Cuba

Next up: Cuba. The Adventure begins!

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Photo: Christopher Michel

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!

SPFW has been taking photography lovers to Cuba for years under an agreement with Fototeca de Cuba, a Havana-based “beacon for photography” that has made it possible for SPFW students to enter the country. Local photographers will host us during the day and be our guides throughout our stay.

Copy of my passport, pocket-sized and laminated!

Copy of my passport, pocket-sized (70%) and laminated!

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.

Photo: Christopher Michel

Photo: Christopher Michel

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.

Adios!

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!

 

 

 

101 replies »

  1. I saw mention in a post where it was recommended you join a Group of Cuban Photographers on Dawn Patrol in Havana to get early morning photographs! I would also love to join them next time Im down in Cuba…how can i do so? Any idea?

    • It was my post Dave and you need to go with Santa Fe Workshops. They’ve been shepherding photographers to Cuba for over 5 years. The staff there have very strong relationships with the Cuban photographers. Together, they take guests on the Dawn Patrol walks. So worth it!

  2. Visited Cuba..Santa Clara and Havana in December..AMAZING! My fourth trip in two years. I typically stay in Casa Particulars in Old Havana and all Over Cuba and just love them and it really gives you the Feel of Cuban Life and they are incredible affordable and well run! Have a trip planned in July and hope to run the Havana Half Marathon in November!! There is no country like it!
    I have some Fabulous recommendations on places to stay in Havana ,Trinidad and Santa Clara!!

    • Hey Dave – I envy your multiple trips. I’m back already – see my most recent posts – but I would love any recs on places to stay in all three places if you’re inclined to pass on. I hope to return. Thank you.

      • I live in The Bahamas so trips are easy and affordable 😉 with daily flights! My first trip was in 1992 and we stayed in Hotel Plaza…Oh how Cuba has changed since then!! That was one of the lowest periods since the Revolution as Russia had just stopped their Financial Support!
        In Trinidad I stayed in Casa La Casona a wonderful Casa Particular overlooking the mountains…run by a gentleman from Belgium and his Cuban Wife of 25 years! Actually ran into Patrick Oppmann the Havana CNN Station Manager there!
        It’s a ranch with a dozen horses and he offers trail rides into the surrounding mountains! The bus ride from Havana to Trinidad is AMAZING!! Via Azul is the local bus Service and they are quite good and very affordable!
        In Old Havana I always try to stay in Casa Adella ( Casa Azul) Fabulous Location and surrounded by Great Restaurants!
        As you know the best way to explore Havana is on foot…block after Block! The Hop on Hop Bus tour is also fascinating and gets one out of the city to the surrounding neighbourhoods!
        In Santa Clara, the Epicenter of the Revolution I stayed in Casa Iticia! A most helpful and Gracious host! Very popular and with only four rooms its fills up quickly! its within walking distance of everything in Santa Clara!
        My goal this year is to get back and explore the eastern side of the island starting in Holguin and driving to Baracoa and Santa Diego de Cuba in the Fall! THAT MIGHT BE A TWO WEEK TRIP 😉 Interesting link on Baracoa below!

        http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20151210-an-island-paradise-you-havent-seen

  3. If you will return to Cuba some day, you have to visit Cienfuegos and the El Nicho Waterfalls. It’s one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been. 🙂 Just incredible. And if you have the chance, you should learn how to dance Salsa. I had so much fun doing that! The culture of Cuba is so special, I hope that it will last a bit longer than I expect to now. 😉 Enjoy your next trip, greetings from Germany, Katinka 🙂

  4. Cuba is amazing. I visited in 2013, hopefully the internet connection has improved since then. If you’re going to Trinidad, the craftwork and paintings are very beautiful. There is also a cave converted into a nightclub which is quite interesting to see. My favourite part was enjoying the jazz bands, mojitos, architecture and the vehicles of course. It’s a country like no other. Enjoy!

    • It was an amazing adventure. I just returned last night and am getting my barrings. What a wonderful country. I only stayed in Havana and a few of the surrounding small villages. Looking forward to returning some day.

  5. I wish I had seen this post earlier! I just spent a week in Cuba and absolutely loved it. If you happen to be reading this whilst in one of the most fascinating (if not the most) country I’ve had the privilege to travel to – you must visit the city of Vinales. It is stunning, and a nice break away from the city of Havana. Safe travels!

    P.S. – excellent tips, everything you said is spot on.

  6. Wow, you will have a great time, no doubt. Here are a few places to consider, some of which the workshop will almost certainly include, such as the walkway along the Malecon, especially if the waves are big

  7. I just stumbled on this….I was in Cuba 2 years ago. Had a blast! We never had to use the national currency – the CUCs were all we used, and we travelled all over (Havana, Baracoa, Santiago, Cameguay, Trinidad). Even when we got change from hole-in-the-wall sandwich places, it was all CUC.

    I found the level of English in Havana pretty good – they get lots of resort-staying Canadians 😉 (You can also change Canadian dollars for CUC, and seeing how low the loonie is right now, may be better than Euros.)

    • I have the exact same reservations. The Cubans are very excited but they don’t have the infrastructure to service the rush and it’s getting a bit out of hand I think. It was mainly limited to the main touristy areas but soon it will spread out, I’m sure. 🙁

  8. I went a couple of years ago (just posted about it last week actually). It was by far my most amazing experience. Glad I got there before the tourist influx, and glad you will get there early on as well! Enjoy!

    • I think I got there just under the wire.. sort of. On my last full day, a Tuesday, a Cruise ship unloaded and the main streets of O’Reilly and Obispo were utterly mobbed. I did my best to stay away and explore all the other side streets. Cuba is going to change quickly.

      • It makes me sad a bit. I know economically it will be good for them, but something will be lost in the process. Just the thought of a cruise ship unloading and the streets being mobbed seems so strange. It was absolutely deserted when we were there. Of course all those tourists will spend money. Economically good for Cubans, but….

      • Cruise ships are actually the only way that Cuba can deal with the influx of tourists as they bring with them their own beds, and in many cases, their own meals. There are 40,000 new hotel rooms on the books, but they won’t all be in place until 2020.

        I have been traveling to Cuba yearly for 15 years now, my first trip in 2002 and my most recent this past December. What I have seen in 15 years is a move from people with solemn faces who were afraid to even speak to Americans in 2002, and the food (literally) inedible, to everyone with smart phones and smiles on their faces. Entrepreneurs have opened countless fabulous, safe, and elegant restaurants. What might not be good for American tourists is critical for Cubans who are starving for a good life. The cruise ships are the only way to increase $$$ without overwhelming the infrastructure of Havana in particular and Cuba at large. I don’t like them either, but I love the money they are bringing in to Cuba.

        In December I was pretty shocked at the increasing prices of taxis and other services–everything has doubled or tripled in price. But, then I smiled. Cubans are nothing if not highly intelligent. Supply and demand is an easy concept to get. Cubans are becoming capitalists, they understand the market. The “old” Cuba is still all there in the back streets and villages, you just need to look a little harder and walk a little further. In the meantime, nothing is going to stop Cuba from thriving and utilizing tourists dollars. There were no tourists at all in 2002, we had the place pretty much to ourselves, but then there was also no freedom or joy.

      • I need to correct my last post. I read it and the last line sounded arrogant and even annoyed me, the writer ; ) There was “joy” in Cuba in 2002, it was just more hidden and people were worried about talking with foreingers in public. Cubans have always had the joy of music, and dance, and their families even in the worst of times. I was just a tourist and saw things like a tourist, no differently than any tourist. The food in 2002 however, was indeed, awful.

      • I had a great time Patricia and found the Cuban people very curious and welcoming. I’m sure it’s changed a great deal since 2002 and I wish I had your perspective on that evolution. I would love to go back and visit Havana again, but also visit the countryside and other towns in Cuba. Thank you for the recommendation to eat at Al Carbon.. it was fabulous. xo

  9. Have a great trip! I was there in 2014 and had a terrific time.

    One tip on currency exchange: bring Euros if you can get your hands on some. The exchange rate will be better as Cuban’s impose an exchange tax on USD. So you only end up getting something like CUC.80 for each $1USD.

    Also, try to get a reservation at Dona Eutimia for dinner in Havana. Food there is actually pretty good all around, despite what you might have heard.

    Here’s an article with a few more tips if you’re interested. http://www.stridetravel.com/blogs/travel-to-cuba-what-you-need-to-know-now.html

  10. Been to Cuba twice and plan to go back later this year. Currency exchange to/from USD suffers a 10% surcharge. Suggest you exchange USD for Euros in the US and then use Euros at the hotel/Cadeca (government run House of Exchange) to exchange for CUC. You get 25 CUP for one CUC.

      • Susan, only the US is charged a “tax” above and beyond the exchange rate in Cuba.( The tax occurred in 2003 when the sanctions were ratcheted up by the US. ) You will get $0.87 for each dollar. ($0.03 exchange and $0.10 tax) (NB: all exchange is the same rate whether you use the hotel desk or “Cadeca”–the government controls all exchange. )

        To me Euro exchange concept is too complicated and not worth it, particularly if you are on a tour with most items already paid for. I recommend just using US dollars. If you exchange dollars to Euros in the US there is an exchange rate charged in the US. When you change your Euros to CUC, you will be charged another exchange rate. If you have Euros upon return to the US, you will have to exchange them back losing another exchange rate. The three exchange rates will come to about $0.11 vs $0.13 exchanging USD. If you are buying $100 of cigars and rum and a T-shirt, then you are saving about $2.00 total. There is really *nothing to buy* other than meals and cigars and rum. (and art if something catches your eye) You won’t be using the Cuban peso (CUP) for anything on your style of tour.

        If you take dollars, you exchange them easily at your hotel and if you have money when you get home, you just use it as normal.

        You are going on a tour. Everything is paid for. You can tip your guides in USD (these days they often prefer USD because they see it as a safe currency–given the fear of devaluation with their currency unification plans). At the most you will be spending $500 unless you are in the expensive art acquisition in which case the artist will usually negotiate away the tax and accept USD. I’ve bought all my art with USD.

        There is nothing wrong with buying Euros in the US. It’s just a lot of work for a small return and you are leaving tomorrow.

      • Thanks so much Patricia for the info. I really appreciate it. It’s true, I only expect to pay for food.. Many meals are not covered by the tour and a photo if I find something I want to buy by someone else.

  11. How exciting!! I am dying to go to Cuba, but feel like I’ll have to wait until they open it up a bit more. Same fear you had though, that I’ll miss out on the true frozen-in-time Cuba. Will have to live vicariously through your photos!

  12. Hi, Susan. As you said, locals don’t have access to many things. Due to my experience, I recommend you to spend a handful of dollars to bring there some packets of aspirines, toiletries, pens… even for children. Cuban people will very grateful for any small gift and now you have an opportunity to give them a little help.
    Good photographs and have a happy travel.

  13. Dear Susan, I wish you a nice trip and a lot of interesting impressions. As for us in Germany 1990 the Berlin Wall fell and we were able to go from West to East Germany, we visited a country that lived in 1954th. We were amazed. There was little industry, no telephones, no electronics and no resonable roads, etc. In West Germany we had the standards of the US and were all accustomed comfort. So I imagine today the difference between US and Cuba. A beautiful journey!

  14. Hi Susan, You are going to love every minute of being in Cuba. Just FYI, the Park Central hotel is fairly new (the first floor street facade was kept intact) ,is beautiful, and has just completed a five year room renovation program. Most importantly, you will love the location–steps from everything. The Park Central now has really great Internet wi-fi connectivity in the lobby. (4.5 CUC/ $5/hour) I’ve just returned from my 13th trip to Cuba since 2002 and love it more every time.

    One place you must go is Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) Watch the 36 hours in Havana video from last week (http://www.nytimes.com/video/travel/100000004124062/36-hours-havana.html) where they cover all the best spots in havana including FAC. This video exactly chapters the new Cuba–it’s spot on.

    Have fun. Can’t wait to see your images! (BTW, if you get to Trinidad Cuba, I’m showing a number of my Cuba images in the “International Photography Exhibition” there)

  15. Wow, you will have a great time, no doubt. Here are a few places to consider, some of which the workshop will almost certainly include, such as the walkway along the Malecon, especially if the waves are big. If you are a Hemingway fan , you should quaff a mojito in La Bodeguita del Medio (it may be touristy now) but check out the grafitti autographs on the interior walls; Although Cuba is well known for its famous rum (Havana Club), less well known is their excellent beer (at least it was excellent when I was there); The ice cream experience at Parque Coppelia, from what I understand from recent visitors, is that the tourists now have to go to a separate line from the locals (C.U.C. issue). That was not the case when I was there and using pesos, but some photo ops might be found and hopefully the ice cream is still as good as it was then. Your hotel is close to the old Capitol Building. Check that out, it was being renovated and was closed when I was last there. Perhaps it will be illuminated at night. Anyway, shoot me an email if this hasn’t already reached the TMI level. Have a great time!

  16. Hello Susan, I have really enjoyed your posts, especially this post. I can totally relate to your feelings. I felt the same when I heard Fidel Castro was really ill back in 2010-2011. That was when I decided it was time to go and experience Cuba before the country opens its doors to all. I blogged late about my Cuba experience – as the trip happened during pre-blogging time. http://roaminjuliet.com/2015/09/11/cuba-tbt/

  17. Went there with Santa Fe three years ago this month. Ate many of my evening meals in the lobby tapas bar or rooftop bar at Parque Central hotel. I encourage you to go on dawn patrol with the Cuban Photographers and watch your step. There are literally unmarked holes in some roads and sidewalks.

    Can buy large bottles of water at little kiosk across from hotel. I went through several bags of individually wrapped candy that I gave to people who let me take their pictures. Kids really liked M & Ms.

    Can send you link to the blurb photo book I made from the trip if you are interested.

    • Sure Terry, I would love to see. Candy sounds like a great idea. I’ll pick some up. Thank you so much for the information. Did you see much opportunity for night photography? Trying to decide if I should bring my tripod.

      • Lots of opportunities for evening and early morning photography. Especially in streets of Havana. Ballpoint pens were a good giveaway too when I was there.

      • I have never been a tripod person so I can’t judge.

        Tripod would slow you down while walking with Cuban photographers in the morning as they walk fairly quickly through the back streets but would be OK in the evening if out by yourself. There are polite policeman on virtually every corner in central havana too so wandering around is pretty safe. Don’t intentionally take pictures of them though. A lot of your best shots in Havana usually just happen quickly when you turn a corner, but some of the broader iconic shots at night could be tripod-worthy. A couple of people carried tripods on the trip I took with Santa Fe.

      • Susan, I always take at tripod with me, but I’ve rarely used it. One situation where it can be useful is for Afro Cuban dance sessions where you want to get the blur of the skirts with little shake. But, if you are loaded, then I wouldn’t take it. I think in 15 years of photographing in Cuba, I’ve used my tripod twice. One additional tip however. The best and most cherished gift I have ever given to anyone in Cuba are new whole foods reusable bags (the $0.99 ones). They love these bags. There are NO bags in cuba except for those horrid thin plastic things. They weigh nothing, and, you can stuff them in after your suitcase is closed, into those outside side pockets no one ever uses ; ) People always ask me to bring them more.

  18. Have a wonderful trip! I’m already looking forward to your blog posts about it. Travel to Cuba was never an issue for me as a UK national and I’m now kicking myself that I never seized the chance to go. I will have to content myself to traveling vicariously through your blog.

  19. How fascinating! I knew exactly ZERO of the above about Cuba. Residents don’t have access to pens and toiletries? Eeek.

    I’m pretty well traveled to European destinations, but it sounds like Cuba will be an entirely different travel experience. I am very excited to see your photos when you return!

    • Pens and other items are just not readily available. With all the embargos it’s hard for them to get things. I’m sure they do in some capacity from other countries but I’m told I shouldn’t expect to find things easily. I’ll report back when I return whether it’s as prevalent as I’ve been told.

Would love to hear from you!