviota at Peurto de Vita on the north coast of Cuba was a huge relief after our night crossing from the Bahamas.  The long entrance channel was well marked, and mostly easy to follow.  The land around was all green fields and rolling hills.  Even though it sounds kind of corny, the best word I can think of to describe it is “pastoral”.

The green hills of Cuba.
As we motored up to the marina, there was a man waiting patiently on the dock to help us in, even though it was still before 7:30 a.m.  We had read that we might have to dock “stern-to”, which we have never done before.  Sure enough, as we approached the dock we could see a line of mooring balls sitting about 70 feet out.  The other boats in the marina were docked with a bow line tied to the mooring balls, and their back ends pulled up to the dock.  True to form, it turns out we are the only cruising boat in the marina.  The other boats are all used by local charter companies to take guests from the nearby all-inclusive hotels out on fishing excursions or sunset catamaran cruises.

Marina employees getting one of the charter cats ready to take out some tourists from a nearby all-inclusive resort.
This fleet of two person 1960's era runabouts was taken out daily by guests from the nearby resorts.
It took a bit of doing to organize tying on to the mooring ball, and figuring out the appropriate length of line to let us back up to the dock.  The kids were still asleep, so Sara ended up running back and forth figuring out the lines while I held the boat steady and backed us in slowly.  Eventually we had a line tied on to both the back and the front.  It wasn’t pretty, but we made it work, and the marina staffer waited patiently for us to be close enough to toss him a stern line.

Monashee, successfully docked stern-to.  Eventually, we had to take the dinghy off when the tide fell, to keep it from bumping on the dock.
We had read and heard a lot about the entry procedure into Cuba.  We were prepared for a long morning of officials visiting our boat, and possible inspections and boat searches of all our belongings.  After a long night passage with little sleep, pretty much the last way you want to spend your day is with government officials filling out forms, but we were determined to do what needed to be done, and respect the Cuban rules with a smile on our faces.

As soon as we tied our stern on, there was a young official waiting at the back of the boat, asking for our passports (in pretty good English).  We handed them to him, and he disappeared up the dock with them.  As I went about the business of sorting out the rest of our lines, and tying a second line to the mooring ball, a doctor came on board and started asking Sara questions about our health.  We filled out forms indicating none of us were sick or carrying any communicable diseases, and signed them, then he was off.

Shortly after that, the first official, who turned out to be the harbour master, came back with our passports and paperwork for our immigration and visas.  He came back on board, and gave us forms to fill out for customs, declaring everything we were bringing into the country, including cash, electronics, weapons etc.  While we were working on his forms, another young official came on board and asked to look in our fridge.  Sara showed him the contents of both our fridge and freezer.  He didn’t confiscate anything, but told us we needed to consume our food on board, and couldn’t take anything ashore.

Once the harbour master was done with our paperwork, he told us he needed to inspect the boat.  I had read about drug sniffing dogs coming on to other boats, and I asked him if he would be bringing any aboard.  He told me he did have dogs, but assured me that they would not be necessary for our boat.  The inspection took about 2 minutes, and consisted of him stepping down into our port hull, and looking to the left and right.

The line hanging down in the middle of the picture was rigged to allow us to swing back and forth onto the dock.  We also stepped on the crossed stern lines to get ashore.  Not the easiest arrangement, but it worked.
After all the paperwork was done, we went up to the marina office and met the extremely pleasant young woman who runs the place.  Her English was very good, and she seemed to have nothing but time to spend with us to get us all sorted out and checked in.  All the fees for not only the marina, but immigration and visas were to be paid to her.  She printed up our marina contract on her dot matrix printer in her office.  She was very helpful in terms of answering our questions about Cuba, and seemed to relish the role of acting as a sort of travel agent for us, assuring us she could help us arrange taxis, get our laundry done, arrange local accommodation for land travel, etc. 

While we were in her office, the customs official came by, and asked us a few questions about what we had on the boat.  He was mostly interested in our electronics, asking about VHF, cameras, satellite phone, computers and cell phones.  He told us, very politely, that we would not be allowed to bring our sat phone, handheld GPS or VHF radios ashore, but all our other electronics were OK.  He also told us that if we were travelling on land, it was OK to take a small bag or suitcase to travel with, but any big items would have to be checked out by customs.

Later that morning, the last official came by our boat.  It was a man from the agriculture office.  He didn’t even come aboard.  He just gave me a form to sign that declared that we wouldn’t be bringing agricultural materials into Cuba.  It is written in pretty funny Spanglish, but the intent is more or less clear.  I signed it, he gave me a copy, and that was it.

In all, the whole process was extremely pleasant and efficient.  Everyone was polite and professional, and given that they came to the boat instead of making us track them down at their offices, things were easy for us.  In fact, relative to checking in to the Bahamas, it was far more comfortable, and less officious.  To top it all off, the total cost was $66.00 USD for all the entry fees, including customs fees and cruising permit.  We needed to pay that at the time of entry, and since they would only accept USD or CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), we paid in USD, since we hadn’t had a chance to change money yet.

The calm waters of Marina Gaviota in Puerto de Vita.
The next day (Sunday), after we took a taxi to a hotel and changed money, we also paid $15.00 CUC per person for travel Visas.  In recognition of their contribution to the tourist economy of Cuba, Canadians get 90 days automatically, compared to the 30 days for all other nationalities.  The marina fee for docking the boat is $29.25 CUC per night, which includes potable fresh water and electricity.

When you compare that to the $300.00 it cost to get in to the Bahamas, and the average $75.00 to $150.00 USD per night for marinas we saw there (usually paying extra for water or electricity), Cuba is looking like a pretty good deal for cruisers!

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