Cuba was once a boater’s paradise and Cubans are eager to re-establish it as the ultimate destination for boaters and anglers.
Due to the trade and investment embargo that the US established against Cuba in 1962 the boating industry in Cuba has floundered and all its accompanying accommodations are in short supply.
The easing of restrictions by the Obama administration is creating high hopes and excitement, both among Cubans who will benefit economically from increased nautical tourism, and American boaters who are eager to have new territory to explore.
Change is occurring and even greater change is on the horizon.
The opportunities for fishing and boating are abundant in Cuba.
So if you see a boating or fishing trip to Cuba in your future read on for ten things you should know.
1-Cuba has a long boating history
Surrounded on all side by water it’s not surprising Cuba has a long and rich boating history. Before the days of communism recreational boating was very popular.
Founded in 1886 the Havana Yacht Club held sailing regattas every year. International rowing competitions were popular by 1910, and by 1924 powerboat groups had formed.
Four years later fishing began for blue marlin and by 1960 there were more than a hundred boating and fishing clubs.
But by 1961 Castro was in control and private society, and much of the recreational boating industry, came slowly to an end.
2-Until recently travel to Cuba has been heavily restricted
In 1958 Fidel Castro overthrew Dictator Fulgencio Batista and seized control of Cuba. He soon established communist rule, mostly to end US economic control of the island. At the time the US owned many of the largest companies and dominated industries in Cuba.
Cuba aligned itself with Russia and promoted communism around the world and denounced democracy. Several incidents further eroded relations between Cuba and the US, including the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, the US first authorized the embargo against Cuba in an effort to weaken Castro’s hold on the land and push for democratic reforms.
Part of the embargo was restrictions on US citizens travelling to Cuba.
They’ve been strengthened and weakened over the years but recently under Bush, travel to Cuba was completely prohibited without a Treasury license.
It was hoped that the strict economic sanctions and travel restrictions would impoverish Cuba and force Castro out. Fifty years later, the Castro family is still ruling Cuba. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother assumed power in 2008 after Fidel suffered from health issues.
Under Raul, conditions in Cuba have improved as he has sought to make social, economic and political reforms and open up the country to foreign investment.
3-A turning tide
December 2014 marked an historic turning of the tides. In his State of the Union address President Obama spoke of improving the lives of the Cuban people and creating opportunities for Americans by allowing travel and business to occur between the two countries.
Obama and Raul Castro are both moving toward loosening restrictions and lifting the embargo against Cuba, although that probably won’t happen until after the election in 2016.
It’s widely acknowledged that the embargo is an economic hindrance for both the US and Cuba and global superpowers disapprove of it. Worldwide the momentum to abolish the embargo has never been stronger.
4-A boating bonanza
Cuba is a future boating bonanza.
It’s estimated that between 60-80,000 US boats will visit Cuba the first year post-embargo.
That’s huge. American boaters are just drooling over the possibilities of what an open Cuba would offer.
Many of them have already repeatedly sailed the Caribbean and the Bahamas. They’re ready for something new. Meanwhile Cubans are eagerly anticipating the influx of American dollars. Cuban marina owners are visiting the states regularly to establish relationships with US boating clubs in order to promote Cuba as the next best destination for boating and fishing.
An open Cuba could spark huge growth in the charter market. While private yachts already travel to Cuba regularly charters don’t because of the travel restrictions on Americans. The charter market has been growing exponentially. A $300 million dollar market ten years ago it’s now a $1 billion dollar market. So far it has been growing organically and without a lot of marketing. Once Cuba is open, all of those charter customers are going to want to go. Plus, around 78% of people to buy or build a yacht have been previous charter customers.
Are you wondering what’s so special about Cuba? Keep reading to find out why boaters and anglers consider it nirvana.
5-What makes Cuba so Sexy
Location, location, location
Perhaps the most important quality that makes Cuba so highly desired by boaters and anglers is its proximity to the US. It’s just ninety miles south of Key West, which is only about a one day boat ride. Unlike other areas in the Caribbean it isn’t overcrowded with boats or tourists. Located at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and the 17th largest in the world. It has over 3,500 miles of shoreline, which includes 200 sheltered bays, over 4,000 keys and islets and over 365 miles of beautiful beaches, all just begging to be explored. It also has calm waters, averaging less than half a knot and not exceeding three knots, making Cuba ideal for boating.
When Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba in 1492 he said, “This is the most beautiful land one has ever seen.”
What was it that so impressed Columbus? Cuba is big and as a result benefits from a variety of stunning landscapes. Although most are flat with rolling plains, there are mountain ranges (Sierra Maestra and Sierra Cristal mountain ranges in the southeast), agricultural valleys, biosphere reserves and National Parks, and endless white sandy beaches. There are also rain forests, cliffs and waterfalls that magically drop off into the ocean.
The coastline is gorgeous and richly textured, and a mix of mangrove covered, rocky and mountainous, interrupted by creeks, rivers, marshes and lagoons. Both the coasts facing the Atlantic and the Caribbean oceans have fantastic coral reefs. One of the reefs is part of the largest reef in the world and originates in South America. The crystal clear waters are calm and pleasantly warm, typically between 75 to 85 degrees and averaging less than half a knot and not exceeding three knots, making it ideal for boating.
Like stepping back into the past, Cuba has remained unaffected by much of western culture and trends. Often referred to as a time capsule, or frozen in time, many of the cars are American models from the 50’s. Cuba has an eclectic mix of architecture that reflects its complex history. After Christopher Columbus’ arrival Cuba was under Spanish rule.
Many early settlers built homes that have a distinctly Spanish/Moorish influence. Built to take advantage of the mild climate, they were often constructed with big front porches, columns, patios, fountains and had mezzanine floors, that were use to accommodate slaves. Later baroque styles became popular. Cuban baroque, however, is less ornate version than classic European baroque.
Constructed between 1748 and 1787 Havana’s asymmetrical Catedral de San Cristóbal is perhaps the best of example of Cuban Baroque. In 1791, a slave uprising on Haiti caused many of the French men who lived there to flee and settle in Cuba where they left their mark architecturally as well.
They favored Neoclassical style structures, which was popular in France at the time. Many of these colonial homes remain today. Havana and Trinidad are famous for their colonial architectural richness.
Cuba doesn’t disappoint on the weather front either. With typically about 330 days of sunshine of year, it’s a great place for outdoor activities.
The temperature averages between 70 to 80 degrees, with the warmest month being August and the coldest, January.
The rainy season is from June through October with June being the wettest month overall. June through November marks hurricane season, with September and October having the highest risk. Cuba has about 20 cold fronts a year that last for a couple of days each. East-northeast winds prevail on the north coast, in the south east-southeast and southeast winds predominate. The wind speed varies between 8 to 12 knots.
Cuba’s biodiversity is the richest in the Caribbean, both on land and sea. Called the “Accidental Eden,” thousands of plants and animal species flourish here. A popular spot for ecotourism, it has some of the Caribbean’s most intact marine ecosystems.
It has many coral reefs that are healthy and thriving and inhabited by abundant populations of big fish that are not typically found elsewhere in the region. Seagrass beds, mangrove forests, marshes and lagoons teem with marine life. Species include: a variety of reef fish, sharks, dolphins, sea turtles and manatees.
Although it’s isolation may not have benefited the Cuban people, it’s definitely allowed the wildlife to thrive uninterrupted. Low population density and the US embargo has kept people away have and that has definitely benefited its wildlife.
6-Getting to Cuba now
As restrictions have eased people are flooding into Cuba. US travel to Cuba has increased seventy percent in the past year. Still, you can’t just jump on a plane or boat and go, yet.
If you want to travel to Cuba you must show that your trip is for one of the following purposes: family visits, official business of the US or another government, journalism or reporting, professional research or meetings, educational or religious activities, public performances such as workshops, sporting events, clinics or competitions, research trips funded by private foundations or educational institutes, exporting, importing or transmitting of informational materials, authorized export transactions, support for the Cuban people or humanitarian projects.
Although you don’t need to get a specific license, you do need to be able to prove that your trip is for one of these reasons.
You are not, however, required any longer to travel with a group. New rules have been established that allow people to people trips. Makes it a much more affordable option, since group tours generally start around $4,000 per person.
People to people trips are defined as educational programs that require a full time schedule of activities in order to produce “meaningful interaction” between the traveller and individuals in Cuba.
Travelers who take these trips must keep records of what they did while in Cuba for five years.
Commercial flights are not yet available, but will be soon. United has already filed paperwork to begin flying to Cuba from Newark, Houston, Washington, DC and Chicago. Flights will most likely begin later this year. Many other airlines are also jumping on the bandwagon. It’s estimated that in a couple of years over a dozen US cities will fly to Cuba. As for now you will need to fly charter.
It is possible to sail to Cuba from the states, as long as the purpose for your trip fits into one of the categories above. You are no longer required to get a special license, however you will need to get a permit from the coastguard to sail into Cuban waters. To get the permit go to www.uscg.mil/d7/docs/Cuban%20permitCG3300.pdf, use form CG-3300. Be sure to submit the form a few weeks before your trip so it arrives in time. You can stay in Cuba for fourteen days having come via boat.
Getting ready to sail to Cuba? Well you’ll need some where to land. Here is a list of authorized ports of entry for non-Cuban vessels are:
Marina Puerto Sol Darsena de Varadero
Marina Gaviota Varadero
Ciego de Avila (the “Cuban keys”):
Marina Gaviota Varadero
Base Nautica Gaviota de Naranjo
Base Nautica Marlin Boca de Sama
Santiago de Cuba:
Marina Marlin Punta Gorda
Marina Puertosol Jagua
Marina Puertosol, Cayo Largo
Pinar del Río:
Maria La Gorda Centro Internacional de Buceo Puertosol
Cruise ships are also starting to set sail for Cuba. Carnival won approval and will begin sailing between the US and Cuba this May. In order to fall under the US guidelines of people to people trips the cruises will have a different twist than you may be used to with educational, artistic, and humanitarian themes. Many more cruise lines are sure to follow.
Anglers are free to travel to Cuba to compete in any of the many fishing tournaments there. Smartly, boating and fishing enthusiasts in Cuba are organizing more and more tournaments, hoping to lure anglers and get them hooked on fishing in Cuba.
7-What to expect when you get there
Accommodations vary greatly in Cuba. You need to do your research and select your accommodations carefully.
There are five main hotels chains that run most of the hotels and they are government run. Identifying which of the five chains a hotel belongs to will give you a pretty good idea of the quality to expect.
Islazul (wislazul.cu) is a budget brand, and the buildings are often not well maintained and sometimes units come with broken, noisy or leaking fixtures and unappealing food.
Cubanacan (hotelescubanacan.com) is much better, and generally runs the mid-range options price wise. However, some of their hotels are excellent, for instance the Encanto brand establishments, which exceed some of the most expensive chains. Cubanacan also has the most new and recently renovated hotels.
The Gran Caribe (gran-caribe.com) and Gaviota (gaviota-grupo.com) run hotels that are often past their prime but are located in historic buildings or prime locations. Habaguanex hotels (habaguanexhotels.com) are only available in Havana and the best appointed of the state run options. Most of them are in the old town in carefully restored, historic colonial buildings.
The accommodations will continue to improve as tourism increases. Internationally hotel chains are eager to jump into the Cuban market. The Starwood chain recently announced a management contract with three of the top hotels in Havana. They plan on dumping millions in to get the hotels up to their standards.
Many marinas in Cuba are old and in disrepair. Boaters need to manage their expectations and come prepared with their own supplies. The money just hasn’t been there to provide proper upkeep. If your boat breaks down you can find mechanics but you’ll have to track down the parts.
But it won’t stay that much longer.
Cuba has been waiting for the influx of boaters for a while and in anticipation the government built the Gaviota Varadero Marina. With over one thousand slips the Marina Gaviota is now the most modern and largest marina in Cuba. The marina is accompanied by a five star hotel with nine restaurants. Plus, loads of opportunities for diving, sailing and fishing.
You can expect many new marinas will be built as more boats cross from the US to Cuba and demand grows.
If you’re heading to Cuba you will need to bring cash. Few places accept credit cards and there are very few ATMs. There are two currencies in Cuba, the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). Most foreigners will only use CUCs and when you exchange your dollars at the airport that is what you will be given.
The exchange rate is 1 CUC for 1 US dollar. However, there’s a 10% penalty when exchanging US dollars and a 3 percent exchange fee. So in reality your getting about 87 cents for each US dollar. If you have access to other foreign currencies, bring them instead and you will get a better exchange rate.
Until recently your cell phone was useless in Cuba but now a few US carriers are working with the ETECSA (the Cuban national telephone company) to provide roaming plans in Cuba. Sprint and Verizon currently offering roaming there. However, you will want to inquire about any additional charges for calls and texting during your trip.
8-What lies Ahead…
Clearly the opening of Cuba via the full lifting of the embargo will give boaters and anglers loads of new opportunities to enjoy their craft. Boaters who have grown bored of the Caribbean will cruise over in droves. Sailing trips to Cuba will be incredibly popular overnight.
Cuba will benefit greatly economically from the influx of American tourists. As the money pours in facilities will be improved (whether by the Cuban government or with foreign investment) and new marinas, hotels, resorts, etc. will be built.
The boating industry on a whole will see a boost as more people who are enticed by all that Cuba has to offer enter the market.
In Cuba the growth will only be slowed by the Cuban government. It maintains strict control and prohibits foreigners from buying property. Anyone who wants to invest in there has to deal directly with the government. Despite these restrictions development will come, but it will be strictly overseen and limited to certain regions. Happily, Cuba most likely will not become Americanized any time soon.
Cuba will need to be especially cautious with the potential increase in fishing. Many of its large fish populations have declined due to overfishing. Fishing has been one of the main staples of the economy (and diet) throughout the embargo and as a result overfishing has left many fish species depleted. Scientists estimate that over 40% of Cuba’s fish species are overfished. Fortunately, the Cuban government is aware of the problem and is taking measures to restore fish populations.
Cuba is known for its step back in time charm. As a result of development some of that may gradually disappear. On the flip side accommodations and amenities will improve making a trip to Cuba more enjoyable. The strictness of the Cuban government will hopefully insure that growth doesn’t run rampant and destroy all the qualities that make Cuba such a desirable destination.
At Eric’s Outboard we are very excited about what an open Cuba will mean for the boating and fishing industries on the whole.
Personally, we can’t wait to stock up and sail over to Cuba. However, with a scarcity of verifiable fishing boat repair shops on the island it’s imperative that you make sure your boat is fully serviced before you set sail.