I remember the day when I made the decision to travel to Cuba: I was standing in the Sony Travel Photography Award Exhibition in London; among the hundreds of photos exhibited, the ones caught my eyes (and my heart) are a series on Cuba. The genuine smiles from people and its vibrant streets filled me with happiness. So, this winter, I boarded a plane to Havana, Cuba to start a 2-week trip.
The country is changing rapidly. I’ve done some research before I went but was surprised to find many things changed from travel guides. In this post, I will focus on some essentials that will help you to get the best out of your trip to Cuba as a solo female traveller.
Get your Tourist Card in advance. It is best to get this piece of paper in hand before you travel just to avoid any hassle. It’s only takes a couple of minutes to apply online and costs around £20-35 (depending on the service you choose). Just remember to leave enough time for it to arrive in post as it is a physical document.
Pack a bit more than your other trips. I am a light-packer, can usually survive a 2-week trip with just a small backpack. Though I’d suggest you pack a bit bigger bag for Cuba: you will otherwise struggle to find many basic things or queue for a long time to get them.
Bring your nice dresses. Cubans put a lot of attention to their attire. You do not need to dress down there, so pack your best dresses with you. The locals do see your nice dresses as a sign of respect to them.
Learn Spanish (at least the basics). Cubans are very welcoming and patient when it comes to communication. You don’t need to speak Spanish to get your way around. But if you want to get the most from your trip (eg. getting recommendation from locals, hearing their life stories and the country’s history), you will need to speak some Spanish. Even if only very basic or broken, the Cubans will make the effort to understand. Ensure you download Google Translation’s Spanish offline package before you trip.
Get familiar with the currency. Cuba works on a dual currency system. As a foreigner, you will need to exchange CUC when you arrive (try to avoid US dollars as you’ll pay a “tax” on top of the exchange rate). It is important to know the difference between CUC and Cuba Peso: when you spend CUC, you will many times get changes in Peso, don’t be fooled if someone try to trick you with 1 Peso as a CUC.
Where to exchange. When travel to most places in the world, I avoid exchanging money at airports as it is often the most expensive. Though in Cuba, airport is one of the best places to exchange money: there is a very short queue and the exchange rate is only marginally higher from the bank. For example, when I arrived, rate at airport was 1.104 v.s. hotel’s 1.04 (worst) v.s. banco 1.114 (best). When you first arrive, you may think you don’t mind to get to the city to get a bit better rate, but wait until you see the queue at the door… You can easily spend a couple of hours queuing up.
Stay at Casa Particulars. The family you stay with will not only be your host, but also your contact point for everything. You can ask them about where to go to, get an idea of prices of everything, organise tours and transports. If you pay a bit extra, many will cook a home-made meal for you in the evening and invite you to join the family dinner with some rum and salsa. One of the best parties I’ve had was with one of my host family in Havana at their home! When it comes to choosing which casa, I’d say: host > location > room.
Find a casa to stay. Almost everyone who’s been there would say that you don’t really need to book anything in advance. I was suspicious until I landed: the signs of casa are almost on every other door. If you like the look and location of a building, just knock on the door and ask whether you can see the room. Even if that casa may not have any room for the night, they’d for sure recommend you to some other place that is similar with the same price. If you are not sure, just tell them and walk away to the next one; they won’t feel offended.
Transport within the city. Depending on where you are, you’d mostly rely on your feet and taxis. In big cities like Havana, some taxi driver may trick you with a higher-than-average price. When you first arrive, get an understanding of the standard charges by asking your host, other tourists, or at Infotur.
Bus transfers between cities Viazul is the bus operates for tourists between cities. The buses are air-conditioned, modern and comfortable. Though during peak season, you will need to book way in advance (at least 2-3 weeks). A secret tip I learnt if you want to get a seat without advanced booking: arrive one hour before the departure time on the day of travel; often there are untaken seats, and as a solo traveller – it is for you to grab. Even if there are no seats, you can easily find other people to share a taxi with there.
Move between cities with taxi collectivo. It is basically a taxi that shared by several people depending on how big the car is and how lucky the drive is in getting passengers. You only need to book them one day in advance through your host or just wander towards the bus station – the price is quite standard from most drivers. Remember, you MUST get the driver’s phone number, so you can call in case of no-show or late (and trust me, it happens all the time).
Online & offline. Be prepared to be offline most of your time at Cuba, which is a real blessing. To get online, you will need to buy internet cards (1 CUC per hour), and find hotspots in town. The hotspots are easy to find, just look around for a square/park where everyone’s sitting and looking at their handset.
Food and drinks. Cubans are used to simple meals and they don’t like spicy food. Most Cuba restaurants offer similar menus. I was told to keep my expectation low on Cuban food but to my pleasant surprise, I’ve had some excellent local cuisines and enjoyed some good Italian, America, even Russian food there. Tap water is clean enough to drink – I did try it a couple of times. But to be safe, I’d recommend bottled water.
I’ve also bought food from the street stalls: roasted pork and grilled chicken without having any stomach problems. Though if you do have a sensitive digestion system, I’d suggest you stick with restaurants or your host’s home-cooked meals (breakfast is offered at most casas for a cost of $5CUC per person, while lunch/dinner ranging from $8-15CUC).
Don’t expect that you can use the kitchen to cook. Even if some host may allow you to use the kitchen, you will struggle to buy ingredients to cook with.
Taking photos of people. Most people will smile at you when they see you pointing your lens to them. The Cubans are super friendly. Though you should always try to ask for permission and after the photo, leave some tips to show your appreciation.
Understanding the local prices. Prices of things/services can differ quite a lot, depending where you get it. For example, a bottle of water can cost 1CUC on the street and 0.25 in a “supermarket”; a horseback riding tour may cost $15CUC if you book directly with a farm owner and your host will ask for $25 as there will be an “agency fee”.
My recommendation is when you first arrive at a new city, pay a visit to Infotur and ask about the price standard too get an idea. It is always better to book directly with someone rather than through someone – as you’ll likely to be charged a higher fee.
Though the most important thing is enjoying your trip. Even if you do pay a slightly higher fee, it does go to someone who probably in need.
Tips get you further. Remember to always have some changes on you. Not all Cubans are privileged to take advantage of the blooming tourism. If someone has helped you, gave you a good service, made you laugh, leave them something to show your gratitude which will help them.
Where to party. Every city has some place(s) where live music played every night. These places are either free or very cheap ($1CUC) to enter. If you love salsa, then it is heaven for you. Many local people are there to enjoy the night. Though as a foreign woman, you may be target for local men – some do unfortunately see you as an opportunity to get out and they can be difficult to get rid of. If you end up in such situation, say that you came with friends, and ask other tourists to help you. If anyone goes too far, ask the bartender for help.
Don’t forget, one of the best party venue can be your casa! I have stayed in a couple of places where the hosts turn on music when they cook and invitde guests to dance together over some rum (a bottle of rum as gift is always welcomed).
Staying safe: As a woman, I was confident and comfortable enough to walk the streets even at 2am in the morning in the city centre. Of course, I’d not recommend it to other women, but it does demonstrate how safe it is. Tourism is the most important industry for Cuba, the government make all the effort to make sure tourists feel safe and welcoming. Crimes target at tourists are extremely rare, though there can be some common scams (eg. Cigar festival, unexpected cab fare, over friendly locals). Just remember: if something sounds too good to be true or special just for you, it probably because it is not; and always agree on the price beforehand whatever you do.
Connect with other travellers. Maybe the friendly atmosphere change people. When in Cuba, travellers love to talk with each other. It really did not feel like a solo trip: I chat with my hosts, people on streets, travellers sitting next to the table or stand next to me in queue, travellers who were on the same tour etc. You may not have internet connection there, but you will be truly connected with people there.
Last but not least on my list: Do not judge. Cuba is a different country. It is easy to judge what you see or experience. Just remember, your perspective is only valid for yourself and based on your background. Go with open eyes and an open heart, and you will experience life a bit differently over there.
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