Cuba: the queues and don'ts; Our man in Havana Max Levenson shares his top tips for a visit to the unique Caribbean hotspot.
Yhe thawing of hostilities between Cuba and the US is likely to bring about dramatic changes to the timewarp island.
I'm married to a Cuban and have visited many times, and there's really no better time to go than the present to savour its remarkable atmosphere before the inevitable influx of American holidaymakers leads to more commercialisation.
Here are a few tips to help you along the way...
Cuba has two currencies, with plans to reduce it to one. However, as with most things in this intriguing country, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. So for the moment there is the convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP).
Visitors will deal almost exclusively in CUC - it's what you get when you change your money. English banknotes which are torn or written on are likely to be rejected (notes from Scotland and Northern Ireland probably won't be accepted). Previously, some shops would only accept CUCs, but in the move towards a single currency that is changing and both are now widely accepted.
One convertible is 26 pesos. Many shops now have large conversion charts by tills to help with calculations and price goods in CUC and CUP. Don't take Cuban money home with you unless you want it as a souvenir - it cannot be exchanged outside the country.
You will need your passport when changing money. Airports seem to have the best rates (around 1.42 to PS1).
Sharp elbows are useful, as is patience. You may have to wait outside a shop before being allowed in, even if there are few people inside. If you have a bag you may have to check it in or be refused entry. Goods are often behind designated counters, so buying three different things may mean queuing three times to pay.
Keep your receipt - a security guard will check your purchases against this on the way out. Some retailers accept credit cards - there will be a charge of about 2% - although you will need to have your passport if you use one.
Fresh fruit or vegetables can only be found on street stalls or in markets. They operate in CUP, although are generally happy to accept low denomination convertibles. Any change will be in pesos. If you are after fish or shellfish you are likely to have to catch it yourself !
A handful of shops will accept only Cuban pesos, in which case you will need to change convertibles. This can generally be done by popping outside and asking a passing local.
This is the country's major passion and a visit to a game is a must, even for those not keen on sport.
Each province has a club vying for a place in end-of-season finals, much as in the MLB in the US. That is where comparisons end.
Baseball in Cuba could not be further away from its corporate, sponsor-laden cousin in the States if it tried. Going to a game costs one peso (about 3p), there is no merchandising, advertising or club shop - and the teams are so skint balls hit into the crowd are always thrown back.
Go to a game outside Havana and you are likely to be the only foreigner in the crowd, but it's a great place to people-watch. Ask around to find out when games are scheduled as they can start as early as 1pm.
For a country with relatively few cars, driving in Cuba is a challenge. The roads are terrible - riddled with potholes that in some cases are more like sinkholes - and few are lit at night, with many minor ones unpaved, too.
Dogs, chickens, horses and cattle regularly stray onto the carriageway, while pedestrians, horses and carts, and cyclists - who consider lights and brakes an extravagance - add to that perilous mix.
Accident horror stories abound so the message is clear - if you hire a car, take care, particularly at night. Obey the speed limits. There are no cameras or radar guns, but if you hit a Cuban pothole going too fast you will know all about it.
Roads will occasionally have a police checkpoint. This is marked by a 'punto de control' sign and a decreasing speed limit. Nothing rouses a dozing policeman from his slumbers quicker than a speeding car. Service stations are few and far between, so fill up when you can.
Train level crossings - unlevel crossings would be a more accurate description - are marked, but not very prominently.
They seldom have barriers or warning lights. Slow to a crawl when crossing.
This is not because you need to be on the lookout for trains - you would be extraordinarily unlucky to be hit by one as the patched-up ancient locos run infrequently - but because the track will be protruding well above the road surface.
Cubans queue, but do not stand in a line. How the system works can at first be baffling to visitors, but is really quite simple.
They find out who is immediately in front of them and then saunter off to wait their turn. To join the queue ask: "El ultimo?" That translates as "Who's last?" That person will make themselves known. The next to join the queue will ask the same question and you should indicate it's you.
I've watched many a foreigner wonder why everyone is pushing in front of them. They're not - if you haven't asked the question, you're not in the queue.
6) GOING OUT
The cost of entry to nightclubs, concerts and similar events often includes a drink or two. But this might not be stated anywhere and you might not be told, so ask.
It's a similar situation with swimming pools. For example, it might cost six CUC to get in, but that entitles you to five CUC of food and drink - enough for a meal such as chicken and chips, or a burger and a couple of beers.
Cuba is generally a very safe place, but it is sensible to take precautions, with tourists most likely to fall prey to pickpockets and petty theft.
Don't carry large amounts of cash and keep an eye on belongings.
Bag snatches are rare, but unattended bags/cameras/phones will disappear.
Avoid wearing too much jewellery, particularly necklaces, which can easily be grabbed and ripped off.
Don't leave valuables in cars as hire cars stand out - not because they are 50 years newer than many of the other vehicles on Cuban roads, but because they have red number plates beginning with the letter T.
When you park there will nearly always be someone offering to watch your car, sometimes overnight, for a convertible or two.
Fancy a trip to Cuba? The following deals are available now...
Thomson has a 14nt twin-centre to Cuba with 3nts at the 4* Memories Miramar Havana hotel and 11nts at the 4* Grand Memories Varadero hotel from PS1,265pp based on 2 sharing and flying from Gatwick on Jun 2 inc transfers. thomson.co.uk 0871 230 2555.
Virgin Holidays has a 10nt twin-centre from PS999pp based on 2 sharing. Fly from Gatwick on Sept 12 for 3nts r/o at the 3* Hotel Telegrafo Havana and 7nts a/i at the 3* Hotel Bela Costa Varadero inc transfers. virginholidays.co.uk 0344 557 3859.
Signature from Thomas Cook has 14nts a/i at the 4*+ Ocean Varadero El Patriarca in from PS1,599pp inc flights from Manchester on Apr 1 and transfers. thomascook.com 0844 4125970.
Mercury Holidays has an 8 day escorted Rhythm of Cuba tour from PS1,495pp, with 5 departures between May-Nov. Price inc flights from London, internal travel, accommodation, selected meals and excursion entry fees. mercuryholidays.co.uk 0800 231 5026.
Kuoni has a 7nt twin-centre from PS1,217pp based on 2 sharing with 3nts B&B at the 4.5* Iberostar Parque Central in Havana and 4nts a/i at the 5* Melia Marina Varadero inc flights via Paris from Heathrow and transfers. Book by Feb 29 for travel in Jun. kuoni.co.uk 01306 747008.
All visitors need a PS15 Tourist Card (a form of visa) which may be available from your tour operator.
Otherwise consult the Cuban Consulate in London in person or by post (incurs extra fee). Cuba Consulate, 167 High Holborn, London WC1V 6PA. 020 7240 2488
Tourist info: travel2cuba. co.uk
TIME ZONE UK -5hrs
When shopping sharp elbows are useful Seeing a baseball game is a must and entry costs one peso (3p)
HOME RUN Baseball is a national passion
IDYLLIC White sand beaches line the Caribbean
to queuing that can be baffling to visitors
FADED GLAMOUR Cuba is famous for its classic old American cars
EXPERT Max with wife Arianna in Cuba