In 2014 when President Obama announced that restrictions on travel to Cuba would be relaxed, I panicked. I’d always thought about going to Castro’s island but I took it for granted that the country would remain in a time capsule until I ended my flirtations with other destinations. But with the news and subsequent editorials touting Cuba as the new travel hot spot, it was clear that if I wanted to photograph Cuba’s unique culture before it was changed forever, I needed to get my butt in gear.
Flash forward a little over a year from the announcement and my dream has become a reality. Yippee!! I’m going to Cuba as a guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops (SPFW) and I leave on Tuesday!
If you’re not familiar with SFPW and you love photography, it’s worth a look-see, and I’m not just saying that because they’re taking me to Cuba. Honest.
SPFW is one of the country’s preeminent photographic institutions that draws the industry’s most renowned professional photographers, across many disciplines, to host workshops.
The school welcomes all skill levels and offers classes on post-processing and printing as well. If you’d like to read about my experience this past July, visit the following link: Five Essential Lessons (and One Great Tip) I learned at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop.
Cuba will be slightly different as it’s not a traditional “workshop.” It will be less of the intense instruction and daily assignments one gets in Santa Fe and more of a cultural exploration experienced through the lens of photography. Jennifer Spellman, who specializes in editorial and documentary fine-art photography, is leading our group and I am looking forward to soaking up as much of her expertise as as I can along the way.
Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been preparing for my departure, I attended two travel conferences: The New York Times Travel Show and the Wendy Perrin Summit. Both provided a wealth of information about Cuba in addition to all the information I received from SFPW. Here are some highlights of what I learned:
- CASH IN: I need to bring cash and lots of it. American credit cards don’t work there which also means ATMs are not an option, and I’ll definitely want to buy a few things to commemorate the trip. It was the same in Myanmar and it wasn’t a big deal. I made sure never to carry all of my money in my bag at once in case it was stolen, and I kept the bulk of it in the safe in my room.
- NO HABLO INGLES: Most Cubans DON’T speak English. I’m bringing pocket versions of a Spanish phrase book and a Spanish-English dictionary. Though I have translation apps on my phone that work offline, I want back ups.
- CONFUSING CURRENCY: The most used tourist currency is the Convertible Pesos, also known as C.U.C.. A C.U.C is worth approximately $1.25. There’s also a national peso, which is about 5 cents U.S.. Most goods and services in the cities will require C.U.C, but out of the way places and local haunts may expect the national. Admittedly, it’s a bit confusing. I’ll just have to play it by ear. The best places to exchange currency is at the airport, hotel or a number of government controlled exchanges. People may offer to exchange dollars on the street but I’ve been warned against it.
- PASSPORT TO GO: I need to keep a copy of my passport with me at all times. Since it’s never a good idea to carry the original around anyway. I mean, who wants to go through all the hassle of replacing it in a foreign country? The team at SPFW had a great idea, they suggested copying my passport at 70% and laminate it so it’s easier to carry. I was able to do it myself at Fedex in under 10 minutes. Brilliant!
- NIBBLE NEWS: Snacks are not readily available in Cuba so I’m going to bring some granola bars and nuts to tide me over for those moments when I need a little something something.
- SAY NO TO TAP: Bottled water. Bottled water. Bottled water. All I hear is, “Don’t drink from the tap.”
- OFF THE GRID: Internet is available in some area but the prices are high (ie. $10/hr) and the connections can be very slow. If you’re one of those people that goes crazy being off the grid or need to Snapchat your every move, Cuba probably isn’t your dream destination right now.
- A PRETTY PENNY: Ditto on the cell service. It’s spotty at best and some carrier devices don’t work at all. Surprisingly, Verizon, my carrier, which typically has terrible international service, supports devices in Cuba. Who knew? It isn’t cheap and there’s no value plan available. A phone call is $2.99 per minute, sending a text is 50 cents and it’s five cents to receive a text. Yeesh.
- SHARE THE BASICS: The locals don’t have access to basic toiletries, pens, bug spray, or over the counter medications. I’m bringing some pens, packets of aspirin and bug spray to share while I’m down there.
- EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED: I should assume that things won’t go as planned. Truthfully, that should be a bumper sticker for all travel but I got the impression from the Cuba gurus that it’s doubly so there. While some things you just have to grin in bear, on the average I’ve found that it’s always the things you don’t plan for that tend to be your most treasured memories.
- TIPPING TIPS: 10% is standard on meals where the service is reasonable, but to check first to see whether it’s been included in the in final bill. For bellman, 2 C.U.C per carried bag is a sound estimate and I plan on tipping the housekeeper at least 2 C.U.C per day.
We’ll be staying at the Hotel Parque Central which is located in the very center of Old Havana. From what I can tell from the website, it’s a throwback to the 1950’s and it could probably use a face lift but I’m glad we’ll be staying there pre-surgery—I love a good time warp.
Well, that’s it for now. I have no idea if I’ll be able to share anything on social while I’m away. If so, it’s likely to be on Instagram and/or my Facebook page. If not, I look forward to sharing my adventure when I return.
P.S. For those of you who’ve been to Cuba and have any recommendations on places I should go, restaurants, bars etc., please leave them in the comments!