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Travelling in Cuba

Cuba Travel Tips: Photo of Travelling in CubaThis is a temporary article describing travel to Cuba excerpted from a post I made on Photo.net:

Did you have to stay in the official hotels, or was it easy to get into a family run Casa?
When you enter the airport in Havana, you will have to list a state run hotel as the place you are staying at for the first couple(?) of nights (they want you to give money to Castro). Sometimes they will escort you to make sure you are actually staying in these places. Most of the time they won't bother though.

You will have no trouble getting a casa particular. As soon as you step foot in Havana, jineteros (hustlers) will try to hook you up with a casa or a paladar (private restaurant). Their fees are tacked onto your rent or dinner so politely tell them you don't need any help if you want to save yourself a few dollars. In dealing with jineteros, one of their first questions will be "how long have you been in Cuba?" At which point, you should tell them over 2 weeks or else you will be seen as a fresh target for a hustle. Don't be worried too much about the jineteros though, the Cubans are so charming, even their hustlers are likeable although they may get to you at times.

Did you get by without speaking much spanish?
I speak conversational Spanish learned from my Mexican friends but this is very different from the way Cubans speak Spanish so it was somewhat difficult the first couple weeks. Cubans speak very fast and some consonants like the "s" sound are sometimes silent. Reflective of their proud culture, they will also look at you funny if you say "¿mande?" which they see as being diminutive. They use the words "¿como?" or "¿digame?"

Basically, they will be able to understand your Spanish but depending on who you are talking to, it will probably be difficult for you to understand theirs.

Anywhere in particular you went that was photogenic?
The entire country is extremely photogenic. Everywhere you go from Havana to the countryside looks like a great picture. Bring lots of film (or memory).

Were the cuban locals friendly?
Among the friendliest people on earth (close tie with Brazilians IMO). When I got bored, I would just walk around and strike up a conversation with someone and this will usually led to an invitation to their home or a party. They are very open, charming, curious about Americans, and laid back. Despite the poverty, there is almost no crime and you can tell they respect each other and other people. There's a big sense of community (one of the few good things of communism) and they know all their neighbors and raise each others kids.

How did the people react to requests to photograph them?
More so than most any other people Cubans are very open to being photographed. Your biggest problem may be getting a candid shot because they love to pose and smile for the camera. Sometimes they will ask for money but they don't expect anything from anybody really.

I don't shoot film anymore, but just to make this a better archived thread: Were you able to buy film there at all?
You can buy film at the photo shops (Superia, some Velvia, etc..) but there's not much air conditioning in Cuba so it's best to buy your film ahead of time because you don't know how long it's been there. Disregard the regulations on how much film you can bring in because it's never enforced.

What about AA batteries?
No problem in Havana.

Any specific airport/travel troubles in relation to photo equipment/film?
No hassles at the airport as of early 2001, I'm not sure if anything has changed though. One important note: Although there is almost no crime in Cuba, pilfering of luggage at the airport is a problem. Lock up all your luggage. Many people will even seal their luggage in plastic wrap (actually a pretty good idea).

If you weren't staying in an "official" hotel, what was the electricity situation?
Even in casas, you can get electricity. I think it was 220 but not sure. I had no trouble keeping my PDA charged with it's 110/220V charger. From what I remember, the prongs are the same.

Would someone be able to plug in a battery charger reliably?
Yes if it takes 220V.

Any particular visa/permission issues from your particular country (I guess this really only applies to people from the USA)?
In the US, you can get permission by going through a photo workshop, having relatives there, if you're a journalist, or if you have good reason to be there. The law actually doesn't prohibit you from traveling to Cuba, specifically it only prohibits you from spending more than $8(?) a day there (effectively prohibiting travel though). Otherwise, there are no barriers to entry really. There's no Visa required, just a Tourist Card which is easily obtained at wherever you are buying your plane ticket (the card is $15).

Any other hints or suggestions?
Have fun, getting to see Cuba now is a unique experience. Get to know the people, they are great. Don't let the hustlers get to you, talk to them with a smile and you will actually enjoy the conversation. You will be propositioned quite often, be aware of the consequences of your actions. Rent a car and head out to the countryside if you can. The countryside is gorgeous and you will have the roads all to yourself. Don't develop any film there, I had a roll of E-6 turn out 2 stops under because exhausted chems were used. Have a mojito at La Bodeguito del Medio. It's a touristy thing to do but it's popular for good reason.

 


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