Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg
In recent years, Cuba has been a hot spot for photographers seeking fascinating new subjects as well as for those seeking (normal) tourism. A photo trip to Cuba offers the combination of interesting travel photography along with fascinating and informative sightseeing. This small country offers both an exciting city environment as well as a largely unknown countryside. The often prohibited and prohibitive nature of traveling to this close-by island nation only adds to its exotic allure.
In order to interpret and appreciate in greater depth what one sees in today’s Cuba and how it came to be what it is, it can be helpful to understand the events that have shaped this self-contained island nation. While I could expound at length on the history of Cuba since the 1890’s, that is well beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that this is a land of contrasts: the contrast of the urban and the rural as well as the sharp contrast of the past and the present.
Havana, the very urbanized, bustling and densely packed Cuban capital, is a city of two million people on the island’s north coast right across the Straits of Florida from Key West and just over 200 miles from Miami. Founded by Imperial Spain in the 1500’s, this venerable city will be the heart of any photo trip to Cuba. Exploring Havana is best done on foot with the aid of the occasional taxi back to your hotel at the end of a long day.
Wear your most comfortable walking shoes and bring a DSLR or two with stabilization technology and your handiest small waist pack for two or three extra lenses. At dusk when city lights are on, but there is still blue in the sky, a good travel tripod and cable switch will come in very handy for some long exposures.
Make sure to look for creative compositions. You can almost always find a good foreground if you need one. When looking up at tall church steeples and the like, try to compose ‘loose’ in the frame. In other words, leave plenty of room above and to the sides of your main subject to allow for cropping when using your favorite option in perspective control software to straightening up those tall buildings when they lean backward.
This sprawling city is best covered by dividing it into four bite-sized chunks. These are Central Havana (Habana Centro), Old Havana (Habana Vieja), the historic fortifications guarding the harbor and the Vedado area. Yes, having a few words of tourist Spanish can be helpful, but don’t worry. You will be able to get along just fine with no more than “buenos dias” and “gracias” if need be.
Old Havana & its 4 Great Plazas
Let’s begin with what is perhaps the most interesting area, the well-restored Old Havana. This is a very easy walking route highlighted by a series of four plazas. Each of these plazas and the short connecting streets between them simply teem with fascinating subjects and compositions.
Begin at the cathedral of St. Christopher (Christopher Columbus / Cristobal Colon). Walk around this small square for a while and take in the sights, the colors and the many forms within the architecture. Spend some time with the details of the imposing cathedral.
Next, with the cathedral at your back, stroll down the narrow lane past some tiny art galleries and turn left toward the larger Plaza de Armas with its unique wooden street. Again, make a full revolution around the perimeter of the square to reconnoiter. Explore the vest-pocket park within the Plaza de Armas. Two of the best subjects here are the little temple (Templete) on the far end and the classic fortress Castillo de la Real Fuerza with its great entry gate right on the square.
Linger for a while here at Armas, possibly the most interesting of this quartet of plazas.
When it’s time to move on, head for the Plaza de San Francisco. The three big attractions here are the imposing Cathedral of Saint Francis, its lovely Lion Fountain and the colorful horse drawn carriages which often start and stop here. Enter the church. Explore its courtyard and arcade.
The last of the four squares is Plaza Vieja or ‘old plaza.’ While liberally splashed with a variety of tropical pastel colors, this is in my opinion the least interesting of Havana’s four big plazas. The facades of the buildings lining the square are uniformly flat and give the square a less than interesting look. This is a great spot in which to relax and enjoy some Cuban coffee.
Once closing the loop on all four plazas, it’s time to take in Habana Centro.
Start with the highest profile sight here, the venerable former Capitol building (Capitolio Nacional.) You will instantly recognize the familiar form of this big building as it is a scaled down architectural duplicate of our own U.S. Capitol, dome and all. Go slowly and spend some time here.
This is the best place to spot Cuba’s famous classic American cars from the 1950’s. In addition to the many flashily painted Ford and Chevy taxis making this their home base for offering rides to the tourists, lots of proud Cubans drive up and down the street and park their lovingly tended historic Detroit showpieces here to show them off.
Six-decade-old Chryslers, Pontiacs, Buicks, Plymouths and the occasional Cadillac, all spiffed up and shiny, are on display. These automotive classics represent Havana to many and it’s always fun to photograph them from multiple angles.
Once you’ve had your fill of these steel relics, stroll around the central area of Havana. Take in the Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar, on a street often populated by some very flashy characters. Move on to the elegant state theatre and opera house, the columned Gran Teatro. Walking eastward toward the harbor, stroll the tree lined pedestrian median to the imposing former presidential palace, now the proud Museum of the Revolution. If it’s open to tourism on the day that you visit, walk slowly through the building while imagining the pre-revolutionary government being housed here. Make sure to see the ornate grand ballroom with its eye-popping ceiling.
Adjacent to this beautiful building is the Granma Memorial, a tiny park showing off historic exhibits of Fidel Castro’s 1959 victory including a Soviet-made tank and the sixty-foot boat Granma in which he returned to Cuba in 1956.
As you continue eastward, keep a sharp eye out for even more classic American cars from the 1950’s. Their very devoted and industrious owners have learned out of necessity to fabricate their own ersatz replacement parts. By hook or by crook, they keep these great cars running.
Once arriving at the water’s edge you’ll find a small fortress that is worth perhaps a few minutes.
Heading north (left) will quickly bring you to a popular corner spot marking the meeting of the open sea (Straits of Florida) and the harbor entrance. Here you will be directly across the channel from the very recognizable Morro Castle and its familiar lighthouse. More about that below.
Walking south (to the right) will take you back to the Plaza de Armas.
Wow! That’s more than enough for one day! More likely two.
Next morning, grab a taxi and head across the harbor toward the Morro Castle with its iconic lighthouse towering above. This fortress, together with its companion fortifications nearby at the stalwart Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, were built by the Spanish Empire in the late 16th century. These were the primary defenses of Havana harbor when it was a key shipping point for the plundered riches of South America as they headed to the royal court of Spain. Aside from being fascinating historic artifacts, these stalwart examples of cutting edge 16th century military engineering make for some great compositions.
Go slowly and soak up the history. If you listen very closely, you might even hear echoes of long ago Spanish soldiers far from home as they marched and drilled in the tropical heat.
Once you’re ready for yet another new experience, take in some highlights of Havana’s Vedado area. Venturing a bit west from the harbor along the Malecon (coast road) you will see looming up on a low bluff the small but distinctive twin towers of the famed Hotel Nacional. This iconic hotel was the premier resort and casino of the high-rolling, pre-revolutionary period. Lined up outside are still more of those well-maintained antique American cars plying their taxi trade. Try to block an evening during your visit to take in the musical revue at the Nacional. It’s colorful, lively and the quintessential Cuban experience that will have you tapping your foot and perhaps even swiveling your hips.
Movie buffs may recall the scene in Godfather II in which Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) mentions the Hotel Nacional as one of the items to be divided up among the crime families.
Right along the Malecon and below the Nacional there is an imposing monument to the 260 American sailors who lost their lives when the battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor on the night of February 15, 1898, an event which has never been definitively explained.
But we still “Remember the Maine!”
Next, hop into a taxi, almost certainly owned by the government, and head to the Colon Cemetery (Necropolis Cristóbal Colón) with its tightly packed collection of fantastic sculptures. Walk up and down some of the aisles and admire the creativity of those seeking immortality in marble.
As you explore some streets beyond the edges of the carefully restored places, it quickly becomes apparent that six decades of neglect have taken their toll on the once grand homes of Cuba. The formerly-lovely homes of a vibrant and prosperous middle class have descended into a sad state of static decay and disintegration.
Valle de Vinales
For a wonderful break from urban Havana, take a full day tour out to the rural Vinales Valley near the northwest corner of the nation. This lovely area exemplifies the often overlooked natural beauty of the island. Towering red rock cliffs above deep valleys alternate with lush green meadows to create a dramatic arrangement of forms and colors. While we photographers are not accustomed to traveling with tour groups (I know; it’s like herding cats.), this jam-packed day will take you to many great spots that are otherwise hard to reach. Among these are the Caves of the Indians (Cueva Del Indio), complete with a neat boat ride through subterranean caverns. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to be a regular tourist for an hour or two.
While travel to Cuba is not difficult these days, it offers a very different experience when contrasted with going to places such as Yosemite and does take some planning. Regular flights between South Florida airports and Havana are offered by multiple airlines and are generally quite inexpensive.
US currency may not be accepted in Cuba and you will not be able to use your debit card, so bring plenty of cash in the form of either Euros or Canadian dollars. These are easily exchangeable for Cuban pesos right in the airport just as soon as you arrive. Make sure to change money at an official counter. Don’t buy pesos on the street or from individuals. Cuba has two kinds of pesos, one of which is largely worthless. Don’t get stuck with those!
It’s easy to get a taxi from the airport to your Havana hotel. My favorite is the Sevilla. Both its location near the Museum of the Revolution and its historic ambiance cannot be beat. Other choices include three star hotels that will prove more than adequate. Try to find one as close to the Malecon coast road as possible. Most of the hotels have websites where you can see the location, amenities and rates of each property.
As you walk through Havana, enjoying the buildings, the cars, horse drawn carriages and music, be aware of the need to keep your valuables safe. Havana has a corps of unarmed tourist police clad in gray. They do a good job of safeguarding the tourist trade, but cannot be everywhere. We Americans stand out like sore thumbs wherever we go. Hold onto your cameras and discreetly keep your cash in a money belt.
Don’t even consider renting a car. Stick to taking taxis and good old foot power.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.