Category Archives: Cuba

Cienfuegos, Cuba

Cienfuegos, Cuba

 

Cienfuegos, Cuba is up there for me now.  I thought Trinidad was a cool town but Cienfuegos had that chill vibe that I love when I travel.    There’s a few places I’ve found in my travels that have that magic:  Hanalei on Kauai, Paris, and Portland are among them.    My need to see things and do stuff completely subsides, and it’s all about just hanging out.

 

I did not see a ton of tourists in Cienfuegos.  The town felt to be about the same size as Trinidad but it had about ten percent of the tourists of Trinidad.   So much easier to connect with locals in a place that’s not inundated with visitors.

 

A shout out to my friend at End the Travel Ban on Cuba on Facebook for recommending a visit to Cienfuegos.

 

The Malecon in Cienfuegos.

The Malecon in Cienfuegos.   An awesome place to go for a run and to just meet locals.

I loved the three eras that each of these represent: horse and buggy, 50's car and a pay telephone. All still a part of everyday Cuban life.

I loved the three eras represented here: horse and buggy, 50’s car and a pay telephone. All still a part of everyday Cuban life.

Shrimp boats in Cienfuegos.

Shrimp boats in Cienfuegos.

Cienfuegos seemed a little more in touch with the Revolution than Trinidad.

Cienfuegos seemed a little more in touch with the Revolution than Trinidad.

Local butcher shop in Cienfuegos.

Local butcher shop in Cienfuegos.

Kids playing soccer on the plaza. The plaza is the place to be at night - soccer games, surfing WiFi, and just hanging out.

Kids playing soccer on the plaza. The plaza is the place to be at night – soccer games, surfing WiFi, and just hanging out.

Cienfuegos Cuba (6)

We actually ducked into the Customs office to escape a downpour. I found Cubans to be nothing but kind.

We actually ducked into the Customs office to escape a downpour. I found Cubans to be nothing but kind.

The plaza in Cienfuegos.

A dad and his daughter checking out the plaza in Cienfuegos.

Fishing along the Malecon just after sunrise.

Fishing along the Malecon just after sunrise.

I met this guy at the end of my early morning run. His Englis was right up there with my Spanish, so after exchanging greetings and names, we didn't have much left. He was incredibly animated and it was clear he wanted me to try his pastries. I only have my room key and a laminated copy of passport when i run so I had no money. He didn't care. He insisted I try one. And damn if it wasn't one of the tastiest pastries I've had. We shook hands and he was off to find his next customer. I love these moments when I travel.

I met this guy at the end of my early morning run.   His English was right up there with my Spanish, so after exchanging greetings and names, we didn’t have much left. He was incredibly animated and it was clear he wanted me to try his pastries. I only have my room key and a laminated copy of passport when I run so I had no money. He didn’t care. He insisted I try one.  And damn if it wasn’t one of the tastiest pastries I’ve had. We shook hands and he was off to find his next customer.  I love these moments when I travel.

 

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

 

Trinidad, Cuba is the most visited city on the island after Havana.     I can see why now.  The colonial architecture and nearby beaches in Trinidad make for a powerful draw, and like everywhere I’ve been in Cuba, no matter how beautiful or historic the town, it’s always the locals that are the highlight for me.   Cubans tend to be thoughtful, kind and passionate about life.   I’m not sure I’ve visited another country where things are so tough economically but folks aren’t beaten down emotionally by their hardships.   My biggest take away from my visits to Cuba is that we have as much to learn from them as they do from us.

 

New Years Eve in Trinidad was possibly the most chill NYE I’ve experienced while traveling.  I assumed that it would be a huge party at the main plaza and a great opportunity to hang out with locals and get some cool pics.  Not so much.  Seems that NYE in Cuba is a big family holiday.  The only people on the plaza that night were other travelers.  Cubans were hanging out with their families.  Which shouldn’t have surprised me as Cubans are all about family.

 

I loved biking in the countryside around Trinidad.    Most of the roads have no shoulder which would normally make me nervous.  But I was struck by how thoughtful drivers were to cyclists.   And by drivers I’m including trucks and buses which tend to be the most aggressive drivers in most places I’ve visited.   I would feel safer  biking in Cuba than I would a lot of places in the States.  I spoke with a German lady in Havana who had just finished a road bike tour through Cuba and she was struck by how bike friendly it was in Cuba.   She also mentioned that she wouldn’t ship her bike if she did it again.  Seems if you search, you can find modern road bikes to rent in Cuba.

 

We took a private taxi to Trinidad from Havana but caught the Viazul bus on the way back.  I love traveling by bus in Cuba.  It’s a great, chill way to see the countryside.  Buying tickets and actually getting on the bus was an interesting experience in a centralized economy – long lines, layers of bureaucracy…but the ride itself was an interesting way to see rural Cuba.  It was also a wonderful to meet travelers from other parts of the world.   Met some cool folks from France and Italy waiting in line to buy tickets.   It often seems these mundane experiences end up being amongst my fav memories.    There is a plus side to traveling in a centralized economy: it’s easy to budget for travel cuz that plane ticket or bus ticket is gonna cost the same a year in advance or the day of your flight.   Our plane tickets on Cubana Air were exactly the same price both times we flew to Havana from Mexico last year.

 

I highly recommend the casa particular we stayed at in Trinidad.   Hostal Dona Cristina was in a quiet area about a ten minute walk to the main plaza.   Breakfast was good and eating on the rooftop patio was wonderful.   And our hosts were friendly and helpful with recommendations.

 

As beautiful as Trinidad was, unlike Havana, I didn’t fall in love with it.   The tourist to local ratio was just a little too high for me.   I’m glad I saw it but I enjoyed my time in Cienfuegos (my next blog post) quite a bit more.   But I’ve heard people rave about Trinidad being their favorite place in Cuba.

 

Do yourself a favor and learn a little Spanish before you go to Cuba.    Just being able to exchange greetings, order in a restaurant, ask directions, and negotiate cab fare in Spanish goes a long ways in making for a respectful visit.   I am far from fluent but every time I visit a country, I try to learn a little of the local dialect.   If nothing else, it always gives me a few encounters where I can share a laugh with a local over my butchering their language.

 

Check out my Prints page to see cool images from around the world.

 

Trinidad, Cuba was stunning.

Trinidad, Cuba was stunning.

Wonder just a few blocks from the main tourist area and you'll find a more chill neighborhood.

Wander just a few blocks from the main tourist area and you’ll find a more chill neighborhood.

Not a lot of fun to be a horse in Trinidad.

Tough to be a horse in Trinidad.

The main plaza in Trinidad.

The main plaza in Trinidad.

Veggie cart.

Veggie cart.

 

I see why travelers love Trinidad. The Colonial architecture is beautiful. It didn't lodge in my soul like Havana did, though.

I see why travelers love Trinidad. The Colonial architecture is beautiful. It just didn’t lodge in my soul like Havana did…

But it is stunning.

…but it is stunning. “Moon Over the Cathedral”

I love B&W but it is hard for me to shoot anything but color in Cuba. Kinda the reverse of Paris for me.

I love B&W but it is hard for me to shoot anything but color in Cuba. Kinda the reverse of Paris for me.

The countryside around Trinidad was beautiful.

The countryside around Trinidad was beautiful.

I love the music in the bars and restaurants. And I'm happy to tip the musicians.

I loved the music in the bars and restaurants.

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Taking a break.

The Viazul bus was a great way to see more of rural Cuba.

The Viazul bus was a great way to see more of rural Cuba.

Havana Travel

Havana Travel

 

I knew on my first day in Havana last spring that I would be back to Cuba as soon as I could.   The classic cars, the crumbling colonial buildings, the Malecon…it’s photographer nirvana.   But it was the people that got to me the most.  Cubans are funny, thoughtful, and incredibly resilient.   And given the US embargo, which has had a devastating effect on Cuba, it amazes me how uniformly nice Cubans are to visitors from the States.      I’ll leave it to others to parse blame for the economic conditions in Cuba and what percentage of responsibility goes to the Castros and what should be assigned the United States.   What I am certain of is that we have as much to learn from Cubans as they do from us.

 

Cuba requires a little more thought than most trips where you can grab your passport and a credit card and you’ll be fine.   Do that in Cuba and you’re not going to eat because USA credit cards don’t work there.

 

Even though I could have flown directly from the US, I opted to go through Cancun because it was cheaper than the over-priced charter flights from the States.      $800 for a RT ticket from Miami to Havana?!   I’ll be glad when regular airlines are flying to Havana from the States.  Flights will be about half what they are with the charter flights.    I also went through Cancun because I love spending at least a few days on Isla Mujeres on the way back.

 

Entry into Cuba this time was easy.   Short immigration line.    As a courtesy to the thousands of US citizens visiting Cuba on the sly, Cuban Immigration either won’t stamp a US passport or, like in my case this time, they ask if you’d like a Cuban stamp.    “Yes, please.”  I’m on a general license and I want that stamp!

 

Money is a bit of pain in Cuba if you’re a US citizen. US credit cards don’t work in Cuba so your only option is cash. I brought $2000 in cash and ended up spending $1500 for  the two weeks.    Two people can easily travel in Cuba on $100 a day for food, lodging and misc expenses like taxis and tips. Meals at your casa particular will run you $3-$5 for breakfast and dinner is $7-$12. I ended up spending anywhere from $1 for a tasty meal of ham and rice and beans from a food cart to $20 for a meal at a restaurant on the Malecon with killer views and tasty mojitos.    I have seen a number of travelers comment online that the food sucks in Cuba.  This hasn’t been true for me.  Just ask other travelers or your casa particular host for recommendations.  Or check out TripAdvisor.    I’ve had some mediocre and one truly horrible meal in Cuba but for the most part when I’ve relied on recommendations, I’ve had good luck finding tasty food.

 

Tourists exchanging US dollars will take a 10% hit (The 10% penalty should go away once the embargo is lifted) and also an official 3% handling fee so it works out to $100 for 87 CUC’s.   I opted to exchange most of my money on the street for a much better .95 CUCs to the US dollar.   Slightly less legal but easier on the wallet.   Bring $100 bills as you will get a better rate on the street for large bills.   I’d be careful exchanging money on the street if you aren’t a seasoned traveler, though.  It would be pretty easy for the dude to grab your money and run off.

 

I recommend staying in a casa particular instead of the hotels.  They are much cheaper, friendlier, and a more authentic experience than a hotel.   I highly recommend the casa particular I stayed in, Consulado 106.   Fran was a great host and the location was perfect for exploring Havana.

 

We didn’t run into any other folks from the States on this trip.  My guess is because USA travelers are mostly coming over in tour groups so I wouldn’t see them because they’re on a controlled itinerary so they’re not someone I’d bump into at a coffeeshop or walking along the Malecon.   And I generally veer off if I’m about to run into a huge tour group.   I mostly met Europeans, a lot of folks from France and Spain.    Cuba was a lot busier than it was in April.  Partly because January is busier in general in the Caribbean.   But part of it has to do with the easing of USA restrictions on travel.   And not just because more folks from the States are visiting Cuba now.  The comment I heard the most from other travelers is that people want to see Cuba before folks from the States arrive en masse.   Seems we have a reputation.

 

If you’re thinking about going to Cuba, just go.  And Havana travel is amazing.  Especially if you’re from the States.   It always amazes me when I travel to iconic places, how quickly commonly held myths are dispelled.

 

  • Keep an eye on my blog for upcoming posts on my visit to Trinidad and Cienfuegos in Cuba.

 

Headed home from a day of fishing off the Malecon.

Headed home from a day of fishing off the Malecon.

Sunrise along the Malecon in Havana.

Sunrise along the Malecon in Havana.

Corner grocery store in Havana Vieja.

Corner grocery store in Havana Vieja.

This was our fav restaurant in Havana. Awesome vibe, great food, incredible drinks, and a bargain. We spent less than $20 for two entrees and lots of mojitos. It's called El Chanchullero de Tapas in Havana Vieja.

This was our fav restaurant in Havana.   Awesome vibe, great food, incredible drinks, and a bargain. We spent less than $20 for two entrees and lots of mojitos.   It’s called El Chanchullero de Tapas in Havana Vieja.

Sunrise in Havana. Most Cubans I met were proud of the Revolution. I saw several monuments like this in Havana but it wasn't as prevalent as I thought it would be.

Sunrise in Havana. Most Cubans I met were proud of the Revolution. I saw several monuments like this in Havana but it wasn’t as prevalent as I thought it would be.

I loved the laid back feeling in Cuba. These guys were playing chess in Plaza de Armas in Havana Vieja.

I loved the laid back feeling in Cuba. These guys were playing chess in Plaza de Armas in Havana Vieja.

Havana Vieja.

Havana Vieja.

I was struck by the faded symbols of the Revolution and the pay phones.

I was struck by the faded symbols of the Revolution and the pay phones.

We met Vincente when he rode in his taxi. We chatted for awhile after the ride ended. He was a little kid during the Revolution and his brother had died fighting with Che. I'm not sure what his take is on Revolution and it's aftermath, but he was proud of his brother.

We met Vincente when we rode in his taxi. We chatted for awhile after the ride ended. He was a little kid during the Revolution and his brother died fighting with Che. I’m not sure what his take is on Revolution and it’s aftermath, but it was obvious he was proud of his brother.

 

Chilling on the Malecon in Havana.

Chilling on the Malecon in Havana.

Sometimes you've just gotta take a nap!

Sometimes you’ve just gotta take a nap!

Looking out the front door of San Cristobal Cathedral in Havana.

Looking out the front door of San Cristobal Cathedral in Havana.

Kids on a Friday night in Havana.

Kids on a Friday night in Havana.

This is one of my fav Havana pics. The classic car, the colonial architecture and the perfect sky.

This is one of my fav Havana pics. The classic cars, the colonial architecture and the perfect sky.

cuba-car

 

 

 

 

Impressions of Havana

Impressions of Havana

 

I loved Havana.  It’s photographer heaven.  The classic American cars, the colonial architecture, the Malecon, and the people make Havana one of my favorite cities to photograph.   And the music, the cigars, and the rum…something about sipping on a mojito and listening to a local band a few meters from where Hemingway used to hang out that is just magical for this history and literature geek.

 

When President Obama expanded the General License requirements, and I could visit Cuba legally, I started packing.  I couldn’t wait to see this island that had been off limits to Americans since before I was born.   I say “Americans” because everytime I said the “United States” when a Cuban asked me where I was from, they always replied with, “Oh, America.”   So much for me being politically correct.

 

The biggest surprise to me was all the capitalism I saw going on in Havana.   I stayed in a privately owned B&B, I hailed taxis that were owned by individuals, there were folks selling flowers and produce from their own carts,  and I ate in privately owned restaurants.  And I was offered the opportunity to buy “authentic” Cuban cigars at least a couple times a day by touts.  Talking with locals in Havana, it was clear that life is still hard for lots of folks in Cuba.  But I’ve travelled to places that are suffering economically and the vibe is usually heavier and there’s an air of hopelessness.  I didn’t get this feeling in Havana.  Most Cubans seemed to be enjoying life.  And there was a palpable sense of community.

 

A small business at Plaza de Armas  in Havana Vieja.

A small business at Plaza de Armas in Havana Vieja.

A produce vendor in Havana Vieja.

A produce vendor in Havana Vieja.

Cruising the Malecon in a classic American car is popular with tourists.

Cruising the Malecon in a classic American car is popular with tourists.

A pretty vibrant restaurant scene in Havana Vieja.

A vibrant restaurant scene in Havana Vieja.

Sipping a mojito, listening to live music at a cafe on a historic square..sort of the perfect afternoon.

Sipping a mojito, listening to live music at a cafe on a historic square..sort of the perfect afternoon.

Listening to the band on his break.

Listening to the band on his break…

...and the band was awesome!

…and the band was awesome!

I really liked most of the Cubans I met.  While economic hardship is a fact of life in Cuba, it's not the focus of their lives.

I really liked most of the Cubans I met. While economic hardship is a fact of life in Cuba, it’s not the focus of their lives.

I have to love a country that loves dogs.

I have to love a country that loves dogs.

 

 

I was struck by how the Revolution is not in your face in Havana.   I expected to see propaganda at every turn, but it was rare, and most of the murals commemorating the revolution were faded.   The Cubans I spoke to were proud of their country but I never encountered any animosity directed at me because I was from the USA.

 

A mural of Che in Havana Vieja.

A mural of Che in Havana Vieja.

 

I expected to see more murals like this in Havana.

I expected to see more murals like this in Havana.

A faded Che mural in Havana Vieja.

A faded Che mural in Havana Vieja.

Che was everywhere.

Che was everywhere…

...and in ways I think he would have found abhorrent.

…and in ways I think he would have found abhorrent.

Che on the Ministerio del Interior building by the Plaza of the Revolution.

Che on the Ministerio del Interior building by the Plaza of the Revolution or, as we started referring to it after seeing it, “The Parking Lot of the Revolution.”

I only saw a few in your face billboards in Havana about the US embargo.

I only saw a few in your face billboards about the US embargo in Havana .

When my meal comes like this, I'm not not sensing much communism.

When my meal comes like this, I’m not not sensing much anti-USA sentiment.

 

 

I researched the usual places, TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, to get ready for the trip.  My impression was that the touts would be over-bearing and the food wouldn’t be very good.  I was pleasantly surprised on both fronts.  The food was mostly good and the touts weren’t bad.  If you’ve been to SE Asia, Cuba’s touts will seem mild.   If you’re considering visiting Cuba, just go.  See my travel tips on Cuba here to help you plan your trip.    And please feel free to email with any questions!

 

It will be nice when someone lets US Immigration at Denver International Airport know about the change in requirements.  Nothing like being interrogated by an officer who has no idea about US travel policy in regards to Cuba.   Rude and ignorant.  Not a great combination.   Maybe take a cue from  Cuban Immigration and treat people with professionalism and courtesy.