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 there are no hostels for budgeting travellers. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.