Broadly speaking, accommodation in Cuba falls into two types: hotels and casas particulares – literally “private houses”. The hotels themselves divide into two relatively distinct groups: those run by wholly Cuban-owned chains, which are therefore state-run and owned; and those run by international chains.
Cuban hotel chains
The five principal Cuban-owned chains run most of the hotels in the country’s cities and towns, and a fair few at beach resorts, particularly in Varadero. With any state hotel, knowing which hotel chain it belongs to will give you a fairly decent idea of what to expect, though in general the star ratings that the Cuban state assigns to its own hotels are very generous and fall below accepted international standards. Islazul operates most of the budget hotels, which are generally poorly maintained, sometimes with broken fixtures and fittings, leaky and noisy air-conditioning units and mediocre food. They compare very unfavourably with casas particulares, and usually cost at least twice as much. Cubanacán runs the mid-priced options, but some of their hotels (particularly its excellent Encanto-branded establishments) are better than the more expensive chains; Cubanacán is also responsible for most of the new or recently renovated hotels in the provinces, making them fairly dependable. The Gran Caribe and Gaviota portfolios consist mainly of large, supposedly more upmarket hotels, most of which are past their best but still offer a stay in a prestigious building or a prime location. Habaguanex hotels, which only exist in Havana, are the most reliably attractive and well-appointed state-run places, almost all of them in beautifully restored colonial buildings in the old town.
All these chains often offer very good deals via their websites and it’s almost always worth booking online in advance.
Run mostly by Habaguanex and Cubanacán, state-owned hostales are in fact boutique hotels, and often represent the best options in Cuba’s provincial cities, though there are quite a few in Havana as well. Small, stylish and competitively priced when compared with standard state hotels, they are often housed in beautiful old buildings, and though rarely luxurious, they usually offer all the facilities you’d expect in a good-quality hotel, including decent restaurants and concierge services.
The cheapest accommodation in Cuba is a national-peso state hotel, most commonly found in less cosmopolitan towns away from the tourist centres. Although their nightly rates are sometimes the equivalent of a couple of convertible pesos, you get your money’s worth. These are often extremely dilapidated properties, with bare-bones facilities: expect very poor bathrooms and ripped sheets on the beds. National-peso hotels are intended to be exclusively for Cubans, and the state does not promote them for visitor use. If you go to one you may well be told that all rooms are full, whether they actually are or not.
International hotel chains
Hotels operated by international chains are mostly found in Cuba’s major beach resorts but there a few in Havana and other very touristy places. Though non-Cuban does not always mean better, the more upmarket foreign-run hotels do offer a superior level of service, and if you’re used to reliable room service and staff that go the extra mile to make your stay pleasant, aim for a foreign chain.
For many visitors, staying in Cuba’s casas particulares is an ideal way to gain an insight into the country and its people. Many offer conditions far superior to the cheaper hotels and usually represent better value for money, while a few are downright upmarket. Their nearest equivalents are bed and breakfasts, but there is usually a stronger sense that you are staying in someone’s home and there are rarely more than three rooms for rent. That said, a small number are more like boutique hotels, with as many as eight guest rooms, a clutch of staff and some truly impressive furnishings.
Casas particulares are found throughout Cuba – and they’ll often as not find you, with touts (called jineteros or intermediarios) waiting in many towns to meet potential customers off the bus. You can identity a casa by the blue insignia (shaped like a capital I or sideways H) usually displayed near the front door; the same insignia in orange indicates the owners charge in national pesos and rent out rooms to Cubans only.
Given that most casas particulares rent out just a couple of rooms, you should always book in advance. Almost all houses have phones (though a few rely solely on mobiles), and most have email addresses too, but only a tiny minority have their own website. Booking ahead, however, is not always a guarantee that you will secure a room in the house of your choice. Many house owners will not tell you when they’re full; instead, they will allow you to turn up, and then escort you to another casa particular from which they will usually collect a commission. There’s little you can do to circumvent this, but you can mention when you book that you would prefer not to be referred elsewhere. Two useful websites are cuba-junky.com, a comprehensive directory of houses and of other websites covering casas particulares in Cuba, and cubacasas.net, which has been operating for many years and is generally reliable and up to date. Airbnb has also started operating in Cuba and has a wealth of properties on the site, with many in Havana.
There is usually a high-season going rate in each city and town (generally $25–35CUC), which drops by $5CUC in low season. Few houses price their rooms outside of these established rates. You can also negotiate a lower rate for a longer stay. The law requires proprietors to register the names and passport numbers of all guests, and you are expected to enter your details into an official book as soon as you arrive. All payments are in cash.
Most casas particulares offer breakfast and an evening meal for an extra cost, which can be anything between $1CUC and $10CUC, with $3–6CUC for breakfast the average. Make sure that you are clear about the cost of meals and agree to the rate at the start of your stay. Drinks will also be added to your bill, including those that you drink with your evening meal. Remember you’ll also be charged for any bottled water you drink.
Often overlooked by visitors to Cuba, campismos, quasi-campsites, are an excellent countryside accommodation option. Although not prolific, all provinces have at least one, often set near a river or small stretch of beach. While a number of campismos have an area where you can pitch a tent, they are not campsites in the conventional sense, essentially offering basic accommodation in rudimentary concrete cabins. Some have barbecue areas, while others have a canteen restaurant. They are all very reasonably priced, usually around $5–10CUC a night per cabin, though expect to pay more like $20CUC in more tourist-oriented areas. Although foreigners are welcome, this is one accommodation choice where Cubans actually have priority, and campismos are sometimes block-booked in June and July for workers’ annual holidays. For more details contact Cubamar, who also handles the hire of camper vans.
The biggest drawback of staying in casas particulares is that you might have to run the gauntlet of the touts, also known as jineteros or intermediarios. Ostensibly, these are locals who work as brokers for a number of houses. In return they collect a commission (around $5CUC per night), which usually gets added to your nightly bill. In tourist hotspots, groups of local casa owners greet every Víazul bus arrival with pictureboards of their houses. Most are perfectly legitimate, but be aware of touts among them who, in the event that you say you have already booked a place, claim that it is full or has closed down – it’s always a scam.
- Touts will often demand their commission from any casa particular to which they have taken customers – even when they have done little more than given directions. There is no way to avoid the attention of these people outright when you arrive in a town, and it can be incredibly frustrating when you feel besieged by people hassling you at every turn. There are, though, several ways to avoid falling prey to touts and thus having your accommodation bill increased unnecessarily.
- If you are approached, state that you have already organized accommodation, but don’t disclose where. Often touts will arrive at your chosen house first and tell the owners that they have sent you themselves.
- Always book ahead and ask your hosts to meet you at the bus station with your name on a sign – many casa owners do this anyway.
- One of the best ways of finding a casa particular in another town is by referral. Most owners have a network of houses in other towns which they will recommend, and will often phone and make a reservation for you, or at the very least give you that house’s card, though they may well collect a commission themselves for passing you on.
- If you need to ask for directions, ask for the street by name rather than the house you want to get to. Another trick to watch for is that intermediarios will pretend to direct you to the house of your choice but will actually take you to a totally different one, where their commission is better.