(inexpensive bed-and-breakfasts 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; 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.
Theft by cleaning staff is a ubiquitous problem; keep your belongings, including suitcases, secure. A common trick is for housekeeping to unpack your suitcase and lay out all your belongings in every drawer in the room; when you go to repack, you find one or two items missing. 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, although Cubans and foreigners are in theory banned from rooming together in all hotels unless married. 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 often take place in illegal casas. Do not chose 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 marked Arrendador Divisa on the door. But since the sign is not mandatory and involves an extra fee, some owners chose not to display it. You will still 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 your 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.
Private accommodation at a legal casa particular in Havana will cost about US$30-$35 for a prime location in Vedado and Miramar and a few dollars less in Habana Vieja and Centro. (If a tout 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 1,000 Cuban legal casas particulares (about 430 in Havana) listed on the Web site http://www.cubaguide.de, but there are 3,000 casas in Havana alone and nearly 400 in Trinidad. It is illegal to rent out private rooms in resort areas like Varadero or Guardalavaca, although some illegal casas still exist there. Moon Cuba (http://www.moon.com/books/moon-handbooks/moon-cuba-fifth-edition) has the most comprehensive listings of casas particulares around the island.
Owners pay CUC$145 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.