Food often plays an important part of our shoots and I thought it was a good time to reflect on eating in Tulum and the great food on our recent shoot in Mexico. We arrived in Tulum on day two of our two week shoot in Mexico.
The cultural downtown is mainly one road lined with restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and bars. This is where we decided to look for a place for eating in Tulum.
Driving along the street we observed it is rustic where locals eat and people go about their business. The cooking is traditional and often on view to the public. No shiny aluminium kitchen appliances but food is freshly prepared with fresh ingredients. The juices are delicious, the coconut water comes in the coconut, the service is exemplary.
After a couple of drives up and down the street we settled for El Vegetanario, a vegetarian restaurant on the roadside where we could park the car full of equipment in view of our dining table. We chose this place not because we don’t eat meat but because it was such an inviting, colourful place, with friendly welcoming staff. Our first discovery was complimentary fresh, crispy nachos and spicy dips to nibble while drinking the local beer or lemonade. We chose homemade carrot soup and mushroom burgers, the flavours of both were remarkable without the grease and we left with a healthy feeling. Prices are cheap US $7 per person for a meal and fresh juice or beer.
When we didn’t eat out we had our lovely talent cook with us. One morning our male model prepared breakfast, a feast of scrambled eggs with peppers, toasted slices of baguette piled with avocado and proscuitto and tomatoes basil with olive oil. A delicious feast that we lovingly named the breakfast after him, the ‘Mauricio breakfast’!
Cuba is almost untouched since 1959, its beauty still visible in the crumbling buildings and in the innocence and openness of its people. With the impending possibility of increased tourism from America I travelled a Cuba journey to record the Cuban lifestyle as it is today.
I travelled to Cuba as a photo journalist to capture some Cuban lifestyle in the camera with a wide brief which excludes crumbling buildings, fat cigars or Vintage American cars – there is an abundance of that out there. I wanted to get to Cuba before Americans destroyed it by installing McDonalds and neon signs at every corner. I travelled through Nassau, Bahamas into Havana as I was travelling with a US passport and advice seemed to suggest this caused fewer problems, I had no problems clearing immigration either way.
The itinerary was to explore areas of Cuba from Havana to La Boca, Trinidad, then back up to Havana for a couple of days then out to the west to submerge ourselves in the National Park around Viñales where the fields are full of tobacco plants. I planned to say in Casa Particulares, the Cuban equivalent to Airbnb, families opening their homes for 25 CUC a room for the night, followed by a hotel in Havana for a treat in the middle of the trip.
I got up at 3:30 am to catch a train to Miami at 4:45, a plane to Nasseau, Bahamas,at 9:00 am then another to Havana at 11 :00am.
As Havana is never in a hurry ( a pleasant virtue, not a criticism) by 2pm I was in a queue for exchanging money – you have to get your CUCs in Cuba, ( CUC is the tourist currency, locals use Peso) At 2:30 we were still there! I believed an American Visa card could be used in most hotels and restaurants but Â soon discovered this is not so. Thankfully my wife’s trusty UK Barclays debit card saw us through the week and never got swallowed in a machine, it was all we had!
I picked up a pre-booked rental car and got on the road, getting lost leaving Havana and being stopped by police for a document check, thankfully all ok there.
The journey continued, long winding roads which wound through national park and mountains. The sea came in and out of view, another 30 mins would see the end of the road. Suddenly, on coming traffic was swerving as objects appeared in the road! Moving, scuttling and sometimes frozen to the spot, dozens of large red crabs took over the route. I tried to avoid them as many others had not, alas soon it was clear the swerving was, A. dangerous and B. impossible to dodge a carpet of crabs!
We did eventually arrive at our first Casa Particulares in La Boca, Trinidad. We were booked in at El Galeon but ended up at La Terraza – another casa belonging to a brother, great place with lots of space, bathroom, air con, breakfast etc. We ate at El Galeon in the evenings. Both highly recommended.
Trinidad is a Spanish colonial town seemingly untouched since 1850. It was built on the fortunes from sugar plantations in the early 19th Century and it has stayed the same way as if clocks have stopped. The arrival of tourists in 1988, when the small city was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, has not prevented the charm of this enchanting, quiet, sleepy outdoor museum where the clip clop sounds of horses hooves mingle with the leather faced, local cuban bands which can be heard around street corners drawing you in and making your hips sway. The cobbled streets, dusty roads, colourful buildings and red rustic roof tiles are all part of Trinidad’s soul. I hope it never changes.
While having drinks on the steps of Casa de la Musica, I met Di a single Chinese traveller taking pictures of herself with her camera and tripod. I got chatting and found out she is a freelance journalist from China and had the same desire, to explore, photograph and capture Cuba as it is today. We teamed up and wandered the streets taking photos of Di as she explored the Historic town. We climbed the bell tower at the Museo Historic and peered down at the rustic red roofs, we listened to Cuban music and wandered in and out of the little squares and streets. We ended our morning having drinks together listening to a Cuban band at a cafe on the steps of Casa de la Musica, where we watched as the locals showed their best salsa moves and we couldn’t help but join in with the beat.
Next we headed back to the city to explore Habana Vieja ( Havana Old Town). I expected to see the crumbling buildings and historic cars which were in abundance. However, I was not prepared for roads dug up and left, holes, open drains full of rubbish, wandering stray dogs. I wasn’t getting any vibe. Tourists are constantly hassled for taxis or hotels and it takes the pleasure away from exploring. Later in the evening we did find Plaza Vieja which was regenerated and a nice place to people watch. We learnt there are 4 squares in Old Havana like this and they are worth taking a stroll to along with a meander along Mercedes a pedestrianised street ,so no hassle for vintage taxis or bike taxis.
Having dinner that evening, people watching in the street, looking up at the architecture and identifying different eras and styles, watching the men proudly cleaning their American cars, the city grew on us. It dawned on us that this place is stress free. No shop fronts, neon signs, sale signs. People chatting, kissing, holding hands, no heads buried in iphones. No heavy police presence..had we seen any? Happy, healthy people and well educated, the literacy rate is 99.8% .
The next day I went out early to get some shots in low light around the harbour and a walk in the cool before the sun got too hot, then back for breakfast.
I decided to use a taxi for the next leg of of the journey. I liked to idea of a road trip in one of the classic American cars, with the potential of turning the drive into a photo shoot. However scouting the taxi ranks I found the prices inflated and lack of potential model appeal in the sweaty faced, bloated bellied local drivers.
Then I spotted Alejandro. Having dropped off a fare he was proudly polishing the dust off his 1959 Chevrolet Belle Aire. He was young, friendly, genuine and full of energy. I negotiated a price ( 50 CUC ) and arranged to meet at the same place at 1pm and we all arrived on time, setting off on our road trip to Soroa, a National Park in the region of Pinar Del Rio, deep in tobacco growing country.
The following day we took a trip to Viñales, a beautiful drive through the National Park, winding roads , lush vegetation, valley and hills. We passed fields full of tobacco plants and drying huts, it was possible to see through the cracks and broken doors thousands of leaves hanging up to dry. Before heading back we enjoyed a panoramic view- and a gin and tonic, over the valley in a little cafe run from a house which we discovered at the end of a side road in the town.
The next day I summoned Alejandro to take us to the airport. He appeared as if by magic as we ate breakfast, the sound of the reliable vintage Belle Aire rumbling up the drive and our happy, enthusiastic driver leaping out with a welcome “Buenos Dias Gary!”