No better feeling than to wake up in a new city. Or, if you haven´t slept due to excitement, I would suggest stepping out of the house before sunrise to see the city really wake up. Well, we headed out at around 8 am, after a hearty breakfast at the Casa we were staying at. Before I get into anything else about Cuba, I am going to share one of the ´must dos´for a perfect Cuban trip. Even if someone gives you a seven star hotel experience (which isnt there anyway), never settle for it. Always stay in a Casa Particulare.
Casa Particulares are the Cuban equivalent of bed & breakfasts, with Cuban homeowners sharing one of the rooms in their homes with travelers. The accommodation type varies from Casa to Casa, depending on the facilities they can offer. Typically, it is always a private room with fan (also airconditioning) along with an attached bathroom. The price varies from 30 CUC (Cuban convertible currency) in Havana to 15 or 20 CUC in the smaller towns of Cuba. All Casa Particulares can be recognised by a small sign on the door, with two blue triangles (‘roofs’) against a white background, which the owners obtain after paying a fixed per-room annual tax. Incase you want to play it safe and select your Casas in advance, Cubacasas.net is an amazing resource.
Breakfast is not included in the price and they will prepare the same for you for a price of 4 to 5 CUC depending on what they offer. Likewise, you can eat lunch or dinner also in the Casas. Salad, chichen, potatos, rice & beans would be the staples. Sometimes, they even give Flan for dessert.
There isn´t much one can talk about the facilities and the food of the Casa Particulares. But, I can spend hours talking about the families, the people you meet, their lifestyle and the broken Spanish I used to understand all this. Meeting the locals is the best way to travel through any country and Cuba gives you no choice.(Of course, there are hotels, but I definitely do not recommend them – more expensive and less personal).
Casas in Havana are super different from the Casas in Vinales or Trinidad or Cienfuegos or any other smaller city you go to. Vinales is the heart of Tobacco growing region and Trinidad is a colonial town frozen in time. While a Casa varies from a 11th floor swanky apartment in the Marine drive of Havana (Malecon) to an old colonial house in Havana Vieja, the small towns offer a more quaint accommodation. Below, I´ve shared a bit about the different Casas we stayed at.
Habana Vieja – Day 1 & 2
The first Casa we stayed in Havana was with Roberto and his mother Juanita. With two rooms converted for tourists and two other rooms, a lovely courtyard, this Casa all but reminded us of the b&bs of Italy. It was interesting to see the simple things that kept the two of them busy. Juanita was in the kitchen or chatting up other friends in the neihbourhood (not moving away from the balcony – 2nd floor woman speaks to the 5th floor across the street). Roberto maintained the diary for tourists, called other Casas to help people plan trips, occasionally discussed baseball. Mother and son got together in the evening when there was a Novella on the television (soap opera). It was interesting to see that men in Cuba were glued to Novellas as much as the women.
Vinales – Day 3 & 4
The Casa in Vinales was a recommendation of Roberto´s. He knew a lady called Nenita in Vinales, who had a massive Casa, but all booked out. So, she put us up with her neighbour. Vinales is the kind of town where every alternate house is a Casa. If you walk down the main street, you´ll see more blue signs than anything else.
Casa Porry was just the kind of family you want to stay with in Cuba. Porry and his wife Lila, with their daughter Melanie are a picture perfect Cuban family, who go out of the way to make you at home. They have a make shift pool in the terrace (trust me… unbelievable) and just the most amazing view of the mountains. Their daily life can be pretty much compared to the life of a small family living in any small village in India. Doing the daily household work. Making Melanie do her homework. Communally tuning into the Soap opera in the evenings. Washing the clothes (no washing machine) and hanging them out in the terrace to dry. Cooking and sharing a cup of coffee with the neighbours. Simple life.
Not a single minute did we feel like we were intruding into their daily routine. In fact, I only felt more and more guilty as I traveled, wondering how I can help with the daily chores. (I had to remind myself that I generally fussed in London to wash my dishes… I guess Im just more accountable when I travel 🙂
Anyway, Porry makes the meanest Mohitos and Daiquiris and the view from the terrace with the cocktails included is enough to make you switch off from things and surrender to your holiday.
Cienfuegos – Day 5
We hadn´t really planned to stop in Cienfuegos. But, the bus ride from Vinales was a long one and we hopped off the bus and decided to head to Trinidad later. So, not having booked a Casa, we just wandered around the main street. Then, a young guy walked up to us and asked us if we wanted a Casa. In general, we were told to avoid these agents… but, this guy looked kinda genuine. Vibes you know. He said that there were travelers expected at his place who did not turn up and now they had a room free.
Boy, it was indeed a good idea to go with gut feel and land up at his place. Managed by dad and son, the Casa was so simple. No frills really. Small room upstairs. Looked like they had built a room attached to the terrace. A winding staircase to get to the room. Fans that worked. Basic basic. But,the hammock on the terrace and the fresh mango milk shake sealed the deal. For just 10 CUC a night, this place was a steal.
Manolito (dad) and Asael (son) shared stories about how Manolito was working in Spain and returned to Cuba and his perception about living abroad and coming back home. They seemed quite content with their life in Cuba. But, definitely it looked like Asael wanted to step out and explore, but that wasn´t a possibility now for multiple reasons.
As it works in Cuba, Manolito called up his cousin and sorted out a place for us in Trinidad. What a network! All works brilliantly without Facebook or the Internet.
Trinidad – Day 6, 7 and 8
Straight from Manolito´s place to Manolito´s cousins place. Josefina came to pick us up at the bus stop and we headed home, to be greeted by her younger daughter Yirca. Yirca was in a nice business suit and on enquiring, she said that she worked in one of the shops on the main street. It was really nice to see that they all took a lot of effort to get dressed up for work. You would notice that in most shops or firms (farmas, bakeries, tourist offices, etc.). Yirca gave me a small black thread necklace with a stone to welcome me and spoke to us about the things to do in Trinidad. Straight away, I was touched by how generous and giving they were. (Think about it… everyday, Cubans receive strangers in their home and welcome them and feed them and make them feel a part of the family. You can´t help but believe in the inherent goodness of human beings when you encounter something like this. No suspicion. No doubts. Absolutely open to share)
Josefina´s Casa was like a maze. The main entrance has a a grand living room with old antique rocking chairs and japanese fans on the walls and photographs of all the children and grand children. I loved the seat by the window, to sit and watch the people walk by. Observing the photos, one would notice that Cuba is still stuck in the photo studio days. I guess they don´t really have too many digital cameras. So, families go to the studio to take portraits and so on. I smiled looking at the pictures of Yirca in a Japanese Kimono kind of dress and the kids with props in the background. This is not too different from an Indian home, which has pictures of people with doctor coats of graduation hats. Even better, pictures with Skis in Auli or with a rose in the hand in front of the Taj Mahal.
Over the 3 days, we chatted with Josefina and her daughters, watched as her grandson played with tops in the backyard and the granddaughter happily spent hours in a swing made out of old rope, tied to the ongoing construction. The lady who came in early evening to cook spent 2 hours dying her hair a bright red and talking non stop with the grandmother on the rocking chair. Hard to describe, but this is a scene that will always take me back to a Cuban backyard.
The perfect setting in a Casa Particulare – with the rocking chairs and the old tiled floor
Varadero town – Day 9 & 10
We had absolutely not planned to go to Varadero, the Cancun of Cuba. This is the town with so called Áll Inclusive´hotels and golf courses so on, where rich European tourists and Canadians come in truckloads on special holiday deals and get a false taste of Cuba. They never leave the resorts and claim to have visited Cuba. Roy and I had absolutely no interest in such a place. We had originally decided to head to Santa Clara (Che´s Town) and then head to Havana for a couple more days, or if time permitted, head to one of the smaller islands where Ernest Hemingway spent time fishing. Well, as luck may have it, we met Ernesto and Raquel (from Argentina and Spain) and they were renting a car to head to Santa Clara and then Varadero. Don´t know what it was, but we just hopped on. Will have to write a separate post all together about E & R…. with the amount of fun we had, I could even write a book.
Anyway, they were curious about Varadero as it was just the kind of place us backpackers would never visit. All the guidebooks said that Varadero has only expensive hotels and no Casa Particulares. However, E & R had found out about a Casa (Carlos´s Casa) through their Casa in Trinidad and requested him for 2 rooms for us. We just went along, with them doing all the Spanish negotiations. Worked for us.
On reaching Carlos´s Casa, we found out that he had already given the room to some other person and he directed us to the Casa of Esperanza. Under normal circumstances, what would have costed us 30 cost us 35, as Carlos or the guy in Trinidad who gave the contact took a 5 CUC commission. After these 10 days of traveling, Roy and I hadn´t figured out this whole commission business. In 1 day with Ernesto and Raquel, thanks to the Spanish language skills, we learnt about this Casa commissions. Carlos kept an envelope with money for the guy in Trinidad and sent it though the cab driver. Similarly, all other Casas in Cuba did the same. Phew! Through mutual recommendation, they made money. Everyone had envelopes for everyone.
He was even pretty open in telling Ernesto Íf you recommend someone, you can take the 5 CUC´. Woooo…… If any of you guys stay with these casas, I´m collecting for sure 🙂
The Casa of Esperanza was more like a mini resort with air-con rooms and we didnt really feel like we lived with a family. Esperanza came down to chat every once in a while and in dramatic Spanish, told us about how Havana is unsafe and we should stick around in Varadero. She wore thick gold chains and even dramatically demonstrated how we could potentially get strangled with a necklace in Havana. All in all, she was entertaining. (Actually, she could easily star in a Mexican film as a drug lords old wife)
Just before she left, she handed over her visiting card as well and asked us to send people over. This is one thing you´ll collect from all the Casas. Keep them as memorabilia.
Havana Again (Vedado) – Day 11, 12, 13
Back in Havana for the last couple of nights, we decided to head to Vedado for a change of scene. After an entire afternoon searching for Casas, we landed up in this huge multistorey building in the Casa of Natalia´s. An old woman with very strong features, we learnt that she was a guerilla fighter in the revolution and one who firmly believed in the revolution still. I wished and wished that I could speak better Spanish to have sat for hours and listened to her stories, but I have to only thank E & R for the translations and the stuff I could still learn. Will try and capture some of the stuff when I write about Havana.
The final days in Havana with a view of the Malecon, just reminded me of Marine drive in Mumbai. The tall buildings.. the sea. I was at home. Not that I needed Cuba to be like Mumbai to feel at home.
Moving from Casa to Casa, the one thing I learnt was that each one´s experience of Cuba will be completely different from the other depending on which Casa you head to. The family you stay with and their stories will be your Cuba. And, you´ll come back with your own script for a Cuban film.