Ever since President Obama eased the restrictions on US travel to Cuba we knew that we wanted to one day visit a country that many US travels have never experienced. We wanted to experience the Cuban culture and see first hand what it was like. When we got the opportunity to go with a fellow photographer we knew we had to go. I will say that out of all of the countries we had been to we were most nervous about this one. There’s so much information about what you can and can’t do so we were not sure what to expect. For anyone planning to visit Cuba – here’s some handy info and things we learned along the way:
- Cash is definitely king. Since your US based credit cards don’t work in Cuba you will need to be prepared to bring enough money for your entire trip. We recommend figuring out how much money you will need each day and double that amount. Exchange half then save the other to exchange in case you run out of cash. We ended up needing much more than originally planned so having the backup stash came in handy.
- Figure out which area you will spend most of your time in and be sure to stay somewhere very close (within 5-10 miles). We spent way more than we should have on taxi fees because we were a little too far from Old Havana which is where we spent a lot of our time (we were about 30 minutes away).
- Be prepared to break out your Spanish skills! I’d say about 70% of the people we met did not speak English, so our Google translate app was VERY handy. We were able to use it to help communicate by downloading the Spanish language offline and using it to help communicate with the locals when we needed to.
- Consider staying in casa particulares (private homes). There are a few hotels if you want to live a little more luxurious or have any chance of being near wifi but if you’re a little more adventurous we’d recommend staying in casa particulares – private homes for rent like AirBnB. The hosts are often very welcoming and helpful if it is your first visit to Cuba. They can assist with connecting you with drivers, tour guides, etc. and are a good way to save money and get a more authentic view to Cuban life.
- Be prepared to have an internet break. I went through a bit of internet withdrawal on the first couple of days but then realized that life without internet was kinda great for a few days, lol! There are some hotels and restaurants with wifi but you will need to purchase a wifi card which can be a little difficult to find.
- Pack light! The Havana airport is somewhat manual so it can sometimes take a long time to retrieve your checked baggage. We heard stories of some folks waiting for up to 4-5 hours on busy days to retrieve their baggage so taking everything in a carry on is highly recommended.
Okay so back to our trip. When we arrived at our AirBnB spot we were greeted by our hosts who lived next door to our home. The home was a nice colonial style home with most of the basics you’d expect. Neither of our hosts spoke English so our Google translate app definitely came in handy. 🙂
Our taxi driver took us to his favorite restaurant in the ChinaTown area of Old Havana and we had to try the local favorite, Ropa Vieja which was really good. The prices at this particular location were amazing ($3-$5 for a full meal) but we found that prices can vary greatly between different restaurants so don’t expect this everywhere you go. Also in general, Cuba is not known for it’s delicious food but we were able to find decent food even for me as a picky eater.
One of the things I loved most about Cuban culture was the sense of community. If you’re old enough to remember a time before internet this is what it feels like – families spending time together, kids actually outside PLAYING and not in front of a tablet or phone. So cool to see!
Now that there are so many new tourists visiting Cuba the tourism industry is booming and there are lots of tours available that will give you a great overview of Cuba. We preferred to do a one day Havana tour on our first full day to get an overview of various areas in Havana and to figure out which locations we wanted to explore a little more. Our driver picked us up in a classic American car – which is the norm in Cuba. Kinda surreal to see all of these old cars still in use today.
One of our first stops on the tour was Plaza de Revolución which is notable for it’s many political rallies held by Castro and others to address Cubans. It is one of the popular tourist destinations for most of the year.
The parking lot at Plaza de Revolución looked like a car show with all of the classic cars bringing in tourists. So cool!
We visited several places in Havana and Old Havana and were able to snap a few pics of this gorgeous view.
I knew we would fall in love with the architecture but didn’t realize how much. Each corner was a photo opportunity so it was hard to put the camera down. 🙂
It is common to buy fruits and veggies from street vendors in Cuba.
We found that most of the people we met were really friendly and allowed us to photograph them with no problems. It is common to give a small tip in exchange for photos, but it is worth it for the great photos.
One of the favorite places we visited was San Jose warehouse which featured arts and crafts from local vendors. We met some extremely talented vendors here and ended up visiting several times during our visit. Since we were not able to find models before our trip to Cuba, we also met a few vendors who were instrumental in helping us to find our little models! Cuba also has many ah-mazing beaches there with beautiful clear blue water. We visited Santa Maria del Mar which was a beautiful beach close to Havana. The beach was quiet, clean and a great way to relax and get away from city life for a while.
We were also lucky to have our friend Rhonisha of R. Dione Photography there to assist during our shoots. Rhonisha captured this lovely photo below of this amazing moment when we randomly stopped a group of school kids walking down the street and positioned our model in front like a boss, LOL!
We wanted to incorporate a bit of Cuban culture and lifestyle into our shoots so we positioned our model with locations, backgrounds and props symbolic of Cuban lifestyle.
The next day our vendor/new friend bought us these ADORABLE twins to model these beautiful dresses from Ydamys Simo and we nearly passed out. We were so excited to photograph these little beauties!
We were almost done with our shoot and noticed a guy in a wheelchair sitting at the edge of his house door. I happened to look inside and noticed what looked like a REALLY cool home with records displayed on the wall, a few motorcycles propped nearby and a wall full of Cuban presidents. We asked if he would allow us to photograph the girls in his home and he welcomed us in. We left a nice tip on the way out and walked back with smiles from ear to ear. #WINNING!
Cuba is definitely on our list of MUST GO BACK places. If you are planning to visit we highly recommend exploring on your own so that you can meet and talk to the locals and get a real look at Cuban life.