Havana - When a travel destination is about to be discovered - or if it's rapidly losing its charm - you'll often hear people say "Better go while it's still there." Havana doesn't fit into either of these categories, but "the sooner the better" still applies. And I wanted to absorb the atmosphere of the Caribbean's largest city (2.5 million people) along with its pre-revolution-vintage American saloon cars before it was too late.
With the arrival of mass-market tourism (close to 2 million arrivals last year) following the end of the Soviet-era lifeline, commerce may quickly obliterate Havana's time-warp appeal. Fidel Castro's greying beard is yet another signal that change could come soon.
As I stroll through the streets of old Havana, I also notice that more and more of the cars are modern Peugeots, Hyundais and Toyotas.
Still, there's no escaping decay and neglect. Peeling and crumbling facades reveal poverty-stricken interiors.
Yet once in a while I come across a freshly painted building like the Hotel Ambos Mundos, and the true potential of this world heritage site becomes clear.
These fresh coats of latex alert one to the exquisite ornamentation on building after building, and block after block, of classical and colonial architecture.
As I continue my walk, I realize that Cuba's Communist regime hasn't dampened the appetite of some to make a buck. Most on the street are hawking cigars, but one determined salesman, Lafaro, takes a different approach. Casually asking me where I'm from serves as his opener, and from there we chat as we saunter, admiring the city. When we're about to part, he mentions that all his clothes have been stolen off his clothesline.
"What size are your pants?" he inquires. The hint is clear. I tell him this is my only pair. Undaunted, he asks my shoe size. I just laugh.
I know he's trying to fleece me, but I can't resist the urge to walk with him and experience the culture with a local. I agree to meet him the following afternoon, and at the appointed time we set off for a market.
This time the sales pitch takes a different turn. His son is recovering from burn wounds and needs expensive medicine. Another son is Cuba's top pianist, but he has no piano.
"Could you buy one for me, and I will pay you back?"
When these attempts are met with stony silence, he invites me to his favourite watering hole for a Cuban specialty made by his friend. Our mojitos go down nicely, and I offer to pay. When I see the hefty tab, I realize Lafaro has finally got me. Very clever, I think. We part, smiles all around. I have enjoyed my tour and he's earned his pay.
With the 300 million U.S. tourists on Havana's doorstep virtually shut out at present, the future holds tremendous potential. If and when that market is tapped, tourist dollars could well bring an end to the time warp.
Better go soon if you like romantic crumbling facades and old-school tail fins.