For Americans traveling to Cuba, finding a place to stay can feel stressful. With few hotels and high demand, most resort to staying in a casa particular—a privately run B&B. But even that can prove difficult if you don’t know the ropes. Read about my family’s experience to help save yourself time and tension when you book your own Cuban casa particular. (Remember to click on the photos for more info.)
Emerging from the backseat of our 1955 Dodge taxi and onto the dimly lit street, I looked up to see the lights of our Havana casa particular. It was nearly midnight, yet even with little ambient light, I recognized the facade of the building from the photos we had seen on Point2Cuba—the Canadian-based agency we used to book our first three nights here. Being an hour delayed and having no cell service, we hadn’t been able to contact the owner, and I was stressed about having made him wait so long.
Truthfully, I was stressed about a lot of things: did they have our correct arrival information, what if no one arrives to meet us, can we pay the balance of the rental fee tomorrow since we weren’t able to change enough money at the airport, what if the casa particular isn’t as nice as on the website?
It was easy to search for what we wanted (independent apartment with at least 2BR, 2BA) in the Havana neighborhood we wanted (Miramar or Vedado—opting out of the tourist center, Old Havana) in a reasonable price range ($35-50/person/night; $1 ≈ 1CUC or convertible Cuban peso)—$25-30/night is a solid value, but we aimed a little higher on the comfort scale. The challenge was trying to actually book it online.
Wifi is limited in Cuba. Agencies that list B&Bs—whether based in or out of the country) don’t necessarily have the most up-to-date information. Today your choice is listed as available, but yesterday someone booked it and the owner won’t be able to get online until two days from now to update the information. In our case, we had a low-tech, non-Wifi workaround: call the agency directly.
Our Point2Cuba booking agent, Jola, was an angel. After learning our preferences, she worked day and night (no lie: I was getting emails from her at 3am!) to quickly find just what we needed. We easily paid the deposit online (because the company is based in Canada rather than Cuba, there were no restrictions on us as Americans to pay this way), and Jola emailed us a voucher with the B&B address, owner’s contact info, and the balance due to the owner. We’d need it (just in case) for Immigration at Havana airport and to show the owner.
Avelina, the owner, had seen us from the window and came out to greet us. Climbing all those stairs, I was grateful for having packed light. Entering the room, our tired eyes lit up–the place was beautiful, spacious, well-lit, clean, and comfortable. We had the whole place to ourselves, as Avelina and his wife lived in another part of the town. We felt welcome and at ease, and he reminded us, “Ésta es su casa. ¡Aprovéchenla!” This is your home. Make the most of it!
After filling out obligatory paperwork to inform the Cuban government of our visit (as all tourists must do regardless of where they stay) and making arrangements to pay our balance in two days, we got a solid night’s sleep in our temporary home away from home.
Our B&B in Viñales was equally comfortable and welcoming, and our hosts Mamita and Chuchi were a delight. In this town, practically every building is a casa particular. The entire town lives off of tourists who stay in these humble dwellings. Air-conditioning was a Godsend during this unusually hot and humid December, and it helped keep the mosquitos at bay.
Each morning on the rooftop of Casa Chuchi y Mamita, we had a breakfast feast (5 CUC pp). With dramatically jungly, limestone mountains (or mogotes, literally “haystacks”) to our west and crayola-colored houses to our sun-rising east, there was no better place to be. If all we had was bread and water, our eyes would’ve filled us up with enough gorgeous scenery to be satiate us. Thankfully, our hosts fed us well with excellent eggs, hot ham and cheese sandwiches, tropical fruits, cornbread, and plenty of coffee.
On our last night, Chuchi and Mamita served up a bonanza of pollo asado (roasted chicken), tostones (fried plantains), tropical fruit, rice, and bean soup. A special guest joined us: a frog that jumped into my bowl…luckily it was before I had served myself the piping hot soup. Chuchi promptly brought me a new bowl, and we enjoyed our scrumptious, starlit dinner on the village rooftop of our countryside B&B.
Farther east in Trinidad, we stayed with Magnelis, her husband, and her mother. What a team they are! While Magnelis runs the B&B business, Gerardo cooks and fixes things, and Mamá cooks and cleans. The property has been family-owned for generations and is modernized with every comfort. While the family’s rooms were downstairs, ours were upstairs and included a rooftop patio, where we enjoyed the birthday cake given to me by the aforementioned Avelina. You could stay up there from sunrise to sunset and just gaze at the town, the nearby Escambray mountains, and glimpses of the Caribbean.
Like at our previous casa particular, our B&B hosts indulged us with hearty breakfasts of eggs, fruit, and hot sandwiches. We became addicted to Mamá’s fresh guava smoothies, which she always served with a proud smile. We were thankful to have a host like Magnelis who really loved chatting with us about America and her life in Cuba; gave us wonderful advice on activities, eateries, and money-changing; and arranged our 4-hour taxi ride back to Havana. Not only did we feel at home here, we felt like part of the family.
We spent our final nights back in the capital—this time at an AirBnB casa particular. I use AirBnB whenever and wherever I can and have always had good experiences. This time was no exception in terms of our rental and our hosts. But it’s only fair to let you know that as with the first rental agency I mentioned (and likely with any rental agency you’ll use), the process isn’t as smooth with Cuban B&Bs as with U.S. or European equivalents.
Particularly, with Airbnb Cuban rentals (currently only rentable by Americans), for each request you make, you must verify that you and each of your travel partners have (or will have) a proper “General License” for travel to Cuba or your request will be cancelled. Then you’ll wait up to 72 hours to find out if the location is truly available for your requested dates. If nay, then—and only then—can you request a new location and go through the same process.
For us, it was well worth the effort. We found a 3BR, 2BA apartment with (you guessed it) a rooftop patio overlooking our Miramar neighborhood. Ingrid and Alberto charmed us from moment one. They’ve been renting this second-floor apartment for years (they own the building and live on the ground floor), but they were proud to claim us as their first Airbnb guests ever (Airbnb has only been in Cuba since early 2015). With hugs that made us feel like long-lost relatives, they welcomed us into this charming and grand home that Alberto’s father had built back in the day.
Our hosts proudly employed two maids who rotated work days and three or four guardians who welcomed us at the front gate at any hour we chose to leave or return, not because they were rich or were in an unsafe neighborhood. Rather they had sufficient income to provide steady employment to help contribute to the livelihoods of as many people as they could–even if that meant having guardians instead of house keys.
The most memorable moments for us were our frank and insightful conversations with our hosts about his experience as a visiting professor of Cuban History at Notre Dame and the University of Chicago; their daughter who is earning her PhD in The States; how miserably bleak the “Special Period” was for all Cubans after the fall of the Soviet Union—compounded by the U.S. Embargo, when people had so little food that they looked like walking skeletons and fuel supplies were cut off so there were absolutely no vehicles on the road; and their eagerness to learn more about the people of America and how we as individuals are not one-in-the-same as our policies.
With each casa particular, we felt well cared-for, safe, appreciated, and even pampered. And what made this more than a vacation, more than a touristic visit, and more than what you’d experience staying in some hob-nob snobby hotel was meeting and staying with locals who truly wanted to get to know us and for whom we came to care a great deal by the end of each stay.
Check out the specifics of our Cuban B&Bs below. Be sure to leave comments about your own personal experiences in casas particulares, questions you might have, or suggestions for other Travelphilers.
Point2Cuba: http://www.point2cuba.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; +1 905 628 8572
P2C Rental Agent: Jola
Our rental: (ID# RHPLOF28) 3BR/2BA Penthouse in Miramar, hosted by Avelina
The next two listings can and should be booked directly with the owners. The hosts work “on your honor” and trust that you will be there when you promise to be, even if you cannot provide a deposit (which most Americans cannot). So be responsible about good communication.
Casa Chuchi y Mamita, 2BR/2BA
For photos: http://www.bbinnvinales.com/bedandbreakfastrentweb/?676,casa-chuchi-y-mamita-(vinales)-4-
Book direct: email@example.com
Hostal “El Ático”, 2BR/2BA (can rent rooms individually), hosted by Magnelis
Another good option is to go through TrinidadRent, a casa particular booking agency run by kind and helpful Maria; firstname.lastname@example.org.