Cuba, the largest Caribbean island, has an intriguing history. Its relationship with South Florida and the US is even more so.
But relations between the two nations are far from normal, and US travelers are not allowed to visit the island for tourism or general travel. While some cruise the island by boat, it’s not an option that’s widely available to most people. At the very least, it is safe to say that travel to Cuba from the US is a complicated issue with a lot of nuances.
The result is that something as simple as a boat ride from Miami to Cuba may be illegal! Here’s a look at the island and a glimpse at what makes this trip so interesting, and who can visit Cuba and who cannot.
Table of Contents
- Where is Cuba?
- Cuba’s History
- Why Travel to Cuba?
- Government Restrictions on Take a Boat From Miami to Cuba
- Thinking of Taking Your Boat from Miami to Cuba? Research Carefully!
- Visiting Cuba by Boat FAQs
Where is Cuba?
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and lies directly south of Florida. It is the first in the line of islands known as the Greater Antilles, stretching eastward from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. After Cuba, the next large island is Hispaniola, home to the nations Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Farther east is Puerto Rico.
Cuba lies on the northern limit of the Caribbean Sea. Directly below Cuba, in the Caribbean Sea, are Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. To the island’s north, on its Atlantic Ocean coastline, are Florida and The Bahamas.
Of course, water surrounds all sides of the island of Cuba. To be specific, the body of water separating it from Florida is the Florida Strait, which contains the deep and powerful Gulf Stream current. Between Cuba and The Bahamas is the Old Bahama Channel. To the island’s west lies the Yucatan Channel, and to its east is the Windward Passage.
Cuba is about 650 nautical miles long from the west end (Cabo San Antonio on the Yucatan Channel) to the east end (Maisi on the Windward Passage.) At its widest, the island is less than 100 nm wide.
Cuba’s most famous city is its capital Havana, which lies on the north coast. It’s very nearly the closest point to Key West, Florida, on the whole island. The two cities have been famously connected for hundreds of years.
The first flight of one of the world’s greatest airlines connected Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, in 1927. After that flight, Pan American Airways, later known as Pan Am, would eventually connect the world in ways that seemed impossible only a decade before.
How Far is Cuba From Florida by Boat?
The most often quoted distance is the number touted by the tourism board of Key West. In Key West, on the southernmost point of land on the southernmost island in the continental United States, you’ll find a large cement marker–the Southernmost Point Buoy–that denotes that it is a mere 90 miles to Havana, Cuba.
If you did not measure to the city but to the nearest part of the island to Key West, you’d get an 84 nm straight line distance. If measuring the distance from Miami to Cuba by boat, the actual distance is 198 nautical miles. The Sunshine State is a big place, and Cuba is a big place, so there are many ways to measure the distance.
Assuming you wanted to take a boat trip from Key West to Cuba’s capital, it would take about 15 hours in a typical sailboat at an average speed of 6 knots or about 4.5 hours in a powerboat doing 20 knots–weather conditions permitting. If going from Miami to Havana, the trip is about 33 hours by sailboat or 10 hours by fast boat.
As close as the two points of land are, however, the Gulf Stream can make the crossing hazardous. A look at ocean current models and forecasts will show the Gulf Stream snaking its way north from the Caribbean Sea into the Atlantic Ocean, wrapping around Cuba’s west end. It creates a strong eastbound push of two knots or more when en route from the Keys to Cuba, and any east wind component can build up steep dangerous seas.
For this reason, traveling from Key West to Cuba is best saved for days of calm weather, just like crossing from Florida to The Bahamas.
Despite how close it is to Florida, you don’t hear much about boaters visiting Cuba. To understand why you’d need to understand a little bit about the island’s tumultuous history.
In Cuba, like in Florida and Mexico, European settlement began with the Spanish in the 1500s. Havana quickly became an important shipping center, a port for Spanish galleons carrying their cargo of pilfered gold and silver back to Spain. These ships learned to use the push of the Gulf Stream to carry them north and east on their way back, so long as they could avoid the treacherous reefs along the Florida Keys and the Islands of The Bahamas.
The wealth collected drew other countries and privateers looking to get their cut. But the fascinating history of the real pirates of the Caribbean is for another day.
Spain ruled Cuba until the late 1800s, when a series of battles for independence led to the Spanish-American War. Spain eventually withdrew, and the US controlled the island for three and a half years. Finally, Cuba became independent in 1902.
A series of corrupt leaders led to an uprising in the 1950s, resulting in the current communist government taking power. Fidel Castro ruled the island, which was closely aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Since then, the island has been isolated and held at arm’s length by the US government, even though most neighboring countries generally have normal relations with the island.
In the years since the Soviet Union dissolved, Cuba has faced numerous economic hardships. Fidel Castro died in 2016, but the same communist authoritarian government still rules.
The policies and politics of the Castro regime and the economic hardships have led to mass emigration to the United States. The most famous episode was in 1980 when more than 125,000 Cubans made the trek to Florida across the Gulf Stream in the Mariel boatlift. Emigration continues to this day.
The US is not alone, and the European Union has accused the Cuban government of numerous human rights abuses. The 2020 World Press Freedom Index rated Cuba 171 out of 180 nations.
Why Travel to Cuba?
Despite, and in some cases because of, its history, Cuba is a popular tourist destination. This may shock many US Americans, who often believe that no one goes there. But Cuba was a resort island for the Soviets and now for everyone–except US Americans.
For years, tourism to Cuba was limited to enclave resorts where visitors were kept separate from the locals. However, the communist party eased rules in the 1990s, and tourism has grown yearly. The island now sees more than 2 million visitors every year.
Cuba is a beautiful Caribbean island destination. Unlike many smaller islands, this is a large country with a lot to see and do. The coasts are lined with gorgeous, untouched beaches fringed by some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world.
Cuba has over 4,200 islands and islets along its coast. The entire island is properly in the tropics, with tradewinds blowing year-round and a warm, humid climate.
Government Restrictions on Take a Boat From Miami to Cuba
Despite the government’s opening of Cuba’s economy, the US government has taken a mixed approach to the island. There are still many rules and regulations in effect by the US government to keep US citizens isolated from the island. Much of this is political; it’s a way for the US government to influence Cuban politics by denying American tourism dollars and business investment on the island.
US Presidents Bill Clinton and later Barack Obama moved to reevaluate relations with the Cuban government, but Republican lawmakers largely blocked these efforts. President Donald Trump reversed Obama-era policies that enabled US citizens to visit the country legally with fewer restrictions.
Today, only select citizens with an approved purpose for visiting Cuba are allowed to travel. There is no policy against entering Cuba put in place by the Cubans–all limits are placed on citizens and vessels traveling from the US.
Official information and guidelines are subject to change as political winds shift. The best source for information is the US Embassy in Cuba website. At present, there are 12 categories of types of travel that are allowed by the US government. While some people may travel for specific purposes, general tourism or sightseeing is not allowed.
- Family visits
- Official business of the US government, foreign governments, or intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research or meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, or athletics
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations, research, or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of informational or informational materials
- Authorized export transactions
In addition to these restrictions, you should know that travel is generally difficult in Cuba. For example, US credit and debit cards will not work on the island since US banks are not allowed to do business there.
Because these regulations are set in place by the US State Department, they do not apply to citizens of any other country. There are regular airline flights to the island from the US, Mexico, Canada, and many other destinations across the globe.
And, more to the point, many yachts visit Cuban ports annually. While it is not legal to leave the US and travel to Cuba, many vessels travel to Cuba from other Caribbean countries.
However, restrictions remain on where you can and can’t take your boat. For the most part, the Cuban government expects boaters to dock at a resort marina and join a land tour. Generally, boaters cannot “cruise” in the typical sense like they can in the US or Bahamas.
Thinking of Taking Your Boat from Miami to Cuba? Research Carefully!
If there’s one takeaway from all of this, it’s that you really need to do your research before visiting foreign countries. Noonsite is an excellent resource for researching such trips, as they’ve tallied all the relevant details for getting permission and following the applicable regulations.
Visiting Cuba by Boat FAQs
How far is Cuba from Florida by water?
It is roughly 90 miles from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba.
Can I take a boat from Florida to Cuba?
While the two countries lie close to one another, most US citizens cannot travel to Cuba. The US State Department has a list of 12 approved travel categories, and general tourism is not one of them. People of other nationalities are generally free to visit the island.
How fast can a boat go from Florida to Cuba?
The distance between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba, is only about 90 miles. On a slow sailboat, this will take about 15 hours. On a motorboat, it would only take a little over four hours.
Can you travel to Cuba from the US by boat?
Yes, Key West, Florida, is only 90 miles north of Havana, Cuba. Private yachts and boats make the trip regularly, as do commercial airlines. Due to restrictions on US citizens traveling to the island, there are no cruise lines or ferries servicing the island, however.