Stuff to know for Cuba

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Where I stayed
Hotel Nacional - Cuba

Flag of Canada  , British Columbia,
Saturday, April 7, 2007

This is supplemental information to my detailed travel tips in my second journal entry, Parental Leaving. All prices are in convertible pesos -- roughly the US dollar.
Cuba's casa particular system is perfect for travelling with small kids. Any newer guidebook will list some of these readily available homes. A legal casa (there are, of course, many illegal ones) should have a sticker on the door with a symbol that resembles a blue eye. You will be asked for your tourist card and passport, and then to sign the paperwork once the owner fills it in -- don't be alarmed if it takes an hour to get back your documents.

The casa system was legalized in the late 90s, another case of the Cuban government trying to make money by legitimizing a successful underground economy. Homes apply to the government and if approved pay a certain amount per room on a monthly basis. Some places bring on an additional room during the busy months, so for larger families you may be able to get two rooms in the same home. Expect to pay more for casas in Havana and Trinidad ($30-50) where the government charges a much higher monthly rate to the home. Other locations will range from $15-25.

Most casas do not have email -- homes in Cuba aren't supposed to have Internet access -- but this is changing rapidly. Almost all the casas we stayed at had or were just getting email. You can count on a very small level of English spoken at many casas. This can make telephone bookings tricky, so I suggest you only worry about your first place to stay before arriving in the country. After that, your current casa owner should be happy to make calls on your behalf.

Each casa has its own network of homes in other parts of Cuba. Once you're happy with one place, you can have some level of confidence that places they recommend will be suitable. If one isn't great (or is exceptional) be sure to let the original casa know.

All casas will provide you with business cards. It's a great method of exchanging info with other travelling families. I developed a method for sorting these cards I was very happy with. Take your first card and place it face down on the back inside cover of your guidebook so that it is as near the spine as possible and flush with the top of the book (as if you were using it as a bookmark, but not sticking out the top) Tape over the edge of the card closest to the outside edge of the cover, so that you can flip the card back along this edge to view its contents. You can repeat this method to have up to a dozen cards readily accessible.

Most casas will server you at least breakfast if requested. The portions tend to be large. (Some places may be counting on eating your leftovers!) If you only want one portion or two portions, be sure to clarify you will be charged by the portion and not per person.

Typically a casa will also provide these services:
- breakfast ($3-6 per adult serving)
- dinner ($8-10 per adult serving)
- telephoning and arranging other accommodation and outings (no charge)
- washing (no charge; we tried to provided laundry detergent)
- bag storage (no charge)
- advice, good-will, cultural exchange, good memories (no charge)

We left small tips or gifts for any casas that exceeded the basic level of service. Here are the casas we stayed at that we'd recommend to families. All have AC and priavte bath with hot water showers unless noted:

Senora Eumelia
157 Consulado between Colon and Trocadero
Central Havana
Tel: 53-7-867-6738

Steep stairs take you to this small but functional room with a double and single bed and ensuite. The real draw here is the expansive private patio area. Excellent food, and located a block off the Prado in central Havana. Bar fridge.

Casa Particular Smith
3 Smith, between Antonio Maceo and Jesus Menendez
Tel: 53-419-4060
The best casa we stayed in Cuba. There are 2 rooms in a separate building at the back of the treed courtyard. Queen bed, single bed and crib in one, I think a queen and single in the other. Great food and hosts. Odalis, her sons and her father Jorge will spoil you. Jorge will likely meet you at the bus, as this is a tiny street.

Hostal Villa Colonial
43 Antonio Maceo, between Ave. General Carrillo and Fe del Valle
Tel: 53-42-396274
The most beautiful place, with a private dining room, living room and separate entrance. Shared inner courtyard. Queen bed and bunk beds. Frank, Arelys and their family are wonderful. Fridge.

Manuel and Arecely
No. 4 Calle 21, apartment 22, between N and O
Vedado, Havana
Tel: 53-7-832-6713
Large room and immense bathroom. Double bed and couch. Shared space with family includes a balcony looking across the street at the Hotel Nacional. They rent a second room in high season. AC being replaced. Bar fridge.

Villa Buena Vista
47 Adela Azcuy Norte
Tel: 01-52239103 (the number looks weird. Try dropping the 0 and adding 53-8
Elia and Pedro have two rooms with a shared bathroom between them. Ours had 2 double beds. The other had a double and a single. Despite the lack of AC, they kept very cool through some hot days.

Casa Teresita
No 4 Calle 21, Apartment 54
Vedado, Havana
Tel: 53-7-832-0777
In the same beautiful art deco building as Manuel, across from the Hotel Nacional. A larger unit. Double bed and portable. Private eating area. Fridge.

Any guidebook should have detailed information on Cuba's transport systems. Viazul buses charge half-fare for kids if they take a seat (which I suggest you pay). Families may find it as cheap to negotiate a taxi to a destination (be sure it has AC). Do the math, including the cost of taxis to get you to the bus depot at either end, and see what you can find. The bathrooms on buses tend to be foul, so a cab stopping at the side of the road for mother nature can seem a much better option. We were warned off the trains, which are rumoured to have really disgusting bathrooms. I'd still like to try the tren especial down the spine of the island. Taxis, especially in Havana, tend to be cheaper on the meter than at the price offered. "Meter, por favor" should be recognized by any driver. Gesturing will help.

Additional things to bring to Cuba:
In addition to my list in my second entry, below are some cuba-specific items to consider. We had backpacks with zip-in daypacks for our regular travels, and used our carry-ons for restocking. Most casas were happy to let us leave these while we went off with a lighter load for days (even weeks).
- An umbrella stroller for young kids (1-4 years). It can handle most crumbling sidewalks, and you just go along the edge of the street mostly anyway.
- Snack food. a) Nutritious fruit leathers pack small. We had more than enough for 1 a day. b) Gummi bears. We found few soft candies in Cuba, so the bears are a treat. We kept a bulk pack in reserve, a small ziplock for day use. c) Goldfish crackers. They stay crisp and don't disintegrate much under pressure.
- Diapers. We never had to use Cuban diapers but rumour has it they're very sweaty plastic. The challenge was transport. We had a carry-on filled with diapers and wipes, and took out supplies for minitrips as necessary.
- Diaper wipes
- rechargeable flashlight. The power will go out. Be prepared.
- Peanut butter
- dental floss
- alarm clock
- ziplock bags. We had all our medication and stuff sorted into various sizes, then had additional ones for unlooked for needs.
- a few plastic shopping bags. You'll replace when you shop, but don't count on casas having any.
- universal sink plug
No need to bring:
tetra packs of juice and milk
- cookies, suckers and banana chips
- ice cream :)
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