How to Pack for Cuba

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
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[Note: I’m sorry if you’re a leisure traveler who Googled “How to Pack for Cuba” or “packing for Cuba” or “what to pack for a trip to Cuba” and you stumbled upon this post. It’s not likely to help you much, as I’m packing not for a vacation, but for a visit to the in-laws, and that’s a whole other ball of wax.]

What to pack for Cuba- the carry-on
What to pack for Cuba- the carry-on
This will be my eighth, ninth, or tenth trip to Cuba; I don’t remember exactly. I’ve been going since 2003, as an envoy to my in-laws, and packing for this trip never gets easier. If you’re just marrying into a Cuban family (and I use “marrying” as loosely or as literally as you’d like- there are lots of variations)– then perhaps you’ll find the following insights and tips useful.

The more things stay the same, the more things change. As both US and Cuban policies related to travel between the two countries have, overall, become more relaxed since I first started visiting Cuba a decade ago, there are some key areas of Cuba travel policies that have become increasingly onerous.

First: maximum weight permitted. These days, you’ve got 44 pounds per passenger to work with. (If you’re reading this even a month from now, check with the airline with which you’re booked to travel for current weight limits). That goes fast–really fast–when you’re not just packing for yourself, and when you’re traveling to Cuba, you are never packing for yourself. You’re also packing gifts for family. You’ll also be packing gifts for friends of friends and family of friends; Yuma contacts of Cubans always end up muling for one another. Don’t say no when they ask you to carry money or vitamins or photos. As long as it’s legit, take on what you can; you’ll probably need them to return the favor in the future.

You will inevitably accumulate a pile of goods that have been special requested by your Cuban family, and another pile of items you’ve bought that you think are practical. Over the years, my suitcases have included: underwear in five sizes and at least as many styles (from granny panties to “tangas”– g-strings); bottles of Vitamin E, fish oil, Motrin, and multivitamins; tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes; dried beans of all types; rice; dried meats and packets of tuna fish; chocolate (powdered and in bar and candy forms); jewelry; perfume; soap; backpacks; purses; make-up; dozens of shoes; house dresses and pajamas; winter coats (three on this trip); make-up and nail polish; particular brands of deodorant, hair spray, hair gel, and shampoo; knife sets and cutting boards; laptops, cameras, and cell phones; bed sheets and towels; books, magazines, pens, and school supplies, and dozens of other things I’ve forgotten or put out of my mind.

You will do your best to distribute these items among the pieces of luggage you’re taking, so that none exceeds the weight limit. If you go with the Cuban flow, you’ll spend $30 and up to have these wrapped in plastic at the airport (I’ve never done this). And speaking of flow and airport, once you hit the airport, get ready for your cash to flow. Charter flights are now charging $20 per carry-on item (regardless of whether your other luggage is under the weight limit). From there, it’s all downhill. Cuba introduced new customs tariffs in the summer of 2012; they’re way too complicated to explain here, but you can read all about them in English or in Spanish. And don’t forget to set aside your exit fee, which you’ll pay at the airport upon your departure.

The good news is, you’ll return home much lighter than you arrived. You may even return without a bag at all; that’s happened to me several times. Cubans know that suitcases are wonderful makeshift closets, and they will happily relieve you of the burden of taking home your now-empty suitcase.

How to Travel to Cuba: Licensed Organizations Update

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Brayan Collazo
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Me, peeking into a door in Cuba.
Me, peeking into a door in Cuba.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for FOX News Latino about how to travel to Cuba legally with one of the people-to-people programs authorized by the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Right around the same time the piece was published, the news broke that many of the 100+ organizations licensed by OFAC to lead these trips were not receiving renewals of their licenses; their renewal requests seemed to be suspended in bureaucratic, pre-elections political limbo.

Though most of those organizations still seem to be in limbo, I received notice earlier today that Friendly Planet is one of the few tour operators that has successfully had its people-to-people license renewed; in fact, they were granted a two-year renewal, and can continue running their Cuba tours through September 2014.

Curious about traveling to Cuba? Feel free to email us questions: collazoprojects[at]gmail[dot]com.

We also recommend Conner Gorry’s blog, Here is Havana, and her travel app, Havana Good Time (best app name ever!); she’s an American expat who has lived in Cuba for nearly a decade.

Travel Writers’ Resolutions for 2009

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Brayan Collazo Alonso

As a travel writer who has written openly about traveling to Cuba, I receive frequent e-mails from people who would like my advice about doing the same.

Just last week, I was chatting with a friend–another travel writer–an American citizen who is planning on traveling to Cuba. “I was trying to decide… whether to write about it [the trip],” she said. She maintains a popular travel blog with a loyal readership, and the comments of her readers indicate that she clearly exerts a positive influence over their travel decisions.

“Here’s what I think,” I said to her:

“From a philosophical/activism perspective, the more people who write about traveling to Cuba, the better. It proves, for one thing, the importance of going there, seeing things for themselves, and rendering their own judgments and opinions. It also proves that the travel ‘ban’ is ridiculous and that travel is not threatening to anyone.”

Writing about travel, like traveling itself, is a form of diplomacy, of politics, and even, I argue, of patriotism. Travel writing is not an act of objectivity or passivity. It requires the writer’s full engagement, both while traveling and while sitting down and writing.

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A few months back, I attended a reading of prose pieces written by travel writers. A writer and editor was asked by a member of the audience if he had traveled to Cuba. The writer shuffled uncomfortably from one foot to the other, his head down, as if trying to decide whether to answer the question. Finally, he looked up and said, “Yes.”

That was it.

“And have you written about it?” the audience member continued. The writer responded something along the lines of he’d never written about the experience–or at least not published anything about it–because he didn’t really want to leave a paper trail of his travels to the forbidden island. He was worried about the consequences.

While I respect his decision, I think there’s something to be said for travel writing that takes people places where they can’t go or where they’re afraid to go. There’s something to be said for writing that’s courageous, that says, “This is what I believe, and this is why,” and that gives places and people without voices a medium for expression.
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My friend and colleague, Eva Holland, recently blogged about her 2009 travel and writing resolutions.

“I will give everything I write the same time, care and attention that I would have when I first started out, and every submission felt like life and death.”

It’s a resolution all writers should adopt for 2009.

And I’ll add one more, for all of us:

Write like you believe in your subject. Write through your fear, through your ego, through your anxieties. Write about places like they matter… because they do.