Last fall I spent a week cycling around Italy (Tuscany region to be exact) and afterwards I took a train to Cinque Terra for a few days, where I met Mary & Reid, a couple cute Canadians traveling together enjoying their honeymoon. After a bottle of prosecco at lunch together, I gifted them a portrait session and we wandered around Vernazza, the jewel of Cinque Terra, in a rain storm and made some memories. All captured on one lens, sometimes you gotta travel light.
As an American, its always been a fantastical, mysterious, and taboo place to visit. Literally illegal to travel to for tourism reasons since the embargo set in place in the 50s, it hasn’t stopped some Americans from visiting under the radar and experiencing the unique culture the country has to offer. Its always been my dream to visit, as I have always had this connection with the country through its rich political history, music, and artistic heritage I experienced though media and pop culture. Something about their energy and perserverence as a people draws me in and makes me want to embrace their outlook in life.
I rarely tell the stories of my couples on my blog, as I am more of a visual storyteller rather than a writer. But I felt this one was important. Today, US and Cuban relations are a hot topic, as Obama has made monumental strides to ease the boundaries between our two cultures and open the doors a bit wider for exploration. This new era has created an opportunity for Americans and Cubans to get to know one another on a more personal level. I love making new connections with people from other countries with widely different perspectives than our own. I’m a traveler, and this is the point of traveling – to open your eyes to the world and let the world change you into a better person through cultural exchange. To get out of your comfort zone and experience how other people live, for better or for worse. It teaches you empathy. It teaches you respect. It deepens our understanding of ourselves and of our world. It heightens our social skills and makes you adaptable to a wider gamut of situations. Most importantly, it helps define who you are and builds character, which to me is one of the most important qualities of a human being.
Carlitos and Claudia reached out to me through his uncle, A Cuban transplant living in Canada. Cuba?s access to the Internet is very limited and those who are lucky to access it pay a high premium for it, unless you?re job requires it or you are an academic. To further complicate this limited resource, Cuba’s current network technology is outdated with poor connection speeds resulting in rather slow loading times for image intensive websites. A few websites are even censored by the government. Social Media isn?t limited however and they happened upon my portfolio on Instagram through their mutual connection at University of Havana. It was easier for us to communicate via Carlito?s uncle, and after some dialogue I decided to donate a portrait session to them. Traveling to Cuba was always a dream for me anyways so it didn?t take much convincing. I next had to figure out how to get there.
Getting to Cuba as an American is still a bit tricky though. Tourism is still illegal, so one has to qualify either under a general or restricted license to visit. You can still travel to Cancun first, then to Havana and risk US customs seeing the “Mexican Stamp of Death” (TWO entry stamps into Mexico with only one corresponding exit stamp in your passport) or you can travel legally under a license. I elected the latter after doing my research and traveled there under the general license “Support for the Cuban People”. For a general license, there is no application, paper work, or tangible license to present upon arrival or departure between the two countries. Its basically an honor system and verbal agreement for automatic authorization to travel to Cuba. RE-entry in the US via customs, you may be asked to provide documentation of your itinerary or a mild explanation, however I did not experience any of this – the Customs Agent simply took minute to walk in the back office with my passport then came back and waved me through. If you’re visiting Cuba under the “Support for the Cuban People” general license, be sure to actually do just that. I brought over a large duffel bag of school supplies for a local escuela and donated an engagement portrait session to Carlitos and Claudia, who contacted me through his uncle after seeing my work online via Cuba’s few accessible spots for Internet at their University.
Which brings me to their story.
Carlitos and Claudia met at a party through mutual friends and felt an instant attraction to each other. Carlitos is incredibly smart – he landed one out of two software engineering jobs at University of Havana after scoring the highest exam score on the application. He’s excelled at science and technology since a child. Other than sports, his other passion is photography, of which he’s won local competitions at in Havana. I instantly liked this guy. Then there’s Claudia. She’s studying English and French at the university and her biggest passions are music and dance, something she says that she cannot live without. She hopes to graduate and travel the world using her language skills to better understand other cultures. Where Carlitos is shy, she compliments him with her outgoing and boisterous personality. Despite how different they are, they embrace the comfortable balance they give each other. She describes their relationship as Carlitos being the Saturday Morning and Claudia being the Saturday Night. I couldn’t agree more.
Our engagement session was mostly set in Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) near and around Plaza Vieja and neighboring older and less touristy side streets. The Baroque and Neoclassical architecture of this 500 year old city is what I like to describe as a beautiful sadness. Many of the buildings are crumbling and in disrepair. Some buildings are literally a facade of their former selves, with no roof and only support columns and broken stairs leading to nowhere. The government however is actively working on restoring some of the more cultural and historically significant buildings to their original vibrancy in a continuing effort to protect the rich heritage. Old Havana is a busy and energetic city. The streets are a beehive of people, classic cars, pedicabs, and bikes. Everyone seems to know everyone else. The youth like to play futbol amidst the chao, while feral cats and dogs roam looking for handouts. Many people hang out on their front stoops near the street, presumably because its hot inside and without Internet, TV, or AC to preoccupy their time indoors, its more enjoyable to take in the community around them. I found everyone I talked with to be extremely friendly and inquisitive, even with the language barrier. I walked alone around sunset a few times doing some street photography and felt very safe. The police takes crimes against tourists very seriously and the punishments are very steep, so apart from the casual pickpocketing, there’s only the occasional hustler peddling cigars and prostitutes to deflect. Mostly the streets are energetic and alive with spirit of the people. The vintage cars from the 50s and and ancient architecture is the closest to time traveling you will ever experience. Politically, the citizens desperately want change, they won’t openly admit or talk about it for fear of government prosecution, but its in the air. Poverty in Cuba is a real hardship, and they are ready to embrace the US embargo being lifted, but I believe only if a change to democracy in place of dictatorship is also set in motion.
We ended our session on the Malecón, the famous long stretch of road running parallel with the sea wall on the northern shore of Havana. Every night at sunset, many people line the Malecón to take in the breathtaking view. Fishermen, Dreamers, and Lovers are the majority, sometimes being caught in the high tide ocean waves crashing over the sea wall to drench the sidewalk. It was a perfect way to finish the session for Carlitos and Claudia. We made such connection in those two hours and they will forever have a home here in Colorado if they ever decide to come visit.
A personal note to Carlitos and Claudia: I hope you know we are bound by imagery now and you can always reach out to me if you ever need anything. I know the Internet is hard to come by in Cuba, so I am gifting you prints to share with your friends and family. Expect a package from me in the near future.
Besos para ambos y mucha suerte!
If you’re interested in visiting cuba anytime soon, good news is that its a whole lot easier nowadays to plan your trip, especially as an American. Instead of the old days of using a 3rd party travel agent to arrange your flight and accommodations, you can now easily do this yourself. Many airlines are offering direct flights from the US as well, particularly Miami and NYC. However, you can still fly through Cancun and book a flight using Cubajet to get to Havana. Airbnb also now serves Cuba and many Casa Particulars (private homes) are coming online for booking. If you are staying in Old Havana, I highly recommend my friend Eduardo and his newly remodeled Airbnb listing located 2 blocks from Plaza Viajo. It’s a mix of modern and antique cuban architecture with incredible decor. If you are an American, upon booking your flights and Airbnb reservations, you will be asked to specify which general or restricted license you qualify for. This may set off alarm bells in your head, but don’t worry, its just a requirement by the businesses for record keeping. At no time during your travel or visit to Cuba will you be asked to show any documentation about this. Cuba Travel Services and CheapAir.com also provide direct flights from US to Cuba.
Lets talk about currency. Cuba has two currencies, the CUP for locals, and the CUC for visitors. US citizens cannot exchange US dollars to CUCs, so its best to exchange to Euros prior to leaving the US then exchanging those to CUCs upon arrival in Havana. Bring lots of cash in case of emergencies, more than you think, because at the time of this writing, credit and debit cards still don’t work there. Also, forget about Internet and WiFi, it is not readily available anywhere yet except for some hotels. There was one hotel in Old Havana that offered WiFi access for a premium, the famous Ambos Mundos (where Hemingway stayed and wrote a lot), but generally expect to be entirely off the grid. If you have Verizon, you’re in luck and can actually connect to Cubacell network while roaming, and Verizon’s charges aren’t bad. Seeing as you won’t have Internet or cellular access, its best to print out any destinations you have in mind. I used Evernote and synced to my iPhone so that I could reference a lot of the information I collected before leaving. If your Spanish is not great, you might want to consider downloading a translating app. Most don’t work offline, except for google’s Translate app but only on Android. Others will have an offline mode that can be used for simple phrases.
You’ll need to buy a tourist card, which gets stapled into your passport. I bought mine in Cancun before leaving for Havana, so be sure to ask your airline if you’re flying direct. Technically, you’re also supposed to buy health insurance as a requirement for visitors, but I did not experience that. Havana’s airport is very basic and low tech. Upon arriving in customs, you’ll see two video cameras on tripods pointed at you. This is their version of airport security. As an American, you can ask the customs agent to not stamp your passport if you are traveling under the radar – your experience may vary and it probably depends on the agent you get. If you are bringing a bag of school supplies like I did, expect to get it searched by customs. Just explain its for a donation – they are worried about taxes and might think you are trying to sell the goods.
I highly recommend you arrange transportation with your casa particular or airbnb host PRIOR to traveling. We were picked up in a classic 1950 chevy and it started the trip out in style. Often your driver or other taxis will make random stops not related to your trip – this is usual and don’t feel weird about it. Using any taxis, you should always try and haggle the price down by $5 CUC. From Old Havana to Vedado, it should cost around $15 CUC. To East Havana beaches $15 – $20. We hired our driver to bring us down to Trinidad for a night for around $350 CUC. This included his own accommodation, gas, etc.
While there are many museums, historical sights, and restaurants in Old Havana to take in, I recommend walking around the many streets off the beaten path to really see how people live. This is street photography at its finest. Many people are very willing to be photographed but some shy away at the mere sight of a camera. Some are accustomed to being photographed and will gladly pose for you – have a pile of $1 coins in your pocket to hand out to those who give you a moment of their time. Even $1 goes a long way. The people are very friendly and inquisitive. I played futbol in the streets with some of the kids too. I talked with other artists in their studios. Restaurant owners. Randoms on the street. Old abuelos sitting on a stoop. I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t want to talk and shake you hand.
While Havana is amazing in its own right, I would highly recommend you travel outside the city. Trinidad is another 500 year old city that is a gem in the country. Much more relaxed with plenty of fun bars and restaurants to explore. Stay for 2-3 days and go on a hike in the area. El Nicho water falls is a popular destination. Cienfuegos, a small coastal city on the way to Trinidad, is also a highly visited area. The beaches in Trinidad are some of the best on the island too, bested only by the beaches in Varaderos.
In terms of entertainment, its everywhere and abundant. The one I want to point out the most is Fabrica del Arte Cubano. This is an old factory that was gifted by the government to an art collective and is a hybrid space for art galleries, performance dance, DJs, live bands, and restaurants. The maze like structure lets you get lost in an abundance of art, music, and dance. The restaurant El Cocinero is adjacent – ask for a roof top reservation ahead of time and be sure to poke your head inside the old factory smoke stacks.
In conclusion, the time is now to visit Cuba, before the embargo gets lifted and popular fast food chains start popping up everywhere. It is a country lost in time and one of the most unique traveling experiences I’ve ever had. As a photographer, its like being a kid in a candy store. The possibilities for imagery are endless.
I’ll be posting a follow up to this article on the fashion and street photography I did during my visit, so stay tuned.