The most enjoyable aspect of travelling in Cuba is the opportunity to engage with the friendly, humorous and gregarious Cubans. During our fifteen day tour of Cuba we stayed predominantly in “casa particulares”, which simply means private houses and this maximised our opportunity to meet Cubans.
The family live in the house however they have rooms that are let out to tourists. At any location our group of 9 will be split over a number of casas within the same area, with one house acting as the main house where we reconnect. Most of the houses probably started as a one room building and over the years rooms have been added as needed.
The result is often a higgledy piggledy arrangement of rooms and narrow steep stairways.
There is usually an open roof top area, which is often unusable during the day due to the relentless heat. The rooftop offers the opportunity to capture any breeze in the evenings, although the radiant heat from the concrete floor and walls takes some time to disperse.
Operation of the casas is under strict Cuban government conditions and all our rooms had a small bathroom and air conditioner, some had refrigerators. The rooms are usually painted in bright pinks, blues or green and lacy decor has been favoured, they have all been immaculately clean. Given that the families seem to have very little in the way of assets for themselves, these rooms represent a considerable investment by them in tourism. That the families have the capacity to do this, and to generate income from their home suggests that they are certainly not the poorest Cubans however they are by no means affluent.
Breakfast is served at the casa and the standard fare is fresh fruit juice, a fruit platter, two eggs, fresh bread, cheese and coffee. I have found breakfast the best meal of the day as in general Cuban food is bland and the meat and fish overcooked.
My favourite casa so far has been Casa Ramon where we stayed with Mimi and Ramon. As yet they have only one room to let but will finish a second room when they have the money to complete it. We had a room upstairs, which opened onto the roof top and was separated from the family’s living space.
I believe that the casa owners have to pay a high tax on income from the accommodation and that the real financial benefit to the family is from other services they provide. They welcome the opportunity to do a load of laundry or make a home cooked meal. Ramon and Mimi cooked us a meal one night of soup, fish, and delicious Cuban chocolate ice-cream. This was one of the better meals of the trip and I suspect we should have eaten at the casa’s more frequently. Ramon thankfully spoke some English.
Staying in the casa particulares is the highlight of the trip however they are definitely not luxurious accommodation, beds are sometimes hard, pillows can be lumpy, sheets may not quite fit, showers dribble water and air conditions are inefficient and noisy.
However they offer you the opportunity to share time with people from a very different culture from your own in a personal way. I will treasure those small moments such as sitting and rocking with Ana Marie (there are rocking chairs everywhere) in Santiago de Cuba who was the same age as me, talking about retirement (she had been an air traffic controller for 35 years), children and having to still make an income.