Each new adventure brings us something. As we shift through the island chain, we shift not just languages, culture, food, but we deal with official-dom. Customs and immigration are the doors to these island adventures that we must pass through entering and departing each island. They hold the keys of who enters and who does not. Entry is always granted, the unknown is with what type of system, attitude, and at what financial cost. Some are really good, some are unique, and others are just inefficient representations of their nations. Having visited most of the islands between the United States and Venezuela on the Eastern Caribbean chain over a period spanning a quarter century, I have seen changes and formed opinions based on personal experiences. Here are some of those experiences ranking from the best to among the worst. We have heard all kinds of stories about Latin American countries and the corruption in their bureaucracies. The stories of safety have filled the headlines and chatter among cruisers, with Venezuela getting the top billing as unstable, violent, piracy and extreme corruption. All this may be true, however, my only experience with this South American oil giant was in 2008 when we took El Gecco, along with two other vessels, up the Orinoco River to meet and interact with the Warro Indian tribe, many settled along the banks of the river, right at a time when President Chavez had given them generators and outboard engines in exchange for votes as he solidified his presidency, and opening their world to the outside for the first time in their history where they could leave easily or see how the rest of the world was living when they hooked a television set to a generator, and were mesmerized. Our point of entry was Perdanales, closest settlement to Trinidad. Our arrival was mid-morning and no sooner did we have our anchor down, when the Gaudia Nationalis arrived in their boat along side, spit polished black shoes as prime reminders of officialdom. Standing in the cockpit in the searing heat, we present our two American passports as we watched our fellow sailors putting down anchor. The more senior of these two young men took our passports, opened them to our picture and information page, and then handed them to his younger assistant who was in possession of a clip board. With pains-taking slowness and details, he began to write down our information, one passport at a time with a pencil. Then they were handed back to the older twenty something official that began to thumb through our well used pages and looked at the stamps, expressionless and unimpressed till he came to the entry stamps of Argentina. His eyes lit up and he spoke the words of Argentina as if he was revering the Pope. “Si” I replied in my only word of Spanish. He said something we did not understand, then using his hand gestures illustrating taking a photo. We interpreted it as do we have any photos of Argentina. Out came the laptop and up we pulled the file of pictures of our one month travel adventure over land in this amazing country. An hour flew by and the tenders from our other two boats arrived wondering what was taking so long to clear us in. The junior official found some speed to record their details as he kept a watchful eye on our computer screens. When we were done with the photos and the rapid entry details, they pointed to our tenders and then to their dock as the place for us to make our South American landfall and headed for their boat. As no bribe or tip was asked for on-board our boat, I assumed that it would be requested at their dock for tying up. On our arrival at the official’s dock under the cover of a thatched roof and open sides, the men were there to take our painters and secure us. A hammock was strung and on the rickety table was a flask and some shot mugs. Coffee was immediately offered. This bribe was growing bigger I thought. Out of politeness, the cups of coffee were accepted. I passed as I had quit drinking coffee, instead joined the men at a game of dominos, which they allowed me to win. When Darlene expressed how good the coffee was, Spanish words were exchanged and one of the officials took off down the dock. Ten minutes later he returned with 2 bags of coffee, presenting one to Darlene and the other to Peter from our flotilla. The bribe had grown even bigger – or so I thought. When the loosing partners to our game of dominos had let me win enough times, it was time to go for a walk in town. The two officials were trying to say something to us that we had no understanding of, and gave up. Off we went. Half an hour later the senior one found us in town again saying something we could not comprehend, except we figured out he wanted Darlene and I to follow him. We entered a clothing store and wonder between some racks of cheap clothing to the very back, and entered through another door that led into a very welcomed air conditioned bar. So this was going to be our shakedown – I thought. He disappeared through another door indicating for us to wait and returned with a woman who spoke English. “They want you to come have lunch at their base on the dock with them,” she told us. “The fire is ready and they did not want to overcook the fish.” Wary of the generous invite, I asked how much was the cost for lunch and we were told that there was no charge. They welcomed our company as they had never seen three yachts enter the river. We accepted and returned to their compound.
Wowwww is not the right word to use. Shrimp was on skewers, fish on the grill, some veggies sizzling in a pan on the fire, laughter and charades as we ate and drank. This was a genuine offer of hospitality and friendship among citizens of our world. All that separated us were our nationalities, our language and attire. But our appetites were equal to the appreciation of good food and fellowship and my previous thoughts of bribery had no place in our new fellowship. But the sun was getting lower on the yard arm and our first anchorage waited. Time for farewells had come, but it was necessary to show our appreciation. The other two boats had given them beer and rum, but we wanted them to have something that money could not purchase for them. Darlene knew exactly what that would be. It was a bottle of prized BBQ sauce from our favorite haunt in Charleston, SC. I returned from our boat bearing a token of our appreciation, but it might have been a bullion bar of gold to them. This was our welcome to Venezuela and the standard that we now measure official entry to a country. This expectation is not realistic in traditional ports. But the quality of service and hospitality is. Years later we arrived in Anguilla from the US Virgin Islands. On the beach was the building in which to clear. Everyone representing customs, immigration and the port share one large school-like room attired appropriately in official uniforms which normally do not do justice to female officials. Quickly papers were filled out, stamps placed in our passports and we were legal on their island. Then their official hat came off and on when another. What did we hope to see when visiting their island nation, what were our needs? We were welcome to stay up to three months, and if we needed more time, they would be happy to process an extension. There was no charge for the first three months, and I did not enquire about the cost of the extension. My immediate need was an issue going on with my port engine. The immigration lady stated the coast guard gentlemen sitting at the desk across from her could solve that. Twenty minutes later we dinghed out together and we he did solve our problem before he joined us ashore for lunch. A few days later when I went to clear out, I made comment of their professionalism and support of us. Immediately, they told me that their island depended upon tourism, and that the yachting community was a large source of their revenues, and that while their official responsibility was border entry and exit, their livelihood was dependant on these officials being the first welcoming face a visiting yacht would meet. It was explained that they were an unofficial part of their department of tourism, and that they were happy to make car rental arrangements, call for a taxi or give pointers of what to see and do while we supported their island economy. They viewed themselves as a part of the commerce that made their island the welcoming paradise that it truly is. Recently on our last visit to Grenada, we saw such an improvement on their process. They had set up several entry ports throughout the Grenadine island chain and had trained their officials well as part of their Pure Grenada media promotions. I met with the Minister of Tourism, the Hon. Alexandra Otway-Noel who explained that on her committee for tourism, immigration and customs share one of the advisory seats. Over the weeks we spent there, a stopover that was only to be a day or two at most, we got to know the local immigration and customs men. They were young, underpaid, but well educated and ambitious men who wanted to serve their country. They too were happy to help make arrangements for community activities that Darlene and I wanted to contribute towards, one being our official visit and Neal’s presentation to the inmates at their local prison. The cost for our boat and two persons on entry was EC$75 that translates into about US$28 and when we made exit on a Saturday morning the cost was US$15 which I think was an overtime charge. On the French side of St. Martin, clearing in consists of sitting in front of a computer terminal and filling in all details, printing it and then pay the Capitanaria US$7.50 for the usage of the computer, then walk over to immigration at the ferry dock to get the passport stamped, and you are done! The process is cheap and simple, taking less than one hour. The Dutch side is much more official and complicated, and with it comes some high costs. As there is no boarder between the French and Dutch side, it is easier to moor on the French side while getting much better food in the process, then taking a dingy over to the Dutch side to obtain boat parts. Traversing the lagoon is easy and scenic. On the opposite side to these experiences was the Dominican Republic and Curacao. We were going to stay a week in Curacao, and try working with the local communities as we have done in other islands, but the set up there is not great. Yachts anchor in Spanish Waters, but customs, immigration and port authority is in Willemstad, 30-40 min by bus. Bus runs once an hour, and it takes all day to clear in. Customs was great to work with, but immigration had a really bad attitude, and we arrived at Port Authority 3 min after they closed for lunch and they would not issue the anchoring permit till after lunch. Deciding not to hang around for another 90 min, we returned to immigration to clear out for the next morning. They stated could not do that! We would have to return after 2 pm for next day clearance. If we wanted clearance at this moment, as I was standing in front of the immigration women, then we would need to leave within a few hours time. If we wanted to leave in 48 hrs, we would have to come back the next day. The bureaucracy is not yacht friendly, so we decided not to stay, but to clear out immediately and to leave at dawn. Among the worst experiences with officials hands-down, must be the Dominican Republic. After one has endured the entry procedure and put up with all the various officials who are part of the clearance process and have their hands out, yachtsman have to deal with commandantes. Every beach has one of them. These men are paid very little as most lower government bureaucrats are. Their average income is just over US$100 a month and they live at their postings location in the most appalling conditions. They work with drug enforcement and other law enforcement and when a yacht arrives anywhere, once again the captain has to clear them in. When moving to the next port, or even just a day sail out and back, a “despacio” is required forcing an interaction with these men who constantly have their hands out and can make life extremely difficult. The law says that despacios are free of charge, but if one does not tip these commandants, they make you feel like you are robbing them and being selfish with your vast foreign wealth. My best recommendation regarding the Dominican Republic, where by disclosure we have beautiful mountain estate, is never to show up with your boat. The country is incredibly beautiful, but not worth the sailing hassles. Fly in and rent a car, drive all over the place and stay in reasonable hotels. Enjoy the culture from land, and if you want to go for a sail, charter one of the fully crewed boats, as they will ensure you have a wonderful time. Just never sail your own craft their or one that you have responsibilities for. Here are some brief keystrokes of other ports in the Caribbean. For American and American flagged vessels, entry into the US is pretty simple. Call Customs and Immigration on the cell phone as you enter to inform them of your arrival in a port of entry and they may have someone down to clear you in, or once you anchor, may do it over the telephone. As we were sailing the Virgin Island waters frequently, we applied in St. John after 10 am for a Frequent Boaters Card which listed our boat and passport details for each card holder. On arrival in US waters, I would call the number for that port of entry and give them each boater’s card number and most times I was given my clearance over the telephone. Now when proceeding from the USVI to the Spanish Virgin Islands, we still have to clear in straight away via the phone, even though we cleared in from foreign ports in the USVI. The SVI is a different customs jurisdiction and requires just customs clearance. If one sails from the SVI to the USVI, there is no need to call as one is already cleared. It’s a bit complicated, but that’s how it works. Also, if you are a non US registered vessel or hold an EU passport, you do require a US Visitors Visa as you are making entry on a non recognized passenger craft. If you fly in, arrive by cruise ship or a regular inter island passenger ferry, no visa is required. Hence EU passport holders will require a visa before arrival. If you don’t have one, sign off the vessel in the BVI’s, take the commercial passenger ferry to St. John which is a 20 min ferry ride and cheap, clear into the US that way and then you can legal re-board your boat and continue your journey in the US waters once your vessel has arrived and been cleared in to US territory. In Aruba one must take one’s vessel onto the commercial harbor wall as per the instructions of the Port Control. They will have customs and immigration meet you inside of the restricted area and clear you in. There are no charges for this, but it is an extremely flat and windy island and you lay against big black tires that leave unsightly marks and wait for officials to arrival and our clearing in took 1 ½ hours . The same process has to be done for out-bound clearance. As the first faces of a country, officials shape the first impressions and today with all the choices we have of places to visit, sometimes it is not worth investing time and energy in a certain islands, and much easier to go to others. I don’t think many islands, whose economy depends on tourism, have figured out the money yachts spend in their countries, buying boat parts, haul-outs, food shopping in supermarkets, restaurant dining, tours etc., particularly their government officials. Islands can learn a lot from Anguilla, Grenada and other similar sailing/tourist locations. There are ways to enforce sensible laws that are created with common, practical sense, but the world of bureaucracy rarely includes common sense. So choose your sailing grounds wisely and find out in advance what you will be encountering as it will make life a lot easier when armed with knowledge. While we are not expecting the “red carpet” experience of Perdenalas, Venezuela, we do hope for common sense and efficiency when clearing in, as we, and other cruisers often have sailed for days, in sometimes very rough conditions, to make landfall, clear in and get some much needed sleep. Safe sailing.
PS- Sept update…
Dominican Republic remains one of the most expensive places to clear in to with a boat. This month we returned as the winds left us no easy option to come north, and cleared in at Samana Bay. The port office charges our boat US$35 and then immigration charged $43 for the boat entry and $10 per passport for a total of $98. If we take all the other ports we cleared in at over nine countries, the collective sum total was way less than this single clearance. As we are leaving our boat, we had to pay an additional $15 each to clear off the boat with some bullshit stamp in our passport allowing us to pass through the airport.
In the Dominican Republic ports that we visited, there were no boats, no tourists and everyone hunting for a gringo victim to get money off. This country no longer has a need for a Department of Tourism, as tourism is substantially on the decline. The airlines are rightfully cutting flights and raising ticket prices.
We met one tourist who was paying about $160 per 8 hr for a taxi that spent less than 3 hrs of the time driving. In Santo Domingo he went walking and was invited into a bar by the owner who said he was happy to make a new friend and would he like a drink. The two had a regular sized beer, before being joined by two friends of the bar owner. The tourist asked what the price of the beer was before ordering and was told by the owner not to worry as he was going to take care of the guy. When it came time for him to leave, the bar tender presented the tourist a bill for 5 beers. The take care of my friend price was US$75. Yes, your read this correctly…$75.00 Isn’t this a great way to stimulate your economy and keep welcoming visitors and business folks back.