There is no place like Cuba. A completely independent country full of lush farmland and pristine raw coastline hosted by some of the most welcoming and proud people in the world. My camera and I hit the Cuban roads and explored the entire southern coast of the country driving over 1,000 kilometers from the easternmost city of Santiago de Cuba to the westernmost city of Havana. What is the most important thing you need to know about traveling to Cuba? Plan for everything and expect that nothing will go as planned.
Here's my TAKE on this one of a kind and truly authentic destination...
HOW TO PLAN FOR THE UNKNOWN
There's really no way to plan a flawless trip to Cuba, maybe if you join a fully guided hand-holding tour company that has every minute of every day scheduled. But, even then you will encounter "bumps" along the way. There are plenty of tour guides that provide this service but that's not what I'm going to write about. My recent journey through Cuba was uncharted, off the grid, total freedom to roam, with a little help here and there from some friends. We had maps, yes, real laminated maps and a young Cuban driver named Nelson Garcia to help us get to some of the most remote places and across abraded roads that any of us have ever experienced. The best advice I can give for traveling to Cuba, on your own, is to bring plenty of cash. Cash is your best friend, in this country that cannot provide you with any ATM machines that accept your debit cards, American banks, credit card authorizations, or wire transfers. Estimate what you will need and multiply that amount two or three times and you should be good to go.
We started our trip flying direct from Miami, FL to Cuba's easternmost city of Santiago de Cuba where we were to meet up with renowned journalist Josh Eells who had already been cruising the northern coast for two weeks on a Triumph motorcycle. We had an adventure to say the least full of beauty, drama, danger, genuine encounters with the Cuban people, and filled with an absurd amount of driving. We became a "band" over the course of a week. We looked like gypsies by the end all dusty and weathered having our Cuban road trip experience in common, one that no one else would truly be able to understand.
For more scroll down to read the FULL STORY....
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
PARQUE NACIONAL DE BACONAO
PLAYA DE SIBONEY
ALONG ROUTE 20
BETWEEN SANTIAGO DE CUBA AND THE TOWN OF PILON
MANZANILLO BEACH TOWN
TRINIDAD DE CUBA
PARQUE NATURAL TOPES DE COLLANTES
THE FULL STORY...
I was recently hired by Men's Journal magazine to join up with one of their contributors, Josh Eells, who had already been cruising around Cuba on a Triumph motorcycle for two weeks. The magazine asked if I would document his journey along the southern coast of Cuba from the easternmost city of Santiago de Cuba to the westernmost city of Havana. I have to admit this wasn't my first visit to Cuba. I traveled there illegally twelve years ago and now couldn't be more elated to have the opportunity to bring my camera to a place that has everyone talking. People have been traveling to Cuba for years, just not so many people like me from New York City. I never thought I would have the opportunity to go back to Cuba. My first trip there was my one "chance in a lifetime" visit. However, it seems that isn't the case anymore thanks to the lifting of the embargo the US had against the country. But for those of you eager to witness Cuba before it all changes rest assure it's not going to change overnight. With very little infrastructure and Fidel Castro's strict land preservation laws developers will have their work cut out to execute their visions of potential paradise.
Cuba Travel Services in Miami arranged our air travel to Cuba. It all seemed very suspicious at the airport when we checked in. The airline desk agents already had our documents and paper work filled out and we simply nodded and paid the extra baggage fees. It felt as though we were American spies traveling with a an obvious load of camera gear to a forbidden destination. But nothing went south and we were never questioned as to why we were traveling to Cuba as long as we had the proper documents and US passports. My colleague, Colin, was traveling with me and we were thrilled when Cuba came into sight through the plane windows. Just as Dr. Alan Grant in the 1993 film Jurassic Park was when he first set eyes on the island of Isla Nublar. Cuba is a photographer's Isla Nublar. A land so raw and untouched filled with warm open armed people asking for an undeniable portrait.
I skipped off the plane swiftly clearing customs and immigration to meet our local driver and guide, Nelson Garcia. Nelson is a very handsome twenty-something well regarded guide in Santiago de Cuba. He took a week off from his normal job to help guide us during our travels for some "extra" cash. Regardless of your profession cash jobs are something Cuban's will always make as a priority. The wage of any job in Cuba ranges from $20.00 to $40.00 a month. A lawyer makes the high end of those wages and a street cleaner makes the low end. Nelson would be making more in one week showing us his country than he would make in his normal tour guide job in over two years.
Energetic to meet Nelson and relieved that he spoke fluent English Colin and I automatically headed to the airport curbside assuming he had his car parked nearby. He said, "We must get a taxi and I will take you to your hotel. You can check in, then we can go to the car rental place where I know the woman there and she has set aside a vehicle for us, as a favor. I was not able to reserve a car because it is very difficult to reserve a car here in Cuba." Okay, so, that's that. Not only did I learn that we needed to rent a car but that I would need to pay cash for the rental. Then, through conversation, I learned that I would also need to pay Nelson's fee, with the cash that I brought, at the very end of our trip. I thought it was all worked out through various correspondence the week prior, that we would have a driver with a car ready to go and the magazine would be able to take care of the costs. No, that's not the case. Okay, it'll be fine, I told myself. I brought cash. Then we checked into our hotel only to find out that the costs of our two rooms for two nights also needed to be paid in cash. Surprise! I'm starting to see a pattern here. Perhaps I've been spoiled over the years when on assignment, okay, very spoiled. But, I brought cash so everything should be fine, however, it was dwindling quickly.
Once at the car rental place, conveniently located across the street from our hotel, it seemed as though Nelson's female connection had simply taken another customer's reserved car and quietly saved it for us. Someone else would be out of luck. I guess Nelson's good looks and connections as a guide works well for him, and now for us. After dropping a few thousand dollars for the car rental, hotel, and Nelson's future fee I started to fear the worst, that I would not have enough money to take us to the end of the week. A few hours into our trip and I was already running low on cash. The last email correspondence I had with Josh just before I left the comforts of the internet he wrote, "Bring lots of cash!". I clearly didn't read his advice close enough.
After hours of working out the car rental I went back to the hotel to finally meet Josh and his motorcycle. He stepped heavily into the lobby dusty and weathered with mud splatted boots and jeans with a healthy growth of facial hair. Sweat was streaking down from his bushy sideburns continuing to his neck. His defaced helmet to his side and black motorcycle jacket open he held out his calloused hand and I could tell he was relieved to meet a "familiar" face. "Nice to meet you," I said. "Nice to meet you too, man," Josh replied. I really didn't know where to begin our conversation, as if he was a war veteran full of life altering experiences. A gladiator of the road. The Mad Max of Cuba. The shit that he's probably seen so far. It'll have to wait and most certainly over a stiff drink. No, some Cuban rum.
After the introductions we rolled out of the hotel to begin exploring the city of Santiago de Cuba. The city has a mix of colonial, somewhat modern, and, the widely seen in postcards, pre-revolution1920's crumbling Art Deco architecture. Situated along the coast the city sits on mountainsides with streets trickling down to the sea. Everywhere you look the streets are full of life and energy. Thousands of old classic cars put back together a hundred times over all billowing out dark clouds of exhaust, almost all of them for hire. The diverse colors all saturated and rich giving Cuba its full flavor. The urban decay is abundant and it all comes together like a post-impressionist painting.
That night we dined at a "restaurant particulares", a privately owned restaurant. Every Cuban is entitled to one home and one home only. For extra money Cuban's will open their homes as restaurants and to find one you just have to "know where to go". Today, more of these establishments are earning a license from the government and it's easier to find them. However, there are still plenty off the grid that serve traditional home-style cooked Cuban food. The speakeasy environment makes it all seem that much more delicious. The idea of eating "behind the scenes" would stick with us throughout the rest of our trip and was also cost effective, considering I was low on cash. A full meal with appetizer, entree, and cocktails was typically no more than $20.00 per person.
After our first day and night I began to realize that Cuba is everything Cuban and nothing else. You can't find anything that is American, Italian, French, or Asian. It's difficult to find any products that are non-Cuban. No Coca-Cola, no McDonald's, no Starbucks. You can't find anything remotely familiar. There's a beauty to all this, knowing what you're going to get and there is a sadness too, knowing that's all you're going to get. As a visitor to Cuba that's what we desire while we are there, but as a Cuban that's perhaps all they know.
The next day we ventured out to the Parque National de Baconao, Playa de Siboney, and then back to Santiago de Cuba. Once we left the city we were surrounded by lush thick forests full of palm and pine trees connected by valleys of farm land bordered with miles and miles of untouched beach. I saw deserted pebble beaches as far as the eye could see. I saw farmers on horseback pulling carts full with sugar cane. I saw acres and acres of farmland growing, what I would imagine, some of the most organic produce in the world.
Elated to be leaving the bustling city of Santiago de Cuba we knew that our first segment of our road trip was supposed to be the most visually dramatic. Route 20, along a steep mountainous coast line with winding rough dirt roads all the way to the small town of Pilon. We slowly made our way in the car rental and Josh following on his Triumph stopping at almost every turn for a photo. Before we knew it the sun was beginning its daily descent in the sky and we hadn't even reached halfway to Pilon. The next few hours in the car tested our patience. Nelson didn't sleep the night before because he and his wife got into a bitter fight. She discovered that he had another girl staying in his apartment, apparently a live-in girlfriend. Nelson's wife lived in her parent's home and Nelson kept his own place. He received a call the day before from her screaming, "Who the HELL is this "girl" living in the apartment?". The look on his face was that of fear and humiliation, afterwards hanging up and trying to convince me, or perhaps himself, "It's fine, c'mon. It's fine, she'll be alright once I see her tonight and explain." I had my doubts and knew it was far from okay seeing that Nelson began to fall asleep at the wheel. We were on our eighth hour of driving when the car just kept going straight at a sharp turn. I yelled "Nelson! Nelson! Holy Shit!". Nelson jumped out of sleep overturning the wheel and the car began to fishtail back and forth over and over until finally he slammed on the brakes. Colin, in the back seat and already losing his mind, lost his temper with Nelson and began questioning the whole trip. "I'm okay! I'm okay! I didn't fall asleep! I didn't fall asleep!" Nelson said. Josh pulled up beside us on his motorcycle and spoke through his helmet, "What the fuck was that?". I shook my head in disbelief and forced Nelson to take the passenger seat.
Josh decided he needed to break from our caravan in order to make it to Pilon before sundown. He made a promise to his wife that he wouldn't ride at night and by no means was he going to start now. Nobody had any business being on these roads at night let alone on a motorcycle. He sped off fast and furious to get to Pilon before dark. Hopefully we would be able to find him somewhere in town. As I saw him ride off I asked myself if we'd ever see him again. Without cell phones or any means of communication it was completely out of our control. Just get to Pilon and we'll figure it out. I drove cautiously for the next four hours. When we arrived into Pilon we found Josh chilling with a cold beer at a roadside snack-shack writing in one of his composition books. Nelson was already looking into meeting up with another girl that night he knew in town.
After some investigating and inquiring from house to house we managed to find a "casa particulares" for only $20.00 a night. A casa particulares is the same concept as a restaurant particulares except the owner of the house dedicates a few of the bedrooms for rent. The owner's wife graciously cooked up a delicious meal of garlic chicken, rice and beans, with canned string beans. The family had never hosted Americans and were pleased to make us feel as comfortable as possible. Colin and I shared a room that night. We read our books for a few minutes under the florescent bulb before it was lights out. Breakfast in the house the next morning cost $5.00 per person. And that was that.
On the road again now traveling towards the beach town of Manzanillo I struggled to keep quiet. I wanted to stop every mile to take pictures but we had serious ground to cover if we were actually going to make it all the way to Trinidad de Cuba. Many of the pictures were from the car window and at one point I noticed two large sail boats in what seemed to be a harbor. I mentioned to Nelson, "Hey look, sailboats. I wonder what it's like to sail around Cuba. Have you ever sailed around here?" Nelson gave me a blank stare but I nodded showing him that I was asking seriously. "C'mon," he said. "Sail? What do you think would happen if any Cuban just "sailed" around? Those boats probably belong to some European or maybe a government official. C'mon. If any Cuban had access to a sailboat he would simply sail far away. It's forbidden to have a boat in this country. You must have a license to fish or work for the government." I quickly realized that my question was completely ignorant and to Nelson probably insane. "I have never been off this island. All I know is Cuba. The water that surrounds us is a wall, like a moat. It's what keeps us here. The water represents our potential freedom as well as our lack of freedom." Nelson's eyes began tearing up. His lower lip struggling to keep still. "It's my God given right to be able to travel. All I want to do is see the world. I don't want to leave Cuba forever. I love Cuba. It's my home and what I know. But to see the world that is out there is like a dream. It's like outer space. We know it's achievable but will I ever get to go into "outer space"? Most of us probably won't. Most of us never will." I became restless at this thought. Trying to imagine what that must feel like tortured me the next six hours in the car. I wasn't able to comprehend the oppression Nelson has endured his whole life from his country's dictator and government. I've lived my whole life for granted, able to travel almost anywhere and anytime I please. It felt unfair that I was traveling through Cuba with Nelson. His job to drive me all around his home and then I can simply get on a plane and fly away.
Trinidad de Cuba is a very clean colonial city because the Cuban government has dedicated a lot of money to restore the buildings and streets back to its original state. I walked around the pristine streets for hours taking pictures and speaking with almost everyone I came across. "New York!" everyone would say with an open hand. "You're from New York? Go Yankees! What do you think of Cuba? I've never met anyone from the U.S. of A. I love the U.S. of A. I love New York. I have family that live there. Want a Cuban cigar? Want to try my rum?" Over and over again this was my conversation with many people throughout our travels. Cuban's love Americans no doubt and are happy to greet us with warm and generous conversation. I always asked if I could take their portrait and not once was I ever denied. I think that says a lot about the people.
That night we ate very well. The restaurants in Trinidad de Cuba are a bit more sophisticated, perhaps because there is a higher tourist draw to this city. Parts of it reminded me of Mexico, specifically San Miguel de Allende. The cobble stone streets and colonial architecture. Tourists by the bus loads getting let off right in front of restaurants and then herded straight back to their hotels. Guided walking tours grouped with Japanese tourists quietly dressed in long summer dresses and sun hats with selfie sticks in hand. It's a beautiful city full of light and pastel colors. Nelson needed a break from the band that night and was on the hunt for a girl he had met there during a previous visit. He had a cell phone.
The next morning Colin, Nelson, and I said goodbye to one of our band mates. Josh was going to continue his adventure riding inland to spectate the largest Harley Davidson rally in Cuba somewhere north and we were headed to the hot nights of Havana. It was sad to see him ride off, one of our hombres. Fortunately Josh handed me a wad of cash as a going away present, well, a loan. I would reimburse the money to him in New York City once we all got back. Colin wanted to try his hand at driving and to give Nelson a well deserved break from the hours and hours of duty. Colin is a very good driver and one of those guys that just knows how to drive anywhere at anytime. About ten minutes at the wheel Colin became confident, as anyone would, since driving is more or less a universal task. I was in the passenger seat and Nelson asleep in the back when Colin continued full speed over a large hump in the road only to discover it was a train track, catching a good second of air time and then bottoming the car out. The car was already in a weak state from the hundreds of kilometers of dirt roads. The shocks were already shot and beginning to make sounds. Nelson was worried days before that he wouldn't get the deposit back when returning the vehicle to his "friend" in Santiago de Cuba. That deposit was to pay for a day and a half of work since I was low on cash we worked that into the "deal". He would just pocket the deposit against his fee.
Apparently in Cuba train crossings and gates that come down to tell a driver a train is coming does not exist. So, not only did Colin blow out the already failing shocks but Nelson thought this act completely jeopardized our lives. "C'mon, Colin! C'mon! That was crazy! We could have died man! We could have died! You cannot drive. Pull over! Pull over!". Colin was bewildered. He hadn't even seen the tracks coming. I saw them but knew we were going to be okay. Plus, it seemed like it could be fun to catch a little air." You have to stop before you go over train tracks and look both ways. A train could have been coming. We could have been killed man! C'mon!" Nelson was furious plus I think he had been waiting for this moment to get back at Colin's reaction to his own mistake he made falling asleep at the wheel days ago. Colin gave up and pulled over to let Nelson back in the driver's seat. In the many hours of driving we accomplished Colin drove for only ten minutes, but in those ten minutes he almost killed the car and the band.
The drive to Havana seemed to take forever but in that time I learned that Nelson also had a German girlfriend. A woman that he had been texting for over a year. This German girl was visiting Cuba and it was his job to take her around and show her the sites. They fell in lust and began a long distance relationship solely based on texts and pictures. I also learned that the highways in Cuba are full of check points and if Nelson hadn't been with us we would have certainly been carted away. The only time I felt unsafe during our travels through Cuba was driving past police check points. I would look over at Nelson and see his body tense up and then slow the car down so naturally I feared the worst. We were stopped a handful of times and Nelson provided his papers to the authorities and a few times was even asked to step out of our car. He would always walk back smiling, "I know them!" So, I guess there are kings everywhere you go in the world. Apparently in Cuba the police play the power card whenever they please.
When we rolled into Havana Colin and I became energized, probably due to the fact that we wouldn't be in the damn car for the remainder of the trip. We would have to say goodbye to Nelson the next day, but I think it was time for all of us. Colin had researched a place for us to stay through Airbnb so we already had an apartment and believe it or not was already paid, all before we left New York City. The apartment was perfectly simple, clean, and conveniently located near the Malecón in Old Havana.
Havana is mind blowing. The Cuban revolution is evident everywhere you look. The entire city has a decrepit beauty like no other place. Take away the years of negligence and abandonment and you can imagine just how opulent Havana must have been during the first half of the 20th century. Like Santiago de Cuba Havana is a bustling city catered to tourism. The Malecón is a boulevard that stretches the entire waterfront creating a meeting place for the entire city to look out over the water to what is possible. The best way to see Havana is on foot and of course a ride in one of the thousands of classic convertibles to choose from. Nighttime in Havana is dreamy and beautifully lit kissed by the cooler evening winds. I can see why people used to come here before the revolution. It must have been an expats true paradise. There's no place like Cuba. But then again, there's no place like home.
We boarded our flight the next day direct from Havana to New York City. Four hours later Colin and I were sitting comfortably in a reserved car service from JFK to my air conditioned studio space. Colin and I laughed at each other as we parted ways knowing this trip would certainly make it into our history books and then I strolled into the Duane Reade to withdraw money from the ATM machine. I must have looked like a drifter when I got home to my family. I hugged them as if I was a soldier coming home from the war, the way Josh Eells looked when I first met him a week before in Santiago de Cuba. I hadn't talked to my wife and kids for a solid week or anyone else stateside for that matter. I had no outside communication whatsoever. I started to tell them all the stories of our adventures and they were excited to hear them. I told myself, while showering, that I wanted to disconnect from the outside world while I was at home. In Cuba I was present every moment of every day, looking out at what was in front of me and not down at a mobile device. It was liberating and I found it to be ironic to have achieved that in Cuba. The days were longer there and I felt free from the weight of the world. I want to be able to instill that at home too. It lasted a few days, this new rule of disconnecting, while we were all together at home. Not before long I was back to my old ways fully connected and entrenched in the concrete jungle.
Later that week I met up with Josh at the Strand Bookstore to give back the money he loaned me. He was on his way to meet and interview Ethan Hawke for a story he was writing for Rolling Stone magazine. As he walked through the Strand he kept knocking books over with his big winter jacket. I couldn't believe this guy actually survived three weeks riding a Triumph motorcycle around Cuba let alone walking the isles of the Strand. We acknowledged the time we spent together over those six days and shared a few more stories that happened after we said goodbye in Trinidad de Cuba. I don't know if we will ever hang out together again but we have these stories in common. Fortunately I have my images as evidence of our time spent.
A week later Colin received an email from Nelson saying that he wasn't able to get the car rental deposit back because he was late in returning it. I wasn't sure how he would ever get paid unless I physically went back to Cuba and handed him the cash in person. However, he did have good news to report, that he would be getting married to the German girl next summer.
BEST FILM TO WATCH BEFORE GOING TO CUBA
(a documentary film about the lives of the Cuban people set during the pre-revolutionary era)
BRING LOTS OF CANDY AND NO. 2 PENCILS
(these are great hand outs to kids and adults - the simple things are hard to find in Cuba and a great way to say thank you)
BRING PLENTY OF CASH
(you won't be able to withdraw any money if your bank is from the USA)
AIRBNB OPERATES IN CUBA
(there are a lot of good places to choose from - find the right location and book in advance)
(you won't need much. Think island style clothing)
DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK
(try speaking in Spanish, but most people speak English and are willing to help)
DON'T DRINK THE WATER
(bottled water is very hard to find in any store - your best bet will be from a hotel or restaurant)
(most hotels have internet in their lobby - some public parks and cafes - but you'll have to pay the establishment)
US DOLLARS VS. CUBAN PESOS
(most establishments are fine accepting US dollars and will provide the exchange rate on the receipt)
(rely solely on taxis - the bus is a whole different experience that I wouldn't recommend)
IF YOU'RE USED TO TRAVELING A CERTAIN WAY
(stick to the cities and popular beach destinations and you'll find good hotels - if you go out from the city you may curse yourself)
Words and photographs by Noe DeWitt