When visiting Cuba, you have two different types of accommodation you can choose from. The obvious choice would be a hotel or resort and the other possibility is a Casa Particular.
Casas particulares, directly translating into “private houses” are a sort of B&B set up at people’s homes. If a local has a spare room to rent, it is rather common to have it available for tourists. Rooms in casas particulares are plentiful in Havana and present all across the country.
What can you expect of a Casa Particular?
Well, you will be having a private room, with your own bathroom or shared, depending on the house and, for this, you will be paying between 20CUC and 30CUC (equivalent amount in USD). As this is a room in a house, you will probably spend some time with the owners and, perhaps, with their family. Depending on the level of hospitality of your host, you might get invited to sit down and chat with them, perhaps to have some of their food, but this doesn’t always happen so you shouldn’t necessarily count on it.
Sometimes, breakfast might be included in your room rate, but not always, so make sure you make this clear with your host before you agree on a room rate or before you eat their food. Surprises happen, and we know what we are talking about in this field! The first room we stayed at was booked via Hostelbookers.com and clearly mentioned breakfast was included. After having our morning meal our indecent host, Ramiro, told us “It’s 4USD!“. He didn’t care that his ad on Hostelbookers mentions “breakfast included” and gave us the whole “oh, we are poor and pay a lot of taxes to the Government” speech. Not cool. We moved out. Specially after we found out his crib wasn’t even legally rented!… Obvious tip: do not stay at “Casa Ramiro”.
Whether you will be dining with your host or just saying hello and doing small chit chat while coming in and out of the house, Casas Particulares definitely offer a more real experience of Cuba and its people. If you stay in a hotel and, even more, in an all-inclusive resort, chances are you won’t get to know many Cubans and, therefore, your experience in this country will somehow be limited. Meeting people in their own homes is more intimate than chatting with waiters or musicians that play for tourists – many people you will meet “outside” will be nice expecting some tips in return, so it’s difficult sometimes to tell the difference between pure niceness and interest.
While staying in Casas Particulares it’s important to keep in mind that, even though you are paying to stay here, Cuba is a country of shortages and limitations, so don’t expect some “luxuries” that you might take for granted somewhere else. This includes seats in the toilet pot, smooth toilet paper, water pressure in the shower, plenty of butter even when you are paying for breakfast and things of the sort. For Cubans, every little thing counts and this is noticeable in and out of the houses. So much that, most restaurants we ate at while staying in Cuba, had their napkins cut into half! Why wasting a whole piece of tissue when you can clean yourself with half? E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g counts!
Last, but not least, if you decide to stay in a Casa Particular, do not bother booking in advance. Our experience proved that, unless you are arriving late at night, it’s more successful to just arrive into town, look for the neighborhood you like and, over there itself, look for a casa. Legal casas (the ones with government permit to rent their rooms and that, therefore, pay heavy taxes for this every year) are marked on their facades with a blue symbol against white background. You will either read “room for rent” or, most commonly, “arrendador de divisas”. If a house does not have this symbol outside, it’s not illegal, so I would recommend against staying there.
Do watch out for the same symbol in red if you need the room for a couple of hours only and, who knows, with bed sheets spotting proof of previous naughty acts taking place in the room. We learnt, Sesame Street style, that different symbols indeed mean different things!