Packing for a trip to Cuba

Heading to Cuba? Here are my notes on what you must bring, probably should bring and absolutely don’t need to bring on your trip.

Passport: Check, Ticket: Check, Tourist Card: Check.
A Cuban visa (or tourist card) is just one of the documents you’ll need to pack.

Packing for a trip to Cuba* is an experience unlike any other. At least, that’s how I remember it. The list of government-required documents –health insurance, visa– takes time and legwork to track down. Once you’ve checked that box, the challenge shifts to what kind of stuff to throw in your luggage. Temperatures are warm year-round because Cuba is close to the equator. It’s usually sunny and in the summer months, sunny and humid.

With that in mind, pack clothing that’s comfortable and keeps you cool. Air conditioning is not universally available in shops and restaurants, and where it is available it may be on the fritz, or just off.

To offer a little more guidance on “comfortable” I’d suggest you dress moderately; nothing risqué or showy. No need to dress as if you are visiting an Orthodox church, but generally I’d err on the humble side. Packing one slightly dressier outfit in case you want to visit one of the fancier restaurants in the major cities like Havana is enough.

But, what I want to focus on is the other “stuff” that—in my experience—nobody talks about. To make your trip fun, I’m passing my learnings along. Having these items will increase your enjoyment and peace of mind.

Here’s what you must bring, probably should bring and what can be left at home when traveling to Cuba.

Must Bring. As in, don’t get on your flight without these items.

Cash. Outside of your passport and travel documents, cash is king. Food, drinks, shopping, lodging—all of it has to be paid for in cash. Once you hit Cuba, credit and debit cards are almost universally useless. They aren’t accepted and you most certainly cannot withdraw money from ATM’s.

Savvy travelers swap dollars for Euro’s, Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos (I didn’t know anyone who used pesos, but heard it mentioned in conversation) before leaving the US. That’s because changing currency in Cuba is tricky. There is a 3% processing fee to change any currency to CUC (convertible pesos, the tourist currency). But be warned, if you are changing dollars to CUC, you get the privilege of paying an additional 10% “processing fee.” Ouch, the fun of being caught up in politics.

One thing to consider is, because of the amount of cash you’ll be carrying, a traveler’s money belt is a smart way to keep the majority of cash. Then carry few denominations in your pocket. Not that you have to worry about muggings. Aside from pickpockets, Cuba is one of the safest countries for travelers. There may be many poor neighborhoods, but there are no “bad” ones.

Another item to consider the exchange rate is about 1-to-1 CUC to dollar, and slightly better for Euro. This is not the same currency that Cubans use. You’re paying much more with a CUC than a Cuban peso, but prices remain comparatively reasonable. A good meal, when you find one, will cost a quarter of what it would in the States.

Two other considerations—1) where, and 2) how much money to exchange? Changing dollars at the airport is the only alternative we found. Any airport you arrive at will have a money exchange, and this is often (but not always) the best rate you’ll find. We exchanged the majority of our Euros there, and then once at a major hotel in Havana.

How much to exchange depends primarily on your budget. Still—exchanging money back to dollars is a losing proposition. So whatever you’re going to exchange you should spend. Rest assured, your money makes a positive difference in Cuba’s economy.

Probably Should Bring. These things aren’t must haves, but you’re better off bringing.

First aid kit. Nothing complicated like you are planning for a Zombie apocalypse, but a supply of band aides, bug/mosquito spray, aspirin, Pepto, and Kleenex (which comes in handy for places that don’t offer toilet paper). Stomach upset can quickly derail a vacation, so it’s not a bad idea to speak with your doctor about antibiotics, or other items that need a prescription.

Tip: Carry medications in their prescription bottles, especially controlled substances, to avoid problems with Cuban officials.

How important is a first aid kit? Only you can say. But, my entire mini kit was emptied helping other people on my trip before we left Havana.

Host gifts. You’ll read that sundries like toothpaste and shampoo are expensive and difficult to find in Cuba. While things are better than in the past, both of these facts (not alternate facts) remain true.

You’ll want to show your gratitude for strong Cuban coffee and a delicious homemade breakfast when staying at a Casa Particularas.

If you are staying in a Casa Particularas (highly recommended over state-run hotels), it’s good form to bring your host a small gift of toothpaste, shampoo or soaps. Or, you can bring something from your own hometown. The Cuban people were extremely friendly and open to receiving small tokens of gratitude.

Even if you aren’t staying in a Casa Particularas, these small gifts can be given to hotel staff like the concierge and housekeeping staff. As far as how to present the gifts, do it with respect. I explained I was thankful for the host’s help to make my stay in Cuba extra pleasant, and because of that, I wanted to offer a small gift in appreciation.

Spanish phrase book. Because you can’t readily access Wi-Fi or the Internet, apps like Google translate aren’t an option. Therefore, consider a Spanish phrase book. If you are traveling without someone proficient in Spanish, and venturing outside a major city, then I urge you to consider one. “¿Dónde está el baño?” will only get you so far. By the way, tipping is expected in public bathrooms—have your wipes and pocket change ready.

Definitely Don’t Need to Bring. You’ll be grateful you didn’t waste space in your carry on with these items.

High-heeled shoes (wedges, platforms). Outside of major cities in Cuba, and even in some areas of smaller cities like Trinidad and Cienfuegos, roads are dirt, uneven cement, and cobblestone. You won’t want to navigate these streets in anything other than flats.

Adaptors. Cuba’s electric grid is U.S. compatible, so you don’t need adaptors to charge up your camera and mobile phone (for photos or games, since Cuba blocks U.S. carrier signals).

 

*Sorry folks! This content is primarily applicable to U.S. travelers. This is especially the case related to travel documents and currency exchange. Other information is what I’d consider more “globally appropriate.”

 

Cuba and The Rule of Four

Travel is a privilege, but sometimes travel is also political. When our former President opened up diplomatic relations with Cuba, clearing the way for wanderlusts to start visiting, I began to get serious about visiting this forbidden-to-US-citizen’s-island.

I started by hitting the books, beginning with Cuba Information Manual by Michael Bellows. It’s an older book, updated recently, about travel around Cuba. Why does this matter?

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Via la Cuba! Street art in Trinidad, Cuba.

Cuba is a communist country. Bellows lays out all the various rules (drugs in Cuba will result in prison) and regulations (tourists can only eat tourist ice cream) that you need to take into consideration (hot water for your shower is a luxury in many places) when visiting. Some of the rules aren’t relevant anymore. Some are. And, like many guide books, it’s a bit of a “take it with a grain of salt.” You’ll have to decide, based on your own itinerary, how much is applicable. Bottom line, if you read this book and panic, this might not be the right place to visit.

If you are still in, as I was, then I suggest finding a travel guide. You can certainly opt for “DIY” planning. But I wouldn’t. I’m not sure it’s worth it and the risk of getting stuck at a government run, over priced hotel, is real. Ask around, it’s surprisingly easy to find a “friend of a friend” who lives in Cuba and tapped his or her entrepreneurial spirit by starting a business helping travelers.

One thing travelers don’t tell you about Cuba – there is a Rule of Four. The Rule of Four is an unwritten occurrence in Cuba. It happens largely in restaurants but can happen shops. The rule is that every fourth thing you order or ask will be forgotten. Seriously. It’s not an insult or a deliberate thing.

As a communications professional, this is consistent with delivering a point or a key message. We always tell brands or spokespeople to give no more than three points. That’s all people can remember. I think, in Cuba, much of the staff is mildly proficient in English. They forget the fourth item because they are trying so hard to speak to you in English and remember the first points of your order, the fourth just drops.

My other theory behind the Rule of Four has to do with food scarcity. Throughout Cuba there is an insufficient supply, or amount, of many foods. The most common items we observed being consistently unavailable were cheese, jamon (ham) and by the end of our trip beer. I’m not an economics professor but its a bit of supply and demand. It’s expensive to “stock up” on these items. And, it’s just how Cubans live. Out of something? No big deal, wait until the next delivery.

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Croquetas. A delicious but rare snack in Cuba.

Of course, travelers from Europe and especially the US don’t think this way. Some travel companions advocated that Cuban restaurants should know better and order larger qualities of popular items. That’s just not the way it works in Cuba. It’s also not a question of “getting a larger fridge.” (For the love of whatever God you may worship, PLEASE, do not say this. Its insulting to Cubans and fuels the rampant stereotype that Americans are idiots.)

Outside of restaurants, even in a taxi, the fourth question you ask the driver is likely to be forgotten. In shops, the fourth item you want see and negotiate for, is also, forgotten.

Now that you know about the secret Rule of Four, prepare yourself by ordering food or asking questions in batches of three. Seriously. It works.

With a new President residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s hard to say how much longer Americans will get to experience this entertaining Rule of Four. After I wrote this, I discovered the administration is conducting “a full review” of US polices on Cuba. I fear embargoes will return and ease of travel will be a thing of the past.

It’s a shame. From my perspective, this only hurts Cuban’s who are inquisitive and friendly beyond your wildest imagination. If you’ve stumbled on my infrequent writings, do know this information could be dated as soon as I hit publish. Check the status of US-Cuban travel rules before moving ahead. Of course you can still visit via Mexico and other Caribbean countries like many people have for years before. But you won’t get that precious stamp in your passport.

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Cuban Passport Stamp: Check