travel guide

30 May 2017

Best Photo Spots in Havana (and Cuba in general)

Posted in: best photo spots, cuba, travel guide|

Cuba is an amazing place for any photographer. Havana and Trinidad are full of street and architecture photography opportunities, Vinales Valley is perfect for landscape and travel photography. Colonial architecture and fantastic textures make Cuba a great background for fashion/portrait photography as well.

Below you will find a list of places (with sample photos and GPS coordinates) I think are the best for photography in Cuba. Make sure to visit them next time! If you have other favourite photos spots in Cuba, make sure to share them in the comments under this article.

Havana

The capital of Cuba and its most impressive city. Full of history, old colonial buildings, fantastic textures, vintage cars and interesting people. Wherever you go in the old Havana, you will probably find something or someone worth photographing, whether it will be colonial building, a busker or classic car driving through the streets.

The Streets of Old Havana (Havana Vieja)

It’s not a single spot, rather a whole large area: wander the narrow streets and four main squares (Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza de Armas), and you will find good photo subjects every second. Below are some examples (which also show a variety of interesting subjects):

City museum in Havana

City Museum in Havana (GPS: 23°8’24” N 82°20’59” W)

Old Man in Havana

Old Man smoking cigars

Meat shop in Havana

Meat shop in Old Havana

El Malecon

It’s a broad esplanade and roadway, which stretches for about 8 km along the coast. Great place to photograph the sunset, old architecture, fishermen or people of Havana (it’s one of the most popular meeting places for them, especially young couples).Below you can see two images I took there:

Below you can see two pictures I took there: the first one is a long exposure photo I took there during sunset and the other one shows fisherman “at work”.

Malecon during sunset

This long exposure photo was taken during sunset (GPS: 23°8’35” N 82°21’45” W)

Fisherman at sunset (GPS: 23°8’35” N 82°21’45” W)

National Capitol Building

El Capitolio, or National Capitol Building, is a former seat of the Cuban government until Cuban revolution in 1959. Now it serves as a Cuban Academy of Science. Although often compared to Capitol in Washington, it’s not a direct replica, and in fact, many people find it more beautiful than its US counterpart.

Unfortunately, the building itself is being renovated right now, but it still looks quite impressive especially in the evening or at sunrise. Also, the area surrounding it is really picturesque with stretches of very colourful buildings.

Best views of the Capitol are from the rooftop of nearby Saratoga hotel, which happens to be the highest building in the area.

El Capitolio at sunrise

El Capitolio at sunrise photographed from Saratoga hotel (GPS: 23°8’2″ N 82°21’29” W)

Parque Central and Vintage Cars

Photographing vintage cars is a must when in Cuba, and even though you can still come across them virtually anywhere in Havana, one of the easiest spots to do so is in Parque Central (which is one of the most popular spots in Havana, and many vintage taxis are parked there). Besides this place might be good for some street photography as well.

Classic models from 50’s are really beautiful, and many are very well preserved. Cubans hope that in a few years they will be able to get new cars from the USA much easier and cheaper, so it’s very probable that those vintage cars will soon disappear. You can try some panning technique to create really great and colourful images similar to the one on the left.

Vintage cars in Havana

There are many classic cars parked in the Parque Central area and they serve as taxis (GPS: 23°8’12” N 82°21’31” W)

Vintage car in Havana

This photo was in fact taken in Paseo de Marti Street (GPS: 23°8’4″ N 82°21’31” W)

Revolution Square

Plaza de la Revolucion is a huge square from where Fidel Castro used to make his lengthy speeches addressed to the people of Cuba. It’s surrounded by Jose Marti memorial monument (Jose Marti: a poet, writer and leader of independence movement is a national hero of Cuba) and huge “portraits” of Cuban revolution leaders: Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto “Che” Guevera. The latter are a great background for some nice photos like the one below.

Revolution square in Havana

Revolution Square in Havana (GPS: 23°7’31” N 82°23’11” W)

Vinales Valley

Vinales Valley is an agricultural area, where crops of fruit, vegetables and especially coffee and tobacco are grown. The valley itself, which is surrounded by mountains, is very beautiful and picturesque. It’s ideal for some landscape photography but also great if you intend to photograph farmers at work.

Tobacco crops in Vinales Valley

Tobacco crops being grown in the Vinales Valley (GPS: 22°38’3″ N 83°43’32” W)

Vinales Valley

One of the best ways to explore Vinales Valley is riding a horse (GPS: 22°37’51” N 83°42’44” W)

Trinidad

Trinidad is a town located in the central Cuba, on the southern coast. It’s one of the oldest Cuban cities, and it’s full of colonial architecture. Even though it’s relatively small, especially when compared to Havana, it’s still full of great photo opportunities.

Colonial architecture in Trinidad

History Museum in Trinidad (GPS: 21°48’17” N 79°59’8″ W)

One of art galleries in Trinidad (GPS: 21°48’17” N 79°59’5″ W)

26 January 2017

Tips on chasing Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) in Japan

Posted in: Japan, travel guide|

At the same time last year I started preparing for my Japan trip in March – April later that year.

One of the main goals of the trip was to see beautiful phenomenon known as sakura or cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms are found in many countries of the world but only Japan is so crazy about them – there are thousands of thousands of trees around the country, there are sakura parties (known as hanami), there are sakura-flavored icecream, sakura Coca Cola. Even one of the shinkansen trains is called sakura. Yes, cherry trees are important for Japan.

As planning trip for the sakura might be a bit difficult, here are some tips on how to increase your chances of photographing and seeing this beautiful phenomenon.

BTW if you’re interested in travelling to Japan you will find more useful tips on travelling through this amazing country here.

1Sakura near Mt. Fuji (hiding in the clouds). Visit Japan at the right time of the year (late March to mid-April)

Sakura season usually starts in the late March (e.g. in Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka) or early April (e.g. in Kyoto). But there are some regions like Hokkaido island where it can start in late April or early May due to much cooler weather.

Sakura lasts for only about two weeks in a given place but there is one issue. There are just a couple of days when most of the blossoms are opened at the same time (what’s called full bloom) and when observing and photographing sakura is the most rewarding experience.

There are over 600 varieties of cherry trees and some begin blooming much earlier while other bloom later. So even if you miss full bloom you can still see some trees blooming.

2. Check sakura forecast often

When will sakura begin exactly in the given year? No one knows, but based on historical data as well as current and forecasted weather some predictions are being made.

One of the best sites to check sakura forecast is https://www.jnto.go.jp/sakura/eng/index.php – it shows current predictions for each of the major regions in Japan (as well as historical averages). And the closer it gets to the spring, the more precise the forecasts become. Right now there is still no forecast for 2017 season but I guess it will appear soon UPDATE: forecast for 2017 is already available there.

When I was in Japan I checked current forecast at least once a day, planning next days based on it. This resulted in cancelling some hotel reservations or travelling to some distant cities just to see this phenomenon in full.

3. Be flexible

As sakura is highly unpredictable, you need to be very flexible as mentioned above. Even with good forecasts something might go wrong – it might become too warm (and sakura will begin earlier than expected), it can be too cold (what can slow opening of the blossoms), it can get rainy or windy (what can blow the blossoms off the trees much earlier).

And in case of my trip all of that happened. At first it got very warm so the blossoms started to open. But then temperature dropped suddenly what greatly slowed the process. And once cherry trees reached full bloom strong wind and rain blew a lot of blossoms off the trees.

4. Prepare for the crowds

Most of the tourist spots get really crowded during sakura with a lot of Japanese and foreign travellers trying to see cherry blossom. So if you have an idea for a photo, make sure to be there either very early in the morning or well before sunset (if you plan on shooting it).

Also what I noticed is that even though a lot of trains were crowded during that time, usually there wasn’t problem with finding a sitting place.

15 December 2016

Internet in Cuba

Posted in: cuba, travel guide|

Internet in Cuba

To access Internet in Cuba, you need to buy NAUTA WiFi cards

To access Internet in Cuba, you have to buy NAUTA WiFi cards

Easy access to Internet makes travelling & photography so much easier. You can check sunrise and sunset times, verify bus/train timetable on the fly, reserve hotels (or change reservations) during your travels, upload photos to the cloud for backup or share news with your friends on Facebook and so much more.

How to access Internet in Cuba?

But Cuba is communist country and so Internet is as limited and controlled by government as any other goods and services. Right now only one company, NAUTA, offers it.

In order to use it you have to buy a WiFi card for 2 CUC (which is 2 EUR at the time of writing). This card contains WiFi credentials (user and password) which entitle you to use WiFi for 1 hour.

You can buy WiFi card in many hotels, in ETECSA offices (which is telecommunications service provider in Cuba) or in black market, where it will usually cost 1 CUC more than official price. Buying the official way (through ETECSA) has its downsides – you will have to stand in a long queue and also you will be able to buy just 3 cards per person on a given day.

Where can I use WiFi?

To access Internet in Cuba, you need to buy NAUTA WiFi cards

Each WiFi card has user credentials you can use to access WiFi

The issue is that WiFi isn’t widely available. Many hotels have it now, as well as some restaurants and bars. But if you’re staying in casa particular most likely you won’t be able to access the Internet from your apartment. There are also several spots in parks that let you connect to Internet.

Most of the time connection isn’t great but at least for me it wasn’t terrible either. I was able to check emails or travel information without problems.

Make sure to manually log off

Also bear in mind that if you would like to use remaining time on the other day you have to manually log off from the WiFi network. To do that put 1.1.1.1 in your browser URL address and once the page loads click on the “Cerrar sesion” button.

If you forget to do this, your session will continue and will reach 1 hour limit without you using Internet.

Night in Havana

Havana, compared to European, Asian or American cities, is very dark at night. In Havana just a few buildings are lit in the night and you can see them in the photo below. It even sometimes happens that lights in the whole street don’t work at all.

Night in Havana

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8 September 2016

Best Photo Spots in Madeira

Posted in: best photo spots, madeira, travel guide|

Best Photo Spots in Madeira

_X3A6897Madeira island is photographer’s paradise. It’s called Pearl of Atlantic for a reason. Despite the fact you will find something beautiful and worth photographing in the every corner of the island, I decided to compile a short list of best photo spots in Madeira – places that I found most worth photographing.

BTW I plan to add a few more spots to this list later on so stay tuned 🙂

Pico do ArieiroPico do Arieiro

Pico do Arieiro is 3rd highest peak on Madeira island and it offers great views during sunrise (if you’re lucky you will be able to see everything to the sea level) so it’s perfect for landscape photography. It’s also very accessible as there is car parking just about 20 meters away from the peak so you can get there easily by taxi or car.

My tip: what I recommend, however, is that you go down from the Pico do Arieiro down towards Pico do Ruivo a few dozens of meters. On the summit itself there is NATO radar which obstructs the views slightly. But if you go on the trail nothing will block your view.

Ribeira da Janela in the morningRibeira da Janela

There is very nice beach in the northern part of the island known as Ribeira da Janela. River that is flowing through it, made the boulders round and many of them are covered in lush green moss. What’s more there’s huge rock standing out of the sea making it even more attractive location for landscape photographers. And if I add that sun rises exactly behind it, you will be in photography heaven 🙂

My tip: the rocks are extremely slippery. And I mean EXTREMELY. I photographed on many slippery rocks but those were one of the worst I ever experienced. So be careful not to injure yourself or damage your equipment.

25 FontesRabacal to Rico and 25 Fontes levada

Trails along levadas (irrigation system on Madeira island) are beautiful on their own but my personal favorite is levada from Rabacal to Risco Waterfall and 25 Fontes (springs). The walk through the forest offers some great chance to photograph beautifully shaped laurel trees but it is waterfalls that are most impressive. Risco is 100 meters high. 25 Fontes on the other hand is like a small forest pond to which several smaller waterfalls fall. And it looks magical.

My tip: get there early. The place is very popular among tourists and there can be hundreds of them there at the same time ruining the experience completely! I was there completely alone.

Views over FunchalFunchal, capital of Madeira, at night

City of Funchal, capital city of Madeira, is surrounded by sea on one side and mountains on three other sides. What this means is that there are plenty of high vantage points overlooking the city and creating fantastic photo opportunities like the one on the right.

From all the viewpoints I visited my personal favorite is one just below Palheiro Golf club.

Ponta do Sao LourencoPonta de Sao Lourenco

Ponta de Sao Lourenco is fantastic piece of landscape in east part of Madeira, beautiful few kilometers long peninsula in the eastern part of the island. Much different than the rest of the island – there is no single tree, and the place looks very rugged with few dozen meters high cliffs and rocks standing out of the ocean.

My tip: even though the place offers great opportunities to take sunrise photos it requires experience in hiking (as the trail might not be the easiest one for beginners, especially in the night). So if you consider shooting sunrise you might in fact want to see near Ponta do Rosto.

 

30 May 2016

21 days in Japan itinerary

Posted in: Japan, travel guide|

21 days in Japan itinerary

21 days in JapanWhen I was planning my 3-weeks trip to Japan I tried to use other itineraries as example. I knew about some famous spots like Bamboo Grove in Kyoto, Memorial Park in Hiroshima or Mount Fuji but larger part of Japan was great mystery for me. Unfortunately it turns out there aren’t that many itineraries for 3-week long trips (but there are plenty for 2-week trips). So here’s mine 21 days in Japan itinerary. I hope that if you will ever plan your trip to Japan it will come in handy. Here and there I put some links to pages where I write about specific place in more detail.

Please note, however, that my girlfriend and I were focused on seeing sakura season. So you might want to swap a few points to optimize your travel times.

Kegon Falls near Nikko in JapanDay 1 to 4 – Tokyo. We arrived to Tokyo Narita Airport early in the morning and despite being exhausted after long travel decided to walk around the city a little bit. In Tokyo we visited some popular tourist spots like Ginza district, Shibuya crossing, Asakusa with Senso-ji Temple, Imperial Palace Gardens and famous Tsuki-ji fish market.

Apart from walking around Tokyo, during those days we made 2 side-trips to:

  1. Kamakura – old capital of Japan is a place full of temples and shrines. There is also huge statue of Buddha (Daibutsu). We spent in Kamakura almost whole day. You can read more about Kamakura here.
  2. Nikko – is a beautiful mountain town full of temples and also great spot for some landscape photography as there are several beautiful waterfalls in the area, with Kegon Falls being the most famous and arguably the most beautiful one.

pilgrimageDay 5 to 6 – Kumano Kodo. From Tokyo we went to Kii Peninsula, largest peninsula in Japan, to see the Kumano Kodo, which is a network of ancient pilgrimage trails. These sacred routes were used, and still are in fact, by pilgrims travelling to sacred sites like the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha.

On day 5 we visited tuna auction very early in the morning and spent rest of the day trekking on the trails accessible in the area (especially Daimon-zaka). I spent day 6 on wandering around, taking photos and also on travelling to Hiroshima.

Day 7 – Hiroshima and Miyajima. I arrived to Hiroshima in the early afternoon on day 7 so I had plenty of time to visit Hiroshima Castle, Memorial Park and Atomic Bomb Museum as well as to have a short walk through the city. In the evening I moved to Miyajima island where I photographed The Great Tori.

Shiratani UnsuikyoDay 8 to 10 – Yakushima Island. Yakushima island is a magical place although not very popular among tourists. Lush green ancient cedar forest trees, high mountains, numerous small rivers and waterfalls make this place a real paradise for landscape photographers.

  1. Most of day 8 was spent on travelling. First I had to get to Kagoshima by train and from there to fly to Yakushima. So I haven’t seen much on that day.
  2. On day 9 I walked through Shiratani Unsuikyo. It took me almost whole day to do 2 out of 3 trails there.

Day 11 – Osaka. From Yakushima I took late afternoon flight to Osaka and I spent evening of Day 10 photographing Osaka Castle and walking through city streets. In the morning of Day 11 I went to a few parks to photography cherry blossoms. I especially liked Kema Sakuranomiya Park in which several thousand of cherry trees are lining Okawa River.

bamboo_afterDay 12 to 17 – Kyoto. In Kyoto I spent one day visiting the temples in northern and eastern parts of the city (including famous Golden Pavilion and Kiyomizu Dera) and one day in Arashiyama district where I photographed Bamboo Grove and some temples. In Kyoto I also visited famous Fushimi Inari Taisha. While you’re in Kyoto you might also consider spending one night in a traditional ryokan.

During my stay in Kyoto I made side-trips to:

  1. Himeji Castle – kings of all castles in Japan. Known as White Heron Castle this building is probably the most spectacular castle in Japan. What’s more unlike most of the other castles, it was never destroyed by wars, fires or earthquakes.
  2. Nara – Nara, former capital of Japan is most popular for its park inhabited by more than a thousand wild deers.

Day 18 – Koyasan – in Koyasan the most interesting place is Okuno-in cemetery where more than 200.000 tombstones are located making it biggest cemetery in Japan. Also in Koyasan we slept in a temple (shukubo).

mt_fujiDay 19 to 20 – Fuji. Days around Mt. Fuji were quite lazy. We wandered around, took some sunrise and sunset images of Mt. Fuji, visited Chureito Pagoda. We also tried some local cuisine especially Yamanashi style noodles and local grilled beef.

Day 21 – back in Tokyo. On the last day I spent some time in Tokyo, visited traditional Kabuki theater, walked around Ginza district and took some photos I haven’t managed to capture earlier.

15 April 2016

Travelling in Japan – useful tips

Posted in: Japan, travel guide|

mt_fujiTravelling in Japan is rather easy compared to many other countries thanks to excellent rail network running across whole country and connecting most of the cities, including many smaller ones. If you’re planning your trip to Japan I still have a few useful tips for you:

  1. Get yourself JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) – this is a special card for foreign tourists that will allow you to use vast majority of trains in Japan including super fast Shinkansen trains (apart from a few fastest connections) without additional fee. Despite the fact JR Pass isn’t cheap, as it costs around 260 USD for 7 days and 530 USD for 21 days, you will probably save hundreds of dollars if you intend to travel through Japan as single Shinkansen ticket can cost fortune, eg. single one-way ticket for Hikari Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka costs around 130 USD!
    Please note that you cannot buy JR Pass while in Japan so make sure to get it in advance and you better not loose it. Once you buy it you will receive a voucher that needs to be replaced for your JR Pass once you arrive in Japan. You can exchange it at major airports and railway stations.
  2. If you don’t want or can’t get JR Pass for some reason, alternative might be to fly between major cities. A number of low cost carriers operate in Japan such as Peach or Japan Air Commuter (which is part of Japan Airlines group) and they often offer very good priced tickets (prices might be comparable or even lower than Shinkansen trains tickets).
  3. Reserve seats in your trains especially if you intend to travel during rush hours (usually 7 – 9 am), during holiday season or on popular routes like eg. Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka as many trains can be really crowded in such cases. Also note that some trains on most popular routes require reserving seats (eg. Narita Express connecting Narita International Airport with Tokyo). Also for some most popular routes you might need to make reservation a few days in advance. Usually, however, you should be able to that on the same day as your departure.
  4. Use Hyperdia website to find most convenient connections to your destination. This website is very accurate and most of the time it finds best connections (during 21 days there were only 2 cases when I found better ones manually). Also when reserving a seat as mentioned in previous point, you can simply show found connection to a person in ticket office and they will make reservations for you (otherwise you might have problems in reserving your seat as apart from biggest stations there aren’t many English speaking people in JR ticket offices).
  5. Make sure to either rent wi-fi modem or get wi-fi SIM card for your smartphone (eg. this one or this one) – it will make your life much easier, eg. if you need to look up train connection, translate a word from English to Japanese or use Google Maps.
  6. Use baggage forwarding services known as takkyubin – there is often limited space in trains and also carrying heavy and bulky bags is never pleasant so instead of taking your bags everywhere with you, you can forward them to your next destination. Baggage forwarding in Japan is very reliable, fast (bags are usually delivered on the next day), quite cheap and many hotels let you forward the baggage directly from them to your next hotel. Also there are a few companies that offer such services like Yamato Transport or Japan Post.
    I paid about 25 dollars for 2 large backpacks we had with us and was carrying just my camera gear with me when travelling by train. When I arrived at my destination hotel, baggage was always already there 🙂 BTW it’s also a good idea to have destination address written in Japanese.
  7. English language is virtually useless in majority of Japan, including many hotels, restaurants and taxis even in major cities. So you should either learn some basic Japanese phrases or try to communicate with gestures and/or Google Translate (but beware – it often caused more confusion for me than it helped 🙂 ). I found it easiest to communicate in English in Osaka.
    Although station names are usually written both in Japanese and Latin alphabet there are cases when only Japanese name is given (pretty rare but I came across it several times) so it might be good idea to remember Japanese name as well when travelling through less developed areas.