Travel experts are urging a trip to Cuba before it changes. But visitors envisioning salsa in the streets and glamorous vintage cars should also be prepared to get by without ATMs, credit cards, Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, seatbelts or toilet paper. Here are eight tips for visiting Havana.
If you need it, bring it
I forgot to bring my toothbrush. It took me three days to find a new one.
Granted, I was in a "casa particular", a Cuban homestay booked through Airbnb in a rundown part of town. Street vendors sell Che Guevara T-shirts and tropical fruit, but good luck buying sunscreen or Band-Aids. The fancy hotels sell some things in shops on-site, of course, but Havana doesn't have many stores. Public bathrooms aren't bad, but I was glad I'd put a roll of toilet paper in my bag.
Hustled in Havana
"Happy holiday, lady!" This cheerful salutation greeted me as I walked past crumbling buildings and rubble-filled streets in many sections of Old Havana. Blonde, 178cm, map in hand: Yeah, I stood out. But conversations with overly friendly strangers often devolved into shakedowns. They wanted to sell me cigars or exchange my dollars. Could I buy them drinks or give money for their children? Violent crime in Havana is rare. I never felt threatened - just hassled.
Are you old enough to remember travelling without credit cards, ATMs and smartphones? Then visiting Cuba will be a trip back in time. Bring cash to change into convertible pesos, also known as CUCs (not CUPs, the currency used by locals). And budget carefully: there are only a handful of ATMs in Havana. On paper, one US dollar is worth one CUC, but the Cuban government takes a 13 per cent fee, so you get 87 cents for your dollar. Privately, Cubans may offer 90 cents or more on the dollar but be careful who you trust.
I have MasterCard, Visa and American Express cards but none could be authorised for use in Cuba in May. Even when the rules change (or if your card is from a non-US bank), businesses rarely accept plastic.
Cuba's offline culture makes trip-planning complicated. It takes days to confirm arrangements because most Cubans cannot check email from home. Automated online reservations are rare. If you must go online in Havana, hotels sell internet cards for lobby WiFi for US$4 or US$5 ($5.90 or $7.37) per 30 minutes. Even then, though, the WiFi may not work. A paper map is essential as drivers don't have GPS and there is no Googling an address on the fly.
Food and drink
Government-run cafeterias in public places like museums are dreadful. Stick to "paladares" - privately owned restaurants. My best meals were at 304 O'Reilly (the restaurant name is also the street address), which offers trendy, light fare (terrific ceviche, lobster and pasta), and Cafe Ajiaco in Cojimar (Calle 92, number 267), whose owner showcases what he sees as the best of traditional Cuban cuisine. For a drinking tour, consider Ernest Hemingway's advice: "My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita." The handwritten quote, allegedly scribbled by Hemingway himself, is framed at La Bodeguita del Medio over a bar mobbed with tourists. The Floridita is nicer: great air-conditioning, icy daiquiris and a bust of Hemingway, perfect for selfies.