When planning a trip to Cuba, I was not really considering camping in tents, couchsurfing or hostels, as these are not much of a thing in Cuba. If you don’t want to stay in a fancy hotel – which I assume not many backpackers do, – your option is to stay in Casas Particulares.
It’s sort of like Cuban AirBnb (actually recently they started doing AirBnb there too). These Casas are homes of regular Cubans, who officially registered and met all the governmental requirements, and now they can rent their rooms to foreigners. So you rent a room and get to live with a Cuban family. Fun.
Casas Particulares were introduced in Cuba around 19 years ago, as one of the very few forms of private businesses allowed in Cuba. However the requirements were super hard to meet back then. For example, you were not allowed to be a Casa, if you had small children in your household (and you can imagine, like many latinos, Cubans have quite a handful of babies in the families). Then some years back (10?) the economic situation in the country was so harsh, people needed sources of income, so the government eased up the criteria of registering your home as a Casa Particulares.
Now there’re so many of them. In small touristy places like Viñales and Trinidad, basically every house in the center is a Casa Particulares. Meaning, family lives there and they rent a room or two to tourists.
I traveled in Cuba for 2.5 weeks and stayed in 6 different Casas in 4 locations: Havana, Viñales, Trinidad and Caibarien. Here’re some of my impressions and observations.
Casa Particulares can be your hotel, restaurant, transportation and travel agent at the same time:) Besides boarding you, they offer breakfasts and dinners, will organize your taxi to the beach, can call someone they know in your next destination and arrange your next stay. With the lack of Internet, word of mouth and landline phones work amazingly in Cubaland! So yeah, you can just arrange your first stay in your point of arrival, the rest can be done of the spot.
A big turnoff can be, though, when you see that a family really just sees you as a “foreign tourist”. Sometimes you don’t get to mingle much with the family, and you just get a bunch of overpriced services rubbed into your face.
Like breakfasts and dinners. I read in many blogs about how awesome and cheap it is to eat with families and you get to experience a typical Cuban family dinner and all. This is really just my impression, but these meals sometimes felt so overpriced and enforced… You walk into a Casa, and they right away show you a menu, trying to get you buy meals. On average a breakfast is 5 CUC (around 5USD) per person. Okay, great! For just 5 bucks you get some fruit, two eggs, coffee, bread. However, if you just go to the local market, you’ll get a ginormous sweetest mango for just 5-10 cents which alone will be enough. Coffee for few cents too… And also, it’s not like you will be eating with the family, you’re served separately.
We did eat a few delicious dinners in Casas Particilares, but somehow almost only if we felt the family was friendly and they weren’t directing all the conversations to taxis they can help us arrange (and get a cut) and bikes they can rent. Actually, we usually asked for just one dinner and just split it, and it was perfectly enough. On average, dinners are $7-8. But it’s all relative: one family fed us for $4 and it was all the same goodness!
Another example of price relativity: in Viñales our first host family was offering a 4-hour excursion on horses for $25. We thought: great, sounds amazing! Then we saw that another place offers exactly the same for $13 (and most likely the horses are coming from the same farm anyway:) In the end we did it for $10 directly from the horse farm owner! So always ask around and compare prices before making a decision.
A more or less standard price for a night in a Casa Particulares is 25 CUC (1 CUC is slightly more than a dollar). Some tourists we spoke to stayed for 30. They spoke no Spanish, looked very groomed, and never questioned the price. Hence the price was higher. We did ask and care about prices, so we mostly stayed for 20 CUC per night (for two people).
A family has to pay $50 a month to the government for being a Casa Particulares, disregarding if they had any tourists stay with them that month or not. And also 10% of all the income they make goes to the gov’t. Which is kinda brutal, and I totally understand that they need to hustle and that is a business for them…
Another thing about Casas Particulares which we got to know: the commission system. Apparently, it’s applicable to everything in Cuba: you refer someone/ recommend something, you’re entitled to a cut! Your host in Havana helped you find a host in another city? That person will be getting a commission call:) I do not know for sure, but just a speculation: maybe if you find a Casa by word of mouth and not through a direct referral form your other host, maybe it will be easier to negotiate a lower price? Since there will be no cut to give to anyone?…
I fell in love with three Casas Particulares, where we stayed, that I’d like to share with the world. They all were not fancy, but families were super nice and warm and open, which made the stay amazing.
In HAVANA we stayed with Tia Alina (or I called her Mama Alina) for 6 nights in total. Super nice and really treats you with all her heart. Lives in the best location: right next to the Old Havana, but still on the street with a bustling local life and 50 cent Cuban pizza, which gets insanely crowded (considering it’s on the street!) Please message me to get Alina’s info.
In VIÑALES we first stayed in the “center” of the town, where literally every house is a Casa Particulares. It was a nice room and nice porch to sit on at night. But really, it felt like a tourist zoo. And then we met the Pink Lady…:) Odalis, the businesswoman in pink. Right away she said, 20 CUC per night. Her house Coco Solo Villa is not in the center of Viñales (which is a great thing actually!), it’s 1km or 15 minutes walking from the center. It’s surrounded by the mountains and the jungle, and it’s more in the village. She rents three pink rooms in her pink house. Owns a farm with 16 horses. A cook, a cleaning girl, 5 horse guides and some construction workers work for her. She treats everyone with love.
If was funny, apparently Odalis got a call from our former hosts, *warning* her that we don’t buy anything (like dinners), and she said she didn’t give a sh*t. Offered us to use the fridge/ the kitchen…and actually offered us amazing prices on everything. We ended up having breakfasts and dinners and spent 2 days on 5-hour horse rides/ private tours with her cowboy husband Pipo. Best Cuban memories! And every night we all sat down all together with (free!) coffee, children and dogs running around, talking about all and everything.
Pipo & Odalis’s Farm | 55 Carretera al Cementerio, Vinales 22400, Cuba
In TRINIDAD we actually first had quite a sour experience, when we stayed in the touristy center. Nice room, really, but since we didn’t eat or book any services, the lady literally was grumpy and nasty. Not cool! And then we moved to an amazing family of Paula and Aramis who live in the outskirts of Trinidad – it is the only Casa Particulares around, the rest are cowboys on horses:) It’s also closer to the nature and horse treks, just some 10 mins away from the livelier center.
The entire family is super athletic, so you’re welcome to wake up at 5am and pump iron with them:) Oh and they have pigeons and train them and they compete. The room is not fancy but has all the necessary amenities like good shower and AC. The house and the people are super nice and curious.
I will find their contact info and post here.
All in all, I really like the Casa Particulares system, it helps you explore Cuba on a new level. It’s unique, affordable and it does bring you closer to learning about the country and the people. You just need a curious mind to dig deeper and go beyond the laid paths and organized tours for tourists. Thanks to Casas Particulares, we made some meaningful connections with some of the families we stayed with.