March 28th, 2016

Minimalist Travel: How to Pack Your Bag for Cuba

Minimalist Travel: How to Pack Your Bag for Cuba

If you're heading to Cuba, but have no idea what to pack, get the lowdown from someone who’s been there!

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about packing for Cuba is: “comfy shoes.” The cobblestone streets of Havana are iconic, and you’ll be doing a lot of walking on them, so it's important to protect your feet. Plus, downtown Havana is big—in fact, I was surprised by its size. Exploring it on foot is definitely an adventure, so plan to spend at least two days there: one for perusing all the large historic sites and one just for strolling the Malecon boardwalk. And carve out time to sample all the delicious flavors at Coppelia Ice Cream.

What clothes you pack will depend considerably on what month(s) you choose to visit. I visited Cuba in the winter. Rainy days were chilly, so I’d recommend bringing something cozy—that way, you can bundle up and won't miss out on any sightseeing. On the whole, it’s best to bring versatile clothes that suit both sunny days and cool nights: light pants, long-sleeved shirts (you can roll the sleeves up), and a light jacket. March and April are ideal months to visit Cuba, because during that time of year, it's usually hot enough to go to the beach, but it's not yet super humid and you'll avoid hurricane season.

Ladies, be sure to bring a handbag and one or two pretty dresses. The handbag is useful for storing a camera (after all, you'll want to take pictures of all the beautiful scenery) and any souvenirs that you pick up along the way. The dresses will keep you cool in the heat. The other reason you need a dress? Salsa is HUGE in Cuba, so you will want something stylish yet comfortable to wear. If you don’t know how to salsa, no worries; there are opportunities to learn and to dance just about everywhere. I was new to salsa, but the locals were so gentle and fun. They’re accustomed to tourists, so it didn’t take long for them to teach me a few steps as the musicians beat a mean tune on the drums. I recommend the fantastic Casa de la Músíca in Trinidad—I have fond memories of dancing the night away there.

Cuba is, of course, an island, so if you visit during the warmer months, toss plenty of sun and beach gear into a packing cube. Don't forget your swimsuit and a cover-up. And bring sunscreen, too—especially if you are fair-skinned like I am—to protect your skin from the harsh rays of the sun. Then take a taxi to the sand in Trinidad, rent a beach chair, and sun yourself while listening to the sounds of lapping waves.

Speaking of Trinidad: In good weather, you can enjoy spectacular hiking and horseback riding here, so bring rugged outdoor clothing that will accommodate some activity, as well as a good hat! My travel buddy Louise and I had planned on riding horses to the countryside—Valle de los Ingenios, which is known for being gorgeous—but February rain thwarted our plans. There were plenty of other diversions, though, so one evening we cozied into a paladare (family-run) restaurant with fellow travelers. They had just arrived and were looking forward to exploring El Nicho Waterfalls and forests at Cienfuegos.

Also on the must-do list for adventure-seekers: Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. It's a quaint village that is part of a nature reserve. You can marvel at the rolling hills, the man-made lake, and over 800 kinds of plants. When I landed in Cuba, I knew only what the guidebooks had promised. They all proved true. No matter which part of the island I visited, there were any number of opportunities for active fun—diving, hiking, ziplining, you name it. Looking back, I'm glad I packed hiking pants and an SPF rash guard shirt, along with (once again!) adequate shoes, and a decent daypack.

Craving even more packing tips? Check out this ultimate packing list.

Your turn, travelers: What did YOU pack for a trip to Cuba? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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by Shannon ODonnell

Shannon O'Donnell is a long-term traveler who has been on the road since 2008; she travels slowly and supports grassroots tourism along the way. She is an acclaimed travel speaker and works with universities and businesses all over the U.S. to talk about supporting developing countries.

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