With some changes in the travel and trade relationship between Cuba and the United States in the last couple years, it is now possible for Americans to visit Cuba on one of twelve different visas. We were there for a week in March, and there were several things I realized during our trip that I wish I had known ahead of time to bring in order to be better prepared. In this post I’d like to share 6 Things You Should Bring When Traveling to Cuba, so that your experience will be as comfortable and wonderful as possible.
Cuba had never crossed my mind as a travel destination until I my tickets were booked. While I have traveled and lived in several countries, speak Spanish fluently, and really love latin-american culture, Cuba was not an option to visit until recently. While we had a really wonderful experience, there were a lot of things that surprised me about traveling in Cuba.
This post is basically the things I would tell my good friend who had just bought her tickets and came to me seeking advice about how to prepare and pack for a trip to Cuba.
Before I jump into the travel tips, I want to recommend a couple books that were really great for getting a feel for the cultural and historical background of Cuba. I felt like our experience was deeper and richer because we had a basic understanding of the Cuban revolution, the Communist rule under Fidel Castro, and some small idea of the major cultural differences between Socialist and Capitalist mentality.
Trading with the Enemy was a great behind the scenes of the country, and even written 20 years ago I felt like the experience was really similar.
Dreaming in Cuban was an interesting and entertaining fiction story that gave some nice cultural context to the country.
Lonely Planet Cuba is free on Kindle right now, and the current where to go, stay, and eat is always useful.
Okay, now here are 6 Things You Should Bring When Traveling to Cuba:
1. Lots of Snacks
This was one piece of advice that a friend gave me the night before we left, and so I headed to the grocery store for granola bars and peanut m&m’s. You know, the essentials. It felt crazy to buy a ton of food, I mean, people eat in Cuba, right? Well friends, I wish I had brought more.
There aren’t an abundance of grocery stores or deli-style restaurants, so if you are wandering around town and get hungry your only option is to sit down for a leisurely meal (generally lasting an hour or more.) Now, I love a good, long meal on occasion. But traveling, it is also nice to be able to grab something quick between meals to sustain you to the next activity. Or while driving from one city to the next.
Most gas stations, bakeries, and markets we saw during our stay had very few offerings. My granola bars became like gold. When you’re getting ready for your trip to Cuba, pack snacks.
2. A Map
A map? What is that? Again, this is not something I would necessarily pack on a vacation, because I use my phone for most mapping these days. The internet is not readily available in Cuba, which takes mapping on the phone off of the table.
If you bring a travel guide like the Lonely Planet mentioned above, it will have a bunch of readily available maps. If not, grab an updated version of a Cuban map and a closer version for the towns that you will be staying in. Old Havana especially is a very walkable city, and having a map will make it so much easier to find your way around and mark favorite spots.
Everywhere you read about Cuba will mention that cash is king. American debit/credit cards are not accepted, so unless you have an offshore account somewhere, you’ll need cash. Don’t bring American Dollars, however. You’ll need to exchange those for foreign currency to be able to make the exchange to CUC once in Cuba.
Our party brought both Euros and Canadian Dollars and both exchanged easily. You’ll want to bring a little more than you expect, and keep it safe in a travel wallet or something.
4. Toilet Paper or Small Change
Once you change your foreign currency into Cuban Dollars or CUC, you’ll want to break some of into smaller change for paying at the bathrooms. The public restrooms available in gas stations, market squares, and even some private restaurants and hotels are manned by a person handing out toilet paper in exchange for change. There is not a set amount to pay, but a coin or two will get you some toilet paper.
One way to avoid this whole affair is to pack your own roll of toilet paper, which won’t affect any of the plumbing systems as the used TP is thrown into a waste basket next to the toilet, never into the system.
5. Drugstore Sundries
Along with the lack of snack foods in Cuba, you’ll find it difficult to acquire basics like soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, or any type of medication. Make sure you pack everything you anticipate needing, including pain killers, anti-diahrreal medication, and basic first aid.
You will also want to pack sunscreen, bug spray, and any toiletries or sundries you imagine needing along your way.
6. A Good Book
As mentioned above, the internet is not readily available in Cuba. We had heard that accessing it was as easy as buying an internet card and logging on. It actually turned out to be an incredibly difficult task. Finding the internet cards was a bit of a chore, it seemed that people were just randomly selling them on the street. Or not. Then, once you find a card you will need to find an access point. Some of them are hotels or local parks, but they are not clearly defined, and you usually find one by asking around.
Once you have a card and the internet zone figured out, it is hit and miss that they will both work properly in order for you to actually log on. While we were there two of our family members had deadlines to meet and spent several hours looking for a place they could log onto the internet and post their content. It was crazy.
All of that to say, bring a good book! Enjoy the time away from the internet. We could all use a little bit of a cyber break anyway, and the time will do you well.
Some of my favorite books lately are:
Chasing Slow, which would be a fun thing to process while out of the internet’s reach.
I recommend Essentialism all the time because I think everyone could do better with less.
The School of Essential Ingredients is a great, fast read that I loved.
When Breath Becomes Air is compelling and incredible.
Big Magic is a wonderful book for people seeking a creative life.
Aaaand, I should really turn you over to the expert book recommender, my friend Janssen at Everyday Reading for her Summer 2017 Book List. You’ll find one there you love, I’m sure.
Now you’re set to pack your bags and hop over to Cuba while the Island is still under-toured and super exciting. Despite not being as tourist-ready as other areas in the world, the culture, charm, and beauty of Cuba was incredible.
We loved the experience of traveling to Cuba and are already planning a return trip on which I’ll follow my own advice and pack snacks, a map, more cash, toilet paper, and a couple good books.
Let me know if you’ve been to Cuba lately what you would add to my list. Also, I’ll always take some great book recommendations.