I have always been the type of person who prefers to travel with a more local vantage point, so when I was debating on how to spend my winter holidays a couple years ago, somehow Cuba came up as the front runner with a ridiculously inexpensive multi-city ticket I was able to build. I will be honest and say I didn’t know much about the country other than westerners always going there for all-inclusive beach vacations or a quick day trip visit to Havana. Overall that type of type of travel doesn’t interest me in the slightest, so I knew I would have to dig beneath the surface to find the heart of what Cuba had to offer. With a bit of research I learned that it was actually quite common to stay in ‘casas’ which was basically renting a room in someones home. That was much more up my alley and I decided I would backpack through four different cities, having as local of an experience as possible.
I started out by reading reviews on Trip Advisor about which places were best in each city and then began to reach out to numerous casas in order to suss out availability (next to none advertise online and must be contacted by email or phone). To my ignorance and surprise, I heard back from very few by email in the first few days because I had not yet learned how remote, expensive and elusive a good internet connection can be in Cuba. It was weeks before some of them got back to me so I highly recommend starting your search as early as possible, especially in the busy season. Alternatively you would probably be alright just showing up in busy arrival places such as the airport or bus stations and you will find a few people standing around with pictures of their homes, ready to take you there right on the spot. Of course these will usually be the not as popular, but if you are not particular about where you stay and don’t mind taking a chance on a place you haven’t done research about, that option is open to you as well and I saw many other backpackers doing just that once I arrived.
*Pictured above: my homestay in Varadero
I chose to arrange all my casas ahead of time and I’m glad I did because I ended up staying in some amazing places and was able to arrange them to always pick me up where I was arriving so there was less hassle. A tool I used to find my casas was Cuba Junky. It was SO helpful in giving me all the contact information and reviews for casas all across the country that just wasn’t readily available online, as well as maps of cities and transport information. The majority of the casas I initially contacted did not have rooms available because I was going in the busy season, as well as the fact most places only have 2-4 rooms available at a time. Thankfully I ended up staying in some wonderful places nevertheless and I absolutely loved learning about the country from a local’s perspective, as well as live in regular neighborhoods and eating the local food. Most casas will offer the option of preparing you breakfast and/or dinner and I found this to be on a whole much more delicious and cost efficient than the majority of the restaurants I went to. The meals were fresh, flavorful and absolutely ENORMOUS. A regular breakfast would consist of unending fresh fruit and juices, eggs, toast, some kind of meat and the most delicious freshly brewed Cuban coffee. I was only eating seafood at the time and was trying to abstain from meat/dairy/eggs and found it to be no problem where they would just give me more fruits and breads. One place literally would make me THREE half litres of freshly made guava, mango and pineapple juice every single morning. It was the most delicious insanity. Supper was literally The Last Supper over and over again where they would give me 5 different courses of food; soup, salad, lentils and rice, some kind of seafood and dessert. It was out of this world.
I flew into Varadero from Toronto and was greeted by the driver my host told me would be meeting me. He was super friendly and we rode through the palm tree lined boulevards into the heart of Varadero. My casa was actually quite central to the core of the city, but just far enough away that it felt much more residential. I also was so very fortunate to have the beach literally a 5 minute walk away and not close to the hotel strip so most days it felt like I had it all to myself. I keep saying I’m not a big beach person, but when it’s as beautiful as it is in Varadero (and far enough from tourist mayhem), I am in absolute heaven.
Next up I took the Viazul bus to Havana which was basically the opposite of the remote peace I had began to get used to in Varadero. This was a welcome change though because Havana is an absolute must see when travelling to Cuba. Is it overwhelming and certain areas complete tourist traps? Sure. I wouldn’t recommend spending more than 3-4 days there unless you are living in the more quiet parts of the city, but I absolutely loved being in the heart of the madness because I was then in walking distance of all the amazing and beautiful attractions. I stayed in the most perfect three story apartment right downtown with the most wonderful woman named Isel, who spoke as much English as I spoke Spanish (not much!) but somehow we were able to communicate and somehow through her gesturing I was actually able to understand some of the local tips she was giving me. I had the most beautiful spacious room that had it’s own balcony overlooking the city and every morning was just absolute perfection drinking my morning coffee while I watched the citizens of Havana waking up.
*And I made a new friend!
If you’re wondering approximately what kind of prices you are looking at with casas, it really depends on what time of year you are going, as well as the popularity of the location with tourists. Expect much bigger price inflation in cities like Havana and Varadero. Since I went around Christmas it was peak pricing season so it was about $50-60 a night. You could find less expensive options, but I wanted to stay in the best rated places, as well as a central location. Keep in mind that most rooms feature a double bed or even two beds, so if you’re travelling with a friend, the cost becomes very low. The next two cities on my trip were Trinidad and Santa Clara and while they are still fairly known to tourists, they were about $30-40 a night. If this was not peak season, you could even find places as low as $20 a night. Breakfast in the casas ranged from about $4-7 and supper is anywhere from $8-15 depending on what meat or fish you are going with. I didn’t ask at the time, but it would probably be possible to get just veggies and lentils, making it much less expensive.
Trinidad was one of the main highlights on my trip as it was surrounded by beautiful mountains and greenery. I highly recommend doing the day trips available from here, getting into the more remote parts of the country. Most casas can arrange that for you or just head to the local tourism office.
My last destination was Santa Clara and it was the only place out of the four that I stayed slightly out of the city. There was not much availability for the dates I needed so instead of staying in central places that had not the best reviews, I decided to stay a 10 minute drive away from the center in a neighborhood near the Santa Clara University. I loved my hosts and stayed in spacious house with a beautiful rooftop patio where I could watch the sunrise. They would drive me into town in the mornings for about $5 and I would grab a taxi back once I was done for the day. It was incredibly quiet and laid back in that area, so it was a great way to relax before heading back home.
I absolutely loved my trip to Cuba and was surprised day after day with the abundance and beauty of the people and country. Overall I found it to be a very safe place and had no problems other than the odd catcall when touring around by myself. Of course use caution when going around secluded areas and I wouldn’t recommend staying out late by yourself, but I felt very safe and found the people to be incredibly welcoming and helpful. I would love to go back and explore the country further south. If you are interested in seeing the vlog I made on my trip, I will link it down below:
I hope these tips were helpful to you guys if you were thinking of going to Cuba or are NOW thinking of going to Cuba 🙂 It’s an absolutely amazing place and well worth taking the road less traveled.
Lots of love xo