The weather here in Cuba can get a little warm during the summertime. Locals regularly comment on the 90º weather, saying ‘que clase de calor!’(It’s so hot), dragging chairs outside on the sidewalk in the early evening for a breath of cooler air. For visitors from cooler climes, the temperatures can be too much to handle. At the very least, the heat can be uncomfortable and makes sticking your head in a freezer an attractive alternative.
So this fate doesn’t befall you (it’s hard to see all the great things Cuba has to offer with your noggin’ in the fridge), I’ve written this list of time-tested tips for managing and beating the island heat.
Seek and make shade: It’s sounds obvious, but as you’re walking around Habana Vieja, touring the Plaza de la Revolución, Cementerio Colón, or the Che monument, it’s important to find shade whenever possible. Except at high noon, there’s usually a shady and sunny side of the street (what Mexicans call the shady side and the ‘gringo’ side since sometimes we forget to walk in the shadows) and the former will provide some relief. Where there are trees, get under them when waiting for transport or while on line. Short of that, visitors will be wise to take a page from the locals’ book and carry an umbrella to provide their own shade – it’s not called a parasol (‘for sun’) and sombrilla (‘little shadow’) for nothing.
Stay hydrated: I’m an obsessive water drinker – up to several liters a day in summer – and drinking plenty of H2O is one of the simplest tactics travelers have for managing the heat. This means having a full water bottle from the time you get your day started until you’re ready to tuck into bed. There’s an old saying that if you wait until you’re thirsty to drink water, you’re already on the road to dehydration. One tip: since it’s imperative to drink bottled water here, visitors can help protect the island environment by limiting the number of plastic bottles they consume in their trip: buy big 5-liter jugs (for sale in stores all around town) and decant to a water bottle; use water purification tablets or a filter; or patronize places that provide water refills, like Cuba Libro.
Avoid peak sun hours: Although it seems hot enough at 9am, things get a lot steamier between noon and 4pm, when many Cubans take to the indoors to escape the heat. This can be difficult on People-to-People trips when programs are scheduled from morning until early evening, but the air-conditioned buses provided offer much-needed relief, especially when combined with the other strategies listed here.
Pack or buy a hand fan: Light, compact and highly effective, hand fans are more than accessories in Cuba where you’ll see women (and even men) fluttering furiously to create a bit of a breeze in their immediate vicinity. This is one of the essential items I always recommend folks pack or buy upon arriving since it guarantees you’ll have a way to cool off no matter where you find yourself. Fans are sold around Havana in hard currency and tourist shops.
Wear sun block and a hat: There’s nothing like a searing, painful sunburn to ruin a trip and increase the heat discomfort level. The Caribbean sun is very powerful and a high SPF sun block and wide-brimmed hat will help protect you from its damaging rays. Sun block is very expensive in Cuba (especially the higher SPF versions) and not always available in stores, so visitors are advised to bring their own – and leave whatever is left over with some Cuban friends or colleagues.
Pack light, breathable clothing: Most visitors are shocked to see locals walking around in jeans and lycra in the heat of summer, but this is just another example of the amazing adaptive qualities of Cubans. For visitors, however, such clothes are not recommended – unless you’re on a wrestler-type weight loss program. Assuming this doesn’t apply, it’s best to pack a suitcase full of breathable fabrics like cotton, linen, or rayon, which work well in the heat. This type of clothing can also be hand washed and line-dried quickly.
Embrace the siesta: Generally, Cubans don’t observe the afternoon nap known as a siesta, but it’s a great way to get out of the heat and ‘recharge your battery’ before hitting the streets again. You’d be amazed at the wonders laying down for a couple of hours in an air-conditioned room will do for your energy and enthusiasm level. When this isn’t possible, you can pop into a bank, store or movie theater for some AC (what Cubans call the ‘pingüino,’ the penguin).
Finally, if all else fails, find a big refrigerator; open the freezer; insert head; repeat.
Conner Gorry is Senior Editor at MEDICC Review and author of the Havana Good Time app, available for iPhone/Pad and Android. She blogs at Here is Havana and has two Cuba stories in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2012. Conner is also the brainchild of Cuba Libro, the island’s first English-language bookstore.