A photographer’s dream, Cuba has long captivated artists, writers and travelers with its vintage cars, cobbled streets and colorful facades. But Cuba isn’t just a pretty face. Social structures, political battles, and Castro’s rule make it fascinating for a thousand other reasons. Photographer Nicola Bailey takes her camera to the streets and beyond.
Like many photographers, I had always wanted to visit Cuba. From what I understood, the drawcards were bountiful, from vibrantly painted houses, crumbling facades and old cars to the people—dancing to music in the streets, riding horses over cobbled paths, mingling together outside in the streets. Whether you’re into architecture, portraits, street photography, landscapes or the details of life, Cuba, I was told, was a photographer’s dream.
With that all said, I was also acutely aware that life isn’t a bed of roses for the people living there and that for every crumbling building we get excited about, a family is living inside in less than ideal circumstances, often with few economic opportunities, and sometimes hungry.
Despite not being American myself, given I was visiting from my home in the United States, I also wondered what, if any, impact the past 50 odd years of strained diplomatic relations would have on people’s attitudes toward me. As such, it was with trepidation mixed in with excitement that I visited in 2016, just a matter of months before Fidel Castro’s death.
Arriving in Havana, I dumped my bags at my accommodation and headed out to explore the city. Despite the humidity leaving me damp and uncomfortable in seconds, I was immediately captivated by the city and didn’t return to the hostel until nightfall. Just as I’d predicted, I was swept up by the combination of grandeur and dilapidation, and by the old ‘50s cars cruising down the streets.
I remember the way the film Buena Vista Social Club brought Cuban music to Western audiences in the ’90s and became the soundtrack to the mojito-fueled summer parties of my youth. To the locals though, the Buena Vista Social Club was just one of many music clubs that make up their history. Indeed, Cuban music, with its West African and European (particularly Spanish) influences, is key to the culture and can be seen performed on countless street corners and bars, not to mention heard from the windows of cars and homes.
One thing which really stood out during my trip was the lack of devices. I’d become so accustomed to seeing people disengaged with the world as they peer into their luminous phone screens, that it was surprisingly pleasant to see people walking the streets with their faces raised, engaged in conversation or playing games like the ones pictured above.
There were Wi-Fi hotspots in some of the towns I visited; you’d know immediately when you were passing through one (the top image shows one in Havana) because locals and tourists alike would be congregating silently as they swiped away at their phones. What was also clear was while it seemed refreshing to me to be device-free, there’s a clear desire for Cubans to be digitally connected to the world.
I found the stores, or lack thereof, fascinating. Accustomed to having everything you want and don’t want offered to you, it felt really strange to have what felt like nothing in comparison. Locals have their stores, like the one pictured, which allows them to use their coupons, or to buy food at market price (if the coupons don’t last the month). Mostly though these are staple item, things like rice, beans, cigarettes and detergent. Meanwhile ‘luxury’ items including beauty products, sunblock, contraceptives and toothpaste are much more expensive and often harder to come by. Outside of the touristed areas it was a challenge even to find a bottle of water to drink.
During my first day in Cuba, I was strolling around and felt that there was something about the city that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It wasn’t until I was lying in bed that night that I realized it was the lack of marketing and advertising.
In every other country where I’ve lived or traveled—be it a developed or lesser developed nation—there is no escaping the adverts in the streets, on billboards, on public transport, on small posters pinned to walls.
Yet here there was nothing. No Coke, soap or Victoria’s Secret signs.
There were revolutionary images and slogans, like those above; however, advertising as we know it was absent and I can’t say I missed it. I’ve no idea how the Cuban people feel about this, but my head certainly felt clearer.
One of my favorite times of day to walk around when I’m traveling is an hour or so before the sun sets, right before the streets start to get dark. For photographers, this ‘golden hour’ provides the best light for taking pictures—the sun is softer than at any other time of day.
In Cuba, this time of day coincided with when the bulk of the people would come out of their homes, where they had been escaping the heat of the day, and into the streets. The streets then would be abuzz with all sorts of interactions and activities—neighbors catching up, children running round, games being played on the sidewalk, even dancing in the streets is a common sight here.
After one such afternoon of people watching, the photo above was taken as I walked back to my casa particular (a local homestay). The night had already set in, but I was captivated by the lone figure walking under the dim street lights.
Cuban tobacco is one of the country’s main export industries. I stopped at a farm near Viñales to see a demonstration of the country’s tobacco-growing process, a lesson in how to roll a cigar and, of course, how to smoke one. The tobacco worker I met explained that despite Cuban tobacco being world-renowned for its quality, the local people rarely enjoy the best of it. It’s a similar story with Cuban coffee, with the best coffee beans exported overseas.
Outside of the big cities, horses are often used to transport goods around. I had the opportunity to ride a horse here on a couple of occasions—a perfect way to ‘slow travel’ around the the surrounding countryside, and reach those places inaccessible to vehicles. On one occasion I was taken by my guide to the Valle de los Ingenios, a verdant valley outside of Trinidad where we passed through villages and green pastures to arrive eventually at a stunning waterfall, surreally accompanied by a makeshift mojito bar.
It was relatively easy and fairly affordable to jump in a taxi colectivo—essentially an old ’50s car—to travel between places, and head out of town. While many people on a short trip hit up the cities for the architecture, there’s no shortage of natural beauty in Cuba, from beaches to lagoons, verdant valleys, grottos and pristine waterfalls.
I was able to get a taxi on one occasion to take me to El Parque Cubano, a natural park outside of Trinidad. Here I discovered one of the most magical swimming spots of my life. After plunging into the clean green waters, I swam over to a full flowing waterfall, only to discover that behind it was a deep cave full of stalactites that you could admire while floating on your back.
Viñales also has a number of great attractions outside of the small town, including the ‘Mural de la prehistoria’, a colorful mural by Leovigildo González Morillo which depicts the evolution of life on the wall of a rock face, and Cueva del Indio, a series of caves that can be visited in a small boat.
Trinidad was possibly my favorite place in Cuba. There was so much natural beauty just outside of town, including valleys, hills and waterfalls. Yet simply strolling the cobbled streets of the town, admiring the colorful houses could provide me with hours of entertainment. As the sun set each night, locals and foreigners alike would gather to drink rum and listen to live salsa music on the steps leading up to Casa de la Música. For those who liked to carry on into the night, there were a couple of salsa clubs in town, though the most well known was Disco Ayala, located deep in a cave on a hill leading out of town.
When traveling anywhere, the beauty of a place can be a major selling point; but it’s often the people you meet who make your visit unforgettable. While I don’t think it’s essential to have a mastery of Spanish in order to travel in Cuba, knowing a handful of key words and phrases would make your trip both easier and more enriching.
I’m lucky that I have a good grasp of the language and once I was able to get a hang of the Cuban accent, I had some great conversations with some real characters, including one delightful man who showed me how his chicken loved to sit on his head.
As for my fears about how my US residency might be perceived, well it turned out to be unnecessary. The Cuban people recognized that political decisions are rarely anything to do with the ordinary citizen, and by and large, they welcomed Americans. In fact, I rode in more than one car that was proudly displaying the American flag.
My last night in Cuba was spent here at El Floridita, dubbed ‘the cradle of the daiquiri’ and one of Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts. Admittedly, the cocktails’ New York prices were catering to a tourist market, but some things need to be experienced, right?
As I sat at the bar, I reflected on my trip. Sure, I’d been rewarded photographically; that was a resounding yes. But I’d also experienced a journey into an entirely different economic and societal model to our own. In Cuba, I discovered it feels criminal to view things with the one white, capitalistic lens, because there is always so much more to it. With that in mind, here’s hoping that the Trump administration doesn’t make it impossible for Americans to visit this remarkable country.
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