CIENFUEGOS, Cuba — I can’t choose which moment stands out most. Maybe it was in Cienfuegos, when Mary showed me dozens of photos from her recent trip to visit friends in Florida, smiling and laughing at the fond recollections.
Perhaps it was when Maritza’s daughter sat me down and gave me her favorite Havana tips. Or maybe it was when, after half an hour of casual conversation with Maritza and a visiting couple from Argentina, I had to finally pry myself away to do some work.
In each instance, I had the same thought: This is so much cooler than a hotel.
Spurred by rebooted diplomatic relations with Cuba and a lifted trade embargo possibly coming in the near future, it seems likely American tourists will soon flood the island for adventure, relaxation or simply to satisfy their curiosity. Hoteliers will eventually develop enough properties to satisfy the influx, but supply could initially struggle to keep pace with demand.
No matter. A visit to Cuba isn’t complete without at least one stay at a casa particular. Visitors who forsake this Cuban tradition — at once unique, endearing and enlightening — truly miss out, the guidebooks will tell you. My own recent reporting trip to Cuba for Mashable confirmed this in a most major way.
A casa particular is a private home in Cuba that rents out rooms for travelers. But it’s more than a place to stay. It’s where you can get a home-cooked breakfast every morning, and a home cooked dinner some nights, too. It’s where your hosts often act as surrogate family members or long lost friends, whiling away the hours as you talk about Cuba and your own home country.
Hosts also often function as guides of sorts, arranging taxis or telling you how to get places, which attractions to skip, what time the bus leaves for your next destination and more.
Cuba has thousands of casas particulares, and there are many ways to find them. Online is one, although this is slightly more challenging for now if you’re from the U.S. because of the embargo. Simply arriving in a new town is another; a commission-seeking tout is all but sure to spot you as you step off the bus and offer to guide you to some different options. Or you can find one by another popular method, and certainly an organic one: word of mouth.
In Cienfuegos, I was the only guest of a couple named Mary Ocana Gil and Rafe Gonzalez Tojeiro. They live in a spacious second-floor unit on Cienfuegos’ main street. Breakfast, prepared by Rafe, was a tortilla made of fried egg, plus fruit, bread, butter, coffee and juice. Both Rafe and Mary clearly took great joy in having me in their home.
“I like getting to know different people, different cultures,” Mary told me one afternoon, as we sat on the veranda, which is decorated with a host of potted plants. “It’s something we do for enjoyment, not just for money.”
After two nights, when it was time for me to move on to my next destination, both Mary and Rafe made me promise to email them when I got back to California.
A hub in Havana
Staying at Mary and Rafe’s was a quiet and intimate experience. By contrast, my stay in Havana with a couple named Maritza and Manolo was a more communal arrangement. Maritza’s own house was already booked when I contacted her, so she set me up with a room at her neighbor’s place. Maritza is something of a hospitality maven in her Centro Havana neighborhood, and had arranged similar setups for other people at other places nearby.
While many of us stayed scattered about, Maritza’s was still the gathering place for meals. The setup was come-as-you-please, as long as you let her know ahead of time whether or not you wanted to eat. Her living and dining room became a very fun gathering place for travelers from far and wide, all of us made comfortable by the warm atmosphere created by Maritza and her family.
One day I ate breakfast with four Spaniards and an Englishwoman. The following afternoon I spent time conversing with an older hippy couple from Buenos Aires. It may sound like a similar vibe to what you’d find in a hostel, but that’s not the case. Whereas hostels are often charged, youth-centered environments, Maritza’s place featured a more diverse set of comers and goers. It made things more relaxed — and in many ways, more rewarding.
Casa particular owners have to get approval from the government to open an operation, and keep a record of their guests in an official logbook. They are then required to pay the Cuban government a portion of their earnings; Mary told me in Cienfuegos that the figure is a surprisingly-low (to me, at least) 10%.
The standard nightly rate at a casa particular is about $25, though they can go much higher or lower. Finicky travelers be warned: You’re staying in a real Cuban home, so you may not find the luxuries you’re used to at your own house or a Best Western. But trust that the experience more than makes up for whatever minor discomforts you might be sensitive to.
Mary and Rafe started hosting guests at their house in 2011. Many get her name via word of mouth, or notice the sign that all casa particular owners are required to post on their windows or doors: A blue anchor-like symbol set against a white background.
Most of Mary and Rafe’s guests come from Europe, but Argentines and Aussies are common, too, and she’s had visitors from as far away as South Korea. Every New Year, she and Rafe receive a flood of messages from around the globe, people saying hi, sending updates or just checking in.
“It makes me feel good,” Mary said with a smile, as we chatted on her veranda. “Now I have a mix of friends from all over the world.”
By Sam Laird, Mashable
May 20, 2015