Cuba – A Photographic Journey

La Bandera Cubana (The Cuban Flag)

Cuba.  The word evokes images of classic cars, ancient crumbling facades and warm smiling faces.  

But Cuba is more than a cliche…it is a country at a crossroad, with a people tired of being regarded as an anachronism and yearning to catch up with the world at large they perceive thru modern media.

This is our introductory blog about our 6 days in Habana Central (and one day in Viñales).  Our initial plan was to spend time with the locals – living where they live, eating what they eat, getting around in typical “cuban” fashion, etc.  So we contacted a Cuban national and he put us in touch with a Cuban AirBNB.  While there were some bumps along the way, we found a place that was sufficient (actually, an ENTIRE apartment) and we made several new contacts (actually, several new friends).  What surprised us most: many Cubans dress almost exactly as we do, so it was easy to blend in. Our only dead give-aways were our cameras – once we put our cameras in our bags, we were virtually invisible (of course, it helps to be fluent in Spanish as English is not commonly spoken).  

First of all, a big “thank you” to several people: Mariley, our landlady; Pedro, our taxi-driver; Alfonso & Alfredo, our guides; Milagros our Gal Friday;  Elena and crew, our cooks; and lastly, our travel companions Carmen and Don.  They all served to make our trip not only memorable, but enjoyable. Of course, there were countless others along our journey that are not easily forgotten; Teresa, the woman praying to Yemaya on the Malecon; Ivon & Bilbao, our CocoTaxi guides; Kid Chocolate, the Cuban Olympic boxing champion we had the great pleasure of meeting and photographing; Rafael, the director at Projecto Communitario, Callejon De Hamel; Julio Cesar Paz, the artist we met at FusterLandia; and so many others.  These are not just nameless faces we meet along our travels and soon forget once we return home – but real people, with lives and struggles that continue long after we’ve left.  And we say again…muchisimas gracias.

Our trip began in Newark, NJ.  We flew United direct to Habana, Cuba.  Yes, United…from Newark (no, we did not have to go to Miami).  Our reason for traveling to Cuba was on a “people to people cultural/educational exchange”.  We paid our Cuba visa fees (approx. $75 each) and since we only had carry-on luggage, we did not have to pay for any extra checked baggage. Cuba has weight restrictions, so we traveled light (except our photography gear – see below).  Landing in Habana at the Jose Marti Airport, we went thru Aduana (Customs), made our declarations and ran our baggage thru the metal/drug detection devices.  2 hours later, we got in line to change our currency from US dollars to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Cuba claims that the exchange rate is 1 CUC to 1 US Dollar, but the reality is  1 CUC is 87 cents to the Dollar (13 cents goes to the Cuban government as an impuesto – i.e. tax) – so, $100 USD = $87 CUC.  (Cuba has a second currency for the Cubans, the CUP, or Cuban Peso…there are currently 25 cuban pesos to the CUC).     
Speaking of currency exchange – since ATM’s are virtually non-existant in Cuba, it’s a good idea to take all the currency you will require for your trip.  Everything, and we do mean EVERYTHING, is cash only…absolutely NO CHECKS OR CREDIT CARDS are accepted (at least, not at any of the establishments we frequented).  As a result, many things are negotiable…we learned this very quickly.    

Since this was to be a photographic journey, we had ALL of our photography gear with us – WE CAME PREPARED! 

This is what we took with us (i.e. what we THOUGHT WAS ESSENTIAL):

3 Cameras and lenses :
          Nikon D750 with 24-70mm f/2.8 and 18-35mm f/3.5;
          Sony A7RII with 24-70mm f/4 (rented);
          Olympus EM1Mii with 12-100mm f/4, 17mm f/1.8 and 7-14mm f/2.8;
3 Camera bags ( 2 carry-ons, and a small one in the suitcase);
Batteries (3 each Nikon/Olympus; 2 Sony) including chargers;
Olympus FL600R flash (works with Olympus and Nikon – yes, that’s right!);
SDHC cards (20 32Gb); 
Apple iPad Pro & Pencil; 
WD 2Tb My Passport Wireless portable drive; 
MyCharge 10000 mah portable charger;
6 plug portable strip;
Various filters (ND, CPL’s);
1 Carbon Fiber Tripod and precision head and 2 plates;  
1 Monopod with small head and 1 plate.  

Not to mention our iPhones, chargers, extra cables and a bunch of other photography “stuff” we thought essential (it wasn’t).

This is what we actually used (i.e. what was REALLY ESSENTIAL):

Nikon D750 with 24-70mm f/2.8 (never left the camera);
Sony A7RII with 24-70mm f/2.8 (never left the camera);  
EM1Mii with 12-100mm f/4 (used the 17mm f/1.8 once, and replaced it with the 12-100); 
Batteries and chargers (every one of them – recharged nightly); 
FL600R Flash (used one evening off-camera with Nikon D750 – I held the flash in one hand while shooting);
6 plug portable strip (gave it to our landlady when we left).

So, we didn’t need or use the following:

1 of the camera bags (the largest, heaviest one);
18-35mm f/3.5 and 7-14mm f/2.8 lenses; 
Apple iPad Pro & Pencil or the WD 2Tb My Passport Wireless portable drive (forgot the necessary cable to connect them);
MyCharge 10000 mah portable charger;
Various filters;
Tripod or Monopod (shot EVERYTHING handheld). 

As for our iPhones…we couldn’t connect or call while there, so we used mine as an alarm clock…WIFI is available, but restricted (and expensive…but that’s another story).  We probably could’ve got by without the Sony A7RII, but I wanted to try it out and I thought Cuba was the perfect testing ground (I’ll tell you all about my experiences in another blog post).  

As we chose NOT to rent a car (smart), we relied on taxis to get around (this is where our negotiating skills came in handy).  Plan on 15 to 25 CUCs daily for travel – unless you plan to WALK everywhere.  If you plan on using the CocoTaxi guides (we did), they average 20 CUCs an hour.  

Habana is a big city and divided into 4 main sections: 

Habana Vieja (Old Habana).  This is the area most photographed – the “tourist” area;
Habana Central (Central Habana).  This is the working class area.  Here we stayed in an apartment in el barrio de Cayo Hueso;
El Vedado
.  This area most closely resembles Miami.  El Malecon, Revolution Square, the US Embassy and Art Deco buildings dot the landscape here;
MiraMar.  This is the area where all the diplomats and higher Cuban government officials live.

Cuba is a beautiful, wonderful place with amazing architecture and warm, inviting people.  AND THE MUSIC…!!  As I’m a musician specializing in Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz, well…you can just imagine how excited I was (but…you got it…another blog post for another day). 

But don’t take our word for it…go see for yourself!  It is every bit as fascinating as you have heard…   

We will follow this introduction with a series of posts about Habana Vieja, Habana Central, El Vedado and of course, Viñales. Until next time…