I have a confession to make: I’m a Type A personality. I plan every vacation, which includes booking accommodation before we even leave home. Except Cuba. I’d been told we could just show up in a town and find a casa particular. So before we left I did my best to throw caution to the wind and silence my inner planner. We’d be fine! It’d be an adventure! Then I caved and booked our first night’s accommodations in Matanzas (thank goodness, because they were turning people away at the door when we arrived), but for our second night in Guanabo, the casas that had email addresses were either full or didn’t reply.
We’d have to wing it.
After cycling a grueling 78km into an intense headwind, we just wanted to drop, but had nowhere to do so. A couple casas were marked in my guidebook, so we set about finding those. Casa particulars are just Cuban homes, so if you don’t know the sign that signifies it’s a casa, you really can’t tell the difference between a private home and a home that rents rooms. My guidebook told me to look for a green triangle, like this:
We saw no such triangles. But we found a casa from the address in my guidebook. Like most places in Guanabo, there was a metal fence around it and no obvious doorbell, so finally Pier just shouted, “Hello?” A little old lady came out. We asked if she had a room. She didn’t speak English, but saw our guidebook, and just shook her head no. We asked if she could point us to another casa, but she just shook her head and went back inside.
This was not the “helpful Cuban casa owner” I’d been told to expect. Though, I’m sure her reaction was partially our fault because we don’t speak Spanish. I cannot stress enough that if you plan to leave the resort, LEARN SPANISH!
A guy nearby, who did speak a bit of English, hurried up to us with a card for his casa. Except it was 2km back the way we’d came. Not that far by bike, but we were just so exhausted that the idea of going backwards was unfathomable. We decided to stay in downtown Guanabo.
Pier noticed this symbol on the casa owned by the unfriendly old lady. It was also on other houses nearby. He asked if it meant “casa particular”. I said no, we were looking for a green triangle. Turns out I was wrong. My guidebooks were out of date, and the new symbol was indeed the blue shape that kind of looks like an anchor. Point for Pier.
So we went to a place with that symbol. Again, it was surrounded by a fence. We called out and pressed a button that passed for a doorbell. A couple minutes later a lady came out. She didn’t speak English either. We frantically searched our phrasebook to ask, “Do you have a room?” in Spanish, but we must have butchered the words because she didn’t speak back to us. She just shook her head “no” and walked away. This was not going well.
We went to another house with the anchor symbol, also surrounded by a fence, but this time there was a woman outside on the balcony. She didn’t speak English, but she called for her husband who did… and we were told they too were full. Nooooo! But they called a friend who had a casa – and it was available.
That casa owner walked over to fetch us and bring us to her casa. As we’d come to expect, she didn’t speak any English, so we communicated through nods and smiles as we followed her to a house right by the ocean… which would have been a beautiful location if the beach wasn’t closed due to the high winds, and if there weren’t abandoned houses across the street.
Her son was there, painting the shutters. He spoke just enough English to tell us the price, inform us this casa didn’t provide food, and show us the room. Casa owners always show you the room before you decide to take it, but I didn’t turn any down because I never knew where else to go! And I didn’t want to sleep on the street.
So it worked out. But, if you want my advice on finding a casa in Cuba:
1) SPEAK SPANISH! Seriously. Take lessons. Things would have been a lot easier throughout our entire trip if we’d been able to communicate.
2) Make a reservation if you can. Not all casas have email and the Cuban websites for reserving casa particulars look outdated. Plus, we heard from other travellers that they charge a fee and then still might screw up your booking. I used my guidebook and contacted the casas that had emails. You can always telephone too if you speak Spanish.
3) Even though we went at the end of high season (last week of March, first week of April), everywhere between Varadero and Havana was packed. Once we traveled west, to Soroa and Vinales, things weren’t so busy and we had no problem finding available casa particulars.
4) If possible, find a casa without roosters. More on that in later posts.
Up Next: Biking in Havana