Thursday, 20 March 2008

Part 3: Accommodation

Cuba has this really weird system where, IMO, you can either choose to stay at a fancy hotel and spend upwards of US$ 100 a night, an all-inclusive beach resort where you are isolated from the real Cuba in just about every aspect, or stay in a casa particulare, a private room in a home for about $25 - 35 a night. Quite a contrast, and I felt that the lack of something "in-between" was sorely missing. You know, a 2 or 3 star hotel, perhaps by the beach where I could stay if I couldn't afford the 4 and 5 star jobbies and really didn't want to slum it out in a casa particulare the entire time - not that I'm bashing casas in any way though.

Casas Particulares

I ended up in casas most of my stay in Cuba and they are lovely. Yes, they can be small, smelly, dirty and at times uncomfortable, but the ambience is just amazing. It will be your one big chance to really interface with day to day Cubans, and given that most casa owners are just ordinary families running of a European Bed-and-Breakfast and more often than not being very open, friendly and on occasion even speaking English, you really end up having a lot of fun.

But, as much fun as I had in casas, I understand they are just not for everyone. Imagine travelling with a young family, for example, and suddenly you are relegated to the realms of expensive hotels. Sadly, until Cuban tourism matures a bit more and mid-range hotels catering to a large portion of the holidaygoing population of the world spring up, choices are limited.

Official, licensed casas are identified by the sign on the left. Cuban houses are allowed to rent out up to 2 rooms to guests, and pay the government for this privilege. Meals, typically, cost extra (usually 3 convertibles for breakfast, 7 - 10 for dinner depending on what you pick). An urban legend, but from what I've understood, casas may only offer guests meals of chicken or pork. Unofficially, I have been offered everything else under the sun: excellent grilled fish, lobster, etc., for a couple of convertible pesos extra.

While it is a good idea to book casas before your arrival (and have the owners meet you at your bus station or airport to save you from the crowds of hotel touts!) it is not critical, if you are along the main "tourist path" of towns: Havana, Viñales, Piñar del Rio, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, etc. The streets are just full of houses with the sign above, and even if they are full, they usually have a friend who will have space. Ask them and they will always arrange this.

In fact, even when travelling from city to city, it is an excellent idea to ask your casa host who he or she would know in your destination city. Again, more often than not, they would know other casa owners and would call and arrange accommodation for you.

The only thing to beware of here is the condition of the room, and the cost of meals. Make sure you ask to see the room and ask about meal costs before agreeing on the room price, and negotiate accordingly.

The Hotel Nacional

So I also got a chance to stay for a week at the Hotel Nacional in Havana - the famous, swanky colonial building in the middle of Havana so famous for revolutions. While very nice and opulent (at least by Cuban standards), anyone used to 4 and 5 star hotels anywhere else will be disappointed. Again, not that I'm saying the Nacional was bad in any way - just that half-notch below par.

To sum things up, as far as accommodation is concerned, be prepared to rough it out a little. Yes it's a dusty old place and you'll feel like you need three showers a day, but once you get over that you'll be fine.

Keep in mind that the usual safety precautions must be taken - use hotel safes where possible, always have your money belt on you, never keep all your money in one place, and always sleep with your cash and phone under your pillow. Standard things, really, but often all too easily forgotten - especially after a few excellent cocktails - and then things just start to get inconvenient.

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