10/24/16 - 11/4/16
Havana, Viñales Valle, and Trinidad
This is the year, the year I traveled to Cuba! Cuba is a destination that I have been dreaming about for some time. We all have seen images from that country and know what a wonderful photo opportunity Cuba can be. Cuba could open up to US general travel at anytime I wanted to go there sooner than later before it changes too much. That being said, I booked a flight on Aeromexico to Cuba!
People have been scared off by all the restrictions that we hear all about. Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba. Let's try to clear up some of that. You can go to Cuba as an American citizen without prior approval from the government if your travel falls under one of these 12 reasons:
- Professional research and professional meetings in Cuba
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions in Cuba
- Religious activities in Cuba
- Humanitarian projects in Cuba
- Journalistic activities in Cuba
- Family visits to close relatives in Cuba
- Activities in Cuba by private foundations, or research or educational institutes
- Any type of support for the Cuban people
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
- Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use
- Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
Both my declaration form and my visa were obtained in the Mexico City airport. I decided on checking off journalistic activity on my form. Realistically, no one checked or questioned me about my declaration. I had no problems at all. I even took my chances and got my passport stamped when I arrived in Cuba.
I booked my first night in Cuba through AirBnB. Unfortunately there weren't any other openings during the rest of the times I was in Havana. My own fault, I procrastinated. Luckily the host I stayed with helped me find other places to stay. AirBnB isn't the only option, there are casas particulares (private homes) where you can rent out a room. They are a great and inexpensive way to stay in Cuba. If you look around there are websites that organize them.
After my first night in Havana I scheduled a trip to Viñales Valle. Viñales is known for their landscape and their tobacco farms. I took a shared taxi there in a vintage American car, the kind that Cuba is known for, which took about 2 hours to get there.
Viñales is a sleepy town full of one story houses. The landscape is full of low mountain ranges and is so incredibly gorgeous there. I took a private car tour that took me to the major sights there, the Cueva del Indio, Cueva de San Miguel, Mural de la Historia, and some stunning views of the valley. To be honest, none of those sights really excited me. It was quite touristy and not my cup of tea. I do recommend the horseback riding tour though. It highlighted the landscape and was a nice slow way to see it.
Along the way we stopped by a tobacco farm and had them show us how the tobacco goes from leaf to cigar. This is something I was looking forward to. Cuba is known for their cigars and I wanted to see the process. One note, if you want to see the full experience with this process you will need to visit just after harvest time because you will be able to see the tobacco hanging to dry in the hut. When we went there were no hanging leaves.
I stay at a nice Casa Particular in the heart of Viñales. It is ran by Daniel and Carmen, a very nice couple that took care of me.
I had dinner at a restaurant on a farm called Finca de Agroecologica. It's an organic farm that has a restaurant at the top of the hill that has a gorgeous view. I had no idea what to expect because it was recommended to me and I didn't do any research on what's served there and how much it would cost. They brought me so much food. It was the same amount as the next table over which had 6 people! The food was simple but good. Make sure you get the stress relieving drink. It's delicious. The meal ended up costing me $10.
I spent 2 days and one night in Viñales which was more than enough for me. I headed back to Havana for the next few day and spent most of my time in Centro Havana. Centro is a residential neighborhood with few tourist. When you are there you really feel like you are immersed with the people of Cuba. That coupled with the old dilapidated building makes for a photographer's dream. I spent my time there just wandering the streets and shooting.
Next to Centro Havana is Havana Vieja or Old Havana. This area is the touristy area of Havana. I didn't spend a whole lot time there because I didn't come to Havana for that experience but I did head over there several times. There were a couple of good restaurants there that I really liked. One of them is El Chanchullero, a fun restaurant/bar that features a revolutionary theme with a bit of satire. The food is fantastic, delicious and fresh. Best of all cheap! The other restaurant I like in the area is O'Reilly 304. This restaurant is not your typical Cuban restaurant. It's more of a modern trendy Cuban restaurant. Great food. Expect a long wait at both El Chanchullero and O'Reily 304.
I know that Cuban food has the reputation of being boring and bland. I was quite pleasantly surprised that it wasn't the case. I quickly learned from my AirBnB host that restaurants were all government runned up until 2011. After that date the culinary scene has taken off. I couldn't be happier! Since I am talking about food there are two other restaurants I like to mention. La Guarida is a high end restaurant in the heart of El Centro. It's what you picture a high end restaurant to be like but in Cuba. The food was creative, delicious and inexpensive for what it was. You can get away with a meal for $35-$50 USD. Not bad. The other restaurant of mention is Ajiaco Cafe. This one is the most traditional Cuban food of all the restaurants that I mentioned. It's located in the Vedado area, west of Centro Havana. Probably one of my favorites restaurants of the trip. I recommend the Cazuela Mixta del Mar (seafood pot). Fresh seafood and full of flavor. The meal ended up being $12 USD. Bargain.
After spend a few days in Havana my next trip was to Trinidad. Trinidad is a town that appears to be stuck in the Spanish colonial days of 19th century. Streets are cobbled stoned and most dwellings are colorful one storied houses. There is a main center called Plaza Mayor where much of the attractions are. You can find museums, churches, old mansions, art galleries, and restaurants at this plaza. Trinidad has become a huge tourist destination and Plaza Mayor is the hub for tourism. Many of the restaurants and business in the plaza cater to this so unfortunately the food was ok and expensive and there were a lot of typical tourist trinkets for sale. I eventually walked around to the back side of Plaza Mayor where there seemed to be a more rural and void ot tourist.
As I was walking in around Trinidad I turned the corner of one of these cobbled stoned streets and saw a house selling meat out of it's window. They had a very convincing and effective way of saying they sell fresh pork meat. Straight out of a horror movie!
Towards the end of my trip I realized that my heart was in Havana. I loved getting lost wandering the streets especially in Centro Havana. It just felt so genuine. With all the stressing over my planning for this trip I ended up enjoying exploring the streets of Havana the most. I didn't visit any of the museums, historical sites, or other typical top attractions in Havana. I wasn't interested. I was more interested in absorbing the culture and capturing it with my camera.
Thanks for reading though my lengthy blog about my trip. I hope you got a sense of Cuba though my eyes.
You can see more of my images from Cuba at Gordonszetophotography.com
- Cuba is a cash society. Most places won't take credit cards and places that do won't take US credit cards. Bring enough cash! I almost ran out! There are two currencies in Cuba, the local currency, pesos, and the tourist currency, convertible pesos (CUC). You can exchange for CUC once you get to Cuba at places called Cadecas which are government run. They have one in the airport but that can get crowded. There is a 10% surcharge for exchanging USD so it might be in your best interest to go to your bank at home and convert to another currency to bring with you to Cuba. I brought Euros.
- Stay at a AirBnB or a casa particular. It's a lot cheaper than hotels and gives you an opportunity to meet the locals and the money paid goes directly to the people of Cuba. Expect to spend $25-$40 a night. I spent $35 for a private apartment and $30 for a room in a house. Many times the owners will help you with navigating through the city that you are staying in. Mine helped me with booking travel between cities, find other Casas to stay in, helped me find places to shop for what I wanted and much more. She was a sweetheart that really took the stress out of my travels.
- Buy the StreetSmart Havana Map, it's a great resource and laminated which came in handy because it poured on me a couple of times while walking around.
- Don't expect good internet access. There are not many privately owned internet access. Most are in public places where you buy an access card (1 hour for 2-5 CUC) and you sit around with lots of Cubans and tourist to surf wirelessly. I bought cards on the street and went to the Park Centro Hotel in Havana to surf. There's comfortable seats, you can order drinks or food while you surf and there's AC!
- Learn a bit of Spanish before you go. Knowing a little can go a long way. I also downloaded a translation app on my phone which came in really handy. Make sure you upload an offline package for the Spanish language.
- Dont buy cheap cigars on the streets. Remember the saying, "If it's too good to be true then it probably isn't." That's the case here.
- Drink bottled water. Cuba is one of those countries where the water is not necessarily safe to drink.
- Taxis. There are a few different types of taxis. The yellow ones are most likely government runned one. You will also see taxis that are old vintage cars and that's where it can be confusing. There are private ones that you can hire and there are shared ones. They are hard to tell apart but as far as I know the shared ones go a certain route and do not deviate but they will stop anywhere along those routes. You will have to know the routes and stand along them and just flag down any that are driving on those streets. The shared ones are by far the cheapest and mostly taken by locals.
- Go listen to Cuban music. There is a lot of great live music in Cuba. I personally love the music of the Buena Vista Social Club which I found out is a genre called Son. I discovered a restaurant called La Taverna that has musicians that plays this type of music. La Taverna is located in Havana Vieja.
- Have fun! Cuba is amazing. I am already dreaming of my next trip back!