I love to travel and I've thought about going to Cuba for a long time. The culture, music, sights, colonial buildings, the people... I could go on and on. The country did not disappoint. I got back a week ago and I can't wait for the next trip there. I don't know when, but I will be going back one day. It was important to me to go now because the resorts and American money are literally laying in wait, which will more than likely take away from the beautiful culture... in my opinion.
I want to write this blog to not only showcase some of the beauty of this country but also to share my experience for anyone else traveling to Cuba. I traveled with a fellow photographer and great friend, Ryan, after we shot a wedding in Cancun a couple days before. We met Chuck and Eliza (two of my closest friends), my sister, Sara, and her husband Jeff, who are not only my family but two of my best friends. Just from the people alone, we were headed for an amazing adventure. Ryan and I arrived on Monday and had five full days of adventure.
The day we arrived, we all met at our Airbnb in Central Havana (Pronounced and spelled Habana in Cuba). We all checked in, met with our amazing hosts, set our stuff down and immediately headed out for a walk. We walked around town and found someone who would serve to be really clutch for our group. His name was Joel and after Chuck bought a couple boxes of cigars from him, he became our tour guide for the first few days. We had a bunch of drinks, ate some food at the restaurant below the place where we were staying and headed up for some more rum we had bought and cigars. We took a couple of cigar photos and called it a night... around 3am.
After talking with Joel the night before we had agreed for him to pick us up in one the many old school 1950's cars to take us to Vinales. Vinales is a valley about 2 hours away from where most of the tobacco in Cuba is grown. There are these large hills (I'm from Colorado... I can't call them mountains) made of limestone and when it rains, the minerals slide down into this valley, which make for perfect conditions to grow tobacco, or so I'm told.
We started out at a touristy spot where you could walk through a historic cave. These caves were used by slaves to escape and hide during the Spanish rule of Cuba. On the other side there were other fairly "touristy" things to see but we found a house where the tobacco is picked then hung from floor to ceiling for drying. Near the back of the house there was a man whose job, no doubt, was to farm tobacco. He gave us a lesson on how he rolled them and was offering a good sale of 10 cigars, which I took him up on. Update: it's the best cigar I've ever smoked. So smooth and incredible. I got some great portraits of the farmer and we headed over to another spot right outside for one of the most refreshing drinks I've ever had. It was made from pure sugar cane. They threw a sugar cane into a grinder and took that juice, mixed it with rum and handed it to us. It was incredible. After a great lunch from a small local restaurant, we headed back home. On the way back, we stopped for gas and noticed a field of trees with awesome light. I jumped at the opportunity to take some great portraits of Chuck and Eliza. These were some of my favorites of the two love birds. I felt like the photos truly embody who they are.
On the way back from Vinales, Chuck and I were talking to Joel about how we play baseball in the states and would love to find a way to play while were there. Baseball is a massive part of Cuban culture and Chuck and I brought our gloves just in case we had the opportunity. Joel promptly told us he would pick us up at 9am. Sweet. He picked us up and we arrived at a stadium. We were thinking we were going to play a pick up game, maybe some stick ball... we turn the corner and see about 20-30 players, most in baseball pants getting ready to practice. Joel turns to us and says, "Si, Cubano Nationales." That translates to, "Yes, the Cuban National Team." Chuck and I have our jaws drop and once it's communicated that these two white boys from America want to play ball, a coach walks up and hands me a bat, puts a ball on a tee and tells me hit away. I've never been more nervous to hit a ball off a tee in my life. With all eyes on us, Chuck and I at least proved that we weren't slouches and they asked us to hit in the cages. Turns out a few of the ball players just got back from Tokyo, playing in the World Baseball Classic. The starting 2nd baseman threw us both batting practice. I proceeded to throw the rest of the Cuban WBC players BP and it was incredible. Then all of the sudden a man named Carlos Tabares showed up. We don't have a clue who he is but it turns out he played 25 years in the Cuban pro leagues and is called the "Cuban Derek Jeter." Chuck played catch with him and we both took BP from a Cuban Baseball Hall of Famer. I couldn't have been happier, it was an experience of a lifetime and something I won't ever forget.
We headed home, showered and all of us headed out to Old Havana for sightseeing and photos. When you think of Cuba from the pictures you've seen, Old Havana is the spot. Beautiful architecture, music playing everywhere and an incredible feel. I will say that this is where the money is, or at least appears to be. With that being said, the money allows the buildings to be kept up and nicer hotels and the like, but it also brought a good amount of people looking for a buck from you. As long as you're cool with saying no and embracing their culture, it really is a non issue.
Even after the incredible day we had, that night was one to remember. We all went salsa dancing, drank rum, (a lot of rum) and then headed toward what is called the Malecon. The Malecon is simply a place where the locals hang out at night. It's on the side of a street that borders the ocean... not really a place you'd think as an American to party, but party we did. The people that were there were some of the most intriguing people I've ever met. One was a beat boxer, several were rappers (not that we knew what they were rapping about) and all of them wanted a great time and to party with some Americans. We partied with these amazing people till about 3am and then made the walk back to our place. What a day...
Day 4 was our beach day. There are no beaches to lounge right in Havana so we headed to a beach that was recommended to us called Playa de Santa Maria. It was a beautiful beach with white sands and stunningly blue water. We spend almost 4 hours at the beach, jumping waves, soaking in the sun and having a beach side lunch. By the way, the food in Cuba isn't great. Most of the food and resources are all rationed from the government, so spices and flavors are not very evident in their food. What we know as Cuban food here in the states is not the same cuisine in Cuba. Although this meal on the beach was on point. Shrimp and lobster, probably caught either that day or the day before. We shot around and headed back. A little hiccup on the way back in our 1950's taxi... we got a flat tire. Honestly though, this dude was probably used to it... we were driving again under 9 minutes. We timed him, he impressed us and we got back on the road. A quick important thing about the taxis... All of the 1950's cars are beautiful but they aren't "regulated taxis." They are just simply someone who owns the car and slapped a taxi sign on it, but this can actually work to your advantage. You can negotiate fares with these people but the "actual taxis" can't since they have an actual fare. If you want cheaper fare, have a woman hail the cab. I know it sounds bad, but the Cuban culture is a very machismo one and beautiful woman are everywhere and so are the rubber necks. Most men holler at women down the street and turn to look and say a few "cat call" like remarks at a woman as they walk by. We were getting taken advantage of with how much we were paying for taxis around the city, until the last day we were there. We had Eliza hail the cab as us guys stepped back and she negotiated better than any of us the previous four days. You really shouldn't be paying more than 10 (15 at the most) CUC for any cab ride within the city.
A quick note about the money. There are two currencies in Cuba, CUC (pronounced Kook) and CUP (Cuban Pesos). CUC's are essentially larger bills (they are both bills but hear me out) and CUP are the lesser amounts. Think of 1 CUC is (almost) 1 US Dollar. The exchange rate is somewhat hard to understand but with the rates and taxes, when you exchange your money at the airport you'll get around $80 CUC for $100 US Dollars. The rate is better at a bank though (maybe $86 CUC to $100 USD). Just bring US Dollars and exchange it at the bank. You'll wait in a long line but that's kind of just how it goes. I would get a few dollars exchanged into CUP as well. For cheaper things on the street, you'll want to use CUP's. Like a beer or something like that. 1 CUC = 24 CUP. The last comment about the money is you NEED to bring the appropriate amount of cash. Since Cuba does not comply with the "Global Banking System", your debit cards and credit cards are useless. That's not a figure of speech... that is literal. You CANNOT use them in Cuba. If you run out of cash you're kind of SOL.
Sara and Jeff had to leave, so we said goodbye in the morning and Ryan and I went shooting around the city. This was probably the main day for us to shoot around. We walked the city streets for hours taking things in and experiencing their culture to the fullest. One of which scared the shit out of me.
Ryan is the king of finding these unique places that I wouldn't ever find. So, he finds this little "back alley" area that leads to an apartment complex. Walking down some steps, there was a kid, (maybe 18 years old) that sees us with cameras and asks if we want to go to the rooftop for photos. Since that is something that is hard to come by, we obviously said yes. We start headed up a couple stories and then I come across something on the ground right outside of someone's home. It was a shrine for what only I can assume for the Santeria religion. If you don't know what that is, click on the link to understand it a little bit better for the story. Not what we are used to here in America to say the least. I look down at this shrine and it is what looks like a human head with horns sticking out of it, dead animals, bones and feathers all around the head and what I assume is blood (it was blood) sprayed all over the shrine along with the wall. I instantly thought I was going to be the sacrifice on this rooftop and I wasn't going home. Turns out this kid was super nice and gave us one of the best views of the city and one of my favorite portraits of the trip! Dumb Americans.
Walking around and seeing the art work, hearing the music and meeting the people is the only way to see Cuba. Embrace your differences. Emerge yourself in the language and try to speak it. By the time I left I knew more Spanish than I ever had. From my experience, Cubans love meeting and talking with Americans. Talk sports or customs but do not talk Government or politics. It is a pretty taboo subject there. The history of Cuba is fascinating but what it has turned into over the years is even more fascinating. There is an acceptance of how things are and will be and no one really talks about it.
We then took another 50's car cab ride to take some photos. I wanted some shots of me in Cuba with a killer car and a smooth cigar. Ryan Delivered. In fact, having Ryan on this trip was amazing. Learning from him as a photographer is always something I've appreciated but to do it together as friends was even better. He has a lot of photos sprinkled in through this blog, so a big shout out to him and his awesomeness. Of course, being wedding photographers, we found a wedding and snapped a couple of photos for them!
After dinner, we headed to Fabrica de Arte Cubano. What a place. It's a nightclub that opens at 8 but people stand in line to get in around 630. Don't get there any later than 7-730, if you don't want to stand in line for hours. This nightclub is also an art gallery and it really is hard to explain. It has incredible energy but was like nothing I've ever experienced before. It's massive as well. 3 different warehouses combine to make this a one of a kind nightclub. If you go to Cuba, this spot is definitely a must!
Overall, I would recommend Cuba to anyone. An experience like I've never had before and I can't wait to do it again some day. If you have questions about Cuba that aren't answered here feel free to email me at email@example.com or find me on Facebook at facebook.com/t5photodenver.
Thank you for reading!!!