I have long hesitated to cover solo travel in Cuba as too many CSTN readers that is to say, Americans would have little use for the information, they having been denied easy access to that defiant Caribbean nation. While it is still not as easy for the folks in the land of the free to vacation in Cuba as it is for everyone else in the western world, there is hope that change is nigh. According to Time.com, a February 2009 report by the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee "concludes that Washington's unilateral embargo [on Cuba] has been ineffective and should be reevaluated."
In that positive light, let's take a closer look at Cuba as a solo travel destination. What do solo tourists want from a vacation? Variety, choice, opportunity, comfort, friendliness, beaches, activities. Really, just the same things as any two or more traveling together desire, only with heightened concerns about cost, safety, and loneliness. Cuba answers every solo travel need, whether it's as one in a group or going independently.
Compared to other Caribbean islands, Cuba is generally lower priced and offers more opportunities to avoid single supplement fees. Currently, any Canadian travel agent can help with brochures and pricing, or one can check online for packages using the following resort hotels that waive single supplement fees, if not year-round, then at least during off-season:
In Varadero: Arenas Blancas, Blau Varadero, Gran Caribe Club Barlovento, Club Puntarena, Club Villa Cuba, Sol Sirenis Coral Resort, Sol Palmeras, Sirenis La Salina.
In Cayo Coco: Blau Colonial, Iberostar Daiquiri, Melia Cayo Coco, NH Krystal Laguna Villas and Resort, Club Villa Cojimar, Sol Cayo Guillermo.
In Holguin: Paradisus Rio de Oro, Sol Rio de Luna y Mares.
In Santa Maria: Melia Cayo Santa Maria.
Sun resorts and singles are not mutually exclusive, but it is easy to fall into a singled-out, lonesome frame of mind after sitting alone on a beach surrounded by twos and threesomes, which is further aggravated by dining, sightseeing, and shopping all by oneself. Many solos avoid that danger by seeking out activity-oriented options such as language classes, or by joining a biking, hiking, kayaking, diving, or even a volunteering group. These companies arrange active vacations in Cuba:
Solos who prefer a do-it-yourself approach to travel ignore packaged holidays with their requisite single supplement fees. Instead, they themselves arrange transportation and lodging to fit budget, either beforehand or as they go using online resources, guidebooks, and on-the-go inquiries. For independent individuals, Cuba is more than just another beach resort.
Getting there: Flights operate from London, Mexico City, Montego Bay, Paris, Santo Domingo Dominican Republic, and most Canadian gateway cities.
Bus. Víazul operates dependable, air-conditioned coaches to destinations of interest to travelers. Contact: Viazul.
Car rental. Possible but chancy for repairs given the age of most vehicles.
Train travel. Possible but not recommended.
Bicycle. Cycling is popular for getting around the countryside, but repairs can be a problem. Most tourists bring their own bike and equipment, especially a solid locking system.
Documents: Tourists require a valid passport, onward ticket, and a tourist card/visa issued by a Cuban consulate, or obtained via a travel agent or airline carrier.
Money: Foreign currencies do not circulate freely in Cuba and must be exchanged
at banks or CADECA offices for Cuban convertible pesos (CUC$).
Exchange Rate (March/09):
CUC$1 = C$.72; US$.92; 1.17; UK £1.29
CUC$1 = 24 Cuban Pesos (useful only for small purchases such as at markets.
Credit cards: VISA, MC accepted, excepting those drawn on American Banks.
Departure Tax: CUC$25 in cash.
Climate: Tropical. Humid and hot May through October, subject to hurricanes. Dryer and cooler November through April when average daytime temperature is 21Celsius (70 F).
By all accounts, Cubans are among the friendliest people on earth, but carelessness should not replace awareness when you have no one to rely on but yourself. Tourists are targets for petty theft, prostitution (jineteras), and assorted scams no matter where in the world they travel, so it's smart to minimize vulnerability with proper consideration of valuables. Leave unnecessary jewelry, camera equipment, credit cards at home. Carry no more cash than is needed for a day or two's expenses. Use an under-clothing money belt, and sense its presence at all times. For emergency reference and reporting purposes, photocopy passport, airfare, credit card, insurance, or any important travel document. Leave one copy at home with a reachable friend or relative, and take along another copy stored separately from originals. Take approved hotel taxis at night. Rendezvous with on-the-road acquaintances only in public places. Beforehand, review appropriate chapters in Going Solo Tips.
A casa particular is a private residence converted and licenced to allow paid lodging. This is an increasingly popular choice for independent tourists, although quality varies considerably. Prices range between CUC$20 and CUC$40 per night. Travel guides will provide recommendations. Try: Cuba Travel Guide by Lonely Planet.
A great way for independent singles to ease into the country is to participate in a language and culture study course.
Spanish language: Beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes are available. Tuition ranges from CUC$100 for 20 hours to CUC$1,798 for 512 hours.
Cuban culture: Tuition for courses are priced at CUC$360 for 60 hours, CUC$980 for 320 hours, or CUC$1,392 for 480 hours.
Languages Abroad. This international language specialist arranges 2 to 32-week Spanish classes in Miramar, a leafy suburb about 15 minutes from Havana airport. Costs begin at US$1,630 with hotel accommodation included. Extracurricular activities and excursions may be arranged.
Many tourists travel to Cuba to combine its vacation setting with high quality facilities and medical treatments, including, for example, eye or cosmetic surgery, and joint replacement.
It's a definite plus when solos have something else to think about besides getting hold of the best tanning spot on the beach. As the largest of the Caribbean islands, Cuba has an edge simply because its 1,200-kilometer length (750 miles) provides more terrain to cover and several large towns to explore. The landscape ranges from coastal flats and semi-arid desert to mountainous tropical rainforests.
Biking and Hiking: Much of the country is flat, making for easy biking, yet keen cyclists and hikers may look to its four mountain ranges for a more challenging experience.
Historic Interest: Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba during his 1492 voyage across the Atlantic. Spanish colonization began in 1511, and fortifications were subsequently built to fend off English, French, and Dutch attacks. Slave rebellions and independence conflicts marked the 19th century. Spanish dominion ended in 1898 with the sinking of the US battleship Maine in Havana harbor, resulting in the Spanish-American War. In 1902, a "neocolonial republic" was created.
Like other Caribbean islands, Cuba has a fascinating history steeped in buccaneering and slave trade exploits, but the country differs from other islands in its ongoing struggles for independence. Twentieth century politics favored strong-arm tacticians; first, Gerarda Machado during the years 1925 to 1933, followed by Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro et al took up arms in 1953, and subsequent events have shaped a uniquely Cuban culture.
With a population of over 11 million, Cuba supports several sizable cities and designated UNESCO World Heritage sites:
Havana (Ciudad de la Habana), founded between 1514 and 1519, is the capital of the republic and the largest city in the Caribbean. For centuries, Old Havana served as trade center between the old and new worlds, and the city grew in opulent palaces, plazas, and parks. Because of the deprivations of the embargo years, much of the city's elegant architecture exists in a deteriorated state, despite ongoing restoration projects.
In 1982 Old Havana (Havana Vieja) and its fortifications were designatedworld cultural heritage sites. Built from1538 to 1544, Castillo de la Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Army) is Cuba's oldest building. Fortaleza de la Cabaña (1763-1774) fronts the harbor; Castillo del Morro (1589-1630) guards the entrance to Havana Bay and Castilla de la Punta (1590-1629) sits opposite.
Today, Havana dominates Cuba's political, scientific, and cultural life with over fifty museums, theaters, concert halls, art galleries, and cultural institutions.
Varadero. As Cuba's premier resort destination, with 20 km of white sand beach edging the Hicacos Peninsula, Varadero has its own airport. It's a scenic 134-km drive east from Havana. Hicacos Point Natural Park is home to the Patriarch (El Patriarca), a 600-year-old cactus, Ambrosio's Cave, Mangón Lake, and the ruins of the Skull (La Calavera) Salt Works.
Matanzas, 34 km east of Varadero, is known as "the city of bridges." No less than seventeen cross the three rivers that traverse the city, which was founded in 1693 as a center for sugar plantations, and as such was the scene of slave insurrections. Here, the 19th century Sauto Theater, a national monument, and the Pharmaceutical Museum at Dr Triolet's French Drugstore are worthy attractions, as is the Bellamar Cave located about 5 km from Matanzas.
Cienfuegos, on the southern coast about 250 km from Havana, is known as "the pearl of the south." In 2005 UNESCO declared its 19th century Urban Centre to be a part of world cultural heritage. A Botanical Garden, with over 2,000 species of native and exotic plants, is about 14 km from city center.
Villa Clara Province has two 16th century heritage cities: Santa Clara, with its Ernesto Che Guevara Monument, and Remedios. The popular Remedios Revels are an annual street party and carnival culminating on Christmas Eve.
Trinidad, 133 km south of Santa Clara, has retained its authentic 16th century character. Founded in 1514, the city and nearby Valley of Sugar Mills (Valle de los Ingenios) have been UNESCO world heritage sites since 1988. About 30 km from town, Playa Ancon is a renowned white sand beach.
Camagüey, Cuba's third largest city, was founded in 1515 and moved inland in 1528 as protection from pirate attacks. Its hilly, maze-like layout of winding streets and dead-end ways made it confusing for attackers but delightful for today's tourists. It's been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1988.
Holguin, 760 km southeast of Havana, is mainly noted for its proximity to the white sand beaches of Guardalavaca.
Bayamo, 819 km east of Havana, was founded in 1513. Rich in national pride, Bayamo is noted as the cradle of Cuban revolution and the site of 19th century uprisings.
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's second largest city, is located 869 km (540 miles) southeast of Havana in mountainous terrain. Founded in 1515, it was Cuba's first capital and was the scene of important patriotic events. Among other historic places, it contains the oldest house in the country and its first museum. San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Baracoa is secluded at the northeastern tip of the island in view of a tabletop hill called El Yunque. Founded in 1511, it was the first Spanish settlement in Cuba and its museum preserves the Parra Cross, which is the only one to survive of 29 crosses that Columbus brought to the new world.
Currently, Americans may travel to Cuba legally if they qualify either for a "general" or a "specific" licence to go maybe on a religious mission, journalistic assignment, academic or research studies, conferences, athletic clinics and competitions, cultural events and workshops, or to visit family.
Travelers wishing to try for a specific license need to compose a letter specifying reasons and qualifications.
Details. US Department of the Treasury.
Even without permission, thousands of Americans (see article by Bret Voegele) go to Cuba every year without license, leaving from places like the Bahamas, Canada, Mexico, or Jamaica. Cuban Customs officials need not stamp passports. The problem, as I understand it, is not so much the going but the spending of dollars in Cuba, and, if caught, violators may be subject to hefty fines. Diplomatic help is limited if vacationers get sick or into trouble with the law while in Cuba.
With recent changes of heads of state both in Havana and in Washington, many observers are confident that these restrictions will soon retreat into the annals of historic oddities.