Changing Planet


In light of today’s Washington Post article , I wanted to share some thoughts on our new Cuba map .

My career as a cartographer, and now as The Geographer, at the National Geographic Society, spans more than 30 years. In that time I have worked, in one manner or another, on most if not all of the atlases, globes, reference maps, and hundreds of other cartographic products we have produced. Although the advent of computer-assisted cartography has forever changed the way mapmakers produce maps, here the human element is still essential. Without having a good idea as to the “lay of the land,” it is difficult for any cartographer to produce a map that possesses a soul: a map that not only shows but guides the reader to all of those places unique to every piece of geography.

Every morning when I enter the offices of National Geographic Maps, there is plaque in our lobby that states the following, “A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams.” The Society’s founding editor, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, penned these words some 100 years ago. They have served me well all of these of years but only recently have these words gained greater significance.

To me, like many Cuban émigrés, there is nothing more iconic than a map of our homeland. So it was with great pride and excitement when I learned that I was assigned to oversee the production of our new map of Cuba—the first large format map of the island that the Society has produced since October 1906! From September 2010 through May 2011, the project staff and I toiled daily to produce the most accurate and up-to-date map yet available of Cuba. On a weekly, if not daily basis, I reviewed all layers of information being added to or edited on the map–all the while having the map bring back recollections of my past. At times, it even transported me to some of the places on the island that I am most fond of.

Early on the morning of the day the map files were to be shipped to the printer, I took a final look at our map. I checked for and found all of those special places near to
my Cuban heart. When the map files finally left my hands, I was content knowing that the project staff and I had not only given this map a soul but that we had also penned a very special “poem.”


Juan José Valdés
The Geographer
Director of Editorial and Research
National Geographic Maps


Read All Posts in This Series


CUBA ON MY MIND: Hitting the Cartographic Jackpot

CUBA ON MY MIND: Armchair Traveling

CUBA ON MY MIND: Creating a New Classic Map

CUBA ON MY MIND: An Editorial Tour of the Island

CUBA ON MY MIND: “At the corner of Yield and One Way”

Juan José Valdés is The Geographer and National Geographic Maps' Director of Editorial and Research. He guides and assists the Map Policy Committee in setting border representations, disputed territories, and naming conventions for National Geographic. As NG Map's Director of Editorial and Research, he is responsible for ensuring the accuracy and consistency of its maps and map products.
  • Bill Stoehr

    Congratulations Juan. What a great story. I understand the passion. I can’t wait to get a copy. Be well.

    • Juan Valdes

      Thanks, Bill. I’m glad you enjoyed the story. But this is just one of many. There is a story behind
      every single map we publish. How much time have you got?

      Juan José Valdés

  • Folake Ogunsina

    Cool! i’ve always been fascinated about maps, used to collect maps from my dad’s national geographic magazine when i was a kid ,guess thats why i know so much about places. Kudos! natgeo.

    • Juan Valdes


      Thanks for your comments. Maps are among the Society’s many missions. Our intent is to not only have them define the geography of continents, regions, and nations to our readers, but to also serve
      as portals to all of the wonders they possess.

      Juan José Valdés

  • Maria Ibanez

    Great story in the Washington Post. As Cuban-American I am always interested in new things, stories, images and maps about the island. I am sending the story to the rest of my family.

    • Juan Valdes


      Thank you so much for letting me know how much you liked the article. Hope the rest of your family does as well.

      Juan José Valdés

  • Peter Beck

    Juan as a recent NG retiree, I remember the many exposures needed for each color layer, mountain ranges and type, then making Cromalin proofs for you guys in Cartographic when I worked downstairs in Pre-press Graphics. I was proud of my small contribution back then to the most beautiful maps in the world!

    • Juan Valdes


      You’ve not been forgotten. We remember well your contributions to making and color correcting many of our maps before they went to press. Although the map making process has changed, our goal remains the same-to make the best maps in the world.

      Juan José Valdés

  • Onyema Alaegbu

    Comming in touch with the Revised National Geographic Atlas of the world has aided my knowledge of the world and its locational attributes.I appreciates ur cartographic works. Welldone!

    • Juan Valdes


      Thank you for letting us know we have fulfilled one of our many missions.

      Juan José Valdés

  • Rey

    I like your passion. I think that all the people that find her way think like you. I have a cuestion! You and your team can produce maps that predict through the time, for example, migration or animal extintion?. Thanks for read me! and excuse me for my poor english.

    • Juan Valdes


      Thank you for your comments.

      Yes, in the past we have produced many maps, known as page maps, for National Geographic articles on
      historic and present-day faunal and floral migrations.

      Juan Jose Valdes

  • Rey Galicia

    I hope that one day we can see maps that predict changes with a mathematical model and that experts in subjects can rewrite those models to improve them. Thanks for your daily work!

    • Juan Valdes


      The most diffcult mathematical problem of all to solve is that of predicting human nature. Maps can do a wonderful job of tracking past events.
      In many cases, they can be used to predict culturally and physically induced occurances. But when it comes to all things political,
      cartographers are bounded to only mapping the present.

      Thank you for sharing your thought. I’m glad you have enjoyed our postings.

      Juan Jose Valdes

  • Emm.Stafrace

    I like looking up old maps and compering them with the more recent ones thus noting the development of our island home -Malta.Some of these maps date from the Knights of St.John time 1530 to 1798, Then there are the more embellished ones dating to when Malta was under British rule.

    • Juan Valdes


      Thanks for your comments. You are quite right, historical maps are one of the best portals yet devised
      for comparing landscapes and places of the past with those of the present.

      Juan Jose Valdes

  • Adam D

    I have been facinated with maps since my younger days, navigating the woods on a Boy Scout trip. I think there is something incredibly special about a map, that I know not many people share with me. I do not think of them as a picture, rather a historical guide to how the Earth was carved and settlements were made. I guess it would be much like reading a romance novel for some, not that I would know. I have been looking for the right “giant” wall map of the world for my home. I just cannot decide on the style. Thanks for the article.

  • Emma L-S

    As I commented at Washington Post online the photographer of the picture with your mother was Mario, a very well known photographer in Havana and later in Miami. I contacted his daughter and granddaughter who run the studio in Miami to tell them about the article and the photo in the Post – I hadn’t been in touch with them in a few years as our daughter is now in her 20s and we no longer fly to Miami annually to pose for a picture(some Cuban traditions continue here in the U.S. :-). I was thrilled to hear that Mario is 92 and doing quite well though he is having some trouble with his vision. He was so thrilled to hear about the photo in the paper and about your map. I got extra copies of the paper that day and sent him a copy and another to my parents who also live in Miami and are in their 80s. They were all very proud of your beautiful new map.
    All the best.

    • Juan Valdes


      Thank you for your kind response to the Post article. Please get word to Mario
      that his photo is among my most prized possessions. The way he posed my mother
      and I, along with the expressions he elicited, has served me well all of these years.
      For me, its more than a photograph. Its a benchmark of my families sacrifices,
      hardships, and triumphs that have followed. For one mere image to capture and
      evoke such remembrances says much of the artistry of this photographer.

      Juan Jose Valdes

  • Darryl Hunt

    I was in Cuba in the late 70’s and came away with the 1978 twentieth anniversary issue of the Atlas de Cuba from the Instituto Cubano de Geodesia y Cartografia. It is a very comprehensive book, and I wonder if you used it for your research?

    • Juan Valdes

      Although dated, the Atlas of Cuba is an impressive cartographic piece.
      We used it as a secondary source when we were researching the map.

      Glad to know you were impressed as well.

      Juan Jose Valdes

  • […] can read more in this great little article about the new Cuba Map project: Posted by Admin at 9:14 […]

    • Juan Valdes

      Thanks, terravistamaps. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Juan Jose Valdes

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