Tips for Solo Female Travelers in Cuba
Is Cuba safe for solo female travelers?
In a word, yes.
But it’s more nuanced than that.
Cuba is an extraordinarily safe country and the risk of being physically attacked is extremely low. That said, catcalling and professional hustlers are exceedingly common and then there’s the whole issue of the US trade embargo and the difficulty finding everyday items so let’s dig in a bit further.
Why do I feel qualified to speak on this topic? Because I began traveling to Cuba by myself in 2013, making multiple 2-3 month solo adventures across the island. I spent so much time in the country and received so many requests for help planning trips there that I started a travel company and now lead group trips to Cuba. I’ve helped countless women plan their own solo trips or “girls only” group trips to Cuba.
Contact me if you’d like help planning your own trip and read on for tips on solo female travel to Cuba and a history of my own experience with Cuban men.
What Every Woman Should Pack for Cuba
Everyday items like sunscreen and body lotion can be hard to find in Cuba so it’s important to pack everything you think you’ll need during a trip. Feminine care products can be especially difficult to find so bring your favorite tampons and pads (or reusable menstrual cup), plus a stash to give to a very appreciative Cuban woman. Cuba is hot and humid year-round so bring clothing that keeps you cool and comfortable. For a list of my favorite travel products, check out my travel store.
I wrote a separate article on How to Pack for Cuba, which goes in much more detail about what exactly to pack, from basics and essentials to donations to leave behind.
Catcalling in Cuba
Solo female travel in Cuba is still fairly uncommon, making single women stand out more. Cuban and foreign women alike are the recipients of endless catcalls, whistling, and kissing noises - regardless of what they’re wearing - only Cuban women typically ignore it. Some Cuban women enjoy it, some are indifferent to it, and others are annoyed but find it easier to ignore than to try to change the system. Single female travelers to Cuba won’t have much luck changing an entire country’s stance on cat calling and courtship so it’s best to be prepared for such advances and to have a plan for how to handle them.
I try to ignore the calls but when cat callers are persistent or I’m at my limit, I hit them with “No me moleste” (pronounced 'no may mol-ES-tay’), which means “don't bother me!”
Linda, linda, where you from?
If you like to be told that you’re the most beautiful person that a man has ever seen, then Cuba is the best place for you to visit and you should book a one-way flight there immediately. It’s nearly impossible to go a day without someone calling you “linda”, which means “beautiful” or “pretty”.
Jineteros are street hustlers known for calling to foreign women with the tried-and-true “Where you from?" This is usually prefaced with “linda”, and often followed by “Can I show you around?”, “Do you need help finding a casa/guide/taxi?” or the very direct “Do you want a boyfriend?” Many jineteros are genuinely friendly people and their cat calling harmless but their persistence can become annoying. Many jineteros have no formal job; tourists buy their food and drinks and pay their entrance into clubs. If you feel you’ve made a friend and you want to treat them to dinner, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I do the same! Just know that quite a few women (AND men) find themselves spending far more money than intended and many of them feel gullible and taken advantage of afterward.
Because jineteros are typically not transparent about their business, travelers often believe they’re making a friend but this “friend” is secretly collecting a commission by finding them restaurants, taxis, and accommodations. That said, if you’re in an unfamiliar country and don’t speak the language, the additional help may be worth an extra few dollars.
The onslaught of personal questions
In addition to the cat calls, be prepared to get a lot of questions about your personal life. If you’re single, why? If not, where’s your husband?. Do you have kids? If so, where are they? If not, when do you plan on having them? You know it’s time for you to have kids, right?
I used to offer lengthy explanations on why I loved the single life and how I saw myself being happier without children but after giving the same answer 100 times, I modified my response to “I’m still looking for my prince so I’m not thinking about kids yet”. Feminists may disagree with the oversimplification of my response, but it just got too tiresome to have the same conversation with multiple grandmothers and bicycle taxi drivers every single day. This short (albeit incomplete) response made my daily conversations much quicker and more enjoyable.
Everyone wants a Cuban boyfriend
Okay, so maybe not everyone, but it’s definitely a thing. Cuban men have a reputation for being good lovers and what woman doesn’t want a man telling her that she’s the most beautiful person on the planet? If you want to go to Cuba and get yourself a Cuban papi, then I’m not here to stop you, I just want you to know what you’re getting yourself into. If all you want is a fling, then go for it. But if you’re looking for true love, proceed with caution.
Just like other developing countries, many men (and women!) earn their living by befriending tourists. Many women who fall for a smooth Cuban papi who bought them roses in Havana and who asked for only $5 to buy an internet card (so he could communicate more with her, of course) begin receiving frequent requests for money deposits on his phone, often claiming it’s needed to help a sick mother or sister.
How to avoid unwanted advances in Cuba
Unfortunately, the only technique that I’ve found works 100% of the time to prevent unwanted advances from men in Cuba is to be accompanied by another Cuban man. Being accompanied by a Cuban woman helps somewhat, but men command more respect in machismo culture and a woman is viewed as being off limits only if she is accompanied by another man.
If a woman is alone and says she is married, she is still presumed to be up for grabs until her man is physically by her side. If you meet a man who seems genuinely nice, inviting him to accompany you would prevent other men from harassing you. I met two Mexican women in 2013 who met a friendly bicycle taxi driver who they paid $5/day to be their “guide” around the city. Interestingly, one of them fell for their guide’s friend but I’m not sure how that story ended.
Understand that your escort may be a jinetero (it can be hard to tell sometimes) and that you’ll be paying for his food and admission to any attraction he takes you to, but avoiding the incessant whistling, kissing noises, and offers for taxis, restaurants, and casas may be worth it.
My personal history with men in Cuba
Immediate requests for money
During my first trip to Cuba in 2013, I met a guy dancing who showed me around the next day (my final day in Havana). As most Cubans can’t afford to eat in restaurants, I happily treated him to dinner in exchange for his time showing me around the city. He asked for no money and made no romantic advances. We exchanged email addresses and a week later, he wrote me to say that he had plans to move to Kentucky and was hoping that I could send him some money to help make it happen.
Requests that come later
During a 3-month trip in 2016, I became friends with someone who set me up with a place to stay in his aunt’s house at almost no charge, and who served as my tour guide for nearly the entire week. I happily treated him and his aunt to dinner a couple times and invited and paid for his transportation and lodging to travel with me to a nearby city since he said he had never left his city (this is true for many Cubans). I was and remain content with this decision.. Two years later, he emailed asking me to put money on his cell phone. Given how much he helped me, I was happy to put $25 on his phone. A few days later, a friend of his emailed me asking me to send him $125 for a new phone. The request was absurd and I was genuinely hurt. I have no way of knowing how the conversation played out between my “friend” and his friend, but I felt like a pocketbook.
I’ve read quite a few articles on travel safety tips for single women visiting Cuba and while they usually give similar helpful tips on how to handle catcalling and what to pack, I had a hard time finding women who have shared their experiences of being sexually assaulted in Cuba. This is not surprising, as it’s an extremely sensitive topic that’s uncomfortable to discuss. I truly believe that Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world and I feel safer there than I do in parts of my own country. I know the rate of sexual violence is much lower in Cuba than in other countries, but that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent. Women are objectified and assaulted in every country and Cuba is no different. I (and most women I know) have experienced far worse in the United States than is described below but I’m including it here since the conversation about the safety of solo female travelers in Cuba typically doesn’t mention the potential of sexual assault and I don’t want women to completely let their guard down.
In 2013, a seemingly nice guy I met at a nightclub in Santa Clara walked me to my casa so I wouldn’t have to walk home alone. When I gave him a half-hug and goodbye kiss on the cheek (customary in many Latin American countries), his hand “accidentally” brushed against my breast and I saw a group of his friends on the next corner watching us. I walked away unharmed but I was very nervous and uncomfortable at the time, knowing the situation could have ended differently.
During a two-month bike tour of Cuba in 2018, a farmer outside Viñales called to me from his tractor and leaned down to give me a flower. He asked me if I thought Cuba was a beautiful country and he took my hand and pointed to some “beautiful trees” in the distance. I walked a few steps off the road with him, having found myself in this situation many times. Cubans are proud of their country and love showing it to travelers. This time, however, something didn’t feel right so I pulled back. He insisted I let him show me the trees but I walked away and got back on my bicycle, feeling violated even though “nothing” had actually happened.
The very next day, a taxi driver overheard me asking for directions in Pinar del Rio. He followed me as I rode my bicycle, looped back around next to me and asked if I needed directions. When I stopped to thank him and tell him I was okay, he got out of his car and exposed himself. I was completely shook and wanted to cry. I live in New York City, where homeless men expose themselves on the street on the regular, but this felt so much more personal. I told another man cycling past me on the highway 5 minutes later. He apologized profusely, expressed genuine sympathy and outrage, and assured me he would report the incident to the police in town. He wanted me to know that most Cuban men don’t behave like that taxi driver. He wanted me to know that Cuban men respect women and that I should feel welcome and safe in his country. This man exemplifies the loving Cuban spirit that I recognize in the vast majority of Cubans. He is the reason that you should visit Cuba.
Basic Safety Tips
Keep your purse close to you and carry only as much cash as you need.
Learning some Spanish phrases will help you feel more confident. Write down important phrases in a notebook in your purse/bag and/or install a language app on your phone!
If you’re heading home late by yourself, take a taxi instead of walking. This is especially important if you’ve enjoyed one too many mojitos.
Always carry with you the business card of where you are staying so a taxi can bring you right to your front door.
What’s your experience traveling in Cuba?
I’d love to know about your experience traveling in Cuba. Please share in the comments below!