Cuba: There's more to this island than icons of the revolution

A family holiday reveals how to capture the best images of a photogenic country, from cigar-rollers and Cadillacs to its mighty mountain ranges and cowboys, as Mike Unwin discovers

Behind the opulent carved front door it's a typical colonial Cuban living room. Framed Spanish ancestors glower down on to antique furniture; afternoon sunlight streams through wrought-iron window bars across the tiled floor. Typical in all respects except, perhaps, the two horses that stand patiently between the bamboo easy chair and mahogany coffee table.

My daughter is dumbstruck as we edge past the animals to the tray of welcome drinks. "This is Luna," explains our host, Julio Muñoz, patting the larger beast, "and this is her foal." The youngster has been unwell so he's brought her inside to keep an eye on her. As you do.

To be fair, Julio – photographer, horse whisperer and local celebrity in the Unesco World Heritage town of Trinidad – is probably not your average Cuban. But, one week into our tour, "average" is proving tricky to pin down. Cuba seems to be one bizarre juxtaposition after another – rumba dancers jiggling in front of revolutionary slogans, old ladies chewing on stonking cigars – and we are learning to expect the unexpected.

It is such images, of course, that make the island so famously photogenic. I'm here, with my family and four others – our children ranging in age from eight to 15 – on an innovative tour. The idea is to combine a holiday, taking in some of the island's classic sights, with a basic photography course. Something to keep all ages both busy and happy.

Julio is the second of two local photography guides on our trip. Already he has led us on a walkabout through town, doffing his cowboy hat to elderly señoras. We clicked away at his promptings: stooping low to capture a rose-pink 1960s Cadillac before the crumbling Convento de San Francisco; panning wider for a full street tableau – barefoot children, pastel houses, skinny gent with pet iguana. Now, back in his living room, we are learning the theory.

"See how it leads the eye in." Julio explaining the one-thirds principle of picture composition, uses his own slide show to demonstrate that placing the subject at the intersections in an imaginary grid of thirds, rather than centering it, gives the viewer a sense of expectation. "Aaah!" we chorus, as he illustrates the point with one stunning image after another.

Our clicking began a week earlier in Havana, where government tour guide Ari Perez met us at the airport. Over the past week, driving from A to B, he has been regaling us with the virtues of his homeland, how it has clung to its ideals through five decades of US imperialist aggression. His commentary has not been without its subtext: a frustration at the lack of passports, internet access and other Western indulgences. But all that may be about to change. Once the first trickle of private enterprise opens the floodgates, so popular opinion has it, the island's unique qualities will – for better or worse – be swept away in a deluge of bland Western consumerism.

And so, with just one full day in Havana, we piled into a fleet of vintage American cars and rumbled out from our hotel in search of the capital's legendary faded grandeur. Our Cadillacs and Chevrolets cut an incongruous dash in the Plaza de la Revolución as we passed beneath a vast mural of a clearly disapproving Che Guevara. Dismounting in the city centre, we followed Ari on foot into the labyrinth of Habana Vieja (the old town). Our cameras fell greedily on the life and colours of the street: elegant colonial interiors, street vendors hawking ballet shoes, a caged parrot in a chocolatier's window. For a nation squeezed into austerity, the place seemed brimful of life.

At a tourist restaurant – ice cream for youngsters, mojitos for parents – the toasties were unimpressive (Cuba is not for foodies) but the house rumba band was fabulous.

The following afternoon saw us high above a valley, some 175km to the west of the capital, gawping at the panorama of Viñales. "Switch to aperture priority and try a low F-stop," suggested Harold, the self-effacing young photography guide who had joined us in Havana. We scrolled through one another's images, trying to decide who had best captured this improbably chocolate-box landscape – its massive limestone buttresses punching up through a green patchwork of field and forest against a storm sky of angry purples.

Farming in Cuba remains highly traditional, the collapse of the sugar industry after the demise of Soviet Russia having spelt the end of large-scale production. This, after all, is a country with one of the lowest per capita carbon footprints on Earth. It all made for an appealing mix the next morning as we set out on foot to explore the Viñales valley. We snapped away as pigs rootled beneath grenadilla hedgerows, a farmer led his bullock through an arrowroot field and a heron flapped over the spiky palisades of pineapple plants.

At the end of a village track were the tobacco sheds, wrinkled leaves arranged on drying racks in the dark. Cuba's cigar industry is hailed as a paragon of the small-scale, organic and community-based – and yet it is tobacco. Nobody dared interrupt Ari's spiel with awkward questions, however, as he explained how the traditions are passed down through generations, that cigars are in fact good for you and how all that imperialist anti-smoking propaganda was just aimed at destroying Cuba's economy. Certainly the details were remarkable: a cigar receives such loving attention, on its long journey from field to humidor, that an estimated 173 hands touch each leaf.

"Try turning off the flash," suggested Harold, as we entered a dark room to watch a wizened tobacco farmer rolling a cigar – aromatic triga leaves for the inside, tougher capa leaves for the sheath. "A blur gives you more action." The aroma of roasting coffee beans competed with that of the leaves twisting between his nimble fingers as we jostled to capture pictures. The children, meanwhile, were thrilled at having pretend puffs on the finished product. "Did you get a picture, Dad? How cool was that!"

Deep in Cuba's pastoral interior it is easy to forget you are on a Caribbean island. But it was the Caribbean that provided our next stop. The Bay of Pigs, in the island's southwest, is best known for the ill-fated American sponsored "invasion" of 1961. It was in the warm, shallow waters of Playa Girón – near our beach hotel – that a CIA-trained team of 1,400 exile paramilitaries came ashore, only to be defeated by Castro's revolutionary guard. Among the relics at a nearby museum, colourful rhetoric celebrated the deeds of the heroes – one of whom, before expiring, had scrawled "Viva Fidel" in his own blood on the side of a tank. Outside, belligerent-looking land crabs scuttled across the sand, their pincers echoed the military hardware on display.

Cold War history – along with cameras – were abandoned the next morning as we headed to the nearby coral lagoon of Caleta Buena for a spot of snorkelling. The sea was suitably turquoise and the darting reef fish did their kaleidoscopic stuff. My daughter and I watched a line of cuttlefish hang above the bottom, warning colours pulsing along their spaceship bodies, until a swish of my flipper sent them rocketing away. Piña coladas followed with our al-fresco lunch beneath the palms ("sin alcohol, para los niñas," of course).

As we continued east, via the French-influenced coastal town of Cienfuegos and the beaches at Costa Sur, Ari warmed to his themes. Tongue-in-cheek complaints about "our American friends" had become more vehement as he bemoaned the suffering wrought by sanctions, but just as quickly dissolved into a grin. "In Cuba," he explained, with a wink, "we solve all our problems with rum, cigars and 'cushy-cushy'." Indeed.

And so to Trinidad, jewel of southern Cuba, tucked away among a picturesque cluster of hills halfway along the south coast. Having met Julio and his horses on day one, day two sees us clambering into the saddle and trotting after him into the lush countryside. We wind among sugar plantations and splash through streams before reaching a hacienda, where raw cane is crushed into syrupy drinks and an old-timer belts out Spanish love songs on a battered four-string guitar. Finally we dismount, gingerly, for a lavish lunch at La Finca de Leonardo, Julio's family home, where a table is laden with rice, beans and shrimp salad, and a pig turns slowly on a spit. "I want to visit Scotland," says Julio's daughter María, as she pours Cuban Colas for the children. "I want to meet J K Rowling."

Julio does not forget his responsibilities. After lunch we pull over at a ford where, parked in the river – rear wheels in the water – is a classic red Cadillac. Julio lines us up on the bank, with the light behind us and then plays his trump card: a cowboy gallops into the shallows and, with dazzling horsemanship, makes circuit after circuit around the vehicle, sending plumes of spray across the gleaming fenders. We snap away from every angle – trying to distill into one winning image all we've learnt in the past week about movement, colour and composition. Those with more ambition or fancier cameras have ample time to experiment with different settings. The results, at least in my case, are rather less impressive than the spectacle. But it's a breathless and thrilling half hour.

Cadillac, cowboy … all we need to complete the cliché is Che Guevara chomping on a cigar. But these images are famous for a reason. Yes, our tour has doubtless given us a rose-tinted impression of Cuba and glossed over its numerous difficulties. But it's a gorgeous place, we're on holiday, we've got our cameras and now – at last – we're not afraid to use them.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mike Unwin travelled as a guest of The Adventure Company (0845 450 5316; adventurecompany.co.uk) which offers a 12-day Viva Cuba! family holiday, from £1,670 for children and £1,855 for adults, including flights, hotel accommodation, some meals, transport and services of a local tour leader. It also offers tailor-made tours for families or groups (minimum two people) which can include photography tuition and assignments, prices on request.

Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; flythomascook.com) flies from Manchester and Gatwick to Holguín and Cayo Coco; Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; thomson.com) flies from Gatwick to Holguín; and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) flies from Gatwick to Havana.

More information

Travel2cuba.co.uk

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