Part the Fourth: Part the First: Finding a Place to Stay
Even something as simple as finding a decent place to stay in Cuba can be challenging. Not because decent places are in short supply, but rather because the system isn’t quite what most tourists are expecting.
Of course, the most common option is to go in search of a hotel, right? Well, you’re in luck. In most towns that tourists are likely to visit, the government will have plenty of hotels set up for you. (Remember, every business in communist Cuba is owned by the government – if you hold out for a private hotel, you’ll end up sleeping on a park bench.) Cuban hotels, in my experience, come in three varieties: “normal,” resort, and Cuban-only.
Unless you’re already Cuban (and if you are, why are you reading this travel guide?) it’s a difficult sell to convince them that you should be able to stay in a Cuban-only hotel, so let’s just discard that option. Resorts are expensive, at least in relation to other costs in Cuba. If you want to spend $40-$50 per night, per person, be my guest. Might as well rent a car while you’re at it, too. But if you’re traveling on a budget, the normal hotels are probably your only option.
Sorry, but I can’t help you there. The only “normal” Cuban hotel I’ve stayed in is the Hotel Colina in Havana, and then only because it was picked out of our guidebook when we were planning our trip. Hotel Colina, while cheaper by far than the resorts, will still destroy a $20-per-day budget in one crushing blow. After they found an extra cot, we were able to pack four people to a room… and the stay still cost us about $22 each!
For your money, though, it’s not that bad. The Hotel Colina has a bar/restaurant where your respectable breakfast is included. Hot water is fairly reliable and the bathrooms have towels, toilet paper, and usually a toilet seat. The elevator was out the last time we were there, though, so ask for a room on one of the lower floors – hey, while you’re at it, you might ask for one that doesn’t face the front street. It can be quite noisy at night.
So, if one can’t afford a month in hotels, what’s a budget traveler to do? Stay with the locals.
When Señor Castro opened Cuba up to tourism he enabled families to purchase a permit that allows them to house foreigners. These houses are called Casas Particulares (Private Houses) and they are designated by a white sticker with a stylized blue house affixed somewhere near the door. The costs associated with staying in these houses are negotiable, but you shouldn’t have trouble finding them as low as $7.50/night in some towns.
It’s quite interesting how these Casas operate. The government requires the owners to put up $125 each month for their permits. When even a doctor’s wage is only around $30 per month, that’s a high price tag. They’re able to charge whatever they’re able (how that’s not capitalism, I don’t know), but the catch is that any profits they earn above and beyond $125 must be put back into the house. Because of this, Casas Particulares are often far better in appearance, not to mention comfort, than the typical Cuban home.
Casas Particulares all across the country seem to have the same trappings, too. It must be a government mandate, or at least a guideline, that all accommodations have a decent bed, a lock on the door, a touch-sensitive lamp, hot water in the shower (but never the sink!), and air conditioning. Also, I got the distinct impression that the vast majority of the rooms that they rent out are not solely for tourists – when the have no paying company, the rooms are in use by the family. Sometimes they’ll vacate the house to make room for you, sometimes you’ll see them camped out on the couch. It’s sad to think that you’re displacing someone from their own home, but I guess in hindsight, they’re more than willing to put up with the occasional inconvenience to better their own surroundings.
So just how does one go about finding a decent Casa Particular? It’s easy.
Walk around. Ask some questions. Of course, it’ll be considerably easier if you speak Spanish, but even if you don’t, you’re likely to run into people all the time that want to help you find something. Cigars are a top seller, apparently, but finding you a casa is right up there with a taxi, a good restaurant, or a prostitute (in that order.) Sure, you can use your guidebook, too, but in our experience there were so few Casas Particulares listed that they were always booked by the time we got there. Also, since the market seems very volatile (because of the need to make $125 each and every month, and to dodge heavy governmental penalties for bending the rules), a casa that’s there for one visit many be gone the next.
Trust me; it’ll be easy enough to find a place. Once you find out that they have beds available the real fun begins. It’s hagglin’ time! How much is the room going to cost? How many people can they house (if you’re traveling in a group?) Are dinners/breakfasts required? How much would the room cost without them? I also recommend holding out for a friendly family, as that can make a huge difference in your stay. Before you rush into your new room and explode your backpack, consider the vibe you got meeting them at the door. Feel welcome already? You’ll probably leave wondering how you ever got by without a few Cubans in your extended family.
Once you’re ready to depart, it’ll actually be easier to find a Casa Particular in the next town. Why? Because it’s very likely that the place you’re vacating is a part of network of friends and informal business partners all across Cuba. If you let them, they’ll call ahead and arrange everything for you – if their friends’ don’t have space, it’s a sure thing that their friend’s friends will!
A few caveats about going the network route. First, it’s so hard for Cuban families to keep earning $125 each month that they value reciprocal business greatly. If you agree to stay with one of their friends, be aware that backing out will hurt some feelings. Also, Casa Particulares owners will respect their chain to a fault. There will be times when every casa in a small town’s network is full and rather than direct you to a casa outside their chain, they’ll tell you that there are no vacancies anywhere in town. It’s understandable, in a way, because they can get ousted from a valuable network for sending you to the competition, but it’s frustrating for the tourist that’s needs a place to drop their pack.
I should also mention that it’s sometimes hard to work around the restrictions that the State has placed upon the Casas Particulares. In the four years separating my two visits, I noticed a big difference in the enforcement of the rules and regulations. Even though some families are willing to bend the rules further than others, in almost every case, there were more restrictions on the latter trip. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal for a couple traveling, but as a group it’s always more frustrating when they only let two of us stay together in a house, would not let others from our own group come over for dinner, or even (in Baracoa) when they forced every visitor to present their passport and sign in. It’s unfortunate that the government is making it so hard for the Casa Particular system to thrive – they don’t get money from it like they do the hotels – because it’s simply one of the best aspects of travel in Cuba!
One more thing: The home cooked meals you’ll get in the Casas Particulares are the best meals in Cuba. We’ll get to that in a future commentary.
In general, Cubans are exceedingly friendly towards tourists and because of that you can always find an accommodation even if there are no hotels or Casas Particulares available. For instance:
- At times it can be enlightening to leave the beaten path and find something well away from the tourist centers of Cuba. Here’s a tip, though: Believe people when they tell you that there won’t be a place to stay! On our first trip, I was a part of a group of five students that decided to check out the north coast of Cuba. We arrived in Sagua la Grande and discovered that indeed there were no lodgings for tourists. The one hotel was full and there wasn’t a single, official Casa Particular in the whole city – at least not one we could find. That doesn’t mean that by sitting in the park with our bags, offers didn’t come in. As twilight descended, we gave up on all the overpriced rooms with which people were trying to swindle us and decided to go with a friendly guy who told us we could stay with his family for $5 each. We found ourselves in the 3rd floor of a Soviet-style apartment building, and with chickens under the sink and a pig on the balcony, the poverty level was very much evident. Still, aside from having a shattered porcelain toilet, 2 beds for 5 people, and a nighttime mosquito attack the likes of which the world has never known, our host family was quite friendly and we enjoyed our stay.
- After an exceedingly long bus ride of 18+ hours, our entire group arrived in Baracoa at 1am – 7 hours after we had told our casa to expect us. Unfortunately by that late hour, they had given our reservations to someone else. Even though they took us all over town, in the middle of the night, they were not able to find room for a single person – nothing in the hotels, nothing in the resort, and, obviously, nothing in their casa chain. Just when we were resigning ourselves to sleeping in the park, someone had the bright idea to ask the resort if we could just crash in their lobby. I had my doubts, but not only did they let us camp out on the lobby couches and poolside lounge chairs, they let us do it for free! As if that show of generosity wasn’t enough, our driver even offered to let us sleep on his bus as a last resort!)
- When leaving Viñales we decided to take advantage of a casa chain. Trusting our host to see us through, we made the mistake of not asking the price of our reservations in Playa Girón. By the time we got there, our group faced a small town with limited accommodations and rooms in our name for $23.50 each. No worries – those on a budget (or just feeling adventurous) decided to spend the second night around a campfire on the beach.
- On the eve of the new millennium, our group decided to spend New Year’s Eve on a beach in Racho Luna, near Cienfuegos. Not knowing what the night might be like, we wanted to have a place to return to if the weather turned bad. There were two choices in the area, each at opposite ends of the beach. On the one hand we had the Faro Luna Resort – a hoppin’ place full of Europeans and Canadians. Even if we could have afforded a room, they had all been reserved months in advance. Maybe half a kilometer away there was a Cuban-only hotel, practically empty. When a few of us went up to ask if we could rent a room “just in case,” one that we probably wouldn’t even need, their answer was a flat “no.” A little prying here and needling there and we discovered what the problem really was – they were not allowed to accept money from tourists. Fine, then. What can we do for a room? Oh, you need some cleaning supplies? Sure, we can get those for you. The next day we showed up with mops, detergent, brooms, and all sorts of cleaning stuff that totaled up to far more than the peso-room was worth. They were more than happy to let us stay in exchange for a few items that were hard (for them) to come by. (And it certainly didn’t hurt to open up the conversation with big puppy-dog eyes and a “but we’re students…!”)
- In Santiago de Cuba we somehow stumbled onto a Casa Particular of a different sort. While the door had the characteristic white-and-blue sticker, the rooms turned out to be our own apartments. Our Russian apartment building rose 25 stories into the sky about 10 blocks from Plaza Céspedes. The halls were desolate and the elevator only let you off on every fourth floor, but it was nice to have such high balconies to watch the sunrise and sunset. Plus, with your own set of keys, you never had to feel guilty about coming in late at night, waking up your hosts.
- When we arrived in Trinidad during the highest part of the tourist high season (between Christmas and New Year’s), we were lucky to find any rooms at all. Since four of us had arrived earlier in the day, we were able to snatch up two rooms at a hostel, but by the time the rest of the group arrived, vacant casas were impossible to find. Nothing at all turned up after wandering for a half hour, having people phone their contacts, even inspecting an out-of-the-way place via sidecar… Eventually, standing in the street with backpacks and dejected expressions did the trick. In no time someone came up and offered to take them to an “illegal house.” Okay, don’t freak out. Illegal houses are simply houses where the families are willing to put you up… even though they don’t have Fidel’s permission to do so. The penalties are quite steep – for them, not for tourists – so they’ll be very careful not to draw attention to the fact, but if you’re willing to be discreet, the situation can be mutually agreeable.
- Many times on our trips, people in our group have accepted invitations to stay with people that they met in Cuba. While these are also not official Casa Particular situations, they’re not breaking any rules. The government is concerned about money and if they don’t charge you anything for your stay, they’re not breaking any rules.
Cuba’s tourist-handling situation is remarkably different than the other Latin American countries I’ve traveled through. I suspect that’s due in large part to their communist economy and its inability to support entrepreneurial private business. Whatever the case, they’ve come up with a great system that is inexpensive and, more importantly, makes you feel right at home.
Next: Part the Fouth, Part the Second: Housing Recommendations