To Pack or Not to Pack: Cuba Edition
I have recently returned home from a ten day trip to Cuba where we traveled between Varadero Beach and Havanna with a jammed pack schedule. Seriously, jammed pack. Thanks to my dear old friend, the internet, I feel like I was very prepared for the trip. Over prepared in fact. If you are planning a trip to Cuba and are an obsessive packer like myself you are probably Googling “What to pack for Cuba.” Maybe that’s how you stumbled upon this blog post. Hi! Welcome! Firstly, let me tell you that you are going to have so much fun while visiting Cuba. It is a beautiful country with amazing people and culture, and I loved every second of it, so I hope you will too. Secondly, brace yourself for a digestive nightmare.
You’ve probably read a lot of do’s and don’ts by now leaving you feeling as if you will need a second bag to get there filled with toilet paper. You’re not alone. Days leading up to departure I was stressing over what I needed and didn’t need and kind of scared myself. And by kind of, I mean full on scared the shit out of myself because where the hell was I going!?!?
If you have questions well you're in luck, I have answers.
I read and heard from numerous people to be prepared to carry some butt wipes with you because the country seemed to have a massive shortage of poo-paper. I can tell you, with 100% certainty, this was NOT an issue at all. I was only in Varadero Beach (fairly resort-y) and Havana (fairly located in Cuba), and I never had an issue when it came to clean up. In fact, most places had two wall mounted toilet paper rolls which seemed more strange to me than the internet myth that there was none. Perhaps Cuba Googled themselves and said “aw hell no, we will show these trolls” and trolled the internet back by over toilet-papering. Either way, don’t feel it is necessary to pack a suitcase of Charmin along for your trip. You’ll be okay.
This one I think heavily depends on where you are at. We were only in Varadero for a short time, but I did end up with some bug bites in just a few days, which I came prepared for (gumbo limbo tree salve which I can’t find anywhere online but if you’re in Belize BUY IT.) Once we were in Havana, there was no issue at all. In fact, thanks to my gumbo limbo voodoo magic salve, most of my bites were healed by the time we left.
Most sites strongly urge you to bring CUC or CUP into the country with you as exchange rates are outrageous. I can attest, not only are they outrageous, it's really hard to get money too. Most of the time my Visa’s were declined (banks still aren’t super down with Cuba apparently...racists.) Make it easier and cheaper on yourself by exchanging currency before you go.
This one is a must, but I was worried about this because I had read that Havana was a very dusty/dirty city. I hadn’t found this to be an issue, but they are still a necessity. If you are going to Havana based on a culture exchange or person to person tourist trip, then you will probably have a lot of walking ahead of you, and they will just make your life easier. I did most of my walking in these, and they were perfectly fine.
Small Trinkets for Locals
I read multiple places that locals were accustomed to getting small gifts like toothpaste and such from tourists, and it was considered normal to be asked. I was not approached once for any small item, though it is expected to be tipped for photos and what not. There are several notable characters who expect a tip for a photograph so if you get one, be prepared! They can get a little fussy if there’s no tip.
While I think this is still probably a good rule to live by while traveling to low-income countries, I don’t believe it is as scary as I read. I found most of the locals love flashy jewelry and wear it themselves (gold chains, rings, etc.) I found a lot of the women we met were really drawn to a pair of turquoise earrings a travel mate wore one night. The bottom line is I think crimes of opportunity happen everywhere; it’s not just limited to places like Cuba. A little bling won’t hurt anyone (maybe leave the tiara at home, though).
After spending a week in Cuba, there were some things I didn't read about but learned along the way.
Get a Tour Guide
This was insanely helpful. Locals make a lot of money off of tourists and will usually jack prices up for the visible, lost visitor. We had an excellent guide who would go and get us the best price while we hung back so we wouldn’t get gauged. They speak the language, they know where to eat, and they usually protect their clients from getting hustled. Our tour guide was a black belt in judo and all around badass, and I can’t tell you how knowledgeable he is and interesting it was to talk to him. I highly recommend him for any plans you have.
Don't Lecture the Locals on Communism
I didn’t think I would have to write this, but I overheard so many conversations on this. C’mon people. You're a visitor in their country, they aren’t ignorant but “educating” them on a system that they live in is. If you pay attention, you will see their eyes quickly glaze over because they are probably tuning you out for the most part. Take your trip to Cuba as an opportunity to be the student and learn what it is like to live in the life of a Cuban. It might even give you a deeper respect for the freedom and opportunities available to you back home.
Anywhere you go you should always bring a camera but being in Cuba feels as if you stepped back in time. There are old, gorgeous cars at every turn and a country FILLED with saturated color. The effect of the instant film helped the vintage experience for me.