Before my extranjera view of health and safety in Cuba, what does our Cuban writer Yuri have to say about it?
How safe is Cuba?
As you might be figuring out, there aren’t Yes-No answers here but a personal approach to the header’s question.
-How biased am I? –
A lot, I am a Cuban. Not the archetypal concept of Cuban born abroad and therefore somehow emotionally linked to the motherland. I am Cuban born: I eat congrí, tostones and puelco (roasted pork), everyday; I contribute to the Cuban website CubaDebate everyday; I still think there is a lot to do for the Cuban people. So yes, I admit it, I am biased.
-How safe are you in Cuba?-
Pretty much, safe. I’d say, safer than in any other place you’ve been before.
Putting things into context: the mutually destructive relation between the only one ruling political party in Cuba for the last 60 years and the US administrations, have created a sense of isolation from the outside world for the Cuban people. The result is that, most of the things we take for granted everywhere are scarce or non-existent there, from Uber to drug smuggling.
The thought of being kidnapped and held for ransom is honestly ridiculous: you are more likely to be bewitched by someone with beautiful eyes and end up self-imposing your own exile in Cuba. Violent crime targeting foreigners is virtually nil. Religious tolerance is so high that the expression itself “religious tolerance” lacks meaning: there is nothing to tolerate in a population with mostly syncretic beliefs, and a government that embraced atheism in the past and laicism now. Eating street food is safe, it just takes a basic judgement call to assess which food to try and which not to. I can tell with almost absolute certainty, unlike in many European cities, that you won’t be hustled at every other corner to buy types of “special grass” or “fairy’s dust”. Diseases? Uhmm, yes, like in any western developed country and definitely not like the rest of the underdeveloped countries of the hemisphere. Just check this fact, although imperfect: the Cuban health care system has managed to have practically the highest number of physicians per 100.000 inhabitants in the world – only outnumbered by the tiny Luxembourg.
From the point of view of foreign female learning to live in Havana – it’s super safe!
Cuba is well-known as one of the ‘safest’ holiday destinations in the developing world. As a result, it’s popular with solo travellers, especially women. All told, it’s the perfect location for enjoying the Caribbean atmosphere, weather, culture and music, without having to worry about the dangers of strolling down quiet streets in the evenings, or having to strap your money underneath your clothes all day. I’ve never felt unsafe in Cuba and at the same time, there are some things to be aware of which perhaps don’t apply in other countries. Here they are!
It’s rare, as long as one applies the usual common sense. You’re not at the same risk of pickpockets as you are in, let’s say, Paris or Madrid. I rarely feel the need to clutch my already-zipped-up handbag in the way I did in those countries. Muggings, especially of foreigners, are rare. Of course, if you leave your belongings unattended on a beach to go for a quick swim, something is likely to go missing. Technology such as phones and laptops are difficult and expensive to obtain here, so opportunistic theft of these is more common. Having said that, have a read of what happened that day in Havana when Danny left his phone in the taxi, and you will see that this city can be kinder than most. The crowded local buses are a place to keep an eye on your belongings, and I always lock my suitcases before they are stowed in the luggage hold of a Viazul coach.
Streets after dark
Again, safer than you might think. Gun crime is minimal here, and most locals stay well clear of foreigners as you stroll the evening streets, unless it’s to ask you out on a date, or tell you how pretty you are (no, really: see below). There are quieter areas of Centro Habana where perhaps it feels a bit spooky to walk alone at night, but these are well away from the touristy areas. What’s more, I find that there is a surprising number of bakeries, gas stations and pizza kiosks which are open 24/7, so there’s usually someone around. Something about the culture of Cuba is quite nosey, and the upside of that is that there’s usually plenty of eyes on the lookout. That said, I exercise the same precautions I would anywhere else and don’t wander about by myself in the dark if I can avoid it!
Taxis and transport
The safest and priciest way to travel in Cuba is by licensed private taxi. (I haven’t travelled enough by the new SubeCuba (Unber-style cab service) to know how safe that is yet but surely it’s a step int eh right direction for transport infrastructure!). However, it would be missing out on a unique, authentic experience not to at least try taking one of the old American cars which trundle around the city. I have learned to agree the price before I get in, and to have an idea of what that price ought to be before I get going – a visitor could ask a casa owner or tour guide. I’ve never had an issue in a taxi going off-piste in Cuba, but I always keep my maps.me app turned on so that I know exactly where I am and where I am getting out. For longer journeys I recommend taking a licensed, private car or the Viazul buses, all of which are in reasonable condition and are air-conditioned. The roads outside of the capital are a bit bumpy and so you want to be a safe as possible: that means a good vehicle and seatbelts!
Hustlers or ‘jinteros’
These are naughty people who want to trick you out of your money, basically. This is probably the biggest problem in Cuba, and it’s more of threat to your sanity than a health or safety risk. For many Cubans without much access to CUC (the $ equivalent here), a foreigner is an untapped goldmine. First, you get asked where you’re from, then you might be invited to ‘parties’, a friend’s casa or restaurant, or asked for money straight out. These approaches are easy to deal with: a simple ‘no gracias’ solves the problem. The subtler hustlers are those who ‘shark’ around the numerous dancefloors, looking for foreigners with whom to flirt (and more). Of course, what you get up to on your holiday is up to you, but be aware that if you are buying all the drinks for the handsome stranger with the slick dance moves, that they might be after more than just a bit of romance. Hustler-avoidance is best achieved with total assurance of what you are doing and where you are going, plus a few phrases in Spanish. For visitors, a decent, independent tour guide (like Danny!) will keep you well away from these tricksters, plus you’ll know that the places you are going have been well-selected.
People who travel know that mild stomach upsets are inevitable due to changes in water and food. During short breaks here, I would always try to keep to bottled water, just to avoid the inconvenience of having to find a bathroom wherever you go. Traveling with a guide will help you to make good choices about where to eat and drink, meaning that a trip to Cuba usually is (stomach) problem free. Having been here for a while, the water is no longer an issue and I generally feel that the food is much less likely to be pumped full of chemicals and hormones than it is in the West.
There are still travel advisories being issued related to illnesses carried by mosquitoes, such as Zika. Travellers should always check with a reputable website such as the World Health Organisation before you travel anywhere. Living here, these risks seem less deadly as every day, I see that the vast majority of people of all ages are going about their daily business with no mosquito-related issues whatsoever. There are obviously mozzies here, mostly at dusk and dawn. They come out in the countryside, sometimes by the Malecón and certainly at the beach, if you have exposed skin at these times, you’re likely to get a little nibble. It’s nothing that long sleeves and Deet can’t take care of!
If you are not Cuban, it’s a legal requirement to have travel or health insurance here, as you cannot access the public healthcare. Every city has an international clinic and a comparatively well-stocked international pharmacy, and I have always found that health care has been swift, efficient and thorough, even though it’s a bit unnerving paying upfront in cash (I always have the contact details of my insurance providers handy!).
So there you have it: from two very different perspectives, the overall notion is that, all things considered, Cuba is a very safe place to visit.