I have recently returned from my first trip (a week) to Havana and it was absolutely fabulous. I cant profess to be an expert, as many people who contribute to this Forum have a lot more experience and knowledge of this fabulous city but I thought I would share some of my experiences with anyone thinking about going and also some suggestions while there.
Tours and Tour Guides
You can do Havana on your own with a good guide book but I really would not recommend this. Mainly because of the vast amount of restoration being done by UNESCO throughout the city. The guide books simply cannot keep up to date with places that have been restored and are lovely to visit. Many of the museums are behind closed doors of old houses and you would never know they were there if you did not have a good guide to show them to you.
I know this has been said 100 times before on this Forum but the best guide is Jorge who can be contacted at email@example.com. We only managed to book him for half a day, which was our first day. He met us at the hotel and we walked round to the Museum of Revolution. Throughout this walk he pointed out buildings of interest, told us the history and made recommendations of where to eat and visit. The Museum of Revolution is interesting but the descriptions are in limited english and Jorge brought the whole history of Cuba to life - this is a guide that makes you really feel you are living the past - other people were earwigging on our tour and many complemented him when we were about to leave. I really wish he could have been our guide throughout the week.
The next day we booked a tour of the city through Virgin holidays. My husband wanted to go on an airconditioned coach which turned out to be a big mistake. If you book one of these tours they are cheap and it is an economical way of seeing the city but you miss so much. Firstly there are at least two nationalities with you so each descripton has to be described in different languages. You drive past many fabulous buildings but only are few are mentioned and you cannot ask the guide "what is that" when you are with 40 other people. Even when you stop to walk through the old town it is very rushed and again only the main sights are pointed out. The tour takes about three - four hours but you really dont take in that much. For the same money we could have had a private tour with Jorge and seen and learnt much more.
After this tour we decided to book private tours and these were done through Cubacon. The first one we did was the Canon ceremony. Our guide was not very good at all, he hardly said anything to us except "Look here are the soldiers in their uniforms - they look nice". Well we could see that but what about some of the history etc.
We had a couple of other tours through Cubacon and the guides were better than the one we had for the Canon ceremony but still not a patch on Jorge - the problem is when you book the tour you don't know who you will get so it is very hit and miss so my advise to anyone if you are going to Cuba look on the trip advisor forums for good tour guides (Marta and Pototo are also meant to be very good) and book their services before you get to Cuba.On our final day Jorge arranged for Raul to show us round the Capitol and Museum of the City and he also took us to a building that had a scale model of Hanana City. It was facinating to see all the landmarks and the model changes from day to night. We would never had found this in a guide book or if we had been on an organised tour bus. Again he was much cheaper for private tours than Cubacon charge.
Tip as you go along and with cash. Most Cubans earn £10/$20/20 CUC a month and no more. The guide we had on the coach tour was a lovely boy in his 20's. He spoke five languages fluently. One of the old gentlemen tourist on the tour asked him if he was on his "Gap Year". Because the Cubans are so well read and well educated and speak english so well, I think people wrongly assume they are like middle class english or americans. The guide had no concept of what he was being asked and when the tourist explained he told him that Cubans were not allowed to leave the country to travel or work abroad (very few do but this has to be approved by the government). He said he would love to be able to save up and travel like the people he meets from other countries but this was not possible. Everything he earned was only enough to buy food and clothes - he could never afford to save up for a holiday like us, even if he was able travel.
Another guide told us that if you work in the travel industry the government assume you receive money in tips so you get taxed on this - so sometimes if you have received good tips you do get a little bit extra but other times you actually loose money.
Everyone we met did not expect to be tipped ( with the exception of a few ladies in the Museum of the City) but they are so appreciative when you do. We found carrying around lots of change 1CUC coins or 3 & 5 CUC notes was very useful. You can be sitting in a cafe and a group of musicians will serenade you and its only fair to give them a few CUC for the entertainment. We did see several people wave their hands at musicians shooing them away. One night in La Fontana restaurant a group of trendy 30 somethings actually asked the musicians to play for them but then didn't give them anything for doing so. The worse thing I experienced was a photographer snapping away at an old Santa Ria lady dressed win white and smoking a cigar. He was getting her to pose while he snapped away with his very expensive equipment and when she held out her had he just walked off. The look on her face was not one of anger but of a person who had been humiliated in public and had had her sole taken away. So my advise is if you can afford to go to Cuba you can afford to tip so please do. We tipped our maid daily in the hotel and also left some items that Cubans would consider luxuries or impossible to get. I took some trainers my kids had grown out of but were still in good condition and left these along with packets of sweets, perfume etc. There are shops in Havana that sell these but they are very scarse and expensive for most Cuban people to buy.
Tips when staying in Havana
Firstly - take a roll of toilet paper or tissues with you whenever you leave your hotel. Every public toilet I went into including the ones in the Saratoga hotel did not have toilet paper ( the only exception to this was the Parque Central hotel and Tropicana). Some hotels have a lady sitting outside who will hand you a square of loo paper in exchange for 1 CUC but it is only a small square so carry extra with you.
Ladies take sanitary towels or tampons with you regardless of whether you think you will need them. I didn't think I would need any but received a suprise (probably due to the long flight) and found it impossible to buy any. Eventually I found a packet of pads (ask for Intima) in the drug store in the Prado arcade but that was only after our receptionist at the Parque Central managed to track some down for me.
As well as the above carry some sweets in your bag when you go out. You often see school children or toddlers walking in the streets of Havana (always well behaved and immaculately dressed) and if you can give them some sweets they are really appreciate.
The only negative point is there are a small minority of people that try to befriend you and then get you to buy drinks for them. (most Cubans would never do this) They will first ask you the time, where you are from and invite you to a bar to listen to a concert - we never fell for this but were approached - the authorities are very strict on these people but there are some around (mainly around the Capitol building) so just walk on and pretend you dont speak english.
Finally if you are planning a trip to Havana - do so soon. There is no other city like it in the world and the Cubans are unique. They are so well educated and articulate, their lives are enriched with Music (everywhere in Havana you will hear live music) art and culture yet most have never been out of the country and never will as much as they would love to be able to. Yet they show no resentment to tourists (unlike so many other countries in the world).
These people are genuinely friendly and appreciate of the fact you have visited their country. Visiting Havana was a wonderful but humbling experience - it just makes you realise how much we have and how little we appreciate how lucky we are.