One of the most often asked questions from clients going to Cuba is “What do I bring?”. The intention for goodwill is there, but it can be confusing knowing what could make the biggest impact. Cuba is unlike any other place on the planet, so here’s a quick guide for making yourself useful. Some of the things are for you (the traveler), and some are “give-aways”, and some are both.
1- USB Flash Drives / Mini Hard Drives:
In a country living off the grid and disconnected from the world wide web, the youth have figured out a way to create a “home-made internet”, if you will. Instead of Time Warner, the cubans have created “El Paquete”, and thus the need for thumbnails, hard drives, or any other memory devices. For those that do not subscribe to “El Paquete”, the usage of USB sticks can still be very effective in transporting Mp3’s, movies, or general documents that other countries tend to email to each other. If you want to make a bigger impact, bring a 1TB mini-drive to a filmmaker or recording artist who both deal with large files. Don’t be shy, more memory is always better memory. Keep a high-memory stick for yourself and bring back any Cuban content (films, music, magazines) worth seeing later.
2- Kleenex Packets:
In an economic crisis, the truth of the matter is that various places in Cuba lack toilet paper. Most higher end tourist hotels possess the bathroom tissue, but a large share of basic eateries, lobbies, shops, etc lack it. Oh, yes, be warned, the Cuban airport never has toilet paper. To be safe, toss a few travel packets in your purse for the week (for yourself or as “giveaways” after). Especially if you drive on the outskirts of Havana, where you will most definitely experience the “no toilet paper zone”. Note: Add a travel size bottle of Purell as a finishing touch.
Unlike most other cities you visit in the world, Cuba does not operate with GPS. You’ll have to get accustomed to good ‘ol fashioned paper maps and just pen your fav spots. A map we recommend is VanDam Street Havana. (For the crafty techies, there’s a few apps with Cuban maps, but that’s another post another day).
4- Cash Cash Cash:
It is generally common knowledge, but very urgent to point that Americans must pay in Cash. Due to the American embargo, nothing issued by a US bank works in Cuba (no visas, Amex, or ATM machines), however current US law has made exceptions with MC I hear, but in all my travels, I have not charged anything to a credit card yet). Estimate $50 to $100 a day for food (depending on how you eat and drink). Due to the 2 Tier economy, Cuba prices range from local currency (in pesos) to tourist money (convertibles aka CUC, pronounced /kooks/). Food ranges from local prices ($3 an entree) to tourist eateries ($20 an entree). In terms of lodging, aka “casa particulares” (home-run B&B’s), these can cost $30-$40 a night, while State-run hotels (with more amenities like Wifi, BBC,etc) can range from $170-$500 a night. The same goes for Taxis’. A local taxi can cost .50 cents to get across town whereas a tourist taxi can run you from $10-20 for the same distance. How much cash you carry will result in how thrifty and tenacious of a traveler you are. Best to note, if your cash ever gets lost or stolen, the best backup solution is to have a friend in the US send cash via Western Union to Cuba. There is a Western Union in Havana Vieja) or ask any hotel for your local WU pickup.
There is never a lack for music in Cuba. A mini set of speakers can manifest a dance floor in 2 second, be it on the Malecon ocean wall or in a private home. Loud music equals a dance party, and for only $149 at the Apple store, your Harman Kardon speakers (above) can jumpstart the next bash guided by the bluetooth of your iPhone.
Lots of things we take for granted can be the most useful in Cuba. The general list: tampons, panty shields, tylenol, claritin, alleve, antacids, vitamins, razors, the list goes on. Just visit to your local Duane Reade (or dollar store) and fill up the cart.
7- Fashion for Cool Chicks:
Girls are girls anywhere you go, and god knows the lack of clothes shopping on the island. Tee’s that are soft and have good cuts are a coveted item. Think Zara, Forever 21, H&M, Uniqlo, Urban Outfitters –all are gold for a cool millennial today. Toss in a basic pair of high-waist smartly cut blue jeans, and you have just made a new best friend. Hook up a girl, please.
iPhones and laptop chargers, Android chargers, old cracked cell phones, forgetten headphones, beat-up Mophie cases, etc. etc. Clean out your electronics drawer at home. Cubans are mastering at recycling. A local can fix a shattered glass faster than you can say “Genius Bar”. One persons waste is another persons dream. Batteries are helpful too.
Don’t throw out that pile of outdated Vogues, W Mag, or Entertainment Weekly at home. Keep that stash and bring them all to Cuba. Remember that Cuban newsstands sell zero American magazines, so in honor of building that information bridge between Cuba and US, bring a good read. While you’re at it, get the latest issue of The Economist and The New York Times at the airport to share some world news with the islanders.
10- Random Goodies:
Every trip I discover new oddities of requests from Cubans. The latest are — Nutella is a fav (Cuba carries a cheaper brand of chocolate spread, but locals favor the Nutella brand, which goes for a heavier price). Mosquito spray is always a plus during dampy wet summers, a magnet for the buggers. Off Spray or Off Swipes always make a useful gift. Basically, if you know a Cuban personally, ask what they need. You’ll be surprised by their random requests, and how easy it is to fulfill their biggest wish.
To all my readers, feel free to add anything I missed in the comments section.