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Pros and Cons of Staying in a Casa Particular in Cuba
Time for a holiday. If you’re anything like me, your first thought is yay!
After the initial excitement, there is much preparation that needs t be undertaken. You start thinking about the practicalities of the situation, such as your intended destination (if not decided already), dates, flights, budget and accommodation.
The first port of call for many people needing accommodation will be to consider hotels or villas, which are commonly found in many holiday destinations. However, if you are planning a trip to Cuba and you undertake some research, you are likely to have encountered casa particulars as an option for accommodation.
Automatically discounting any option with which we are unfamiliar is something that many of us are guilty of, but this would be a mistake when it comes to casa particulars as they have a lot to offer, not least being more cost effective than a hotel.
There are many aspects to consider to determine whether this would be an alternative option to hotels and, I hope, that I can give you some insight that will help you make a decision.
What Does Casa Particular Mean?
In the Spanish-speaking country, casa particular means private house and a licence is required to be able to operate as such. This type of accommodation can be most likened to a bed and breakfast – homely and not as clinical as a hotel can be – and is usually the home of a Cuban host or family.
You will notice the casas by the signs that are displayed somewhere on the exterior.
The property will comprise one or several rooms that can be occupied by guests and the host/family may also live on the premises. However, there are other examples that are effectively staffed apartments owned on a buy to let basis, where breakfast will be delivered and you can telephone someone, if necessary.
You could be staying with a family who may be new to providing a B&B service, or may have been doing it for many years.
It is much easier to get involved with the family – true Cubans – rather than the pared down, polished versions you get from trained staff at a hotel.
If you intend to visit Cuba as part of a guided tour group, then this can be organised for you and you should not shy away if this is part of the package. However, it is also possible to organise yourself by finding details online.
Details of casas can be found via dedicated websites, as well as travel-related websites.
Bookings can be made by telephone and, in some cases, by email.
In some cases, the host of the casa can offer a taxi service from the airport, but bear in mind that this will attract a cost, which you should find out before you agree.
Otherwise, you will need to make your own arrangements and taxis are available at the airport.
The host will be at the casa to greet you when you arrive. However, be aware that staying in a casa particular does not necessarily mean that you will be directly hosted by the family that own the house; they may employ staff who will be taking care of all aspects of your stay.
It would seem that, as part of the licensing requirement for a casa particular, the host is required to maintain records of their guests. This will mean providing your passport and visa details, which is normally completed on arrival whether before or after you are shown around.
The host will show you around the facilities and tell you all you need to know about staying at the casa. This would also be a good opportunity to ask any questions you might have.
You are also likely to be asked what will be available for breakfast and what time you will want it. Breakfast will usually be served at this same time every day of your stay unless you specify otherwise.
You will be given a key to your room and, in some cases, a key to the house too. In other situations, there will always be someone home so a key to the house will not be necessary.
What Are The Rooms Like?
Having stayed at casas in several cities in Cuba (Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Viñales) and spoken with others who stayed at different ones, I can attest that there is a wide variety of rooms available.
They suit a range of circumstances, such as travelling alone or in a group. For example, one of the rooms I stayed in comprised three single beds, while friend stayed in an apartment where they had the run of the place with them being brought breakfast in the morning.
Some houses, like one in which I stayed in Cienfuegos, are single storey and the room was within easy access at the rear. However, in Havana, many of the properties are converted from commercial premises with the residential element being upstairs. Accordingly, it is best to prepare yourself for a staircase that is a little more narrow and steep that you are used to.
Cuba is history, and the buildings offer a window into this history and by staying in a casa will allow you to experience this first hand. You can find yourself walking along beautifully ornate, original tile on your way to your room to relax in a large room with impossibly high ceilings (Havana), or laying your head down in a four-poster bed in a conveniently located ground floor room (Trinidad) or watching the world go by from a first floor balcony.
In all but one of the casas at which I stayed, the rooms were spacious and comfortable, whereas the odd one out was only a little small, but still comfortable – not a deal-breaker for me.
Closet space was a bit hit and miss. For example, while in Trinidad, I stayed in a lovely room with an impressive four-poster bed, but a wardrobe that was stuffed full and clearly used as storage. Good thing I was only there for a few days!
Those who are used to their creature comforts or five star luxury may find this sort of accommodation lacking, but you do have to bear in mind that it is a less developed country.
Several of the rooms had air conditioning, while others just had a large standing fan.
All the rooms had en-suites that comprised a shower cubicle, toilet and sink. Getting hot water was never a problem, except at one place where there were other guests and it seemed that if you didn’t get there first, you were out of luck.
While your room will be private and will comprise an en suite, the casa will normally also comprise a living room that can be used by all the guests. There will also usually be some outside space, be it a balcony, veranda or even a roof terrace.
What About The Meals?
Breakfast is normally included in the cost of the room, but an evening meal will be extra.
Though there are restaurants around that you might want to try (more prevalent in built-up areas, like Havana), it is worthwhile having dinner with at the casa at least once. Not only will you be pleased at how attentively you get taken care of, the portions tend to be generous so you are likely to be satisfied and will contribute to the profit of the casa owner.
If you do want an evening meal, you will usually have to give some advance warning, which tends to be the morning of.
Though you are unlikely to be given a menu from which you can make a selection, you may be given a choice verbally, which will normally be meat or fish with the staples of rice and beans coming automatically. Otherwise, it will be a situation where you get what you are given.
Any dietary requirements you have will need to be warned of as soon as possible.
Bear in mind that everything costs money in Cuba, so while you may get a glass of juice with your meal, a bottle of water or a cocktail is likely to be added to your bill.
Breakfast was always plentiful and usually consisted of fruit, bread, eggs, cheese and – infrequently – meat, such as ham. There is also juice, tea and coffee.
Cubans are big on coffee – strong coffee – but not so enamoured with milk, which is usually powdered. The tea is akin to a herbal tea.
What Else To Expect
As mentioned, in many instances, the hosts do not speak English so staying in a casa is a great opportunity to practice and improve your Spanish.
Some people you will find are multi-lingual and speak English very well while others only speak Spanish, but gesturing seems to work well for those visitors that do not speak the language.
I certainly do not want to be one of those people that go abroad and shout at locals in English, expecting to be understood, so I enjoyed the ability to practice Spanish.
You get to interact with Cubans, many of whom will be curious about where you are from and your way of life in comparison to their own. Expect to answer questions about topics as varied as what you do for a living to what you pay for electricity!
In a hotel, you will be one of a number of guests who all need to be attended to at the same time. In a casa particular, you are likely to be only one of a handful of guests (at most, there were only two other rooms in the casas at which I stayed), so you can enjoy some personal attendance.
In the same way that hotel staff can provide you with information while you are abroad, the casa hosts will be able to assist whether this is in respect of organising taxis, recommending excursions or giving you directions to wherever you want to go. Who better than a true local to know the best of the area?
All the casas I stayed at were within easy walking distance to the centre or main square, so having an effective map made it easy to get around.
If you have items like insect repellent, first aid items, sun protection lotion or even clothes that you will not use when you return home, do not feel any qualms about leaving them in the room or giving them to your host; they are likely to be needed and appreciated. Similarly, if you specifically buy a gift for the casa owner, you will find that it is gratefully received, no matter what it is.
At the end of your stay, your bill will be written up and given to you. Many casas will have a review book that is available for you to read and add your own.
A hotel can be anywhere and you can feel anonymous, whereas in the casa particular, you get a much more memorable and personal experience. Think about the last time you stayed in a hotel and whether you can remember any of the staff; when you holiday in a casa particular, the people you meet are more likely to remain in your memory.