travelog 131

Cuba III: Casas Particulares

The best, least expensive, and most interesting way to find accommodation in Cuba is at the so-called "casas particulares". Casa particular literally means "private house", but since 1997, when the Cuban government finally allowed their people to rent out rooms or apartments to tourists, it started to mean "private accommodation". A casa particular is very similar to a bed & breakfast and costs usually between 20-30 CUC per night, excluding food. These private accommodations can be recognised by a small sign on the door, two blue triangles (similar to two roofs) on a white background with the writing "Arrendadora Divisa". To believe that you're really staying at the house of real Cubans is probably somewhat exaggerated, because the Cubans who can rent rooms and/or apartments are more likely elite Cubans with access to money (or hard currency = CUC). The real Cubans are doubtlessly the ones who work in the casa. The government eased regulations even more in 2011, and now Cubans are allowed to rent out several rooms. Owners have to pay a monthly tax per room (depending on location) and an additional tax for offering parking. Serving meals means another tax to be paid. These taxes must be paid whether the rooms are rented or not. Owners are also obligated to keep a register of all the guests and have to report each arriving guest within 24 hours. That's why you should not be surprised that, as soon as you have unloaded your luggage, you will be asked for your passport. Your data has to be punctiliously copied, you have to sign, and then the thick book must at once (= daily) be presented to the responsible official for control and stamping.

Before our trip we had already written down the names and addresses of some casas from the Lonely Planet and the French Routard travel guides. In Havana we had also reserved two rooms in the middle of the old town for our arrival and departure so that we could avoid trying to find accommodation burdened with luggage and in a taxi cab. For the rest of Cuba, we quickly found out that casas mentioned in Lonley Planet were reliably booked out when we showed up. We ended up driving into the center of town, looking for the blue signs on the door, deciding spontaneously on a suitable place to stay. Without knowing it, sometimes we still managed to find accommodation in a house praised in Lonely Planet. Most of the casas have A/C (indispensable in the summer), an additional fan, and a small refrigerator (equally indispensable in the summer because you can freeze your water bottles which produce cold water while on the road the next day). Most of the rooms have their own bathroom and are nicely furnished. The owners were, almost without exception, very friendly and helpful; after a few days on the road, we got the hang of it asking all the right questions so as not to have a nasty surprise when presented with the final bill.

Following, we would like to present to you some of the casas where we have stayed.

Casa Ana & Surama in Havana

There are countless casas in Havana and if you start looking in time, you certainly find something suitable. Surama's casa is located one block from Plaza Vieja and you reach about every point of interest on foot if you like walking, an essential thing if you're visiting Havana. To reach the apartment and your room, you need to climb up an extremely narrow and unbelievably steep flight of stairs to the second floor, almost impossible with a lot of luggage or huge suitcases. In return you're rewarded with great views onto the roofs and streets of Havana from all rooms. From the staircase you enter the living and dining room, overloaded with kitsch. The walls of the living room are painted in a bright orange, the shutters blue. Lavish chandeliers are more likely nostalgic decor than sources of light; every space is cluttered with fifties kitsch, porcelain figurines, porcelain plates, porcelain cake plates, ashtrays, etc. Our room is, thank god, painted in blue - with the high temperatures of summer, rooms painted in hues of red are a torture even with an A/C. The room is not particularly big but it is crammed with a large bed, two night tables, one armchair, another chair, a huge wardrobe, a small fridge, and a narrow side table with mirror. There are two small, intimate balconies with great views onto the surrounding roofs and terraces and all the way to the corner of Plaza Vieja. Although we don't have much luggage, it is impossible to fit everything comfortably into the room. The night tables and side table are so cluttered up with kitsch and knick-knacks that every time you turn around you're afraid to break something.

Casa Tatica & El Chino in Viñales

We end up at Tatica's by pure chance, because, of course, we wanted to stay at a place that was highly recommended in Lonely Planet. We visit Viñales right after Havana at the beginning of our trip and still have not realized that the casas mentioned in travel guides are (almost) always booked. But the young owner of the recommended casa takes us around the corner where all the rooms are occupied too. Then she tries her friend Tatica on the other side of the creek who is very happy to welcome guests. The rooms are spartan, and there's an electrical cable connected to the shower head for heating water. At night, a 3-4 cm long (barely two inches) yellow-brown-striped gecko with an orange-brown tail waits for prey glued to the wall of our room. From the terrace in front of the house we have a fantatsic view onto the mogotes, the karst cones typical of the area around Viñales. There's another secluded terrace behind the house where we are entertained royally. Breakfast is excellent and could feed a whole army. For dinner, Tatica serves us fried headless fish, a huge bowl of white rice, beans, and "papas fritas". These potatoes are not really potatoes but malanga, Xanthosoma sagittifolium, a plant from the Araceae family (it is NOT taro root). There's malanga isleña, which is taro root, and malanga amarilla, the true Xanthosoma sagittifolium, a plant native to the central and northern parts of South America which was brought to Cuba by the Spaniards. Tatica also serves another variation of malanga that looks like a fried dumpling (it is malanga mixed with onions), a colorful salad, pickled chiles, and even some fresh chiles that she picked in the neighbor's garden which she calls "chile de puta madre" because they are so hot. There's a vast number of casas in Viñales and you have to wonder how all of them can somehow stay in business. Every second house has rooms for rent in "our" street alone. The houses are painted in all colors of the rainbow; one house vanilla yellow and blood red, the window frames white, the rocking chairs pink, the fence wine red, and even the water tank on the roof is painted. Or you have all this in shades of blue, green, or yellow. Then there's the tropical plants in the gardens and in Viñales often a very old specimen of Microcycas calocoma, a plant endemic to this area in Cuba. A leisurley stroll leads us over the creek past the last houses of the small town directly into the fields and to a perfectly smooth lake in which the mogotes mirror in the quiet mornings.

Casa de Elena & Casa Tropical SG in Pinar del Rio

When we arrive in Pinar del Rio rain is pouring down. The small map in Lonely Planet with the best casas is either old or we search in the wrong place. For the life of us, we can't find the house where we want to stay. The few people we see in the rain either don't want to understand what we're talking about or have no idea where this place is. When we finally find it after driving many times around the same street corners, the rooms, as usual, are occupied. Somehow we end up at Surama's house which is called Casa de Elena. We stay here out of pure desperation although our room is tiny and too expensive. Jean-Marc and Lupita find accommodation at Casa Tropical SG which is a lot more spacious and the owners much nicer. The rain is now only a drizzle and we sit on the terrace and enjoy a beer which the next day is debited for a horrendous price. That's how we quickly learn and don't order anything anymore without asking for the price in advance. Dinner is too much fried chicken. Sinking into bed like stuffed turkeys we decide to order only one dinner per couple in the future. A young German couple with two toddlers occupy the second room. They also think that Surama is fleecing us all, and tell us about their adventurous vacation, especially about the troubles they are having finding baby food and diapers.

Casa Amigos del Mundo in Cienfuegos

We park in the center of Cienfuegos and have a look at a first casa which is not to our liking. The owners are very friendly and call a friend around the corner. That's how we end up at Casa Amigos del Mundo, a house, unbelievably enough, is first recommended in Lonely Planet and second has two free rooms for us. We like everything the moment we step through the door directly into the living and dining room of the family. Behind are the rooms, cool and spacious, one even has its own small patio, and all go out onto a breezy corridor with tons of potted plants. The best is the roof terrace on the first floor where we enjoy our favorite beer, the dark Bucanero, and later have to flee from a powerful thunderstorm. For the first dinner we get, as usual, plenty of food, so the next night we order only one meal per couple and still get too much because the cook thinks we're underfed and starving and again prepares a feast. For breakfast we have tropical fruits, fresh mango juice, the usual, tasteless rubber cheese, the horribly synthetic looking slices of sausage, eggs à la mode (revueltos, scrambled eggs, or en torta, sunny side up eggs fried on both sides). We women soon start a conversation with the owner who is also the cook; and as soon as we are finished eating we are already talking about food again. The next morning we enjoy "Fotzelschnitten à la Cubana", or in proper English Cuban-style French toast.

Hostal Familia Liván in Sancti Spiritus

Again we try our luck at a Lonely Planet casa, without success. But just on the other side of the street we find accommodation with the Liván family who make a very business-minded impression. The rooms are newly furnished and renovated, the bathrooms are state-of-the-art too, and there's even a beautiful roof terrace with views onto tiled roofs, clothes lines and church towers. Martin and I would like to have dinner at a restaurant around the corner, but when we get there the power is out. We have time for two very cold beers and a nice conversation with the waiter; then the restaurant closes because it is pitch black, inside and out. Jean-Marc and Lupita try their luck in another part of town where there is power but they have to wait in line for an eternity to finally get a table at the restaurant. There's no power in our casa either and the family has put up candles everywhere. The room looks now very romantic, but the heat is unbearable without A/C and/or fan. Our salvation is Liván who invites us for a beer. One beer leads to another with the extended family and neighbors, but Liván continues to offer free cold beer and we spend a lively evening until, shortly after midnight, power is restored. Everybody applauds and we gladly go back to our room to turn on the A/C on full speed.

Hostal Humberto in Pilón

We only spend the night in Pilón because it is the best starting point for the almost 200 kms (125 miles) long coastal road to Santiago de Cuba. Pilón is a one-horse town, a dusty village near the sea with a rocky beach, a gas station, a government-owned store, and a pizzeria at the bus station. We find a few houses with the blue casa particular sign on the door. After looking at about three houses we decide for Hostal Humberto. Jean-Marc and Lupita are the lucky ones today and can choose their room. Understandably, it is the room on the first floor where you can feel a nice breeze, leading directly onto the big roof terrace under a huge mango tree. The remaining room for us, or better the dark hole on the ground floor, could make you claustrophobic even if otherwise you don't have problems with tiny, dark spaces. The rooms are basic but everything works and, judging from the garden, either Humberto or his mother have a green thumb. Humberto organizes ice cubes for us so we can finally have a Cuba Libre, mixed with Cuban rum from the government store and TuKola, the Cuban version of Coca Cola. As predicted, TuKola is disgusting and undrinkable, the rum tastes a lot better just cooled down with ice cubes. On Humberto's recommendation we want to try the Restaurant Mirador with a spectacular view over the coast, but it is unfortunately closed on Mondays. That's why we end up at the Pizzeria La Central at the bus station where we are served a dirt-cheap lunch: 4 pizzas for 1 CUC. We have the choice between pizza napolitana, pizza with onions or sausage (looking like a hot dog sausage). Another item on the menu includes spaghetti, although they more resemble a Chinese noodle soup with pieces of cheese floating in it. Everything is closed in the evening, even the Pizzeria La Central has run out of food to serve. Since the local cinema is also closed indefinitely, there's only one thing to do: sip more rum on the terrace under the mango tree.

Casa de Roy in Santiago de Cuba

The second largest city of the island, Santiago de Cuba, is really pretty big, the streets and alleys are narrow, there's too much traffic, and it is difficult to find a casa with two free rooms, especially since we arrived just in time for the "Festival del Caribe" with music and celebrations. We are sent from one place to the next and finally split up. Martin and I stay with Roy, the other two find less modern accommodation at a family's house around the corner. At Roy's place everything is very tasteful, the bathrooms modern, and there's even a romantic roof terrace covered with greenery where breakfast is served, or by request and advance booking lunch and dinner by candle light. All the employees are friendly and helpful and Roy manages his casa, that appears more like a hotel with much competence.

Don José in Cajobabo

Another stretch of road without accommodation takes us from Guantanamo through Cajobabo to Baracoa. As a matter of fact, we have no idea if we will find a roof over our heads in Cajobabo or if we have to drive all the way to Baracoa. The road goes on and on, especially because the most beautiful of all Cuban agaves, Agave albescens, grows along the coast and the many melocacti have to be photographed too. Finally we reach the turn-off to Cajobabo late in the afternoon and ask the first people for a casa particular. There's no hotel or casa particular in town, only a campismo for which we are not equipped. The salvation is named Don José who owns a restaurant and rents rooms (as far as we can tell illegally) for an extra income. We find two rooms, one in his house, the other with his niece. Both rooms have to be set up first because family members usually sleep there. Our room is very, very, VERY basic, painted in blue and contains a disastrous bed with a completely worn down mattress and a fan. That's it. The bathroom is next door, the toilet has no seat, we would only try to use the shower in an emergency - that luckily doesn't materialize - , and there's also no toilet paper (a German backpack tourist stole the toilet paper and soap, just imagine!). After a cold beer we first drive to the beach and enjoy the warm water. Then we have more cold beer and enjoy the dinner we ordered after arriving on a long wooden table in the shade of a mango tree. We have fried fish, a huge tough lobster (grandfather), lots of rice, fried bananas, mango, and a green bean salad that they call habichuela. Don José's bar and restaurant seem to be a meeting place for the locals and there's more guests later at night. After dinner, Martin and I take a walk in the dark to the beach. When we turn on the flashlight to see what is moving at our feet, a giant crab, the Cuban land crab or Gecarcinus ruricola, scuttles sideways over the street towards the ocean, stops and curiously looks up at us. The night sky is studded with millions of stars, and there's not a single street light or other bothering sources of light that could lessen the star's splendor.

Casa Mery & Luis in Baracoa

We stay almost on the top floor of this multistory, light blue house in huge rooms, each with two large beds and modern bathrooms. Baracoa lies on the coast and you really only need a fan because the upper rooms are wonderfully breezy. There's a flight of stairs to the roof terrace from where you see the town and the ocean. We try Lonely Planet's recommendation for lunch, the restaurant "El Buen Sabor". The "Pescado en Leche de Coco", fish in coconut milk, is exquisite, the service excellent, and the waiter even speaks a little bit of German. In the evening we sit on the terrace in comfortable deck chairs. On the other side of the street an old man on crutches celebrates his birthday with booming Cuban music. He seems to have turned the volume to full just for himself since we can't see any other guests.

Casa de la Sra. Marvelia Cabrera Mulet in Holguin

We drive into the center of Holguin, a modern town, to look for the blue signs. We have a look at two casas but somehow they are both not to our liking. Finally we are sent to Marvelia where we get the two extremely spacious rooms on the first floor. Of course the furnishing is a matter of taste, it's a little bit too much of "Gelsenkirchener Barock", but the beds are extremely comfortable, there's a fridge, a dressing table (which we, or better I, don't need), comfortable armchairs, and two rocking chairs on a small terrace. The bathroom has the most modern German faucets and all which the owner brought home from a visit to her daughter in Leipzig. High quality linens and towels were brought by Canadian guests in exchange for free nights. One room goes for 25 CUC per night. A domestic help at Marvelia's earns 30 CUC per month, not too bad for Cuban circumstances. Holguin is also the first place we get into contact with a jinetero. Jineteros are men who are trying to make money with tourists. (Jineteras are mostly prostitutes) Early in the evening we sit in a bar on the main square and order mojitos. Martin wants a beer but there's only Cristal, a light, pretty tasteless beer. The young man at the next table offers to find a Bucanero for Martin. After he comes back with two Bucaneros, he sits down at our table and we talk about everything under the sun, but mainly about Cuba. Finally he offers to take us to the restaurant of one of his uncles across the main square to see if we like it. When we step out of the bar he disappears to get a taxi. That seems a little odd as the restaurant was supposedly on the other side of the plaza. But now he says that he will show us another place. The taxi drives around 50 corners and offloads us no more than 100 meters from the main square. Of course we only realize this later because the 50 corners the taxi drove felt like kilometers into an unknown neighborhood. The restaurant feels like Alaska in the winter, but when we want to leave they have another room where the A/C is not down to minus zero degrees. So we have a look at the menu but there's no dish for less than 19 CUC, almost as much as a room for two people costs per night. Food for four people would have cost us as much as five times sleeping for two people. And since eating is not much fun without drinking, we leave the overpriced restaurant and say goodbye to our nice guide who tries to convince us of another place that fits our budget better. Now we find out that we're not miles away from the main square but just two street corners.

Casa Ivan & Lucy in Camagüey

We arrive pretty late in Camagüey and all the casas that we try are occupied or it smells so terrible that Lupita and I don't even set a foot inside the house. Finally we are led to Ivan and Lucy who have two free rooms. Everything looks very Baroque, or like Gelsenkirchener Barock style furnished: the entry hall which serves as a living and dinig room, is cluttered with mirrors, chandeliers, side tables, porcelain animals, oversized smurfs next to an aquarium, and Mozart-style porcelain figurines. Ivan and Lucy recommend the paladar "Mesón del Principe". A paladar, btw, is a restaurant managed by private people where the food is usually cheaper and much better than in the government-owned restaurants. We enjoy the best mojitos of the trip so far and the food is excellent too. Breakfast at our casa is not bad but we don't get a single avocado that has fallen from the tree in the garden. The maid who collected them in the morning tells us that Lucy told her they were inedible. Our interpretation of that is that she rather not want to give us any avocado. Surprisingly, there are at least three employees working in this house (that's the ones we see) and they all have to be paid. All in all, the owners don't make a very friendly impression on us, for them this is business only.

Casa Mirta in Morón

Morón is a pretty ugly town with an Art Nouveau train station worth seeing. It is also the starting point for day trips to Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo. We find accommodation in two adjacent houses with roof terraces. We enjoy dinner at Casa Mirta. The owners were both doctors but earn now a lot more with their casa. The entree is a delicious crab soup, then we feast on perfectly grilled fish and prawns, fried green and sweet bananas, a vegetable platter, rice, and cumin scented beans. Dessert is a huge plate of fresh tropical fruits. Everything tastes exquisitly and you can see that the owners really enjoy, and have the talent to do so, serving their guests excellent meals.

Casa La Paloma in Remedios

One of Cuba's insider tips is Remedios, a beautifully renovated small town (at least the center of town with its colorful facades). We find two rooms in an old colonial building right on the main square. The rooms have incredibly high ceilings, the lounge is pretty kitschy but with comfortable armchairs and a couch from where you can watch what's happening on the plaza. Also part of the casa is Jack, the very friendly and affectionate house cat, and a restaurant with pretty bad food.

Casa ??? in Matanzas

Matanzas is also called "la Atenas de Cuba", the Athens of Cuba. Downtown is chaotic, everything looks pretty filthy and dirty from exhaust fumes, traffic noise and smell of exhaust fumes are overwhelming and all rooms seem to be occupied or reserved. We're all quickly getting irritated. Finally we drive out again to Playa Matanzas where we are successful at the second house whose name we don't remember, that's the reason for the three question marks. It is three blocks from the "beach" and main through road and we have the entire ground floor with a patio to ourselves. The owner's busy mother orders dinner at a paladar, telling them that it is for her relatives who arrived unexpectedly, meaning that we were getting a much better price. For 17.50 CUC we get four portions of garlic prawns with all the trimmings delivered to the house. The trimmings consist of a huge bowl of prawns, bowls of "moros y cristianos", white rice with black beans, a plate of cucumber and boniato. Boniato, the Cuban sweet potatoe or Ipomoea batatas, is less sweet than the orange sweet potatoe and has white flesh. The busy mother even fries some bananas for us. Everything is delivered in tupperware and has to be put onto plates and into bowls very quickly. The search for Bucanero, our favorite beer, is time consuming as many things in Cuba, but successful in the end. Just to be on the safe side we buy the entire supply from their fridge. After dinner a powerful thunderstorm with torrential rain unloads just above us, but we sit very comfortably under the covered terrace on the patio with our cold beers smoking Cuban cigars. Breakfast is generous, there's even a toasted sandwich from a panino oven and slices of avocado off the tree in the backyard. In the evening we drive to "Lino's" for pizza. Four pizzas with chorizo and two beers are 13.50 CUC. This is how much (or little) the young man earns in one month in Varadero, THE Cuban tourist destination/trap par excellence, guarding and charging a small fee to see the 500 year old giant cactus, Dendrocereus nudiflorus.

At the end of our trip we spend two more nights at Casa Ana & Surama in Havana. Of course we can only give you small insights into the world and variety of Cuban casas particulares. We also have not mentioned every casa that we stayed in, this would have been beyond the scope of this travelog. The travel guides all more or less recommend the same casas which are usually already occupied or reserved in advance. Since we are used from Mexico to arrive somewhere and try our luck finding accommodation, the Cuban casas were the best and cheapest way to spend the night for us. With a little bit of adventurous spirit, anyway essential when travelling under your own steam in a foreign country, you'll certainly always find a place to stay. Sometimes you need to cut back on your expectations, on the other hand, you will be positively surprised in other places.

July 2016

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen