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Should I visit Cuba?

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Community member kaliesarah has asked a very interesting question on the community forum "Should I travel as a solo woman alone to Cuba?"

My answer to that is a very quick and direct YES!!! Although, I'm no expert so I seek the option of others who are...

Meet our panel of Cuba experts.

Were there any areas in Cuba you felt you were not safe

Jessica - The only place I felt unsafe was on the first arrival in Havana...though I never really was unsafe. I was just unprepared for the cat calling and forwardness of Cuban men, and it made me uncomfortable, though I came to understand it as cultural and perfectly harmless.

Kate - I travelled to Cuba with my fiancé in May 2017. We had been told by a few people to be careful in Cuba as the Cuban people may try to take advantage of you, but in our experience, nothing could be further from the truth! We felt completely safe, welcomed, and were made to feel right at home during our two weeks in Cuba. While we never felt unsafe, there was one area in Havana we stayed at in the heart of a local community, near the airport, that was unfrequented by tourists, and we felt unwelcome there. This was due in part because Cuba has two currencies: CUC and CUP (local currency). As non-Cubans, we are unable to receive CUP and these local businesses only accepted CUP. (The exchange rate between the two currencies makes it difficult for CUP only businesses to change out our CUC for CUP). Every place we went said that they couldn’t take our money and while our CUC was worth more than CUP and we would have gladly paid more in order to eat, the honest people of Cuba would not accept it. We finally located a business that welcomed us and our currency and we could not have been more grateful.

Eva - I know of no areas that are considered as 'not safe'. I haven't witnessed nor did I hear of any incidents that would indicate Cuba is not safe. On the contrary, even the parts of Havana that look like no-go-zones (e.g. El Centro) are safe, also after the sunset.

A word of caution though. Some Cuban vendors and taxi drivers are developing the attitude of their counterparts in other Central and South American countries by overcharging tourists. Just make sure you know how much is the fare or merchandise before the purchase and you'll be okay.
Cuban men are very flirtatious, thus female travellers walking alone may stir up some attraction. As annoying as it may be this behaviour is harmless.
In general, Cuba is safe, so much so that the visitors carry their DSLRs openly without worrying to have them snatched.

What are your must eat or drink suggestions?

Jessica - Everyone raves about Cuban food but, quite frankly, I don’t get it. If you’d asked me on Day 3 or 4 I might have answered differently, but I spent three weeks on the island and I was soooo sick of rice, beans and fried plantains. Delicious, yes. Everyday? No.

However, that said, I did learn a little trick. Cuba uses two currencies; one for locals and one for tourists. Technically tourists are not supposed to use local currency for anything, and everyone will take your tourist dollar happily (1-1 with USD), but there are a few places you can get away with using local coins, and that’s at the local pizza and hamburger stands (don’t expect a pizza like back home — it’s much doughier).

Kate - For the most part, Cuban food is surprisingly bland because of the embargos. If you’re staying in a casa (vs hotel), you must eat breakfast and dinner with your casa hosts at least one time – they will make you a delicious spread of homemade food that you’ll love! We loved Cuban breakfasts which were filled with yummy fresh fruits such as mangos, pineapples, and guavas. Lunches and dinners typically consisted of a veggie platter, rice & beans, and a meat like chicken or pork. We also loved the fried plantain chips that we were treated to with some of our meals. In terms of eating out, one of our favorites in Havana was Waoo! You can see all of our recommendations for food here.

Eva - This is a very difficult subject as there is a food shortage in Cuba. There are not many restaurants or grocery stores and the options are very limited. Majority of travelers eat in places they stay in eating home-made meals cooked by their hosts, breakfast 5 USD, lunch/dinner 10 USD. Backpackers' diet consists primarily of pizza sandwiches and hotdogs. There are no must-eats, the food is very bland and 'tired looking'. One eats primarily to survive, even more so if you are on a budget.

However, if you are not on a budget, you can enjoy lobster dinners for 15 USD.

The best option I found was a Japanese restaurant run by an ethnic Japanese in Old Havana. Tasty, super fresh and cheap.  (Intersection of Aquacate and Obrapia)

"However, few people make it to the other end of the island, and I found Santiago de Cuba to be a refreshing breath of fresh air, with local blues clubs and colorful street art. My favorite place in Cuba, however, was Baracoa, a quaint little beach town just over the mountains from Santiago with a black beach in town and endless explorations in the jungle on foot!"

Which places in Cuba are your favorite, where would you not miss?

Jessica - Some of the places on the typical tourist track are totally not to miss, including Vinales, Trinidad and Havana (see my photo story of Havana here), each with their own unique vibe and jaw-dropping scenery. However, few people make it to the other end of the island, and I found Santiago de Cuba to be a refreshing breath of fresh air, with local blues clubs and colorful street art. My favorite place in Cuba, however, was Baracoa, a quaint little beach town just over the mountains from Santiago with a black beach in town and endless explorations in the jungle on foot!

Kate - In Havana, you must walk on the Malécon, go to the cabaret, get ice cream at Coppelia, and find a market to visit. In Viñales, take a tobacco plantation and coffee tour, and in Baracoa, learn about the cacao plantations. I’ve got a complete guide to everything that we did, which you can find here.

Eva - Very touristy, always jampacked but fun and definitely worth a visit are the bars; El Floridita (Hemingway's hangout) and La Bdeguita Del Medio. Both are located in Old Havana.

El Centro, right next to Old Havana is a neighborhood where regular Cubans live. A stroll in that area will give you a pretty good idea about the life in Cuba. Educational but at the same time humbling experience.
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What did you love about Cuba?

Jessica - I loved that it was a living history and economics lesson that was changing almost before my eyes.

Kate -  We went into our visit to Cuba with an attitude of “this is an adventure” so we had mentally prepared ourselves that things would not go according to plan. From flat tires and car accidents, to cancelled flights and detours through the entire country, to hospital ER visits and getting proposed to, there was so much adventure. It will be a trip that we never forget.

Eva -  The 50's vibe created by hundreds upon hundreds old American cars

 The iron grip Cuban government keeps hold on the population

"El Centro, right next to Old Havana is a neighborhood where regular Cubans live. A stroll in that area will give you a pretty good idea about the life in Cuba."

What did you not like about Cuba?

Jessica - Traveling as a solo female, I got a lot of attention from Cuban men, and it would often start off as an innocent conversation and then suddenly turn into a marriage proposal with some cliche quote about YOLO or something like that. This is fine on the forefront, but many of the encounters I had like this were with tour guides or people in otherwise professional situations and their pushy behavior was relentless.

Eva - Lack of free WiFi surprised me. Didn't know it was only two years ago that Cubans began getting connected to the Internet. Today everybody is queueing for the Internet Card in hope to get in touch with loved ones living abroad.

The culture shock came once I realized that the majority of Cuban population not only never experience another life but doesn't even know such life exists.

"Go. Definitely go. It’s a rich and varied land and the locals are very excited to meet and talk with you. I’m sure it’s already changed drastically in the three years since I visited (I went just before the embargo was lifted) and will continue to change fast. Go see it now!"

What do you wish you had of known or been prepared for?

Jessica - The biggest shock to me as an American was how excited the Cubans were to meet me. I had expected to be hated, and actually spent the first week telling people I was from Canada (cliche, I know). Turns out, however, I’m a terrible liar and decided to just start telling the truth. To my surprise, locals were overly excited about it. I’m still not sure I understand why.

Kate - Everyone gets sick, even if you don’t drink the water. We were traveling with another set of friends and at one point in time all of us had “the sickness” for 12-24 hours. What we weren’t prepared for was my illness which was compounded by extreme dehydration (stay hydrated and pack electrolytes! Read more about what to pack here). The people of Cuba were SO nice and accommodating during my illness and eventually helped me get to an ER in order to get treated. I only wish I’d gone to the doctor or hospital sooner and had known that there are even hospitals for tourists in many cities!

Thoughts on Cuba in General?

Jessica - Go. Definitely, go. It’s a rich and varied land and the locals are very excited to meet and talk with you. I’m sure it’s already changed drastically in the three years since I visited (I went just before the embargo was lifted) and will continue to change fast. Go see it now!

Kate - We loved Cuba so much, but it was definitely an adventure! We would love to go back in 10-20 years to see how the country has changed.

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