This Cuba packing list is the longest packing list I’ve ever written.
Get a cup of coffee because this is likely the most thorough piece you’ll see on what to bring to Cuba.
I’ve been based here for two years and I’ve run into a lot of situations where I thought “why didn’t I bring that???”
And that’s because most Cuba packing lists are 10-15 things that you already know – seriously do you need me to tell you to bring sunscreen or a swimsuit?
You don’t need EVERYTHING here. But everyone has different needs when thinking what to bring to Cuba.
To be honest I need hot sauce and I’m not afraid to admit that!
Is a Cuba Packing List Necessary?
Normally when I travel I don’t really worry about forgetting to pack something.
I always forget something and I just buy it when I arrive. Sure paying double for sunscreen really burns but it’s not the end of the world.
But Cuba is different.
Not everything exists here. Or it exists, but only on the black market.
And you need to know someone who knows someone.
If you’re only here for a week you’re not going to know the right people who can score Tylenol or batteries or peanut butter for breakfast.
I’m all about traveling light, but you really do need to prepare for a trip in Cuba, especially if the product you can’t live without is American.
If you don't bring it, you can't count on buying it in Cuba.
Sure maybe last time you were in Cuba you found oatmeal but that doesn't mean you'll find it this time.
The first day I was in Cuba I found individual servings of yogurt and I've never seen it again! In two years!
Why I Travel Carry-On Only to Cuba
Cuban customs checks every single bag coming into the airport.
The first time I decided to check my bag because I thought it would be easier, I waited over an hour for it to come off the belt.
Don't do it!
If you're on an all-inclusive package where you'll have to wait for everyone else on the bus anyway don't sweat it go ahead and check your bag.
But if you're traveling independently in Cuba you don't want to be stuck at the baggage carousel.
You can save yourself a lot of time by just traveling carry on to Cuba.
Believe me it IS possible!
How to Pack for Cuba Like a Pro
Even though I travel for months at a time, I travel carry-on only with this Travel Pro international carry on bag.
My number one packing tip for any destination is packing cubes. I've been using the same Eagle Creek packing cubes since I first left to travel in 2010.
They are an amazing investment, can be washed in the laundry and make packing so much easier.
Although I'm no longer I backpacker I still find packing cubes helpful in my carry-on.
I use one for dresses, one for underwear/swimsuits/gym clothes and one for t-shirts and shorts.
You can find less expensive packing cubes if you're on a budget. I've tried several brands but I prefer Eagle Creek because they are sturdy and the zipper has never split.
And I love this travel organizer from Amazonbasics, I've ordered a lot of things from Amazonbasics and I always find them to be great quality despite being so cheap.
In fact I often just go to the Amazon Basics Travel department to look at what they have because I love new gadgets.
But I've has this organizer for two years. I keep money, cards, my passport, earphones, chapstick and anything I think I'll need on a plane and I don't want to go rifling through my overstuffed backpack for.
This packing list for Cuba is comprehensive, but necessary. Normally I try to pack light but in Cuba I pack things I wouldn’t normally carry, just in case I’ll need it.
What to Bring to Cuba: Visa and Documents
- Passport. Also keep a photocopy and a to your phone. I don't carry my passport with me but sometimes hotels will ask for it if you want to pay with a credit card. I've never had an issue just showing a photo from my phone.
- Visa/ Tourist Card. If you're in North America your airline will provide this. When you check in ask if they will give it to you on the plane or if you need to buy it at the gate. Canadian airlines include the cost of a 90-day visa in the flight price and will give it to you on the plane with customs documents. Most American airlines do not and you’ll need to buy it. Prices range from 50-100 USD for a 30-day visa.
- Proof of Insurance. I've never been asked for this. Most US airlines include it in the price of the flight. It's best to buy in advance or you can buy it at the airport in Cuba for $3 USD per day.
- Photos of birth certificate, social insurance number and drivers licence. I email myself these documents under some kind of ambiguous subject line like "Ryan's birthday present." I was once robbed in Vietnam and getting a new passport was easy because I had a scan of enough documents to expedite the process.
- Printed copy of the address for the hotel or casa particular you are staying at as it’s easiest to show your taxi driver at the airport.
Money in Cuba seems super complicated, but it's not at all once you know how it works (Cuban money explanation here).
Staying on a Cuba Resort?
If you're going to a resort and never plan to leave crisp $1 bills are great. You do not need to convert to Cuban currency, staff love USD tips.
But they'll also take any bills (no coins) and go exchange them, as long as they are crisp you're good. No one turns down tips
Traveling Off Cuban Resorts
As I’m Canadian I can use the ATMs, which I prefer as it sidesteps going to the money houses or the bank.
If you are not American, some but not all international banks work in Cuba - check this list to see if you have access.
Bring Canadian dollars, Mexican Pesos or Euros. You can bring USD but there is a 10% conversion fee in addition to the regular exchange rate of 3%.
If you're staying in an AirBNB you can ask your host if you bring USD if they'll give you a 1-1 exchange rate.
This is common as Cubans unofficially use USD but I don't want to complicate matters more by explaining the black market here.
Some higher end hotels accept credit cards as well as restaurants in Varadero. But I've only been able to use my credit card once or twice.
You are supposed to show your passport but I don't like to carry it around so I just have a photo on my phone that I use when necessary.
What to Wear When Travelling to Cuba
Many people are surprised to have cool weather in Cuba, especially in Havana.
Over the winter it can drop to as little as 13C/55F in the evenings and you need pants and a sweater.
Take a good look at the weather before you go.
I get around this by bringing leggings to wear under dresses and a cardigan.
No matter how long I am traveling I only ever pack for one week of clothing. I almost always pack dresses because they are always appropriate and take up less room in my bag.
Cubans take pride in looking good so flip flops are fine at the beach in Havana but not necessarily at a restaurant unless you are in Varadero.
Some restaurants do not allow guests to wear shorts. Even in hot weather you’ll find Cubans in pants.
If you're curious about my Cuba packing list:
- 5 dresses
- 2 tank tops
- 1 jeans shorts
- 1 walking/gym shorts
- Sweater for the plane
- Leggings – good for plane under a dress and with a cardigan and scarf.
- Day backpack
- 1 pair of comfortable walking shoes
- Sneakers – women in Cuba wear sneakers and the streets aren’t always great and sometimes can be cobblestone.
- Underwear and socks. I always forget socks and they are so hard to find in Cuba.
- 2 bathings suits
- Beach towel – you can buy them at hotels for $25 or bring one yourself. But truthfully I just bring a sarong like this one to the beach. It's hot out so you don't really need to dry off.
- Travel umbrella – Needed during rainy season (summer in Cuba). I lost a laptop from being caught in a downpour. Now I carry a small one in my day bag if there’s any chance of rain. I freaking LOVE this rainbow umbrella which looks amazing on rainy days. I don't think you need a rain jacket outside rainy season.
What to Pack for Cuba: Toiletries
While international brands like L’Oreal, Garnier and Pantene exist in Cuba, they are really expensive and finding them often means going to a few shops or a hotel store.
While I believe in packing light if I forget something it’s likely I won’t be able to find it.
I bring whatever I think I may need and then leave it with a local.
It may seem silly that on this what to pack for Cuba list I've included the obvious but I'm notorious at forgetting things like toothpaste and deodorant.
- Toothpaste and toothbrush
- Hair products: shampoo, conditioner, comb, elastics
- SPF lip sunscreen. your lips are one of the most thin parts of your body and they will burn, I like this one which is 25 SPF.
- Neutrogena 110 SPF for face – Most people don't believe I'm 42. My secret? Sunscreen every day and not having kids! The Cuban sun is harsh and although I wear sunscreen every day I was starting to see sun damage. I know that after SPF 30 the benefits are minimal but I really like Neutrogena because its not greasy and won’t melt off your face in the hot sun.
- Reef Safe 30 SPF Sunscreen – apply often! Cubans laugh at tourists who spend the whole day in the sun and become lobsters unable to enjoy the rest of their holiday. They usually spend the afternoon under beach umbrellas, take a cue from them. If you're traveling carry on just dispense into 100ml or less travel containers.
- 3 ply toilet paper. If you need more than one ply you better bring your own.
- Mosquito Repellent. I use OFF! Active with 15% Deet. And while I know Deet is poison, once the sun goes down the mosquitoes at the beach are vicious in July and August, especially in the Cayos.
- In Havana the city manages mosquitoes as much as they can and they fumigate often. I’m not scared of mosquitoes here but I also think wearing a bit of Deet once a week at the beach won’t hurt.
- Tampons/Pads. quality feminine hygiene products are tough to get in Cuba. Nearly impossible outside main cities. Buy a box and then leave them for a local if you don’t need them.
- Packs of Kleenex. Unless you are in a nice hotel or a restaurant with an attendant the bathroom it’s likely there’s no toilet paper. Here's a great deal from Amazon.
- Nail clippers, tweezers, bandages, razors. Use your conditioner as shaving cream
- Hand sanitizer. I believe most people don't get food poisoning from food but from touching something. Whether you agree or not clean hands are a must and not all bathrooms have soap dispensers. I really like these small ones that strap to a purse. You can keep the bottles and refill them as needed.
Medication Packing List for Cuba
Normally I don't travel with a lot of medication but over six months I've been sick a few times in Cuba.
I use small containers to carry a wide variety of medication. You can't buy a lot of over-the-counter drugs in Cuba and they take up such little room.
That said, you can buy antibiotics and other more serious medication.
There are two types of pharmacies here, one Cuban and one that stocks international medication that is more expensive.
I once needed Cipro and it was easy to find at an international pharmacy for $20. It was manufactured in Argentina as Cuba doesn't have access to American drugs.
- Pepto Bismol – I carry the to go tabs in my purse. You don’t need to worry about eating street food or in paladares being dangerous but anytime you go somewhere new your stomach needs to adjust.
- Loperamide aka Imodium – for when Pepto isn’t enough.
- Acetaminophen aka Tylenol
- Dimenhydrinate aka Gravol – for motion sickness, whether it be on a bus or boat.
- Band aids
- Cold medication – both day and night. If you’ve had a head cold on a plane you know it’s worth it to bring a couple of these tablets with you
- Rehydration/electrolyte powder. Drinking Cuban cocktails in the heat can be exhausting. Here are some small packets that you add to water.
- Antibiotic cream – scratches and bites heal faster. E.g. Neosporin, Polysporin. You wouldn't believe how many times I've lent this to travelers.
- Birth control/condoms – even if you aren’t planning to meet someone it’s better to be safe. There is currently a shortage of condoms in Cuba. And if you don’t use the condoms give them away, they will be used.
Should I Bring Bottle Water to Cuba? Is Water in Cuba Potable?
You cannot drink the water in Cuba. The good news is that Cubans don't drink water from the tap either.
Resorts in Cuba filter the water and provide plenty of clean water to drink.
If you are traveling independently in Cuba you can find small water bottles for 45 cents, 1.5 litres for 70 cents and 5 litres for a couple dollars in gas stations and grocery stores.
I've found the most expensive water to be in Old Havana, and it's $1 for a small bottle, or $2 for a large one.
I wash Cuban fruit with tap water and use it to brush my teeth and have never had any issues.
How to Reduce Using Plastic Water Bottles While Traveling
While Cuba does recycle I worry about my traveler’s footprint and try to minimize the plastic I use.
- Many Cubans boil their water and keep it in a pitcher in the fridge. You need to bring water to a rolling boil for at least 1 minute to kill bacteria. You should boil water for at least three minutes in altitudes greater than 6,562 feet/2000 meters. I don't take my chances and boil it for 5 minutes regardless of where I am.
- The Steripen uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria. It's small enough to travel with and cleans up to 8000 litres. I've traveled with it extensively in Latin America.
- The Clearly Filtered Bottle is BPA-free and cleans up to 100 gallons or about six months worth.
- The Lifestraw Water Bottle is BPA-free and cleans as much as the Steripen and people adore it. I'm not crazy about having to drink through a straw all the time.
- This time I am trying a Grayl bottle, which I've heard great reviews from other travel bloggers.
If you're staying on a resort PLEASE bring an insulated travel mug.
They say resorts in Varadero go through 500-1000 glasses per day per hotel. That's only one hotel one day.
And on the selfish side these cups are small. Everyone wins with an insulated mug.
Technology + Electronics Packing List for Cuba
I travel with far more electronics than the average person.
Here's the list of what I travel with but try to go light as I use more luggage space for electronics than clothes...*sigh*...priorities.
- Plug converter - Cuban plugs are the same as most of the Americas. However, if the building is really old it may only have two prongs so you can't use your laptop. I once allowed my friends to saw off the third prong on a temporary laptop I was using because it wouldn't plug into the hotel where I accessed wifi. They were right I didn't need the third prong but I wish I had a converter especially as they are only a couple bucks on Amazon.
- Camera, portable charger, memory cards – bring more than one memory card in case one fails. Again its not easy to buy in Cuba.
- Back up camera cord - in case you lose the USB cord to charge your camera.
- USB power bank. I take a lot of video and it drains the phone battery. This one has four full charges.
- Zhyiun Gimball – I shoot most of my video with my phone and this gimball is amazing. Compact and does such a great job for smoothing footage and taking selfies - check out this video I shot about food in Pittsburgh.
- Joby Gorillapod – I bring this along for timelapses or video with my mirrorless camera. I sometimes use it as a selfie stick.
- Waterproof smartphone case – This isn’t essential but for less than $10 you can take your phone into the water.
- Bluetooth Earbuds– I love these SoundBuds Slim headphones because they have a mic and a cord connecting them there's less chance I lose one.
- 1TB Hard drive - Although I use Google Photos and Drive to upload files to the cloud, wifi in Cuba is not reliable so I back up on this drive. Also it’s useful for El Paquete.
- Bluetooth Speaker – this speaker is tiny and plays for 6 hours, perfect for a day at the beach.
What are the Best Gifts to Bring to Cuba
There is an odd tourist culture that for some reason people bring gifts to Cubans. But would never think to bring them anywhere else in the world.
And we'd certainly never hand out candy to random children in the street in Mexico or Nicaragua.
Also you can buy toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap and shampoo in Cuba.
I do worry about the long term impact it creates. Recently I was approached by a child for candies and another one for a dollar.
What are we teaching the next generation?
This is a great article about the ethics of giving random gifts while traveling.
Remember that the most well off Cubans own casa particulares, are taxi drivers or (to a much lesser extent) work in hotels.
If you "donate" to them the people who really need it are not going to see it.
Maids sell the things people leave them. Most of the tourists encounter are the most well off, many of the gifts never make it to who needs it most.
But you can do great things but giving to the right people. It’s often a good idea to drop off donations at a church or orphanage.
Cuba Libro in Havana is a book store/cafe run by an American journalist and can be trusted.
This is the first place I would recommend if you're in Havana. You can contact them in advance for what they may need.
- USB sticks
- Old unlocked cell phones
- Childrens' clothing, including socks and shoes
- Sewing kits
- Bluetooth speaker - leave yours with someone, Cubans love to play music....everywhere
- Condoms - remember there's a shortage. Cuba Libro hands them out for free and could use them.
- Over the counter medications (aspirin, ibuprophen, Tylenol), vitamins, bandages, as these are very difficult to find.
What to Bring to Cuba: Food/Snacks
I don't recommend bringing EVERYTHING on this list but, for example, if you need hot sauce with every meal you better bring your own.
- Mini hot sauce – Cuban food salty but not spicy and sometimes can be bland. Some paladares keep hot sauce in the kitchen but not all. Get these travel sized sriracha packets.
- Packets of mustard, ketchup, soy sauce - even the high end hotel I visit occasionally runs out of ketchup, If you really need it bring your own.
- Sugar substitute
- Peanut butter
- Decaf tea or coffee if you don't drink Cuban coffee
- Instant oatmeal or cereal
- Chewing gum
- Snacks: even I get tired of Cuban food from time to time but seriously I can get hangry especially on long trips. I always bring some small bags of nuts and energy bars for when I'm on the road or I can't bear to eat another ham and cheese sandwich.
Best Guide Book for Cuba
I rarely travel with a guide book but Cuba is different as there isn’t a lot of great information online.
My first few months I relied on my Cuban friends to tell me where to go.
Once I became more comfortable with Havana I started reading guidebooks to see what they could add to the experience.
300 Reasons to Love Havana – full of great ideas for things to do in Havana.
A lot of things I was nodding my head to, others like Bogeduita de Medio I was shaking my head, but then found lots of great spots I hadn't heard about.
What Not to Bring to Cuba
You are allowed to bring in up to $50 of "gifts" before paying import fees.
Cuba decides what the price is even if you have a receipt so if you have a computer monitor on sale for $50 they may still charge you.
Here are things you cannot bring:
- Drone. It will be confiscated.
- Walkee talkees.
- Satellite phone.
- GPS. Although your phone is fine.
- More than two phones, and really more than two of anything sparks concern.
- Fresh meat, plants and agricultural products. Packaged food is fine.
Should anything else be on this Cuba packing list? Let me know in the comments below.