Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why a visit to Cuba isn't complete without a stay in a 'casa particular'

Why a visit to Cuba isn't complete without a stay in a 'casa particular'

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

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
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. 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

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. 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."

Source: Visiting Cuba isn't complete without a stay in a 'casa
particular' -

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