At 12:05am on January 16, sixteen photographers and their partners were the very first Americans to land in Havana under the new rules announced in December by President Obama. There was no fanfare, just the usual midnight airport skeleton crew that took two hours to x-ray our bags. One of us did get “special treatment” for arriving with enough gear for a feature-film crew and what could have been mistaken for a suicide vest. For most of the group, it was everyone’s first visit to Cuba.
We had started our trip with an evening of street photography and dinner in South Beach and an overnight stay in Miami. We originally planned for a direct flight to Havana, but for reasons that would take too long to explain, we flew from Miami to Grand Cayman Island and from there to Havana.
On our first morning in Havana, we piled into gorgeously preserved 1950s American convertibles for a tour of the city. Lunch that day, and every day, was at a different paladar, a privately owned restaurant. The remainder of those first three days in Havana was spent shuttling from one location to another in three minivans.
During much of the time we split into three groups and walked the streets of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), each group escorted by one of the local photographers I had met on one of my previous trips to Cuba. In small groups this allowed us to visit people in their private homes and shops, presenting some of the best photo opportunities. One of the highlights of Havana, indeed of the whole trip, was a visit to a dance school, where we spent 90 minutes split between two studios. The young dancers were simply amazing in the concentration, dedication and skill. We also visited a boxing gym, a few probably too-touristy locations, and spent as much time as possible just exploring the streets of the city.
When the government-owned tourism company couldn’t come up with the large bus we’d reserved and paid for, we scrambled and squeezed into two minivans for a two-day round trip to the farming town of Viñales. The highlights were a visit to a working tobacco farm and our first stay in casas particulares (private homes) all located within a block of one another. Sort of the Cuban versions of small B&Bs. Our hostesses served us private breakfasts, but we all came together for an amazing dinner feast for the entire group.
After another night in a different four-star Havana hotel, we finally got our big bus for the longer trip to the historic town of Trinidad with a stop for lunch and a photowalk in Cienfuegos. Two nights in Trinidad, where some of us took in the local music clubs, turned out to be one of nearly everyone’s favorite locations, although some of the casas particualres there weren’t quite up to the standards of those in Viñales.
We returned to Havana by big bus for one last night. Checking into our hotel, we discovered we were sharing it with newly arrived staff from the U.S. State Department and other Washington types. Walking along the Malecón that night, we came across three large TV crews including NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reporting on the State Department’s visit. As we left our hotel in the morning, the American flag was flying next to Cuba’s, having just been raised a few hours before. We were told it was the first time an American flag had flown legally in Cuba (other than at Guantanamo) in 55 years. It was a surprisingly emotional scene.
That morning we had our last opportunity to explore Habana Vieja before one final mojito and the trip to the airport. From there it was back to Grand Cayman Island for an overnight, a farewell Italian dinner, then onto to Miami and home.
In all, it was ten days, tens of thousands of images and lots of great memories. Nearly everyone told me they looked forward to returning to Cuba and the warmth of the Cuban people who were excited to have us there. Although I’ve seen rapid change between my three visits to the country, it was a particular thrill to be there during such an historic week.
I’d like to personally thank those who used their personal allowance of up to $100 of tobacco and alcohol to bring back exquisite Cuban cigars for me. And I promise that next time we’ll add more time in our schedule for shopping, since Americans can now return with up to $400 worth of goods. When we planned the trip last year, it never occurred to us that would be possible. Only 90 miles from Key West, Cuba is changing rapidly. I hope everyone gets a chance to visit soon.
Visit my Cuba Gallery.