Navigating the Cuban Casa System

“Flora, wait!”

Esther came trotting down the hallway of the small bungalow in her nightie, waving her hands as I stepped over the threshold into the thick heat of the midday Viñales sun.

“What time do you want your dinner tonight? And would you like chicken or fish?”

A strange request from a woman I’d only met two days ago, but in Cuba, you become part of the family in no time. The only thing is you have to pay for the experience.

Casas particulares in Cuba

Accommodation in Cuba is unlike anything I’ve experienced before when travelling. All the hotels are government run, and back in 2014 there weren’t many hostels for budgeting travellers (although that’s apparently changed!). Instead, because the Cuban government allows locals to rent out their spare rooms, an overwhelming amount of Cubans have registered their houses to take in paying guests.

These bed and breakfast/homestay/hotel hybrids are called ‘casas particulares,’ and depending on the amount of expected tourism in a place, there will be a handful to a few hundred casas all willing to accommodate tourists on a nightly basis.

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

Casa signs in Viñales

The houses are all marked by a blue sign, and the majority offer the same thing.

  • Room: for a price of between 15-30CUC, a tourist can expect a private ensuite bedroom with a fan and air conditioner (size and decor of the room can vary wildly), and usually with two double beds, regardless of you being a single traveller. Occasionally there will be cockroaches, which is when you have to remember you’re on a tropical island with high humidity and it’s not quite as horrible as you immediately thought.
  • Food: virtually all casas offer a huge breakfast (sometimes included in the price, sometimes an extra 4/5CUC) and usually the option for an equally giant dinner, ranging from 6-12CUC depending on what you order. You quickly realise that outside of the casas, the food on offer in Cuba is not that great, so casa dinners became a staple of your day.

As a result, you end up telling your host when you’ll be home for dinner each day, and clock watching to make sure you’re back on time. Like you’re back to living with your parents again.

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

My casa room in Trinidad. Space for four people, just for me…

The most fascinating part of spending each night in a Cuban casa, though, is being able to spend time with Cubans, and gain an insight into how the casa system in Cuba has infiltrated the innermost workings of its families.

During my time in Cuba, I visited seven different cities and towns, and spent my nights in a grand total of ten different casas. Each casa had its own particular charms and negatives: in some, I immediately felt part of the family, while in others I was treated as nothing more than a paying guest.

I usually tried my best to fit into the fabric of the family for the little time I spent there, meaning that I spoke Spanish almost constantly and complimented a lot of home cooking; played dominos and watched Brazilian telenovelas with elderly pensioners; chatted to caged parrots, babied old fat dogs, and petted baby tortoises; discussed baseball in a thunderstorm and got kissed on the head by my pseudo grandad; and rocked in companionable silence on a hell of a lot of rocking chairs.

And this is what I learned from the experience.

Step 1: choosing your casa

Choosing somewhere to stay in Cuba can be both very simple and rather difficult. For impulsive travellers, it’s as easy as chatting to one person in the flurry of eager Cuban casa owners at every bus station, agreeing on a price, and heading for their house. But because there are so many casas to choose from, a lot of travellers tend to read up on recommendations – before arriving, though, because internet is basically non existent in Cuba.

I wasn’t planning on booking ahead for a casa in Havana. I’d been told by friends that I could easily find a casa on arrival; but a few days before I flew, I suddenly realised that, without a booking, I’d be landing at the airport with absolutely no idea where I was going.

So I hurriedly scoured the internet and came up with a casa that called itself a hostal – immediately giving the novice Cuba traveller in me the idea that I’d be able to meet a lot of fellow travellers there.

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

A foolproof security system.

Luckily, my intuition on that front was correct. Julio and Elsa were renting two rooms in their own house, plus a number of other single rooms within a few blocks of the main casa, and all guests came together to sit around the same huge table for breakfast and dinner. In my three days at Hostal Peregrino, I met four different travellers that I spent time with in other Cuban cities.

Unfortunately, that was the only real benefit to the casa. In running so many rooms (and presumably raking in a lot of money), the Lonely Planet description of Julio and Elsa’s “incredibly friendly” dispositions was totally inaccurate. The few questions I attempted to ask were swatted away in favour of other tasks they simply had to get done that second, and I felt like they regarded me as an annoyance rather than a paying guest. And as for having an actual conversation with them? No chance.

With each new city, I got more daring with my casa choices. Occasionally I went to the places most lauded on TripAdvisor or in Lonely Planet, but often I moved houses until I found one I liked. I also always clarified the price of the room and whether food was included before I even unpacked – a few nasty surprises on receipts were enough to make me well aware!

Step 2: arriving at your casa

My first bus journey in Cuba was from Havana to Viñales, and when we pulled into the town’s small plaza I honestly thought I was dreaming. Many years of traveling has numbed me to crowds of people clamouring at disembarking passengers in an attempt to sell things.

Never have I seen said clamouring from old age pensioners, waving laminated photos of their houses and grabbing tourists to invite them home.

Eventually, I spotted my name emblazoned on a piece of cardboard and shook hands with the adorably smiling Esther, who walked me along a dirt road and up the steps to her small bungalow. An old man was sitting on a rocking chair on the porch: Domingo, Esther’s husband, who rose to kiss me on both cheeks while still gripping my hand, post-shake.

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

Rocking chairs on patios are one of the most common sights in Cuba. These were on Esther and Domingo’s patio.

They walked me through the house, stopping outside an open door. Inside were two double beds, an air conditioner and a fan on the wall, plus an en-suite bathroom and a little kitchenette with a sink and a fridge – all of which were pointed out to me by Domingo with evident delight as he steered me round the room.

Even as I peeled my backpack from my sweaty shoulders, Esther was determining when was best for her to cook me dinner each night, and when I wanted breakfast in the morning. Did I know what kind of eggs I’d like?

Step 3: getting to grips with the casa lifestyle

It took me a while to settle into the rhythm of Cuban casa life. Judging the strength of the air conditioner and the angle of the fan was of utmost importance during the humid nights; so, too, was whether I had front door keys or if I had to worry about waking up the casa owners to get back inside in the evenings. If I didn’t wake in time for breakfast I felt incredibly guilty; similarly, getting back to the casa in time for the pre-arranged dinner hour dictated how I spent my days.

Unless I was staying in the same casa as some friends I usually ate my meals alone, because most casas didn’t have any other guests – the most intense ‘solo travelling’ I’ve probably ever done! – and was never able to finish the huge amount of food on offer.

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

Dinner for one, cooked by Grandpa Domingo in Viñales. I was chided for not eating every bite (physically impossible).

The way I behaved in the casas themselves was also completely dependent on the Cubans who owned them, and their interactions with me. I always attempted to befriend casa owners, but some were more receptive than others.

In Viñales, for instance, I adopted Domingo as a pseudo grandfather within three days. We sat on the porch in rocking chairs, talking about Cuba’s obsession with baseball; he told me sternly that I had to drink more mango juice and eat more of the platano chips he’d fried fresh for me. I was constantly called “mi vida,” “mi corazon,” “mi reina,” and he kissed me on the head and ruffled my hair whenever we parted ways, or if he walked past the table when I was eating. When I said I hoped the food in the rest of Cuba was as good as his, I thought he was going to burst from smiling, and when I eventually left Viñales he grabbed me into a doddery bear hug. I almost cancelled my bus.

Sadly, my relationship with Domingo also over-romanticised my expectations for every other casa in Cuba, and I continually hoped for more surrogate family members – or at least some kind of relationship.

It wasn’t always offered.

My weird experiences within the Cuban casa system

There was a problem when I arrived in Cienfuegos. I caught a taxi to the casa that a friend in Viñales had booked for me, and checked into a room, no problem. Ten minutes later, I was called outside.

“I’m so sorry, but I thought you were somebody else who also has a reservation for today!” Eduardo said, beaming at me. His legs were set wide apart in his comfortable chair; I didn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. How can you have two bookings for the only room in your house and not see that as a problem? What was he expecting to do when both bookings showed up?

Luckily, I’ve spent long enough around Latinos to know that arguing wouldn’t get me anywhere. Instead,  I beamed back happily (and totally falsely) and graciously accepted his offer to move a few doors down to the casa my Parisian friend was staying at instead. As he walked me with my bags to the new place, Eduardo informed me I should still come to their house for dinner that night.

“But don’t tell your new host!” he said, a conspiratorial look in his eye, nodding fervently to ensure I got the message.

Such is the way in Cuba. Even when you overbook the one bedroom you have on offer, you still try and steal custom from your ‘friend’ and neighbour, under the guise of a 10CUC dinner.

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

Breakfast in Trinidad with my Swedish friends

Then there was Santa Clara, where my Swedish friends and I were really excited about because we’d heard amazing stories about a particular casa; boasting a large, cool courtyard filled with hanging plants, a renowned restaurant and a wonderfully welcoming host. We booked three beds a week ahead and eventually walked through the high ceilinged entrance room in awe: but the welcoming host told us that we wouldn’t be staying at his property, exactly. Our rooms were actually a few doors down the street, at a friend’s place.

The taxi driver walked us out of the beautiful casa and into another house. Two giant furry dogs leapt around our feet, a Cuban couple made the briefest of small nods then walked off, and I was shown into one of the plainest rooms I’d seen in Cuba so far – complete with an air conditioner that barely cooled anything, a bathroom without a shower curtain, and a set of curtains in the room opening to a blank wall.

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

A little natural light shouldn’t be too much to ask, surely?

I couldn’t justify paying the same price here as for the place with the gorgeous courtyard, and after an uncomfortable night’s sleep, I proposed to the Swedes that we move casas. A half hour of searching the city later and we’d found a much more pleasant and homey casa nearby, and we were all in favour of moving – except for the acute embarrassment that came with explaining to our current casa owners that we were leaving. The collagen-lipped woman seemed to think we were crazy for wanting to move – but I was equally annoyed at her lack of enthusiasm to share even a few words with us!

Of course, there’s no obligation for Cuban casa owners to eagerly befriend their guests – but a lot of them want to chat, and learning more about Cuba from Cubans themselves was high on my list of priorities. I explored every avenue: chatting to the housekeeper in Trinidad, getting involved in a domino game with an aged grandfather and his best friend in Cienfuegos, and receiving a lesson in telenovelas from an auntie in Camaguey.

And my absolute favourite interaction? When a very proud old man in a Santa Clara casa disappeared into his bedroom and came back carrying a board filled with guerilla medals from when he fought in the revolution.

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

Hugo showing me his revolutionary medals with a cheeky half-grin. Such. A. Dude.

I also spent the entire month reconciling myself to the bizarre relationship I held with casa owners by dint of being a paying guest in their homes. However much I tried to simply be a friend and conversation partner, I knew that ultimately I was a much-needed source of income for them – and that my money was always going to come first.

So why the problems with Cuban casas?

One afternoon, I stood in the main plaza of Cienfuegos as a short Cuban with metal studs in his cheek told me all about how casas particulares in Cuba really work.

“Did you find your casa in Cienfuegos by yourself, or was it someone’s recommendation?” he said, smiling indulgently. “You see, if your casa says they’ll recommend you a place in the next city you visit, they’re going to be making a profit.”

It’s a sad reality with the casa system. Everybody wants a piece of the tourism business, but there are too many casas to choose from. Recommendations – i.e. passing a hapless tourist down a particular casa chain – benefit all the Cubans, but mean there’s no telling what commission is made behind closed doors. When I left my first casa in Havana, I was handed a piece of paper with the names and addresses of Elsa’s friends: a network of houses all happy to accommodate me.

And presumably all sharing out the profit I’d provide as I made my way along a conveyor belt of casas throughout Cuba.

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

The Hostal Peregrino Cuban Casa Guide. Deviation non-optional.

Recommendations, of course, are the golden ticket for the vast majority of travellers, as they aren’t necessarily too practised at turning up in a strange city without any place to stay. So when their current casa owner says they know a wonderful place in the next city – cheap, good food, lovely hosts – it’s hard to say no.

But I didn’t want to be involved in a housing racket. So I began to make my own phone calls to potential casas; taking the contact info of recommended casas from other travellers I met; and feeling like I at least had some kind of control over where I stayed. It made me feel better that the money I was paying hadn’t been pre-destined by someone else’s phonecall.

How the casa system worked for me

By the end of my month in Cuba, I knew what I wanted from a casa particular. I significantly preferred staying in the casas that treated me like a member of the family: much happier when I was pushed towards a rocking chair and told to watch Cuban TV than when someone ‘left me to it’. I liked the places with somewhere to sit and think, escaping the chaos of the Cuban streets outside: casas with gardens, patios and rocking chairs.

Little spaces where I could write, or read, or chat companionably to the Cubans who lived there, and who were equally keen to talk.

Have you ever stayed in a casa particular, or something similar? What do you think about the casa system in Cuba? 

Navigating the Cuban Casa System

Check out some hostels in Cuba here!

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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29 Responses to Navigating the Cuban Casa System

  1. Jo August 21, 2014 at 12:41 am #

    It’s nice to see someone else who isn’t entirely sold on casas particulars. Everything we read before we went touted them as being an amazing ethical way to see the real cuba- putting money in the pockets of the average person and getting to eat and socialise like a real Cuban.

    We stayed in five different cities and not one of our casa hosts showed any interest in us as people, nevermind friends. In Santa Clara, our lady treated us like a nuisance and told us outright she had a spare key, but she didn’t trust us with it. In Trinidad, we were pestered to eat at the casa, then guilt tripped for wasting food and reminded that we wouldn’t get a discount for not eating everything!

    I was also uneasy with the price of a casa. I know the casa owners have to pay a hefty license fee to host tourists, but the average casa price of $15-20 per night is literally a month’s wages for a doctor or a skilled worker. That just seems crazy to me- that people who save lives are in poverty, while a casa owner who does very little has money to burn on computers, black market iphones and frankly ridiculous amounts of tacky little trinkets on the mantelpiece.

    I can see how the idea is nice, and I love your stories of Domingo. I wish we’d had just one host like him!

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

      Sorry you had so many bad experiences with casas, Jo – I found this article rather hard to write because I really did meet some lovely hosts but it was the rather weird encounters that made me unsure about the system as a whole. I agree with the pricing situation too: I felt very uncomfortable chatting to a casa owner who also worked as a doctor, knowing that I was single handedly paying him a much better salary…

      • david hanson January 9, 2016 at 6:59 pm #

        Hi Flora,
        My girlfriend and I are trying to plan a 2 week trip to Cuba in February and finding it difficult to do much of the preplanning online. How difficult is it to simply arrive in a new town and then find a casa without reservations or recommendations. Would you mind sharing with us the names and contact information for the Casas that you found most enjoyable. We are traveling on a bit of a budget……how appropriate is it to try and negotiate with the owners for a better deal. Any and all advice would be greatly appreciated. Please contact me at davidhanson (at)295.ca
        Cheers, David in Ottawa, Canada

  2. Christine | The Traveloguer August 21, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    I really enjoyed reading about your experiences Flora, but you’ve made me want to go to Cuba even more now! Your sweet psuedo grandad and Hugo showing you his medals sound so sweet. 🙂

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

      Glad it’s inspired you to visit Cuba, Christine!

  3. Nikita August 21, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    What an interesting way to travel! Sounds very hit-or-miss… But your hits sound great!

    • Flora August 21, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

      Yep, it really is quite a hit or miss method, but it does make each person’s experience in Cuba uniquely different! (also quite jealousy-inducing when you meet travellers who’ve been invited to huge Cuban family reunions..)

  4. Zoe @ Tales from over the Horizon August 22, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    Brilliant Post. Lots of great information. When I finally get to Cuba – I’ll come straight here. 🙂

    • Flora September 1, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

      Great to hear it, Zoe!

  5. Béatrice August 22, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    Hi Flora
    I really enjoyed this post! Partly inspired by you 🙂 I just returned from one week in Cuba. I stayed in a Casa in La Havana and the family was lovely. I do sympathize with your comments. The introduction to your post made me laugh! I had very similar experiences with my Cuban “parents.”
    It is a bit strange to be a paying “family member.” I did notice the commission culture in Cuba as well. Although I loved La Havana, I did find it hard to travel alone in a country without internet! I need to return and visit other cities in Cuba. It is a uniquely interesting and beautiful country. I had a wonderful time. Thank you for your travel articles they are always inspiring!
    I also went to Guatemala, Belize and Mexico on this same voyage.
    🙂
    Béatrice

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 9:41 am #

      I’m so glad you had such a great trip to Cuba, Beatrice! The lack of internet really does make a noticeable difference.. I think if you’re prepared for it though (ie with a huge amount of addresses and phone numbers written down before you arrive) it makes the sting a little less 🙂

      I hope you make it back for a longer trip!

    • Francesco April 1, 2016 at 9:21 pm #

      Hello Beatrice,

      we are a couple and we are going soon to Cuba for 10 days and we would be spending most of them in Havana. Could you please tell us which place you stayed in?

      Thank you,

      Francesco

  6. Silvia August 26, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

    This was such an interesting read! Lodging in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was pretty similar when I was there, and I also had some mixed experiences from their home stay systems. Still, it was fun to have a break from the usual hostel and Couchsurfing routine!

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 9:42 am #

      ..and that’s put Kyrgyzstan even further up my list! Although I doubt I’d be able to speak Spanish to ease any tensions there :p Your trip sounds fascinating – I’ll have to look into those countries in further detail..

  7. Franca September 1, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    Lovely to read about your experience and considering that Cuba has always been high on Dale’s list of places to visit I expect us to go there at some point (better sooner than later) an this will definitely come handy 🙂

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 9:42 am #

      I hope it helps a bit, Franca!

  8. Carmen (CarmensTravelTips) September 3, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

    Renting out rooms in private homes in Cuba are the way many locals make a little extra money. We stayed in a very nice home in Trinidad and it was only $25/night. I have tons of family in Cuba and if you ever decide to travel back let me know. I can hook you up with them. I’m sure you’ll have a great experience.

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 9:47 am #

      Yep, $25 a night was a common price while I was there – I actually tried to find places that were slightly cheaper though as spending a month there made things really add up! Thanks for the offer, Carmen – if I ever head back to Cuba I’ll let you know!

  9. Casey September 3, 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    Flora,

    Thanks for a great read as always. I’m not sure I’d be too put off by perceived unfriendliness as I would be the foreigner. Cubans have a tough life there, mostly because of political persecution that is totally misguided, downright ridiculous.

    Anyway, … was curious about the casa rates. Are they per person or per room? That is, is there a discount for double occupancy.

    Thanks,

    Casey

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 9:51 am #

      Hey Casey, the casas are almost always priced per room – so when I was travelling totally solo I could be paying $25 for an ensuite room with two double beds in.. Yet when I shared the exact same type of room with two friends for the same price we were suddenly splitting $25 three ways! I’d definitely recommend travelling with someone else in Cuba specifically for that reason, as it really cuts the cost down.

  10. Sasha @ The Curious Zephyr September 4, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    I was just curious how much language skills are a necessity to successfully navigate the system? I’m sure being able to converse with hosts made it easier for you to get to know them and led to some of your memorable experiences, but if your Spanish was really basic, do you think you’d still be able to figure it all out and not be taken advantage of?

    • Flora September 26, 2014 at 9:59 am #

      I think it’s certainly easy enough to figure the Cuban casa system out, but I don’t know how easy it would be to bargain with casa owners to pull the prices down. The vast majority of travellers I met barely spoke any Spanish and they were doing just fine — it was probably because I knew I COULD speak the language that I was resolved to use it as much as possible 🙂

  11. rona barton February 9, 2016 at 3:14 pm #

    So leave-me-alone tourists will do rather well….?!!!
    What thoughts on the better time to visit….. cost and weather wise??

    • Flora February 17, 2016 at 9:52 am #

      I guess so, Rona – although the Spanish skills are probably more crucial for being able to do so! I visited Cuba in July so only have that month as a frame of reference I’m afraid. I’m sure google will provide the answers :p

  12. Rebecca Bentliff January 3, 2017 at 1:54 pm #

    I’m planning a trip around Cuba this summer and your posts have been SO helpful, especially for drafting up budgets and working out the casa system (which I was initially quite unsure about, so reading about your experiences has really helped!)

    I was just wondering if you had any personal recommendations for casas that you stayed at – only if you’re able to give out details, of course! I’m planning on definitely visiting Santa Clara and Havana, but haven’t decided on my other stops yet.

    One last question – do you know how easy it is to eat veggie in Cuba?

    Thanks in advance! 🙂

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