Author: Sailing Florida Charters
The following insights are all based on the first trip to Havana, Cuba. We were docked at the Hemingway Marina, which is nine miles west of Havana. Do not attempt to enter Havana harbor and it’s vital that you enter the channel during the day as there are two reefs that hug the 60 foot channel. The channel makes a 90 degree angle left where the customs dock is located. Landmarks are a large hotel block and a distinctive water tower east of the marina. You must clear in at the Guarda (customs) dock before entering the marina.
Though on paper the exchange rate is 1 USD to 1 CUC, in reality the government imposes a penalty tax of 10% upon the US Dollar followed by a 3% transaction charge, therefore the exchange rate is .87 USD to 1 CUC. Remember, Cuba doesn’t accept American credit cards, so all deals are made in cash.
At the marina, the closest place to exchange USD to CUC is the hotel that’s located there. You need your passport to exchange! If you don’t have it, you cannot do it.
You need low bills in Cuba—I can’t stress this enough. I would ask the front desk lady at the hotel if she can break a 20 CUC down to a 10 and two 5s, if possible. Cubans don’t like divvying out change. If your bill is only 2 CUC and you only have a 10 CUC bill, they will not accept the 10 (unless you’re willing to buy more/give them the remaining change). Collect those coins and low bills!
Side note: If you use a restroom at a place, be prepared for someone standing/sitting next to the door with toilet paper. These people actually clean the restroom as well, and so they expect a few coins their way after you’re done.
Cuba is extraordinarily affordable. The average price for a sandwich/meal is about 3.50-6 CUC in Habana Vieja. The restaurant at the marina (La Cova) is Italian and pricey compared to the food you can get in town. Like anywhere, however, there are places that have “traditional” American pricing of 10-14 CUCs for a meal, but those are typically higher-end establishments or fresh seafood and lobster dishes. Regardless, the eating and drinking in Cuba is cheap! There really isn’t a need to do a lot of provisioning. The average price associated with a Cuban beer (Cristal/Bucanero) ranges between 1.25 CUC to 2.00 CUC—never pay more than 2.00 CUC. A fresh mojito and other alcoholic drinks are between the ranges of 3.00-4.50 CUC.
The Marina is located about 12 miles west of the historic area in Habana. With that being said, it is quite a hike for a taxi driver to go there. Do not pay more than 20.00 CUC to get there or back to the marina. The main tourist area is Habana Vieja, and from there you can walk to the start of Centro Habana (where the Capitolio is) easily as they are next to each other.
Outside of dining and hospitality, taxis and buying gifts are all negotiable. The more Spanish you know, the better of a deal you will get as you’re able to communicate—pretty obvious. From the marina, if you take a maquina (a classic, rundown American car), the price will be about 20 CUC to get to the historic center—Habana Vieja. Take note, there’s a 5 person limit per taxi.
I would suggest getting a taxi by the Capitolio or outside of the historic center for a better price. Don’t be afraid to walk away if it’s too high; they will most likely lower their offer. Regardless, 20 CUC is the maximum amount you will pay to get back to the marina in a maquina. There are traditional taxis as well, but the best price is using the maquina. All deals are made in cash and don’t be afraid to negotiate!
Cubans will try to hustle you to buy their gifts and go to their restaurants. Remember, all deals are in cash and negotiating is key. The closer you are to a key touristic sight, the more expensive those little travel gifts become. Personally, I suggest walking down a random street in Habana Vieja and buying gifts from a merchant there for a better deal. The Cubans on the grind will hassle you a bit if you acknowledge them. They will follow you a good 40 feet trying to convince you to buy their cigars, go to their restaurant, or visit their store. Some Cubans will take USD as payment for products, but they will charge more. Remember, they have to pay the same 13% tax from USD to CUC as well, so you can understand the price hike. Stick with using CUC and you’ll be good to go.
Do not take anything at face value. We had the experience of a gentleman dressed nicely in front of a higher-end restaurant tell us that the wait is over an hour, however, there’s a similar place around the corner that he will take you to. The reason? He works for that “similar” place and he’s trying to steal clients away from that one restaurant. Check-in with an actual worker at the establishment for wait times.
When you’re walking down the street many a man will offer you cigars. They will claim that these are the Cohiba cigars that cost 250.00 CUC at the store, and you can have them for only 50.00 CUC! Personally, I cannot vouch if these are legitimate Cohiba cigars, so keep that in mind. The dealer will take you inside their home and will do the transaction there. Obviously there are safety concerns with this and I advise going as a group if you do wish to have a black-market experience.
At the marina there was a young guy with a cheap 2-way radio asking if we needed to exchange any money. He was a fraud as the real security guards informed us the next day, but also because who does currency exchange at 9 PM. Only exchange money at the hotel! Also, don’t pay anyone to throw away your trash. There is an elder gentleman that will do it and he works for the marina—I always tipped him some change or a dollar the first 2 times until I learned the trash can was nearby our “slip” and I just did it myself. A security guard just waited around the boat often the last day trying to get us to buy cigars after I repeatedly told him that none of us wanted any. We always locked the hatches and lazarettes and you should too! Make sure every single hatch is locked with the red toggle on the hatch arms.
The marina is a hotbed for activity due to the elder North American and European sailors who hire these ladies of the night. The marina is secure and is, more or less, gated. This, however, does not negate the fact that in the evening there are prostitutes. They may walk along the canal by the boats, but for the most part, they stay around the main street where the restaurant La Cova is. Nevertheless, some nights La Cova becomes a nightclub of sorts and the ladies congregate along the main road and by the restaurant.
Please, do not judge Cuba by what happens at the marina. It is not, by any means, indicative of the country as a whole. The captain and I walked through real Habana streets without our clients to experience the true Habana and observe everyday life for ordinary Cubans. While there, we never got hassled, threatened, and we felt safe. There’s a heavy police force throughout the city; particularly among the main roads.
The state mandates that rum is sold at the same price everywhere in the country except at bars, where they are more expensive for a bottle. Just buy rum at the marina store (which also has cigars and there’s even a market there) and reduce the hassle of lugging that around all day. If you are looking for a rum experience, then go to Museo del Ron Havana Club in Habana Vieja
There’s a 3 day minimum for renting a car. I do not advise driving in Habana—it can be overwhelming and parking is slim to none. Also, the laws for tourist in accidents are quite steep and can even involve jail time. Jose, one of the dockmasters, called a marina worker, Walter, and was our personal driver for the day and drove over an hour out west for 120 CUC (20 CUC per person for us). I highly recommend using Walker as it is reduces the liability or renting a car and also he knows his way around Cuba—just make sure he gets back to the marina by 7 PM.
Unless you have Verizon, you will not have cell service in Cuba. Verizon will charge you $2.50 per minute if you make a call. Otherwise, there is an internet café at the hotel where you will exchange money. The internet café is comprised of only two, albeit slow, PCs. To use them, however, you will need to go to the front desk and buy an internet card for 2 CUC. Important to note, the card only lasts for an hour. You can keep the card to refill if you wish to use again or if you end your time short, you can keep the card and access the remainder of your time later.
You pay the dockmaster for the visas, utilities, and slip fees the day you leave. Make sure you have the CUC ready and tip 15% to the dockmaster and marina crew. The dockmaster will also report your departure to the Cuban customs and they will tell you when they’ll anticipate your arrival. You will dock up, and two people at a time will go in and get their passports scanned/pic taken (the same thing happens when you arrive). They will take back the tourist card they give you when you arrived there originally. We had to ask to get our passports stamped when we arrived. Thankfully our client spoke Spanish and asked politely if that was possible. The guard was actually surprised that we wanted a stamp in our passport and not just the tourist card. Remember, the guards don’t take tips and they didn’t even want bottled water we offered them. It’s best just to let them be and don’t take photos of them.
Cubans monitor channels 77 and 16, though we found the former to be used more. You can hail them on both if you wish when you’re nearby. Do not forget to fly the yellow quarantine flag along with the Cuban flag on the starboard side prior to your arrival. In advance, write down all the passengers’ names, passport numbers, date of birth, and expiration dates. Cuban customs need this and so does ours when you return. As you go through the channel you will make a sharp left and the first building on your left is the customs. Once you are docked, one officer will come on board to look through the vessel and there will also be a doctor/agriculture officer who needs to see all of your provisions, vitamins, and medications. Have all passports ready as they will need them and so will you as you will fill out two documents while there. One document is for the tourist visa card and the other is the typical customs card regarding your belongings and their value. Once that is finished and you are no longer quarantined.
After you clear customs and remove the yellow flag, motor forward to where you see the diesel fill station for the marina. Call the marina and await instruction regarding where you will be birthed. The dockmaster will come on board and the captain of the ship will fill out some information.
You have to notify the US Coast Guard 24 hours in advance of your departure (use the computers at the hotel). Once you’re close to Key West again, call the USCG on channel 16 informing that that you have arrived from Cuba and are awaiting instructions. The USCG just told us to call customs and customs told us to call them when we moored/docked the boat. I called them and had to give the customs border sticker number on the boat, tell them that our OFAC license was exempt, the boat registration number, and had to give them the first and last names, date of birth, expiration date, and national original of all persons on the vessel. They didn’t board the boat (maybe we got lucky since we literally came in when a Dutch cruise ship came in) and told us that we have 24 hours to check into customs and they gave us an arrival number. The customs office in Key West is at the Key West International Airport. The cost of a taxi there is $9.00 per person just to get there. You will need all the boat docs, the USCG permit for Cuba, arrival number, plus passports. NOTE: You are only allowed 100 USD of cigars and/or rum and only $400.00 in the total value of gifts/items. Boarding and inspecting the vessel is up to the Coast Guard and Customs; you may get boarded or you may not.