Feb. 2, 2018: Clearing In to Cuba

As we came alongside the Customs and Immigration dock in Varadero, there were dockhands waiting to help us with our lines.  Within minutes, we were boarded by the first official, a doctor.  I groaned inside—I hadn’t had an opportunity to straighten up below decks, and the mess from a rough crossing was not quite the first impression that I was trying to make.


The breakwater and lighthouse-esque marker at the entrance to the port.

The doctor removed her shoes, asked if she could board, came below, and asked for our Coast Guard Certificate of Documentation.  She spent several minutes filling out forms relating to our vessel’s and our identifiers.  Near the end of her form-filling, she asked the Captain and I if we were feeling sick or if we had been feeling feverish or ill a few days prior.  We assured her that we hadn’t, and that was that.  No examination of us or the boat was undertaken.  There was no mention of the mandatory health insurance coverage, although I was ready to provide our Divers Alert Network membership cards and Cuba coverage page.

The doctor left and was replaced by the primary Customs official.  She too removed her shoes, asked to board, and came below.  Her English was quite good (much better than my Spanish), and she too filled out many forms based off of our Certificate of Documentation and our passports.  She scrutinized our passports, seriously compared our passport photos to our faces, and digitally photographed our passports.

She asked us about fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products that we had on board as well as how much diesel we were carrying.  The Customs official, along with the doctor, both reiterated a number of times that trash containing food could not be brought ashore.  What food we brought—whether canned, fresh, or frozen—seemed to be one of the most important issues to every official that interviewed us. She went through a long checklist of items to determine whether we had the items on board and if so, how many.  As we responded “yes” to various electronics (VHF, SSB radio, satellite phone, GPS devices), we pointed them out, and she took digital photos of them.  She specifically asked about weapons and narcotics—we don’t have any on board, but what idiot would bring them from the US?

It is not permitted to use satellite phones on land, away from our boat, and she regretfully explained she would have to seal our sat phone in a bag.  We could keep it on board, but the seal had to remain unbroken until we left Cuban waters.  We were prepared for this eventuality and had no problem with it.  All of our other communications devices were fine.


Our sat phone, sealed in a ziploc and taped by Customs.

Separately, the Captain and I were escorted off the boat to a modern building where we had our photos taken.  The Customs official assumed that we didn’t want our passports stamped and was incredulous when we said that no, we wanted that stamp.  We have permission to be here, and by god, we wanted that stamp.  Apparently that isn’t a common sentiment.

Once we had been returned to the boat, we had two officials from the veterinary and vegetable inspection ministries come aboard.  They were interested in seeing fresh meat products and fresh dairy products.  I showed them what we had in the fridge, and they were satisfied.  They too filled out forms and gave us a copy.

At the end of the check in process, we had stamped passports, visas, a Certificado de Despacho Internacional (arrival document), a Lista de Tripulantes (crew list), a Ministerio de la Agricultura Instituto de Medicina Veterinaria Advertencia (warning about meat and dairy), and a document from the Ministerio de la Agricultura Direccion General de Sanidad Vegetal Exterior (vegetable quarantine regulations).  The whole process took about an hour.

Coming from the United States to a country with which we’ve had such a fraught relationship, we didn’t know what to expect.  This was our first international trip in the boat, and while we had an idea of the steps that would be taken to clear in, we had no idea what tone the exchange would take.  I won’t say we were worried, but we were unsure.

The entire clearing in process was respectful, friendly, and non-confrontational.  Everyone treated us with gestures of respect, from small (asking to board and taking off their shoes) to large (making efforts to speak English and explain when we were confused).  They spent the time and effort to make us fully informed about what was expected of us so that we could follow their rules, which is really all you can ask.  I know we can’t expect that kind of treatment in every country we visit, but a girl can hope.


The water here is gorgeous.

The Captain will do his share of hoping that Cuban Customs officials will wear off on other countries as well.  The female Customs officials with which we’ve dealt on this trip have been young and buxom.  Their department-issued uniform consists of a too-tight button down shirt, a micro-mini skirt, fishnet stockings, and high heels.  I’ve never seen the Captain so eager to deal with administration (which is normally my job) as when we arrived here.


Once we cleared in, we hoisted our Cuba courtesy flag.