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.
In January 2016, American travel restrictions to Cuba were lifted for the first time since President Kennedy closed travel in 1963, following the Cuban Missile Crisis. Prior to last January, Americans were “able” to travel to Cuba, but flights were routed through Canada, Mexico and other countries. This extra step was discouraging to many American travelers. Foreign travelers did not face these same restrictions, making it a relatively easy destination for Europeans, Australians and Canadians. Now the dream of traveling to Cuba for many Americans is a reality. We can revisit the same locations where our parents and grandparents vacationed in the 1940s and 1950s—many of which have been left relatively unchanged by time.
I purchased two round trip tickets during the peak season, for less than $500.00, round trip from Baltimore to Havana—one for me, and one for my travel companion and future brother-in-law, Patrick McGuirk. I was pleasantly surprised at the affordable airfare, and after more research, I found that U.S. airline companies have been seeding the market with cheap flights to encourage Americans to travel to Cuba.
Currently, when booking a flight to Cuba from the continental United States, the trip must be classified under one of 12 categories chosen by the U.S. State Department (https://cu.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/local-resources-of-u-s-citizens/traveling-to-cuba/). “Journalistic activity” was the option that I chose, as the main goal of this trip was to shoot pictures of the Cuban people and their unique environment.
After booking the flight, I dug deeper into travel guides, browsed the available online resources and talked with people who had experienced Cuba themselves. I quickly realized that planning a trip to Cuba would be different than other trips that I had organized, since it is relatively unknown to Americans. The process of researching the options for the trip left a lot of room for interpretation, but I was hopeful that once we arrived things would fall into place.
CASA PARTICULAR - PRIVATE HOMESTAY'S
“Particular,” is a term used in Cuba to describe a privately owned property, as opposed to something that is owned by the “estado,” government. In 1997, the Cuban government started allowing residents to rent out their homes and apartments to tourists. Many cubans saw the income potential associated with renting out their homes, and started turning their homes into Bed and Breakfasts. Recently, Airbnb, an American online homestay network, has become available to Cubans to list and advertise their homes. I was easily able to book all of the accommodations for the trip via Airbnb, strategically choosing homes that had been positively reviewed by other tourists. It is important to note, however, that once in Cuba, the Airbnb website was blocked. I believe that this was a strategic government restriction, designed to force tourists to spend their cash in Cuba, instead of paying via credit card on foreign websites.
CUBAN CAR RENTAL
Cuba is a large island, the largest in the Caribbean, spanning over 780 miles from East to West. After booking Casas throughout the western portion of the Country—from Vinales to Trinidad—I thought that booking a car was going to be absolutely necessary. After dozens of calls and emails from to the state run rental agencies and no answers, I realized that we needed to speak to someone in person. While in Havana, we went to a handful of government run hotels that had rental car offices. We were finally able to talk with a sales representative from “REX” Rental Car, one of the country’s three car rental companies. We were able to negotiate a price of $120.00 a day for their most economical vehicle, including insurance, a much higher price than those listed online. The high price was no surprise, as January is peak tourism season, and there was an apparent shortage of rental cars on the island. The cost of the rental car, the unfavorable road conditions, a lack of signage, and horror stories of tourists getting in accidents changed my opinion of the necessity of a rental car. We decided, instead, to rely on taxis, pedi cabs, “bici taxis,” buses, and horses, yes, horses, for transportation throughout the trip.
We knew heading into the trip that American credit or debit cards will not work in Cuba, and that we needed to prepare for an all cash economy. Money belts and safe planning helped us conceal all of the cash that we needed for 28 days. Cuba has two currencies—Convertible Peso, better known as, CUC, and Cuban Pesos, CUP. The convertible peso is the currency that the Cuban government prefers the tourists to use. At nearly all of the banks and “cadecas” we visited, we were required to exchange dollars into CUCs, not CUPs. Convertible pesos are exchanged at a rate of 1:1 with the US dollar. But factor in the 3% exchange rate and the 10% penalty for changing USD and you get .87 CUC for each dollar. I requested small CUC bills when changing currency. Small bills, in denotations of 1, 3, 5 and 10 were more beneficial for using on the street for small purchases and generally shops did not have change for larger bills (20, 50, 100).
Cuban pesos, CUP, were easy to acquire on the street from vendors. The exchange rate with the more valuable CUC is approximately 25:1. A pocket full of CUP may seem like a small fortune, but in reality it may only buy you a mediocre dinner at a government run restaurant. Food on the street, fruits, vegetables, cigarettes and rum were all incredibly cheap when purchased in CUP. I always found it beneficial to have at least 400 CUP (20 CUC) on hand for working with the Cuban people. A little tip of 10 to 25 CUP goes a long way in a country where the average monthly income is 650 CUP.
Leaving Baltimore Washington International at 7am put us in Havana by 1:00 p.m., after a quick layover in Fort Lauderdale. The Havana airport was surprisingly easy to navigate. After handing in the customs paperwork, we picked up the checked bags at the “reclamo de equipaje.” Other travelers we encountered had stories of their bags being lost and bad to non-existent communication with the customer service at the airport. We found a “cadeca” to exchange our USD to CUC, and were immediately directed to a taxi. The 25 CUC cab ride in a 1953 Chevrolet Bel air was about 30 minutes into central Havana.
Havana has thousands of Casas with prices ranging from $15 a night to $400 a night, and finding a place was a matter of sifting through the options. I booked a private room at a hostel in central Havana for less than $50.00 a night. The home was within a short walk to sights in Old Havana, the Malecon and, most importantly, had positive reviews on Airbnb.
Within a few hours of arriving in Havana, we found ourselves walking in the weathered streets looking for photo opportunities. Just walking around without an objective seemed to be the best way to photograph the streets of Havana. Every corner we turned had a different surprise—fromeclectic street art and urban soccer games to people hauling pig carcasses with tricycles and selling live chickens. Havana was unlike any other city I have every visited—full of life and energy—but, in dire need of repair. Havana has been relatively unchanged in 50 years since the U.S. Embargo.
After barely scratching the surface of Havana in four days, we prepared for the next leg of our trip—the Vinales Valley region, about 200 km west of the city. The next journal entry in the blog will feature the Vinales Valley portion of the trip.