“Cuba very safe. Here there is no mafia, no gangs, no guns”
The first day that my husband and I arrived in Havana, completely exhausted from the actual travel; 6 hours to Amsterdam, 5 hour layover and 10 hours from Amsterdam to Cuba, we checked into our hotel and then decided to venture out in search of a local grocery store to see if we could stock up on water and snacks. The helpful concierge pointed us in the direction of the nearest store and we ventured out. While we were walking down, we met a couple of women who greeted us in a very friendly manner, asked us where we are from and then proceeded to engage us in conversation. Before we knew it, we were sitting in a local bar with them while they gave us “helpful tips” on where to go and what to do. “Cuba very safe. Here there is no mafia, no gangs, no guns. We will tell you the best places to go so you don’t do typical touristy things. ”
From there, there was a smooth segue way into buying cigars. “Today is the last day of the cigar festival in Havana and this is the best time to buy cigars cheap from the local co-operative”. We demurred but to no avail. One of the women grabbed me my the hand and led me down the back streets and alleyways to an apartment building, up the stairs and there was a small makeshift cigar shop set up in one corner. The other women stayed in the bar with my husband. It happened so fast that we didn’t even have the time to react. Unable to refuse and a little freaked out about how fast events had unfolded to bring me to this point, I quick bought a box and made my escape.
We then bid the women goodbye and continued our journey to the grocery shop where again we were approached by another woman who also was very friendly, engaged us in a similar conversation and before we knew it, we were buying her a month’s supply of baby powder.
It would appear that the grocery store was supplying goods, albeit extremely limited, to foreigners. The local Cuban populace was not allowed to purchase goods from there. To get around this, some Cubans approach visitors with the intention of getting them to purchase goods from the grocery store and from what I saw over the next week, they are quite successful. There is talk of babies who don’t have access to powered milk – what’s USD 15 to you, my friend? It’s one month supply of milk for my baby. How can one refuse? I almost broke into tears and would have probably given a lot more away except for the realization that I had limited cash funds and needed to pay for hotel and food!
By the third day, I had figured it out. Over the week, so many people approached us with “today is the last day of the cigar festival” spiels that I lost count and learned the trick of responding appropriately “hey, been here over a week, have already bought cigars, have done all the tours, been to all the watering holes, now just want to walk around”. Within 24 hours, we knew exactly how to deal with the “marketing” and usually were met with sweet grins and shrugs when the person on the other end realized someone else had already hit us up.
As always, whenever we go to a new city, we try to take a short city tour so we can get a sense of the lay of the land before heading out on our own. Day 2, however, found us awake and out exploring the nearby streets and alleyways before break of dawn. We wandered around for a couple of hours and then went back to the hotel for breakfast. After which, we went on a three-hour city tour that took us on a drive around the city along the famous seafront “Malecon” to Plaza de la Revolucion where we learnt about the three iconic and most beloved heros of Cuba, namely Jose Marti, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and of course, Fidel Castro; a short stop a local cigar and rum shop was then followed by a walk around Havana Vieja (Old Havana).
Old Havana, as it is known in English, is the most tourist centric part of the city. It is here that the most redevelopment and regeneration has taken place. The narrow streets are full of lovingly restored Spanish colonial buildings including the beautiful Havana Cathedral which looks over a small square, and provides great photographic possibilities.
Plaza San Francisco is a beautiful square, a short walk from the cathedral, with a basilica and beautifully restored buildings, best shot at dawn where the rich golden Caribbean light fuses with the yellow stonework of the buildings. Near here that you will find the distinctive Santeria women, often dressed all in white and smoking huge Cuban cigars, they are a must on any photographers list. Be warned however, whilst the women are very happy to be photographed, they expect some payment.
The main street through Old Havana is Calle Obispo, a narrow street that is full of life, both Cubans and tourists shoulder to shoulder. It is here that you will find the hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway spent many years and wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. Hemingway’s favorite watering hole “La Floridita” (located very close to our hotel) was also one of our stops later during the trip.
Further down from Ambos Mundos is the Plaza de Armas (the oldest square in Havana and the site of the city’s foundation) and now site of a local book market.
At the top of Calle Obispo and considered the city center, Parque Central is another photographers paradise. In this tree shaded square you will find the classic Hotel Inglaterra and the GranTheatre de Havana. We were staying at the Iberostar which is opposite both these hotels. Right across from our hotel, maybe 5-10 min walk was the Capitolio building. Unfortunately the building was boarded up as it was going through extensive renovations so couldn’t really get a decent shot of it but here's a birds eye view.
The square is also a great place to get shots of old American cars both in stationary and in motion as well as the unusual Coco Cabs, a three wheeled taxi unique to Havana. The only problem I had with shooting there was the fact that there was quite the traffic build up and you couldn’t easily get a shot of an American Classic car without some unwanted distraction in the background (eg. Japanese, Korean cars, tourist buses etc). We solved the problem by going there everyday morning, noon and night and eventually managed to get a series of images that were acceptable.
Around the corner from the Capitol building is the Partagas Cigar Factory building. The actual cigar factory unfortunately had been moved to a new location; only the cigar shop remains but the building itself is interesting and I did go down to take a few shots of it.
Right next to it, incredibly, I found a small train yard that was working on restoring old locomotive engines from the 30s!
Of course, we also did the American Classic Car tour in a bright red convertible Buick from the 1950s – fun!
In addition to the city tour, we signed up to see a cabaret show “Tropicana”, the setting was absolutely surreal; I really felt I had gone back to the 50s! Outdoor seating 50s style and a reasonably good show of singing and dancing. An all around fun evening. We met some travellers from Germany and Canada on our table, swapped stories and generally enjoyed meeting each other.
We also decided that it would be a good idea to do a day trip to the Vinales Valley in the Pinar Del Rio province to go see the countryside and visit a tobacco farm. The countryside was beautiful, definitely worth the visit. We also went to a rum factory which was quite basic in my opinion but that was more than made up by the visit to the Jazmines look out post at Vinales Valley. This broad, flat valley is punctuated by a series of limestone karst hill formations. These limestone cliffs, called mogotes, which rise up from the valley floors can be seen in the background. The valley was so lush and green that someone commented that he felt he had been transported back to the Jurassic era and I have to say I agree!
We also stopped at Cueva del Indio where we visited a cave with an underground river.
A stopover at the local Paladar for lunch was fun although the food was quite basic. Sadly I am not a fan of the Cuban food we ate on the trip. This particular meal consisted of rice with beans, pork (which we don’t eat) and plantain (which I tried but could not like). Eventually we had to opt for the vegetarian option, which was basically a cheese omelet! The beverages on offer and the live band, on the other hand, were superb.
We could have also gone down to the beach at Varadero but I wasn’t really in the mood. I wanted to stay in Havana. I just could not get enough of it
Interestingly the restoration of Old Havana, while beautiful, did not have the same appeal as the back alleys and streets of Havana itself. We did retrace our steps a couple of times in the coming days but ended up spending more time exploring these alleys and streets on our own. Walking around in the real neighborhoods of central and old Havana was the best part of trip for me - Just watching the daily life, looking into their open apartments, capturing aspects of their daily life was priceless.
One the most fun places to photograph people is the Malecon, Havana’s famous sea wall. Every evening the Malecon is full of Cuban people socializing especially for those of lessor means whose other means of entertainment may be limited. It is also a means of income for poorer families, as individual fishermen cast their lures there.
Walking from my hotel to the Malecon via a walkway called “El Prado” – nothing short of fantastic. That’s where the Cubans come out to enjoy the evening and you will find families, lovers, kids, everyone out and about. Kids with bikes, rollerblades, footballs, skateboards – something is going on all the time and especially on the weekends. They even opened up a little art fair on sunday!
These images from the web show the Prado and the corner of Prado / St Lazaro street from the early party of the century.
And here is it is today! PS - as of last week, the building at the corner housed a wonder little bar / cafeteria well worth the visit.
The Cuban people are generally very friendly and easy to approach. We had interesting conversations with many of them. There was inevitably always an attempt to extract a dollar or two but once you get past that obstacle, the conversation is usually quite enjoyable. In fact, a few times, some them would stop me and ask if I could take their photograph!
During the 6 days I was there, I just couldn’t put my camera down.
First there were the classic American Cars everywhere. I am not a big fan of cars; I certainly don't know the first hint about photographing them but these were just too good to be true. Many of my images are about cars or revolve around cars and I'd go back and shoot them again.
Then there was the alleyways and backstreets of Havana, the beautiful colorful buildings from the early part of the century, many of which are now crumbling and require repairs, and the people themselves. Most of the time you see Cubans hanging outside, on stoops, side steps, leaning over balconies, in porches. I didn’t see too many air-conditioners around so whenever the weather gets hot, everyone comes out to cool off in whatever shade they can find. One of my first day shots taken during the morning blue hour.
Everywhere we went there was some iconography revolving around either Jose Marti or Che Guevara. You couldn’t escape it, it was on T-shirts, walls, books, billboards, everywhere.
I even ran into a Che Guevara impersonator!
What do Cubans have in heaps and do really well? mojitos, daiquiris and Cuban libres! Rum and Cigars are plentiful and available everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere!
And music, there was music everywhere! Local bands played Cuban as well as international songs depending on where we were. We were introduced to the music of Compay Segundo, a most beloved Cuban singer, a bit of an acquired taste really but I enjoyed watching Cubans sing joyously in accompaniment to his songs.
And dancing – I didn't meet a single cuban without rhythm! I am so jealous!
Well, the food extremely meh. There really is no other word to adequately describe the feeling. Breakfast at the hotel was great but then the quality of the food deteriorated as the day progressed. It was so meh that I lost my appetite after a few days! Most of the restaurants didn’t have coke in any form, regular or lite. Instead, they offered a local equivalent, Tucola or Tucola light which was tolerable.
There was limited access to stores to buy snacks etc. I saw cans of tuna, some juices, water, some soda (local brands mostly) and baby powder! We found one shop in Old Havana that sold pringles chips at an exorbitant price and that’s it. So if you like to have some munchies from time to time, pack them with you.
I also didn’t see any pharmacy shops except for the one at the airport. I knew this would be the case from the research I did on the web so I made sure we, at least, were adequately prepared in the pharmaceutical area!
Would I go back? Hell yeah, the only thing that stops me is the thought of the 24 hour journey and I figure even that will be a distant memory a year down the road.
Cuba is a photographer’s dream. If you are a street and travel photographer, then all I can say is put Cuba on your bucket list now. It's so worth it.
You can view more of my images from cuba here