I've always wanted to go to Cuba and although it's was a a bit of an extra big cost, I couldn't resist when I realised how easily you could fly from Grand Cayman where we were to change at from Honduras anyhow.
As soon as you land in Cuba, it's like no where else I've ever been. The passport control is really plain and you just go up to these little, almost hidden cubicles, quickly get stamped in, then head to the arrivals area with just the 2 luggage carousels. So small and basic for the capital of a fairly large island (about half the size of the UK). You're in and out pretty quickly as there isn't tons of flights coming in. We had someone meeting us from our accommodation as because, like so many countries, you get lots of taxi drivers taking you to their friends accommodation rather than the one you're booked in and so we thought it'd be easier to get picked up. If in doubt, in any country, I find it's good to get a pickup as it's when you're at your most vulnerable - often tired, confused, not knowing how things work and what's what. He also took us, on the way, to an ATM so we could get out some local currency which was great as we were concerned we'd only be able to change up the US dollars we had at a huge charge (see money matters below). Despite what was said during my research - we never found finding ATMS or getting money from them a problem.
We weren't picked up in an old classic car in the true sense but we picked up in a pretty beaten up old car, because that's what most people drive. You see photos and footage of Havana and you see the old cars but I've always kind of thought that there were lots about alongside 'normal' cars. Not so - the average car on the street really is many decades home. This, along with the lushness of a Caribbean island, tumbledown buildings and the odd revolutionary paintings on said buildings, makes for a pretty powerful first impression on your drive into town. It's not often I get such an overwhelming buzz about somewhere so soon after arriving. Probably Vietnam and Japan, which were 2 of my favourite places, but also because they have such a strong visual identity. Anyhow, by the time we turned up at our accommodation I was already in love with Havana. Mark, as he usually is, was feeling a bit reticent and I think his first impressions were clouded by the crumbling buildings - this gives the place a look of real poverty that doesn't really balance out with the reality of the place. I knew to expect this so I didn't find it off putting. I think if you see buildings looking like this in any other country it would be a sign of huge deprivation. Sure - Cuba has it's issues and people aren't exactly flush but in terms of most countries in Central America and the Caribbean the standard of living is high. Not by western standards maybe, but there's much worse in South East Asia and even places you wouldn't expect so much like Fiji. The buildings are tumble down because most are state owned and the state and the people don't have the extra money to do them up. This is changing little by little. There's a ton of work going on in central Havana to restore the glorious old buildings - by state and by allowing foreign investment. For the first time since the revolution, selling of homes has been allowed recently. This is a huge thing. People could previously only swap homes. If people aren't taking on and improving homes, the situation will never improve and I think the government has recognised this.
A lot of people staying in Casa Particulars in Cuba and I cannot recommend this more highly. It's just like a b&b really, where someone opens up a few rooms of their home. I cannot imagine we would have had the same experience if we'd staying in a hotel. We turned up to a Havana back street to the hugest door I'd ever seen and entered our home for the next week - Casa Miriam (booked through hostelbookers).
The guy who runs doesn't speak great English and check-in takes a while, but he is lovely and tries to help best he can. He gave us a reassuring talk (I think) about how in Havana no-one will shoot you but they will get you with their talking. He pointed out that no matter what anyone said to us out on the street, he has no brother or uncle or relatives living in the street. I had heard that was probably our biggest threat (for want of a better word) - people with the matter feeding you a line - the kind of scam where you're not even sure if you've been scammed or not after. These are purportedly common in Thailand and especially Vietnam too, but we'd never had a problem and never did in Cuba. I think we have, after all this time, lost our fresh, bewildered, nervous traveller faces and so there's much easier marks than us.
Anyway, along with a lovely owner, I was blown away by the accommodation itself. On the second floor of a grand old building - it was slightly crumbly on the outside but well looked after but full of character on the inside. I have never seen such high ceilings and being from the UK, they are not that uncommon in old houses. There was a huge window at the front and a balcony out onto the street. This big front room was the communal room and where meals were eaten. It was decorated with old but quality furniture with an interesting mix of art and family photos. There were 3 guest rooms off the side and the back opened out to look down on a courtyard below, with the family living at the back of the property. I recognised the building layout as being similar to the shophouses in Georgetown, Malaysia - with the courtyard area in the middle included to help with the air flow and that along with the high ceilings keepin the place cool. We did have a fan and aircon, but actually the place was kept generally pretty cool anyway.
Our bedroom and bathroom ceilings were also stunningly high. We had a window slot directly above us which they'd close off somehow at times - I think maybe some pulley system with a piece of wood. Sometimes they'd forget to pull it back open to let in light but being such a large room it would never feel dark and gloomy in the day.
We had a super comfy bed and everything was of a kind of family quality - we'd gotten a bit used to scratch sheet and threadbare towells, so although not luxurious, was lovely for us. Proper cotton sheets! Everything is built to such a high standard as well. They don't do things by halves in Havana I found.
Our street was a mixture of building styles, but all high and grandiose. The lady across the road would send a piece of rope and a bucket down to bring her milk up to her. There was a line just down the road full of dangling shoes. Due to the lack of number of cars, kids played football on the street. Full of character and charm.
Everywhere you go in Cuba people are hanging off big balconies - talking to someone or watching the world go by.
We were about a 10 minute walk into the centre of town, with the Parque Central and we could also in about 2 minutes, be up by the Malecon, the seafront where in the evenings/nights people congregate just to hang out. Every time we walked up there we'd see the guy playing his trombone and everytime someone walked by and he made a comedy slide it was childishly funny!
On our first day we walked along the Malecon and then down into the centre of town via Paseo Del Prado. We accidentally stumbled on something we'd been recommended to go see. On Sundays, in the pedestrain walkway in the middle, I think it's called the Vedado - there are people selling art and more enjoyably, people from the local dance schools come out to do demonstrations. It was funny to see a couple - she in a dress and killer heels and him in his jeans and trainers, dancing an impeccable Tango.
There are huge and grand buildings everywhere and I could never tire of just walking the streets. In the centre of town you have the Capital building which is a great landmark for working out where you are.
There's amazing huge buildings, fabulous cars, horse drawn carriages - colourful, friendly people - music coming from everywhere - it's sunny but not to hot - you can only be in Havana and it's an incredible feeling.
We started our first day quite tenatively by going to some tourist classics - La Floridita is a Hemingway haunt where he'd go for a cocktail. It's gorgeous inside, if on the icey side, with the air con. It's pricey but classy and has to be done once. We then had a bit of a wander about before heading to Sloppy Joe's - another touristy place but it's cool and welcoming and the drinks are half the price of La Floridita!
Over the week, I traipsed Mark all over Havana, exploring little areas and I was just happy walking about anywhere in the city - no where is bland that is for sure. The Museum of the Revolution is a must. It's not always that explanatory, but there's lot's in English and lots of interesting artifacts. Mark was fairly clueless about the whole thing but was excited to see Fidel Castro's boots and glasses.
The museum is set in a building which was actually attacked during the revolution and there is bullet holes in the entrance way and even in the cafe floor.
The building was then, for a long time, where the new government was based. It was kind of weird to be in the room where huge decisions were undertaken and in Fidel Castro's office - imagining him looking out over the city. It was a bit like the untouched offices in Ho Chi Minh - places where time has been a little frozen are always fascinating. It's also interesting, of course, to see the revolution from the Cuban perspective.
They are renovating large areas of the building, which in itself is a work of art. I love the juxtaposition of these painted ceilings and some new modern works of art (including one showing Fidel and Chavez) they had about the place.
This doll was used to smuggle something and was a tad sinister but interesting.
There was a small section dedicated to Che which was great as it covered a few bits that I'd gotten confused about. I knew he'd died in Bolivia and wasn't Cuban (Argentinian), so I'd been surprised by the Cuban adoration. He's such an icon figure and continues to be. One of those things about dying early I guess but also he was strangely good looking.
There is a very different place we popped into (free but a donation is welcome) - the Museum de Reuinion, which is essentially part museum and part still functioning drugstore. Large pots and quirky jars - is quite an unusual and visually stunning place to take a look at.
One place that is very touristy but actually also very fun is Bodeguita Del Medio - another Hemingway hangout. There is a restaurant out the back and the bar at the front which is tiny but they fit in a band playing there at all times. This is allegedly the birth place of the mojito and it's definitely not the best one I had, but you have to, don't you? It had lot's of groups coming in that were on day trips into the city from the resorts. They'd literally come in, have a mojito, buy some souviners and leave. This was kind of our plan, but we settled into our stools at the bar and it turned out to have a great atmosphere and during our time there, two great bands.
There's a curious little attraction just on the edge of the Plaza Vieja - Camera Obscura. Based on some design by Leonardo de Vinci, they have a little contraption which makes you able to zoom in on scenes from all over the city. The view from the top of the building, even without going into the little camera session is fantastic.
We went on the Havana bus - which I think couldn't really be described as a sight-seeing bus but really it's a good bit of hop on hop off transport to take you about the city - particularly for those staying in bigger out of town hotels. But I think for most tourists, including Mark, it's quite a dull experience. I loved it myself as it took you all over town to wear people live and work and you saw all kinds of styles of building and shops and was a fascinating overview. Something interesting for instance is the road systems are large and modern but there is so little traffic on them.
The monument area is probably the most impressive and notable stop.
We went out to the Coppelia ice-cream parlour, which is allegedly the biggest ice-cream parlour in the world. It's essentially a whole little parc complex and is a huge draw. Like with much of Cuba there is 2 prices - one for locals one for tourists and you had to go to separate areas. Security would guide you to the tourist place which had no queue really and the locals could join the massive, long line of people queueing to get local price. The ice-cream is allegedly good but we weren't really in the mood by the time we got there so never sampled it. I was more interested in the 60s designed space aged style building. The Coppelia site is on La Rambas - a street well worth a wonder down, which will take you back to the seafront.
All about Autos
I love old cars. I'm not majorly knowledgeable but I do love an automobile museum and particularly in different countries as I love seeing cars I don't recognise. So, I was utterly in heaven in Havana. It wasn't so much the classic cars, it was all the weird and wonderful ones - funny little trucks,
You hire many of the old cars to take you about town. It's not expensive - it's how the locals get around. We went out one day with that in mind - I thought it was more interesting to get in one of the older, less pristine cars for a ride, but as we wondered about at the front of the capitol building, a guy with the most beautiful car offered us a ride for a fair price that we couldn't refuse. This car was a 1952 Buick. Shiny and blue. He was a suave guy too - which his hat and crisp white shirt. (If anyone visits and want to hire the car and driver, I still have his business card so his details are - Ricardo Mejias Garcia - Phone: 260-0365 Mob: 05-282-4386)
There are a few ways of getting about town. The old cars are cheap and easy and you can get them anywhere. They're also not expensive as you might think. We got a ride home from town for much the same price as we'd been paying the rick-shaw cycle taxis. It was a beautiful mauve car with the most incredible sound system and lighting inside. It was a cool ride home!
Usually, as I said above, if we'd walked enough we'd get about by nabbing a rick-shaw taxi. You've really got to haggle, which we never did well as we paid a huge variety of prices and we realised a few days in this is where lots of our money was going. But then you do always feel sorry for some poor bugger lugging us too fat arses around.
The other type of taxi, which sadly we never got around to using (you don't actually need taxis that much if you're in central Havana as it's very walkable), is the bubble taxi. I love these. Great idea and always delighted in seeing them.
Then there's the normal taxis. I guess if you're going along way, but with all those other choices - why would you?
You see side-cars about a lot, but no-one is ever in them. In fact, if there are 2 people on a bike with a side-car you can guarantee the second person is holding onto the driver. I think they just use them to scoot stuff around.
The police in Cuba are a good looking bunch. There's something very glamorous about them. Maybe it's the uniform. I've seen a lady officer, in her kind of jump suit uniform, stood by her bike - she wasn't a young chick - was likely late 40s even, but she was hot and cool at the same time.
The bikes are generally really cool too.
The same can't be said of the vans. I thought this was just someone using an old police van the first time I saw it. Then I saw another, and another and realised these were active police vans.
I have never known such amazing live musicians as I have come across in Havana. It's such a part of the experience to sit in a bar or restaurant listening to an incredible band sweep you up with the distinctly cuban vibe.
The places I thought were best for music were the aforementioned small, Bodeguita Del Medio.
Then a great, fun place to go is a restaurant/bar on Obispo called Bar Lluvia de Oro this is a large, friendly space where they had quite a big band. It's family friendly too - the guy who runs it has clearly been at it for year, it has an amazing old built in bar and prices are really reasonable. The musician guys would swap between instruments, singing and dancing and were fantastic. They'd tried to get you up to dance with them (imagine my horror - I'm English for goodness sake!), but lots of other tourists (always of the latin american variety I note) would get up and dance so brilliantly - it must be an extra gene.
At a different end of the scale was a small, friendly bar, again on Obispo called El Escabeche. They had just two guys playing, a slightly gentler set. They would swap instruments at the drop of a hat, playing each beautifully. Mark was fascinated and had a go on one of their guitars - trying to play along. He's no slack on the guitar but he was terrible because rather than do the chords the guy was telling him to do, he was doing what he saw the guy doing - which wouldn't work because of something musical and technical that I forget. Lesson learned Mark - do as I say not as I do!
Our favourite ever was not in a bar, but a band of three old guys who'd walk around the streets and play at bars restaurants that didn't have their own band. They were characterful, soulful and super talented in a way that time has aged perfectly.
We went to Cuba's china town that first night. It wasn't bad but it was the kind of food a student could probably cook for themselves if they were being a bit adventurous with out much ingredients. The downside of Cuba really is the food. The lack of ingredients available means there's not much variety and interesting food to be had but it's not bad. Most restaurants you get a chicken or fish and rice dish. They try to jazz it up in a variety of ways. There's also a few Italians. I liked the Neptune restaurant on the corner of Neptuno opposite Parque Central. It's kind of 80s deco and it's italian with sparse ingredients but it's friendly and comforting food. I had a four cheese pasta which was so simple, we could make at home but it was tasty and filling. One of the ways you can see the lack of ingredients is the tiny portions of butter they'll give you with the bread they bring you as a starter. They fluff it out with a sprinkling of herbs, but you really do see austerity in action.
Another place I liked, which again had a rather 80s aesthetic, was a couple of doors away from La Floridita at the entrance to Obispo street. I thought this place would be pricey due it's location but actually turned out to be really reasonable. It had pizzas and pastas but for some reason they weren't available the evening we were there (maybe had run out). I had chicken, rice and veg in gravy basically. Simple but actually was quite tastey - kind of like decent home cooking. Decent and well priced red wine too. I can't remember what it's called (and unlike most places in the world, can't look it up on the internet) but it's on the corner of Obispo and Bernaza. They also have a good toilet with seats (rarer than you think).
One of the more surprising things I had was at a restaurant which was nearer the sea/the cathedral and was quite pricey for the money. We had starters - one of which was chunks of cheese, I kid you not - the other was a ceviche - which is essentially raw fish which has been cooked by soaking in lime juice. This was definitely a clever way of working with what you've got. Seafood is something they have access to, as are limes - you'd see lime carts all over the city. It was simple and delicious.
We actually got ill during our time in Cuba, which I don't think was anything to do with the food as we'd had different things, but was likely a parasite or something, but it was pretty tricky when the last thing you'd eaten was "something and rice" so you really didn't want to have that again but yet, there wasn't much else you could have.
We went into a shop at one point to buy water. It's not like going to a 7'11 - these shops have limited stocks and the locals have rations so you don't go in and gorge yourself on snacks or bits and pieces. We weren't even sure if they'd take the tourist currency, but they did (essentially the water costing about 4 times as much as if we'd bought in local currency). But going into the shop and seeing the sparse and simple ingredients that people have available to them - it's hats off all the way what they come up with.
Of course, I believe it's a different experience if you're staying out in the resorts or are in the fancy hotels - I think this one rule for them issue, which goes against the grain of the revolution, which is helping lead to more relaxations in what people can and can't do. They need tourism but they need cash flow moving through the country. For the first time, recently, they have allowed people to become self employed in a number of areas and you can see little enterprises popping up all over the place. I only learned this after leaving Havana, and it made sense - as I'd been a bit confused how there were these little businesses when in theory everything was supposed to be state run. It's definitely an island on the change and I'm sure they can do it in the right way without losing the essence. People are apparently now able to own pieces of land and work the land so hopefully this will shake things up and bring about the growing of a lot more produce and perhaps more livestock too. I have to say I was puzzled why so much was imported into Cuba when it's a fair sized country with potential for growing lots of things.
You can get more wine that I had suspected and it's well priced. Buying rum is the cheapest way to go, but after a nasty rum encounter in Utila I couldn't face it, and Mark couldn't touch it, but you'd often see people walking the streets drinking rum. In another country this would possibly look dodgy, but here this is what you did when you were chilling out. Grab the family or your friends, grab a bottle of rum and head out to the seafront to hang out.
The local beer we drank most is called Cristal and we never got tired of the joke about drinking Cristal all day (as in the stupidly priced champagne).
Mojitos - They are synonymous with Cuba and I did partake of a few but they are a little too sweet for my taste so I got sick of them pretty quickly. But my goodness they make them strong there!!
Never had a cigar in my life and haven't smoked for over 10 years now, but there was something intriguing about the whole cigar thing and so I did have a few puffs on some cheap cigars we bought on the street from some lovely ladies.
I pretty much couldn't inhale anyhow as it took too much of a draw to bother without screwing your face inside out. On the day we bought the cigarettes we settled outside in a bar to watch the world go by and have a few drinks. Once we actually started smoking, or should I say, playing with the cigars, we basically spent a good couple of hours doing terrible impressions of people we thought of who'd smoked cigars. Mainly New York style show business people or business. Things along the lines of "I'm gonna take you all the way kid - we're gonna shoot for the stars" or "Bonds I tell you, that's the way you gotta go kid - now get yourself down to 7th and 3rd and buy me a pastraaaami sandwich". This entertained us greatly, sad, sad folk that we are.
Cuban buildings are incredible. They just don't knock down a perfectly decent building and I love that. Through lack of progress or whatever you want to call it, they have retained stunning, if slightly crumbling buildings. Buildings that are hundreds of years up to great examples of 60s and 70s architecture that was built to celebrate the revolution.
In many cases, with the re-construction, everything behind the facade has been removed - an understandably cheaper and easier way to deal realistically with the saving of these buildings.
Even the bus stops had a strong and unique design.
These are sprinkled all around the city and it reminded me certain parts of Paris. There were usually sculptures and art in these areas.
The lack of stuff, meant that store front displays would be rather pathetic. You would have just a few things spread out in a window display. Not so much in the tourist areas, as I guessed they got the tourist money so could source a little more but definitely in the normal streets where everyone lived and shopped. We didn't get many photos because it seemed a bit rude and patronising, frankly, to take a photo of the place where everyone shopped - a bit like pointing and going 'ooh look, is that all you've got'. But it was such a fascinating thing. Something I've never seen before. Shops that just had a couple of plastic buckets and colourful items, maybe pegs out the front window because they couldn't spare the goods to put out there. It's not like stuff isn't available - there's TV and hifi shops, but just not on the huge scale we are used to.
It's the first place I've been to that's properly not capitalist. It's actually quite pleasant to be somewhere that doesn't have adverts screaming at you everywhere and shop after shop of the same thing and just stuff - lots of stuff. I felt such an overkill of stuff before we went on the trip - it was something I wanted to get away from but actually, a lot of the time in somewhere like Bangkok for instance, there's even more stuff and it's out on the streets jumping at you. So, I found it interesting and it certainly gave you a feeling of times of old. When I was little we lived in a place so small it was barely a village. There was the one and only village shop. You got pretty much everything from there - there wasn't massive supermarkets you went to to get your food and clothes and electronics. You didn't buy as much stuff. There wasn't as much stuff about. I'm sounding very old now, but I just remember the less stuff about, the more you coveted what you did have. You didn't get a toy every other week so the toys you got on your birthday or christmas you cherished. There was a sense about that in Cuba. Recycling is not a thing there, as it isn't in many non western countries - but in reality they do it more than anywhere I've known. If something stops working, you fix it - there aren't hundreds of cheap replacements. They fix everything in Cuba - electronics, cars, shoes - everything. They keep stuff going and it really is the opposite of our disposable society. You see carrier bags hung out to dry, which was something actually we saw in Vietnam a lot.
Something else which is most unusual is the lack of mobile phones. I'm guessing (again) that this is a bit of a tricky thing to introduce into a country - to build an infrastructure but particularly if you're trying to control information. People do have them but it's not like everywhere else where every other person is either talking on them or looking at something on them. And I don't mean just wealthy countries - it's something I've found interesting in various places where people are living in essentially huts, with no electricity - perhaps south africa, fiji, cambodia - but they mobiles.
So not only did the lack of mobiles show but the fact that there were payphones everywhere with people on them.
So, this was a fascinating and charming side for me, but of course it's probably not for the Cubans and wouldn't be for me if I lived there. Do I want to be able to buy whatever I want, whenever I want. Yes, I do. I get rather narked in places where the shops shut on a sunday. I hate that there's too many products and too much advertising but if I want something, I want it. But then that is what I'm used to. Less choice definitely makes life simpler.
One day as we passed a building which was being pulled down, that we'd passed many times, Mark noticed the sign was for the old RCA records. A store that would have been shut down after the revolution but still had this little bit of history, barely still standing.
If you want tourist bits and pieces or just to window shop, I'd head for Obispo - this is a lane that goes from the centre of town to the sea and it's always an interesting place to be.
The other place which has a place you can get art and other bits and pieces, is La Rampa.
Literacy rates are high in Cuba, something the revolution tried to make available was education for all. There's a lot of book shops about, though there is a heck of a lot of books about the revolution and I imagine that there isn't a freedom for any/all books to be available in the country - though dont' quote me on that.
There's a fabulous, touristy book market towards the end of Obispo which has lots of revolution literature, Hemingway etc.
It also had for sale old magazines - american magazines from before the revolution that people had held onto which is interesitng.
Looks & style
The Cubans are a stylish bunch. I always felt a complete tramp (hobo for my US friends) there around everybody in their pristine white and vibrant colours.
I'm not sure how to put this tactfully, but there are outfits that they wear here that anywhere else they could be mistaken for extras in a 70s porn film. But here - it's Cuban glamorous and it works. Big time! Even the older folk and the stranger folk - still have this certain something. Maybe it's the way they carry themselves.
There if of course the odd exception, but she's still got a certain punk-eque androgenous flair to her and the Che look is always worth a try isn't it?
Shaved heads with tufty tops, reminiscent of the late 80s/early 90s - they were all over Havana. But again - they rocked that look well!
All in White
One thing that I got a little obsessed with, was their propensity to wear all white outfits. How bling is that? Call this a poor, sad country? You don't get bright whites in poverty - they're proud and pristine! Male and female, old and young, it's alright to wear white!
Cuba is big on art. It encourages people to work in the arts. As you have the same wage if you are a painter or a doctor - if you are artistically minded, you are not held back. Ballet in fact is a big thing in Cuba and you would get your training paid for if you excelled in this area. Something quite elitist in other countries, but here Cubans can pay very little to go to the ballet and it's common entertainment.
There is a lot of art galleries.
We were surprised to find free galleries, like this Cermaic arts gallery. Normally what I'd find to be quite a dull medium, they had some incredible examples of unusual work here.
Not my favourite piece but definitely a shock factor when the lady leaned over and quietly told us that the fetus inside this sculpture was real.
I don't know how to classify the guy who took his dog and rat for a walk, literally together.
Getting Around/Maps & Guides and Tourist Info:
I would definitely bring a guidebook with you. We had no way of getting one and it didn't feel worth the money for such a short period but it would have been very helpful. We learned on arrival that google maps is wrong for a start - it had the streets around our accommodation completely wrong. I'd printed that map off so I could always have an aide to get home, so luckily our host put us straight on that one straight away. Because of the way Cuba is, without a lot of money and extra things - there isn't a plethora of leaflets and maps everywhere, like you get in most tourist destinations. I'd thought I'd pick up a map there, but it wasn't until about halfway through the trip I found one and then I had to buy it (cheap though of course). But there's not really info out there about things to do and places to go so you really need a reference point (unless you're staying in a fancy hotel and paying a fortune for it, you don't get any internet). I had a simple guide I'd gotten on my kindle, but that's no good for walking around the streets. I actually found an app that I had used a few times in other countries - Triposo - incredibly useful for Havana (particularly because it works offline). The offline map alone was a life saver and it had some interesting suggestions of places to go and eat and drink.
There is, I noticed late into our trip, a large tourist information place at the town end of Obispo Street, so if you're after some info or a map - head there. There is also a smaller info kiosk, further down Obispo street, when you're getting nearer to the sea - I think it's on the opposite corner to Cafe de Paris.
I was, as an arrogant English girl, quite surprised to find how little English was spoken. I guess you just get used to it being spoken widely wherever you go. On our entire trip I'd certainly found it to be spoken way more than I expected when I left. It's not really a problem, but a spanish language guide could be a good idea. We got by with a little spanish and just the usual pointing and non verbal communication. In the more touristic areas it is more widely spoken. I guess it's because although they have a lot of English speaking visitors - Candadians, British, Australian etc - they often go straight to resorts and venture into town/other areas on trips. The majority of tourists in Havana were definitely from Spanish speaking countries.
It actually was a bit of a benefit to not speak Spanish. There's not a lot of hassle at all in Cuba, but if someone did come up and start a patter with you - often when they realised that you didn't speak Spanish they'd just give up!
You can only change up certain currencies so it's not a bad idea to get a load of these before you go - GBP, Euro, Canadian Dollar and Mexican Peso, among others. You can change US dollars but on top of the already high exchange costs, you get an extra 10%.
We were in a bit of a tricky situation coming from Honduras were we could only get lempiras with no where to change up currencies, we then travelled to Grand Cayman but over the weekend and Butterfield bank, the only bank which was open on a saturday morning, had run low on foreign currency so was only offering to their customers. We could get dollars out in Grand Cayman so we just did that and thought if we could not get money out using a card we'd change that up and take the hit of the extra cost. In the end we found getting money from ATMs not to be a problem at all. Our airport pickup took us to ATMs on the way from the airport initially and then when we found our money wasn't going to last we got some out from central Havana.
I'm glad we didn't have to go and change money because there was always massive queues at the exchange places. I'd heard you could jump the queue if you had foreign currency - but who wanted to do that person. If we had decided in the end to get local currency, we would have had to lump the waiting.
The ATM we used in Havana is very easy to find. If you are in the Parc Central you just head up the main promenade towards the sea and a couple of minutes up on the right is an ATM. The bank is the metropolitan I think. You'll likely see big queues outside there but they are to go in the bank, it's unlikely you'll have to wait long to get to the ATM. You can do the whole process in English as well.
Cuba is not a cheap place to visit as a tourist. Your money could stretch further if you got some local currency and bought some of the uber cheap street food but on the whole, even with bargaining things somehow work out quite pricey. I'm not talking London prices here, but you can often pay for a very simple meal, the same as you could pay for something bigger and better in New York that's for sure.
Take tissues with you at all times - it's very common for no toilet paper to be available and if it is, it's often outside the cubicle so you take it before you go in. There is a big lack of toilet seats in many restaurants and bars too - the toilets are ok, but that may put a lot of people off.
If you are in central havana my top tip for a breather is Sloppy Joe's. It has icey air con and toilet seats and paper!!! The other restaurant I talk about which is just down from La Floridita also has good toilets.
It's probably not a bad idea to pack some toilet roll too if you're staying in a casa particular - they're not tight with it or anything but with things being sparse they don't put out 2 at a time or anything.
I loved it. Mark loved it. It's unique. It has incredible ambiance. It has incredible music. It's friendly. It's safe. It's grand. It's interesting. The food gets boring quick.