Cuba: Our Check In ChaCha (US Citizens)

Tying up at the Customs dock at Marina Hemingway after sailing was a welcome change – looking forward to some sleep and a hot shower.  First we had to negotiate the check in cha cha. The process started at 10 AM and we finally untied the lines from the Customs/Immigration Dock at high noon. At least an hour of that time was waiting for the Dockmaster to assign us a slip and an approval for us to proceed into the marina.

After a great sail, tied to the Customs dock just before Marina Hemingway.

After a great sail, tied to the Customs dock just before Marina Hemingway.

Unfortunately for us (and the poor Dockmaster), a mega-yacht had checked in just before us. We found out later that evening that they were most difficult – every slip the Dockmaster offered was rejected and he finally told them he could make arrangements for them elsewhere and they accepted the very first slip offered. So RUDE.  But back to our check in cha cha…

Hello Cuba!

Hello Cuba!

Despite the fact that I speak basic Spanish (I can strongly recommend being MORE fluent in Spanish – my basics are pretty good, but rapid-fire changes everything!), everything happened so quickly in rapid-fire Spanish that we’re still not entirely sure who was what, and what happened, but basically….

  1.  Two very polite gentlemen came aboard as soon as our dock lines were tied off.  The Doctor welcomed us to Cuba and then asked to board the boat with another official – maybe Aduana/Customs or maybe Immigration, not entirely sure and the official didn’t speak much (if any) English.  The first gentleman took our Lista De Tripulantes and USCG Documentation.
  2. The Doctor looked at our head and trashcan – asked if we had any trash – no, we left it in the US.   He instructed us that a gentleman named Cecil would be around every morning and we were to give our trash to him once we were in the marina. (NOTE:  The Doctor would stop by our boat (and every boat on the dock) every day or two for the duration of our stay asking about the health of everyone aboard!)
  3. The Immigration official gave us 2 forms to fill out with our passports, and took another copy of the crew list. Note: I had our ages on our crew list, but not our birth dates – they wanted the birth dates too.
  4. The Doctor took our temperatures by pointing a thermometer at our foreheads. He spoke some English and his big concern (we found this to be almost universal) was how long we were staying – longer was better – and how soon we were coming back to his beautiful country — he told us we would love it in Cuba and would be back very soon!).
  5. The Doctor asked us about food – specifically about fruit and vegetables and fresh meat.  We told him what we had (no citrus, but some apples etc) and he didn’t ask any more questions.
  6. The official indicated that David was to leave the boat and go down the dock to Immigration/Customs.  David was a bit concerned because he speaks no Spanish beyond “cerveza fria” and “donde esta el bano”.  But all went well – he got his picture taken and after several minutes returned to the boat.
  7. Now it was my turn to go get my picture taken.  They still had our passports at this point and because I didn’t have on glasses in my passport photo, they made me take off my glasses and NO SMILING!

    Aduana took my baggie and packing taped up our Iridium satellite phone... hmmm...

    Aduana took my baggie and packing taped up our Iridium satellite phone… hmmm…

  8. The Aduana official returned to the boat one last time, returning our passports and asking for a satellite phone – we have an Iridium phone and I debated how to answer his direct question.  I finally told him yes, we had a satellite phone.  He requested I provide a gallon baggie, zipped the phone in the baggie and wrapped it with Aduana packing tape.  We left it wrapped up for the duration of our trip and no one ever checked or asked for it when we left.  We probably could have unpackaged and used it, but it was for the gulf stream crossing safety factor and not to chat with family and friends back in the US.  We had already sent texts on it letting  our float plan caretaker (you DO have a float plan caretaker, right?) & family know of our safe arrival before reaching the Customs Dock.
  9. There was a bit of a delay at this point because a boat tried to leave without checking out – lots of consternation and loud voices, but he was finally tied to the dock and his paperwork was mingled with ours – while we sat on our boat wondering if we had been forgotten, if they’d all go to lunch and leave us sitting right here and if we would ever be assigned a slip.
At our slip in Canal 1, Marina Hemingway.

At our slip in Canal 1, Marina Hemingway.

On the advice of an acquaintance, I requested a slip on the North Side of Canal 2, but they assigned us a slip in Canal 1, slip 126.  But as we were motoring up Canal 1, #126 had a boat already in place and further down the canal we could see an official in a marina “uniform” waving.  Thank goodness.  A few minutes later, we were safely tied to the dock beyond the break in the sidewalk/seawall and the marina “electrician” had us hooked up to a modern electrical pedestal and our polarity light lit up “OK”.

We had lunch, thinking we were done with the official Check In Cha Cha when two additional gentlemen showed up at the boat – they were “agricultural inspectors” – and they’re notorious for wanting bribes and money.  We had been warned (although we thought for some reason they skipped us, but it was not to be).  The two came aboard asking lots of questions – they wanted to see our canned goods – looking specifically at expiration dates.  I’m thinking if we had expired cans, they would have confiscated them.  They specifically asked about frozen meat and I told them “puerco” (pork) y “pescada congelado” (frozen fish).  I made no mention of the chicken breasts that were buried far down in the freezer, figuring if they pulled everything out, they looked just like the frozen pork chops in their individual baggies.  No one asked to see the freezer or the refrigerator – although other boats had their freezers and refrigerators inspected and frozen meat confiscated. I wasn’t about to give up our provisions for our own dinners.  They asked to see our veggies – potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, etc, but they were hanging in nets in the quarterberth in their original Publix net bags and nothing was said.  A couple forms were filled out, copies of which were left with us.

Low TIde, Canal 1, Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba

Low Tide, Canal 1, Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba

After all was done,  one of these “agriculture” officials very blatantly asked for US Dollars.  He informed us that their families were very poor and needed money from cruisers, not “stuff”.  We politely declined and gave them “snack bags” which we had assembled prior to checking in.  Each snack bag contained a can of tuna, prepackaged snack crackers, a baggie with eight Chips Ahoy cookies, and I threw in a can of chicken for each since he was so adamant that their families would be hungry that night.   As it turns out, this “official” is notorious for this type of behavior.

He was also very much the exception to the rule.  No other official acted like they expected or even hoped for anything.  We had cold Cokes and other “treats” but didn’t have an occasion (during the check-in process) to even distribute them.  Everyone was very  busy, official and businesslike.  The electrician was very busy and disappeared literally before we could give him anything.

Sunset in Canal 1, Marina Hemingway... need I say more?

Sunset in Canal 1, Marina Hemingway… need I say more?

For the balance of the afternoon, we walked a half mile up to the Dockmaster’s office assuming we needed to check in, but no one was there, we walked around the marina – which is a very large facility – orienting ourselves, took a nap, talked to other cruisers, took nice hot showers and enjoyed dinner in the cockpit with our ocean view.  There are things less than ideal about Canal 1, but the view is not one of them!

View of waves crashing across from Canal 1.

View of waves crashing across from Canal 1.

After dinner, to our surprise, the electrician returned in his golf cart.  Keep in mind, this was about 8 PM.   He indicated we needed to come to the Dockmaster’s Office to get checked in … well, alrighty then!  🙂  It was a very pleasant and painless process – the Dockmaster apologized for the late hour and the wait, told us about his all day saga with the mega-yacht (he was less than impressed!), then explained about the fees (at the time, March 2, 2016 – $25 CUC per person and $55 CUC for our cruising permit for 30 days as US Citizens) and .50 per foot plus electricity and water.  You pay when you check out of the marina, so make sure you have adequate funds!  US credit cards do NOT work yet (as of March 27, 2016), although everyone is hoping they will work soon – I wouldn’t hold my breath, I’d take LOTS of cash.   Even if US Credit cards DO work, it may be that the machine isn’t working that day – our experience is it’s not worth the hassle trying to use a credit card in a 3rd world country.

Fees have increased since then – check before you go since you have to come up with the money before you leave and several boats with multiple people aboard were surprised with the $75 CUC per person immigration fee which began March 3 (we checked in March 2 and thus were grandfathered with the $25 per person fee).

Oh yes, the cars. David was in heaven and took several hundred photos of the same cars ... more to come...

Oh yes, the cars. David was in heaven and took several hundred photos of the same cars … more to come…

The Dockmaster told us the marina fees were increasing April 1, 2016 to be .70 per foot — just in time for some big regatta, imagine that.  I have no idea what they’ll be when you arrive.  Electricity was .35 – a bit on the high side, but for our boat for just under a month, the final bill was $28 CUC electricity and $6 CUC for water (.06/gallon).  We opted not to use their water except for a quick rinse off of the salt from the crossing.

More on Marina Hemingway itself in the next post!   Bienvenidos a CUBA!!!


  1. So envious! But delighted you could go and share the tale with – thank you!

  2. Hi Jan,

    What an adventure! Are the fees you mention in US dollars? (What are “CUC”?). You advise bringing lots of cash – how much, more or less, for a 2-3 week cruise to Cuba would you recommend?

    • Hi John! Post to come on the currency dilemma, but in a nutshell, the US Dollar is penalized, for $100 US dollars you get $87 CUC. For $100 Canadian dollars, you get whatever the exchange rate is at the time – it varied during our stay from $67 – $71 CUC for $100 CA. If you work out the math, because of currency fluctuation, CA & US came out just about the same for us. Euro also has the exchange rate issue. On the black market (easy to find), you get $90-$95 CUC for $100 US dollars (they prefer $100 US denominations). The only place to exchange Canadian or Euros is at a bank or some large hotels (but their exchange rates stink!). Banks can mean waiting a LONG time. Watch upcoming posts for more clarifications. 🙂 It’s confusing, and gets more confusing when you add in the Cuban National Peso – beware that they call both the “Peso” – but a CUC Peso is $1 CUC and a National Peso has 24 pesos to $1 CUC. We exchanged and used both. Cheers! Jan

      • Trying to come up with a budget on cash to take to Cuba — take WAY more than you think you might need. At .70/ft. our 37′ boat would have been roughly $26/day. So for a week, it would have been $182 CUC, NOT US Dollars. $75 CUC per person for immigration for 30 days or less and $55 CUC for the boat. Assuming 2 people plus the boat, that’s $205 CUC for 2-3 week stay. Then add in what you want to do. A day bus tour to Vinales on Gaviota cost the two of us $118 CUC, plus tips etc. Taking a old car taxi to Old Havana each way will run $20 CUC unless you go out to the bus stop and take a collectivo, taxi rutero bus or local bus. So if you went into town every day and paid for the privado taxi, you’d be spending $40 CUC a day on transportation (there are MUCH MUCH less expensive ways to accomplish this, I’ll detail them in a future CommuterCruiser post, but lots of boaters did the private taxi each way thing). Dinner at a paladare that’s not a “real” paladore but a cross between a private house and a restaurant, meals went from between $8-$12. Drinks were usually $1.50-$2.50 beer and $2-$4 mojito or glass of wine. Our tour to the Cienfuegos and Trinidad was going to be $258 CUC for 2 days. Taking a bus to the south coast and staying in casa particulares will run you $25 per person each way plus $15-$30 for a casa particulares. Hopefully this is helpful, we took WAY more cash than we thought we could ever spend and found ourselves watching our CUC’s. Don’t forget CUC’s and US Dollars are not an even exchange – for one week’s marina fees plus immigration and boat permit, it will be just under $400 CUC (at April 2016 prices) — which at $87 CUC per US $100 is about $476 US Dollars. Cheers! Jan

        • So… ONE WEEK DOCKAGE IS 182 CUC… EQUAL US $ 209.30 !

          Since there are 87 CUC per US $100…. CUC IS EQUAL TO US $ 1.15…..

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