Packing for Cuba

What to pack for Cuba – an anxious person’s packing guide

I’m an anxious person. I admit it. Unfortunately all the worries and anxiety I get before a big trip (yes I know I’m lucky to be privileged enough to get anxious about exotic holidays) translate into obsessing about my packing.

It’s a running joke in my household but I’ve found a few ways to manage it which help. Firstly I have a spreadsheet which is consistent for every trip with all the essentials on it to pack. Yes I do, judge me all you like, it works.

Secondly, I limit packing to the day before the trip to minimize how much of my life I can waste obsessing about whether my bag is too heavy or whether I need a waterproof hat.

My lovely husband always tells me to remember that I can buy whatever I’ve forgotten in whatever country I am going to. I honestly try to believe this but I still end up making sure that I have a sewing kit, a first aid kit and every type of toiletry that I might possibly need. Surprisingly I am actually quite a light packer (not one single unnecessary item goes in) and my attention to detail frequently saves my husband when he suddenly finds that he needs a band-aid at 2am or aftersun after a hideous sunburn.

Anyhow, the above is no comfort when packing for a trip to Cuba. You can’t necessarily buy whatever you’ve forgotten. I lost a pair of sunglasses there and had to make do with the only pair I could find on the island which were unlikely to have any actual sun protection and also made me look like I was wearing a pair of children’s sunglasses from a cracker. As you can imagine, my pre-Cuba packing anxiety is generally quite high level. On the other hand Cuba has a pretty steady tropical climate so you really only need warm clothing unless you’re planning early morning mountain hikes. We did an early morning hike in Viñales and it was a bit nippy but actually it was a welcome break from the heat and extra layers weren’t required.

I’m going to attempt to help you out if you are a fellow packing obsessive and have happened upon this whilst frantically googling what you’ll need. I will assume you know the drill on bringing pants, deodorant, etc. and just focus on the essentials for Cuba. Here goes:

  • Walking shoes – trainers will do or even trekking sandals like Tevas (unless you are planning something very intrepid). I did Vinales treks in Tevas and they were perfect. The mud is very red so don’t bring some box-fresh beauties.
  • Lightweight waterproof – it does rain occasionally. I don’t mind getting soaked in tropical rain but my camera doesn’t like it and it helped to provide extra protection for that.
  • Minimum two bikinis – no one likes putting a wet one back on. Two works just right.
  • Travel towel – unless you are staying in more high-end casa particulares where they will provide them. You can also use it for the beach.
  • Sarong – not needed if you bring a travel towel. Otherwise a sarong is such a god-send. Use it on the flight if you get chilly, use it as beach towel, fashion a dress when your bikini is still wet but you want to get moving. I’ve even used one as an emergency sheet.
  • Bug spray. Bring enough for your trip. I didn’t see this for sale anywhere except in fancy hotels and there are a lot of mosquitoes. Consider bringing a plug-in bug repellent although make sure you read the travel adaptor bit below if you don’t want lung cancer.
  • Sun cream and aftersun obviously. As above, it can be tricky to locate and even if you do find it, it’ll probably not be the best quality.
  • Basic medicines. Painkillers, plasters, antiseptic spray, diarrhoea relief (this happens to a lot of people in Cuba and the bus trips are long – bring something that can “pause proceedings” so to speak), indigestion tablets, antihistamines, itch cream, travel sickness pills and anything else that you sometimes need. If you have anything left over at the end of the trip then consider leaving it for the Cubans. Their healthcare is fantastic but medical supplies are limited.
  • Sturdy sandals (eg Tevas). You will do a lot of walking. Even if you are just in Havana, don’t think that it’s some kind of elegant European city in which you will swan around on delicate sandals made from gossamer fine silk threads. Nope. This is a city with rubble everywhere, giant ditches, ever present dog poo, broken glass and delightful rats. Wear something with a thick base and where your toes do not hover over the edges.
  • A hat. Cuba is hot. Shade is minimal. Wear a hat. Even if you are not one of the fortunate ones who wears a hat and looks like they should be drinking artisan coffee and living in Brooklyn (i.e. a hipster) still wear a hat. I look like a large headed idiot in a hat. I still wear one. Heat stroke and premature ageing look stupid too.
  • Socks. Remember to pack a fresh pair of socks. Firstly if you plan to wear trainers for hikes then you’ll need socks. Secondly you will want a fresh pair for the flight. Easy to forget that. I did on a return flight from Barbados and had to buy the only socks in the terminal which were children’s novelty socks and cost about five times what a nice pair of Pringle socks would have cost. Don’t let that happen to you.
  • Travel wash. This allows you to bring less as you can wash as you go. Don’t be too reliant on this (some sweat can only be defeated by a washing machine…my husband’s) and bring a travel plug with you as I had to find some pretty ingenious ways of blocking the plug hole and it caused me daily joy.
  • Travel adaptor. Oh and common sense. Please check the voltage on things before plugging them in. Cuba is not big on health and safety. Do not rely on the system to protect you. We nearly set fire to our room and certainly caused ourselves some carcinogenic damage by plugging our mosquito repellent into a plug which also had an ancient air-conditioning unit plugged into it too. The voltage was way too high for our plug-in. By the next morning the mosquito repellent had melted and our room was filled with the carcinogenic fumes of melted plastic and burnt mosquito chemicals. I had pretty exciting dreams that night though so it wasn’t all bad.
  • Pen, paper, books, downloaded podcasts. As you’ll see on our internet post, the internet is rather hard to come by in Cuba. You might have to entertain yourself during your downtime. “But I’ll be in Cuba, I won’t need some podcast to entertain me”. “Ha!” I say to that. You will. A six hour bus ride starts exciting then it gets mind-numbingly dull. Some of the buses don’t have any suspension which translates to heavy-duty travel sickness so reading could be tricky. That’s when you’ll think thank god for that blog I read which got me to download 10 episodes of Criminal. Oh and you’ll thank me for the tip on Criminal too.
  • Sanitary products. I didn’t see these for sale anywhere (although obviously Cuban women have periods too so they must be for sale somewhere). Take enough. Consider buying a reusable cup. One of these will mean you don’t run out, they’re better for your body and they are better for the environment. I’d still take some spare normal items too though as a back-up. You can always leave spares for the Cubans when you leave, although not the cup; that would be rude.
  • A toilet roll. Best thing I brought with me hands down. You have to pay for loo roll pretty much by square. If the thing I mentioned in the medicines section happens to you and you brought a loo roll thanks to me then I’ll accept a bottle of rum as adequate thanks.
  • Soap and toiletries. Some places will provide soap. Not always though. Bring some soap, shampoo, toothpaste, razors and all the essentials to wipe off the sweat and dust that will create a film over you as you explore this exciting country.
  • Cash. Don’t rely on your card. There are ATMs but they are not always easy to find or working. You will be able to withdraw money at some point but I’d aim to take a few hundred in with you to change at the airport. Remember USDs are penalised so take euros or pounds. Read more about currency in Cuba here.

I’ll add to this if I think of anything else but essentially pack for a hot country but remember that if you forget anything then you might not be able to find it there. At the end of the day, don’t panic, you really just need your passport, cash, a bikini and one cotton outfit. The worst that will happen is that you’ll be very smelly and you might get diarrhoea on a six hour bus journey with a toilet that doesn’t work and no medicine. Good luck!

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