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Staying Healthy

Despite ongoing economic troubles and shortages, Cuba's healthcare system remains one of the best in Latin America. The country takes extremely proactive steps toward preventive public health, and common tropical diseases like cholera and malaria are either uncommon or have been totally eradicated. You don't need any vaccinations to travel to Cuba, unless you are coming from a region with cholera or yellow fever, in which case the Cuban authorities will require proof of immunization.

Staying healthy on a trip to Cuba is predominantly a matter of common sense: Know your physical limits and don't overexert yourself in the ocean, on hikes, or in athletic activities. Cuba is a tropical country, so limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the first few days of your trip and, thereafter, from 11am to 3pm. (It is often much hotter in Cuba btw. 2-4pm than at midday.)

Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) (tel. 716/754-4883 or 416/652-0137 in Canada; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns and for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. The website www.tripprep.com, sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, also offers helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine website, www.istm.org.

Due to the U.S. embargo and other problems, common medicines are restricted or routinely unavailable in Cuba. It is wise to bring a full medical pack containing basic medicines. Travelers may also want to consider carrying ciprofloxacin if they are susceptible to stomach bugs that need treating with an antibiotic. Having said that, there is a well-established network of international health clinics in Cuba for emergencies, but it would still be better to bring what you can with you. All prescription medicines should be brought with you as well.

Regional Health Concerns

Tropical Illnesses -- Cuba does experience dengue outbreaks from time to time and you would be wise to keep your ear to the ground about this.

Dietary Red Flags -- Overall, while water is potable throughout most of Cuba, I recommend you stick primarily to bottled water, just to err on the side of safety. Every hotel and restaurant catering to travelers will carry bottled water. Ask for agua mineral natural (still) or agua mineral con gas (sparkling water).

Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- There are no poisonous snakes in Cuba, which will put many minds at ease. In terms of biting bugs, your standard array of bees, wasps, mosquitoes, and sand fleas are present. Sand fleas are a slight nuisance at most beaches if there's no offshore breeze to clear them, particularly around sunrise and sunset. While there are also ticks and chiggers, so far Lyme disease is not considered a problem. Bring repellent and wear light, long-sleeved clothing.

Sun Exposure -- The tropical sun in Cuba is extremely fierce. The highest sun protection factor, hats, and protective clothing should be worn. Stay out of the sun between 11am and 3pm and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Use a sunscreen with a high protection factor and apply it liberally. Remember that children need more protection than adults do.

Extreme Weather -- Hurricanes can occur between June and November in Cuba, but they do not arrive every year. The National Hurricane Center's website (www.nhc.noaa.gov) offers details on any storms in the Caribbean basin. It also has a hurricane preparedness section. In the event of a hurricane, Cuba has a very well-organized preparedness program. In the event of extreme danger, thousands can be evacuated, minimizing or avoiding deaths completely. Listen to all authorities in the event of an emergency.

During the rainy season, tropical storms with plenty of lightning are common. According to the Cuban Meteorological Institute, around 65 Cubans die each year from lightning strikes. During a storm, stay inside or in your vehicle. Move out of the sea and away from the beach and move away from high ground.

If You Get Sick

Cuba has a nationwide system of hospitals and clinics, as well as international clinics, and you should have no trouble finding prompt and competent medical care in the case of an emergency (The system is entirely free for Cubans, but foreigners are charged for services). This is actually a significant means of income for the country; however, fees for private medical care are relatively inexpensive by most Western standards. If you are hospitalized, you may find that support staff, like nurses, are lacking. You may need to have someone bring your food, clothes, and other necessities, and if you are traveling alone, this could mean informally paying a Cuban -- perhaps a casa particular owner you've met -- to help.

The country has a network of pharmacies, though due to the U.S. embargo, certain medicines are restricted or often unavailable. That said, it is always a good idea to carry a sufficient supply of any necessary prescription medicines you may need (packed in their original containers in your carry-on luggage), and a small first-aid kit with basic analgesic, antihistamine, and anti-diarrhea medications. You might also bring a copy of your prescriptions, with the generic name of the medication in case the pharmacist doesn't recognize the brand name. Don't forget an extra pair of contact lenses or prescription glasses -- although opticians are available if necessary.

If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. For conditions like epilepsy, diabetes, or heart problems, wear a MedicAlert identification tag (tel. 888/633-4298; www.medicalert.org), which will immediately alert doctors to your condition and give them access to your records through MedicAlert's 24-hour hotline.

A full list of international clinics, international drugstores, and opticians is available on the Servimed website at www.servimedcuba.com. The Clínica Central Cira Garcia, Calle 20 no. 4101 on the corner of Avenida 41, Playa, Havana (tel. 7/204-2811; www.cirag.cu), is the largest center in the country catering to foreigners. It is also possible to have medical treatments, cosmetic surgery, and undergo drug-addiction programs in Cuba for a fraction of the cost elsewhere. All the details are listed under the Servimed website. Servimed is part of the agency Cubanacán.

Asistur, Prado 208 between Calles Trocadero and Colón (tel. 7/866-4499; 7/866-8527 emergency number; www.asistur.cu) will help you with medical reports and the management of medical expenses if you end up in the hospital. Its addresses outside Havana are available on www.asistur.cu/mapa.html.

Called farmacias in Spanish, drugstores are relatively common throughout the country, although not necessarily well stocked. Those at hospitals and major clinics are often open 24 hours. Many hotels, particularly the larger ones, have either a small pharmacy or a basic medical clinic on-site. There's a 24-hour pharmacy at the international terminal of the José Martí International Airport (tel. 7/266-4105) in Havana.

Crime & Safety

Cuba is an extremely safe country. Street crime is relatively rare. With the recent upsurge in tourism, there have been some reports of pickpocketing and muggings in Old Havana and Centro Havana and around the gay hangouts in Vedado, but these are by far the exceptions to the rule. There's a strong security and police presence in most popular tourist destinations, and even outside the well-worn tourist routes, theft and assaults are quite uncommon. Having said that, news is heavily censored, so real crime statistics are unknown.

That said, you should still be careful and use common sense. Given the nature of Cuba's socialist system, a huge disparity in wealth exists between the average Cuban and any foreign visitor, even budget travelers. Don't flash ostentatious signs of wealth, and avoid getting too far off the beaten path, especially at night. Don't leave valuables unattended, and always use the safe in your hotel room or at the front desk.

Should you find yourself robbed, you will need a police report for insurance purposes. If you don't speak Spanish, go accompanied by a Spanish speaker; otherwise, you will make little headway.

The U.S. State Department (http://travel.state.gov) and the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk) issue updated advice for travelers.

Meddling in drugs and firearms brings stiff penalties. There are also prohibitions relating to blood products, obscene or pornographic literature, or any anti-state literature. Getting on the wrong side of the law is not advisable in any way.

Solo women travelers can go out at night with no fear for their safety, but it's always best to be careful. Walking home alone in small provincial towns is also quite safe. 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.