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Things to know before you go

Do Cubans like Americans? Simply put, the very best part of Cuba is the people. They are gracious, joyous and full of fun. And yes, they like Americans.

During my trip earlier this year, whenever Cubans asked _ and it was often _ about my nationality, I always said I am an American. They seemed delighted. Some would say, my father (or uncle or brother) lives in Miami or Chicago or Dallas or Des Moines.

Sometimes I would joke with them, saying, "Pero sabe que yo soy el diablo (But you know I am the devil)." They would laugh and then turn serious and say, "No, we like Americans. It's just the government we don't like."

MONEY: The official exchange rate is $1 U.S. equals one Cuban peso. In fact, the true exchange is about $1 for 20 pesos. You can use dollars at most places you are likely to visit.

If you have credit cards or traveler's checks issued by a U.S. bank, forget it. They're no good in Cuba. Basically, Cuba means cash in U.S. dollars.

STAYING THERE: Some good packages are available for the Varadero resorts. But basically, visiting Cuba is not particularly cheap. Hotels can be pricey. For example, we stayed at the Ambos Mundos, a midlevel but nice government-run hotel, in the heart of Habana Vieja (the old city), and it cost about $120 a person per night. I paid a similar price at the midlevel Quatro Palmas at Varadero.

On the other hand, with a loosening of Cuban government rules, you can now stay in private homes for prices that range from $20 to $30 a night. Just ask around for recommendations.

EATING THERE: You can eat quite well in Cuba. But again, the government restaurants can be pricey. Christmas Day dinner at the white-tablecloth Floridita in Old Havana, a Hemingway hangout, ran about $65. The meal the night before, at the funkier Bodeguita del Medio, was superior at about $25. The best meal of the trip, for me, was at El Aljibe, a great chicken place, on Avenida 7 between Calle 24 and 26. Price: about $12.

Cuba has paladares, which are privately owned restaurants sanctioned by the government. These often serve great food at prices well below the government restaurants.

JINETEROS: The name literally means jockeys. These are the street hustlers who are everywhere, trying get U.S. dollars for cigars, liquor, prostitutes, taxi rides or for stays at private restaurants and hotels.

PASSPORT: Yes, you need one to get in. Cuban immigration officials typically do not stamp U.S. passports. Instead, they stamp your tourist card, which they take back when you leave. If you travel with a package tour, you will be given a tourist card, or you can get one from your airline. This saves hassles with U.S. border officials.

RENTAL CARS: There are several government-operated rental companies. Typically you pay about $65 a day, plus taxes and a deposit. Driving, except in the narrow, often one-way streets of Old Havana, is pretty simple. On the highways, cars are few.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: One of the best overall guides is by Lonely Planet, with lots of history, culture and tips on getting around. But I found Cuba, published by Fodor's, somewhat easier to use for making decisions on hotels and restaurants.

A fine general book is Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba by Tom Miller (Basic Books, $16.50). It was first published in the early 1990s, but still holds a lot of currency.

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