Cuba Tips for American Travelers — Part 3: What to Bring
I always love a good packing list…said nobody ever. But for Cuba it’s essential. Usually my motto when traveling is: as long as I have my passport and a credit card, it will all be okay. Not so in Cuba as an American where your credit card won’t work at all. Not to mention the fact that (in very large part due to the US embargo) it’s hard to find certain things in Cuba no matter how much buying power you have. So, some diligent packing is key to a good trip.
What to Pack
(Sorry in advance to the dudes, there are some lady-specific things listed below. Though by all means if you have a black crossbody and strappy sandals — bring ’em!)
Most of us brought carry-on sized rolling suitcases because we hate checking luggage, but on our charter flight from Miami the limits were so strict that we all ended up checking anyway. A backpack was useful for Viñales and a tote bag for the beach, but day in and day out I carried a small black crossbody with just enough room for my daily/nightly essentials. We also did a couple overnight trips from Havana and a collapsable duffel was perfect for that, since we had a place to leave rollerboards in Havana.
Regardless of what your main bag is, make sure it’s lockable and bring a couple luggage locks. You’ll want to lock up anything valuable — especially all that cash — while you’re out of your room. As I mentioned earlier, crime is very low in Cuba and violent crime near-nonexistent, but if you lived in a country where you simply couldn’t get access to many everyday things, you might help yourself to stuff left lying around, too.
Clothes and Shoes
Cuba is hot. We went during the coolest time of year and I run cold generally, yet there were only a couple times when I needed long sleeves or long pants/skirt at night. In general dress for heat, and bring a couple versatile light layers mainly for nighttime (a light jacket for rain, a cardigan, a shawl, etc). Cuban culture is not conservative when it comes to dress, so tank tops, short shorts, tube tops (jk, it’s not the 90's), are all fine.
A lot of the streets are uneven, wet, or dirty (particularly in Trinidad and in Centro Havana) so I was happy to have my Birkenstocks to get my exposed feet an inch or so off the ground and basically wore those all day and strappy sandals at night. In general, people are dressed pretty casually except in the untz untz clubs, so you can probably leave those heels behind.
Plugs are standard American two-pronged, so you won’t need adapters (unless you need to charge a laptop/etc with a third prong in which case you need a three-to-two).
Make sure you have what you need for photos! You’ll want to take a zillion. And bring a flashlight. This was particularly helpful in Viñales where the streets were quite dark at night, and in Trinidad when much of the town lost power for a couple hours one night.
I always recommend packing a dozen granola bars and some kind of electrolyte powder/tablet that can be added to bottled water in case you’re feeling dehydrated. I also always take acidophilus while traveling to help my stomach adjust to different local microbes. (We did not drink the water, but we did brush our teeth with it and eat fresh fruits/veggies and ice, and that worked out fine.)
Most of the food we had in Cuba was flavored with simple things like salt, garlic, and onions. It’s not the Cuban food you’re used to in the US because lots of ingredients, including spices, are hard to come by. For example, while ropa vieja (my fave) was on most menus, it was almost never available. If you think you might get tired of a pretty simple palate of flavors, bringing some travel sized hot sauce and pepper packets can mix things up. (Note that we had heard the food was going to be terrible. It wasn’t. Most of it was pretty good, even if there wasn’t much variety, and there was lobster everywhere. More on food in each city, including where we ate, in those posts.)
We’d heard repeatedly to bring gifts with us to Cuba. Every time we stayed at a casa particular (a private home) we’d both tip and gift at the end. And it was always awkward. I don’t really know if that was us or them or the gifts themselves. But we did hear repeatedly that things like soap, shampoo, and basic medicines like aspirin were desirable, and that baseball caps and t-shirts were appreciated. So we bundled stuff like that together and handed it off when it was time to say goodbye to our hosts. At the end of the trip we gave all our leftover toiletries to our guide to bring to the local “communitarian” project she did with seniors. I still can’t make heads or tails of what the proper gift etiquette is when traveling in Cuba, but I’d say err on the side of bringing some small, useful things to hand out. Can’t hurt.
Which brings me to the most important category (sorry to bury the lead)…
This category usually wins the award for If-I-forget-something-I’ll-just-buy-it when I travel. I’m on a plane every couple of weeks for work and I have a toiletry kit that lives in my suitcase. But beware! Sundries are very hard to come by in Cuba. Our guide actually stocked up on shampoo at a highway rest stop at one point because she said it was so hard to find it in Havana. So make sure you’re diligent about packing what you need for the whole time you’re there. And don’t forget things like sunscreen and bug spray.
I’ll also include medicine in this category. Cuba’s health care system is terrific from what I hear, but that doesn’t mean you want to have to use it. Bring over the counter meds for colds, stomach issues, cuts and bites, and any prescriptions you need or may need (e.g. Cipro).
Probably the two things you’ll be most grateful to have packed a ton of are hand sanitizer and tissue packs. Bring both with you every time you go to the bathroom.
A Side Note on Bathrooms
Speaking of which…a side note on bathrooms. For the most part, they are…not great.
We came up with an eight point scale, with one point of each for: 1) a lock, 2) a toilet seat, 3) toilet paper, 4) it flushes, 5) functional sink, 6) soap, 7) a way to dry your hands, 8) no payment required. Of course, there was a multiplier for emotional distress, which often occurred when the bathroom had not scored a point for #4 in awhile. An EDM between 0 and 1 can diminish a bathroom’s score significantly, but woe is you if the multiplier is negative…no amount of points on the 0–8 scale can salvage that bathroom.
And just to hammer the point home, outside of where we were staying, I believe the entire group encountered two eight point bathrooms during our full 10 days in Cuba. So I reiterate: bring hand sanitizer and tissue packs.
Finally, a note on what #8 “payment required” means. Technically I don’t believe you’d get turned away from a bathroom for not paying. But many if not most bathrooms at rest stops and in restaurants have an attendant. In some cases that person dispenses a couple squares of toilet paper in exchange for a coin. In other cases s/he just sits there. In one case it was a woman, a child, and a dog. No matter their function, it’s customary to give the attendant(s) some change. Anywhere from a few pesos to 1 CUC is fine. It’s a good idea to hoard change as you get it throughout the trip so that you always have something to drop in the basket at the bathroom.
I’m kind of embarrassed to do this, but you’ve read to the end of this post so consider it your reward. Here’s my own packing list from my trip, in case it’s helpful.