Travel to Cuba requires careful preparation. Forgotten or lost items are not easily replaced there. This list of what to bring to Cuba will set you up with everything you need for a 1-3 week trip.
Why is a Packing List for Cuba So Important?
You are normally accustomed to throwing the same old items into your bag for a warm weather vacation. So what’s the big deal, right?
Well, the decades-long American embargo, or “bloquero” as the Cubans call it, has starved their economy. They don’t have anything resembling the kind of retail infrastructure that you would find in the US or Europe…or Sri Lanka…or Equador. In short, purchasing common travel items in Cuba is nearly impossible. So you are going to need to survive on what you bring to Cuba yourself.
What to Bring to Cuba
Cash is king in Cuba. Americans can’t use the banking system at all and residents of other countries shouldn’t expect local businesses to take credit cards. This means that your list of things to bring to Cuba must include a brick of cash.
You can get some budgeting ideas from this article. To that advice, I would also add that whatever your budget, bring at least 1/3 again as much as you think you will need. Cuba isn’t as cheap a destination and you might think, and you don’t want to get caught short.
You can exchange money at the airport, a bank or currency exchange in the major cities and towns. That said, don’t exchange all of your money at once. We were in Cuba for 10 days and exchanged money three times. Doing it that way means that you can slide out of the country at the end of the trip with just enough to get to the airport.
More and more of the casa particulares are using either AirBnB or a European provider to accept reservations and online payments. But don’t rely completely on those services because our worst stay was booked through AirBnB and our best casa was a cash-only operation. For more info, check out this guide to budget casas.
Or if you do use AirBnB, use this link to get a credit toward your first stay.
It’s always hot in Cuba, regardless of the time of year. So your packing list for Cuba doesn’t need to include heavy clothing. The culture there is pretty casual and you don’t need to worry about bringing fancy clothes.
The following packing list for Cuba list will give you enough clothes for 1-3 weeks. Most casas offer laundry service but it will sometimes take overnight to get it back. You can also wash out smaller items in the sink.
- Tops: 6 shirts, all short sleeved or sleeveless. 1 long-sleeved shirt or sweater, primarily for the plane ride.
- Bottoms: 4 pair of shorts. Or swap out one for a skirt of sundress. 1 pair of long pants for the plane.
- Outerwear: A light jacket, just in case. June-October is the rainy season and an umbrella would be wise for those months.
- Underwear: For 6 days.
- Footwear: At minimum, bring 1 pr flip flops/sandals and 1 pr sport sandals. The sidewalks in Cuba are very rough so sturdy footwear is recommended. Bring trail runners if you plan to hike and if you are a shoe whore like me, try to wedge in something cute.
- Beachwear: Swimsuit, sarong and/or pack towel.
- Headwear: Hat for the sun and a bandana to wipe off the copious sweat which you will be producing.
Toiletries & First Aid
You can expect your Casa to provide soap, but don’t hope for much more than that and then you’ll be delighted if you get a bonus shampoo or conditioner. One of our casas offered guests travel sized shampoo purloined from a nearby hotel. Because they are clever that way in Cuba.
- Hair: Small bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Comb. Try Go Toobs for your liquids– they pack well and they don’t leak. Don’t count on a being supplied with a hair dryer so bring one if you must.
- Face: Razor, shave cream, SPF face lotion.
- Body: 1x small body lotion, sunscreen and a pack of insect repellent for mosquitos and sand fleas.
- Teeth: travel size toothpaste, toothbrush.
- Loveliness: make-up, jewelry.
- Medication: anti-inflammatories, your prescriptions.
- Basic First Aid Kit: band-aids/plasters, anti-bac (like Neosporin), cortisone lotion (for bug bites and rashes), first aid tape, a few cotton bandages.
- For Clothes: small container of Trek & Travel liquid laundry soap.
Oddball Items & Surprisingly Useful Gadgets
Sometimes it’s the small things that are the most indispensable. Take the following things to Cuba and I promise you won’t regret it.
- Snacks: Bring energy bars, trail mix or the like to tide you over during cross-country transit and during hikes.
- Filtering water bottle: Many Cubans drink tap water but since tourists aren’t acclimated, this Life Straw filtering water bottle will be your budget-saver.
- Cleanliness items: Travel sized packages of Kleenex, individual wet-wipes or travel size toilet paper. You’re going to need it.
- Remarkably handy items: The TSA-friendly Gerber Dime multi-tool, safety pin, carabiner, ziplock bags and a small roll of duct tape (handy for repairs, sealing food packaging and killing scorpions)
Don’t forget to pack your Lonely Planet Guide
Electronics & Apps
You can get internet access in Cuba, but it’s not widely available. Check out this guide to internet access in Cuba for more info and arm yourself with these useful offline apps:
- Google Translate: Your casa owner might speak English, but your taxi driver won’t and neither will many other service personnel in Cuba. So let Google do the talking for you.
- Maps.me: This app was a lifesaver for us. You can pre-download a map of Cuba for use offline. It give street maps, dining options and information on key sights.
- Dropbox: We loaded a Dropbox folder with our reservation confirmations and itineraries and then used the “save” feature to make them available offline.
I usually travel with a superlight Dell XPS laptop. But given the limited internet situation, I left the laptop home and traveled with my phone, ipad and mirrorless camera kit. Depending upon how you would like to chronicle your trip, you should consider bringing some of the following to Cuba:
- I have Olympus OM-D EM10 and love it. I use the 14-42 kit lens, a 17mm wide angle and a 40-150 zoom. The focus is sharp (even in low light) and the whole kit is so small, that it fits easily into my purse.
- Boxy camera cases don’t fit well into day-packs and they are conspicuous thief magnets in urban settings. You can protect your camera investment with a set of these neoprene camera and lens case holders. The neoprene material is very water resistant (but not waterproof) and the light cushioning will protect your gear.
- Spare camera battery and battery charger.
- Lens cleaning kit including this Nikon lens cleaning pen, and a lens cleaning cloth.
- 2 spare cards. A 32G Sandisk, which is more than sufficient even for RAW photos. Plus a few spares.
- Card reader for iPad/iPhone.
- iPad Air 128G w/ charge cord and Anker wireless keyboard. The keyboard allows the iPad to function surprisingly well as a quasi-laptop and it’s great for quick photo editing, light blog work and social media.
- iPhone, ear buds.
- Chargers for the phone, iPad, camera and keyboard.
- Electrical plug converter. Cuba uses the North American style electrical plugs so bring a converter if you are from Europe.
- Eagle creek packing cube for cords and chargers.
Cuba Packing List: Choosing Your Suitcase
eBags’ Weekender Convertible. This mis-named bag is much more than a weekender bag, its a true travel backpack. In its expanded mode, it holds a remarkable amount of stuff. It has comfortable padded shoulder straps along with chest and waist straps for extra support. The external compartment will hold books and a coat even when the main compartment is full. There are those who swear by the Tortuga travel bag and it looks like a great bag. But it’s designed for someone taller than my 5’4″ (1.6 meter) self and the eBags product fits me better. My husband also uses the same bag so we travel around looking like twins, which is cute, but dorky.
Best use for this bag: If moving locations frequently, riding a lot of trains, humping over rough ground and cobblestones or for a 4 flight walk-up.
Briggs & Riley domestic carry-on expandable wheelie bag. This bag is slightly larger than the travel backpack. Briggs & Riley makes very high quality bags, like Tumi or TravelPro but they are less well known. They have a crazy forever warranty which means that you’ll own the bag and get free repairs on it until you are too old to travel anymore. Its more rigid construction can protect your stuff better. The expando convertible zipper will enlarge it to a medium-sized checked-bag but you can choose a bag without that feature and it will weigh a bit less.
Best use for this bag: If your packing list is longer than the above, or your clothing bulkier. If you are moving around less, have smoother ground, suffer from back issues or if you plan on shopping and need more space to take stuff home.
Many people swear by Eagle Creek packing cubes. And I do use them to organize my electronics cords and for some types of itineraries. But I also really love the Sea to Summit bags. They are a drybag stuffsack compression thing all rolled into one light little package. You can stuff in socks/underwear or fluffy items like fleece and squeeze them down really small.
If want to become a convert to carry-on, I recommend that you read The Carry On Traveller, it offers great advice on how to pack light.