Everything you need to know
Cuba has been a fairly popular holiday destination for years, and it’s always been on any backpackers list due to the sheer number of different things you can do around the country. However, it’s only recently that it’s really started to take off as one of the places to visit, and more and more people are looking for cheap, affordable, and interesting ways to visit the country.
The Cubans are known for their hospitality, so is it any wonder this extends to them offering out their homes to tourists? Sure, it comes as a price (what doesn’t?) but staying in a casa particular has some benefits and advantages you just can’t get from staying in a typical hotel.
What are Casas Particulares?
Casas Particulares are a form of private accommodation in Cuba, or a private homestay. They’re very similar to bed and breakfasts and are typically rented out on Airbnb since that was created, and they can also take the form of vacation rentals. Essentially, they are private family homes/establishments that provide paid lodging, typically on a short-term basis.
In general, Casas Particulares can also refer to full apartments and houses, rooms inside people’s homes, mini-apartments, or rooms with a separate entrance – such as studio apartments. They can also be a type of boarding house operated out of a single-family residence where guests will be accommodated at night in private bedrooms, and typically breakfast will be served in the morning.
How do I find Casas Particulares?
There are multiple different ways to find a Casa Particulares – you just have to know where to look. Typically, most Casas will belong to an association and will be described in various books and travel guides. Many of them will also have some form of web presence, making it easy to find one you want before you even head off to Cuba. The biggest, one-stop-shop site to find all sorts of Casas is, of course, Airbnb, which has the added bonus of letting you see unbiased reviews as well.
If you don’t fancy scoping out the area before you head down, when you arrive by bus there will almost definitely be a group of casa owners waiting to entice you to their casa. Plus, when you do find somewhere to stay, the owners of the casa you’re staying in will recommend places to stay for the next town you’re visiting.
If you really want to live life on the edge, you can just arrive in Cuba and wander around the town you’re staying in looking for a place to crash. More often than not, someone will stop you and ask if you need help/want to buy cigars, and they’ll then take you to a friend’s casa free of charge. They’ll have a deal worked out with the casa owner: the casa owners will pay the cigar sellers for finding them custom.
Are Casas Particulares legal?
Just like with any business, there will always be some maybe not so legal aspects of it. Typically, staying in a Casa in Cuba is completely legal – the only time it’s not is when the person renting the casa is not the owner of the property, but someone who is already renting their apartment. This is known as sub-letting and, to be honest, happens all over the world; it’s not an exclusively Cuban phenomenon. Also, in some Cuban cities and tourist resorts – such as Varadero, Playa Santa Lucia, and Guardalavaca – the local municipal assemblies decided that Casas Particulares were a threat to the hotel industry, and so they placed limits on the industry forbidding the operation of these establishments.
It’s always best to stay in a legal Casa though, even just for the sake of the person you’re staying with, who could get kicked out of their home if they were found out. If a house has an upside-down anchor sign on the outside, then they’re casa is government registered, and therefore legal. The owner will pay tax to the government, the guest will get a receipt, and typically your passport number will be taken for their records. All very much above board.
What are Casas Particulares like?
Every Casas Particulares is different, and every town you go to will have slightly different designs. Typically, they can be recognised by small signs on the door, with two blue triangles against a white background, which the owners are able to affix to their property once they have paid a fixed per-room annual tax.
In some towns, such as Viñales, the Casas are painted blue, while in others it’s very common for the owners do not live in the house; rather, they use the casa as their second home, purely for rental purposes. Typically, there will be a private room with a bathroom, and most Casas have gardens to enjoy the Cuban sunshine in.
Rooms are generally clean and kept to tourist standards. Casas Particulares can range from basic accommodation which consists of a room with a bed, closet, and a small table, all the way to fully furnished independent apartments which have been upgraded to typical western standards. You’ll probably find your room also has a telephone, alarm clock, and a TV, plus some even have a mini-bar and a small fridge containing snacks and drinks – not for free though, I’m afraid, you have to pay on departure just like with any typical hotel.
How much do Casas Particulares cost?
The cost of Casas Particulares will vary depending on the accommodation type, and the variety of services available – just as with any holiday accommodation. A lot of online sites and guidebooks will advertise Casas as being priced between 10 and 30 USD, and typically there’s not that much difference between what you get for these prices. Also, a lot of owners will be open to bargaining – and if they’re not, and you feel like the price is too high, then just move on. The beauty of Cuba is there are tonnes of Casas Particulares on every street, so you’ll always have other options.
A lot of Casas are rented short term to comply with what travellers are looking for, however, there are some that are available to rent long-term. Typically, it’s a student that takes the most advantage of this, but it can work out well if you’re looking to fully immerse yourself somewhere and get to know the area like a proper local, staying for a few weeks/a month at a time.
What about meals?
Just like your typical B&B, most Casas will include breakfast in the price of the room – although you should always ask first to confirm, don’t just assume. Often when breakfast is included, the owners will ask you on the previous night whether you would like breakfast, so that they can prepare it for you in the morning. If it’s not included in the price of your stay, then you’re probably looking at between 2-5 CUCs per person, and a typical breakfast includes fresh fruits, juices, eggs, bread, milk, coffee and more – some Casas even import Cheerios and Nesquik from the US.
Typically, lunch and dinner will also be available at your casa, but it is very unlikely this will be included in the price of your room. Will this will often cost about 10 CUCs per meal, per person, if it becomes clear you plan to eat out most days then this price will probably go up: the money made from serving meals is an important second source of income for most casa owners.
Pros & Cons
Experience the authentic cuban way of life
Staying in a hotel is fine, but it’s a bit generic. I mean, wherever you go on holiday, likelihood is you’ll be staying in a hotel – and they don’t exactly vary that much. Could you really tell the difference between staying in a Hilton hotel in London versus in Istanbul? Apart from the one in London probably costing a lot more. Staying in a hotel in Cuba is the same; there are a number of luxury hotels, and these are all great places to lay your head at night – but that’s all they are, and they don’t give you the true, authentic Cuban experience.
When you stay in a Casa Particular, you’re staying with an actual Cuban family, in an actual Cuban home. As a guest in their home, it’s easy to develop genuine Cuban relationships with the owners and experience their way of life and the culture of their country. Guests truly become part of the family for their stay, with the opportunity to make friends with real people.
Enjoy comfort & excellent service
Casas Particulares have to meet a certain standard before homeowners are able to rent a room to travellers; this includes the availability of a private bathroom, as well as air conditioning in the room. As a result, the majority of Casas can easily be compared with hotel rooms in terms of the level of comfort, but with the added bonus of exceptional service. While hotels will have the typical level of service expected of the service industry, it’s unlikely that they’ll go above and beyond their day to day jobs. Commercial interests just don’t exist for the crew – they get paid the same amount no matter how much work they do – whereas the service level in a Casa will typically be a lot higher because they rely on your business and your recommendations to future potential customers.
Get insider’s tips into the place you’re staying
Cubans love their country, and they’re always looking for opportunities to share their inside knowledge about their country and culture with as many people as possible. Your hosts will likely have lived in the same place for years, if not their whole lives, so they’ll know it like the back of their hands – maybe even better.
Staying with a local will get you insider tips that you won’t find in any guidebook. Want to find a good quality but cheap restaurant? Need a fun place for your kids to play? Want to stay off the beaten track and away from the tourists? Trust me, your hosts will have you covered with all this and more.
Support the locals
Staying in a casa particular directly helps locals – not big corporations. You will be directly contributing to the salary – and, therefore, quality of life – of a local family or household, in a country where the average salary is around $20 a month.
Like pretty much any business, part of the revenue people can make from running a small business – like a casa particular – will go to the state in the form of taxes, but a large portion of it will still go to the homeowners themselves. It might not seem like you’re paying a lot, but this small amount for bed and breakfast is extremely helpful to the small businesses that a lot of Cubans run to supplement their incomes.
Enjoy a level of freedom you don’t get from traditional types of Aacommodation
Staying in a casa allows you the freedom of staying in a home. Hotels often have restrictions on when you can come and go, check-in and check-out times, meal times, what you’re allowed in your room, etc. Casas Particulares don’t have any of this; by renting a Casa, travellers get to enjoy the free and easy atmosphere, while feeling completely at home with the ability to invite friends over.
Save money on your trip
Unsurprisingly, it’s almost always cheaper to stay in a casa than it is to stay in a hotel. Sure, the price of a Casa will vary a LOT depending on whereabouts in Cuba you’re staying, but even those close to all the action and in the centre of the city will be typically cheaper than staying in a hotel in the same location. Thus, leaving you with loads of money left over for taxis, restaurants, nights out, and museums.
Enjoy a traditional cuban breakfast
Pretty much every Casa Particular is a bed and breakfast – even if you have to pay extra for the breakfast part. And sure, you can get a typical Cuban breakfast at any restaurant or café in the city – but it won’t come with the traditional Cuban hospitality that you only get in a Cuban household. Plus, you’ll probably be stuffed with so much food you won’t be hungry for the rest of the day, saving you money on snacks.
You typically don’t get a kitchen
Most Casas won’t come with a kitchen – the occasional one might, but you’ll definitely be paying extra for that. Chances are, the most you’ll get is a mini-fridge, but let’s be realistic: who actually wants to cook while they’re on holiday anyway?
You’re living in someone else’s house
The perks of getting a hotel are you don’t feel like a guest in someone else’s home – which some people can find really uncomfortable. Typically, Casas are rooms in someone’s house, or at the very least someone’s second house, which very much places you right in the centre of their life and family. Not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely not for everyone.
Hostels & hotels in Cuba
Casas Particulares aren’t for everyone, and if you feel like it’s not something you fancy then don’t stress! There are literally tonnes of hostels and hotels around Cuba in all the main cities, so no matter what style of accommodation you prefer you’ll definitely find something to suit. However, it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to find one as cheap as a casa, so bear that in mind when planning your trip.
Casas Particulares are a truly unique aspect of Cuban hospitality, and should be stayed in for at least one night during your holiday in Cuba to enjoy a really authentic experience of the country. As well as being cheap they also allow you to mingle with locals and pick up advice on what to see and where to go from your hosts, providing a truly personalised service that you won’t find in any other accommodation on the island.