28 Days in Cuba - Journal three of seven

At the end of a busy holiday season following the release of my first book, Working the Water, I decided to dedicate the month of January to traveling. After three years of shooting pictures almost exclusively on the Chesapeake Bay, I was inspired to dedicate time to photographing and learning about a new country. I contemplated traveling to destinations all over the world, but continually found myself coming back to a destination less than 100 miles from the United States—Cuba. Due to its tumultuous political past, the history and environment of Cuba has been preserved, and its culture extremely unique. I decided that Cuba would be my final destination, and it’s beautifully decrepit streets, its ever-optimistic people, and its breathtaking landscapes and wildlife would be my new subjects.

  This blog series of seven journal entries will share my photographs and experiences from 28 days of travel throughout the western portion of the island. The progression of the entries will follow the trip as we travelled west from Havana and back east along the southern coast to our final destination, Trinidad.

  A 30 minute taxi ride south from Puerto Esperanza put us in the area of Vinales National Park. This town of Vinales is a hub for tourist activity and a launching spot for activities in the surrounding area. The national park is famous for the “Magotes,” steep sided limestone hills that are iconic to the Cuban landscape, and fertile agricultural valleys, dotted with small plantations. 

We rented a “casa particular” on Airbnb from Marcelys and Fidel just outside of the town for two nights. Upon arrival, the older couple was extremely accommodating. Fidel was quick to offer us horseback rides through the valley–a relatively lucrative activity for the local Cubans to do with tourists. After settling in, we walked to a local paladar for dinner, the Campesino, that was recommended by our hosts. After three days of barely eating at Casa Wendy, the food in Vinales was a treat. A healthy portion of food–lamb, chicken, rice, beans, fresh vegetables and soup with beer, for two people, was just over 20 CUC–equivalent to about 25 USD. After one meal, I instantly felt relief from the three day stomach bug that had been ailing me while staying in Puerto Esperanza at Casa Wendy.

At 6:30am on Friday, Fidel brought three horses to the house from his stables. He was not used to tourists wanting to get out early in the morning, but we wanted to catch the morning light on the Magotes. Fidel took us through the valley to a friends plantation that was owned by a friend of his where we drank coffee with the family and photographed their oxen with the Magotes offering a scenic backdrop. 

After a quick stop at a cave near a plantation, we headed to another tobacco plantation where the owners were harvesting tobacco and selling hand rolled cigars to tourists. Dixon, the owner’s grandson, explained how the tobacco industry works for the independent farmers. The farmers are required to sell 90% of their tobacco harvest to the government and the remaining 10% can be sold independently to tourists. The tobacco is sold by weight and the government sets the price on the tobacco. The farmers get roughly .4 to 1 CUC per kilo of dried tobacco. Nearly all of the tobacco that the government purchases goes to larger cigar and cigarette rolling factories after being inspected one more time for for quality. The government sends tobacco leaves of different quality to factories that produce brands such as Cohiba, Partagas, and Montecristo, to name a few. The individual farmers are able to make much more for their product when selling directly to tourists. As part of the tour that was included in the price of the horseback ride, we were each given a hand rolled cigar that we smoked with the family. They suggested dipping one end of the cigar in honey, which acts as a natural filter and sweetens the taste of the tobacco. They even claimed that Che Guevara dipped his cigars in honey because of his asthma. We purchased additional cigars for $4.00 each, which came wrapped in royal palm leaves that acted as a natural humidor. 

We ended the ride back at the house, and ended up paying 5 CUC per hour for each horse–a total of 50 CUC for five hours. A similar horseback ride in the United States would be at least 200-300 USD per person. We talked with Fidel and his wife after arriving back at the house and while eating lunch, they told us about a “unofficial” cockfight that was taking place on Saturday. We ended up extending our stay in Vinales to see this backwoods cockfight. Our hosts did not have room for us that evening, so we went across the street to their friends house. The owner, of the casa particular, an older man named Alberto, went to the cockfight every week. He welcomed us to come with him on Saturday. 

 

Cockfighting is the only legal form of gambling in Cuba, but this fight was not sanctioned by the government. We left town in a cab with Alberto and a few of his friends and headed down a dirt road for about five miles. We knew that we were close after seeing dozens of 1950’s era American cars, mopeds and horses parked on the side of the road. The cab parked and we all walked through the woods about 100 yards to the clearing that was set up as an arena for the cockfight. At least 100 cubans, and maybe only 5 tourists were present at the cockfight. People were gambling illegally before the fight, selling beer, and pork sandwiches and preparing the chickens for the fight. We wandered around the somewhat apprehensive crowd and photographed people getting their birds ready for the fights. As the fight approached, we scoped out a spot in the stands and waited with our cold “Presidente” beers. The cubans were placing bets on the birds, and the stakes were high. Numbers upwards of 1000 CUCs were being thrown around for the winning birds, almost equivalent to four years of wages for the average Cuban. The first fight started and the crowd of cubans started to go wild–people were screaming at the birds, hoping that they would end up winning big. The two roosters fought for at least 40 minutes before being declared a draw. Both roosters, barely alive from the fight, went back to their respective owners to be rehabilitated for the next match. The two following fights ended much quicker as each had a more decisive winner and only one survivor. We left the fight after about two hours, feeling as if we had been immersed into the “real” Cuba–starkly different from the tourist traps that have been artificially created by the government. 

Sunday was our last day in Vinales, and after the truly authentic experience of the cockfight, we decided to that it was necessary to experience the tourist traps. We first headed to the “Cueva del Indio,” a cave with a dammed river on the northern end of the National park. We waited in line with dozens of other tourists to get onto a small skiff that ran through the cave. The trip ended on the other side of the magote where we were greeted by vendors heckling tourists to buy cheap necklaces, fake cigars and other tacky Cuban souvenirs. The next stop was the “mural de la prehistoria,” which was essentially a painting on the side of a magote. The painting was done in the 1960’s by a group of Cuban tourists and represents the natural history of Cuba. We found a “coche de caballo” to take us back into town from the Mural de la prehistoria and found a place to eat pizza for lunch. After resting for a few hours after lunch, we headed back out for the last evening of shooting pictures and returned to the house for a traditional lobster dinner with Alberto and his family. 

The next morning we scheduled our cab to take us south to Pinar del Rio where we had scheduled a one night stay before heading east to the Zapata Swamp.

A Vinales farmer carries palm leaves used to line his tobacco barn.

A Vinales farmer carries palm leaves used to line his tobacco barn.

Tobacco plantation outside of Vinales at dusk. 

Tobacco plantation outside of Vinales at dusk. 

Oxen are used by many Cuban famers to plow and till fields and to carry heavy loads. Very few farmers have access to modern tractors. 

Oxen are used by many Cuban famers to plow and till fields and to carry heavy loads. Very few farmers have access to modern tractors. 

The Raul Reyes plantation just outside of the tourist center of Vinales. The farm is at the base of the magote mountain formation - attracting climbers from around the world. 

The Raul Reyes plantation just outside of the tourist center of Vinales. The farm is at the base of the magote mountain formation - attracting climbers from around the world. 

Hand rolled cigars from a plantation outside of Vinales. Farmers are required to sell 90% of their tobacco to the government - the remaining 10% can be sold independently. Cigars are wrapped in royal palm leaves - acting as a natural humidor. 

Hand rolled cigars from a plantation outside of Vinales. Farmers are required to sell 90% of their tobacco to the government - the remaining 10% can be sold independently. Cigars are wrapped in royal palm leaves - acting as a natural humidor. 

A Vinales plantation owner smoking a cigar in front of a flag showing Che Guevara - an icon of the Cuban revolution. 

A Vinales plantation owner smoking a cigar in front of a flag showing Che Guevara - an icon of the Cuban revolution. 

The magotes illuminated by the light of the moon. 

The magotes illuminated by the light of the moon. 

Portrait Marcileyes, our host at a Casa Particular booked through Air B and B. 

Portrait Marcileyes, our host at a Casa Particular booked through Air B and B. 

28 Days in Cuba - Journal two of seven

  At the end of a busy holiday season following the release of my first book, Working the Water, I decided to dedicate the month of January to traveling. After three years of shooting pictures almost exclusively on the Chesapeake Bay, I was inspired to dedicate time to photographing and learning about a new country. I contemplated traveling to destinations all over the world, but continually found myself coming back to a destination less than 100 miles from the United States—Cuba. Due to its tumultuous political past, the history and environment of Cuba has been preserved, and its culture extremely unique. I decided that Cuba would be my final destination, and it’s beautifully decrepit streets, its ever-optimistic people, and its breathtaking landscapes and wildlife would be my new subjects.

  This blog series of seven journal entries will share my photographs and experiences from 28 days of travel throughout the western portion of the island. The progression of the entries will follow the trip as we travelled west from Havana and back east along the southern coast to our final destination, Trinidad.

  On Monday, January 9th, after five days in Havana we were scheduled to head west to Puerto Esperanza in the Pinar del Rio province. Puerto Esperanza is a small town, about a 30 minute drive from the more 'touristy' town of Vinales. We were able to easily hail a taxi from the Bed and Breakfast in Central Havana to Jose Marti National Airport for 25 CUC. At the airport, we exchanged additional dollars into CUC, not knowing if Puerto Esperanza would have a bank or cadeca (currency exchange). A helpful attendant at the airport, Raul Wilber, was able to call a friend of his to take us from the airport to Puerto Esperanza - a 3 and half hour drive - for 100 CUC.  

  We were relieved to arrive in Puerto Esperanza and escape the terrible air quality and congestion of Havana - it was a welcomed change of pace. Our bed and breakfast in Puerto Esperanza - Casa Wendy - had been reserved for four nights on AirBnb. Immediately upon arriving to Casa Wendy, we were both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised at the situation - the kitchen was full of flies and the beds felt like they were packed with straw and old pillows and to top it off, the room was 'zebra' themed. With that being said, the place had an amazing view of a tobacco plantation and was located less than a ten minutes from the water. Wendy also claimed to be an accomplished chef, having studied culinary arts at a regional college.

  I should have taken the flies in the kitchen as a warning and refrained from eating the food at Wendy's. About six hours after eating a meal there, I experienced the onset of a terrible bout of what I call, "Castro's Revenge." I subsequently lost my appetite for anything prepared by Wendy. Though I didn't feel 100% well, we were scheduled to ride horses with Wendy's nephew, Guarro Diego, the following day, and it was too great an opportunity to pass up. We rode for 10km, one way,  through the agricultural countryside of that town, taking pictures of farmers working along the way. We ended at Punta Frances, which was advertised as a beach, but was merely a muddy path cut through the mangroves that led to a grass flat in knee-deep water. Even though it was not what we would consider to be "a beach," the water in the Straits of Florida was very refreshing after three hours of bouncing up and down on an emaciated Cuban "caballo." On the ride back, we stopped at different farms, conversed with locals, and drank "jugo de coco," a coconut opened by machete--the perfect cure for my stomach. 

  Upon arriving back at Wendy's after the horseback ride, we walked into town and tried to visit the wharf where the fishing boats were docked. We were surprised to find the area fenced off and guarded. We asked the guard if it was possible to walk around the boats and talk with the fishermen and photograph their catches - he quickly said 'no es possible.' Somewhat disappointed in his answer we moved on and came back a few hours later, we tried again with a different guard and received the same answer. Puzzled as to why we couldn't get near the boats, I started talking with friendly locals about the strict restrictions regarding water access. Access to the waterfront in Cuba is extremely limited, which made sense the more I thought about it, and the number of Cubans that try to make the journey across the straits of Florida each year. Cuban fishermen are among the few that are granted access to the high seas. Even so, they are required to check in with the government officials before they leave, and then again when they return to dock. I was still confused as to why tourists couldn't access the water, but was content with focusing my attention to photographing the tobacco farmers. 

 The next morning we hired Guarro to take us via a horse drawn carriage known as a 'coche de caballo' to fish in a lake where there were catfish and tilapia. On the way to the lake from Puerto Esperanza, we stopped along the way to photograph farmers working in barns and in the tobacco fields. We returned to Puerto Esperanza just before sunset and went to the water where we met a man named Jose Andres, who was crabbing along the shorelines. Jose was using a homemade dip net attached to a stick, baited with fish carcasses to catch Blue Crabs. The crabs in Cuba, are the same species of crab that we have in the Chesapeake Bay and all along the east coast - callinectus sappidus. Jose quickly filled a bucket with blue crabs of all sizes, he later sold the crabs to be used for stock in soups. 

 Guarro quickly became a friend after our second trip with him, he welcomed us to photograph his family harvesting tobacco at their plantation the next morning. After waking up an hour before sunrise, we walked to the Barrio family farm from Wendy's - about 30 minutes.We arrived to find everyone bundled up in their 'winter' clothing. The temperature - in the low 50's - was comfortable for us, coming from January in Maryland, but not for the Cubans. Around 8am, once the temperature had warmed up, the farmers came out and started harvesting the tobacco. After roughly 70 days of growth, the plants were ready, the yellow ripening on the edges of some of the leaves was an indicator for the farmers. I photographed the group cutting tobacco leaves and transferring them to the drying racks for about an hour and half, until the light became too harsh to shoot. We then made our way back to casa Wendy, got haircuts in town - 1 CUC - and packed up our bags to head south to Vinales National Park for three days. 

The next journal entry in this blog will feature stories and images from four days in the town of Vinales. 

Plowing a field with oxen in preparation for planting with tobacco. Puerto Esperanza 

Plowing a field with oxen in preparation for planting with tobacco. Puerto Esperanza 

Puerto Esperanza © Jay Fleming.jpg
Puerto Esperanza © Jay Fleming06.jpg
Farmer, Raul Gonzalez. Puerto Esperanza 

Farmer, Raul Gonzalez. Puerto Esperanza 

Utilizing water from an irrigation pond to water tobacco plants. The winter months in Cuba is the dry season and tobacco plants demand a lot water, making constant irrigation necessary. 

Utilizing water from an irrigation pond to water tobacco plants. The winter months in Cuba is the dry season and tobacco plants demand a lot water, making constant irrigation necessary. 

'Flaco', a farmer with land just outside of Puerto Esperanza, irrigates his tobacco plants. 

'Flaco', a farmer with land just outside of Puerto Esperanza, irrigates his tobacco plants. 

Tobacco plants growing in the iron rich soil of the Vinales valley, just outside of Puerto Esperanza

Tobacco plants growing in the iron rich soil of the Vinales valley, just outside of Puerto Esperanza

 David Torres picks off new growth on 50 day old tobacco plants to encourage growth on the larger leaves. Puerto Esperanza  

 David Torres picks off new growth on 50 day old tobacco plants to encourage growth on the larger leaves. Puerto Esperanza  

Riding a 'coche de caballo' to Diego Barrio's farm to photograph the tobacco harvest. Puerto Esperanza 

Riding a 'coche de caballo' to Diego Barrio's farm to photograph the tobacco harvest. Puerto Esperanza 

Diego Barrio prepares logs used for racks that hold tobacco leaves during the drying process. Puerto Esperanza

Diego Barrio prepares logs used for racks that hold tobacco leaves during the drying process. Puerto Esperanza

Harvesting tobacco on Diego Barrio's farm just outside of Puerto Esperanza. 

Harvesting tobacco on Diego Barrio's farm just outside of Puerto Esperanza. 

Diego Barrio carrying tobacco leaves immediately after cutting. These leaves are hung on racks in the field and then transferred to a barn where they go through the drying process. 

Diego Barrio carrying tobacco leaves immediately after cutting. These leaves are hung on racks in the field and then transferred to a barn where they go through the drying process. 

Nicotine is naturally found in tobacco, the majority being found in the veins of the leaves. 

Nicotine is naturally found in tobacco, the majority being found in the veins of the leaves. 

A laborer for a government run tobacco sorting facility unloads packages of tobacco that were purchased from a farm outside of Puerto Esperanza. Tobacco leaves are packed into packages made from Royal Palm bark - acting as a natural humidor. 

A laborer for a government run tobacco sorting facility unloads packages of tobacco that were purchased from a farm outside of Puerto Esperanza. Tobacco leaves are packed into packages made from Royal Palm bark - acting as a natural humidor. 

Tobacco is unloaded from the royal palm packaging and sent into the picking room for sorting. Puerto Esperanza

Tobacco is unloaded from the royal palm packaging and sent into the picking room for sorting. Puerto Esperanza

Tobacco leaves are sorted based upon quality and the large veins are removed at the picking room. After being weighed, this tobacco is sent to different cigar and cigarette factories throughout the country. 

Tobacco leaves are sorted based upon quality and the large veins are removed at the picking room. After being weighed, this tobacco is sent to different cigar and cigarette factories throughout the country. 

Puerto Esperanza farmer, Ivan Suarez, poses with his rooster 'Tony' that he is training for cockfighting. 

Puerto Esperanza farmer, Ivan Suarez, poses with his rooster 'Tony' that he is training for cockfighting. 

Puerto Esperanza youth with winnings after a cockfight - the only form of legal gambling in Cuba. 

Puerto Esperanza youth with winnings after a cockfight - the only form of legal gambling in Cuba. 

Jose Andres of Puerto Esperanza poses with a Blue Crab that he caught near the town dock. Jose sells crabs to restaurants that use them primarily for a flavor in soups.

Jose Andres of Puerto Esperanza poses with a Blue Crab that he caught near the town dock. Jose sells crabs to restaurants that use them primarily for a flavor in soups.

Jose Andres uses a homemade dip net baited with fish carcasses form the state run fish house to catch crabs. Puerto Esperanza

Jose Andres uses a homemade dip net baited with fish carcasses form the state run fish house to catch crabs. Puerto Esperanza

Guarro Barrio poses with two horses that he uses for taking tourists on horseback rides through the agricultural countryside near Puerto Esperanza. 

Guarro Barrio poses with two horses that he uses for taking tourists on horseback rides through the agricultural countryside near Puerto Esperanza. 

Portrait of a Silvan Gonzalez. Puerto Esperanza 

Portrait of a Silvan Gonzalez. Puerto Esperanza 

The town pier illuminated by moonlight. Puerto Esperanza

The town pier illuminated by moonlight. Puerto Esperanza