So your flights are booked and your bags (mentally) packed. What’s next? Ah, yes. Accommodation! One quick search on Hostel World and you realise that, actually, there is no listed accommodation in Cuba. What the..?
Newsflash: Cuba doesn’t play by the rules.
If you’re intent on travelling on budget in Cuba, you’re going to have to get used to the idea of NOT staying in backpackers’ hostels. With the exception of a small handful in Havana (more on that later), there are none across the entire country. There are plenty of fancy hotels of course, but these come with a price tag that will make you gasp in horror, and are nearly always crammed with package holiday tourists hell-bent on getting as smashed as possible with their unlimited bar tabs.
Instead, backpackers, whether they like it or not, are consigned to Cuban home owners in casas particulares (private houses), resulting in a unique homestay experience.
The benefits are plentiful, yet there are some inevitable drawbacks that I will go into in this post. But just to be clear at this point – the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.
Where Can You Find Casas Particulares?
You are more or less guaranteed to find a Casa Particular just about anywhere in Cuba. Since the government passed a law allowing Cubans to rent out rooms to tourists in 1997, the renovation hasn’t really stopped, since this provides an alternative – and much relied upon – income for many Cuban families.
You can easily recognise a casa by the standard sign or sticker above the door, which displays a blue symbol against a white background, with the phrase ‘Arrendador Divisa’ written underneath . This indicates that the owners are registered users of the casa particular programme (and therefore obligated to pay a monthly tax of anywhere between 50-300CUC – the same in US dollars).
Should You Reserve Your Casa Particular Before Your Trip?
Although there are many helpful sites that advertise accommodation in Cuba, the price is always lower if you pay in cash as you go along. The difference is a matter of $5-10 (admin fee) and is of course a small price to pay for peace of mind – especially if you are travelling during peak season (December) – but if you’re working with a strict budget, don’t spend until you are there.
Cuba Junky, one of the leading casa particular booking sites, have designed an app which travellers can use offline as a directory for casas all over the country! It’s available both on iOS and Android and costs $5.
Finding a casa in any of the bigger and more popular cities – La Habana, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba for instance – is no problem, but if you’re heading to a small town then it is better to ask your host to call ahead in advance (almost all casa owners seem to have a mutually beneficial agreement in place with various other casa owners across the country).
How Much Does a Room Cost?
The standard price for an en-suite room is 25CUC, whether travelling alone or as a couple. Often there are three beds (or one double and a single), and if you are three the price goes up to 30CUC. This is not per person; it is the cost of the room, so you will pay 10CUC each. The price is usually non-negotiable but if it’s low season there might be a bit of wiggle room if you’re travelling solo.
The cost of breakfast is always negotiable. Your hosts will probably ask for 5CUC but it isn’t unreasonable to bargain them down to 3CUC. Dinner usually costs somewhere between 6 and 10CUC, depending on what is being served.
You are not expected to tip or bring presents.
The Benefits of Staying in a Casa Particulares in Cuba
Unlike backpackers’ hostels, casas particulares offer travellers the unique opportunity to totally immerse themselves at the very core of what defines Cuban culture: the Cuban family home.
From simply meeting Cubans and (depending on your Spanish skills) getting to know them and their lifestyle, to sampling home-cooked Cuban food and having excursions and other casas arranged for you, the experience is often very rewarding. In some cases owners’ hospitality goes above and beyond; in Santa Clara our hosts provided live music for us on New Year’s Eve!
Meals come at a price (and breakfast is often not included with the room), but for one or two CUC more than what you might pay in a cheap restaurant, you are virtually guaranteed of a hearty, nutritious and stomach-stuffing meal. Breakfast usually consists of eggs, toast, jam, coffee, fresh papaya, guava, mango and pineapple and fruit juice. Dinner tends to be something grilled – usually chicken or pork – with frijoles (rice and black beans), salad and fried banana chips. Occasionally you might find lobster on the menu for probably less than half the price that you are used to paying…
Rooms are almost always en-suite with air conditioning and extra fans if needed. Lockers aren’t common but your stuff is pretty safe behind a locked door, and one of your hosts will always be home so you can be sure of secure accommodation in Cuba.
What to Be Aware of in a Casa Particular
Since competition among casa owners is so intense, standards are generally quite high, so it’s unlikely you’ll be unhappy with your room.
Guest rooms are generally well looked after very clean. However, you may encounter a shabby casa from time to time, perhaps with a few unwanted, six-legged roommates patrolling the walls. These are rare but in case you find yourself in one remember that there are probably plenty of other rooms available just a stone’s throw away. Be honest so the owners know that there is a problem.
Sometimes it can feel like all you are to Cubans is a massive, walking dollar symbol, as Claudia explains at great length on her blog. Unfortunately, this tiresome attitude can sometimes extend to casa owners. The best hosts know when to stop the hard sell, be it for dinner or a local tour. Others have no clue, and will try to squeeze every cent out of you, which can spoil the experience a bit. If your Spanish skills are up to it, just politely explain that you are not interested or maybe try changing the subject to their kids. That usually works.
Other extra costs that seem excessive are 2CUC water bottles (check to make sure the lids are sealed) and laundry by the item (yep, they charge by the sock).
There are a few tricks in the book: calling to make a reservation at a lovely old colonial casa with glowing reviews, only to find that when you arrive you are whisked away to a neighbour’s house as the casa you called is actually fully booked, is the best of them all. Annoyingly it happens often, since casa owners want to snap up the business opportunity for friends. It’s always worth asking about this on the phone, so that the host is given a direct opportunity to tell you if you will be sent to another casa.
Another one is not telling tourists who call to reserve a room that the casa is undergoing renovation or, in some cases, still being built. You will never be sold an unfinished room but if you intend on sleeping a lot then work going on elsewhere in the house may disturb you.
How to Guarantee You Get a Great Casa
There are hundreds of ways to solicit information on accommodation in Cuba, but the most honest review of any casa will come from fellow backpackers, so be sure to tell each other about any brilliant or terrible experiences you’ve had. Always take business cards (most casa owners have one) so other people can take photos with their phones (if you want to keep the cards as mementos) and likewise, take notes or photos of casas that are recommended by other travellers.
You could even browse casa booking sites before you arrive in Cuba and make a note of the properties with the best reviews and their address/phone numbers.
Apart from that all you can do is go off the recommendation of casa owners who you stay with during your trip. This is a better option than turning up to a place with nothing.
Other Types of Accommodation in Cuba
As mentioned above, there is a limited number of hostels in Havana. I can personally recommend Rolando’s Backpackers, which wasn’t only clean, economical and run by helpful, friendly staff, but provided the means to meet other backpackers at the start of my trip, who I subsequently traveled and made huge savings with.
If you’ve money to burn, there are plenty of hotels available, but do Cuba this way and you will never reap the frankly amazing benefits of casas particulares.
Staying in a casa particular is the best way to meet Cubans, learn about Cuba, its past, its present and the candid opinions of its people.