Suri, a slim 40-something professional dancer, led us up the outdoor spiral staircase to our suite, waiting shyly for our reaction. She needn’t have worried. As we walked past the large, covered outdoor patio overlooking the quiet, tree-lined street and chatting passers-by, we were more than thrilled.
“Here’s where I’ll serve you your breakfast tomorrow,” she said, pointing to the large wooden picnic table. We then entered the suite’s charming parlor room, with plump couches and polished dining table, as well as a well-furnished kitchen.
“Feel free to use this — it’s yours,” Suri said with a smile.
The best was for last — the sunny bedroom, where swans made of towels sat regally on the big bed, a modern, ample bathroom was bedecked with fluffy towels and, we found later, a strong and hot shower.
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A few moments later, we were treated to a tray of Cuban rum and Cokes. Aahhhh … could it be any better? The cost for our Airbnb in the beautiful city of Cienfuegos, Cuba? $25US per night! That, astonishingly, is the going rate in Cuba.
There are some 19,000 Airbnb “casas particulares” in Cuba. “Casa Particular” means private home, with rooms for rent. In April of 2015, the United States Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) granted Airbnb a general license to offer accommodation services for persons traveling to Cuba. In fact, Cuba is one of Airbnb’s fastest-growing markets: That first year, it grew from 1,000 listings at launch to more than 4,000 listings, faster than in any other market, ever.
Airbnb listings are spread across nearly 40 different cities and towns in Cuba, with over a third of the listings outside Havana. The most popular Airbnb cities in Cuba are Havana, Trinidad and Viñales (a lovely town in the verdant tobacco-growing region) where it seemed that every single house hosts a sign denoting it as a “casa particular.”
Suri’s place, Casa Monica, was our favorite “Casa Particular” on our recent nine-day Cuban adventure. We planned the trip on our own, using the Lonely Planet Guidebook, traveling from one location to another with collective taxis (and one Viazul bus.)
We stayed in five Airbnb spots in four locations. We booked with our credit cards from the U.S., to our great relief. In each case, the owners were waiting for us with our rooms ready. Note that there are plenty of “casas” which are not participants in the Airbnb system, but when booked from the U.S., they cannot accept U.S. credit cards, and can only accept Cuban currency. We felt much more secure knowing that our rooms were already paid for and confirmed.
We were confused and worried about the visa process and legalese, but found that tourists book the rooms in exactly the same way they do anywhere else. Indeed, we flew from Denver to Havana on Southwest Airlines, which conveniently sells the $50 visa on its website and has it awaiting you at the check-in desk in Fort Lauderdale. We were told there to put “education” as the reason for travel (“that’s what everyone puts down,” the man at the Southwest counter said). We did so and were never asked about it again.
How to choose
As it has been only recently that President Obama’s actions have opened up tourism for Americans to Cuba, now Cubans are rapidly evolving their tourism capabilities to accommodate the sudden influx of tourists from the States. Thus, not all Cubans are accustomed to U.S. tastes and it takes some careful research when choosing Airbnbs. First of all, the great majority of “casas” charge $25 per night — and anything less than that should have a flashing warning light by it. We naively booked one in Viňales for only $17 per night, noting that the reviews complimented the “lovely owners.”
Yes, the owners were lovely, welcoming and warm, but that didn’t make up for the dozens of surrounding roosters, hens and chicks with their 24/7 cacophony, nor for the missing toilet seat nor the youth bed from which my husband’s legs were left hanging. In Cuba, you get what you pay for.
Read the reviews carefully! If there are no mentions of the room itself, just how “friendly” the owners are, beware! Also, don’t rely on European reviews unless you are a backpacker, couch surfer, etc. Europeans are often comfortable with more rustic standards than we Yanks.
Pay attention to location and message the owners with questions if necessary. We chose a very nice, modern “casa” in Havana, but it was in a residential neighborhood with absolutely nothing to offer tourists. We had to pay our host $20 each time we wanted him to take us anywhere in his car. If we had asked specific questions beforehand, we would have chosen elsewhere.
Incredibly, the owners of the “casas” are some of the most affluent Cubans — the $25 they make for each night’s stay is more than what many Cubans earn in a month. Thus, if you choose to bring a little gift of American sweets or something small, fine, but don’t feel obligated. Instead, you might tip generously at restaurants, where we were surprised to learn that waitstaff are paid according to what patrons order!
Most of all, go with the flow. If you do happen to choose unwisely, you can laugh about it later, as we did. When you arrive back in the U.S., and your Wi-Fi service returns to your phone upon landing, you just might yearn for the unpredictability and informality of Cuba. “Welcome Home,” the U.S. Immigration officer said to us, smiling. No questions, no dogs sniffing, nothing. No problema at all!