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. Travelling through Cuba is as close to time-travel as you can get.
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’d all laughed and enjoyed each other’s attempts to communicate and I felt completely at home.
Cuba is accessible, affordable and like nowhere else on earth. One key factor that differentiates it from other Caribbean destinations is the lack of lavish resorts and all-inclusive luxury. But Cuba has a fantastic accommodation system perfect for open-minded travellers who crave a cultural experience.
What is a casa particular?
Casa particular translates to ‘private house’ (or guesthouse) and refers to the Cuban system of allowing local families to rent out rooms in their homes. Think of it like a grassroots, internet-free version of Airbnb, but instead of a global conglomerate earning commissions from each booking, 100% of the money goes to the homeowners.
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: mojito or Cuba Libre?
What makes a casa particular different to a hostel or hotel?
Hotels and even hostels in Cuba are almost all state-owned and operated, often coming with a hefty price tag that doesn’t match the quality on offer. Intrepid’s Premium and family trips in Cuba only include stays at hotels that have been carefully handpicked for their historical and cultural significance or little luxuries (hello rooftop pool!).
A casa is different to a hostel or hotel in that it is a privately-owned residence. Casa hosts pay the government for the privilege of renting their spare rooms, but they keep the entire profits earned from your stay. So, if you opt for a casa experience, you can rest assured that your money is going directly to a Cuban family.
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?
Cuban casas are all unique and often packed with latino character. Some 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.
The casas Intrepid uses fall into one of three categories: standard, comfortable or premium – and they always aim to book the best casas available within each category. That said, regardless of where you stay, power cuts and breaks in hot water are sometimes unavoidable, as in any developing country.
Standard casas particulares
Travellers on Original and Basix Cuba trips typically stay in standard guesthouses, which provide simple, no-frills accommodation. Style and comfort levels can vary, but you can always expect to have air-conditioning and, in most cases, an ensuite bathroom (standard casas on Basix trips sometimes have shared bathrooms). These guesthouses offer the best opportunity to get to know your host family, as they will be the ones checking you in and serving breakfast.
Comfortable casas particulares
Available on Comfort trips, this kind of accommodation is a slight step up from standard guesthouses. They are still B&B in style and cannot compare to the comfort levels of a modern western hotel – but all have modern air-con, ensuite bathrooms and a window to the outside or an interior courtyard with natural light. They also feature modern imported mattresses and cold and hot water. Many rooms (but not all) have a few little extras, such as a security box, mini-bar fridge and hair dryer.
Premium casas particulares
Premium casas (found on Premium trips) are very stylish private guesthouses. They are notably superior to standard and comfortable guesthouses and include good quality cotton linen, larger rooms with ample space and modern appliances at the very least. Many of these places wow travellers with their inspiring interiors. Since every Premium casa is unique their costs vary but are generally much higher than the other categories.
Don’t miss the food
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 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 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 take comfort in the fact 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?
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 casas 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, simply ask your Intrepid leader for a recommendation – they’ll definitely be able to help.
US passport holder? Don’t forget that any independent travel in Cuba, which includes stays beyond the end of an Intrepid trip, needs to meet US government requirements.
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 while enjoying amazing, real life travel experiences.