The best way to stay and travel in Cuba is by casas particulares, which basically is home-stay. Each Cuban is allowed to rent out up to two rooms, and they pay to the government for this right. The price is generally 20-25 CUC = 120-150 NOK, which includes beds and (most often private) bathroom for 1-3 persons. They also usually offer breakfast, dinner, drinks, laundry, at a reasonable fee, as well as information about the town and booking of tours. We’ve stayed in 6 different casas, each one teaching us more about Cuban culture and their way of life. We’ve had breakfast every day in the casas, and often dinner as well, particularly when we were not in Havana. There are some hotels in Cuba as well, but they are pretty hefty priced and rumor has it that the service and food is impersonal and not better than in the casas.
In this post we’ll give a brief overview of the various places we visited in Cuba and the casas we stayed in.
Our first casa was Casa Alex Habana, which we found on Hostelbookers.com (very good site to find casas!). It is run by Ari (short for Ariocha-something) who acts like everyone’s mother, and a very concerned one at that. She serves the best breakfast in Cuba where one portion is enough for at least two people! Ari has a lovely home in Habana Centro just outside Habana Vieja, which turned out to be a good place to stay when sightseeing – everything was nearby and we didn’t have to use much other transportation than our feet.
Ari took care of our whole trip using her vast connections around the island and setting us up with her friends everywhere. It had (almost) all the comforts of charter tourism without all the charter tourists. We met some other of Ari’s customers along the way and they all had the same positive impression of her as we did.
We also stayed with Raoul in Havana, when Ari had other reservations at her house. He is retired, living with his brother, and makes a living renting out the casa. He lives just down the street from Ari, so we got to stay in the area we already knew. He was also very sweet and talkative and took very good care of us.
We found that 4-5 days is enough in Havana. We did most of the sights and activities that didn’t cost a fortune or smell tourist trap, and were ready to move on from the hustlers and heat.
We then went to Viñales, where we stayed with the family of “La Niña” (a nickname that means “The girl”), in Casa Julio Rivera y Miky (the name of her husband and daughter). Viñales is a beautiful valley were they produce a lot of cigars. It’s said to be the favorite place of Fidel Castro, and we also liked it quite much. There we also met Isabell, a German girl with Colombian mother who lives in Australia. She was traveling by herself around Cuba and Central America, and was on the same “tour of Ari” as we were, only the opposite way.
We stayed two nights and spent a day driving around the valley (private “taxi”) looking at some caves, stone paintings, cigar farm, the view of the valley and a lot of hungry stray dogs. There really isn’t too much to do in Viñales, but we recommend spending a full day in the valley.
After Viñales we headed to Cienfuegos for one night, before going to Trinidad. In Cienfuegos we stayed in Casa Ana Maria. Cienfuegos is a very nice little town with beautiful Cuban buildings and a nice Malecon, but we found that one night was enough for us there as we hadn’t heard too much about Cienfuegos, and didn’t really enjoy the casa so much.
In Trinidad we stayed at Casa Bombino, run by father and son Bombino – Félix and Alex. 25 year old Alex speaks really good English, making us able to learn a lot about Cuban life (we do try to speak as much Spanish as possible, but there really are limits to the depths of conversations we are able to have in Spanish!). We stayed 8 nights with the Bombinos in Trinidad, and Alex really made it such a nice and easy stay. He booked bikes or taxis when we wanted to go to the beach, fixed our return transport to Havana, served breakfast and dinners that were great, and introduced us to Ana Beatrice – his doll of a 14 month daughter. He was actually expecting his second daughter any day as well!
Trinidad is a really nice little town with cobbled streets and houses painted in various pastel colors (no neighboring house had the same color). There is also a very nice beach nearby, Playa Ancon, were we spend a lot of prime tanning-time and gazing at the spectacular sunset. In the center of town there is a Casa de la Musica where bands play music each night on the steps outside, and where we could practice some of the salsa moves we had learned earlier in the day.
As we stayed a total of 8 days in Trinidad we also met a lot of other travelers with whom we shared and received lot of good travel tips: Laure and Remy from France was a brother and sister traveling Cuba for two weeks; Sarah and Nadine from UK also lived with the Bambino’s and was at the end of their 3,5 month travel, starting in Brazil – they had done a lot of the same things we are considering; and Jules and Kat from Australia, who were in the middle of their 10 week travels in Latin America.
Back to Havana
Upon returning to Havana, Ari put us in another amigo’s house – Casa Orchidea. Same area, just on the San Rafael Avenue (dubbed Harassment Street by the English girls we met in Trinidad! Guess it’s quite different traveling as a couple compared to two girls). The apartment looks like a bachelor pad ala 70’s James Bond, and there are 5 piranhas living there! They are huge and look super vicious! We fed them some leftover chicken and one of them jumped halfway out of the aquarium to get it – scary!
So all in all, if you’re going to Cuba – stay at a casa! And to be on Aris circuit of friends was really nice for us, we highly recommend it!