Feb 14

Cuba: Housing Recommendations

by in Postcard Valet, Travel

Kai, Joe, and Emily in the Hotel Colina (20k image)Part the Fourth: Part the Second: Housing Recommendations

La Havana (Vedado)
Hotel Colina

I mentioned the relative lack of bad associated with the Hotel Colina in my last post and should start this one off by recommending it wholly. The Hotel Colina is a little pricey and not at all what one would consider a 4-star hotel, but it gets the job done. We’ve also used the Hotel Colina as a get-out-of-airport free card – remember that you might have to tell an official where you’re planning to stay. (I don’t know what they’d do if you told them you didn’t know, but do you really want to risk that?)

The Hotel Colina is also located in a good spot, worthy of being the starting point for your tour of Cuba. Situated at the top of a hill in the Vedado district, the hotel is right next to the University of Havana – one of those good neighborhoods. If you happen to point your walking shoes downhill, you’ll find yourself on the scenic Malecón. From there you can see the Moorish fort that houses Havana’s harbor lighthouse. Within walking distance, the lighthouse is a great landmark for all things Old Havana – The Prado, Calle Obispo, the Museos de Bellas Artes and la Revoluccion.

Rooms at the Hotel Colina are not terribly cheap – expect to pay about $40 a night for two people. Also, the service can be hit-or-miss. While the women at the desk will get to you eventaully, their communist work ethic might butt up against your desire to offload your pack in a hurry.

That's Teresa's building on the right... (18k image)Havana (Centro)
Casa de Teresa

Consulado NO. 303
Between Neptuno and Virtudes
Apt. 303, 3rd floor
Cell: 264-6856

Taking advantage of the Casa Particular chain, our group of twelve moved out of the Hotel Colina after only one night and found five casas in Centro Havana. I stayed with “Teresa,” a nice woman running her small but very comfortable apartment as a Casa Particular.

Teresa lives alone with her 8-year-old son, Ishmael, and is doing quite well. The first room to be rented out to tourists has two beds, a mini-fridge, a fan, air conditioning and a semi-shared bathroom (you can lock the other room out.) The second room is the same except for having a queen-size bed and no ‘fridge. Being on the third floor, busy street noise was practically non-existent. Other impressive amenities include satellite TV, a cell phone to call if you have problems, and an actual bathtub! Surprisingly, Teresa also promises to have a computer with Internet-access in her house by next year…

While Teresa never offered us any options for dinner or breakfast, she always offered coffee at every opportunity and wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to socialize. Her Spanish is a little hard to comprehend (for me), but she doesn’t seem to mind repeating herself.

We were able to rent each room for $25 a night ($12.50 each) and with prices of Casas Particulares being higher in Havana, we thought that was quite fair.

Dinner at El Moro's (20k image)Viñales
Casa del Moro, del Morito, et al

Calle Rafael Trejo No. 14B (El Morito)
Tel: 79-33-29 (Gina), 79-63-03 (Tony)

Both times we stayed in Viñales, at least part of our group stayed with Julian Cruz (or El Moro as everyone in town knows him – nicknames are huge in Cuba!) or with his extended family. 3-4 homes on the corner of an out-of-the-way street form a nice little package for group travelers. Unfortunately, while we were able to save a bit more money on the first trip by putting 3 or 4 people in a room, the Casas Particulares of Viñales have since formed a cooperative of sorts and now adhere to new regulations that only two tourists are allowed per house. Still, with rooms at $15 per night, it’s a steal.

All the houses in El Moro’s little chain have essentially the same to offer: two beds, a private bathroom with hot water, AC, and fantastic dinners ($7) and breakfasts ($3). Also, while you probably won’t be able to eat with the families (another regulation?), you will certainly get enough interaction throughout the rest of the day. Make the effort to get to know them and you’ll feel right at home.

The meals in Viñales, and at El Moro’s families’ houses in particular, are the best part about the housing in Viñales. $7 will get you a table of food spread out on about 15 different plates. Smoked chicken, pork, and fish are the most common options, but you can certainly ask for some illegal lobster – o pollo de seis patas – if you like. Whatever you choose, I guarentee that you’ll love it and that you will not be able to come close to finishing it.

El Moro’scasa chain” is also impressive. When you’re ready to move on to another town, he’ll likely be able to line something up for you wherever you’re going. In fact, in some ways, we found him almost too pushy and some people in the group felt that he was almost trying to take advantage of us. While I’d recommend staying with El Moro (or better yet, with his son El Morito), it’s always a good idea to consider all offers in Viñales (taxi rides, beach tours, horseback riding) wisely. Shop around – If El Moro wants to charge you more for a ride than it would cost to go with a taxi, by all means, go with the taxi!

Birthday Party at Chicha's (20k image)Viñales
Casa de Chicha

While I have never stayed at Chicha’s house in Viñales, I feel that I must vouch for her since it had such a profound effect on some people in our group. Chicha is a wonderfully nice, grandmotherly type that will take you in as if you were her own. While you’ll find that she’s a stickler for the rules (after her neighbors lost their right to house tourists), that still doesn’t get in the way of making you feel more welcome than anyplace else in Cuba – and that’s saying something! Since I’m not 100% clear on how to find her house, it’s probably best you simply ask around. Viñales is small, you’ll find it.

Playa Girón
Casa de Mayito

Matanzas C.P. 44510
Tel: 045-94138 or 045-94266

If you’re looking for a very nice place while exploring the Bay of Pigs area, I’d suggest looking into the casa owned by Mario García Rodríguez (Mayito) and Mercerdes Sierra Rodríguez. These married schoolteachers own a very nice house in Playa Girón.

Because of a few communication mistakes, we were wrangled into paying a price that was possibly higher than what could normally be had in Playa Girón. When we stepped off the bus, all the people that had our reservations were waiting for us and I believe we were not able to haggle because of political reasons (no one in their group was willing to speak up with a better deal because they didn’t want to offend anyone else in their local chain.) At any rate, we had to pay $47 per room (two people to a room) which is quite expensive. The only saving grace was that breakfast and dinner were included.

And what a dinner! Perhaps it was because I was recognized as the “leader” of our group, or perhaps it was because I was the most outspoken against the inclusion of expensive meals when we found out how much the rooms cost, but Mayito’s menu was easily the most extensive of any place (restaurants included!) I encountered in Cuba. Spending only two nights there, we had to decide among chicken, pork, fish, shrimp, lobster, frog legs, turtle, or crocodile! Needless to say, the exotic food was quite good.

To top off our stay, we also had a top-notch room, bathroom, and back porch. Nicely decorated, very comfortable beds, and a wonderful bathroom with real hot water (as in the not-electrically-heated-as-it-passes-through-the-shower-head type.) On our way out of town, Mayito was even kind enough to wake us up early for a 6am bus ride, then packing us a breakfast and escorting us all the way to the bus stop.

$23.50 a night is one of the more expensive stays I had in two months of travel through Cuba, but when you consider than a $7 dinner and $3 breakfast were included, it’s really only $1 more than our costs in Havana. I wish I had recognized it as the deal it was while we were there.

Aña's Courtyard (20k image)Trinidad
Casa de Aña, Casa de José

Probably on the corner of Francisco J Zerquera and Frank País

Both times in Trinidad I stayed at a casa known only (to me) as Aña’s house. While the family atmosphere may be lacking, we got all the rest of the expected amenities as well as a beautiful, open-air courtyard to lounge around in. (There’s two hyper German shepherds living in the back corner of the courtyard, too, but the first time we were there, there were only chickens – who knows what you might find on your trip!) Dinners and breakfasts were there for the buying, as was the offer of laundry service costing “whatever you think is fair.”

Finding la casa de Aña is easy enough, even if I don’t have an address to give you. Start off on the steps of the Casa de Musica and begin your walk downhill (Calle Rosario.) Walk down past the Casa de Cultura, past the big, touristy cigar shop, but stop once you get to the gas station. Aña’s house is one door shy of being perfectly kitty-corner from the gas station. Simply ring the bell on the second door in from the corner.

Also, on the first trip, half our group stayed with José who lives just across the street. While he didn’t have rooms available this trip, he was very helpful in trying to find us a place to stay in Trinidad. After years of saving for new construction, José’s rental rooms are now on the second floor – they’re very nice, but they do tend to cost a bit more than other rooms in Trinidad.

If you’re passing through Trinidad, these are my first two recommendations. If you end up staying there, send them a “hello!” from our Alaskan groups and let me know what they say!

Trinidad
Unnamed Hostel

Probably on Gustavo Izquierdo between Simón Bolívar and Francisco J. Zerquera

Arriving in Trinidad in the middle of the tourist high season put a crimp on our housing plans, but one pleasant surprise we wouldn’t have otherwise found was a new hostel of sorts. While the “house” is actually a business organizing cultural exchange programs with other countries, the owners have set aside two rooms for their guests. If there are no scheduled exchanges, they can rent these rooms out to you.

While not the fanciest of places, there’s a lot of good to be said for it. The business is always open (with a sliding lock) to the street so you can get in without bothering anyone no matter how late it is. There’s a TV room where plenty of nice, interesting people hang out. The shared bathroom has only cold water, but there’s a kitchen off it that you can use to cook your own meals. Also, the rooms, having no windows and being situated in the center of the building, are super dark and super quiet at night – a welcome relief from the evil roosters that start crowing at 3am.

All that for $6 each – one of the cheapest places we stayed in all of Cuba. If you can do without in-house meals (and Trinidad is the one place where you can do that easily), I’d suggest going out of your way to find this hostel. And you’ll probably have to go out of your way, too, because for some reason I’m coming up blank on Trinidad address! From memory, here’s my best guess:

  • Start in the Plaza Mayor, near the Cathedral,
  • Walk downhill on the street to the right of the Plaza Mayor (Simón Bolívar, I think),
  • Take a left on the second (or third? Or fourth?) street,
  • The hostel is probably unmarked, about half way down the block, on the downhill side.
  • Confusing, I know, but worth the effort. If all else fails, ask around.

    Baracoa
    Casa de Machado

    186 Calixto Garcia

    Machado is the nickname of the grandfatherly-type host of a casa a few blocks removed from the malecón in Baracoa. Putting up with all the rules and regulations at Machado’s house can be a chore (he became very anxious when visitors stopped by), but the accommodations make it worthwhile.

    Machado has two rooms for rent, one with two beds – or maybe it was a folding bed that was brought in just for us… Anyway, each room has its own bathroom with reliable hot water (and one of ‘em has a bidet, too!) You’ll get AC and fans, locks on the door, the works. What’s nice about staying at this house is the family atmosphere.

    One New Year’s Eve the only reason we didn’t stay for a huge feast of roast pig was that we already had plans with our own group. Still, three of us we were only allowed out of the house after sharing a plate of some very tasty, traditional pig and yucca. Not that you’ll have to be there for a holiday to get good food – every meal we had at Casa Machado was delicious.

    I should point out that when we first arrived at the house, Machado quoted us a price of $40 per room – with meals included. Almost getting stuck in the same trap we fell into in Playa Girón, I quickly mentioned that the person leading us to his house had said would be less expensive. Machado was quite willing to negotiate and I think we arrived at a deal that was fair for both parties. $20 per room ($10 each), $6 for dinners and $2.50 for breakfasts, and we’ll commit to breakfast every day and dinners for only half our nights in Baracoa. (While on vacation I hate to be bound to preplanned options, because I never know what might happen) It was very nice that, even though we verbally contracted for breakfast every day, Machado knocked off $2.50 from our final bill after I darted out (overslept!) one morning without food.

    Baracoa
    Casa Colonial de Lucy

    Calle Céspedes #29
    Tel: 53-21-4-3548 (yeah, I can’t figure the phone numbers out, either)

    Lucy Navarro Rodriguez is a sweet lady running her own big casa in the middle of Baracoa. This is another one of those houses that I didn’t get to stay in, but I’m going to vouch for it anyway just because the members of our group that stayed there raved so much about it. I can’t give you price quotes, but I do know that my friends moved to Lucy’s house only after being stuck with a $20 per person, per night situation elsewhere. They also negotiated the option NOT to have dinner there – and yet managed to eat in every night. I guess that means the food’s good, too.

    Lucy house is well furnished with groovy high ceilings. She has at least one room with a stocked refrigerator and two big beds. There’s a small balcony from which you can watch the world go by and I heard rumors about being able to hang out on the roof with a great view of Baracoa. If I were to go back to Baracoa, I could see myself staying a Lucy’s.

    Edificio Turquino (18k image)Santiago de Cuba
    Edificio Turquino

    Av. Victoriano Garzón, a few blocks east of the Plaza de Marte

    One of the more interesting places we stayed on our second trip was in an imposing Soviet-style apartment building in the middle of Santiago. Set among 3 or 4 other massive, cement structures, the Edificio Turquino is about 20 stories tall and sits right across the street from the Coppelia La Arboleda (ice cream grove.)

    Our rooms were situated on the 9th and 13th floors which, of course, came with great views of the city. During out stay, each room had problems with the water (sometimes there wasn’t any at all), but otherwise they had everything else you’d need – air conditioning, a kitchen, a TV, fans, etc. The best thing about finding a casa particular that doubles as your own apartment is that you aren’t necessarily bound by the two-to-a-room regs. And while the threat of running out of water might make you look for something else, let me assure that at least the landlord was always readily available and willing to help. $10 a head. Worth it.

    Finding out how to rent the rooms can be more difficult. Sure, you could walk right into the Edificio Turquino and start looking for blue stickers, but unfortunately I don’t think anyone lives in those apartments when they’re not rented out (though, I could certainly be wrong on that point.) If you’re set on renting one of these apartments, might I suggest taking a ride on the elevator? I’m sure the full-time employee (who’s only job is to push the button of your floor) would know who to ask. Also, we found our contact, Carlos, through Lucy. But to go that route, you’ll probably have to visit Baracoa first. If that works for you, understand that Carlos was a bit pushy in wanting to be our guide to Santiago. That said, it was nice that he took the anxiety out of apartment hunting by meeting us at the bus stop.

    I’m sure there are many other places in Cuba that are quite worthy of your patronage. There are certainly other great ones from my first trip that, unfortunately, I can’t remember enough information about to give you (or me) a decent chance of finding them.

    Have you been to Cuba? Was there a place you particularly enjoyed and would recommend? If so, please feel free to comment on this entry and share it with the world… or at least with my three faithful readers.

    Next: Eating in Cuba

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