As with many aspects of Cuba travel, there is lots of contradictory information out there on the internet about what you should or shouldn’t bring with you on a trip to the island. What types of things will you need that won’t be available? What can you bring down to donate or give away? This is an attempt to clear up some of these questions–here goes–
What to Wear
When thinking about what to wear in Cuba, the first consideration is the heat—the average high and low temperatures fluctuate between pretty nice, very nice, and hot. In the summer—June, July, August—it regularly surpasses 90 in Havana, so wearing light-weight short sleeve shirts and shorts is a pretty solid plan. Also, if you’re a hat or sunglasses wearer, this would be the trip to bring those items.
In December, January and February, when the lows can get down to 60 at night, it’s good to have a light sweater or jacket, and pants are helpful to cut the wind that can blow through the city in the cooler months. Don’t go too overboard with the warm clothes though–even in the dead of Cuban winter you won’t have a hard time working up a sweat.
The rainy season is in the summer when it’s warmer, but rain often blows in unexpectedly, so it’s hard to know whether to bring an umbrella when you’re leaving in the morning. The best thing to do is to ask your Cuban host (if you’re staying at a casa particular) if they saw the weather report, and pack a raincoat accordingly. In the cooler months, there is less rain and the air is less humid, which can give the morning air a (very tiny) bite.
For footwear, think about comfort and function—streets and sidewalks are bumpy, cracked, and hole-ridden, so you’ll want sneakers as opposed to sandals or high heels if your going out during the day. Of course, if you’re going out at night, you might want to rock the heels. If you’ve got room in your luggage, a pair of sandals/flip-flops are good for indoor use, or beach use, if you find yourself (illegally) enjoying la playa.
Cubans aren’t all that formal, so you don’t have to worry about dressing overly nicely. On very hot days, lots of Cuban men are not shy appearing in public without a shirt on, and many Cuban women show a lot of skin. This doesn’t mean you can’t dress nicely, or that you will be overdressed if you do—perhaps more than most, Cubans appreciate a sharp dresser, and its a safe enough place that you don’t have to worry about trying to dress down in order to be inauspicious. Cubans will almost certainly be able to pin you for a foreigner—and assume (correctly) that you’re much wealthier than them—no matter what you do or wear, so even if you dress frumpy, they will think that it’s just some new rich foreigner fashion trend. To this end, if you’re going out at night to eat or drink or dance, feel free to dress fancy.
Cuba as a whole lacks the variety and quantity of personal consumer products that we have in the U.S. It can often be hard to find things like over the counter medicines, creams, insect repellent, soaps, sunblock, shampoo/conditioner, toothpaste, feminine products, condoms, etc.—basically anything you might find in any halfway decent chain drug store across the U.S.
What’s more, the places that might have these items are few and far between, even in Havana, and sometimes have inconvenient hours or close unexpectedly for unknown reasons. The best thing to do is to bring any and all personal hygiene items you might possibly need, and if you do run out, the best places to find replacements would be in or near the big hotels in Havana.
When planning what to pack in a day pack, it’s advisable to bring toilet paper, since most public restrooms won’t have any or will have an attendant who charges for it. A water bottle is also a good idea, although bottled water is readily available in most places for 1 CUC.
When gift-giving in Cuba it’s important to make sure your are giving a sincere gift, not a donation or a relief package. If you want to give donations to a non-profit or charity that works with Cuba, you should set that up beforehand, but gifts for the hosts of your casa particular should feel like a celebration of cultural interchange, not a foreign aide transaction. If you are staying at a casa, think about bringing something down that is unique from your culture or country of origin. Or, bring something that isn’t a basic necessity, but an indulgence, like dark chocolate or fancy skin lotion or a nice bottle of wine — some sort of specialty food or health product that would be useful and completely impossible to acquire in Cuba. If you’d like to bring things for kids, think about coloring books, pencils, markers, stickers and other creative materials that any young child would love. If you want to stealthily leave medicines, take an extra bottle or two of over the counter pain killers or vitamins with you in your own toiletries, and then when you are leaving just leave them behind in the bathroom when you go. Good drugs can be very hard to find, and even if a rather well off casa owner isn’t in need of them, they will certainly have a friend or relative who is.