Archive | February, 2011

Homestays in Cuba: what you need to know

17 Feb

Across Latin America homestays are popular amongst tourists and travelers who seek to improve their Spanish language skills and get an insight into how ordinary people live in the cities and towns they visit. For visitors to Cuba the good news is that homestays in casa particulares (private houses) are not only possible but are perhaps the most common form of tourist accommodation across the country.

During our three-week visit to Cuba in January 2011, our party of four stayed exclusively in casa particulares. Our choice of accommodation certainly made our visit to Cuba special and I can’t think of recommending an alternative for your visit to Cuba. In this post I have attempted to provide essential basics about casa particulares for friends planning a visit to Cuba. In my next post I will reflect upon some of the more interesting insights into the way Cubans live and perceive their country that I gained by living with Cubans for 19 days; of more interest to those who want to understand more about what life is really like in this communist country.

Some casa particulares are very professionally managed and feel more like Bed and Breakfasts than family homes. If this is what you are after, stick to casa particulares listed in Lonely Planet or those with shiny websites marketing them to the world. In other casas you will definitely feel like you are staying in a family home. Either way the standard of accommodation in casa particulares is generally high and we were consistently impressed by the quality of the rooms we rented.

These were always private bedrooms that we could lock shut, an often with an ensuite bathroom and a TV and a bar-fridge too. Casa particulares are required to have hot water to obtain a license to operate, so we enjoyed warm showers. Lots of casas have balconies, gardens or roof-top terraces where you can relax with a book and a coffee.

It is a good idea to arrange your first one or two nights accommodation in a casa particular before you arrive in Cuba; expect to get a hard time from customs officials if you arrive in Havana without a reservation.

It is easy to organise accomodation in a casa particular from outside of Cuba. Lonely Planet’s Cuba guidebook lists reliable casas in most cites and towns that you will visit. A quick google search proves that there are plenty of casas listed on-line. Websites such as Booking Havana provide details of many options.

You definitely don’t need to reserve all of your accommodation before you arrive in Cuba. An informal network of casas operates across the country. Have no doubt that your casa in Havana will be able to recommend and book your accommodation in the next destination you visit. If you are ever double-booked (it happens), your casa owner will surely have a neighbour with room available for you. The official Government travel agency whose help desks you can find in big hotels will also be able to book rooms in casas on your behalf.

It is also possible to find a casa simply by walking through town and looking for the little blue and white sign that designates casa particulares. You won’t get very far walking through a Cuban city or town with all of your luggage before a jintero or jintera (a Cuban tout) approaches you with suggestions for a place to stay. If you follow them they will get a commission from a casa for their work, and the price you pay may be increased as a result.

Houses displaying these little signs have a license to rent rooms to tourists...

The standard price for casas across the country is currently $25 CUC (about $25 USD) per night. This is the price per room, which can sleep between two and three people. This means accomodation in Cuba will be expensive if you are traveling as a lone backpacker, but teaming up with one or two other people will save you a lot of money.

Prices of rooms vary according to quality, location and facilities, and like most things in Cuba are subject to negotiation. If you will be spending more than night in a casa, or want to reserve more than one room in the same house, and if you speak Spanish, you could ask for a discount on the stated price of the room.

Another benefit of staying in a casa particular is that they can usually provide meals for guests. Breakfasts usually cost between $3 and $5 CUC and dinners between $6 and $10 CUC.

Often casa owners can also organise laundry, private taxi services, advice on obtaining cheap cigars or whatever else you may need or desire. Cubans are friendly people and generally willing to help you out, all you need to do is ask.

There are no kangaroos in Austria…

7 Feb

Almost every day in my travels around the world I am asked by friendly and inquisitive people ‘Where do you come from?’

When I respond with ‘Australia’ they invariably smile (because everyone likes Australian and Australians) and say ‘Kangaroos’ to let me know they get it. I’ve learned to not be surprised when people living in small mud-brick huts in isolated villages in the middle of nowhere know what Australia is and where you can find it on a world map. We are a big Country with a big reputation; that big island continent down under overrun with marsupials.

‘That’s right!’ I say, smiling and nodding in approval. ‘Comemos!’ (‘We eat them’).

‘No!’ They are stunned and amused that we would dine on a symbol of our nation.

‘Yes! Kangaroo meat tastes a bit like beef and I like to put it in spaghetti’. It’s a fun conversation. Both because it’s amusing that a gringo can speak Spanish and because who would of thought of eating kangaroos!

People are even more interested (or disturbed) when I continue to tell them that there are so many wild kangaroos in my adopted home town of Canberra that the Australian Government has had to round hundreds of the buggers up and shoot them dead, and that we also run them down with our cars, not on purpose of course, but it happens when the kangaroos wake up at dusk all tired and disoriented and hop right on to the busy motorway smack bang into the windscreen.

I was surprised when those Cubans who did know about Australia didn’t mention kangaroos but instead the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. You weren’t expecting that were you? I certainly wasn’t. Well it turns out that Cuba won a whopping 11 gold, 11 silver and 7 bronze medals in the games coming in a strong 9th place (beating Great Britain who ranked 10th) in the final medal tally. Amongst Cuba’s gold medalists were the heavy-weight boxing champion and national hero Félix Savón. For many a Games to remember.

But for every single Cathy Freeman fan in Cuba, there must be at least another 100 people who have no idea what or where Australia is, or at least confuse it with Austria, which is that German-speaking country next door to Germany that gave the world Hitler and Josef Fritzl.

I realised that Cubans were confusing Austria with Australia when they commented, with perceptible sympathy, ‘it must be really cold in your country right now’.

I didn’t want to be rude and correct people, but then again I didn’t want to be mistaken for an Austrian, or allow people’s ignorance to the existence of my country continue unnecessarily.

So I would tell them ‘No, it’s actually really warm in Australia, just like in Cuba. In fact the weather is so warm that we grow sugar cane too’.

Confused looks stared back at me. How can one cultivate sugar in the Alps?

I think people understood me a little better when I explained that Australia is south, near China, and that like Cuba was a colony of Spain, Australia was a colony of England, and in fact it still kind of is. The ugly head of the Queen of England still appears on all of our currency because we don’t have revolutionaries like Che Guevara to replace her.

I’ve been told by my fellow travelers that outside of Cuba, Austrians are frequently confused for Australians much more than vice versa. Fed-up with being forever in the shadow of our Commonwealth, many Austrian travelers have taken to wearing t-shirts that read ‘There are no kangaroos in Austria’ in an attempt to clear matters up. Very clever.