travel | cuba - a black woman solo traveller's perspective...
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
Amara Amaryah | travel + books + poetry, always poetry. a platform for story-telling, visuals, positive self-talk and empowerment. | black woman solo traveller on cuba
we haven't spoken about the fact that i managed to squeeze in a perfect trip to havana before the corona situation got wild. whilst travelling to cuba is certainly off the cards for the moment, all the memories from my trip are replaying in my mind daily. i have shared sound journals, photodiaries and instagram reels but i haven't shared my personal experiences from the trip on the blog. i'm taking this pause and break to reflect on my experience as a solo black female traveller in cuba so you can see what to expect.
big spoiler, i would move to havana in a heartbeat. i couldn't hide that if you paid me to. there are several intricacies about cuba that i want to highlight (more explicitly havana as that is where i spent most of my time). to approach this blog post i have divided it up into: the good, the bad and the unexpected. there is something beautiful to take from every trip; every single trip is a blessing and a privilege. my younger self could only dream of the places i have visited and i don't want this post to take that for granted. so, i am not going to use this post to generalise an entire country or judge or score it, but instead i want to be realistic about safety, how the vibe felt, how i was received and whether i would recommend you putting it on your travel list.
1. it is definitely the culture for me. it is very likely that i have left a part of myself in havana.
cuba is the second caribbean island that i have visited and it felt so much more in tune with how i want to live life. there is no rushing; havana doesn't have that pretentious feel that most capital cities have. it is warm and full of human noise (laughter, shouting, singing) and of course it is so hot in the day that the streets come alive in the evening, tuesdays included.
there are touristy elements, of course there are, but for the most part it feels genuine. the things that draw me to havana are the things i can do for free, like dancing to good music with a stranger. or not feeling the need to pull out my phone to check notifications. or having an evening long conversation about history - personal and international. there is so much opportunity to return to the core of life in havana, that is joy, dance, storytelling, food, and i appreciate that reminder.
2. and this brings me to my second point. the reason that i can feel so comfortable living life fully is because my mind isn't operating on survival mode: cuba is by far the safest place i have travelled to. i would really love to know if there is anywhere safer for a female solo traveller because cuba was entirely opposite to what i have ever experienced. a few months before my trip to cuba, i had to be plan hard to ensure a safe solo trip to Jamaica, so it was a welcome change in approach. whilst i recognise that cuba has a unique and different history/coloniser/way off operating, the stark difference between the two islands and safety levels was something that really made me appreciate my freedom in cuba with a little bit more bravery. i will never let people lie about jamaica and act like you can't safely leave resorts but the control in cuba is different.
i think that as a result of castro's governance, there is and has been an incredibly low crime rate. one of the first things that i was told in my taxi from the airport to my accommodation was that 'no hay violencia in cuba' there is no violence in cuba. no guns, no gangs, no terrorism, Felipe told me. my host confirmed this, she spoke to me about how kids play out in the streets late with no problems. when getting ready to enjoy my first havana night, she told me that i will be fine but just keep watch just in case. when i headed out for dinner after the sun set, i felt strange for even considering staying in. everyone and their literal abuela was out enjoying the evening vibes. for the entire trip i roamed from morning to the early hours of the morning with my new friends and felt safe, unbothered, free. interested to know if people had a similar experience… comment below if so.
3. another plus, i found that being in cuba was quite inexpensive. it is safe enough to walk around, taxis are inexpensive, buses even less so (if you can brave the packed bus), drinks are not too pricey and the ambiance is worth it, the best experiences are found on the streets or in the plazas and restaurants are more than reasonable. tip where you can because it goes a long way but even still, you don't need a lot of money to have a good time.
4. i love the fact that it is expected that you come to cuba to support the local people. when you get a tourist visa to visit, this is already the assumption. most people will stay in a casa particular which is basically homestay within local cuban homes. it is very effective, again very safe and a great way to experience true cuban lifestyle. whenever i met new people, they would ask if i am staying in a hotel or a casa and the joy they would have when i said casa was so pure. i would say infectious. for those that i spoke to, the fact that i was supporting a fellow cuban contributed to their happiness and that is something we could learn in capitalism land but that is for another day...
5. solo travelling in cuba = new friends who want to show you around the best parts of havana. i hesitate to call it a true solo trip because i didn't spend a lot of time alone. that is a compliment to the friendly, hilarious and kind spirited cubans who won't let you leave without getting you to dance or laugh or share your day with them.
1. as someone who eats a plant-based diet, i found myself very limited for options. i am notoriously bad at planning food stuff when on holiday, i am more of a turn up and see what is available kinda girl. so that i can be free to roam, i rarely ever plan my holiday around where i can get good food as most vegans do. cuba was notably difficult though, even for a carefree spirit like me. i was not getting enough nutrients and my body wasn't even letting me lie to myself. i also didn't carry my liquid vitamin with me so there was that. an american vegetarian spent some time complaining to me about the lack of nutrients she was getting and explained how she was living off of a peanut bar for energy (proceeded to pull out the third of the bar left for the day). anyway i ended up eating tuna sandwiches a few times so that i wasn't eating rice, sweet potato chips and salads all week.
small small disclaimer, it is not impossible to eat a plant based diet in cuba but it takes a lot more effort. i had some rice and beans, a gorgeous chickpea dish, vegetable tacos and malanga (which i was later told wasn't vegan depending on whether egg was used in the mixture and yes, this was the saddest news i received as malanga was the saving grace of my cuban dining experience). being in cuba, sometimes you have to get what you can and not get too dependent. i think if i were to have cooked for myself every night then i would have been okay buying food in the market and managing my nutrient intake independently but as far as eating out goes, it wasn't the easiest.
2. another thing to mention, because of the poverty in cuba sometimes people will try and tour you around and ask for money at the end or household things like soap and toothpaste. i wanted to add this to be transparent but i never felt unsafe and sometimes you just help because you can. but this will happen.
1. the internet. havana is not for ye digital nomads. the internet is a little unreliable in cuba. i already knew this before going and honestly it didn't bother me because i was busy life-living harder than i ever have. but if you're depending on it for work or whatever then it is tricky. the casa that i stayed in had some sort of wifi but it wasn't always reliable, i at least got to speak to my mum on our birthday but i had to go to wifi spots in parks or hotels to connect.
2. if i didn't plan much for this trip i would've been fine. more than. and not out of pocket. as far as accommodation goes, the casa particulares are literally all over havana, sometimes every other house has a room for rent. the trick to havana is not to plan. go where the day takes you. this is ideal for my fellow wayward travelling siblings who only glance over the itenary but ultimately go where the music is best. i even picked up on this on my second day and booked myself an excursion for viñales a night before the 7.30am trip. it was the best inexpensive last-minute day out ever.
3. cuba is one of my favourite places to be a black traveller. i felt as welcomed as i did when i travelled solo to jamaica. it felt like - feels like - home for me so i would 100% recommend cuba as a solo travel destination for black wanderers. i really liked cuba for the invisibility. the lack of stares, the warmest embraces and the safety this allowed me. i was mistaken for a cuban in cuba more than i was mistaken for a jamaican in jamaica. when solo travelling i always wonder how i will be received as a black woman and to what extent i will have to be guarded. often times solo travellers tell you 'go make friends' or 'be open to meeting new people' but black women cannot navigate the world jus so. we have to be aware of how our blackness and womanhood is going to cast us as vulnerable or malicious or [insert other useless assumption]. cuba removed that for me and i was able to explore, meet people and be black freely. i had so many respectful conversations about jamaica too because the cubans that i met seemed genuinely interested in learning about and sharing knowledge of the world. the beauty of not having your hands glued to your phone all the time.
during my travels i met a few black cubans who spoke to me about their experience of racism within the island. for instance, apparently most of the those incarcerated in cuban prisons are disproportionately black and there for minor crimes. so i won't be blind to the difference between being a traveller and being a black person born in cuba. but the response to blackness was, for the most part, very positive and i am very grateful for that. cuba is seemingly aware of it's racial mix and African heritage; the national gallery in La Habana has an extensive exhibition on black history in cuba (all the way on the top floor but never mind). and the food, culture, art and conversations on the streets seem to affirm that too.
so there it is. i don't need to tell you where i stand on cuba but if you ever plan a trip, let me know so we can fangirl together.
comment below if you would like a 'Havana guide' with everything you need to know before and during your trip to cuba. thanks for reading what i write. i hope it has motivated you to want to see the world afresh and alone when you feel safe to do so. remember to like and subscribe and pray over your week.