A Comprehensive Cuba Packing List: What to Bring to Cuba

Packing for a trip to Cuba can be a bit of a challenge.

For one, you have to be more thorough in deciding what to bring to Cuba than in other countries. Unlike other countries where you can simply pop into a CVS/Target/DM and grab what you need, it is a bit more difficult to buy certain items in Cuba due to sanctions and economic conditions.

For this reason, I really recommend you follow this Cuba packing list and consider your needs carefully. Cuba is one of those rare countries where it is better to overpack than underpack.

In terms of clothing, Cuba is easier to pack for. Cuba has a subtropical climate, with a yearly average temperature of 26°C/ 79°F, and tolerable humidity levels. From November to April, it is generally quite sunny, whereas in May through October it can be quite stormy and even have hurricanes.

I visited Cuba for the first time in February and thought it was the perfect time to go – we had maybe one or two rainy days in two weeks, and the weather was hot but never intolerable.  With the Atlantic experiencing more severe hurricanes each year and Cuba being squarely in the crossfires, I probably personally wouldn’t visit Cuba in hurricane/rainy season, but if you do travel during the off-season you will get great deals so it’s up to you.

One thing that is often mentioning when discussing what to pack for Cuba is gifts or supplies for Cuban locals. I wasn’t sure what the proper etiquette with respect to this was when I visited Cuba and opted not to bring in things as I wasn’t sure what people actually needed and I didn’t want to offend anyone by assuming they didn’t have basic necessities or by pushing a white savior complex on people.

I spoke with Kiona of How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch who is an experienced Cuba traveler, runs educational tours in Cuba, and manages an Airbnb in Viñales (check her Cuba posts here for excellent advice and you should drop everything follow her on Instagram right now as she’s pretty much the best thing to ever happen to Instagram Stories).

She says “It’s better not to come in with a savior attitude but to keep in mind there is an embargo so offering to bring something like you’re going to someone’s house is appropriate.” She recommended asking your casa particular (a Cuban guesthouse) host if there is anything in particular that their community needs or is having trouble getting in local stores. In the past, supplies that Cubans have asked for have included vitamins, tampons, condoms, deodorant, school supplies, toothbrushes and toothpaste, towels, and shampoo.

So basically, feel free to offer to bring something, but if you feel uncomfortable asking or don’t have travel plans locked down in advance, it’s in no way mandatory to bring things for your hosts except a friendly, laid-back attitude. Remember that when you stay in casa particulares you are a guest in someone’s home so behave like one.

What to Pack for Cuba

What to Pack Everything In

I’ve been traveling for a while and my packing gear is always the same – a backpack organized with packing cubes as well as a daypack with all my electronics and smaller items.

That said, if you prefer a suitcase, you could certainly swap out a backpack for a suitcase. You do you! Generally, as I was traveling in a group of 3-4 travelers, we ended up organizing taxis between cities as the tourist bus was almost always sold out. Since you too likely will be traveling between cities by car or organized bus rather than public transport, it doesn’t really matter if you bring a backpack or suitcase, I just happen to prefer backpacks.

Whether you bring a suitcase or backpack, packing cubes are a life-saver for either, especially if you are visiting multiple places in Cuba and plan to be traveling every few days. You don’t need anything fancy (even Ziploc bags will do in a pinch) but separating your clothes into packing cubes will make your Cuba packing process much more streamlined and organized.

    • Travel Backpack (carry on size or check-in size): I am a light packer, so my Tortuga Setout Backpack is perfect for my travel needs, since I try to avoid checking my bag as much as possible.
      • Why do I recommend Tortuga so much? Here’s why: this bag is 45L and has got three main compartments: one for a laptop and other flat objects, one giant rectangular compartment perfect for packing cubes stuffed with clothing, and one smaller compartment with pockets for passports, pens, odds and ends, etc. that I stash all my extras in – plus one small outer zipper pocket for anything you want quick access to. It also has a water bottle holder on the outside as well as buckles so that you can strap something like a yoga mat to the outside. Plus, it’s quite comfortable to wear, with a padded hip belt and comfort-molding shoulder straps complete with a chest strap so that you can distribute weight perfectly across your body in the event that you need to wear your backpack for longer than usual. Check out more specs and details here.
      • However, if you want a bigger backpack, I’ve heard good things about the Osprey system and that’s the brand I would go with if I were to upgrade my packing capacity to something larger. Of course, you could always just bring a suitcase as well. I don’t travel with a suitcase anymore but I prefer hard-sided luggage if made to choose!
    • Packing Cubes: Whereas I’m a bit apathetic on whether you need a suitcase or backpack for your Cuba packing needs, I do feel strongly about packing cubes! No need to be picky with your packing cubes — anything rectangular and zippable will do. I use these packing cubes and love them. But really, anything works!
    • Laundry bag: In addition to packing cubes, I also like to bring a laundry bag to separate out my dirty clothing from my clean. While you could certainly just reuse a plastic bag for this purpose, I do like having a cute one like this travel-themed one from Kikkerland though, because I’m impractical. This makes it easy if you need to ask your casa owner if they can provide laundry services.
    • Hanging Toiletry Bag: I tend to pack a lot of toiletries with me and I use a hanging toiletry bag to pack them in an organized way that takes up minimal space. It has the perfect number of separators, organizers, and pockets without taking up any excess space. It’s kind of a magical Mary Poppins bag – you’d be amazed at how many travel-sized toiletries you can fit in there before you run out of room.
    • Backpack with locking zippers : While Cuba is safe, it’s not completely free from petty crime. While wearing a shoulder bag is generally more secure than a backpack because you can keep it closer to your body tucked underneath your car, I find that shoulder bags just are not comfortable if you carry a lot of stuff with you during the day. I swear by PacSafe for the combination of functionality and aesthetics, and I love their PacSafe Citysafe backpack. It’s actually cute, but it also has excellent security features like locking zippers, an interlocking clasp, and slash-proof mesh embedded in the fabric. If you’re curious to learn more, I have a full review here – not sponsored, just irrationally obsessed.

Essential Things to Pack for Cuba

Honestly, so many things on this list are essentials for Cuba because it is so hard to ensure you’ll get exactly what you need in Cuba if you forget it. However, I tried to pick the things that I thought were the most essential, that would have the worst impact on your trip if you forgot it. Since it can be hard to access certain toiletries in Cuba, those feature highly on the list.

    • Euros, if you’re American: While 1 CUC (the tourist currency) is equal to 1 USD, you won’t want to bring USDs with you to Cuba as you will get hit with a 10% conversion fee. Unfortunately I had to absorb this when I was traveling to Cuba as I was in Costa Rica before flying to Cuba and it ended up being cheaper to convert my USDs than to accept the horrible rate that the Costa Rican bank was giving me to convert their currency into euros. However, if you are in the U.S. before your trip, convert some USD to Euros. This is important: you’ll want to convert ALL THE CASH you’ll need into euros beforehand. American debit cards do not work in Cuba, full stop. Estimate all the cash you’ll need, an then add a 30% buffer on top of that. Luckily, I was traveling with two Irish girls so I was able to borrow money from one of them and reimburse them when we got to Mexico, but most Americans won’t be so lucky! If you are from anywhere else but the U.S., you have less to worry about in terms of money because your ATM card should work fine (just notify your bank you are traveling).
    • Travel insurance: It is mandatory to purchase travel insurance while traveling in Cuba, and you will likely be asked to show proof of insurance when entering the country. I actually don’t recall if I was or not — but I was sure that I had my policy information pulled up and saved as a PDF on my phone, and I’d actually recommend printing it just to be safe. I used World Nomads when I was in Cuba and highly recommend them to other travelers. You can get a free quote here.
    • Lonely Planet Cuba (2017 edition): I don’t always travel with a guidebook, as I generally just do internet research on the ground. However, with internet access being both expensive and not always accessible in Cuba, a guidebook here is truly indispensable. I would say that we used our guidebook literally every single day while in Cuba. It was also good fun to read at night before bed since we weren’t able to get our usual internet fix. Make sure you buy the most recent version as the information gets dated quickly. The most recent version is the 2017 Lonely Planet but I’m sure there will be a 2019 or 2020 version soon.
    • Kindle loaded with e-books: Since you won’t have WiFi often in Cuba, you’ll find yourself with a lot of free time that you have no idea how to use up, if you’re an internet-addicted millennial like myself.  While in Cuba, my Kindle Paperwhite was my best friend. Buy several books before you go so that you won’t run out of things to read and get bored! It’s not easy to pick up new English-language books in Cuba.
    • Spanish-English phrasebook or download Google Translate offline: I speak fluent Spanish and it’s lucky I do as it was pretty much indispensable in Cuba. English language knowledge is not that widespread even in people who work in tourism. I would recommend having a Spanish-English phrasebook in paper form or downloading Google translate offline. Here’s how you do it. On that note, it’s also helpful to download the maps of Cuban cities on your phone beforehand, as you won’t have WiFi when you touch down in Cuba.
    • Contact lenses and solution, if necessary: It is not common to find contacts or contact lens solution in Cuba so I recommend bringing more than you need for your stay. I’d also bring glasses as back-up.
    • All your toiletries and cosmetics: It is really unpredictable what international brands you will be able to find in Cuba so I just say assume you won’t be able to find anything you need and bring all you need from home. While you  can find things like sunscreen, shampoo, etc. if you are in any way particular about what you like to use I’d bring it from home as due to the embargo it is not always easy to find your first choice, especially outside of Havana and Varadero, the two most touristic places in the country.
    • Sunscreen: While you can find sunscreen in Cuba, it is overpriced and not always easy to find outside of beach locations. The sun is no joke in Cuba so I highly recommend packing sunscreen before you go. I also like having this solid sunscreen stick from Neutrogena which is great if you are maxed out on your liquid toiletries and are trying to travel light, but also need SPF 70 like a ghost like I do.
    • Mosquito repellent: As a subtropical country, Cuba has lots of pesky mosquitos, especially in the rainy season. With the prevalence of mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika and dengue, I am really vigilant about applying and re-applying mosquito repellent, especially after coming out of the water or  I usually carry a bottle and also some repellent wipes with me if I need to reapply on the go. I also highly recommend bringing some After Bite mosquito bite treatment since it’s inevitable some of those buggers will get you at one point and this will take some of the sting out of the itch.
    • Water bottle with built-in filter: Cuba’s tap water is generally not considered to be drinkable, so if you are concerned about plastic consumption – and you should be – I recommend purchasing a Lifestraw water bottle with a filtration system inside of it that gets rid of 99.9% of nasty bacteria and viruses. Another option is the Steripen, which uses UV light to sterilize tap water. The bonus of a Steripen is that you can also use it in juices or smoothies that you aren’t sure are made with safe water.
    • Bandana or face mask: I once got extremely ill from diesel fumes while traveling in a colectivo from Santa Maria to Varadero. I wish I had a face mask, Japanese-subway-style, to wear when traveling in Cuban cars because the fumes are really strong. A bandana would have come in handy as well.
    • Basic medicine: While Cuba’s health care system is quite functional (just ask my friend who fell and tore a ligament in her ankle on the beach and had to visit a Cuban hospital), it is still better to bring your own medicine from home. There are some international pharmacies (12 of them in Havana and another 30 or so scattered around the island) but trust me, the last thing you want to do if you get sick in Cuba is try to track down one of the few farmacías and discuss your bowel movements with a pharmacist. Here’s what’s in my arsenal for every trip and what I brought to Cuba:  Pepto-Bismol tablets for standard stomach troubles, Imodium as a nuclear option for diarrhea, some sort of painkiller like ibuprofen for headaches and minor pains, and some sort of motion sickness tablets. Of course, if you have any specific medical needs, you will want to bring that as well, especially anything that may require a prescription.

What to Wear in Cuba (For Women)

This part of my Cuba packing list is specific to women, so men, feel free to skip this part.

One thing I have to say here when it comes to deciding what to wear in Cuba: catcalling in Cuba is incredibly common and rather annoying. Wear clothes you feel comfortable in, but be aware that if you look nice (and in my experience, even if you don’t) Cuban men will most likely make sure you know it. Over and over again. While I did feel safe in Cuba, I did also often feel annoyed by the male attention.

Still, I didn’t let this impact how I dressed, but I do recommend you wear clothes you feel comfortable in and to be prepared for catcalling and comments to occur pretty much daily.

    • 3-5 lightweight summer dresses: Dresses are great for Cuban weather, plus they pack up small, so bring as many as you can get away with. If you plan to hit some salsa spots, bring something you enjoy dancing in.
    • 5+ tees & tanks: You will sweat a lot, so opt for black, navy, and other dark colors. Yes, they attract heat, but they also avoid the telltale yellow pit stains that seem to be my constant vibe whenever I attempt to wear white.
    • 1 pair jeans: While during the day I felt too hot in jeans, I did occasionally wear my pair of jeans at night or when I was
    • 2-3 pairs shorts: I usually have at least one pair of cuffed denim shorts and one pair of linen or silk-ish material for shorts.
    • 2-3 skirts: I suggest bringing one black skirt and one printed skirt for flexibility. I especially love having midi or maxi length skirts, which feel great and coincidentally look nice photos. As a bonus, the extra fabric around your legs traps some cool air, making you feel less hot, and I liked the additional coverage it gave me
    • 1 pair sneakers: Cuban streets are generally quite dusty so I found that I liked having a pair of lightweight closed-toe shoes that were comfortable to wear for long stretches. I usually wear a pair of black Nikes as I find they look cute even worn with my dresses and I’m all about having options.
    • 1-2 pairs sandals: I suggest bringing one pair of rubber flip flops like these Havaianas and another pair of more stylish or dressy sandals. I’m obsessed with my Birkenstocks and will never go back.
    • 1 pair heels, optional: I don’t like to dance but I know many travelers plan for a night out in Cuba dancing the night away. If you enjoy dancing in heels (and salsa does look best danced in heels) then I’d bring a comfortable pair with you. If you don’t plan to go dancing, then leave these at home – I did.
    • 1 rain jacket: Even if you don’t plan on traveling in the rainy season, sometimes the weather has other plans. I love my Marmot rain jacket.
    • 1 cardigan: Just in case you get cold at night or want a little extra coverage, a cardigan is good to have. You likely won’t need it in Cuba but it’s good for the plane.
    • 1-2 bras: I personally brought 1 regular bra and 1 sports bra and switched between the two.
    • 7+ pairs of underwear: You can easily arrange laundry with the owner of your casa particular but if you want to avoid laundry, just bring enough underwear for the duration of your trip.
    • Bathing suit: Unless you’re planning strictly a city trip to Havana, you are likely going to want to take a dip in that beautiful Caribbean! Bring your favorite bathing suit (I recommend bringing two, so that they have time to dry overnight).

What to Wear in Cuba (For Men)

Full disclosure, I am not a dude. But if I was, this is what I would bring, I guess.

  • 5-7 T-shirts
  • 1 pair jeans
  • 2-3 pairs shorts
  • 7+ pairs underwear
  • flip flops
  • comfortable walking sandals
  • sneakers
  • rain jacket
  • swim trunks

What to Pack for a Hostel in Cuba

Cuba really doesn’t have many hostels, although I did stay at one in Havana. They function just like a casa particular only that there are dorms instead of regular rooms. Still, some of these things may be useful if you stay at casa particulares, like I did during my time in Cuba.

    • 1 pair flip flops: While the hostel I stayed at in Cuba was very clean, I still recommend wearing flip flops in any sort of communal bathroom.
    • 1 travel towelMy hostel provided a towel, but I like having my own anyway.
    • 1 eye mask: Great for when you want to sleep but your roommates don’t.
    • Some earplugs or good noise-canceling headphones: Cuba is a LOUD country, even – especially – in the mornings. I remember my street in Trinidad being one of the loudest I could imagine starting from around 6 in the morning. I love Hearos — they’re the gold standard for ear plugs.

What Toiletries to Pack for Cuba

Basically, anything you use on a daily/weekly basis you will need to bring with you. I went into a little more detail above in the “essentials section,” but here are a few more ideas.

    • Hand sanitizer: Just in case a public restroom or restaurant bathroom doesn’t have hand sanitizer,  I prefer carrying my own in case of emergencies.
    • Kleenex packets: Like above — public restrooms may be lacking in the toilet paper department, so having some Kleenex in a portable sleeve is always a good move. I don’t just do this for Cuba but for all my trips.
    • LUSH solid shampoo: Life-changing. Just trust me.
    • Sunscreen: Cuba is sunny AF and sunscreen can be hard to find. My skin is really sensitive on my face, so I use this fancy Japanese sunscreen to prevent acne, and a general sunscreen for my body.
    • Travel medications: I listed them above, but just to reiterate — stomach medicine, motion sickness pills, and some sort of painkiller are my standards.

Electronics to Pack for Cuba

There are really no special considerations when it comes to packing for Cuba, except that you should leave your drone at home as there are absolutely no drones allowed into the country. Also, you may not want to bring your laptop if you are just visiting Cuba, as you likely won’t have enough WiFi access to justify the weight.

  • Laptop, if necessary: I bring my Macbook Air everywhere but other people may prefer a tablet or an inexpensive netbook. I work on the road so a user-friendly, lightweight laptop is a must.
  • Kindle Paperwhite: Books are heavy and often hard to find exactly what you want on the road. I love the Kindle Paperwhite because the screen is glare-free, making it easy to read at the beach or in direct sunlight.
  • Travel camera: I use a Sony A6000 because it’s lightweight for a professional caliber camera, inexpensive, and a HUGE step up from a smartphone. You may want to replace this or add a GoPro too, especially good for adventure activities like kitesurfing and diving (just check to see if you also need an underwater house for your GoPro if you dive, as many of the newer models are only good to 10m — not nearly enough for divers)
  • Portable charger: I like to carry a portable charger even in Cuba just in case I forget to charge my phone fully. You’ll use up a lot less batttery in Cuba than other places you travel to because of the lack of WiFi, but still, it can come in handy at times!
  • Adaptor, if necessary: Cuba uses the same plugs as America and Canada, so if you’re coming from Europe or the UK, you will need an adaptor.

***

Well, nearly 3,000 words later, I think I’ve finally exhausted all the things you need to bring for Cuba. While this sounds like a lot, I was able to fit it all into a 44L backpack (carry-on size) and daypack because I chose lightweight fabrics and packed carefully.

Is there anything I’ve forgotten? Is there anything else you’re wondering if you should bring to Cuba? Let me know in the comments!

Cars, Casas, and Charisma: Life in Cuba Through Pictures

Cuba is equal parts frustrating and fascinating. The colors of the houses are so vibrant, especially contrasted with the shiny and meticulously kept up cars.

There’s a charming old-fashioned vibe to the country. Many say visiting Cuba is a bit like traveling back in time. But underneath the vintage veneer, you can sneak a peek at the hard realities of life in Cuba at this pivotal juncture between the Castro era and whatever comes next.

If you haven’t yet read my article called “10 Quirks You Won’t Understand Until You Travel to Cuba” – that’s a great place to start understanding the realities of life in Cuba, just 50 miles yet somehow 70 years away from mainland, mainstream America. Or if you just wanna peruse some pretty pictures sprinkled with some random Cuba facts, I’ve got you covered here, too!

Curious about how to legally travel to Cuba as an American? Check out this post.

Classic cars in Cuba are everywhere, which is actually not a result of the trade embargo but rather the ban on importing foreign cars, which started in 1959.
Cubans may very well be some of the best mechanics in the world, as nothing more than sweat and ingenuity has kept these classic cars running for the past 70+ years.
Having a car in Cuba is a lifeline to money outside the socialist government, which pays an average of $30 USD per month.
For this reason, virtually every privately owned car in Cuba is also a taxi – it’s never hard to find a ride.
Though the government wage for Cubans is drastically low, Cubans are given food rations, housing (with water and electricity included), and are guaranteed the right to a government job.
Bodegas are where Cubans receive their rations, and their sparseness shows the shortcomings of the Cuban government’s ability to provide adequately for its people.
Rations include rice, beans, eggs, oil, and chicken (also, cigars and cigarettes – go figure). But they most certainly don’t include fresh fruit – which Cubans have to buy from their meager government salary.
As a result of their abysmally low wages, Cubans have become enterprising: natural born capitalists, dare I say. Many Cubans rig up things like old bicycles into pedi-taxis to wheel around tourists and locals alike and make some cash to spend in the quasi-black market.
There is technically freedom of the press in Cuba’s constitution… with the small caveat that no press can advocate “against the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism”. Granma is the official newspaper of the Communist Party in Cuba.
Street art is heavily censored and clearly commissioned to exist in support of the government’s ideals.
Despite the heavy propaganda, Cubans are exceptionally friendly to Americans. The grudge seems to be a bit one-sided on our part.
Many Cubans love to be the subject of photos – just ask and you’ll often be rewarded with a warm smile.
The people of Havana ooze with character and charisma – prime for people watching and street photography.
And not just in Havana – people everywhere look as if they have the most fascinating stories to tell… if only we had the time to listen to them all.
Some Cubans were understandably guarded when answering questions, but the majority were open and excited to shed some of the mystery of life in Cuba.
We learned from tobacco farmers that the Cuban government’s hands are everywhere. They take 90% of the tobacco from the farmers who farm it, leaving them just 10% to smoke themselves or sell to tourists who visit the farms in Viñales Valley.
Likewise, the Cuban government charges the owners of casa particulares – small B&Bs newly allowed in Cuba – a $150 tax monthly to rent out their rooms to tourists. Virtually every house in Cuban cities is also a casa, showing how Cubans are relentlessly trying to supplement their incomes.
Color is a way of life in Cuba – whether it’s the vibrantly painted houses or the meticulously kept-up cars, there’s rarely a dull moment.
Open windows seem to be a way of life in Cuba, too. People often sit in rocking chairs inside their homes, staring out into the world passing by. It doesn’t seem to be considered bad form to stare back in, either.
Cubans who live outside of the touristy areas show extra resourcefulness when it comes to making an extra living: this man rigged up his goat to a little cart and gave small kids a ride around the park in Santa Clara for a few CUP per kid.
But even Cuba’s most touristy cities have a distinctly rural feel to them – tractor traffic in Trinidad was constant.
Cuba is still a very equine society outside the main cities. In particular, Viñales is rife with horse owners who rely on horses for their livings, keeping an old way of Cuban life in modern times.
Horses in Cuba are often well cared for – just like the classic cars, horses are Cubans’ lifelines to the outside economy.
The Viñales Valley offers a small glimpse of Cuba’s rural past and touristic present — all at once. A perfect metaphor for Cuba at this pivotal moment.
Oddly, the landscape of Viñales almost reminded me of Thailand – karst mountains spring up everywhere, making this one of the most beautiful places in Cuba — after its beaches, of course.
Varadero lives up the postcards, but despite the tourism boom, there’s peace and quiet to be found  — if you look for it.
While I had heard that Cubans weren’t allowed on Varadero’s beaches – that they were tourist only – that seems to be only true for the resorts. Plenty of local Cubans – and this one fly cat – were free to enjoy this beautiful beach alongside the tourists staying in the local casas particulares in town.
Whatever I tell you about Cuba – it won’t last long. Depending on when you read this, everything I write may already be out of date. Life in Cuba is on the verge of massive change. The question is not if but when — and how fast.
Cuba’s youth doesn’t seem to realize what a precipitous moment this is for their country – after all, they are just kids. But they’re the ones who will have to pick up the pieces once the Castro era finally ends.
The reality is that as much as you try to understand Cuba, you’ll probably leave even more confused than you came in.
Whether or not that frustrates you or fascinates you will determine how you experience Cuba.

Planning a trip to Cuba? Check out these Cuba travel tips before you go.

Vintage cars, mojitos, stunning beaches, vibrant street scenes - Cuba's got it all in spades. Look a little closer to learn more about the truth behind the photographs!

10 Quirks You Won’t Understand Until You Travel To Cuba

It’s hard not to romanticize Cuba. The photographs sell a dream: 1950s cars against brightly painted buildings, character-filled faces smoking fat cigars. This is the country Hemingway lost himself in, the land of mojitos, balmy evenings dancing salsa outside, and vintage charm.

The photos don’t lie — Cuba is an insanely photogenic country with an almost magical beauty. But photos often don’t tell the whole story. You can’t smell the noxious fumes of the nearly 70-year-old cars, or hear the stories of the people who quit their jobs teaching to flee to the burgeoning private tourism sector for 30 times the pay.

You can’t truly understand the realities of life on the ground of this fascinating country until you’ve been there – and even once you have and you leave, you still have only the faintest understanding of life in on this unique island, both so close and so far to the USA.

You can see all the photos and read all the Cuba travel tips you want, but at the end of the day, you’re just going to have to see it for yourself.

Drinking in Hemingway’s footsteps


1. You can get alcohol without an ID, but you can’t get wifi without your passport.

There’s no such thing as a free log-on in Cuba. To get wifi, you’ll have to queue up with the locals and confused tourists to be admitted into local ETECSA. The lines are usually atrocious because most cities, besides Havana, will only have one. When you finally get allowed into the building, you can buy a wifi card at $1.50 per hour, but you must show your passport. Then you can go to one of the designated ETECSA access zones. There is usually one in every major plaza, hotel, or pretty much any place where you see tons of locals sitting and staring intently at their phones.

I gave up on the hassle after my second wifi card, so my two weeks in Cuba ended up being an internet detox. Considering that I went just weeks after Trump was inaugurated, it was a welcome break from the 24/7 news cycle.

Cuba’s version of an internet café

2. The Cuban government essentially invented Airbnb

There are no hostels outside of Havana, and the hotels in Cuba will cost you approximately the equivalent of your body weight in mojitos. The solution? Stay at casa particulares, which are homestays regulated by the Cuban government. Cuban families will rent out a spare room or two and pay the Cuban government a monthly tax of $150 to do so. For a modest price of about $25-35 per room (this is the price for a group of 3 or 4 – couples can probably pay less), you can stay in a local’s home.

There’s no need to book your casas ahead of time, except for perhaps your first one. Each casa owner has connections all over Cuba and is happy to hook you up with a friend in the next city you’re going to. While the décor will undoubtedly be a bit dated, the casa owner — usually a lovely matriarchal type — will do anything to make sure your stay is comfortable. Even if it means sawing a roll of paper towels in half after the stores have run out of toilet paper.

A row of casa particulares in Viñales

3. Price seems to have an inverse relationship to quality.

As in, a 5 dollar sandwich was roughly 10 times worse than a 50 cent one, and we found this time and again in Cuba. It was always incredibly frustrating to pay prices on par with Europe for a terrible, bland, or just plain confusing meal. I will never forget the time that I ordered fajitas from a restaurant and got a bowl of chicken nuggets with a side of mayo-ketchup dip and paid $15 USD for the pleasure (to be fair, I washed it down with quite a few Cuba Libres). Costs in Cuba sometimes seem completely random, and it was often that I’d think I was ‘splurging’ and treating myself only to end up disappointed.

Sadly, that meal didn’t even make the bottom 3. Privately owned restaurants are a relatively new phenomenon in Cuba, having only been legalized in 2013. Similarly, food shortages due to the US embargo don’t do much to help — about half of what’s on the menu is not actually on the menu.

Cordero con chilindron – lamb stew with tomato and chile, easily my favorite dish in Cuba. All this (and more rice and plantain chips than any human would ever want to eat) was 4 CUC at a little hole in the wall in Trinidad.

The best meals we had were often in hole-in-the-wall places where the prices were either unmarked or in the local currency (CUPs — look for prices starting at 25, which is 1 CUC, and up to about 100) rather than CUCs. They’d never be amazing, but they were reliable and filling. We did have a few nice meals in Varadero that were the exception to the rule, but other than that, save your cash for mojitos.

4. For the love of God, don’t order the pizza.

Let’s just say that pizza dough should not be the consistency of sponge cake and that imitation Velveeta is not an acceptable substitute for mozzarella. Don’t trust lines, either — we queued for an hour at what Lonely Planet billed as the best pizza in Santa Clara and the only edible thing was the plate of twenty French fries we waited another 40 minutes for.

At least rum is always a safe choice

5. You’ll start to become irrationally obsessed with Nestlé ice cream

After many excessively expensive and disappointing meals, you’ll start to fantasize about having something predictable. You’ll salivate each time you pass by a Nestlé sign with drawings of various ice cream bars…. only to find that inside virtually every freezer is the same bland tub of national brand ice cream.

6. Buying black market wifi feels like buying drugs

For those who don’t want to wait in the ETECSA line to get their internet hit, there’s always the good old black market. Enterprising Cubans will try to sell you wifi cards at twice the price ($3 for a 1 hour card) as you pass each local park, which as you remember is essentially also an open air internet café.

Locals will whisper “wifi card, wifi card” out of the corner of their mouth as if they’re selling pot to college kids. When you finally cave and need your fix, your dealer will lead you away from the main street, produce a wifi card clandestinely from a pack of cigarettes, and relieve you of your 3 CUC.

Bicycle taxis in a square in Trinidad

7. A pickup truck, a vintage convertible, and an ambulance will all cost you the same amount of money to go to the beach.

Like I said, price seemingly has no correlation with quality. Many times we paid just as much for a crappy experience as we did for a much nicer one. As Cubans working government jobs make the equivalent of 30 dollars per month, many are happy to earn a few extra bucks here and there. This is why basically every house is a casa and anything with wheels is a taxi… including ambulances. One day, as it started to rain buckets on us at the beach, some EMTs were very happy to give us a lift back to town for a few CUC and the promise not to take any pictures.

Not as expensive as you’d think!

8. You can get rum at virtually any store, but good luck with everything else.

A socialized government, a food rationing system, plus the US embargo has done serious damage to Cuba’s grocery stores. On one occasion, we decided we wanted to stop the game of Russian roulette that is dining out in Cuba and cook for ourselves. We quickly found that unless we wanted to eat spaghetti with frozen hot dogs, cooking our own food was pretty much not an option. We couldn’t even have cereal for breakfast unless we wanted it with powdered milk.

The markets often ran out of basic necessities, including bottled water and bread. One notable exception? You’ll never a find a store that isn’t fully stocked with rum. Even things like ATMs can be hard to find, as Cuba is pretty much a cash-only economy. We went to a massive shopping center with a restaurant, internet cafe, bowling alley, and I shit you not, a literal freaking roller coaster — yet not an ATM in sight.

A Cuban bodega, where rations are distributed

9. Cubans are some of the warmest people, and they have no beef with Americans

We got to know many of our casa owners well during our two weeks in Cuba, and some were so sweet I almost felt as if I was staying with a long-lost Cuban auntie. One supplied us with fruit cocktails (which, in true Cuban fashion, was more rum than fruit) and fresh muffins. Another accompanied my friend to the hospital when a slip on the beach led to a torn ligament in her leg. The casa owners would often see us off with hugs and kisses — yes, even the one time one hustled us on our way out the door. Locals were also responsive to our questions and happy to help shed some of the mystery of Cuban life.

I’m normally horribly shy about asking to take people’s photos, but luckily Cubans are so friendly it was great practice!

Side note: for my fellow Americans, you really have nothing to worry about in Cuba, despite the decades-long animosity between our two countries’ governments. I’d be halfway through a cringe after telling locals I was American only to have them joyously say “I love America!” or start telling me about their family in Miami or New York. I’d often see Cubans totally bedecked in American flag or camouflage clothing, even on the beach. It’s definitely not the image our country would depict of Cuba — but it’s what I saw.

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10. Cuba is frustrating, fascinating, and endlessly changing.

I wrote this article will the full awareness that this post, to some, may just sound like a laundry list of gripes from a spoiled first world tourist. And in a way, it is. I’ve gotten so used to my privilege and creature comforts, and globalization has ensured that even in the least developed nations, something familiar is never far from reach.

I’ve solo traveled in many developing countries far from home, from Albania to Ecuador, from Myanmar to Nicaragua. Yet I’ve never felt more lost at sea as I did in Cuba, a country whose language I speak nearly fluently and whose capital lies a mere 90 miles from my country of birth. That’s just Cuba for you.

But as confusing as Cuba can be, somehow I’m still enchanted by this paradoxical country. The beauty of the vintage cars and the ingenuity that keeps them going, the pride and dignity of the people, the faded glory of the colonial buildings being renewed with vibrant coats of paint, while crumbling on the inside… There’s something unique about Cuba, something that can never be replicated in any other country. For better or for worse.

 

A vintage car tour of Havana – a must do!

 

Brilliant colors everywhere

As tired as I was when I left Cuba, I’m already thinking about how I’d love to return time and again. I’m curious to watch as this country changes, to witness the inevitable transition from the Castro years to who knows what comes next.

I’ll just remember not to get the pizza next time.

What I wish I knew before coming to Cuba. Equal parts frustrating and fascinating, this spectacular country is more complex than classic cars, cigars, and mojitos all night -- but you'll be well rewarded for visiting if you're prepared with these Cuba travel tips.