Cuba is one of those places that had been on my travel radar for a while. Which is no surprise – it’s probably on yours too.
With all the changes the country has undergone in the past few years, I knew it was somewhere I wanted to go sooner rather than later to see the undiluted vibrancy of this beautiful country. And I love the autonomy of traveling on my own, feeling free to make plans (and friends) at leisure. Thankfully, Cuba is perfect for both solo travel and small group tours.
During my 10 days there I learned a few ways to really see it at its best.
First things first
Whilst I wouldn’t roam the streets of any city where I don’t speak the language late at night, Cuba felt very safe to me, particularly in the main streets and large town squares around the Casa de la Musica (music houses). This is reflected in the very low rates of violent crime.
As ever, opportunistic pickpockets are lurking but with sensible precautions (a money belt and an emergency cash card) I never felt worried. I did, however, feel in awe at how damn photogenic this Caribbean island is…
READ MORE: WHAT VISITING CUBA TAUGHT ME ABOUT MAKING THE MOST OF LIFE
Line up like the Cubans
On my first day in a new city on my own my favorite thing to do is wander around a city center and try to get my bearings. With its ferociously stunning architecture and the constant jazz seeping through the walls of the city, Old Havana is one of a kind.
A tried-and-tested tactic of mine when traveling is to join a line of people; if enough people are queuing for something, it must be worth waiting for. This tactic in Havana one morning led me to the city’s oldest bakery, crammed with cigar-chewing Cubans clamoring for iced coffee buns; a local artists’ market showcasing colorful ceramics, antiques and handmade jewelry; and also a public toilet. Two out of three ain’t bad.
A similar tactic in Trinidad led us (yep, I’d made friends by this point) to the top of a hill at 11pm on a Friday night with an inexplicable line of people snaking around some rocks. After a bit of wild gesticulating and miming it turned out we had happened upon a club built into an underground cave – truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
Make friends with the locals
A classic traveler’s refrain, but in Cuba it’s even more relevant. As a woman traveling on her own I wasn’t keen on sharing a bedroom in a hostel with a handful of people I didn’t know but nor did I want to spend a fortune on private accommodation.
Cubans have got it just right with their Casa Particulares, which are pretty similar to small bed and breakfasts. Cuban families rent out their spare rooms with bathrooms to tourists with a communal breakfast of local coffee, fresh tropical fruit, bread and tortillas included. It’s the best chance to find out about the local hotspots to eat and drink and where to take a salsa lesson from the best teacher in town.
Bonus: Intrepid Cuba tours let you sleep in Casa Particulares. Pretty sweet.
Say yes to a shot of rum in your coffee
Havana is not especially renowned for its food; Cuban people are still on basic rations for rice, beans, sugar etc. But as a country it excels at rum and cigars (as you well know) …and coffee. As I found, adding a little splash of rum to your (already) delicious morning coffee takes your caffeine kick to a whole new level.
CHECK OUT INTREPID’S RANGE OF SMALL GROUP ADVENTURES IN CUBA
Venture out of Havana, for the color and character
As dilapidated as central Havana is, it’s both beautiful and steeped in history. You can easily see how magnificent it would have been in its glory days. Outside of the capital, however, it’s an even brighter story. Literally. The majority of pavements of the country towns of Vinales and Trinidad are lined with gorgeous pastels and there are several spots which have benefited from a recent influx of money from UNESCO for renovation and restoration to their previous Art Deco glory.
The beaches of Cayo Jutias and Sancti Spiritus are equally mesmerizing – clear blue sea and pearly white sand stretching for miles.
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Prepare yourself for an interesting culinary experience
Private restaurants have only been legalized since 2011, so don’t always offer the gourmet experience you might be hoping for. But don’t fear – little street kiosks sell some of Cuba’s best food: delicious fresh pineapple, ice cream in coconut shells and hot plantain crisps. Even better, however, is local produce cooked and served in the the towns outside Havana.
My favorite meal was at a place called Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, an organic farm with a family-run restaurant situated in El Paraiso (Valley of Silence) in Vinales. Plate after steaming plate of sticky barbecued chicken, freshly caught fish, fragrant rice, baked banana chips, and sweet potatoes, alongside trays of tropical pineapple and papaya were brought to the outdoor wooden tables in abundance. All served “buffet style”, we were encouraged to try a bit of everything, whilst overlooking a beautiful sunset between the mountains. A dream foodie scenario.
READ MORE ABOUT CUBA’S CULINARY SCENE
Embrace the digital detox
Even though you might be gagging to ‘check-in’ on Facebook, Wi-Fi is state-controlled in Cuba and basically doesn’t exist in buildings. Instead, the state provides Wi-Fi in public spaces, and vendors (and often illegal touts) sell cards with password codes for a couple of dollars for an hour’s internet access. The spaces are instantly recognizable by the flocks of locals and tourists crowded around staring at their phones.
I found this incredibly refreshing; no cellular data or Wi-Fi is a welcome break from the constant connectivity of life at home, if a bit daunting at first when you’re traveling alone. Having said that, it’s easy enough to get Wi-Fi if you’re missing it but I really enjoyed only snatching a few occasional minutes to check in back home. The vendors are not always around though, so if you happen upon one it’s a good idea to stock up on a couple of internet cards.
Cuban time is a vague whisper of a concept
Everything in Cuba is a rough estimate time-wise, including journey durations, public transport timings, and restaurant reservations. Though there are some taxi ranks and registered taxi drivers, for the most part Cuban taxis are the often-pictured iconic classic American cars rattling slowly around every corner. Though riding in one of these cars is a definite bucket-list item in Cuba, you won’t get anywhere quickly.
I loved exploring Havana on my own – people watching and dancing to the live music in the cobbled squares of the old town – but knowing that I only had a limited number of days away I was very glad to have a small group tour too. This was a far more reliable way of getting from A to B, not to mention a great way to meet fellow travelers and friends.
READ MORE: 6 BEACHES IN CUBA THAT ARE A MUST-VISIT
Drink your mojitos quickly
Because why not end the piece with some super useful drinking advice? Whilst the food might sometimes be a little hit and miss, Cuban mojitos are fabulous and free-flowing (and very cheap, about $2-3). Come nightfall in Havana there is no shortage of cocktail vendors, often selling mojitos, daiquiris, Pina Coladas and Cuba Libres from small bars crammed with people spilling out into the streets.
A word of warning – stick to bottled water in Cuba and be wary that the ice in cocktails is usually made from local tap water. If you want to avoid getting ill your best bet is to drink your mojito before the ice melts! If the worst happens, however, it’s always good to know that the Cuban healthcare system is often lauded as one of the best in the world… On that note, enjoy!
Tempted to see all of Cuba’s highlights for yourself? Check out Intrepid’s 15-day ‘Best of Cuba’ tour.
US citizen? This 9-day ‘Hola Cuba’ trip is designed just for you!
Image Credits (top to bottom): iStock, Sarah Simons x5
I am going to Cuba for 2 weeks, my travel partner has just pulled out..so I’m going on my own. I don’t speak Spanish and I’m actually quite scared. Can anyone recommend suggestions on how to meet other solo travellers?
Would you like to travel together? I am literally in the same boat, my friends pulled out because they have work and all
Hi! Thank you for writing this it was really useful – I’m going to Cuba on a tour next month but have a few nights there by myself first. I do a lot of salsa dancing so wanted to go to some clubs – will it be safe to go on my own? I’m staying in Vedado, what would be the best way to get home at night? Are there taxis waiting outside the clubs? Thank you!
I am travelling like Natalie next week on a tour but I am staying few days alone as well..and had the same question! Is it safe going out in the evening alone? Thanks!!!
Hello I read that USA citezen are not allowed to go as a tourist to Cuba it’s that true?
Thank you for these helpful tips. There are a few comments with respect to casa particulars, so i’d like to share information on a casa particular I booked in Havana. It offered the advantage of staying in a privately owned apartment and interacting with local hosts, but the hosts didn’t live on site so we enjoyed lots of privacy. It was in Vedado, a perfect neighbourhood to return to after a hectic day in Old Havana. One of those Wi-Fi parks you described was a couple of blocks away so it was easy to integrate a quick Internet fix into our schedule. I enjoyed it so much it warranted a detailed description in case others are looking for a recommendation: http://packinglighttravel.com/travel-tips/booking-travel/recommended-havana-casa-particular/
I would like to take a very short trip to Cuba- 3 nights and 4 days. I am a solo traveler and English speaking but would love to mingle with like-minded tourists. Where do I start?
Hi Ivy! Intrepid’s small group tours to Cuba all caters to like-minded English speakers of all ages, and from all over the world. We don’t have any trips as short as the ones you’re looking for but if you check out https://www.intrepidtravel.com/cuba you can see the selection. The shortest trips are our 7-day Cycle Cuba trip and our 8-day Cuba on a Shoestring trip 🙂 https://www.intrepidtravel.com/cuba/cycle-cuba-109028, https://www.intrepidtravel.com/cuba/cuba-shoestring-109747. If you have any further questions please feel free to email me directly at email@example.com
Hi Rebecca, does Intrepid do any month-long tours in Cuba? I can only find the 21 day long Grand Cuba tour but on a this feature (https://www.intrepidtravel.com/adventures/cuba-solo-female-challenges/) the author mentions staying for a month and doing an Intrepid tour so I was just curious as I am interested in staying for a month in just Cuba.
Hey Temi, our longest tour in Cuba is indeed the 21-day Grand Cuba trip. We find that a lot of our travellers (except for US ones) tie in some independent travel before or after their group tour (perhaps somewhere a little more beachy and chill). If you have any other qs please feel free to email me to firstname.lastname@example.org 🙂
I am travelling to Cuba too on a short trip, if you found a guide who does short tours would be great if you can share with me as well.
Hello! I enjoyed reading your blog! Thank you for sharing tips and stories of your adventures as a solo traveler. I am planning a trip to Cuba in two months. I am touring Cuba through Intrepid Travel group. My main concern is the housing arrangement. Please be as honest as possible when answering these following questions?At any point did you feel unsafe at Casa Particulares? Did you have to share an entire room with the members of your group or did you have your own room? How were the sleeping arrangements? I look forward to your response! Nos vemos!
Hi, there. Firstly you will love Cuba, it is amazing! No you have nothing to fear in the casas and will feel incredibly safe in them. They are all monitored by the government, run by couples in their own home and all hosts are extremely friendly, welcoming and courteous. Also the casas are selected by Intrepid Travel so you know they have researched them well. As to sleeping arrangements, unless you have paid to have a room to yourself you will probably share with one other person. I went with a friend and we shared. I was originally going on my own so had paid a single supplement to have my own room, when my friend decided to come I was refunded the single supplement. As far as I could make out there are no more than two to a room, bear in mind these are private homes. Intrepid do not put a single male and a single female together in a room so if you are lucky enough to be the only single female on the trip you may end up in a room of your own. At no time did I ever feel unsafe in Cuba but, of course, you have to be sensible, like anywhere in the world, and not wander dark streets alone at night.
Hi, I am going to Cuba at the end of November. Any recommendations on that to take clothes wise? Xxxx
I recently did a Cuba tour with Intrepid.
The guest houses were all great. The hosts lovely and the rooms were all good with A/c although I didnt need this.
I paid a single supplement but If you cant afford this you will probably be lucky as all the people on my trip were great.
The tour itself was great with lots of free time to do your own thing.
I always felt safe in Cuba. So just relax & enjoy!!!
Hi Alex, so happy to hear you enjoyed your Cuba trip with Intrepid! Using local accommodation is really important to us, and so it’s amazing to know that you had such a positive experience. Happy travels and do reach out (email@example.com) if I can answer any queries about other Intrepid tours 🙂
Where did you stay? Do you have any reccomendations for single travelers?
In Havana there is pretty much music in every bar and out on the streets. When things are annoying you a trip to a bar and sinking into some music and a cocktail makes the world feel right pretty much immediately.
I would advise a padlock for your case and a combination bike lock to lock the case to something. Not all casa particulars have safes and you need to take cash into the country so make it as difficult as possible for someone to nick it – not that I encountered any problems.
The lack of street lighting is unnerving if you are not used to it. The foreign office advice is to avoid dimly lit streets and I think sometimes this is not possible!
Thank you so much for the insight to Cuba. I’m looking to book tickets for this December! Did you book your Casa Particulares in advance? Also are they similar to what I can find on hostelworld.com?
Travelled with family in 2014…. what an experience!…loved Havana, music everywhere you walked, went to bar where mojitos were invented and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba- an iconic building
Found the Cubans very friendly and happy to talk about their lives and restrictions .We stayed in Varadero which has amazing beaches, hired a driver with a Buick and drove from Varadero to our hotel…amazing! There were classic cars everywhere!
The lack of Internet was a welcome break from western stresses! ( as was the lack of advertising of any kind!)
I went to Cuba in November and had a fabulous. I also travelled solo and stayed in Casa Particulares. I loved the culture and the music and salsa dancing and the architecture was spectacular. I want to go back!
This is a great account and a mirror of my recent experience in Cuba. I had a couple of days in Havana at each end of my Intrepid tour which all worked out perfectly. I can’t speak highly enough of the Intrepid tour, everything was so well organized and easy. We got to go to many places that would have been difficult to get to alone and our guide, Omar Beatles,, was outstanding. Add to this a really great group of 12 really friendly, fun fellow travellers, and I can honestly say I loved every minute of my time in this fascinating country. I write in detail about this trip on my blog http://www.awanderingwidow.blogspot.com
I have no connection with Intrepid, my opinions are my own
Leaving out that everything in USD is subject to a 10% conversion charge. Your relief at not having internet access is not shared by me or very many others. I have some Cuban friends but don’t wish to contribute to their relatives communist oppression.