Tuesday 2 August 2011

Avoiding fawlty towers

I think it’s fair to say that Cuba is known for a lot of things, but top notch international hotels is almost certainly not one of them. Like many things, the government has a monopoly (all hotels are owned by 5 state run Cuban hotel entities) and reports of Fawlty Towers type establishments are not uncommon. Star ratings seem to be calibrated completely differently to anything we’re accustomed to with the result that however much you pay it’s not uncommon to come back to your room to find no (hot) water or broken AC for example, and the likelihood of being helped by the staff is painfully low. Castro even agreed: “Cubans are the most hospitable, friendly and attentive people in the world. But as soon as you put a waiters uniform on them, they become terrible.”

Fortunately, if you’re looking to avoid hotels, there is another option: Casas Particulares or in English, Bed & Breakfasts. They wouldn’t get that name here but that is essentially what they are - for between $15 to $35 CUC/USD you can guarantee a comfy night and for a few dollars extra, a breakfast of eggs, toast, juice and fresh fruit, as well as the possibility of dinner for an extra charge. And one of the best thing about them: whilst the standard of room and breakfast will vary from home to home, for a variety of reasons you’re almost guaranteed to find a friendly host – unlike the hotels!

Since their establishment in the mid 1990s following a ban on having Cuban guests in hotel rooms, the business of renting spare rooms burgeoned as people applied for licences to either host foreign or Cuban guests. Whilst the government isn’t currently issuing any licences it is possible to find a casa particular almost everywhere on the tourist trail – just look for an upside down anchor sign outside houses, and if they’re blue you’re in luck, whilst a red sign means they will accept national clients.

In order to stay at casas particulares we mostly made reservations a few days ahead to be safe, but this can be both advantageous and disadvantageous. Sure it guarantees you the sacred starred casa in the guidebook and safely saves you from the crush when you arrive off the bus in town to be met by what seems like hundreds of owners touting for your business, but it also leaves you without any bargaining power and thus you’re almost certainly going to pay 5 to 10 CUC more by playing it safe. We relaxed a bit as time went by though when we realised that most houses were part of one big chain: each one supporting many others in different towns, such that each time we left one casa we’d be given a suggestion of where to stay in the next town. These new hosts were often sisters, aunts or close friends of the previous casa owners, and generally recommendations could be well trusted. Furthermore, if you turn up somewhere and it’s full, you’re almost certainly going to be helped by these owners to find you another place to stay nearby.

As with every private business in Cuba however, casas particulares survive – thanks to the government - by the skin of their teeth as they negotiate the web of rules and taxes required of them. The tough rules run from the need to record visitors’ passport details and present them to the Ministry of the Interior within 24 hours, to additional fees for signs outside the house (such as parking etc), to paying a steep $150-350 CUC tax per month to the government just for having the business – tourists or no tourists.

Given what we know about the government it’s no surprise that they’re hell bent on preventing personal enrichment, but such insane regulations barely make sense. Helen and I worked out that just in order to pay the tax a casa would have to have a paying visitor for over half to two thirds of the month – and if they wanted to cover any costs and make a living, the amount they need to be earning obviously increases. At the same time any chance of making money on the side – via offering a car rental and guide service for example - is strictly forbidden. In other words, chuck entrepreneurial flair out of the window and knuckle down – any owner of a casa particular must stay open for 365 days a year, tourists or no tourists, like it or not.

Helen and I couldn’t afford the hotels, but it was their loss and our gain as we set off to enjoy a series of excellent nights in lovely houses around the island. To give you an idea of the kind of experiences to expect from a night in a Casa Particular, here’s a quick low down on how we got on during our 10 day journey round the island.

First stop, Casa Alina Pena – Havana Vieja
This was our first and definitely one of the best. Breakfast was brilliant, somehow there was internet in the house and since it was on the 7th floor the views were spectacular.

Second, a quick stop in the tourist paradise, Varadero. This was a last minute find in an effort to escape our awful hotel and an early morning, so we didn’t really enjoy this one to its full potential. We did have a tasty dinner and breakfast though, and it was right opposite the bus station, which scored highly for an early ride to Trinidad.  

In Trinidad we were in luck: Alina had sent us to the beautiful home of Marisa, which happened to be worth it if just for the sun terrace/roof. Perhaps also for the brilliant lobster and frijoles (black bean stew). Breakfast wasn’t bad either, the air con worked, the shower was OK and the view was insane.

Our sole day and night in La Boca gets my vote as the best however: run by a very cool Cuban couple it was a fairly isolated house that backed onto the sea. It had two rooms and we got the room with the view. We divided the day into a snorkling expedition on the almost private beach, sunbathing and dinner of lobster on the patio watching the sun go down. Nice. Of course there had to be one drawback: mosquitos! 

Our night in Camaguay is a bit of a blur - we were barely in this bed long enough to record it. It’s a bit of shame as it looked like a really lovely one. Helen fell for the beautiful mosaic tiles as far as I can remember.  

At the end of our journey in Santiago de Cuba we had a lovely casa booked – apparently ‘one of the best options in town’ in fact - until we turned up and were sent away without explanation up to the host’s sister up the road. It turned out the one we’d booked was now full and we’d struck the overflow deal. The casa was fine, but it didn’t have a patio under the shade of grape vines or the splendid breakfasts we had been promised, and Helen’s legs extended about 2 foot over the end of the bed. Furthermore, it did have an exposed and explosive air conditioning system and one of those suicide showers, the ones that heat the water at the end of the shower head and give you a shock every time you touch them. The moment we left the casa and walked into town we realised it was all OK: it was excellently located for stumbling back from the town’s carnival in the early hours! 

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