Visiting Cuba is the bucket list item to defeat all bucket list items. After all, who wouldn’t want to smoke a cigar in a country that’s been off-limits to American tourists since the 1950s? Traveling around Havana is the closest anyone can get to going back in time. The buildings are stunning, the cars are vintage, and the cocktails are stiff. But how to get there, right now, aside from a tourist-trap cruises?
Let Jason Bach, a Denver-based photographer, share how he did it.
“It’s always been my dream to visit,” he wrote in a recent post on his blog. “I have always had this connection with the country through its rich political history, music, and artistic heritage I experienced though media and pop culture. Something about their energy and perseverance as a people draws me in and makes me want to embrace their outlook in life.”
A short while ago, Bach’s Cuba travel fantasy became a reality. And it all started with an email.
Carlitos and Claudia reached out to me through [Carlitos’] uncle, a Cuban transplant living in Canada. Cuba’s access to the internet is very limited and those who are lucky to access it pay a high premium for it, unless your job requires it or you are an academic…Social media isn’t limited, however, and they happened upon my portfolio on Instagram through their mutual connection at University of Havana.
What Carlitos and Claudia wanted from Bach was an engagement session — in Cuba. After some emailing back and forth, it became clear that Carlitos and Claudia wouldn’t be able to afford Bach’s photography fees, so he decided to donate the session to the couple. It wasn’t a hard decision for Bach to make at all: The opportunity to travel to Cuba was a dream, and the photo shoot was the perfect excuse to finally see the country.
I’m a traveler, and this is the point of traveling — to open your eyes to the world and let the world change you into a better person through cultural exchange. To get out of your comfort zone and experience how other people live, for better or for worse. It teaches you empathy. It teaches you respect. It deepens our understanding of ourselves and of our world. It heightens our social skills and makes you adaptable to a wider gamut of situations. Most importantly, it helps define who you are and builds character, which to me is one of the most important qualities of a human being.
Exactly how to get to Cuba, though, was Bach’s next obstacle. The problem is, tourism to Cuba is technically still illegal. Yes, you can travel to the country from Cancun and risk U.S. customs seeing what Bach calls the “Mexican Stamp of Death” in your passport — that is, two entry stamps into Mexico with only one corresponding exit stamp — or you can do it the legal way, which means getting a license.
After doing his research, Bach decided to go the legal route, traveling under the general license of “Support for the Cuban People.” The general license meant that he didn’t have to fill out any sort of application or do any paperwork. He didn’t even have to present a tangible license to customs on coming or going. “It’s basically an honor system and verbal agreement for automatic authorization to travel to Cuba,” he wrote on his blog. “Reentry in the U.S. via customs, you may be asked to provide documentation of your itinerary or a mild explanation. However, I did not experience any of this — the customs agent simply took minute to walk in the back office with my passport then came back and waved me through.”
But he did make sure to at least live up to the spirit of the license — taking a duffel bag of school supplies over with him in addition to donating the engagement session.
In addition to sharing a great spread of the photos he took for Carlitos and Claudia on his blog — and wow, look how incredible the photos are — Bach also offers a lot of advice for anyone looking to travel to Cuba.
On getting there, he writes that you can now fly direct to Cuba from Miami or New York, or you can go through Cancun and book your final leg to Havana through Cubajet. As for accommodations, Airbnb is a great option that’s currently crushing it in Cuba. Bach calls the listing he stayed at “a mix of modern and antique Cuban architecture with incredible decor.” You can also choose to go the route of Hemingway and stay at the historic Ambos Mundos in Old Havana.
But, Bach warns, expect to stay off the grid while you’re in Cuba. Wifi access is generally not available, except for at premium price in select hotels. Also, only Verizon phones are able to connect to the Cubacell network, with roaming fees that “aren’t bad.” And as of Bach’s trip, debit and credit cards didn’t work in the country, so bring Euros for changing over to Cuba’s visitor currency, the CUC.
For food, Bach says that Cuban cuisine is on the up-and-up. While you won’t generally find street food, aside from the occasional fruit stand, a lot of great restaurants are opening up in Old Havana and Vedado. “One of my favorites was El Cocinero, located at the incredibly creative art space known as Fabrica del Arte Cubana,” he told Uproxx. “The towns of Trinidad and Cienfuegos also had some great spots for cuisine.”
Other tips he offers: arrange for transportation from the airport, and be shy haggling with taxi drivers throughout your trip. Havana is great, but getting outside the city to places like Trinidad and Cienfuegos is definitely worth the effort. And entertainment is “everywhere and abundant,” especially at the Fabrica del Arte Cubano.
“The time is now to visit Cuba, before the embargo gets lifted and popular fast food chains start popping up everywhere,” Bach writes on his blog. “It is a country lost in time and one of the most unique traveling experiences I’ve ever had. As a photographer, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. The possibilities for imagery are endless.”
Is he going back to photograph Carlitos and Claudia’s wedding? “I don’t know if Carlitos and Claudia have set a date yet or not,” he told Uproxx, “but if they do, I hope they reach back out to me as I would gladly donate wedding photography to them.”
Check out the rest of the engagement session below: