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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Image Credits (top to bottom): iStock, Sarah Simons x5