I hoisted myself backwards and onto the seawall, dangling my legs over the edge.
My friends did the same before laying down against the concrete, warm from the gentle rays of Cuban sun. I watched the Caribbean Sea lap against the rocks, the classic cars stream past in every conceivable colour. Tourists and locals laughed together, called each other amigo and danced to the distant sounds of salsa that were ubiquitous in Havana. Travelling through Cuba is as close to time-travel as you can get. Watching the city from the Malecón was like being in the 70s, while old town felt more like a trip to the Colonial era.
We’d ventured down to the promenade from our casa, after a Cuban coffee and broken bilingual conversation with our hosts. Despite struggling to understand one another, we all laughed and enjoyed each other’s attempts to communicate. After just a few minutes of chatting and the appearance of their adorable dachshund, wearing a spotted jacket with painted nails no less, I felt completely at home.
There’s no doubt that Cuba has been trending for a while now. It’s accessible, affordable and unlike any other place on earth. In tourist terms, the only major difference between it and other Caribbean destinations is the lack of lavish resorts and all-inclusive luxury. But for open-minded travellers, Cuba has a fantastic accommodation system that is perfect for those craving a cultural experience. Casa Particular translates to ‘private house’ and refers to the Cuban system of allowing local families to rent out rooms in their homes. Think of it like a grass-roots, internet-free version of AirBnB, but instead of a global conglomerate earning commissions from each booking, 100% of the money goes to the home owners.
Intrepid Cuba trips operate through local companies and utilise the best casas around the country. They take care of the nitty-gritty so you can focus on the tough questions, like mojito or Cuba Libre?
What makes a Casa Particular different to a hostel or hotel?
A casa is different to a hostel or hotel in that it is a privately-owned residence. Hotels and even hostels in Cuba are all state-owned and operated, with a hefty price tag to boot. In contrast, Casa hosts pay the government for the privilege of renting their spare rooms, but they keep the entire profit from your stay. So, if you opt for a casa experience, you can rest assured that your money is helping a Cuban family directly.
The best part about casa stays are the families you get to know. In most cases, your hosts will be eager to share information about your location and local activities, usually over a meal or bebida! I learned so much in just a few days, purely through the kindness of Cuban families who were willing to slog through my broken Spanish to share with me.
What are the facilities like?
Just like the houses in your neighbourhood, Cuban casas are all unique and likely packed with traditional latino character. Most will offer guests a private bathroom and other amenities such as air-conditioning or maybe even wifi, but there are bound to be differences between your room and the departamento next door.
Some casas are brightly painted, others have framed photos adorning the walls, but all offer something that a generic resort cannot: an authentic glimpse into Cuban culture.
Every morning, whether in quirky Havana or scenic Viñales, I was greeted with fresh coffee and a feast of fruit, bread, eggs, pastries and even flan. My hosts were always around to ensure I had enough food and pile more on my plate when I insisted I was full, all while conversing with me in Spanglish. What could be better than learning about a fascinating country from the eyes of a local, over dessert for breakfast? And when you’re ready for dinner, ditch the touristy restaurants because for a small fee, some hosts will treat you to some delicious traditional dishes. Arroz con Pollo? Sí! Ropa vieja? Absolutamente! Picadillo? Por supuesto!
How do I know it’s safe?
If the thought of staying in a random house seems a little sketchy, you might be surprised to learn that all hosts pay a monthly government tax to register their rooms for rent. In fact, it’s all very official. In every casa I stayed in, there was a book that noted down guest details, including passport numbers and tourist cards. The hosts then typically call a number to register their guests. It’s completely legal, a little unconventional and quintessentially Cuban.
Registered casas are easy to spot, as each property has the same symbol – a double-sided arrow of sorts – somewhere near their entryway.
How do I book a Casa after my tour?
In 2018, booking a casa in advance is simple! Gone are the days of having to door-knock the streets of Habana Vieja with your luggage in tow. Today, wifi is slowly becoming more accessible throughout the country and as a result, many casa particulares are now listed online. A quick online search will reveal photos and fellow guest reviews, making your decision to book easier than ever. Or, ask your Intrepid leader for a recommendation – they’ll definitely be able to help.
Every Cuban has a friend with a room to rent. Your taxi driver, tour guide, waitress or heck, even a customer service officer at the airport will have the number for a friend with a spare room. And yes, I know that last one from experience. There’s a zero percent chance of you ending up without a place to stay, so stop stressing and start packing!
Do you want to experience the real Cuba and stay in a casa? Book a small group tour with Intrepid and you’ll be supporting the local people AND enjoying an amazing, real life travel experience.
Hero image by Martin Ruffo.