Havana, Cuba

I went to Cuba in November, a 9-day photography group tour. Our itinerary took us to Havana, Viñales and Trinidad. I flew from Perth to Sydney, Sydney to Miami (entering the US via San Francisco), spent four days in Miami, then joined the group at Miami International Airport to catch our American Airlines flight to Havana, Cuba.

I had been on a number of photography tours before, but this one proved somewhat challenging; the group dynamic never really got comfortable, thanks to the constant clash of incompatible personalities. I suppose that’s the risk you take when you don’t choose your travel companions. I didn’t let that spoil my trip though; I enjoyed the photography and food, and our local Cuban guides were excellent. I had paid the single supplement to ensure I had my own room and relished my time alone at the end of each day.

Our first meal in Cuba was at Restaurante Divino – beautifully grilled snapper, fried sweet plantains, mashed green plantains garnished with a plantain crisp, and rice and beans, a side dish at just about every lunch and dinner.

Bread/crackers The bread throughout the trip varied from these dry, rusk-like crackers to (sometimes stale) sliced bread, to soft dinner rolls we were served at the fancier restaurants.

In Havana, we stayed at the four-star 25-floor Hotel Tryp Habana Libre, in a neighbourhood called Vedado. The most memorable aspect of my stay at the Habana Libre was the shonky lifts/elevators. Although there were six lifts, it seemed only one would ever be functioning at any time. This proved problematic every morning when guests needed to use the lift to go for breakfast at the restaurant on the second floor. By the time the single working lift reached me on the 16th floor, it would be full, and I’d have to wait for another (well, that very same lift making its way back through all the floors where more people were waiting to get down to the restaurant). No joke, one morning it took me half an hour to get down to breakfast – that’s because I waited much too long for the lift to have sufficient space for me to squeeze on, and then gave up and took the stairs so I wouldn’t miss having breakfast before our group’s first scheduled activity.

Hilariously, the numbering of floors was not consistent across all the lifts, so on my first morning, I pressed the button in the lift for ‘2’ – only to realise too late that ‘2’ in that particular lift did not represent the second floor (I took the stairs the rest of the way). On another occasion, even though I’d pressed the button marked 16, the lift stopped at the 15th floor – which I again realised too late (yep, I took the stairs).

Checking out was another ordeal. Lugging my suitcase down the stairs from the 16th floor was not an option – so just imagine multiple hotel guests, all with luggage, competing for the space in one lift that stops at every floor going down from level 25. And of course, we’d all had the same idea to check out well ahead of time… disaster!

I must also mention that at certain times of the day, not usually at breakfast traffic time, there would be a lovely lady sitting on a chair in the lift – an old-fashioned lift operator who would greet you, ask “What floor, please?” and press the button for you.

My room at the Hotel Tryp Habana Libre was clean and spacious, with mini fridge and television (mostly Spanish channels – I didn’t bother watching TV). The bed was hard but I didn’t have any trouble getting to sleep. The air-conditioning kept me nice and cool. There’s no internet in the rooms; you pay 5CUC (approximately US$5) for one hour of wifi in the lobby, valid for three days. At best, it was slow; at least half the time, it refused to connect all together. That was typical of my experience of the internet in Cuba.

The glass door to my balcony opened only with a ridiculous amount of physical exertion (clearly, it was not a ‘sliding’ door). Others in my tour group had the same problem. I huffed and puffed to get that door open just wide enough for me to get out on the balcony – so I could photograph this view of Havana at sunrise.

xThe breakfast buffet offered the full range you’d expect – fruit, cold meats and cheeses, hot dishes, cereals, breads, cakes and pastries, an omelette station, fresh juices, coffee and tea. Overall the food itself was nothing to get excited about.

dscf9838That’s the hotel pool you can just glimpse through the windows.

Juice station

Egg stationThe omelettes cooked to order were pretty good, better than the scrambled eggs from the bain marie.

dscf0534The front of Hotel Tryp Habana Libre features a mural by Cuban artist Amelia Peláez.

We were in Havana for three nights. In Old Havana, the decaying, crumbling buildings were striking subjects to photograph. I enjoyed the time we spent walking around and would’ve happily done this for a few more days. I felt like there was so much more I could’ve photographed. Below are my favourite shots from Havana.

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dscf9976There are regular yellow and black taxis around, but it’s more fun to ride in a vintage American car taxi.

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dscf0867I always find cats wherever I go, and have to photograph them, of course.

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dscf0033Can you tell I enjoyed photographing those classic American cars?

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dscf0724The books for sale here were mostly history, politics and biographies of Che Guevara.

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dscf9868-2And out of all the pictures I took in Havana, I like this one the best.

Since returning home, friends and family have asked if I was in Cuba when Fidel Castro died. I missed it by a day – I found out about Castro’s death when I switched on the TV in my room at the Hilton Miami Airport Hotel where I spent one last night before starting my journey back to Australia.

My Cuba series

I went to Cuba in November 2016, on a photography group tour.

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  • Peter Koufos

    Amazing. I have been fascinated by Cuba since i was a kid and I’m excited by the possibility of travel there, just not so sure about a long-term stay. Kinda need half-way decent WiFi for work and all that. Still, an awesome and inspiring post!

    • Thanks, Peter. I’m working on more blog posts from this trip. In Viñales and Trinidad, the wifi was only available in a certain location e.g. the town square. Again, it was 5CUC for an hour’s access. It was quite easy to work out where the wifi hot spot was, as you’d see Cubans and tourists assembled in that area, looking at phones and tablets. At peak times, the connection (and connecting itself) could be very slow. In Trinidad I got in the routine of walking to the town square early i.e. before breakfast so I’d have the wifi all to myself. The only thing about this strategy was I had to share the space with the local stray dogs, which all flocked around me. A little unnerving (I’m good with dogs, but wary of stray ones) to say the least.

      • Peter Koufos

        Wow! Thanks for sharing your WiFi experiences and your mornings with the pups. Wireless connections rely on a line-of-sight connection to the access point and there’s nothing like a crowd to dampen the signal. I always have to keep that in mind. I’ve been spending time on nomadlist.com and since I’ll be traveling domestically in the US for another year, it’s a good resource to help plan my next steps. I see why a lot of nomads like SEA over other locations, but we’ll see!

  • Awesome photos. Still hoping to get there before it changes too much…

    • I definitely think it would be prudent to go sooner rather than later. As it was, and I will comment on this more in a future post, there were loads of tourists, many more than I had expected… too many for my liking! It was hard work taking pictures without tourists popping in and spoiling the shots. In the other towns we went to, there were some tourists who had not booked accommodation ahead of time and were wandering the streets with their luggage looking for somewhere to stay. Apparently everywhere was full.