Cuba seems to be on everyone’s radar and travel bucket list ever since President Obama announced his plan to improve U.S. relations with the island this past December.
Americans have been traveling to Cuba for some time now, through another country or with an expensive tour group. However, legal, and direct travel to the country, with the ability to spend money as a tourist, will become easier very soon.
What some may not realize is that Cuba is not your typical, tropical destination. It’s a country that has little to no access to modern luxuries like the Internet, cell phones and even some cosmetic and food items. This is due to their poor economy and the trade embargo put in place by the United States. (Plans to lift the embargo are currently in the works).
Don’t let this discourage you. Cuba is a beautiful country, rich in culture and history and its people are warm and generous. If you’re looking for a luxury vacation where you lounge by a pool, go to a spa and put on your 6-inch Louboutins, this isn’t the place for you.
However, if you’re into adventure and want to stroll along brightly colored buildings, hear authentic music and immerse yourself in a culture that has been secluded for more than 50 years, then start packing.
It takes some extra planning to overcome the challenges of traveling to Cuba, but it will be well worth it.
Here’s our definitive guide on how to prepare, what to pack and what to know for your travel to Cuba:
HOW TO PREPARE:
Cubans are highly educated, but very few speak English. It’s worth brushing up on your high school lessons or investing in a few classes. Of course, bringing a translation book will also help but just relying on that may not be enough. You will definitely want and need to speak with people.
Take time to figure out which hotels offer Internet access, if you know you’ll need it. The Hotel Nacional offers the most reliable access, but there are others that offer connection cards that you can purchase and use in the lobby. Knowing in advance will save you time and hassle.
Know the Rules
As of now, it’s still somewhat complicated to travel to Cuba. You need permission from the Cuban government and a visa if you’re traveling as press or with an educational or religious organization, and even if you’re just a tourist, you will need a tourist visa. There’s also a spending limit in place for Americans. Read up on the current regulations (they will be changing soon) to be sure you’re in the know and have everything required before take off. Make copies of your visa and don’t lose it.
Go Old School
For those who rely on smartphones for every aspect of daily life – you’re out of luck. Your cell phone will not work in Cuba. For important apps like navigation, restaurant reviews and tourist hotspots, iPhones offer some for Havana that do not require Wi-Fi or a cell tower. Download those BEFORE you get there. Otherwise go old school and stock up on tourist books and maps.
WHAT TO PACK:
Cash and a Secure Bag or Backpack
As of now, American credit cards are not accepted in Cuba and traveler’s checks are difficult to cash. This means you will need to bring a ton of cash and a bag secure enough to carry it in. Hiding money in various places and leaving some in your room’s lock box (if you have one) is best. Havana has Western Union for emergencies but it’s not reliable, according to rumors.
Tons of Sunscreen
It’s a hot, sunny country with little to no access to proper sunscreens and you will be outdoors all day. Don’t rely on buying it at one of the few modern hotels. It will be overpriced and most likely not the brand you want. A bunch of carryon-sized bottles is best.
Sneakers and More Sneakers
Havana is a gorgeous city but just like their pastel buildings are decaying, so are their roads. Many are unfinished or torn up, and you will be constantly walking. We recommend a few different types, including an evening-appropriate pair (Superga). A pair of flat or short-heeled sandals are great to bring along, too.
A Real Camera
This is a no-brainer. Cuba is a time capsule and it won’t be like that forever, especially when American businesses get the green light to move in. You want to come home with quality photos.
Converters, Adapters and Backup Everything
While some outlets are equipped for American gadgets, some require a universal adapter. Also, keep in mind if you lose your phone charger or camera’s SD card, you will not be able to purchase a new one there.
Extra Cosmetics and Medicines
Very few stores carry necessities and they are sparsely stocked. You will rarely see a nail salon. Bring your own goods and some extra. It’s a common practice to give cosmetic and bath items to your hosts (in a casa particular) as a thank you gesture.
Casual, cotton dresses are comfortable, breathable and can be worn from morning into evening. Paired with simple kicks, a hat and your secure bag or backpack and you’ll be set for the day and night.
Hats and Sunglasses
Two words: Caribbean sun.
Cuba has limited goods that we have in abundance. Popular American clothing, toiletries and even candy make great thank you gifts or can be a kind gesture to hand out to those kids you just took a photo of. Bring an old, working cell phone and you’ll make someone’s day.
Go With the Carry On
Yup, every fashionista’s worst nightmare. You’ll most likely be on more than one flight, in multiple, crowded cabs and will have to drag your luggage around the hot city at one point – leave your wedge collection at home and make it work.
Stay in a Casa Particular
This is a room in someone’s house complete with your own bathroom, homemade breakfast and endless conversations with locals. Some travelers may advise tell you to stay at the Hotel Nacional but unless you want to hang out with other American and European tourists – don’t.
There are two forms of currency in Cuba – the Cuban peso used by locals and the CUC, usually always used by visitors. It’s easier to exchange and use CUCs but it can come in handy to have a few peso coins for taxis and food vendors. You can’t exchange money until you arrive in Cuba and the exchange fees will vary. Banks have the best rate and your hotel – most likely the worst.
Hailing a Taxi
In NYC, we hold our arm up at an angle to hail a cab. That will get you nowhere in Havana. Keep your hand flat and wave your arm in the direction you need to go, at waist or shoulder level. Taxis (brightly colored old school Cadillacs with multiple passengers) will stop depending if they are traveling that way.
Talk to People and Ask About Local Spots
Don’t Believe the Rumors and Get Lost
Keep in mind that the American and Cuban governments have been at odds, not our people. Cubans warmly welcome Americans and are genuinely intrigued by us. It’s smart to be diligent in any city, especially if traveling solo, but know that Havana’s streets are safe. Allow yourself to go off the tourist path a bit and explore – you won’t regret it.
By Mich Cardin, StyleBlazer
July 30, 2015