Amy M. Gardner recently did an interview about casas particulares with Shoulders of Giants. The transcript is below.
* How did you get started leading Cuba trips? How long have you been traveling there?
In the summer of 2013, my husband Keith Sbiral and I went to Cuba on a trip organized by Ralph Velasco under a people-to-people license. We returned with him the next summer. We loved traveling in Cuba and the chance to see beyond the headlines. In the spring of 2015, Keith and I were asked to lead a group of 12 law students on a trip to Havana. The reviews were great, others heard about the trip and asked us to organize trips they could go on legally to Cuba, and Complete Cuba (CompleteCuba.com) was the result. We now organize and lead small group tours, as well as plan private trips for 2-8 clients who travel with just a Cuban guide/driver.
* Can you talk a bit about the background of casas particulares and how they fit into Cuban culture and/or the economy?
Casas particulares are essentially Cuban bed and breakfasts. They're generally a room in someone's home with a bathroom (usually private but sometimes shared) and with breakfast provided. Sometimes the host will offer dinner at an additional charge, but generally you don't have kitchen access. Usually the casa has more than one room for rent — we’ve stayed at one with about 10 rooms for rent, while others have had just two — so you usually meet other travelers at breakfast. Casas particulares are a way for Cubans who have passed the necessary state inspection to make additional income at the same time they allow visitors to meet Cubans and see a slice of Cuban life.
* Since it sounds like you use both, how do you decide when to use casas particulares versus hotels on a particular trip? What do you hope your guests get out of the experience when staying in a casa versus a hotel?
One thing travelers to Cuba should remember is that the tourist infrastructure isn’t the same as in the US or in Europe. Whether you’re staying at a very nice hotel or a casa particular, you may not have hot water every morning of your trip, and the mattress support may leave something to be desired. That said, the decision of whether to stay in a hotel or casa usually comes down to the experience the travelers want to have, and their price range. Just like any other lodging, it’s important to think about what’s most critical to you. If you are thinking of your Cuba trip as a vacation and need a hairdryer, want an in-house restaurant and an elevator, for example, most casa particulares probably aren’t the right fit. If you’d like the opportunity to meet a Cuban family in their home, want clean lodging but don’t necessarily mind having a Mickey Mouse shower curtain, and especially if you speak a little Spanish, a casa particular can help you leave Cuba feeling as though you’ve had the opportunity to get to know a local. We’ve had the experience several times of leaving a casa particular after a round of hugs from the host family (and one time even from the neighbor), and that’s not usually what happens when you check out of a hotel!
For our group trips, as the cost of hotels — particularly in Havana — has jumped dramatically, we’ve moved to staying in cases in Havana, as well as in Trinidad. On our most recent trip, for example, we started in Santiago in far southeastern Cuba and ended in Havana in the west. We started the trip in hotels and then, as our travelers got more accustomed to Cuba and we moved into more heavily traveled areas, we stayed in casas.
* How do you select which casas you'll use for hosted trips?
We are very careful about the casas we use for our travelers. Some Cuba travelers — even travel bloggers — who’ve planned their own trips have had the experience of booking a casa particular and arriving in Cuba to find they have no place to stay. We would never risk that with our travelers, so we have them stay in carefully researched casas, often ones that we have been staying at for years. (For example, with casas we have not personally stayed at, we’ve had Cuban friends check them out in person to make sure they’re as advertised, and we’re always on the hunt for new casas as we are traveling.)