Ducking out of the pouring rain in Trinidad, Cuba, we ran smack into a thin man with a few missing teeth and a woven basket. He made room for us under the shelter and started suggesting in Spanish that we buy some food or beer from the bar upstairs. When we politely declined, he pulled a rooster out of his basket and posed for pictures. Our conversation was a mixture of pantomime and Spanglish when he suddenly and inexplicably broke into mangled Czech. I’m Czech. And the next thing I knew, I was having a conversation in Czech with a Cuban and translating into English for my friend.
These are the kinds of things that happen in Cuba, and if you’re a fan of all things random, quirky and unexpected, you’ll do well in this beautiful part of the world. That said, it’s best to manage expectations in order to have a good charter here, so keep a few things in mind.
First and foremost, make time for shore-side activities. The cruising is nice, the beaches (like Playa Sirena on Cayo Largo) are spectacular, and the sunsets set the sky ablaze. But the real reason to go is to meet Cubans, drink Mojitos, see Havana and appreciate all the country has to offer. Unlike other more established cruising spots, beach bars are few and far between, and the cruising infrastructure is minimal, so be sure to make time before or after your trip to experience the culture and history. Take three or four days, for example, to explore Havana and perhaps organize an excursion to Vinales. Similarly, the Dream Yachts charter base (dreamyachtcharter.com) is in Cienfuegos, a lovely seaside town that’s worth a day of exploration on foot in and of itself. And by all means, don’t miss Trinidad, an hour’s drive east. Founded in 1514, this town is all cobblestone streets and colorful restaurants, making it a must-see before or after going sailing.
Beyond that, don’t expect the provisioning to resemble that in other parts of the Caribbean. Whether it’s poor planning or a sketchy distribution systems, all things are not available in all cities in Cuba. The voluminous produce we had in Havana, for example, was nowhere to be seen anyplace else. Neither were snacks. You should, therefore, be sure to bring stuff like potato chips, trail mix, cookies, crackers, chocolate and spices with you from home. Once you’ve eaten everything you brought, you can then fill your now-empty bags with souvenirs, which are cheap and plentiful.
An exception to this general scarcity is seafood: do expect to trade with local fisherman. These guys are friendly, accommodating (they’ll even filet and clean the catch for you) and will be happy to bring you lobster and fish if you wave them down. Most won’t take money as they’re not allowed to. Instead, buy plenty of cheap Havana Club rum, the preferred currency. If you have more provisions than you need, also consider donating them at the end of your charter. Without these guys’ supply of fresh seafood, we’d have been eating a lot of pasta, so we were happy to share our sugar, flour and rice.
Something else to be sure and do before casting off lines is check your boat thoroughly during the technical briefing. Don’t leave the base if you feel anything is amiss. Unless you’re MacGyver, Cuba’s version of “it’s OK” means you may need to get really hands-on once out in the islands.
Similarly, be careful about charts and markers. Although we had an excellent chartplotter on our Lagoon 39, the charts are sparse and details like coral heads and wrecks (only five feet below the surface) weren’t shown. Marks can also be off, so don’t cut corners on reefs. If you have access to charting software (like Navionics) on a tablet or phone and can access it (without cell service or Wi-Fi), bring it.
By contrast, bringing in handheld VHF radios is a whole different story and may require a lot of paperwork. My VHF was identified as a “walkie-talkie,” and officials demanded to see “the other one,” as they called it. VHFs aren’t common and may be confiscated: same thing with GPS devices like SPOT or Bad Elf.
Another good thing to do in advance is pack a Ziploc baggie with street-survival essentials to carry around town. You’ll want some toilet paper, bug spray, hand sanitizer and small currency (1 or 3 CUC notes and coins) for tipping. A CUC will get you into a restroom, but will not get you much (if any) toilet paper, and there’s almost never any soap.
When it comes to internet and cell service, don’t expect a lot of connectivity. Wi-Fi is a luxury, and the way to get it is to buy an hour’s worth on a card with a code. Groups of people on a street all staring at their cellphones is a sure sign there’s a hotspot nearby. Run over and use your card, but don’t expect to have much service overall.
Finally, be aware that Cubans love Americans and will bend over backward to help if you’re courteous. Ask if you can take their picture (nobody declined—even the police and Guarda), ask their name, tell them yours, smile even if you have no idea what they’re saying and you’ll have an adventure. Heck, you may even find yourself in a remote Cuban village speaking a whole other language to a guy with a chicken.
Photos by Zuzana Prochazka