PROBLEMS IN PARADISE
As an American vessel in Cuba we never felt the freedom that we get in The Bahamas. There was always a sense of caution in our movements. After all we had been required by the U.S. government to document our daily activities to fulfill our purpose for travel to Cuba. And we understood that we were potentially always under observation by the Cuban government as well.
Foreign vessels must check in and check out with the Guarda Frontera at each port. You could think of the Guarda Frontera as a cross between the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security. But in some ports, the Guarda has no boat. One time we had to dinghy to the beach, pick up the Guarda and bring him back out to our boat to inspect the vessel and check our paperwork. Sipping a cold Coke at the cockpit table, he asked us a few questions, checked our passports, and looked at the customs and agricultural papers from Havana. And then he took our precious “despacho” (the cruising record that we needed to get stamped both coming in and departing from each port) to hold until we checked out.
The greatest difficulty with cruising in Cuba might be finding out what exactly the rules and regulations are. We got conflicting information, sometimes from the same official. When we first asked if we could get a fishing permit, we were told by the Guarda that there are no permits. But then he said that there would be no problem if we were just fishing for food. Another time we told a Guarda our next destination would be Jardines de la Reina. He grinned and said, “You’ll love it!” Then the next morning he apologetically told us we would not be allowed to go there at all.
The day we departed from Cuba to return to the U.S., President Trump announced his intention to tighten restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. Today you would not be able to lawfully make the same trip we did. Six marinas around the country are now off limits, as are quite a few hotels and resorts and even some retail stores that might affect your provisioning. Search for “Cuba Restricted List” to find the complete official list of restricted entities, or better yet, enlist a knowledgeable travel agent for advice in planning your itinerary.
During our cruise, Blue Pearl certainly did stand out in a big way, and not just because we flew the U.S. flag. For 50 days straight we didn’t see another motoryacht. While we stayed comfortable on our Fleming, our interactions with fishermen who work from tiny boats that suffer from a lack of available parts for maintenance and repair and seem barely able to stay afloat—brings home the reality of life for ordinary Cubans.
If The Bahamas offers beautiful cruising with the comfort of the familiar, Cuba beckons with the lure of an exuberant culture and an unpredictable adventure. Visiting on a U.S.-flagged vessel requires a precarious balance between the bureaucracies of two adversarial governments. And yet we loved our time in Cuba as one of the most exceptional experiences of our lives. The Cubans we met were surely the warmest people we’ve met anywhere. On our last night a tipsy fellow improvised a song for us at the top of his lungs: “Don and Denise came to La Punta to drink a couple mojitos, and my heart warms with emotion for these two Americans, for when they come to La Punta, then we are all brothers.”