Varadero to Marina Hemingway, Cuba

When we departed Cayo Blanco, we had to check out with the Guarda Frontiera in Varadero and obtain our cruising permit (Permiso Especial de Navegación Para Embarcaciones de Recreo Extranjeras).  The cruising permit is different from the Despacho; it is presented to Customs officials at entry at and departure from each Cuban port and lists the entry port, entry date and time, prior port, and number of crew.  Presumably in this way a boat’s—and crew’s—progress can be tracked.  Checking out at Varadero took very little time, and the Customs officials were just as friendly and helpful as when we initially checked in.

We headed offshore from Varadero at about 4 PM; we wanted to exit the channel in daylight as many of the marks had been damaged by last year’s hurricanes and were off station.  The winds were in the low teens and were on our stern when we departed and dropped all night; the seas were practically glass when we reached Marina Hemingway.  The only stressful element of the trip were the poorly lit (or completely unlit) fishing vessels and endless longline markers littering the way.  The markers were lit, but there were so many of them that dodging them was still a job and a half.  It was a 91.3 nm trip that took 19 ½ hours.


Here’s one of the little bastard floats we dodged all night.  It’s essentially a PVC cross with a stick poking up with a light on it.  We saw entire galaxies of these things.

The entrance channel to Marina Hemingway is narrow and has a reef on both sides; it also has a strong cross current and is considered difficult to navigate.  As we approached the marina, we hailed the dockmaster on the radio in English.  He responded in English (thank goodness) with clear and concise directions on how to navigate the channel and where to check in with the Guarda Frontiera.  We pulled into the Customs dock outside of Marina Hemingway at 11:20 AM and had another cursory inspection.  The Customs official (surprise, another attractive young lady in micro-mini and fishnets) looked over our paperwork, filled out some more paperwork, and checked that our satellite phone was still sealed.  One thing that is apparent is that Cuban officials love paperwork.  Once vetted, we proceeded to our assigned slip.

Marina Hemingway is comprised of four canals with wharf style docking on each side of each canal.  The docks are concrete with large (rusty but painted) cleats and no pilings.  At both the Guarda Frontiera dock and the Marina Hemingway dock, we had to put our fenders very high, extending up past the caprail.  Slips are marked by numbers on the pedestals (100s are on dock 1, 200s are on dock 2, etc.).


The concrete dock meant business, and the tidal swing meant that unless the fenders were placed high, they could get caught beneath the lip of the dock.

As we approached our slip, we were met by the dockmaster (who spoke English) and five other men all trying to help catch lines.  Once we were tied up, the dockmaster came below and filled out a marina contract; it was all in Spanish, so I pretty much took his word for what it contained.  He was funny and personable and informed us that he, Gabriel, was the first ever black angel.  I took this as a good sign.  We engaged in some “Coke diplomacy” with the other guys who helped—as well as the Agriculture officials who showed up despite having nothing to do—and passed out cold Cokes.  This proved to be a winning strategy for our entire stay; it’s a small gesture to show gratitude to people who work hard and don’t have easy access to those types of luxuries.


All tucked in our slip on Dock 1.  Beyond the grass verge to our starboard is the ocean.

It’s tough to beat the dockage rates at Marina Hemingway:  for our size boat, it was 0.70 CUC per foot per day, which worked out to be 24.71 CUC per day ($27.92 USD).  This includes water, electricity, trash disposal, and access to the heads and showers.  Heck yeah!

We wanted to go to Marina Hemingway because of its storied past and place in Cuba’s history.  It was built in 1953 as part of an urban development plan; when completed, its canals were lined with homes with docks for the owners’ boats.  After the 1959 revolution, it was nationalized and renamed Marina Hemingway.  The houses are gone, but the docks remain.  It is Cuba’s largest marina and hosts internationally-renowned fishing tournaments and regattas.


You can see exterior of the Chinese restaurant, Papa’s, to the right.  

We weren’t sure what to expect of the marina as we had no frame of reference.  For us it was a fun and comfortable experience, and we would definitely go back.  If you are flexible and patient and adventurous, this is the place for you.  Are you okay with no toilet seats and throwing the toilet paper (that you brought) in the trash can? Do you like meeting people on boats from all over the world and trying to find a common language that mostly ends up being hand gestures? If so, cool.  If you are expecting a luxury resort, you need to go elsewhere.  Most of the staff speak English to some degree but were patient with and appreciative of my stumbling attempts at Spanish.


The “water” end of Dock 1 looks auspicious with its tiki huts and the snack bar (the blue building).

The staff are all super friendly and helpful; there are security guards patrolling 24 hours, and the grounds are well-lit and generally clean.  Interestingly, the security guards are patrolling for two reasons.  One is, of course, keeping the tourists and their stuff safe.  The other is less obvious:  they are there to keep the Cuban nationals away from the boats.  There are sidewalks along the docks, and non-staff Cubans are not permitted to walk on them.  We saw a wedding party come to the marina to take photos, and the security guard made them stay in the parking lot.  Taxis may cruise through the marina grounds, but drivers must stay in the parking lots or in the public spaces such as the snack bar.  It is also illegal for Cuban nationals to board any of the boats.  This is a sobering thought, but as visitors, it is not our place to comment.


The view from our boat across a grassy swath towards Dock 2.

Power pedestals are modern and can accommodate 30 amp and 50 amp.  Water to the docks can be iffy; it is held in a huge cistern, and as the water is used, the pressure drops.  By about 11 AM, we had no water to our pedestal; however, if we alerted the dockmaster, they would refill the tank for us to meet our needs.


The tall tank is the water tank for the docks.  You could judge how much pressure you might expect by whether it was overflowing.

Diesel and gas are available at the end of Dock 3; the dockmaster drove us over in a golf cart, arranged with the staff for the diesel to be pumped, and drove us back to our slip.  Diesel was 1 CUC per liter; our 5 gallon jerry jug holds 20 liters, so it was 20 CUC cash on the spot.  The highlight of that visit was (in my opinion) the two sleek and sassy mutts who clearly ran the operation.

Marina Hemingway is a gated complex containing the marina and its associated buildings, a hotel, and some stores.  At the “water” end of docks 1 and 2 there is a snack bar (drinks only), the heads (4 individual showers), the Chandlery, the dockmaster’s office, tiki huts, and a Chinese restaurant.


This area was always set up as if hundreds of people were about to show up and party down.  We rarely saw anyone there other than off-duty staff.

The women’s heads were under renovation when we were there, so women were sharing the men’s room for toilets and showers.  The Chandlery has mostly (very well priced) beer and alcohol with some minor foodstuffs and paper goods.


The Chandlery had an impressive array of Cuban rums and French wines as well as other types of liquor.

Laundry is done by the ladies in the snack bar; one large garbage bag of laundry is 6 CUC ($6.78) for a wash, dry, and fold.  That is cheaper than what I paid at Boot Key Harbor in Marathon, and we used the service twice with excellent results.


The snack bar was home to sodas, drinks, the heads, the laundry ladies, staff (when they weren’t doing anything), and blaring Latin music videos on the TV. 

At the “land” end of the docks, there is a small Caracol grocery store (no fresh, frozen, or refrigerated food), a tobacco/rum store, a meat shop with an ice cream freezer, and a sundries shop.  On the hotel side of the complex there are three restaurants.  Money can be changed in the hotel lobby, and taxis can generally be found either outside the hotel lobby, outside the shops, or cruising through the marina complex.  The taxis are exclusively old American cars such as 50’s era Fords and Chevys or old Soviet Ladas.  We always had the American cars, and it was so cool every time.


One of the hotel buildings that abuts the Marina Hemingway docks.  They are really 70’s looking up close; it’s kind of like going back in time.

All in all, Marina Hemingway was a great place to stay for a gratifyingly low cost.  We were able to shop and eat in the surrounding town, Jaimanitas, as well as visit an amazing art installation called Fusterlandia.  It also put us close enough to Havana to make day visits easy and relatively cheap.  Upcoming posts will talk about our tourist exploits.