(inexpensive bed-and-breakfasts or apartments in private residences) to budget campgrounds with simple cabins. Prices in hotels (all of which are state-owned) are usually high for what you get: Many luxury hotels are expensive in light of their amenities and, with the exception of
, bargain hunters in Havana and other major tourist areas won't find much choice. Budget hotels operated by the Islazul chain are often the exception.
In Havana, more and more colonial mansions are being turned into small and charming boutique-hotels, mostly concentrated in Old Habana; some are rather plush. The trend is picking up speed in other colonial cities. And Varadero is in a building frenzy, where the emphasis is on upmarket, large-scale, all-inclusive resorts. The same can be said for Guardalavaca and for Cayo Largo and Cayo Coco—small coral islands where travelers on package trips enjoy all the amenities of a Caribbean holiday without being bothered by Cuba's realities (which some visitors would rather steer clear of) or ever meeting Cubans other than hotel workers.
Though new hotels are appearing all the time, many of the tourist properties were built before the 1960s. Most have been upgraded. Still, there's a bit of a time-warp feel to some of them, which can be part of the magic. Most are merely adequate (clean, with usually so-so service and often finicky plumbing); outside main tourist centers, however, hotels are frequently of stark modern design with inferior furnishings. That said, Havana has several modern hotels with upscale, even deluxe, furnishings and facilities.
Theft by cleaning staff is less of a problem than in years past; still, keep your belongings, including suitcases, secure. Management is usually entirely unresponsive, and we have yet to hear of a disgruntled client receiving a refund. One of your best ways to avoid this is to establish a friendly contact with housekeeping staffers, tip them generously at the beginning of your stay and take along some extra used clothes that you promise them as a gift at the end of your stay. They will then watch and defend your belongings against anybody else.
Cubans are no longer barred from staying at a hotel if they can pay in CUC, and Cubans and foreigners can now room together in hotels. Sexual relations between Cubans and foreigners usually take place in casas particulares, within limits—no multiple partners permitted during a stay, for example.
More furtive encounters, usually by the hour, often take place in illegal casas. Do not choose them as your main stay as thefts occur frequently, and if you are caught in the bed of an unlicensed casa, police inspectors knocking at your door may send you to an expensive hotel at 3 am to make you regret your deed.
Legal casas particulares are recognizable by a blue insignia resembling an inverted anchor and often marked Arrendador Divisa on the door. Avoid illegal casas particulares that do not display the sign. You will know whether a house is legal or not, as owners must register all guests and ask for your passport. If they don't produce the register book (with yellow pages) to sign you in, chances are that the casa has no license. Penalties are high for infractions. For first offenses the landlord may be fined CUC1,500 and subsequently face the confiscation of his house or apartment. Illegal casas only survive by bribing neighbors in the know, the resident spy of the Communist Party and other local authorities. Running an unlicensed casa is not a secret you could keep in Cuba. Owners of legal rentals pay high fees, so support them rather than undermining their business and putting yourself at risk in an effort to save a few dollars at an illegal unit.
Private accommodation at a legal casa particular in Havana will cost about US$30-$50 for a prime location in Vedado and Miramar and a few dollars less in Habana Vieja and Centro. (If a tour leads you there, add a daily commission of US$5—if you knew the address already, be sure to explain that to the landlord to avoid the extra cost.) Outside Havana, a casa particular will cost US$15-$30, depending on the amenities it offers (which range from very basic to colonial-mansion-style in Trinidad). Prices are always per room, which usually have at least one double bed and often another single (or double) bed, but not always a private bathroom.
If you have a specific casa particular or hotel in mind, do not believe anyone, such as a taxi driver, who tells you that it is full or closed. They are usually intent on taking you to a place where they can earn a commission.
Reservations are not always honored, but in all cases the owner of a casa will have a friend nearby who also rents out legal rooms. Most casa owners run their own little network of casas all over Cuba, and accepting their recommendations is almost always a good idea. There are more than 3,000 casas in Havana alone and nearly 400 in Trinidad.
Owners pay CUC$50 per room per month, depending on location, plus an extra fee that allows them to serve meals (the fee applies even when they don't). These taxes must be paid whether the rooms are rented or not. At the end of the year, another income tax of up to 50% is levied. Rooms receive regular government inspections, and regulations are strictly enforced. Do not expect your baggage to be exempt from inspection, even when you are not present.