Suri, a slim 40-something professional dancer, led us up the outdoor spiral staircase to our suite, waiting shyly for our reaction. She needn’t have worried. As we walked past the large, covered outdoor patio overlooking the quiet, tree-lined street and chatting passersby, we were more than thrilled.
“Here’s where I’ll serve you your breakfast tomorrow,” she said, pointing to the large wooden picnic table. We then entered the suite’s charming parlor room, with plump couches and polished dining table, as well as a well-furnished kitchen. “Feel free to use this - it’s for you,” Suri said with a smile. The best was for last - the sunny bedroom, where. swans made of towels sat regally on the big bed, a modern, ample bathroom was bedecked with fluffy towels and, we found later, a strong and hot shower.
A few moments later, we were treated to a tray of Cuban rum and Cokes. Aahhhh… could it be any better?. The cost for our Airbnb in the beautiful city of Cienfuegos, Cuba? $US25 per night! In the slower summertime months, the rates drop to about $10! Those, astonishingly, are the going rates in Cuba.
There are some 20,000 or so Airbnb “casas particulares” in Cuba. “Casa Particular” literally means private home, with rooms for rent. In April of 2015, The United States Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) granted Airbnb a general license to offer accommodation services for persons traveling to Cuba. In fact, Cuba is one of Airbnb’s fastest growing markets: That first year, it grew from 1,000 listings at launch to more than 4,000 listings, faster than in any other market, ever. Airbnb listings are spread across nearly 40 different cities and towns in Cuba.
Suri’s place, Casa Monica, was one of our favorite “casas” on our recent twelve-day Cuban adventure, as well as on our prior visit in 2015. We planned both trips on our own, using the Lonely Planet Guidebook, traveling from one location to another with air-conditioned Viazul buses and taxis. However, there are several excellent tour companies which are experts in Cuba travel for those who prefer to leave the planning to a professional, such as ROW Adventures (www.rowadventures.com/news/cuba-unbound) and Insight Cuba www.(InsightCuba.com.)
We have stayed in nine Airbnb’s in six locations (Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Varadero, Playa Giron and Vinales) in Cuba. We booked with our credit cards from the U.S.. In each case, the owners were waiting for us with our rooms ready. Note that there are plenty of “casas” which are not participants in the Airbnb system, but when booked from the U.S., they cannot accept U.S. credit cards, and can only accept Cuban currency.
We were confused and worried about the visa process and legalese, but found that tourists book the rooms in exactly the same way they do anywhere else. Indeed, we flew from Denver to Havana on Southwest Airlines, which not only includes the mandatory tourist medical insurance in the ticket price (ours was a remarkable $298 ROUNDTRIP!) but also conveniently sells the $75 Cuban visa on its website and has it awaiting you at the check-in desk in Fort Lauderdale, or it can be ordered by mail (even easier!) We were instructed by Southwest to put “Support for the Cuban People” as the reason for travel (“that’s what everyone puts down,” the man at the Southwest counter said. We did so and were never asked about it again, on either trip. No one at the U.S. entry point in Fort Lauderdale asked us for receipts, proof of where we had been or anything other than whether we had tobacco or liquor purchases - same as the procedure is when returning from anywhere else.
The best part of Cuba for us was the people - warm, open, welcoming and highly educated. Always eager to talk about politics and their history, we were mesmerized by the articulate, detailed narratives and how easily and honestly they spoke of their politicians and situation.
Most of all, go with the flow, which is excellent advice whenever traveling. If you do happen to choose unwisely, you can laugh about it later, as we do.