In the end, the official tour had its advantages and disadvantages. On the pro side, our tour guide spoke excellent English, and gave us lots of insights into local industries, agriculture, history, and social issues, both on the drive and in the city itself. And the bus was very comfortable and clean, with air-con and a toilet on board. The cons: being herded like cattle around the prime tourist hotspots, with 45 minutes here, an hour and a half there, and a mere five minutes for photos in a rain-soaked Plaza de la Revolucion;
Viva la Revolucion! (Unless it's raining)
time wasted in places we had no real interest in, such as a slow drive through a very wet cemetery and a half-hour stop at a cigar shop; no choice in where to go or where to eat lunch (included); not enough time in general. If we were to do the trip over again I'd spend more time trying to find an alternative option, but overall I'm very happy that we made it to this beautiful and interesting city.
Habana is a UNESCO world heritage site, and that worthy organisation has been providing funds to help the Cuban government renovate the older parts of the city. I do hope this money continues to flow; the areas that have already been fixed up are just gorgeous,
while other areas of the city have such obvious potential. Gorgeous facades and intricate plaster work crumble sadly away, crying out for a coat of paint, or try in vain to mask the sight of water from a tropical rain storm cascading through the hollowed out rooms and down a stone spiral staircase.
You missed a bit!
It must have been something to see in its heyday. At the moment, though, it's obviously still a work in progress!
The workmen we came across were very happy to let us photograph them at work, and shook hands with Mr E Man when he identified himself as a carpenter. I saw a glint in his eye that made me think he might be dreaming of swapping Vancouver's dreary grey gloom for a life spent restoring Habana's buildings to their former glory!
A Canadian connection from more capitalist times
We'd been warned before we left Canada about constant harassment from beggars and hustlers. There was a wee bit of that in Habana, but really, Paris and Rome are far worse (and so are other parts of Cuba - stay tuned!) And I never once felt unsafe, even when we ventured into the teeming, hot, sticky side streets, and had to duck into a wee bit of a seedy bar to shelter from a sudden downpour, before making a mad dash back to the bus along cobbled streets suddenly flowing with a couple of inches of water! A steamy bus full of wet shoes, oh joy!
One warning, if you go: take your own toilet paper! Habana was a great introduction to this most important rule of Cuban travel. In our two weeks in Cuba, I only saw the magic combination of paper, seat, soap, running water, and paper towels or hand dryer once or twice outside of the resort (and not always inside!) Even in nice restaurants and hotels, packed full of Western tourists, you have to either get your TP at the door from the ubiquitous attendant (they hand out 2 or 3 sheets max of the local sandpaper), or supply your own. Some loos didn't even have a flush mechanism, meaning that the attendant would have to come in after you and fill the top tank with water from a bucket. (Needless to say, I did not enjoy this aspect of the authentic local colour!) I quickly realised that, in the absence of a good-sized bag, it was best to stuff the pockets of my waterproof jacket full of small change for tips (required even if you take your own paper), a roll of TP (brought from home after reading the guide book very carefully), and hand sanitiser. I got some odd looks (and snarky comments from Mr E Man) for always carrying my jacket, even on hot sunny days, but really, such discomforts are very minor, and well worth the inconvenience.