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Adventure, Travel / April 9, 2017

Before Airbnb, Cuba had Casas Particulares

Written by: Stacey McKenna

I’m sitting on a balcony at the edge of Old Havana, watching the city wake. The streets bustle with buses, pedi-cabs and vintage cars as the sun lazily frees nearby buildings from shadow. An elderly woman a few apartments over lowers a basket of money on a string. A man on the sidewalk swaps her cash for a bag of food, and she reels her groceries up, deft as an angler.

Later that day, my husband and I sit on that same balcony, sipping rum and asking our hosts Roberto and Isabelle about life in Cuba. Though our Spanish is stilted and childlike, they are patient with us.

They speak with pride about Cuba’s health and education systems: despite decades of nationwide poverty, literacy rates consistently hover near 100% and life expectancy is on par with the US. They express hope that in the coming years, their government will find a balance between the revolutionary fight for equity and the country’s need for overall economic improvement.

This home, which belongs to a Cuban family but hosted my husband, myself, and another traveling couple, is one of Cuba’s Casas Particlares. It’s like an Airbnb (and, truthfully, we booked it through Airbnb), but is part of a tradition of locally immersive housing that goes back decades.

My husband enjoyed his daily chats about all things Cuba with Casa Particular host Roberto. One of the best part of Cuba's homestay system is learning from locals. Photo by Matt Housley.

Enamored with our host's culinary skills, we ate most Viñales dinners at Casa Ismary. On our last night, the family joined us for conversation and a special feast of tostones, fried fish, arroz congrí, flan and sweet coconut. Many Casa owners will provide meals for an extra fee. Photo by Matt Housley.

 

During Cuba’s Special Period (basically a long economic crisis), severe housing shortages in Havana drove the government to allow Cubans to rent spare rooms out to their fellow citizens. In the late 1990s, as tourist numbers swelled but hotel rooms did not, reformers recognized the already standardized network as a way to ease the disparity.

“The new rules allowed Cubans for the first time to rent these rooms to tourists,” says Alfredo Delara, an American-born son of Cuban immigrants who has worked as a photojournalist in the country for 25 years and now runs Cuba Road Trip.

“(It) started out as a temporary fix, then over time became the standard way. The Cuban government learned that they could still bring in cash but without any of the risk.”

Casas are not completely independent. They’re licensed and permitted; owners pay roughly half of their profits to the government, and their growth is limited to discourage direct competition. But that regulation ensures some consistency in service and quality, says Ralph Valesco, who has been running People to People tours since 2010.

“Each Casa Particular has been fully vetted by Cuban authorities.”

 

The Viñales Valley, a UNESCO Heritage Site and Cuba's main tobacco growing region, is renowned for its striking beauty and laid back atmosphere. Photo by Stacey McKenna.

Cowboys wrangle their horses back to the stable after guiding tourists through the countryside. Hook up with a local tourist agency or ask your Casa host to help you find a reliable wrangler with happy steeds. Photo by Stacey McKenna.

 

Even with the regulations, Casas Particulares do put money directly into the pockets of Cuban families. For this reason, Irina Vishnevskaya of allé travel discourages travelers from staying in hotels, which are almost always state-run and managed.

“Economically, Casas have a huge impact on local life. In most of Cuba, Casas run for at the very least $25-30 a night, and the average Cuban officially earns just $25 a month, with doctors earning about $80 a month, so the impact of staying in a Casa is huge for a local family,” she says.

The opportunity for small-scale entrepreneurship provides normal Cubans—at least those in Havana and other tourist hotspots—with disposable incomes that have eluded many since the revolution.

The days of the homestay may be numbered, though.

“It is unclear whether the Casas Particulares phenomenon will last,” says Delara. “Some speculate that once Cuba has enough hotel capacity to deal with the number of tourists arriving, they will do away with the twenty-year-old model born out of crisis. Others think it works well for both the government and the people of Cuba.”

This 1930 Chevy is one of the oldest and best preserved cars on the island, thanks in large part to the care it receives from our fabulous guide, "Flaco." It costs about the same to rent a vehicle as to hire a car and driver. Opt for the latter to minimize stress and maximize your people-to-people opportunities. Photo by Matt Housley.

Murals featuring revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara are everywhere. This one graced a corner in the city of Pinar del Rio. Photo by Stacey McKenna.

 

With Cuba’s tourism industry booming like never before, on-the-ground realities for travelers are in a state of constant flux. This means visitors should plan ahead but bring a healthy dose of flexibility. Fortunately, whether traveling with a group or independently, you can prioritize staying in a Casa Particular.

Many tour operators catering to small groups work primarily or exclusively with Casas Particulares. They often pre-screen accommodations and have long-standing relationships with owners, reducing the likelihood of something going awry. Our favorite tour of this kind is the nine-day Hola Cuba tour from our good friends at Intrepid Adventures. 

Those who prefer to go it alone have a few options. Spanish speakers can save some money and keep things hyper-local by directly contacting Casa owners (most likely in Spanish) to book ahead. Some towns, like Viñales, have enough well-marked Casas that it’s possible—though not guaranteed—to show up without a reservation and find a bed for the night. Because things are changing so fast, Delara recommends scouring online travel forums and talking to recently returned travelers for up-to-date advice.

For those who prefer to both book and pay in advance (U.S. credit and debit cards don’t yet work on the island) Airbnb is a convenient albeit imperfect solution. The intuitive platform and secure online payment provide familiar assurances, but spotty Internet can make communication with hosts difficult and online booking glitchy.

For Airbnb bookings, we recommend Colonial House B&B Isabella in Havana and Casa Ismary in Viñales.

If you do book a Casa Particular, make sure to eat at least a few meals in your Casa and make it a point to talk with your hosts about everyday life. Delara suggests people adjust their expectations before touching down.

“Cuba is not a luxury destination,” he says. “Accommodation is clean but basic… The real value is in the people you meet and the genuine hospitality.”

Do you have questions for our writer about Cuba’s Casas Particulares? Email them to [email protected].

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about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

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