Author’s Note: Post updated December 2021
What’s Cuba like to visit on your own? Is Cuba safe for solo female travellers? Do Cubans really dislike the US? In my Cuba solo travel guide you’ll find travel tips and an unbiased review of a country which divides opinion.
Even my own thoughts on Cuba have provoked comment with accusations on social media of being anything from a Castro propagandist to a pro-American CIA bot. I can assure you that I’m none of the above as I have no political affiliations. What you’ll read here is based entirely on my own experience and the feedback from other travellers whom I met on my journey through Cuba.
Of all the countries I’ve visited Cuba is the one which differed the greatest from descriptions in guidebooks and online resources. Some descriptions were over-generous and others greatly under-rated the country. So here’s a list of things that the guidebooks don’t tell you.
Havana, with its crumbling centuries-old buildings and constant live-music soundtrack, is the most popular starting point in Cuba for independent travellers. Where to Stay in Havana: Neighbourhood Review has tips and advice for independent travellers visiting the capital city as well as a review of each Havana neighbourhood.
Our Man in Havana: Key Locations looks at the sites of Havana that featured in the best-known fictional take on the city, Our Man in Havana, the satirical espionage novel by British author and ex-MI6 agent Graham Greene.
The south coast city of Cienfuegos is covered in Is Cienfuegos worth visiting?
Advice about visiting the quaint UNESCO World Heritage town of Trinidad features in Backpacking in Cuba: Trinidad.
The unpleasantness of Santa Clara and the unexpected delight of Varadero is covered in Cuba: Santa Clara to Varadero.
Hotels in Cuba can be expensive for solo independent travellers. The alternative is the Casa Particulare system where people rent rooms in their private houses and is a godsend for those undertaking solo travel in Cuba. Airbnb is now operating in Cuba and bears a resemblance to the Casa Particulare system.
HAVANA: Casa Particulares in Havana with central locations which come recommended are Elsa & Julio Roque’s Hostal Peregrino group of buildings. Evening meals were served at Hostal Peregrino Consulado, whilst I stayed in Hostal Peregrino El Encinar on my arrival and Hostal Peregrino Lealtad prior to departing Cuba. The evening meals cost extra but were an excellent opportunity to meet other independent travellers.
VARADERO: If you are looking for a good Casa Particulare in central Varadero, Casa Margarita Llacuna on Calle 33 is an ideal option. The breakfast is amazing.
No recommendations for the Trinidad and Santa Clara casas I stayed in. There was a lizard in the Trinidad shower while the Santa Clara equivalent almost electrocuted me.
CUBA SOLO TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Visa & Border Control:
Check with the Cuban Embassy in your own country regarding visa requirements. As an EU passport holder I required a Visitor Card which cost €35 and was included in the price of my flight.
Entering Cuba was not the bureaucratic nightmare I expected it to be. To be honest, your experience will depend on your passport – I’m an Irish/EU citizen. I breezed through after filling three short forms, answering two simple questions and having one photograph taken.
However, international travellers with the word “USA” on their passports (e.g. birth place) underwent significantly more scrutiny than other international travellers.
Spanish is the official language of Cuba and I would highly recommend that independent travellers learn the basics of the language prior to visiting.
The dual currency and the lack of visible price tags meant this was one of the most expensive holidays I’ve ever taken. The locals use the National Peso (CUP) while the Convertible Peso (CUC) is designed to bleed money from tourists who have no option but to use it. However, Cuba began the process of withdrawing CUCs from circulation in 2021, working towards a single currency.
I had no problem exchanging my euros into CUC. My Irish credit and debit cards worked in Cuban ATMs but I cannot remember paying for anything using my cards. Cash is king in Cuba.
Best time to visit Cuba:
December to March is peak season for tourists as the weather is both dry and pleasantly warm. I visited in April/May and found the weather to be pretty good on the south coast but a little cloudy on the north coast on occasion. The rainy season begins in June with hurricanes liable to hit in late summer.
True Cuban cuisine is healthy. Rice and beans in various forms always appeared at evening dinner with plentiful supplies of fresh salads and vegetables. Meat was always available whether as a stand-alone option or combined with other ingredients.
Breakfast always involved fruit, coffee, bread and eggs. Some casas included yogurt and cold meats.
Is Cuba safe for solo female travellers?
I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel safe a lot of the time and neither did all of the female travellers I met there. Harassment of women is constant unless accompanied by a male. On a few occasions it felt threatening.
Cuba remains the only country I’ll never return to, firstly on personal safety grounds. For comparison, bear in mind that I’ve visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Iran, Russia hassle-free and I would have no hesitation in visiting these places again. Here is a list of countries that I found were excellent solo female travel destinations.
Independent male travellers I met were pestered by female prostitutes, with the exception of a German cyclist who told everyone he was Russian.
The second reason a return visit is unlikely is the constant scamming. Cuba is the most hyper-capitalist country I’ve ever travelled to. Scamming isn’t just a financial endeavour in Cuba. It’s also a form of mind games. When I saw through the scams my simple no gracias was met with harassment by male scammers. Competing scammers often joined forces in the harassment.
On the contrary, female scammers did take no for an answer. In general, I found Cuban women to be helpful and respectful towards me.
I’m not the only blogger who has negative feedback on Cuba. Claudia Tavani, Flora Baker and Jenny of Jenny Far Away have had similar experiences.
Are there shortages in Cuba?
When I visited, the basics were present in abundance while well-known international brands are substituted by local versions. Samsung Galaxy was the jintero device of choice while government taxis were mainly Kia vehicles.
I read that toilet roll was in short supply only to discover that, in all the places I travelled, this problem existed only in Trinidad. The rest of the country had a plentiful supply although finding the good quality stuff was the holy grail of a casa owner.
Does Cuba have good internet access/mobile phone coverage?
The mobile phone network worked well for my Irish device and all other international travellers I met experienced hassle-free network access as well. WIFI was available in most hotels and the state-owned Etecsa Telepuntos has an extensive network of offices delivering fast fixed broadband through a scratch-card login mechanism.
Travelling to Cuba:
European independent travellers whom I met in Cuba arrived through Havana’s José Martí International airport via Canada with the exception of British travellers who flew direct from London.
Travelling around Cuba:
The most challenging aspect of Cuba solo travel. Officially, driving in Cuba is on the right-hand side. Unofficially, driving is on any side. Signposting is sparse and GPS/SatNav is not permitted. For my sanity I chose to travel with Viazul, the bus company which only takes payment in CUC (i.e geared towards tourists). Unless booked by my casa, taxi drivers always reneged on the pre-agreed fare.
Havana, the capital of Cuba, is located in the north-western side of the island, 90 miles from the nearest point of the US coast. The largest purpose-built holiday resort in Cuba is Varadero, approximately 90 miles east of Havana, and is served by its own airport.
Cuba mostly comprises of flats plains but has a few mountain ranges scattered around the island. Travelling from Cienfuegos to Trinidad I encountered the Escambray mountain range.
Cuba’s main island is surrounded by several thousand smaller islands. The Sabana-Camagüey archipelago to the north is composed of up to 2,500 islands and cays.
Do Cubans dislike the US? It depends what is meant by the US.
Cubans are not lovers of US foreign policy so don’t try to persuade them otherwise. President Obama’s efforts to restore diplomatic relations were well received and an increase in US tourists eagerly anticipated. But, as mentioned above, passports with the word USA on them are still treated with suspicion by border control.
Apart from that, it was lips closed regarding current affairs. On the other hand, Cubans have a great admiration for US ingenuity, people, culture, and technology. Being able to broach these topics is the benefit of Cuba solo travel.
Cuba was populated by indigenous tribes for several thousand years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Cuba remained under Spanish control until 1898 when it became a protectorate of the US.
Cuba gained independence in 1902 but the US continued to maintain an influential role on the island until 1959 when Fidel Castro took control, overthrowing the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro’s system of governance has been in place in Cuba since then, much to the chagrin of the US.
Cuba has a rich history and culture, and the national queuing etiquette was a pleasure to experience. Cuba’s diversity and tolerance of multiculturalism was exemplary whilst the reported racial discord in the US left Cubans baffled.
My Cuba experiences were similar to other independent tourists but differed from those on a group tour or package holiday. I’m a long-time advocate of independent travel as it allows for a greater cultural immersion and for a more sustainable tourism industry.
But Cuba is the only country I’ve travelled to so far where I recommend a guided/group/package tour over independent travel, particularly for female travellers. And I’ve yet to see a guidebook or independent online resource about Cuba mention that.