Thursday, June 28, 2012


Similar to B&Bs, casas particulares are rooms available in Cuban homes, encouraged by record tourism - and last November in Varadero, the relaxing of regulations. We spend our entire month in homes rather than hotels, where our hosts are surprised and pleased to see Americans and ask us to tell our friends that Cuba is safe and welcomes them. We find various casas through recommendations by our Cuba iPhone app[1] or hosts of other casas. Often they simply call ahead to their friend in the next town, checking availability. As our telephones don't work in Cuba, this is quite helpful. We tend to stay in city centers (World Heritage colonial towns) for walking ease and to avoid expensive taxi fares. On a couple occasions we take the bait offered by owners as they mob bus stations seeking visitors, and each time it works out fine. A government fee of $5 per room per night (whether booked or not) necessitates minimum occupancies (hence the rush by owners, reps, taxi drivers, and jinteros), and on the plus side, there is a level of hospitality and care taken by hosts to ensure happy guests.

With few exceptions, the homes we stay in are beautiful spaces - colonial, neoclassical, baroque, or art deco homes with high ceilings, interior courtyards and gardens, rooftops for happy hour views. Bedrooms are all air conditioned, most have hot water, and refrigerators are de rigeur. Breakfast is offered at every casa, and while seeking breakfast elsewhere, we find out why. Cubans eat breakfast at home. Other than coffee, and an occasional freshly-squeezed OJ or grilled sandwich, there is no breakfast on the street. No Dunkin Donuts, no Denny's, no IHOPs. Gratefully.

Casas are inexpensive, ranging from $15 to $30 per night per room. Tourist hotel rooms go from $90 to $500 (with a $1000 option in Varadero).
Negotiating tips to help avoid any check-out problems:
      1.     Make sure you're talking the same currency (there are two in Cuba)
      2.    Price per room or per person?
      3.    Write down the agreed price
      4.    Get clear agreement on written price before parking your bags

I am surprised by how few hosts speak English, though several speak Italian and French, both of which get me by more than a few times; although limited Spanish and sign language works just fine throughout the country. I tell them "estoy aprendendio" (I'm learning). They laugh and are understanding. Those who speak English learn at University or by practicing with tourists. One woman admits to learning from Celine Dion CDs.

I interview a casa owner in depth after she complains one afternoon about the recent devaluation of the local currency. Many of the supplies, food, and labor are bought in MN, so that her buying power is now reduced. She finds the growing competition difficult, and says that jinteros and taxi drivers are 'stealing her business' at bus and train stations. She now asks guests on arrival how they found her, since many drivers attempt to collect a $5 finder's fee even if a guest asks for her casa specifically, instead of it being recommended by the taxi service.

Government rules and regs drive her crazy (something we all have in common) -
·         having to pay fees whether income is earned or not ($150 per month per room)[2]
·         having to be open and available 365 days per year
·         employment limited to one worker [3]
·         daily registration of papers and forms with immigration (physically - go to the finance office, wait in line, etc. - not online)[4]

Her casa is impeccable, the last in a series she and her husband have owned, starting with a small apartment left to her by an aunt twelve years prior. With all her complaints, she is grateful for her lifestyle and happy to have another source of income.

I think most Cubanos carrying on small business ventures are grateful for any additional income. Still, major income discrepancies are negligible, and due to a shared social contract, any large wealth would be shameful. There is poverty, despite basic needs being met, but there are no homeless in Cuba, no panhandlers - like the 83-year old woman I met in Ashland, standing in 28-degree weather to raise money to support three grandchildren she's raising.

In Cienfuegos we book a fabulous suite of rooms on the water, but when we arrive by taxi, our room has been filled. We'd been warned. Some casa owners, due to the daily $5 fee, move in guests even if they have reservations...bird in the hand. Rx: Arrive early in the day.

Over the course of our month on the island, we enjoy a few memorable casas particulares:
                Margot's in Habana Vieja.  In business for twelve years, Margot goes beyond the call - boiling and chilling water for guests, leaving out ample fresh fruit, refusing any payment for eggs, bread, and other food we use...and for laundry service, storing our suitcase while we explore the rest of the island, and holding goods I leave for a friend to pick up.
·                   Norma and Jorge's in Varadero, where we arrive on Jorge's sixtieth birthday. Initially they apologize for it, then invite us to the party - about forty friends celebrating, many musicians playing, much salsa dancing, tamales de province, crab du casa, half a pig cooking all day, numerous sides, and a table of rum and mixers. Happy Birthday, Jorge!
·                   At Maria's lovely suite in Puerto Padre, her son is tour guide for the May 1st (International Workers Day) celebration, beach and disco, and Maria nurses me through a couple days of Batista's revenge with special teas, medicines, and care. Her lobster is famous!
·                   Chocolate and Dalianis in Trinidad was our favorite for all sorts of reasons. Amid the red-tiled rooftops and pastel-colored houses, framing the cobblestone streets of this World Heritage town, we chance by a casa offering a fabulous suite of rooms - two bedrooms (3 beds and yes, a/c), living and dining rooms, bathroom (hot water), a lanai, patio, and rooftop for watching Trinidad, clouds and mountains, and the world go by. $15 per night. Best value of the entire trip! [more in the food chapter]

Casas are all so unique and special. They keep us from the 'hotel experience' and bring us closer to the real Cuba. Hosts are informal ambassadors of their country, and getting to know their families is one of the best parts of our trip.

[1]  Havana Good Time, by Conner Gorry: a rich intro to all things Havana - casas and hotels, paladars and restaurants, music and art scene, museums, galleries, attractions, money changing, transportation, neighborhoods, shopping...
[2]  In Varadero the fee is higher due to the 'touristic zone' at $200 per room per month.
[3]  The owner uses four part-timers, having tried working one girl, but finding it so much work they inevitably quit. The policy is to encourage the hiring of family members.
[4]  The paperwork astounds. Nothing is handled online due to dreadful internet service, hence an astonishing amount of papers and forms and lines...and jobs.