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9 Essential Things to Pack for a Trip to Cuba

May 13, 2016
12 min read
9 Essential Things to Pack for a Trip to Cuba
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Last week, TPG Senior Editor Kaeli Conforti was in Cuba on the first US cruise to the country in more than 50 years. Stay tuned for more fantastic Cuba content, including this go-to list of essential items to bring with you on a trip to this unique country. Be sure to keep up with her travels on Twitter and Instagram. (All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted).

My mother has been a nurse for more than 35 years, so growing up I learned to always be prepared. I always do my homework ahead of time, researching whatever the US Department of State has to say about the country I'm visiting and checking to see if there are ever any necessary immunizations listed on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website before I leave — this way I'd be ready to go and not have to worry about forgetting anything or having a random virus ruin my trip. If you're planning to travel on Fathom's new cruise to Cuba, or just visiting Cuba in general, I'd recommend bringing these 9 items along so you can just relax and enjoy your trip. Here they are, presented in no particular order since they were all pretty important throughout my own adventure.

1. Your Passport

Never forget to pack your passport for travel overseas, even on cruises. As part of your cruise fare, Fathom takes care of all the necessary paperwork you'll need to enter Cuba, but it's still up to you to bring a valid passport — you won't actually be able to board the ship without it. Additionally, at each of the three ports of call — Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba — you'll have to present your passport (as well as your provided Cuban visa and People-to-People activity voucher) every time you leave and return to the ship since you'll be going through Cuban customs and security at the ports.

As a result, you'll have to carry your passport around with you all day — I hid mine in a secret inner pocket inside my day-pack, which I carried on my person all day, even when we were told we could leave our bags on the tour bus. I'd also recommend wearing a money belt if you're really concerned about losing such important documents on the road.

If you're planning to fly to Cuba and do your own thing, check out these helpful TPG posts about getting your Cuban visa (which you will need to do yourself if you're not visiting through the cruise or as part of a tour group), tips for booking your trip through a travel agent — or for booking your own flights to Cuba — and tips for staying in a Cuban homestay or renting your own place through Airbnb.

2. Euros (or British Pounds) to Exchange for Cuban Pesos

CUCs (Cuban pesos used by tourists) have monuments on them, while CUPs (Cuban pesos used only by locals) feature the faces of national Cuban heroes. Image courtesy of the author.
CUCs (Cuban pesos used by tourists) have monuments on them, while CUPs (pesos used by locals) feature the faces of national heroes.

Unfortunately, you won't be able to get Cuban currency in the US so you need to wait til you get to there to exchange money. Save yourself some time by ordering euros from the bank while you're still in the states and exchanging them at the airport, in a local Cuban bank or at the cruise port, depending on how you're traveling.

On my trip, the Fathom crew explained that there's actually a better exchange rate when you switch from US dollars to euros or British pounds, then to CUCs (Cuba's currency that is used by tourists, vs. the CUPs that are only used by Cuban citizens). As a result, there were two large lines to wait in — the first at reception on the Adonia, where I switched my money from US dollars to euros, and another insanely long line at the Port of Havana, where I — along with almost everyone on the ship — waited patiently to switch our euros to CUCs.

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3. Mosquito Repellant

Even though nobody ever mentioned the Z word throughout my entire trip, the CDC website did say the Zika virus is currently present in Cuba as well as a number of other Caribbean islands, Mexico, Central America and some countries in South America, among other places — my mother had called to remind me of this several times before my trip and being a 28-year-old woman who might want to have healthy children someday, I wasn't taking any chances. I made it a routine to apply sunscreen followed by a layer of DEET-loaded mosquito repellant every morning. I also reapplied again in the afternoon and at night if I was going to be eating or walking outdoors — better to be safe than sorry!

I'd already dealt with a nasty case of chikungunya (another mosquito-borne illness similar to Zika) after a trip to Curaçao two years ago where I was young and dumb and ignored everyone's warnings and forgot to reapply mosquito repellant throughout the trip. Don't necessarily let viruses like this stop you from visiting these amazing countries, especially since they're so preventable if you're paying attention. Just stay on top of it and you'll be fine — I was this time!

4. Anything to Help Beat the Heat

Remember to pack a small umbrella, which can provide a bit of shade during a particularly sunny day.
Remember to pack a small umbrella, which can provide a bit of shade during a particularly sunny day. These people were smart!

The entire time we were in Cuba, the weather ranged from the high-80s to the mid-90s while the humidity was pretty strong rain or shine. I'd highly recommend applying sunscreen several times each day to avoid sunburn, especially if you're planning to go on a walking tour or spend a lot of time outside. I always bring along a small bottle of aloe vera as well, just in case — if the place you're staying in has a refrigerator, keep it in there so it's nice and cool when it's time to put it on.

I would also suggest bringing along a small travel umbrella, since intense rains can pretty much show up at any time — I encountered some pretty impressive downpours during the Santiago de Cuba portion of the trip that left me wishing I had remembered to bring this along. An umbrella would have also been useful to help provide shade on sunny days, as seen in the photo above.

It's also a good idea to wear light clothing — leave those jeans and jackets at home, this is a casual place. Stick to anything that will keep you cool, like shorts, skirts, sundresses or other light, casual-style attire. If you plan to go out at night to see a show or go dancing, you might want to bring something that's considered to be business casual, like a sundress that you can dress up with a pretty shawl (see #9) or some colorful accessories. It didn't hurt to pack a light sweater either, as the weather was a bit cooler at night — if you're going to see a show at the Tropicana, you'll be sitting in an outdoor theater — and most other theaters I visited had the AC going strong. Consider bringing (or buying) a decorative folding fan to help cool off during the day, as even a little relief from the super-muggy air can feel amazing.

5. Antibacterial Soap (or Wet Wipes)

Whenever I'm traveling outside the US, I make it a habit to carry wet wipes and small travel-sized bottles of antibacterial soap — which you can often attach to your day-pack — just in case the bathroom facilities are less than desirable or if you encounter other icky things along the way. I usually carry both of these things in a small Ziploc bag, which can then be easily transferred from my suitcase to my day-pack, clutch or purse depending on where we're going.

Buffet servers wearing gloves on Fathom Adonia.
The buffet team wore gloves and served us during the last two days of the cruise to help prevent the spread of germs.

Ironically, on this trip I ended up using my hand sanitizer more on the ship than in the cities we stopped in, as there were an increasing number of gastroenteritis cases on the ship, possibly connected to Norovirus, during the last two days of our cruise. This prompted Fathom crew members to take special precautions like serving us food while wearing gloves at the buffet instead of having us serve ourselves, among other prevention measures.

6. Helpful Stomach Medicines

It's always a good idea to pack Immodium or a similar medicine containing Loperamide just in case you accidentally drink the water — which you should NEVER do in Cuba! — or something else that sets off your stomach. I've suffered food poisoning enough times (while traveling and at home) to know to carry this in my purse at all times, just in case. There's nothing like being stuck in the middle a walking tour in a foreign country with no bathroom in sight, so I think it's better to be as prepared as possible.

If you're planning to take the cruise, I'd recommend bringing Dramamine (or a similar motion sickness product) to help you adjust to the rocking of the ship, especially when storms pop up. The Fathom Adonia was also a smaller vessel than your average giant mega-cruise ship, so I started to feel every little bump after a while. If you start to feel seasick, the ship nurse's advice was to keep eating, stay hydrated and lie down for a bit until the medicine kicks in and you start to feel better.

7. An Extra Tote Bag for All Your Souvenirs

After a family vacation to Italy in 2012 where each of us hauled around ridiculously giant suitcases, I've done my best to pack light, only bringing along a carry-on suitcase for the overhead compartment and a carry-on tote bag that fits under the seat in front of me.

However, there are times when I go a little crazy with souvenirs, like I definitely did on this trip, and need to use my back-up tote bag, a large green foldable bag that I keep in my carry-on just in case — whenever I have to use it to haul things home, I simply check the carry-on suitcase and carry the other two totes with me on the plane. This way, I only end up paying for a checked bag for the flight home and I can rearrange everything so there's enough room for all my new treasures.

8. Plenty of Extra Tissues

Many restaurants had napkins at the tables — like here at El Aljibe in Havana — yet no toilet paper in the restrooms.
Many restaurants had paper or linen napkins at the tables — like here at El Aljibe in Havana — yet no toilet paper in the restrooms.

I'll try to explain this one as politely as possible. At a seminar about what to expect in Cuba during the first night of our cruise, we were encouraged to bring along extra tissues and even toilet paper whenever we were onshore, as these are typically not available in restrooms throughout the island. After an awkward explanation from the Fathom employee, where he explained that it was alright to BYO toilet paper or tissues as long as we didn't flush them — similar to what I've encountered in other countries, trash cans are used instead and soap and water are provided so you can wash your hands — the reaction was as could be expected. I tend to carry extra tissues around with me anyway on trips, so this really wasn't nearly as inconvenient (or gross) as you'd imagine and everyone managed to handle the situation beautifully.

9. A Sarong (or Light Scarf)

Ladies, listen up. I always like to bring along either a sarong or a light scarf that can be used as one. They're probably the most versatile and useful items I own, as they can be used as a nifty bathing suit cover-up or in a pinch, can even serve as a beach or picnic blanket — I've also used them as shawls over sundresses and to cover my legs on the plane if it gets too cold. Sarongs and light scarves are also easy to pack, as they can be folded (or scrunched up) in your bag.

A Final Tip

If you're planning to visit Cuba by yourself, the bad news is that there really aren't a lot of these things available to pick up once you get there — my trip was very limited to the places we were taken to see on our guided tours as part of the People-to-People cruise program, but the only thing close to a grocery store that we stopped to check out didn't have any of these things, so it's best to bring them all with you and be prepared from the get-go. I flew to Miami the day before the cruise, spent a lovely night at the Aloft South Beach and made sure I stocked up at a local drug store before boarding the ship.

If you're planning on taking the cruise, the good news is there's a shop on the ship where you can pick up almost all of these items, as well as many other travel essentials and medicines and treats (snacks, lotions, alcohol and candy, etc) just in case you do forget to pack anything. By being prepared for any situation, you can hopefully avoid any unnecessary annoyances or illnesses and stick to relaxing and having a great time!

Have you been to Cuba yet? Is there anything else you'd add to this list? Let us know, below.

Featured image by Plaza Vieja in Havana