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Get to know the beautiful and passionate Cuban locals by staying in one of the island's B&Bs. Here we look at some affordable and traditional casas particulares
Brendan Sainsbury | Issue 103 | April/May 2009
Forget the officious state-run hotels. The best way to unravel the baffling enigmas of modern-day Cuba is to stay in a privately run bed and breakfast.
Safe, clean and gloriously retro, these authentic family homes present Cuba as the Cubans see it; a fascinatingly contradictory country where vintage Chevrolets run on Lada engines and the national doctors get paid less than tip-collecting waiters in Varadero.
Known locally as casas particulares, Cuban B&Bs run the gamut of majestic colonial mansions in Trinidad to simple clapboard beach houses in Baracoa. But, while no two casas are exactly alike, they all offer something that no hotel can ever replicate: a sharp and vivid snapshot of everyday Cuban life, unguarded and uncensored, with all of its fun, foibles and unfathomable secrets.
Banned during the revolution’s formative years, casas particulares were tentatively legalised in May 1997 during the economic liberalisation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Isolated by a long-standing US trade embargo and starved of former Soviet subsides, Cuba entered what leader Fidel Castro termed a “special period in a time of peace”.
To save the country from financial ruin, the embattled leader allowed private homes, upon payment of a monthly government tax, to open their doors to curious foreign visitors. In a pen-stroke, casas particulares – and a diluted form of capitalism – were inauspiciously born.
But, caught between strict state socialism on one hand and limited private enterprise on the other, Cuban casas particulares are anything but ordinary.
First there are the houses themselves: scruffy and mildewed on the outside but, invariably, veritable palaces within. Second there are the families who run them: a generous and candid populace who’ll happily hold court on everything from Cuban soap operas to Fidel’s intestinal ailments. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the food.
You’ve been walking around those dark and dingy streets for days now and barely spotted a morsel. But then miraculously, out of some cramped, noisy kitchen your resourceful host appears with a plateful of mouth-watering prawns, mountains of rice and enough fruit to fill the Garden of Eden.
In common with many areas of Cuban life, casas particulares are straddled with countless nit-picking rules. Despite buoyant demand, individual proprietors are only permitted to rent out two rooms per residence and accommodate two adults per room (under 17s are deemed minors). They must also pay a set monthly tax to the government, a source of much behind-the-scenes grumbling. On the plus side for travellers are the economical room rates, ranging from a bargain CUC$15 (£11) per night to around CUC$40 (£30). Breakfast and dinner are always charged extra, at CUC$3-4 (£2-3) and CUC$8-12 (£6-9) respectively.
Subject to rigorous government inspections, all Cuban B&Bs must guarantee a minimum standard of service. Consequently, most establishments offer clean, well-maintained rooms equipped with two beds (one is usually a double), a modern en suite bathroom, a fridge, hot water, air-conditioning, towels, sheets, soap and breakfast.
To add icing to the cake, an increasing number of casas lure clients with enticing extras such as laundry service, safety deposit boxes, roof terraces, kitchen access, private entry, parking, bike hire, dinner and even dance lessons.
From city apartments to tropical beachside homes, Cuba’s B&Bs come in all shapes and sizes...
Cuba’s little-visited underbelly may lack classic sights, but is rich in gritty authenticity
Casa: ‘La Palma’ – Enrique Interián Salermo
Despite a pummelling from Hurricane Ike in September 2008 (which destroyed much of the garden), the defiant royal palm that stands guard outside Enrique Salermo’s neo-colonial Holguín home hasn’t budged an inch. The interior of the house has survived intact, too, and provides a haven for off-the-beaten-track travellers with comfortable bedrooms, an airy kitchen and living space adorned with the imaginative art of Enrique’s son – the centrepiece is a terracotta bust of Che flanked by a full-sized reinterpretation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper with the disciple John depicted as a woman.
Info: Calle Maceo No 52A; +53 24 424683; CUC$25 (£18)
Sultry and soulful, Cuba’s cultural capital is the place for a musical knees-up
Casa: Casa Colonial Maruchi
Want to unlock the mysteries of Santería (Cuba’s hybrid Afro-Caribbean religious culture)? Then head to Casa Colonial Maruchi. This meticulously preserved 19th-century townhouse has developed a reputation as a nexus for Santiago’s religious brotherhoods. You’ll bump into many interesting characters here: budding percussionists, wise santeros (priests) and the odd PhD student researching Afro-Cuban deities.
Happy to share their extensive knowledge of Cuba’s religious traditions, Maruchi’s owners host traditional drumming lessons and can point you in the direction of many of the city’s folklórico dance groups.
Info: Calle Hartmann No 357; +53 22 620767; CUC$20-25 (£15-18)
Find Che memorabilia and Cuba’s only drag show in one of the island’s most lively cities
Casa: Hostal Florida Center
Situated in a quintessential Santa Clara street replete with asthmatic Buicks and old men slapping down dominoes, the Florida gives away little in its timeworn exterior. But step behind the faded façade and you’re in a different world. Built in 1876, this colonial-style townhouse belongs to Angel Martínez, whose desire to preserve 135 years of family history has thrown up one of Cuba’s most magnificent private homes.
The first dilemma: which room to choose – the cool colonial digs or the exquisite Art Deco suite? The second is what to order for dinner: Angel’s cooking skills are on a par with his deft eye for antiques.
But the pièce de la resistance arrives after dark as you gravitate to the plant-embellished central patio, where glistening lamps reveal indigenous orchids, rustling fruit trees (tomorrow’s breakfast) and cages of twittering birds.
Info: Calle Maestra Nicolosa No 56; +53 42 208161; CUC$20-25 (£15-18)
Stay in Cuba’s bucolic hinterland for serendipitous hiking and, arguably, the island’s friendliest people
Casa: Villa Los Reyes
When he’s not tinkering with his 1951 Plymouth, Yoan Reyes is proprietor of Villa Los Reyes, a quiet small-town retreat in the tobacco-growing area of Viñales.
With two comfy bedrooms and a salubrious communal terrace, Yoan has developed his Villa into a thriving business, which offers everything from dance classes to Spanish lessons. But, in a house that lies within walking distance of one of Cuba’s finest national parks, the great outdoors is the biggest draw card. Fortunately, Yoan’s father owns a traditional finca (farmhouse) nearby, nestled amid the rugged haystack-shaped hills. As well as growing tobacco, Reyes senior cultivates pineapples, coffee, sugar cane and mangoes, and you’re welcome to sample the whole exotic spread – washed down with a mouthful of throat-burning rum.
Info: Rafael Trejo No 134; +53 48 695225; CUC$20 (£15)
Wedged between the mountains and the sea, this is one of Latin America’s best-preserved colonial cities
Casa: Hostal Casa Muñoz
In a city not short on resplendent B&Bs (400 at the last count), Trinidad’s Casa Muñoz is an architectural highlight. Bedecked with antiques and within baseball-pitching distance of Trinidad’s cobbled core, this attractive colonial mansion is owned by Julio Muñoz, a talented photographer, whose work has graced the pages of many magazines and books. Keen to share both his historical and photographic knowledge, Julio organises regular photo workshops in a town where the timeless street scenes and ethereal evening light provide plenty of evocative ‘only in Cuba’ moments. Julio is also a renowned horse-whisperer and will happily saddle you up for an unforgettable trip through Trinidad’s rich rural hinterland.
Info: Calle Marti No 401; CUC$30-35 (£22-26); + 53 41 993673, www.casa.trinidadphoto.com
Enlightened and neoclassical – this is Cuba’s Paris, sat by one of the Caribbean’s finest bays
Casa: Villa Lagarto
A welcome mojito greets you as you cross the threshold of the tranquil Villa Lagarto and enter a shady patio that overlooks the placid Bay of Cienfuegos. It’s dusk, and a crimson sun is setting over Cuba’s nautical city as your genial hostess, Maylin, shows you to your first-floor room where fluffy towels and aromatic soaps have been laid out on a huge king-sized bed. Outside on the terrace a hammock sways invitingly in
the evening breeze while down below on the patio, next to a glimmering private swimming pool, assorted family members are putting together a spontaneous fish supper. You pinch yourself and try to remember where you are. Cuba? Fidel Castro? Draconian socialism and austere rationing? It must be time for another mojito…
Info: Calle 35 No 4B; +53 43 519966; CUC$35-45 (£26-34)
The island’s third-largest city is a confusing labyrinth of winding streets – and guards some of the country’s most valuable religious monuments
Casa: ‘Los Vitrales’ – Emma Barreto & Rafael Requejo
It only takes a cursory glance around Rafael Requejo’s spectacular Camagüey home to see that this talented architect-cum-casa-owner has a skilful eye for aesthetics. Eschewing the standard rip-it-up-and-start-again approach to modern home renovation, Requejo has taken a former Camagüey convent and transformed it into a mini-museum that proudly honours the city’s rich colonial history. Check out the high wooden ceilings and broad curvaceous arches that dominate the main room, or cast an eye over the colourful vitrales (stained glass) and beautifully crafted mosaics that adorn the walls of the inner patio. Accommodated in spacious rooms with modern en suite baths, guests get the very best of Los Vitrales’ hospitality when Rafael himself is on breakfast duty, offering up sage re-interpretations of Camagüey’s swashbuckling history while his dear madre (mum) cooks up scrambled eggs over an ancient coal-fired stove in the kitchen (an original, of course).
Info: Calle Avellaneda No 3; +53 32 295866; CUC$20-25 (£15-18)
Havana is like nowhere else on the planet– life here is unpredictable and precarious, but always passionate.
Casa: Julio & Elsa Roque
The family home of Julio Roque is a throwback to another era. Ring the doorbell and, within seconds, you will be invited in by a swinging door key, lowered down on a piece of string from a first-floor balcony. Part paediatrician, part casa host, part walking encyclopaedia, Julio wears a variety of different hats in his bid to offer the best customer service in Havana. But, while his casa might not be able to compete with the five-star hotels that ring nearby Parque Central, his wide-ranging local knowledge and generous hospitality more than make amends. La familia Roque rents out two rooms in their comfortable Havana home; many priceless nuggets of extra information – bank on everything from local bus timetables to baseball trivia – are thrown in for free.
Info: Calle Consulado; No 162; +53 861 8027; CUC$15-25 (£11-18)
Time-warped Baracoa is like a tropical Titanic – come for exotic food and the wild outdoors
Casa: Nilson Abad Guilaré
If they gave out Academy Awards for casa cleanliness, Nilson’s surgically scrubbed house would win hands down. Then there’s the food: fish, fresh avocados, coconut sauces and unusual deserts – all prepared skilfully and simply; all indescribably delicious. But wait, he hasn’t finished yet. Would you like to borrow a bike? Got a bag of laundry? Breakfast at 6am tomorrow? No problem! When the dull monotony of Cuba’s state-run hotels starts to bite, individuals such as Nilson are there to provide a welcome wake-up call; a timely reminder that despite 50 years of on-off austerity the Cubans can be some of the most hospitable people on the planet.
Info: Calle Flor Crombert; No 143; +53 21 643123; CUC$25 (£18)
Neo-Moorish architecture and Saturday-night street parties abound in this refreshingly uncensored, offbeat city
Casa: Adrián & Tonia
Perched high on a hill with the lights of the port twinkling below, the house of Adrián & Tonia is a riot of potted plants and vines. With one private room and fine dining next door, the property is situated next to a pretty terracotta staircase – part of an evocative public monument honouring local heroine, Celia Sanchez, one time muse of Fidel Castro and a key figure in the Cuban Revolution. You can admire the monument’s dramatic artwork from Adrián’s rooftop terrace while sitting in a small inflatable dinghy rigged up to impersonate a luxury Jacuzzi.Very novel – and very Manzanillo.
Info: Calle Mártires de Vietnam; No 49; +53 23 573028; CUC$20-25 (£15-18)
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