Where to stay in Cuba

All hotels are state owned. The best are those with foreign investment or foreign management contracts, which are found in the resort areas. However, there are hotels to suit most budgets, even if at the lower end they are basic. Peso hotels are reserved for Cubans and are rarely available to foreigners, although Cubans are now permitted to stay in resort hotels as well if they have sufficient CUC$. It is legal to stay with a Cuban family and rent a room as long as the family is registered and pays taxes. These places are known as
casas particulares
. There are also
casas particulares
reserved for the Cuban market, identifiable by the different coloured logo above the door. Cubans on holiday stay in campsites (
campismo
), which are cabins, not tents, a few of which accept foreigners.

Hotels

The
Gran Caribe
chain owns the four- and five-star grand old hotels such as the
Nacional
and the
Riviera
in Havana.
Cubanacán
has upmarket, modern resort hotels, with an international standard of accommodation and facilities, as does
Gaviota
, owned by the military, which has most of the strategic beach areas. The Cubanacán group comprises all the Brisas, Club Amigo, Cubanacán, Horizontes and Hoteles E (Encanto) labels. Hoteles E are renovations of colonial mansions into boutique hotels in provincial towns and are some of the nicest places to stay at very reasonable prices.
Islazul
owns the two- and three-star, older hotels, often in the countryside.
Habaguanex
is in charge of the renovations of colonial mansions in La Habana Vieja and their conversion to hotels, restaurants, bars, etc.

Most three-star hotels were built in the 1940s and 1950s and are showing their age, but some have been refurbished and are now considered four star. In remote beach resorts the hotels are usually all-inclusive and classify themselves as four or five star. At the cheaper end of the market you can expect old bed linen, ill-fitting sheets, intermittent water and electricity, peeling paintwork, crumbling tiles and indifferent service.

Accommodation for your first day in a hotel should be booked in advance of travelling. You have to fill in an address (any hotel will do) on your
tourist card
and if you leave it blank you will be directed to the reservations desk at the airport, which is time consuming. A voucher from your travel agent to confirm arrangements is usual and hotels expect it as confirmation of your reservation. This can be done abroad through travel agencies, accredited government agencies, or through
Turismo Buró
desks in main hotels. It's a good idea to book hotel rooms generally before noon. In the peak seasons, December to February and August, it is essential to book in advance. Lack of sufficient rooms has sometimes forced tourists to sleep in their cars in Trinidad in December and in the plaza in Viñales in August.

At other times it is possible to book at the hotel reception. Prices given in the text are for a double room in high season (15 December-15 March); low-season prices are about 20% lower. Shop around for prices, travel agencies can get you a better deal than the hotel, which will usually offer you the rack rate.
Cubaism
offers real-time hotel availability and online reservations for a number of hotel groups, www.cubahotelbookings.com.

Casas particulares/private accommodation

Cuba is geared more to package tourism than to independent visitors, but self-employment has opened up opportunities that can prove rewarding for the visitor. Lodging with a family is possible at CUC$15-35 per room depending on the season, the length of stay and the location, with the highest rates charged in Havana and Trinidad. Cubans are allowed to rent out only two rooms sleeping two people plus one child in each, subject to health and hygiene regulations and incorporation into the tax system. Hustlers on the street will offer accommodation, but it is safer to arrange rooms through our recommendations or other contacts if you can. A guide or hustler (
jinetero
) taking you to a private home will expect CUC$5 commission per night, which goes on your room rate. Less obvious, but still an insidious form of touting is the networking of the
casa particular
owners. Most have an address book full of owners in other towns. If you ask whether they know someone in the next town you are going to, they will happily ring up a 'friend' and book a room for you. This may be a useful service, but you will be charged CUC$5 extra a night for the favour, a sum which will be sent to the first owner as his commission. Some owners take this so seriously that they travel around the country in low season, inspecting the properties they recommend and getting to know the families.

Private homes vary considerably and can be extremely comfortable or very basic. Houses in the town centre can be very noisy if your room is on the street and traffic starts at 0530. Colonial houses have no soundproofing and even a door shutting can be heard all over the house at 0600. Because of shortages things often don't work, there may be water and power cuts. Take a torch, there may not be good street lighting in the area, let alone power in your house. The sheets don't always fit the bed, the pillows can be often old and lumpy,
bathrooms are often shared between the two rooms but they should be exclusive to tourists' use. Towels are usually very small so take your own to complement theirs. Soap will probably
be provided, but don't rely on it. However, over the last few years casa owners have invested large amounts of money, time and effort into improving their visitors' accommodation. Nearly all the houses we list are in a good state of repair, newly painted and offer a private bathroom with new fixtures and fittings (although the water may still be tepid and the pressure poor), air conditioning and either a ceiling or free-standing fan and often a fridge.

All
casas
now have to pay a 'gastronomic' tax whether they want to provide food or not, so they usually do. Food is nearly always better at a
casa particular
than in a state restaurant or private
paladar
. The family eats at a different time and the food is prepared in stages, but it will still be fresher and made from better ingredients than in a restaurant. Remember that what Cubans can buy with ration coupons is not enough to feed a visitor and any extra food has to be bought in CUC$. Theft is not a problem, as the licence would be revoked if there was a serious complaint against the owner but you should always be careful with your belongings.

It is best to check that the
casa particular
you stay in is legally registered and pays taxes. All
casas particulares
should have a sticker on their front door of two blue chevrons on a white background with
Arrendador Inscripto
written across, if they are legal. Those with red triangles rent in pesos to Cubans and it is illegal for them to rent to foreigners. If you stay at an illegal residence and it is discovered, the Cuban family will have to pay a huge fine. Illegal homestays are usually reported to the police by neighbours. All clients must sign and complete address and passport details in a Registration Book within 24 hours of arrival. This book must be made available to municipal inspectors.

If you have made a phone booking in advance and are arriving by Víazul, your host will probably come to the bus station with a taxi to collect you. This is not just for your benefit. A common scam is to steal guests, sometimes from the bus terminal and sometimes from outside the front door. If you are told by someone in the
street that the owners no longer rent, or are full, or have asked this person to take you to another casa, do not go with them until you have rung the bell and checked the story with someone inside the house.
Jineteros
are very skilled at diverting you from your intended path. Some even change the numbers above the door to take you to another house where they will receive a commission.

Camping

There are 84 Campismo Popular sites all over the island, although only 79 were in operation in 2009; they are usually in nice surroundings and are good value. They consist of basic cabins rather than tents and are designed for Cubans on holiday rather than foreigners. Many of them have been renovated and upgraded with games and sports equipment as well as improved food services. Camping out on the beach or in a field is forbidden.
Cubamar Viajes
, www.cubamarviajes.cu, will arrange bookings and transport to villa or cabin-style accommodation in most provinces. They have several campsites for tourists using camper vans, with water, power and waste disposal. Every year over two million Cubans and 15,000 foreigners stay in Campismo resorts.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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