Bring (lots of) tampons and other secrets of packing for Cuba

10 Dec

(This is a work in progress, but I’m writing my “Georgia’s Cuba Survival Guide” for a friend who will be studying in Cuba, and want to share part I for all potential study abroad, mission trip or cultural trip participants)

You are going to Cuba. Lucky you. As trite, cheesy, or cliché as this sounds, be prepared to have your life changed. You have to go to this country with an open mind, lots of patience, and as few expectations or pre-conceived notions as possible. The thing about Cuba is that YOU have to experience it for yourself and draw your own conclusions (something that I suppose is true about everywhere, but Cuba in particular considering all of the “bad press” around it).

This “survival guide” is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, and is based solely on my personal experiences, mainly in Havana. Bear in mind that Havana is the capital, where a good fifth or sixth of the population is concentrated. The standard of living is very different here than the rest of the island, but it’s still a significant representation.

So, let’s get started. Packing. The charter companies that operate flights to and from Cuba are changing their policies, and the policies usually differ from charter to charter, so research the checked bag fees, carry-on fees, and overweight charges for whatever your flight is. In my experience, it’s been one carry-on that is 25 pounds or less for free, and first-checked bag $25, as long as it’s 50 pounds or less (it used to be first-checked bag free, but for some reason that’s changed). Be prepared to see people with all kinds of crazy shit in the airport that they are taking to Cuba. Popular items include: kitchen appliances, bicycles, flatscreen televisions, sound systems and food from Costco. They will have to pay a lot of overweight fees, and customs taxes in Cuba. You should try and avoid that—pack as lightly as possible.

On the way back from Cuba, you don’t usually have to pay for your bags, but you do have to pay a $25 CUC departure tax, and if your bag is egregiously over 25 kg, you might have to pay something (but pulling the “No hablo espanol” card can be effective here I’m sure).

You’re probably asking yourself “What the hell should I put in this bag that may or may not cost $25 to check?” Fear not friends, the answer is forthcoming. If you’re going for a month, bring 10 days or so worth of clothes. Don’t worry, Cuba is not a barren wasteland, you can wash your clothes. Bring LIGHTWEIGHT CLOTHES that you can mix and match. Unless you are going there for maybe a week in January, it will be warm and humid. Ergo, shorts, tank tops, sundresses, skirts, t-shirts, and short-sleeved shirts are all good options. I recommend a pair of jeans or long pants for going out, particularly for gentleman. Certain clubs, bars and other places will not let guys in if they are wearing shorts, flip-flops, or t-shirts, so (ladies and gentleman) bring at least one nice outfit. Another recommendation (depending on the length of your trip)—coordinate with the people in your group about clothes that you can mix and match with. Wearing the same shit for several months gets really old, really fast (call me a materialistic American, but it’s true).

As far as shoes go, comfort is king here. The sidewalks are all cracked and uneven, and more likely than not, you’re going to have to do a good amount of walking no matter where you go. Ladies, if you want to bring heels, bring lower heels that you are comfortable walking long distances in (I have a pair of 2” wedges that are PERFECT for every situation in Cuba). You will see women out wearing four and five-inch heels—they are idiots. Or jineteras (prostitutes). A pair of comfortable tennis shoes, sandals, Vans, Toms, Keds, or whatever will also be useful here for every day wear and tear.

You can buy toothpaste, shampoo, soap, and other toiletries in Cuba, but if you have a brand loyalty, bring your own (you can always leave what you don’t use if you don’t have room for it in your bag on the way home). Ladies: BRING FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS. You will be  hard-pressed to find tampons in Cuba, and if you do find them, they will be expensive and suck. Less is not more in this case—COME PREPARED.

If you have room in your bag, I’d recommend bringing some non-perishable snacks like almonds or granola bars, because eating in Cuba sometimes just doesn’t happen, particularly breakfast, and if you are hyperglycemic, or are used to breakfast and snacking, it’s best to bring a little something for yourself.

Another good idea to coordinate with each other on might be things like an iron, straighteners and hair dryers, if you rely on those things (split up who brings what and then share, just to save room in your bag).

Bring sunscreen and sunglasses, and use both DAILY. You will get sunburned at some point, so protect your delicate American skin from the relentless Caribbean sun.

Money: Cuba has a dual currency system. There are Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuban National Pesos (CUP). 1 CUC is pretty much equivalent to one USD, and spends about the same way. There are 25 CUP to 1 CUC. You will probably want to order Canadian dollars before you leave because there is a 10% tax on changing American dollars to CUC, and the exchange rate sucks anyways. Bring a few copies of your passport, because usually when you change money in a CADECA (Casa del Cambio) or hotel, you need to show a copy of your passport. As far as how much money you bring, it’s up to you and what you plan on doing. If you are smart, you can go out pretty inexpensively ($10-$15 CUC a night for cover/drinks/transportation), and you can also eat pretty cheaply, especially if you hit places that sell food in CUP, but more on that later.


One Response to “Bring (lots of) tampons and other secrets of packing for Cuba”

  1. Becka H. December 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

    Georgia!! great list! As for “going out” clothes, I think they should bring at least three or four different outfits. It’s a country known for its nightlife, and people in the group will be going out multiple nights a week. Also there’s no need to bring shampoo and conditioner because it’s cheaper there and of the same quality (sedal brand may or may not be holy). It lightens the load by a lot. As for day clothes, don’t bring crappy ones. It’s good to look nice. It’s not a dirty country and people will, by no means, come home covered in mud and grit. That is all. love you have a WONDERFUL time there:)

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