Havana’s Colorful Streets and “Happy Souls”

For the avid traveler and photographer, Havana is a wonderland, a source of 24/7 inspiration that goes beyond the brightly colored, decaying facades and a seemingly inexhaustible fleet of vintage automobiles. There is a rich history and warm, inviting locales who welcome travelers with genuine interest, broad smiles and a palpable desire to connect.

Vintage cars going down the Paseo de Marti in Havana Cuba

It rained a lot when I was in Cuba but now and then the sun would peek out and bring the buildings to life! – On the Paseo de Marti

For a week I explored the streets, the homes and Cuba’s vastly diverse culture with my fellow photography lovers who, like me, joined the Santa Fe Photographic WorkshopsSeeing Cuba: Discovering the Culture and People of Cuba program, led by pro photographer, Jennifer Spelman. (Full disclosure: I was an invited guest but the writing and sentiment are completely my own)

Fisherman along the Malecon in Havana Cuba

Every morning along the Malecón, you’ll find fisherman doing their thing.

A week wasn’t nearly enough time. It was a whetting of an appetite I didn’t even know I had. I understood at the end of our journey why more than a few people in my group returned after having visited last year.

Our workshop included outings to nearby towns such as Bejucal, where we took portraits in the rain, and hung out with fisherman at a marina in Cojimar. We photographed dancers from the Cuban National Ballet take class and met lovely people along the way: An old couple that serenaded me and a wonderful old woman named Maria Therésa who invited us into her home. Of course we perused the markets, learned what to do and not to do, ate local specialties, enjoyed more than a few mojitos, but nothing tickled my fancy more than wandering the streets of Havana.

An gorgeous door, one of many in Havana

This is just one of the many worn but gorgeous doors throughout Havana.

Dawn Patrol 

Our days began with an optional predawn walk, aptly named Dawn Patrol. Jennifer was joined by Jorgé Gavilondo, a very talented Cuban photographer who, before retiring, was the country’s leading cancer researcher. (How wild is that?) We’d meet in the lobby raring to go—albeit bleary-eyed—and roam together with the freedom to break off when the desire struck us before meeting back at the hotel for breakfast and the first group outing.

In the dark the narrow streets seemed maze-like but the city turned out to be an easily navigable grid. We were in a prime location at the Parqué Central Hotel which provided easy access to both Old and Central Havana. Popular destinations like the Malecón (an esplanade and seawall that’s a favorite for local fisherman and provides a great view of the 16th century fort Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro across the channel), Plaza Viela, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis and Plaza des Armas, were all within easy walking distance.

Vintage auto in Havana Cuba with family inside

My first shot on my first Dawn Patrol in Old Havana

As a whole our group was rather large, so we’d break into small teams to roam the city. Twins, Eduardo and Orlando Garcia and Jorgé’s son, Pepé Gavilondo, all great photographers in their own right, would lead along with Jorgé and Jennifer and take us to their favorite streets, haunts and hot spots, depending on what we wanted to see.

Once we got our bearings we had time to explore Havana on our own. I found both scenarios were valuable. While photographing in a pack (no matter how small) can be frustrating, it can also open your eyes to how other people perceive the same thing, inspiring new ways to approach a subject. Besides, it’s always fun to share a discovery with new friends.

Small manicurist station in a tiny room in Old Havana, Cuba

Cubans are incredibly resourceful and make the most of what they had. This manicurist’s “shop” was the size of a phone booth.

Wandering on my own 

I also loved wandering on my own, and because, overall, Havana is very safe (which is counter intuitive in today’s world but the truth nonetheless ) I felt comfortable exploring day and night, following no particular route. I let instinct and a mental toss of the coin dictate my path.

As I meandered along, Cubans of all ages, shapes and sizes would ask “De qué país eres,” What country are you from?

“Estados Unidos” (Two of the six words I know in Spanish)

“United States?!”

“Si” (number three)

“State? What State you from?”

“New York, I live in New York City.”

“Man HATTEN! My son lives in the Bronx. Do you know the Bronx? Have you seen the Brooklyn Bridge?”

Kid running after a soccer ball in Old Havana, Cuba

Battered and half inflated, this soccer ball was still loads of fun

And that’s how relationships began, bonding over popular New York landmarks or the list of family and friends who had moved to the States. More often than not the conversation would lead to a street corner portrait. The Cubans were incredibly friendly, “Happy Souls” as one friend put it, wonderfully curious and eager to express their enthusiasm for America.

The people I met on the side streets spoke broken English at best but that it was far better than my nonexistent Spanish. Charades became an essential part of my repertoire. Locals who worked in tourist areas such as the plazas, hotels, popular restaurants and the like, spoke English more fluently.

Street scene in Old Havana, Cuba

One of the many colorful scenes in Havana, – Old Havana

Havana: An architectural rainbow

Visually, the city is rich with color and texture beyond anything I’ve experienced before. Remnants of stately mansions with elaborate moldings, marble fixtures, stained glass, soaring ceilings and sweeping staircases, spoke of an opulent history and cultural decadence that with the lack of resources has deteriorated over the last 50 years, but miraculously is still home to a vibrant community whose resourcefulness is exemplary. Much of Havana is living, breathing ruin porn.

Cat on bar stool in Old Havana

A ragged bar stool for a ragged cat. – Old Havana

In fact there was so much to see I was overwhelmed with choices and had to force myself to slow down. Even after seven days I felt the pressure to capture as much as possible even though my gut told me to take my time. Part of the rush was the ever-present cloud of change washing over the country and my limited time to enjoy it.

A little Cuban history

Under Raul Castro’s leadership, citizens are now allowed to start private businesses, own and sell their own homes, and benefit from aspects of capitalism that were non-existent before. Coupled with the effects of the relaxed travel requirements between the U.S. and Cuba (hotel rooms are booked through 2017), a new Cuba is taking shape. Most of the locals I spoke to seemed excited about the possibilities for prosperity in the wake of all the changes, but they’re equally apprehensive as to effects progress will have on the core values and the traditions that are responsible for the deep sense of community and love of country that is at the foundation of Cuban culture.

Large waves hit the seawall of the Malécon

Crazy winds knocks waves against the Malécon.

Selfishly, I wish I could put the country back into its time capsule until I had the time to return and fully drink in the Cuba that is now before evolution takes hold. I remember wondering as I watched hordes from a cruise ship walk down O’Reilly Street, how much time it would take to change Cuba irrevocably.

I fear it will not be long.

An old woman smoking a cigar in Havana, Cuba

A tad cliché, the old woman with a cigar in Cuba, but I couldn’t resist. – Central Havana

Man selling pineapples in Central Havana at Sunrise in Cuba

At sunrise, a man sells pineapples to the residents in Central Havana. You’ll find a lot of mobile street vendors selling everything from bread to mops. They roam the streets, calling to the people in their homes, inviting them to come out and buy their wares.

Photographer Jorge GavilondoPhotographer Jorge Gavilondo

Jorgé Gavilondo, a true renaissance man. A famous Cuban cancer research scientist, awesome photographer and funny as hell. –Central Havana

The lighthouse near the 16th century fort Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro in Cuba

During Snowmagedden in the Northeast of the United States, high winds caused huge waves to splash over the seawall at the Malecón. The lighthouse next to the 16th century fort, Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, took a real beating on the other side of the channel. –Malécon

El Floridita bar in Havana, Cuba

At the end of Obispo Street where it intersects with the The National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana in Old Havana. It’s famous for its daiquiris (they’re a bit pricey) and the fact that it was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunts. (Taken through a bus window)

Female photographers taking a Santa Fe Workshop in Cuba

Some of my fellow travelers and photographers during a break exploring Central Havana: (left>right) Jennifer Spelman, Carrie McCarthy, Donna Marchese Kross, Donna Aceto, Dianne DeLorenzo.

Cubans dancing Rumba in Central Havana, Cuba

I love moments like this. You turn a corner and there are people dancing rumba! – Central Havana

Woman in doorway in Central Havana

This lovely woman was opening the door when I happened to be walking by. I raised my camera and looked at her: the universal sign for “Can I take your picture?” She put that sweet grin on her face and posed. Loved her. –Central Havana

A corner reflection of Old Havana in Cuba

A corner reflected in Old Havana.

Two young boys pose for a photograph in Havana, Cuba

The peace sign: A classic Cuban response to a request for a photograph. – Old Havana

A small fruit and vegetable stand in Central Havana, Cuba

The owner of this fruit and vegetable stand was very kind and let me in his stand shoot for at least 10 minutes. Afterward he gave me one of the best bananas I’ve ever tasted. – Central Havana

Decaying building in Central Havana, Cuba

Cuba has free, high-quality education and healthcare, but it also has a housing crisis. Though the roof has fallen in some places, there were still families living in this building in Central Havana.

Man sitting on a stoop in Havana, Cuba

Another wonderful, interesting face attached to a delightful man who didn’t mind my camera in his face. – Central Havana

Man sells bread at dawn in Central Havana

Just after sunrise, this man pushes his bread cart through Central Havana yelling “Fresh bread here..” Residents would come out and buy what they needed.

A view of Central Havana from the roof of the Parque Central Hotel

A view of Central Havana and the ocean from the roof of the Parqué Central Hotel. Mansions once single-family homes were subdivided years ago to house as many as 40 families at a time.

Dashing portrait of an older man in Havana, Cuba

I saw this man and thought, Man, I bet he was so handsome when he was young. Heck, he is dashing now!

I saw this man and thought, Man, what a dashing fellow! –on Paseo de Marti

onion vendor in Havana, Cuba

One of many vendors that wheeled their vegetables or other products through the streets selling their goods to the people. – Central Havana

Workers take a break in Havana, Cuba

During a brief break, after laying down pipe in the road, these workers offered their help with a quick photograph. – Old Havana

Young girls practicing dance on a street in Havana

Young girls practice dance routines on the sidewalk. – Old Havana

Men play dominos in an abandoned lot in Central Havana

In Cuba, men love to pass the time playing dominoes. – Central Havana

man, woman and child on a street in Havana, Cuba

A family portrait: Grandpa, Grandma and an adorable munchkin with a new-found balloon. – Old Havana

Woman standing in front of her flower shop in Havana, Cuba

Just couldn’t resist this. – Central Havana

Building and people in Havana, Cuba

What was once an incredibly ornate building slowly falls to disrepair

What was once an incredibly ornate building (it kind of reminds me of the Ansonia in NYC)  slowly falls to disrepair and yet is home dozens upon dozens of families. – Old Havana

John and his girlfriend Eva in Havana, Cuba

This young man struck up a conversation with me as I walked towards Plaza Armas. He was going to University to study languages –he already spoke three – and wanted to learn two more so that he could get a job as a high-end tour guide. – Old Havana

Wing-tipped shoes in Havana, Cuba

The heavily polished wing-tipped shoes of a man playing the trumpet near Plaza des Armes – a more touristy destination. – Old Havana

Artist and his drawings near Plaza de San Francisco de Asis

Cuba is known for its artists. This one finishes one work while displaying his others for passersby near Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. – Old Havana

People walking in front of a yellow wall in Havana, Cuba

A wall I sat in front for over an hour capturing a variety of panning and blurred images for my apartment. – Old Havana

Antique camera in Plaza des Armas

One of several antique cameras being sold in the market in Plaza des Armas. While there are many tourists about, you’ll also find some great old watches, cameras, military insignia and photos here. – Old Havana

Man looking down from a window in old Havana

An “Hola” from above in Old Havana.


I saw this man as I was walking down Amagura Street. His posture, meek and reserved, caught my eye first and then I saw those wonderful light eyes. He was a very sweet man.– Old Havana

Pin to Share

A wonderful photo essay taken in Havana, Cuba
~Taken while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’: Seeing Cuba: Discovering the Culture and People of Cuba: Words and sentiment are my own.

Sign up for email image

Up Next:  Havana’s Dos and Don’ts, Important tips for new visitors



310 replies »

Leave a Reply