Back from Cuba

Cuba is changing rapidly, particularly the capital, Havana. The influx of the increasing amount of tourists visiting the country is no more evident than in the country’s capital. It’s still nowhere near a city like for instance Prague, which I visited a couple of weeks ago. Nevertheless, Havana is quite a different city than it was only a few years ago, almost shifting from day to day, with new restaurants, new hotels, new, private accommodations and new activities popping up everywhere.

The same happens in other areas, which are popular with tourists, such as the beautiful valley of Viñales. In a few years particularly the amount of private restaurants, the so-called paladares, and private housing, called casas particulares, have exploded. Today more than 1500 private rooms are available for tourists travelling to the small town of the same name as the valley.

The most evident change, which is seen everywhere, is that tourists from the US are finding their way to Cuba in vaster amounts than ever. After the legal restrictions have been lifted (but still aren’t quite normalized yet), thousands of US visitors have found a new Caribbean destination offering something quite unique.

Despite the influx of tourism I describe here, it doesn’t take much exploring off the beaten tracks before you will find a Cuba still almost untouched by tourism. I am not saying tourism is bad, because it’s definitely had a positive influence on Cuba, but it’s still lovely to find the original culture living vibrantly along the changes. Such as my «my family» of farmers, living in Viñales, only a couple of miles from the town, without any influence from foreign visitors. They live their life as they have done in generations, poor, but content and with strong family ties. I have written about «my family» before in posts such as My Second Family and Where Time Stands Still.

The image above is of one of the family members rolling his own cigar. It was taken last week, when I revisited Cuba and Viñales. It was partly a private trip and partly a preparation for the next photo workshop I will teach in Cuba. I will soon get back with an announcement about the workshop.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX-100 with the zoom set 10.9 mm, equally to 24 mm for a full frame camera. Shutter speed: 1/125 of a second. Aperture: f/4.0. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

72 thoughts on “Back from Cuba

  1. There’s a lot of detail in your photo, it’s great. I must admit though progress is good I really like the sound of the off the beaten track Cuba.

  2. The dynamic is the same everywhere n the world. Here in Arkansas, I’ve spent several days on back roads, and a couple of days in a town devoted to tourism — with a vengeance. I much prefer the country, and the encounters that can take place there. One good reason to return to a place, and to get to know the people there, is that there always is a hidden life that reveals itself only over time, and only to those who clearly are interested and accepting.

  3. A beautiful photograph Otto. Many of the young people here in the states have never been to their parents native land and many of the older generation refuse still to return objecting to the lifted sanctions. It’s very political , thank you for bringing your experience to us . Best regards! Holly

    1. Oh, yes, it’s indeed very political. But also the political arena is slowly changing. Of course what happens after November very much depends on who becomes the next president. Thank you for the comment, Holly.

  4. Of course they’ve been starved for our money for a long time now, that’s why Cuba agreed. They don’t have to change from their reign of rule, but we get to supply them with cash.

  5. It will be interesting to see what happens there next. Am glad you found your old haunts unblemished. It’s hard sometimes to not do the touristy things when in a new land, especially when there’s something really iconic to see which is why it’s swamped with tourists!

  6. Välkommen hem Otto, underbar bild från vardagslivet och det gläder mig att du fick träffa din “second family”.

  7. Fascinating image, Otto, with a lot of details to let the eyes wander over. I hope Cuba manages to find a balance between tourism and keeping things natural. I saw that you were going back to Cuba, and wondered if you got caught in Hurricane Matthew.

    1. The answer to your first question, is yes, mostly those working directly towards tourists, of course, but also the whole Cuban economy benefits from the tourist industry – which then indirectly benefits all Cubans. And, yes, the less touristy areas will stay like that at least for a while.

  8. Thank you for the report about Cuba today. I hope they formal visiting Cuba from US is not too long way a way. It is a very interesting place to visit.

    This is an interesting picture. The man looks very focus on the tobacco leaf as if he looking for something very specific. Such an intense look. That is great candid capture!

    1. I am glad you like it. Thank you. How fast the process of normalizing the Cuban-American relationship will be, is hard to predict, not the least because of the upcoming US presidential election.

  9. Very impressing image Otto. I am thinking seriously to visit Cuba very very soon , before all the changes are taking over more and more. As I am a single female traveler well my partner is my camera, do you think that Cuba is safe to travel on my own, renting a car and going to the more unknown places? Wondering what your opinion would be on that.

    1. I think Cuba is one of the safest places one can travel to. Yes, in Havana, one might encounter pickpockets, but I still wouldn’t call it unsafe. Driving in Cuba takes a little experience, though, but I have done it many times. I would recommend you to go. 🙂

  10. I have wondered about what you’d observe differently in Cuba this time. I always enjoy hearing about your experiences there. The predominant color in the photograph is brown, and you’ve captured so many different shades creating a lovely and vibrant palette. It’s a very nice photo, Otto.

  11. In so many ways the deluge of US tourists to come will spoil this fascinating island and its unique culture. Canadians have long enjoyed having this tropical island so close and so ‘exclusive’😊. What a wonderful personal experience you’ve had with your second family there!

    1. I have indeed had a very special relationship to «my» family. What happens after the US deluge, as you call it, is still hard to predict. Hopefully it will not spoil the rich Cuban culture.

  12. Excellent update! I am curious to go back and see how different it is. It frustrates me that it is so close yet so hard still for Americans to get in. When I went I had to pay a lot of money to go through an educational cultural tour. Every hour of the day was accounted for with cultural visits. I learned a ton but would still like to travel freely and unrestricted. I hope it changes soon. There is a fear that if it opens up the very soul of Cuba will change. Yet I think for Cubans they would have more fully stocked shelves at the store and hopefully a better life. Yet with progress often comes a disappearance of culture and tradition.

  13. I have never been to Cuba, but I very much enjoyed this update on the country and the rapid changes taking place there, Otto.

  14. It’s a bit ironic that these unique places are special because they are indeed unique, and then as more people visit/discover/explore, they bring their own cultures and changes to ‘make it better’ and then taint/ruin what made it so special… it’s always refreshing to find areas that retain the true local color, but those are vanishing treasures….

  15. Change is always a double-edged sword. Increased tourism brings stimulates certain parts of the economy, but inexorably changes the lifestyle of the locals, sometimes for the good, sometimes, not so much. I suspect Cuba’s changes are similar to the changes experienced by eastern block European countries after the fall of the wall and the changes in the USSR.

    1. It’s still too early to say which way the change will turn in Cuba. After all the Cuban culture and lifestyle is much more temperamental and hot than anything that was found in former East Europe. 🙂

  16. Tourism usually comes with positives and negatives, it will be interesting to see how Cuba looks like in 10 years. I am hoping it will not loose its charm. But on the other hand it is nice that the people can get another source of income. I thought all travel restrictions had been lifted for US, but reading your post it seems like there are some left?

    Det høres iallefall ut som du har hatt en flott tur tilbake på Cuba.

    1. Yes, it will indeed be interesting to see how Cuba looks like in 10 years. I think it will not lose its charm. As for the travel restrictions, they still exist. US citizens are still not allowed to go to Cuba on a plain vacation. The purpose still need to be a cultural or professional, or something like that, exchange.

  17. Wonderful portrait, Otto. Cuba is on my bucket list and I know I better hurry. Lucky you to have experienced and photographed Cuban culture and life.

  18. As ever, Otto, you have captured the essence of the subject of your shot. I have so many memories of Cuba – picking up a hire car that was misshapen by the massive number of dents in the bodywork and with tyres that were smooth as ice with horseshoe nails embedded in the tyre walls! But it was such a beautiful place with unexpected views, friendly people and terrible food. Looks like there have been some changes for the better!

  19. I just hope we don’t become the Ugly American to them. I know you say that U.S. citizens still cannot go to Cuba for a plain vacation but there are so many tour groups offering trips there now and they just seem to stick a couple of educational or cultural appreciation events into the itinerary to “mask” the true purpose…a plain old vacation. I just hope the vast majority of my countrymen can respect the Cuban culture and what they have been through and not try to put the American stamp on everything.

    1. Yes, you are right in that it’s become more common to “mask” the true purpose of US trips to Cuba. On the other hand I think this restricted attitude from the government is completely ridiculous. And, yes, hopefully—and I believe that is the case for most—visitors will respect Cubans and their culture.

  20. I have a comment to add about unexplored paths! its funny how people say that there are no tourist and you can explore areas where are no tourist , but after 2 weeks of travelling with no maps to random places i always ended seeing tourist . I had no travel guide like Lonely planet for example, but every single traveler i met had one ! I was amazed how many people say they are going off beaten trick, but use lonely planet for that where other thousand people have read the same thing night before.Cuba is full with tourists and are made for tourists. Might be helpful for someone : This is all i did in Cuba and how it really went with no fancy hotels or surrounded by tourists!

    1. You have a good point. Travelling with Lonely Planet or other guide books won’t take you to the off beaten tracks. The only way is to go out and explore the world on your own. And there are plenty of places in Cuba without tourists, but of course they will also be harder to get to. Thanks for sharing your Cuba experience.

  21. The sad thing is that Cuba is changing mostly for us, tourists :/ I am waiting for a day when for example running water in Cuba will be a standard thing and not luxury.

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