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Unseen Cuba: A bird's eye view of the enigmatic state

It was a bold move, trying to convince the Cuban government to let him fly over the country and capture it on camera for the first time, especially considering the country's history of secrets and spies. But for aerial photographer Marius Jovaiša that was all part of the challenge.

His new book, Unseen Cuba, gives a truly unique perspective on an island isolated from the world for more than half a century. The collection of 400 captivating pictures, taken from an ultra-light aircraft resembling a canopied tricycle, reveal the spellbinding natural and manmade beauty of Cuba's cities, landscapes and coasts. Jovaiša covered the length and breadth of the country, photographing unspoilt paradisiacal cays and verdant mountains, colonial enclaves and scenic plantations frozen in time, and the grand old capital of Havana.

Starting at his base in Varadero and travelling east along the coast, Jovaiša captured images of Cuba's stunning coral cayes, including the Jardines del Rey archipelago, popular for its white powdery beaches and turquoise waters. He also documented the gorgeous central Cuban towns of Trinidad and Remedios from the air before reaching El Yunque - Cuba's Table Mountain - a favoured hiking destination that overlooks the little far-eastern city of Baracoa.

After doubling back to cover south-east Cuba's fertile Granma province and the Caribbean country's highest peak, the photographer concentrated on Cuba's magnificent capital, snapping the wider cityscape and iconic buildings such as the famous Hotel Nacional and Morro Castle. From Havana, Jovaiša completed his mission by heading west to picture the Unesco-listed Vinales Valley resulting in some of the most striking images of the collection.

Logistical and bureaucratic difficulties in Cuba meant it took Jovaiša more than five years to complete his project, which also led to many trips back and forth to Cuba from his home country of Lithuania. Here, Jovaiša talks about his experiences getting to know this enigmatic country from the ground up and shares a selection of the awe-inspiring images from his book.

Why did you decide to photograph Cuba from the air?

I came to like aerial photography as a genre some 12 years ago. It was a combination of my attraction to all types of adrenalin sports, like paragliding, skydiving, bungee jumping, wake boarding, snowboarding and surfing, and a passion for photography. After publishing books on Lithuania and Belize I was thinking 'what next?' I went to Cuba and realized nobody had been able to take aerial pictures of this amazing country because of the secretive political regime and the technical difficulties associated with doing it. I thought it would be awesome to become the first man on the planet to convince the Cuban government for permission. Cuba is so famous that I expected the book would receive interest all around the world. That was the beginning of a five-year-long story.

How did you go about getting the right shots for your book?

We covered the whole island meticulously, flying from the very westernmost point at Cabo San Antonio to the eastern point of Punta Maisi. I took more than 50,000 photos all in all. I made sure I captured all the most important geographical parts of the island, all types of landscapes and cityscapes. In the beginning I didn't have permits to fly above Havana and major cities. But as time went by, I convinced the authorities to reconsider and eventually I was allowed to fly everywhere I needed. Of course, there were zones still off limits but since I wasn't interested in military installations, that didn't affect my work.

Where did you stay while you were in Cuba?

I would always stay in 'casas particulares' - rooms rented out of privately owned homes. That way I got to see the real Cuba, meet real people and there was much more flexibility. For instance, I'm vegan and my diet it would be close to impossible to use regular hotels and restaurants. But the owners of the houses where we stayed always catered to my special needs. Of course, the condition of the interiors isn't as nice as in luxury hotels, but it was a minor sacrifice compared to the benefits.

Did you have a favourite region or place?

It's impossible to pick just one place, but I do have several favourites. The amazing views of Baracoa city and its surroundings are deeply imprinted in my mind. I really like Trinidad and Playa Ancon in the south central part of the country. Vinales Valley is also among my favourites. Another place of incredible beauty is Cayerias del Norte, east of Varadero, where you can find Cayo Las Brujas, Cayo Santa Maria and other little islands.

Why did the collection take five years to complete?

Probably because in Cuba they still live by rules written in the 1960s. Even though now you can go to Google Earth and find every square metre of Cuba there, the military still very tightly controls the country's aerospace and it secrets. I don't think they trust anybody to fly above the country. 'Who knows what you can spread from your little aircraft?' a Cuban official once explained to me during a meeting. It is a very centralized country and nobody can make a decision; everything has to go up to very high levels so I needed a lot of patience.

I returned to Cuba many times, visiting every possible ministry, institution, foundation and art association. I organized seminars and presentations, even a huge exhibition of my Lithuania photos in one Havana gallery. I donated dozens of my previous books and finally convinced the Ministry of Culture to support my project and to become official supervisor. Just convincing the authorities to allow me to begin this project took almost a year.

Then the major issue became what to use to get airborne. In other countries I would always find a little plane or an ultralight to rent, but for Cuba I needed to buy my own airplane. I ordered it from Australia, we brought it by sea to Cuba, and then it took lots of time and effort to get it certified and prepare a local pilot and mechanic team to operate it. It took more than two years before I could began the actual flights and it took another two-and-a-half years to cover the whole country.

What do you think makes Cuba different to other countries you have visited?

Cuba is a wonder of nature and human history, an absolutely unique place in the world. It has an amazing variety of landscapes, both natural and manmade. It is also frozen in time as there has not been very much development since 1959. The people of Cuba are incredibly sincere, welcoming, warm and tough because of difficult and poor life conditions. But instead of breaking them, the difficulties have made them very strong and inventive. I've made so many good friends in Cuba during the five years making my book.

What was the most memorable moment of your time there?

There were many memorable moments. Most of them were quite maddening and frustrating during the first two years when I still hadn't started the photography. Spending so much time and money without having a slightest assurance that in the end you will succeed is very unnerving. On top of that I was always busy with my other projects and my growing family. So from time to time I would think 'The hell with this. I'm financing the whole operation, the only thing I'm asking is to just sign some papers, and still it takes ages!' But in the end I persevered.

Once we started the flights and photography, we had many amazing moments in the skies, sometimes quite scary when, for instance, you fly into a turbulent zone above the sea. As a triathlon enthusiast, I took the opportunity to train in-between flights, and the moments of my ultra long runs across the mountains or bicycle rides against storm winds will always remain vivid in my mind.

Cuba is known for its beautiful beaches, can you share any secret spots you saw from the air?

The beaches are especially nice on the northern coast, on the Atlantic. I really liked Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Las Brujas in the so-called Cayerias del Norte, east of Varadero. Very quiet, secluded, private and amazingly beautiful. In the south there aren't too many of them, with the exception of Playa Ancon near Trinidad.

Havana is often described as a photographer's dream, which of the city's places did you focus on and why?

Havana was a special case because they kept telling me I would never be allowed to fly over it and take pictures. It wasn't included in the list of zones allowed for my project. It took me a very long time to get special permission and I only did it at the very end of my work in Cuba. Amazingly, once they gave me permission, I was allowed to fly over it in my ultralight, which would be unthinkable elsewhere as only twin-engine planes and helicopters are allowed above big population centres. As to the places in Havana, it is so full of beautiful and important things to photograph that the list would be endless.

Your collection includes Cuba's beautiful old colonial cities, which one did you like the most?

Baracoa, Trinidad and Remedios - those three are my favourites because of their history, architecture and surroundings, and because due to many reasons I got to spend a lot of time around them and so got to know them very well.

When you were not working, how did you spend your time on the island?

Training for marathons, triathlons, yoga and learning Spanish. Walks with my team - pilot Roberto and technician Ariel. Sometimes I brought my kids with me so we would study maths and English, do homework, and go and see baseball games.

How was your experience travelling with your children in Cuba?

It was extraordinary - we all felt immediately at home! Cubans are such family people. Probably because not much else is going on, all their lives revolve around home and family and they love spending time with kids, entertaining them, teaching them and showing them the ways of the world. Cubans are accustomed to poverty and the unavailability of the most basic things so they have become very creative and inventive - they know how to create a toy for a kid out of thin air! My kids and I enjoyed the beaches, virgin mojitos, hiking trips, fresh tropical fruits and lots of other things about Cuba.

Havana

Jovaiša's aerial pictures of Havana capture the time-worn charm and old-world glamour of the grand dame of the Caribbean in all her glory. The capital's skyline is an architectural symphony of colonial heritage, neoclassical, baroque, art deco and communist bloc.

Among its many landmark buildings, the domed Capitolio and the imposing Hotel Nacional stand out, while the snaking Malecon sea wall marks the shore. Flanked by El Morro Castle and the historic city centre of Old Havana, a narrow channel gives way to Havana Harbour, once the chief port of call for ships en route to the new world.

Coast and Cays

Unseen Cuba showcases Cuba's spectacularly beautiful coastline. The island's most popular beach resort of Varadero lines a spectacular spit of powder-soft sand in the north, while in the south the Ancon Peninsula attracts visitors with its pristine beaches and stunning landscapes. Off-shore the northern string-of-pearls cays of the Jardines del Rey - including the beach resorts of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo - are linked to the mainland via snaking causeways and encircled by underwater coral gardens.

Elsewhere nature reserves ensure the coastal habitats of countless coast-dwelling creatures remain untouched by development, miles of mangroves cover the shallows and vast river deltas merge into the sea.

Colonial Towns

From majestic seaside cities such as Matanzas to perfectly-formed former Spanish colonies such as Trinidad and Remedios, Unseen Cuba frames the time-warp ambience and historic charm of Cuba's urban areas.

Unesco-listed Trinidad is just as delightful from the ground as from the air, while Jovaiša's photos of Cuba's first settlement, Baracoa, reveal a storyboard of streets representing more than 500 years of history on the island since Columbus first arrived in 1492.

Nature and Countryside

Cuba's diverse and immensely photogenic rural and natural landscapes include the scenic Valley of the Sugar Mills (Valle de los Ingenios), once home to countless sugar plantations, and the dream-like mogote-humped Vinales Valley, crisscrossed with fragrant tobacco fields.

The lush highlands of Sierra Maestra mountains rise to a dramatic crescendo at Pico Turquino in the south, while El Yunque's distinctive flat table shape looms above the far eastern town of Baracoa.

For more information on the project and to buy the book, please visit: Unseen Cuba

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