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Cuba: A Photography Tour

Have you ever wondered what it's like to travel with a small-group photography tour? The Wanderer was curious about this as well, and signed up for a 10-day trip to Cuba in March of 2019. Our group consisted of nine participants, two leaders, a local guide, and our bus driver. The tour group and leaders met in Miami and traveled by air to Santa Clara, where we met our Cuban guide and driver. The Wanderer quickly realized that she was among her own kind. The guide was a warm, good-humored gentleman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of each site that we visited. The other group members were accomplished photographers, yet we were all able to learn from our leaders and each other. Every day, we were turned loose at a new site, free to focus on our subject and let everything else drop away. At the end of each day, we met over drinks and shared our best shots for admiration and gentle critique. It was a memorable experience - here are the highlights.

Our first stop was Trinidad, on the southern coast of the island. The city was founded in 1514 and became the center of the sugar trade, which was the main industry in the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, the historic center of Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The buildings surrounding the Plaza Mayor were once owned by wealthy landowners and currently serve as an open air museum. Walking the cobblestone streets, the Wanderer found a vibrant community with sights and sounds too numerous and spirited to capture with just a camera. Artists and vendors plied their wares, selling straw hats, jewelry, t-shirts, and trinkets. For a few pesos, a Cuban gentleman with a straw hat a cigar posed for photographs. Street musicians began playing ballads and sambas that gradually drew a group of passersby who danced with enthusiasm and dissipated as quickly as they had formed. Restaurants tempted us for lunch with shaded patios, bougainvillea, and cool, comfortable dining rooms. At the end of our day, we photographed the sunset on the Playa Ancon. The following morning, we strolled the streets as people were heading to work and school, enjoyed breakfast at our hotel, and boarded our bus.

From Trinidad we drove to Cienfuegos, a colonial city that is also on the southern coast. The Plaza de Armas, or main square, is dedicated to Jose Marti, a poet, journalist, and political activist who came to symbolize Cuba's struggle for independence from the Spanish empire in the 19th century. While the plaza and its colorful, neoclassical buildings were intriguing subjects, the Wanderer found herself totally immersed in photographing the Cementerio la Reina. Opened in 1837, the cemetery is a national monument and displays beautiful statues, including one called Sleeping Beauty (Bella Durmiente), which commemorates a young woman who was said to have died of a broken heart. In this long-neglected, walled cemetery, workers labor in the hot sun to restore the gravesites and repair the crumbling statuary. A single red flower growing in the cracked concrete seems to stand guard over the grave of an infant who was born and died on the same day in 1920. As we were leaving the gate, a caretaker was relaxing in an anteroom and enjoying the respite from the bright sunshine.

The next stop was the town of Vinales, gateway to the Vinales Valley. The steep faces of the limestone mountains (mogotes) are a dramatic backdrop for the production of premium tobacco with the traditional animal power and intensive hand labor that has been used for centuries. In the evening, we enjoyed a farm-to-table dinner at the Agroecological Sunset Restaurant, with beautiful views of the farmland and wonderful ropa vieja, a pulled pork dish resembles 'old clothes'. This restaurant is a 'paladar', or family-owned restaurant. Similarly, our overnight accommodations were at a 'casa particular', a family-owned bed-and-breakfast with a welcoming porch swing. Privately owned businesses were illegal in Cuba until the mid 1990s, when they were approved as alternatives to state-run establishments to give tourists an opportunity to interact with the Cuban people and sample home-cooked food. In the morning light, the Wanderer captured shots of a Cuban chicken wandering the streets and a delivery by horse and cart, and then we were on our way to Havana.

In the heart of Havana, the Paseo del Prado is a street that divides Central Havana (Centro Habana) and Old Havana (Habana Vieja). Our accommodations were in the Hotel Inglaterra, which is the oldest hotel in Havana and was featured in Graham Greene's novel, Our Man in Havana. From the rooftop bar, taxi drivers can be seen waiting for fares in their classic American cars dating to the 1950s.

The Wanderer, naturally, wandered down this wide shaded promenade to observe people going about their daily business. School children played at morning recess, a housewife hung her laundry out the window of a bright red house, and a boy practiced front somersaults using a tree stump as a vault. Also called the Paseo de Marti, evidence of bygone, elegant architecture is everywhere. To the east, restoration efforts are underway in Old Havana, with modern hotels, shops, and restaurants open for business. To the west, the homes and businesses in Central Havana are crumbling under the weight of time and the elements. Heading north, murals and graffiti decorate the buildings as one approaches the Malecon, the famous walkway along the sea where people enjoy relaxing at sunset, listening to music and maybe even catching some fish for dinner. To the east, the Morro Castle has guarded Havana Harbor since 1589.

Cuba is a nation of complexities, not only in its history and politics, but also in its arts, culture, and everyday style of living. While this post describes the highlights, there are many other subjects that caught the eye of the Wanderer. Look for future posts under the 'Subjects' heading of this blog.

If you're interested in a guided photography tour of Cuba or other destinations, check out Strabo Tours at They did a flawless job of making arrangements for our group travel to Cuba and our tour leaders and local guide made the experience truly memorable. Suggestions for reading prior to or after your trip include Our Man in Havana, a wonderful novel by Graham Greene; The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara, which gives context to his revolutionary activities in Cuba; and The Old Man and the Sea, written by Ernest Hemingway and inspired by the fishing village of Cojimar, near Havana.

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