Gathering Cuban photographers all over the world

Travel to Cuba: A Small Field Guide

Traveling to Cuba might bring a few challenges. Here’s a list of how to address some of them
A young man sits on the trunk of his Chevrolet, waiting for a customer who will ask for a ride. (Photo by Reynaldo Cruz/ Cuban Lenses United via I Love Cuba Photo Tours)

Traveling to Cuba for the first time can prove to be challenging if you don’t have the adequate information. Traveling to Cuba as a photographer can be trickier if you don’t know the culture of the things you can or can’t do.

It is extremely important to know when and where to take a beak photo, and when and where to not even taking out your camera. However, as a paradise of paradoxes, Cuba poses other challenges that have nothing to do with photography.

That’s the reason for knowing other particular aspects of the island. It is important to keep in mind some safety and logistic matters to make the trip a good experience.

For three years, I worked with CLU member Yosel Vázquez as part of his team I Love Cuba Photo Tours. During that time, we were able to see some of the struggles that became obstacles for our work. Although we sorted these difficulties out, we learned along the way and prepared people for future adventures.

I also had many foreign friends who traveled to Cuba very often, and spent several weeks in the country. Being able to communicate with them to help them or simply to hang out was also vital. Learning through their experiences helped me understand how Cuba affects visitors, mainly if they are first-timers.

So, I made this small list of things to do and not to do while shooting in Cuba. A photographer’s trip to the island will be about a lot more than photography.

  1. Do not bring only US Dollars: The Cuban government struggles sometimes to use US dollars internationally because of the current US sanctions on Cuba. Starting June 20, 2021 banks were not receiving any US dollars and foreign travelers were encouraged to bring Euros, Canadian dollars or Pounds Sterling. Some private restaurants and businesses WILL take US dollars. However, they started receiving them again on April 17, 2023. Even so, that is a decision that is prone to change constantly. The love-hate relationship of the Cuban government with the US dollar brings a lot of uncertainty to people who carry that currency. This applies to US travelers as well. Recommendation is to bring Euros because of the exchange rate.
  2. Do not exchange all of your money. The Cuban government was taking the equivalent of a US dollar and giving back 24 Cuban Pesos (CUP), in addition to that, all the Cuban money you spare WILL NOT BE RETURNED TO US DOLLARS OR ANY OTHER CURRENCY at the time of your departure. You can change the equivalent of around 100 USD per person per day and be ready to pay in foreign currency in certain privately-owned restaurants. Also, bear in mind that right now on the streets each US dollar is exchanged at a much better rate (and it is constantly rising), but if you don’t wanna get too deep into it, you can always go to the bank or the currency exchange office. Pay close attention to the Cuban Convertibles or CUC. After June 1, 2021 these were no longer valid at all. The bills are easily recognizable because they are very colorful and instead of the picture of a hero they have a picture of the monument.
  3. Learn some basic communication in Spanish if you are not going to be assisted by a multilingual Cuban during your trip.
  4. Install the App Maps.me on your phone (it works for both Android and iOS) and download the maps of the provinces you intend to visit while in Cuba. If it is possible download the entire country, as it can come in handy. The map works very well and offline (no data use), and it will be very very useful in a place like Trinidad, which can turn into a crazy maze if you don’t know the location pretty well, for finding an address and hanging on your own.
  5. Even when you have installed Maps.me on your phone, having a physical map is also recommended. Your battery might die and you will be lost.
  6. Disable your data roaming and international calling. All those services are extremely expensive once you get into Cuba’s jurisdictional waters or air space. You don’t wanna get a major scare when you get back home and see your phone bill.
  7. Buy WiFi cards and use WiFi spots mainly at hotels. Avoid WiFi squares at all costs. Good WiFi spots are Hotel Inglaterra in Old Havana and Hotel Capri in Vedado. Inglaterra can even use ETECSA-issued cards whereas Hotel Capri uses more expensive cards you have to buy in situ. Speed at Capri is much better, but nothing compared to what you guys are used to, so be ready to put your patience to test. Other places away from Havana also have hotels and hotspots where you will be able to connect, but leave that for simple communication, it can take you ages to upload a photo. If you guys are staying in any given hotel, WiFi service can be provided included in the price or paid for upon arrival. Some Casas Particulares provide WiFi services themselves.
  8. Play close attention to the Covid situation in the country. Although Cuba developed its own vaccine, cases have continued to exist. Keep in mind that some places still require people to wear masks. Unlike other places, “required” or “strongly recommended” in Cuba means “mandatory”.
  9. The food situation in Cuba is very difficult at this moment (and will be so for another year), so it is recommended that travelers pack granola bars and other types of energizing food when they come. However, once in a place like Havana (restaurants are closed at the moment but 90% of them offer food to go and even deliver) they can rely on restaurants and cafeterias.
  10. I also recommend (if you are going to have a point person in Havana you will be in touch with before coming and if you intend to be in an AirBnB where you will cook for yourself) to buy food supplies in sites like katapulk.com or supermarket23.com which take money from overseas and provide stuff you cannot find while in Cuba. Have those things purchased about 20 days before arrival (delivery takes between one and three weeks) so your contact person has them when you get to your houses. It can be arranged with the rental houses you will use (if any).
  11. There are stores in Havana (known as Tiendas MLC) that take US money (although lines are very long) they take only cards, but US VISA and Master Card can be used (if you are American, you still need to document yourselves in that aspect, US sanctions may also prevent Americans from using such cards in Cuba).
  12. It is recommended that you drink bottled water. Although tap water in Cuba is pretty healthy—for our standards—some foreign travelers have had trouble with it. Nothing serious or major, but it is better if the whole Cuban experience goes through smoothly.
  13. Rely on TripAdvisor for help in things like lodging, tours and/or transportation. Despite not being sanctioned, private tours will offer a broader and more honest picture of Cuba, and will provide visitors with real experience, while also being much cheaper and personalized.
  14. Find out what the weather forecast is going to be each day you are shooting and plan accordingly, but also prepare for something entirely different. Being on a long and narrow island, the weather is extremely unpredictable. A rainy forecast can turn into a very sunny day and vice versa.
  15. As photographers and street photographers you might find two types of subject that will be somewhat troublesome: those who don’t want to be photographed (just say “Disculpe” and delete your photo for them to see) and those who want something in return. You can pay a small fee, the equivalent of 5USD (about 1000 Cuban Pesos or CUP), or at least that used to be the case when I was doing street photography with foreigners before the pandemic struck. Also, it is important to know that most Cubans are extremely proud, so read the room before engaging. One strategy is to lift your camera to the top of your chin and wait for their approval.
  16. Some vendors, both in dedicated spaces or on the streets, will sometimes pose a problem for a photo. Many of them do things that are not entirely legal in order to make ends meet, and they could see you taking their photo as a potentially compromising situation.
  17. Avoid shooting into Police or military buildings or personnel. The only such facility that can be photographed in the whole country is the building of the Ministry of the Interior, located in Havana’s Square of the Revolution and bearing an iron sculpture representing the iconic Che Guevara photograph taken by Alberto Korda in 1960. This is extremely important to keep in mind, mainly if you are Americans. You don’t want to be arrested and accused of being a CIA agent. After the nation-wide protests that took place on July 11, 2021, the government and its enforcers have become extremely paranoid. Even if you are in full right to do certain things, the vast majority of Cuban cops are basically illiterate, so they could detain you for no reason as well. Note that the further you are from Havana, the more paranoid and unprepared the cops are going to be.
  18. Do not shoot inside government-run department stores. Although shooting at a bodega might be okay (I have done it myself many times with my foreign photographers), government-run fancier stores, like the ones that used to sell for the extinct CUC or the ones that take MLC (Cards with foreign-money accounts) have very strict security regulations, shooting with a camera or a cell phone in any of them can bring some trouble.
  19. Do not shoot inside a medical facility. Although it might not represent a major issue, certain individuals with authority over medical facilities will have some serious trouble with people (mainly foreigners) shooting inside the facilities. Despite the high international reputation of Cuban medicine, its facilities are normally in a deplorable status of abandon and decay. Therefore, officials do everything in their power to keep that image from going to the outside world.
  20. Do not shoot into a school. It is okay to shoot children on the streets, as it is okay to shoot kids in uniform. However, schools might be troublesome if you don’t have proper authorization. This issue is similar to that of hospitals and medical facilities.
  21. Avoid shooting at people wearing all-white clothing. It is normally part of the AfroCuban religion known as Santería. During a period known as iyaworaje, those practicing the religion will wear white garments at all moments, cannot be called by their own names, cannot shake hands (or have palm-to-palm contact, so if they provide a service to you and you have to pay them wait for them to tell you where to put the money) with anyone (fist bump required) and cannot be photographed (the latter is in most cases but not all of them).
  22. Colorful characters in touristy places will allow to be photographed, but will always need to be paid afterwards, the sum of 5USD (as of April 2023, the situation might have changed dramatically, and you may be required to pay more). These prices might have increased minimum to a double in the wake of the pandemic and the new government economic regulations imposed in 2021. Please, bear in mind that those people have to pay the government for a license to be there, and their only source of income is precisely the tips they get when photographed.
  23. The absence of a prohibition sign does not mean it is allowed. It will come to your attention that some places like at galleries will have a “no photo” sign on them. However, while going into a closed space, it is important to find out if you are allowed to take photos. Assume that it is not allowed until you ask.
  24. Avoid buying cigars to take home from anywhere but government stores, tobacco farmers or providers your tour organizers or facilitators in Cuba have labeled as safe or reliable—American travelers may have to check what the US regulations on cigars or rum from Cuba are at the moment of their trip. I have heard of people sneaking things in with no trouble, so it is worth a try.
  25. DO NOT do any type of recreational drugs. Despite the government’s constant propaganda or safety and drug-free society, there is a lot of drug consumption in Cuba, mainly in Havana. But the penalties for using drugs are extremely severe. That also means that under no circumstances you should try to sneak any into the country.
  26. Wear comfortable shoes but try to make sure when possible that they are closed (preferably resistant sneakers or light boots), mainly while roaming the streets. The lack of sanitation in most of the cities in Cuba, mainly in areas like Cerro or Centro Habana can make your feet get in touch with some germs that could potentially get you sick.
  27. Check your gear before taking the trip to make sure you have everything you will need. Although it is not impossible to find SD cards in Cuba, it isn’t easy. CF cards and CF Express are almost impossible to get in the island, as can also be the case with camera-dedicated batteries and/or chargers.
  28. Secure your gear. Even though Cuba is relatively safer for tourists than other countries, there can still be someone trying to snatch your camera or your bag. So, make sure that it is difficult for them to do it, by strapping your camera well and not carrying an easy-to-take-off bag.
  29. Be careful while changing your lenses. There is a lot of dust and wind in Cuba, and you don’t want any particles getting into your sensor.
  30. DO NOT carry your passport on the streets. As I recommend staying in an AirBnB, you can rely on the people to run the business to either provide a safe or secure your documents. Make a photocopy of your passport and carry it in your bag.
  31. Buy a sim card (possibly available to tourists, but not always) to be able to communicate with people, two or three sim cards by group are good. Bear in mind that all phones have to be unlocked to be able to use Cuban SIM cards and iPhones turn out to be the most troublesome of all. If you are traveling alone, it is recommended that you find out if and how you can do it. Being able to communicate with your people on the ground is always important.
  32. Bring sunscreen and bug spray (the latter is more important than the former, and if you can bring a bug spray that also works as a sunscreen it is better). Cuba is infested with a mosquito type known as aedes aegypti, the vector that carries Chikungunya, Zika Virus, Yellow Fever and Dengue.
  33. Refrain from being too vocal about the government and/or the situation in Cuba. You may come from free countries, but poignant comments might get you kicked out of the island and might get your Cuban helpers and companions in trouble.
  34. Stay hydrated even if it is cloudy and seemingly chilly. The heat in Cuba can be deceiving.

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