Choosing a lodging is essential while traveling to Cuba, not only because it provides an adequate place to sleep, eat, rest, and tidy up, but because it generally is a crucial part of your experience. A room or a house, a mansion or a small apartment in a quiet and elegant area, or in a lively neighborhood – private lodging in a “casa particular” allows the voyager to enjoy personalized service in a more private atmosphere, very close to the real and authentic Cuba.
What are Casas Particulares?
Starting from the late 90s Cubans can legally offer lodging in their houses. Nowadays, there are more than 22,000 private rooms available all over the country, which makes the private sector the second biggest hotel chain in the country, after the national chain Gaviota, which has around 30,000 rooms in hotels).
There are a few different kinds of casa particular: hostels with several rooms; houses where a family rents a bedroom and a bathroom; rooms adjunct to houses with separate entrances and bathrooms, houses; villas, and whole residences with several rooms and facilities that may include swimming pools, garages, gaming rooms, etc.; and lastly small private one-room apartments, which are perfect for couples.
The price range is wide and often negotiable, but the average is 20-45 CUC per room per night, although if you run an eye over Airbnb, you can find mansions for more than 400 CUC or residences with rooms for 80 CUC and more. These are exclusive offers.
Householders are called small business owners in Cuba. They pay taxes to the government and have a work permit. On the doors of the houses that are for rent, there is an identifying sign: two triangular lines, like sloping roofs, in blue color.
The owners of these houses must register their guests (name and passport number) and give it in to the authorities. These are legal householders, and lodging in their houses gives you a guarantee of security.
Closer to the real Cuba
Aside from the lodging, Casas Particulares generally offer breakfast (with an average price of 5 CUC) and, in many cases, meals, snacks, and drinks (at prices that you can discuss with the owner). Compared to hotels, they bring more flexibility to the service and more freedom to the traveler. But above all of that, they allow you a closer interaction with Cubans: many of these houses are situated in popular neighborhoods, and while the lodging is conveniently isolated in order to protect the privacy and comfort of the guest, the latter is very close to the people.
In houses where the family of the owner shares the space with the guest or lives nearby, they can guide the voyager around the neighborhood and its people, tell them about the available options for entertainment and places to purchase good items in, transport alternatives, best prices, or give them the necessary contacts if after Havana they plan on visiting beaches like Varadero, historical sites like Trinidad, or places with beautiful nature like Viñales and Playa Larga (Ciénaga de Zapata).
This is an advantage of lodging in a casa particular and counting with the services of its landlords: they have created networks of mutual support where the householders interchange guests and business opportunities. These networks are confidence-based and beneficial for the traveler, who saves the time they would spend on looking for lodging and transport in an unknown city.
These networks start with the transfer to/from the airport, almost always carried out by a driver that is well-known to the landlord. They just make a call or give the guest a phone number, and the latter gets a car and a driver that can take them to any other place, or an apartment for rent in any other part of the country.
There are some Casas Particulares (residences or independent apartments) where food is nor offered; instead, the lodger is provided with a kitchen. Sometimes you can also find some provisions in the cupboard and the fridge. Others do offer meals if arranged previously between the guest and the householder, and it is not rare for the family to invite the guest to share the table someday.
For those who come with interest to know this unique country and its politic system and history, there is no better way than to talk with Cubans in the privacy of their houses and get an honest vision of the country.
Personalization: the guest of the house
Another advantage of a casa particular is the personalization. You become the guest of the house: not just one more lodger, like in hotels.
Even if they are busy, Cubans always make some time to talk. The way they treat people is always qualified as excellent, not only because they have understood long ago that there are the Internet and TripAdvisor with the comments and qualifications, but simply because they are this way: communicative, minded, and hospitable towards the visitor.
This is a hundreds-years-old tradition, especially in Havana, that for a long time has been the center of maritime routes, and harbor to thousands of sailors and people from all over the world, who sought shelter in its hostels.
There are really stunning Casas Particulares: spacious colonial houses with antique furniture in Trinidad, cool and bright apartments and the seashore in East Havana, Varadero, and Playa Larga (Matanzas), modern architecture from the decade of the 50s with terraces that provide a spectacular sight of the city in Vedado, Nuevo Vedado, Miramar and La Habana.
Others have more private gardens and terraces with a quiet atmosphere even in old Havana close to places declared World Heritage, where you can be in total privacy and silence, and then open the balcony door and see the noisy, extroverted, colorful Cuban life, as if the balcony was a cinema that shows a live-broadcasting movie.
It is an experience to be lived with a cup of coffee in the morning, or with a glass of wine and a Cuban cigar in the evening, closer to twilight. It is fascinating to slowly feel these tastes while observing the life of Cuba with all its fuss, from a quite balcony or terrace.
How to Book a Casa Particular
There are many houses of various types, different sites, different atmospheres, different owners: there is a great diversity of alternatives when looking for a casa particular in Havana.
The availability of bookings and details of lodgings, sometimes along with qualifications and comments from previous clients can be found in more and more sites such as hospedajecubano.com, casas-cuba.org, havanabookingroom.com, casaparticularcuba.ne, and havanacasaparticular.com, and in some of the most famous ones, like TripAdvisor, homestay.com and airbnb.com.
Airbnb and Booking.com has had great success in Cuba. After starting to work in the country since 2015, in the summer of 2017, it already reported a 940% increase of bookings in Havana, compared to the summer of 2016 (almost 40% of the booking were from the United States). In June 2017 there already were more than 22,000 rooms from all across the country listed on the page.
Now, there are more than more than 12,000 hostel rooms and 1,000 bedrooms in Casas Particulares, according to official reports. TripAdvisor lists 964 B&Bs and inns in the capital of Cuba, aside from 534 specialty lodgings.
There are a lot of alternatives to choose from. The most important thing is to inform yourself and take the time to get the necessary details, search and book from all the available sites, with the householders that have a license to rent the room or the house.
If you want to have everything under control, it may be convenient to ask not only common questions like the localization, conditions and other details of the house but also make sure that there are water and gas in the house 24/7. It does not lack in most of the houses, but it is never a bad thing to make sure. It is also advisable to ask if there is Wi-Fi available in the house or nearby, and what are the rules that you will have to follow while staying there.
In 2015 and 2016, after the restart of the relations between Cuba and the US, the hotels and Casas Particulares in Havana were all filled up. But it decreased in 2017, after the new policy of Donald Trump towards the island, and the in peak season (winter) of that year there was less pressure on the lodging industry. In 2018 there was an increase again.
In it always advisable to book a room in advance. It may happen that the house you want (with a garden, a beautiful sight, in front of a beach, or in the neighborhood you want) will not be available once you are ready to travel. It is a good thing to call/mail the owner a few days before departing, in order to confirm the booking.
Prevision is important during the peak season. During the low season, the lodger should not worry after booking a Casa Particular to stay during their first days in Cuba. The support networks will allow them to find lodging and transport in other parts of the country. The voyager only has to concentrate on enjoying to the full their days in the city and the Casa Particular.