Habana Snaps

27 June 2008

It looks like we may be able to enjoy a real summer in the UK – unlike last year – somehow I’ve become more grumpy since I moved to the UK (especially the winter months) but I’m just happy when you have these gorgeous summer days – nice and dry, not too hot, and best of all, much longer days to enjoy the lovely evenings.

We had a great time in Cuba – although we encountered a few unfortunate incidents including both of us having food poisoning and our flight having to go back to London after we had already flown a few hours on the way there (I hate flying more than anything so it was a real blow for me). So although we lost one and a half days from our week schedule (being stuck in the airport as well as being sick in the hotel), it was still a fascinating place to visit.

I’m no good at politics, but the unique aspect of Cuba was definitely the reason I had wanted to visit for quite some time – everyone who went there raved about how fascinating the place was and told me that I should go before things change too much – and I’m glad I finally had a chance.

It seemed that the majority of the tourists in Cuba were Canadians, Spanish and British (many believe that Americans are not allowed to travel in Cuba; technically they can but in practice the strict regulations make it very difficult) – and we quickly learnt on the first day of our stay that the hustlers’ way of um, hustling, was first asking the tourists where they came from – in our case England – then they tell you that they love Ali G (AKA Borat) and as you walk along chatting they want to take you to a club where a big party is held and you can enjoy some performances from Buena Vista Social Club – well, I knew most of the members had died sadly so it was obviously a con!

Having said that, they weren’t really persistent and many just like to enjoy chatting with people – this seems to be the personality of Cuban people – laidback and sociable. And it was nice that we didn’t see any children begging in the streets – as many of you know, the high standard of education and health care in Cuba is something they are proud of.

We stayed in a hotel just opposite the Capitolio – a great location to wander around the city. Havana is quite compact, so you can walk to many places and that’s the best way to explore the city – it’s also easy and cheap to catch a cab or city tour bus, but not that cheap because the prices for tourists are government controlled.

Having been granted World Heritage status in the ’80s, Old Havana (Habana Vieja) is the most touristy area with many attractions. Many narrow streets and alleys criss-cross the area, mostly crammed with people due to the shortage of housing in the city; selling houses is not strictly allowed and so moving is difficult.

I found Centro Habana and Vedado (west of Old Havana) really interesting too – you will see a real bustle of everyday life in Centro Habana and lots of interesting architecture in Vedado. Further west of Vedado, Miramar is a more upper class area where many rich Americans used to live and now houses many embassies, shops and restaurants.

We did see the typical sights of Havana that we imagined – the crumbling colonial buildings, the huge ’50s American cars, and people smoking cigars (except we didn’t see that many people smoking cigars, I guess because they are very expensive even there). The mixture of Spanish colonial and ’50s architecture – and not much newer than that – made it feel like a trip back in time (and it was nice to see the most people weren’t using mobile phones :))

And you hear music on every corner in the streets, it’s obvious that they have it in their blood and you can easily tell that it’s a basic part of their national identity. I like Cuban jazz but enjoyed every performance I encountered (well maybe not so much the cheesy ones you hear at very touristy places…)

Havana is only 100 miles away from Florida – along the north of the city is the lovely sea front called Malecon where people enjoy fishing, swimming or just hanging out – we loved the view also, but it made me sad to know that especially after the Soviet Union collapsed, many people tried to flee on rafts to Florida (where many Cubans live) but never made it.

As tourists, you need to use a currency called CUC (convertible Cuban Pesos) in all hotels, shops and restaurants; Cuban people are paid mainly in CUP (Cuban Pesos) which will buy only the most basic supplies and their (allotted but often unfulfilled) government rations. Because of this, almost everybody is running some kind of sideline to try and get hold of more CUC to buy the necessities that they otherwise cannot get such as any imported goods or unrationed food.

We didn’t go there for an extravagant food experience, but we still enjoyed some lovely Cuban dishes like pork/chicken with rice and beans (Moros y Cristianos) as well as fresh fish and seafood (oh and lovely mojitos and the local beer for me :)) They share a great deal of Creole recipes, but Cuban food is not as spicy as other Caribbean cuisine. They have state-run restaurants and family-run dining rooms (although they have to pay heavy taxes for the privilege) called Paladares – we enjoyed delicious meals at both – but definitely loved the Paladares more, they are proud of what they cook and their friendly service (they are only allowed to serve 12 people at a time) makes the meal more special.

It’s so unfortunate that we got sick at an early stage of our stay (we’re pretty sure that it happened at one of very popular state restaurants) – after that, our bodies just couldn’t take anything other than fresh fruit (which was abundant fortunately) so we have to leave any further food reporting for the next visit :)

Being so hot and humid, we ended up spending a lot of time in cafes to cool down – we especially loved the retro haunts still going since the ’50s, although the grand sea view from the terrace at Hotel Nacional and a beautiful art nouveau setting at Hotel Raquel were just as good.

We took a day trip to Valle de Vinales in the west of Havana – they are known for their beautiful scenery and for producing the best tobaccos in the country. For me, it was fascinating just to see the countryside where people seem to have a very different life style from the city dwellers, the habaneros, and really interesting to visit a cigar factory and see some ladies skilfully rolling cigars with such charming smiles (but the factories are all state run so we weren’t allowed to take any pictures).

It was sweet to learn that many of the cigar brand names such as Montecristo or Romeo y Julieta came from the stories that the overseers at the factories used to read to the workers in the days when the literacy rate was very low and no other access to books, their work was made more enjoyable by hearing classic books… like The Count of Monte Cristo and Romeo and Juliet. We don’t smoke cigars ourselves but brought some back for our friends and everyone seems extremely happy with the quality :)

I felt that the Cubans are warm, proud and strong minded people – it was obvious that in some ways everyone is struggling to get by, but they didn’t make us feel that way. Of course I don’t know enough about how they really feel, but they have much more to offer than just the Buena Vista Social Club and the iconic images of Che :) and I’m looking forward to going back again sometime.

Places        67 comments    Permalink

  • Oh, Keiko, what a interesting trip that must have been. Sorry you two got food poisoning, that’s no fun. The colors, the buildings, music and people. I’ve always wanted to go.

    Posted by Elise | 27 June 2008 #
  • Great writeup (and great timing too, as I’m planning a trip there at the end of the year)! I LOVE the photos. You have a good eye for things.

    Posted by Lyrical Lemongrass | 27 June 2008 #
  • Thanks for sharing your experience in Cuba. I felt as if I were strolling the streets with you. I look forward to your next travel report to Cuba!

    Posted by Yukko | 27 June 2008 #
  • I love how many people shots you have here. Love wondering about their lives.
    Beautiful. My favourite shots yet.

    Posted by Wendy | 27 June 2008 #
  • hi
    very much enjoyed reading about your experience in cuba. and the photos are great. myself and my partner (who is american) hope to visit some day. thanks again for a lovely blog post.

    Posted by kelsie mortimer | 27 June 2008 #
  • Hey Keiko – I missed your posts! Thanks for the amazing photos.

    Posted by Cenk | 27 June 2008 #
  • Oh… breathtaking pictures. I love the journalistic presentation.

    Posted by Stardust | 27 June 2008 #
  • You give a nice view of Cuba and your analysis is quite rigt…My son is leaving ther since 15 years so I agree with nearly all your notes !As usual your photos are incredible !!

    Posted by mercotte | 27 June 2008 #
  • wow keiko, this is simply a fabulous post, and i love how you captured the essence of living in cuba – absolutely beautiful! it makes me want to take the next plane out even ;)

    Posted by Lil | 27 June 2008 #
  • Amazing photos! This was a wonderful post. Hopefully you’ll be able to go back again soon!

    xox Sarah

    Posted by Sarah | 27 June 2008 #
  • Beautiful! It will take me a while to absorb all the beauty of these images, thank you for such an amazing review! I miss you!

    Posted by matt | 27 June 2008 #
  • Hi Keiko,
    Great post & beautiful photos as always. I am so sorry that you had food poisoning, glad that you’re okay.

    I’ve always been so curious about this country, as you said that it probably a little bit challenging for the American. My cousin from South Africa been there and he had great time!

    Posted by elra | 27 June 2008 #
  • Hi Keiko,

    Sounds like you had a facinating time in Cuba. Your photos are AWESOME!

    You inspire me.

    Thank you.

    Posted by Lynne J. | 27 June 2008 #
  • Your photos are Absolutely Fabulous and your post is very interesting!

    Posted by La Curieuse | 27 June 2008 #
  • This was the best travel report I’ve read in a long time. I’ve had a soft spot for Cuba forever and would so much like to go before everything changes… thanks for the lovely account and the stunning photography!

    Posted by Luisa | 27 June 2008 #
  • Breathtaking photographs…I’m ready to book a ticket, right now.

    Posted by Mari | 27 June 2008 #
  • So sorry you got sick, but at least you were somewhere with good health care! Great photos and it was like taking a trip there myself, without worrying about my tummy.

    Posted by David | 29 June 2008 #
  • You have this amazing ability to capture the soul of the places you visit. Great post. hope we can meet up soon. I am in Singapore at the moment.

    Posted by valentina | 29 June 2008 #
  • Beautiful!
    I feel historical light and the shadow.

    Posted by y_and_r_d | 30 June 2008 #
  • What an inspirational post on Cuba! And such lovely fotos! You really have an eye for the essentials! One of the fotos in the market caught my attention as it showed a row of – pork cracklings(?) in white paper cones. Wonder what they would call them in Cuba. In Manila, it’s called chicharon, forgot the name in Madrid… I love these calorific snacks but would not indulge in them too often! Hope you’ve recovered from the food malady.

    Posted by Rowina | 30 June 2008 #
  • Awesome pictures!

    Posted by Sini | 30 June 2008 #
  • As amazing as I expected this post would be!

    Thank you soooooo much for sharing!!!!

    Posted by The Bitter Foodie | 30 June 2008 #
  • Hi, Keiko san!

    Welcome back to UK! I truly enjoyed reading/looking at your lovely nots as well as photos from Cuba. I have never been to Cuba, but looking at your photo albums makes me feel that I visited :-)

    I am sorry to hear that some things happened during your trip. But I can see that you enjoyed staying at Cuba :-)

    Take good care of yourself and say hello to Matthew san!
    jyaane (^-^)

    Posted by junko | 30 June 2008 #
  • Wow.. I feel like I just went to Cuba. Your pics are gorgeous. And btw, I agree with you about the UK winters making you feel grumpy. I spent the winter months there and it definitely changed my mood.

    Posted by Michelle | 1 July 2008 #
  • dearest keiko, i’ve been waiting to read this post, and it goes without saying it’s been more than worth the wait – beautiful pictures, as always…so sorry to hear you were unwell and about the flight fiasco, all part and parcel of travelling i suppose, hope you are feeling much better now! i am going to show this post to w – who is a huge cuban cigar fan – he would love to visit cuba someday! i would tag along for the music ;-)

    Posted by Joycelyn | 1 July 2008 #
  • Beautiful pictures :)

    Just wanted to let you know that June IFP poll winner has been announced.


    Posted by Coffee and Vanilla | 1 July 2008 #
  • Hey Keiko,
    I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed to read your writing about Cuba plus the shots you took :-) Sorry that you got food poisoning and delay, but otherwise you seem to enjoy very much your trip. Yes, the hustlers are everywhere, did they ask you “what time is it?” too? :-D Thank God you didn’t fellow them for any parties or concerts…

    But when we went for a Buena Vista Social Club concert on our own at Hotel National, the left over members like Omara Portuondo plus other talented musicians, it was still a very good moving shaking concert! :) Maybe you’ll get to see it next time. What about salsa dancing? it’s not your cup of tea? ;)

    We missed the Paladares I guess, because at the end, we didn’t end up having too many good meals there (just average).

    Did you see the Malecon when the waves are so high crashing on the wall? the water goes over to the big avenue…like a small tsunami, and it’s just magic. I think you were overall happy with your trip, and that’s good :-)

    Beautiful images! Thank You for giving me a moment to reminisce ;-) Welcome back!


    Posted by Maya | 1 July 2008 #
  • Hi all, thank you so much for your kind notes.

    Kelsie, Luisa – hope you can visit there sometime!

    Mercotte – I didn’t know your son was living there for so long, we could have met him :)

    Valentina – yes we must catch up soon, hope you’re having a great time in Singapore.

    Rowina – I didn’t try it, but it looked like crackling indeed :)

    Junko-san – looking forward to catching up sometime, hope all is well.

    Michelle – I think I’d rather a cold but sunny winter than grey sky all the time :)

    Joycelyn – I could have brought some back for W – I’ll make sure next time!

    Maya – look forward to chatting about our Havana trips sometime, take care.

    Posted by keiko | 1 July 2008 #
  • I was so excited to see a new post from you Keiko! Been anxious to see new photos! And you didn’t disappoint! These are beautiful!

    Posted by anne | 2 July 2008 #
  • Hi Keiko,

    Breathtaking pictures as always! Your pictures have a lyrical quality to them and truly worth thousands of word. I feel like I went to Cuba myself =)

    Posted by venus | 3 July 2008 #
  • Hi Keiko,

    Very beautiful pictures! Love your work. Thank you for ‘taking’ me to Habana, Cuba :)

    Posted by Nur Suraya | 3 July 2008 #
  • K,

    Great shots as usual, it’s obvious that even nasty food poisoning cannot deter you from exercising your genius for photography. Love them all but especially the one of a glass of drink with green herb and pink straw :)

    Hope you guys are both fully recovered and enjoying the weather. x

    Posted by chika | 3 July 2008 #
  • beautiful! i’m american (half-cuban by blood) and have been lucky enough to go to cuba twice legally, while as an undergrad and a law student.

    paladares are definitely the way to go whenever feasible — i always get sad when people say that food in cuba is terrible. sure, the quality of the meat isn’t the best, but even in the US, the best dishes my grandmother makes are all peasant food with super cheap ingredients. the paladares really capture that spirit of making the most of what you’ve got. for anyone planning a trip to havana and looking for a place to eat, i highly recommend the paladar dona blanquita, which is on prado (on the border between centro and habana vieja).

    this is my first time visiting your blog, and i’ll be adding it to my daily rounds!

    Posted by noelia | 4 July 2008 #
  • Keiko,

    Thank you for taking us with you to Cuba via your beautiful pictures. As always, I look forward to your next post!

    Posted by Eleanor van Overdijk | 5 July 2008 #
  • Your blog is really nice and I like so much your pictures! Compliments!! Silvia

    Posted by Silvia | 6 July 2008 #
  • nice pictures and story as always!!!

    Posted by suzie | 8 July 2008 #
  • Wow, I’m very impressed by your ability to capture the diversity of textures in Cuba. I have always wanted to visit – now your images and mood created here has whetted my appetite even more.
    Thank you!

    Posted by Shireena | 8 July 2008 #
  • I miss your posting. Your beautiful photos are truly amazing.You captured every scene through your photography…

    Posted by The Artist Chef | 9 July 2008 #
  • As usual you’ve done it again Keiko. The images are wonderful and so natural. Done well ! I hope to visit cuba one day.


    Posted by Alpa | 11 July 2008 #
  • Beauuuuutiful pictures from Cuba!
    Been there myself many years ago and really got a nice feeling back from looking at your pictures!

    Posted by john | 11 July 2008 #
  • I have just found my new favorite blog. Amazing photography, and great writing. it’s nearly midnight, but I cannot go to bed yet, I have way too much to see and read here.

    Posted by matt wright | 13 July 2008 #
  • Good to have some news. Pictures are lovely as usual. I can’t wait for your next post!

    Posted by Malvina | 14 July 2008 #
  • fabulous….i felt as if i was there….the pictures are incredible

    Posted by Goody | 15 July 2008 #
  • Your photography is amazing!

    Posted by Amie | 15 July 2008 #
  • Wow, great picts! Contrary to what people said about Cuba, etc. It’s the spirit and strength of her children that made Cuba unique. I haven’t been there or even North & South America but your photos brought tears to my heart. Your photos represented what they wanted to tell others in truly Cuban way.. Thank you for sharing the informations as well …


    PS I definitely have Cuba in my Travel List!

    Posted by pixen | 16 July 2008 #
  • Hello Keiko,

    This is Ilgin. These are absolutely even greater pictures than those marvelous ones you took here in Istanbul. I hope you fully recovered from food poisining and enjoyed your stay in Habana. Take care and tell my regards to Matthew.

    Posted by Ilgin Yorulmaz | 18 July 2008 #
  • Fabulous post for a morning armchair traveler like myself.
    I don’t like traveling on planes much either but I feel with your blog that’s not going to be a problem.

    Posted by Kate B | 29 July 2008 #
  • ciao! le tue fotografie sono fantastiche complimenti!!! ma non ho capito una cosa ed esattamente di cosa ti occupi: fotografo? chef? fotografo e chef? editore di libri? please answer to my questions!!

    Posted by alessandra | 29 July 2008 #
  • i’m a Chinese,i also want to have a travel,after look through your journal,it is really a nice thing.

    Posted by sha | 2 August 2008 #
  • Hi keiko, nice photography and post. :)

    Posted by galleryfang | 5 August 2008 #
  • Hi Keiko, :) great pictures you have here and glad to hear that you enjoyed your stay in Cuba despite the tummy bugs you caught.

    Posted by celiaK | 7 August 2008 #
  • Hi Keiko,

    amazing shots as usual. Used to be a regular here but lost touch for a while. Great to be back and find your refreshing photos again :D

    Posted by Dhi | 9 August 2008 #
  • I’m sure just about everyone before me has asked the same question, but I just can’t help myself: How do you do it? Whenever I look at your blog I get the feeling that none of the beautiful things you come up with have been touched by human hands. I mean, thin thin slices of layered sponge cakes and no signs of smeared mousses or crumbs or anything. My hands are shaking at the mere thought of trying out your recipes. Don’t be too sorry when I tell you this, but sometimes I look at your pictures and think to myself: How can you pretend to be a foodie and a pastry buff, when Keiko is lightyears ahead of you? But then I manage to suppress the haunting images in my head from your blog and go on trying to cook on a much more basic level. Anyway, you’re as inspiring as you are intimidating, and I highly admire that. Please feel free to drop me a line on my blog some day.


    Posted by Heidi | 17 August 2008 #
  • i cud only utter 1 word…gorgeous!

    Posted by rita | 21 August 2008 #
  • what incredible photo layout (and page layout). you’re now on zeee list of my blogs. yep. this is a brilliant blog.

    Posted by mallory elise | 21 August 2008 #
  • Hello,
    A friend of mine told me of this fascinating blog and now I’m here:)
    With fabulous photos and text, I feel like I was strolling around the streets of Cuba.
    Thank you for sharing your loverly (but half-bitter?) days:)
    Hope you go back there soon.

    Posted by Mia | 22 August 2008 #
  • What beautiful shots all around…from the people to the details of balconies, flowers and fans…true poetry!

    Posted by Tartelette | 23 August 2008 #
  • Oh, what beautiful pictures! And what an amazing trip! Thanks for the vicarious look into a fascinating culture.

    By the way, sorry to hear that you had food poisoning, which is dreadful under any circumstances and that much more so when traveling! :(

    Posted by Sandy | 25 August 2008 #
  • Hi Keiko,
    What beautiful shots, beautiful pictures of people to the details of balconies, food, stalls, loved the journey sitting at my desktop!

    Posted by mandira | 28 August 2008 #
  • Beautiful photographs, they really evoke a sense of place, the light is amazing … what a fascinating trip

    Posted by Hannah | 29 August 2008 #
  • We like a lot your blog!! You’re pictures are really gorgeous! If you want to visit our blog, there’s a prize for you


    Posted by Silvia | 1 September 2008 #
  • You take the most beautiful photographs.

    Posted by Gabriela | 2 September 2008 #
  • Hi
    your blogsite is awesome and i loved reading the posts.

    Posted by Anamika: The Sugarcrafter | 20 September 2008 #
  • Where have you been? Are you MIA?
    We miss your posts. Do post soon.

    Posted by L | 26 September 2008 #
  • Hi Keiko, your photos are amazing. Did you have formal photography training? Do you have any photography books to recommend?

    Posted by rose | 8 October 2008 #
  • Hi everyone, thank you so much again for your kind notes and I’m sorry it took so long to get back.

    Chika – that’s a mojito as you could probably guess :)

    Noelia – thank you for your recommendation, I’ll keep a note for the next time!

    Pixen – I’m sure you will enjoy visiting the country one day, I look forward to going back too.

    Kate B – I can say I hate flying more than almost anything, but my love for travelling seems enough to overcome this…

    Alessandra – I work as a photographer, sometimes as a food stylist too :)

    Heidi – I’m honoured by your compliment and I’m sorry if I intimidated you in any way! I’ve never had formal training on cooking or photography and considering I get bored with things very easily (!) I guess I really like doing this – and I think that’s the most important thing, to love what you do :)

    Rose – I’m totally self-taught and I’m more of the ‘learn as you go along’ kind of person if that makes sense! Sorry if it’s not much help but I’m sure if you shop around you will find something you like.

    Posted by keiko | 28 October 2008 #
  • はじめまして。
    keikoさんの写真はどれも素晴らしくてため息が出ます&勉強になります。Thanks for sharing!


    Posted by ai | 20 January 2009 #

Commenting is closed for this article.