Cuba. Long on my list of countries to visit and nowadays with an added exclamation mark, suddenly came up as an option in July, when a trip there was on sale and beside all considerations about the weather being too hot and thunderstorms/hurricanes being a daily threat in September, I didn’t wait long to pull the trigger. The exclamation mark was added to Cuba after news about the US opening up and letting people travel and maybe even doing business there were reported. You don’t really want to wait for McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks ruining the city sights with a sign at every corner.
This might be an irrational fear, as it will most likely be many years before US companies will be able to open businesses there, but the growing number of tourists from Europe and soon from the US gave me reason enough to book a trip in 2016 and capture the scenery before the country will change too much.
After arriving to Havana in the evening, the heat and humidity didn’t hit me as hard as I feared it would. Still, after moving quickly out of the plane to hit immigration before everybody else (hail to premium economy tickets) and lifting my heavy bag from the belt to clear customs, a first layer of sweat was already hitting my forehead. And to not talk about this too much, it never went away until I was freezing on the cross Atlantic flight back.
My cab was a modern car and that was kind of disappointing, but a pre-booked ride is what I usually do when I arrive late or without any local currency. And the long line at the exchange office was proving me right, as well as a friendly driver waiting for me just outside the gate with a big sign and my name on it.
On the way to my downtown hotel, I couldn’t wait to see the first classic cars. But, believe it or not, it took about 20 minutes before I was able to spot one. They are still there, but way less than you’d expect. Some of my friends will probably shake their heads in disbelief, as I have never been a car person per se, but older cars from before 1970 have been my secret favorites for years now. The downtown areas are usually better to spot cars than the outskirts of the cities (especially at night) and you can work on your panning skills while walking the streets.
One thing I’ve noticed right away was the very dark streets at night. Something I hadn’t really seen before, but it felt like it was close to pitch black everywhere. The podcasts and reports I’ve been reading and listening to beforehand were painting a different picture, especially for street photography at night. Even with the possibility of using high ISO without any issue on my Fuji X-T1 and X100T, this was concern right from the start and I ended up shooting most to all of my pictures during the day.
Getting out of the hotel
After a good night of sleep and fortunately not too many issues with the jet lag, I was able to hit the streets early in the morning. You’ll notice that in front of the bigger hotels, the classic car heaven for enthusiasts is served on a silver plate. Most really well preserved and restored vehicles are often used as taxis or to drive tourists around on a city tour. If you’re up for that, I’d suggest you pick a nice convertible and make the investment. It’s around 30 $ for a tour.
One thing I’ve learned and figured for myself on trips is simply trying to get lost and walk the streets without a real destination from the start, which somehow always ends up giving me a great sense of direction and a good overview of where to go again if the light or timing for pics wasn’t quite right. You can also dive into the sights, smells and sounds of the cities, which are similar but still different everywhere you go. For me, that is usually the point where I realize that I’m on holiday and have arrived to an often exotic destination.
The other thing I like to do, is hire a local guide for walking tours on the first and sometimes second day, which will take me away from the Lonely Planet Top 10 spots of the city and often lead you through areas and to places, you wouldn’t usually find yourself. If I can, I try to find a photographer, who will probably understand pretty well of what I’m after (markets, people, local living, workshops), but that is not always available in every city and talking to your other options beforehand is definitely needed to express what you’re looking for.
After a hot morning in Havana and a light lunch, I met with my local guide Yari, a very nice and friendly woman who led me around the area of Vieja, or in English old Havana. The northern part of old Havana is very touristy, as shopping streets, clean and already restored houses and squares are changing the look of the quarter rapidly, but if you walk just a few blocks further south, you can see the old colonial buildings, kids playing on the street and people going after their daily chores.
You can probably spend days in Vieja and when I returned to Havana at the end of my trip, it was also my favorite place to hang out and shoot again. You will also notice, that a lot of times the same people will hang out at the same corners every day and as you will be spotted as a tourist, interactions often become easier- especially if they want to sell you something or have you as a guest in their bar or restaurant. Generally speaking, the people are really friendly in Cuba and if you’re not interested in their services or goods, they leave you alone after the first friendly ‘No, gracias’.
Walking around as a tourist photographer, you will get the odd bad look, but being sneaky, taking your photo with a long lens and walking away after silently taking your shot is often not the way to go. A quick gesture at the camera and that you’ll be taking a photo goes a long way and many people don’t care then. Some of the more interesting personalities will sometimes ask for money after you’ve taken their photo. If you want to, it’s of course ok to give them a few coins, but they won’t chase and yell after you if you decline either.
The guy with the tongue might actually be one of my favorite pics of the trip. He approached me while I was waiting for a friend outside of a store. He must have talked to me in Spanish, very broken English and a few words in German for about 8-10 minutes, clearly selling some newspapers on the street, but always being very friendly and giggling and laughing like a little kid while he was telling me a story. I still have no clue what it was about, but I was laughing with him, which he seemed to like even more. He was happy for me to take his portrait and we both laughed when I presented it to him.
Vieja has a lot of little streets and it’s up to your imagination, what you can do with the sights you’ll find there. The streets are very busy during the day and if you don’t want to come back later, just hang out a few minutes at a nice corner and wait for the right moment.
On my second day in Havana, the Vedado quarters for Havana were on the list of things to do. This part of the city is a bit different to the historical parts, as the buildings change to more of an Art Deco style and you can tell that it is a newer part of the city. Beside the buildings and beautiful tiles everywhere, life seems to be the same though. The only difference you will notice is the people you meet. There won’t be many tourists and I’d also suggest a walking tour if you want to spend some time there and not get too lost.
Vedado is certainly worth a visit if you have the time. It just gives you a better picture on local living and shows a little bit of a difference to the tourist inflated central and old Havana. I did use my guide for a walking tour there as well and if you’re interested, I can certainly get you in touch with her to show you around in these parts of Havana.
In Vedado as well as in every other place in the world, keep your eyes open for interesting things behind the front door or gates of a house. I was able to find a few things that I could have easily walked by, if not paying attention. We saw this small boxing school for children in a yard behind a rusted gate and were invited in by one of the coaches. My guide was able to translate a bit and I was allowed to take a few shots.
Speaking the language is a great benefit in Cuba and as I don’t know close to anything in Spanish, I was often lost, but managed quite well after a while. A phrasebook is a good idea, but if you have somebody with you to translate, it’s a big bonus. Talking to Cubans is not only interesting, as they have a bit of a different view on many things, but also often shows you right away how friendly these people are and how open they receive strangers into their country and sometimes their homes. As hotels are widely expensive and service is often bad due to government owned businesses, most travelers stay in casas (casas particulares), where people build little rooms (with own bathrooms) into their apartments and houses. You’ll find very friendly hosts, good service and often awesome breakfast choices.
People always ask what equipment I carry with me. As mentioned above, I’m a Fuji shooter these days and usually carry two cameras with me. For the X-T1, I like to be flexible and don’t mind the undervalued zoom lenses. They give me great flexibility and even though I mostly shoot between 18-50mm, the 18-135 kit lens is sometimes needed if you really can’t get close. For longer exposures and special land- or cityscape pictures, I usually carry a wide angle lens and used the Fuji 10-24 on this trip. You’ll also find a prime lens in my bag on these trips, especially if I’m not sure what I’ll find and what the light situation might be. For the Cuba trip, I carried a 35mm lens with me as well.
I’m also in love with my X100T and it’s 23mm lens, but didn’t use it too much this time, which is always a gut feeling for me and mostly no logical choice. I do bring filters and a tripod and a couple of spare batteries for both cameras to be really prepared for most situations. But I’ve also learned that you don’t need everything with you, if you have that much stuff in your bag already and you’ll still miss a photo, just accept it and take the next one.
View from above
I’d also advice you to find a higher building and take a few shots from there. Depending on where you’re staying, this might be easy, as most of the higher priced hotels seem to have a rooftop bar or pool, which is often accessible without being a hotel guest. The Iberostar Parque Central would be my tip, as the picture above was shot there and you also have a great look at the Capitol building, which was unfortunately restored and covered in scaffolding while I was there.
Walk Walk Walk
You can and should of course buy a good guide book about Havana and Cuba, but it will only get you so far. The place is changing so quickly, that every book seems to be out of date. For photographers, the best tools available are therefore their feet. Explore the city by foot and bring good shoes. The streets are often not too even and you can clock some miles during your stay. Every corner seems to present a photo opportunity and as mentioned in the first paragraphs, you will find classic cars for detail shots, panning or just in front of nice buildings to take some memories home with you.
Part 2 and galleries
Please come back, as part 2 of the story is in the making and if you want to see more of the pictures, you’re welcome to check out the galleries on my website where you will find a compact as well as a full gallery of the Cuba trip.