Shelter and Eats

Cueva Guevara on Cimarron

Hotels

It is not an over-simplification to say that there are two styles of travel in Cuba. Your choices are 1) state-run or foreign-joint venture-run hotels and restaurants or 2) the network of private homes and eating places. These are known as “casa particulares” and “paladares”—the Cuba equivalent of budge-travel.

Camping isn’t practical—unless you will be with all your gear, all the time. This may work if bike touring. Staying with Cubans posses risks to them, specially in tourist areas.

In Cuba, no matter what the name of the hotel, restaurant, or store, almost everything is owned and operated by the state. Hotels and restaurants are run by government employees, even if operated by a foreign joint venture.

In general, hotel maintenance is very poor, the service worse, and the food only more so. After so many tourists revolted, most resort hotels switched to buffets, so that you do not have to wait for the mediocre food.

View of the Valle de Vi–ñales from Hotel Los Jasmines

Some hotels are in beautifully restored historic buildings, such as the classic Hotel Nacional, Palacio O’Farrill, and hotels Florida and Raquel. Viñales has two spectacularly situated hotels, La Ermita and Los Jasmines, on the ridges overlooking the entire Valle de Viñales. A stay at any of these can be special—but skip the food and accept lackluster service.

Restricted range of options extends to the range of prices as well. Hotels tend to charge about the same, starting at about 100 CUC and up to $300 in Havana. No low-budget choices, but no true four or five star hotels either. State-owned hotels do not drop prices to fill rooms.

Casa Particulares and Paladares

Cuba’s charm is its people. The easiest way to meet them is to stay in the homes of Cubans who rent rooms. These are called casas particulares, and most any casa particular is better than a hotel.

A paladar is a restaurant in a private home. It can be anything from a handful of tables in the dining room of a small house to a beautifully restored colonial house with high ceilings and candle-lit tables, serving haute cuisine. Paladares compare favorably with good restaurants around the world. Even when availability may limit the menu, the Cubans working in paladares are welcoming and enthusiastic.

Since permitted in 1993, casa particulares and paladares have become common in most tourist areas and major cities. However, do not expect to find casas and paladares in non-tourist other areas. The same will be true of government hotels and restaurants.
Casa particulares will have decals on the door or wall. Current one looks like an upside down anchor. Just knock and ask. Usually even easier than that. The casas will be the best painted and attractive houses on the block. In Viñales, the owners give themselves names, usually including the words “Casa” or “Villa”, as in “Villa Rosa”.

Villa Las Palmeras of Xiomara and Tito

Initially the accommodations at casa particulares varied widely. In the 1990s, casas were host’s own rooms that the family would decamp for the night. However, even these cramped, intimate arrangements provided lasting memories and insights into the realities of Cuban life. (Do not kid yourself: even the sparsest casa particular was not, “living as the Cubans do.” Not even close.)

Today, the surviving casas have built or rebuilt rooms and baths solely for guests, and added heated showers, air conditioning, and separate, private baths, entrances, and terraces for guests. A few now have televisions, “mini-bars” and refrigerators. Most rent more than one room or even an entire house.

Staying in a casa particular in Cuba is not the same as a bed and breakfast elsewhere. Cubans are accustomed to large family settings and share whatever they have with family, friends, and neighbors. When you are their guest, they seem naturally to accept you as another family member or neighbor. Very often, once a traveler has stayed at a casa particular, personal relationships are formed. Photos and letters are exchanged. Friends are referred.

Finding Casas Particulares in Viñales

There are two small towns in Cuba where casa particulares and paladares have flourished, Viñales and Trinidad. As World Heritage Sites, large, new hotels have not been built in either town. As a result, the overwhelming majority of visitors stay in casa particulates and eat in paladares.
Viñales, along with Trinidad, are probably the most prosperous, dynamic, and entrepreneurial town in Cuba. Read that again—for emphasis and for an insight into the casa particular-paladar entrepreneurs who are reshaping this national park and World Heritage Site.

It is estimated that Viñales has as many as 750 families who rent rooms and that there may be 50 paladares. The government knows exactly, since every casa and paladar must be registered and granted permission to operate. Most amazing is the construction seen everywhere of even more rooms and eateries.

Reserving rooms in casa particulares is becoming easy and routine. Many visitors, however, may prefer to inspect rooms first. In a small town like Viñales, you may want to walk around and pick your neighborhood. In general, either option works. Finding your own personal casa is a rewarding benefit of visiting Cuba.

La Escalada of Tito and Heidi

Most proprietors have email and cell phones. Still, there are limitations. Hardly any casa has internet connection, cellular data, or wifi. In Viñales for example, to send and receive messages, proprietors must go to center of town, sit across from phone office, tap into its wifi, and pay to get online. Not something they may do everyday.

When calling a casa particular, it is best to have someone who speaks Spanish or a translated script with your information. You are calling a home, and you don’t know which family member might answer. Once in Cuba, speaking Spanish is less important.

To call Cuba, use prefix to call international, 011 from USA, country code for Cuba 53, and then number. Cell phones usually start with 5. Below we provide only phone number itself which follows the country code.

It is advisable to have accommodations arranged for Havana in advanced. You don’t want to spend your first day and night looking for a room in a big city with limited transportation choices.

For Viñales, a reservation in advance isn’t required, except during the end of year holidays. Most of the year, it’s a buyers-market. Taxi drivers, “fixers” who pounce when you get off bus, and the casa in Havana where you may have stayed will try to direct you to a particular casa in Viñales. They may tell you the casa you want is full or proprietor doesn’t rent anymore, once even that dead. A climber stayed two days in the wrong casa unaware that her taxi driver hadn’t taken her to the address she’d requested.

Don’t sweat it. The casa you find will probably be fine. Bad experiences with casas are very rare. The downside is that the fixer or taxi driver will get a commission. This lessens the proprietor’s wiggle-room to negotiate a lower price, since they have to pay a daily commission to whoever brought or referred you.

If you arrive in Viñales without a reservation, here are a few suggestions.

-Oscar Jaime acts a informal booking agent. Oscar finds a room for any climber who shows up at his door.

-Check the scores of casas on Calle Adela Azcuy. Heading toward crags (downhill), there are 50 convenient casas on that stretch alone, and half that many on Adela Azcuy in the other direction (uphill). Five or six Adela Azcuy casas are on our recommended list. Casas near Salvador Cisnernos, the main street, are often booked up by tour groups. So, start at the bottom of the hill, with Casa el Chino and work back up toward center of town.

-Our favorite off-the-beaten-track choices are in the little village of El Palmar. Don’t let a taxi driver tell you that El Palmar is too far away. It is actually closer to the most popular climbs on Mogote del Valle than the majority of Vinales. El Palmar is only a few hundred meters west of Viñales and a 1km walk from bus. A dozen casas with rooms comparable to Viñales will be found along its 3 or 4 dirt streets. Quiet, secluded, instantly at home, yet most of El Palmar is still rural, and its people are friendly farmers and workers—not full-time casa proprietors. Ask directions and enter El Palmar on the trail that starts just before the last houses on west Salvador Cisneros. Look for the casa ”El Cowboy” sign, turn right/north, cross a bridge; the trail becomes a dirt road, and you are in El Palmar. The first 5 or 6 houses rent rooms and several are on our recommended list.

-There will be folks meeting bus offering rooms that aren’t booked up. But ask if they are the proprietor, not someone else who will take you to a casa. Try to get a sense of where located. Viñales has grown, and some of the newer casas can mean longer walks to the crags.

Don’t write to us at CubaClimbing, however. We don’t arrange rooms, provide prices, contact or represent proprietors – or get commissions.

Recommended Casas Particulares in La Habana

La Habana has too many casas for us to pretend to know. Try AirBnB and Trip Advisor.

For 15 years we have done very well with only two, sure-bet recommended casas.

Our personal favorites are the casas of Esther Cardoso. Esther is an actress, director, and first-rate entrepreneur. Somewhere else, she’d be the CEO of a groundbreaking start-up. She was a co-founder of two of Cuba’s leading theater companies, and she has performed and directed in Argentina, Australia, and Europe. Esther has a profile on Wikipedia. Esther is the mother of Aníbal Fernández Cardoso, a leading Cuban climber and co-author of the Cuba Climbing guidebook.

Esther has two casas, her elegant four-room house, and her own restoration project in Habana Vieja called Casa Gaia. Esther’s casas are sanctuaries. La Habana Vieja is a jumble of barely-standing, overcrowded hovels and former-colonial-houses-turned-boutique-hotels. Casa Gaia is a theater, school of arts, and rooms to rent. Spacious, lovely, and a block from the classic, restored Plaza Vieja. Casa Gaia, Calle Teniente Rey No. 157, e/ Cuba y Aguiar, Habana Vieja.

Esther’s house is a beautifully reconstructed colonial, with high ceilings, balconies, and penthouse terrace. It’s in Centro Habana, between Havana’s two main tourists areas, Habana Vieja and Vedado. Centro Habana was once the city’s shopping center, and building signs from the department stores that were there 60 years ago still hang over stores—with Cubans lined up to scour the barely-stocked shelves. Aguila #367, e/Neptuno y San Miguel, Centro Habana. Call or write to reach her administrator. esthercv2551@cubarte.cult.cu. 78620401.

Our other choice is the home of Ana María Fariña and Victor Reinoso. Reasonable prices. The rooms are air-conditioned. Private entrance. And there is a shaded, enclosed patio for those hot afternoons or to meet friends. The house is between Vedado and Centro Habana, within healthy walking distance of both Vedado and La Habana Vieja, yet itself in a non-tourist area. Thus there are no hustlers hawking cigars, etc. Also, it is a few blocks from the bus station. Ana María speaks English. Most important, Ana María is a the quintessential Cubana, savvy, sassy, and openhearted. Salvador Allende (Carlos Tercero) No. 1005, e/Requena y Almendares. House 78735259, cell 52813857. anacaribe@yahoo.com.

Either of these options are an initial orientation to the paradox that is Cuba.

El Palmar, Viñales. Beth Wald

Recommended Casa Particulares in Viñales

Viñaleros say that here may be over 1,000 rooms in 750 casas in Viñales. We may have seen inside two percent and stayed in less. Keep in mind that the same is true for all travel guidebooks. If you can’t get a room in a someone’s recommended casa, relax. There are a profusion of excellent casa particulares in Viñales from which to chose.

AirAndB, Trip Advisor, and the numerous guidebooks have their lists of recommended casas. No list is needed to find and chose one of the colonial casas along Calle Salvador Cisneros, Viñales’ main street. Excellent and pricey.

Our recommendations are a mix of price levels and areas, mostly clusters of casas, so you can conveniently compare several. We don’t include many new casas that are farther from the climbing walls on Mogote del Valle; generally the newer casas are to the east and south of central Viñales.

Most casas now have similar amenities. Mainly we select the families with whom you may stay. We recommend these casas because we trust the families to take good care of any guest. There is no order of preferences. In fact, the last casas on the list, in El Palmar, would be our best buys.

Our recommendations:

Exceptional Host Oscar Jaime

* Since 1998 the climbers’ basecamp in Viñales has been the home of Oscar Jaime and Leyda Robaina. Its dirt-bag days when the first American and Cuban climbers shared floor space in a couple of room are long gone. It’s 3 or 4-stars now, with multiple rooms and private baths and terraces. There is a photo mural tracing the history of climbing in the valley. The Jaime and Robaina families envelope you with warmth and care. The compound of several houses include parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins. There are so many family members that one must set aside time for the daily Cuban ritual of shaking hands with each man and kissing each woman and girl. Adela Azcuy #43. Casa 48695516. Leyda cell, 52486770. Oscar cell 54055605. leyda.robaina@nauta.cu.

* Next door is the spacious home of León León Hernández. León was one of first to rent rooms in Viñales, and he has hosted many climbers. You will not meet a more humble gentleman. Homelike and easy-going. Adela Azcuy No. 45-A. leonleonhdez@yahoo.es. 48796380.

* To sample one of Viñales’ contemporary, built-to-rent casas, go to Leon’s daughter’s El Balcón de Mignelys y Juanito. Four upstairs rooms and terrace, chic decor, and just a block off the central plaza and surrounding paladares. Calle Rafael Trejo No, 48-A. elbalcon2005@gmail.com. casa 48696725. cell 52714699.

* La Escalada is another modern house built-to-rent. Your hosts are one of Viñales’ best climbers, Jorge (“Tito”), and his beautiful wife Heidi. They have created a stylish, secluded retreat. Living room with flatscreen TV and its own bar. Two rooms now, but two more under construction. Jorge is available as a climbing guide. Camilo Cienfuegos #43. jorgepimentelmorales@gmail.com. casa 48695476. cell 53097610.

Living room, in La Escalada of Tito and Heidi

* María Elena Urra has a single room. It’s on Adela Azcuy and 50 feet from Calle Salvador Cisneros, as close to the heart of Viñales as you can stay. A dozen paladares are within a 70 meter rope-length—really, that many, where there were no paladares eight years ago. Excellent casa for those who want to be in on the Viñales nightlife. Mari’s husband is Papito Hernandez, lead guitar on Viñales’s most popular band, Valle Son, which has toured the U.S. and Canada. Adela Azcuy # 5-A. casa 79313. cell 52714698

* Casa El Malagón, a spartan, independent room, not far from the center of town. Proprietor is Raúl, a plumber by trade. Calle Orlando Nodarse #3, e/ Joaquin Pérez y Adela Azcuy. Casa 48793207. All of the casas listed above are south of Salvador Cisneros. A little farther from Mogote del Valle, but not by much.

* Almost at the bottom of the hill on the north side of Adela Azcuy is Casa Tatica y el Chino. El Chino was among the farmers who befriended the first climbers when he worked on Raúl Reyes’ nearby farm. El Chino now rents two rooms. Adela Azcuy Norte Final no. 61-C. casa 48695021. cells 53030649 / 52453116.

* Up the hill from El Chino is Villa Loly El Habano. Another longtime renter. Four rooms. Loly and El Chino are among the casas closest to the crags, and popular with climbers on longer stays. Adela Azcuy Norte No. 55-A. casa 48695047. cells 53364592 / 54055608. villalolyelhabano@nauta.cu.

* Casa Vladimir y Gladys is one of the excellent choices at the top, where Adela Azcuy meets Calle Salvador Cisneros. Three generations in three casas. Vladimir y Gladys, Adela Azcuy No 10-A, casa 48696587. cell 53373911, gladys.sosa@nauta.cu. Casa Milagros y Yamile, No. 10, casa 48095678. cell 53311915.

* Heading west on Calle Salvador Cisneros at the intersection with Calle Sergio Dopico (the entrance to the town from Pinar de Río) is the home of Dalia and Millo. It is a straight shot on Sergio Dopico in the other direction to Mogote del Valle. They rent two rooms, a large one downstairs and smaller one upstairs with a private terrace. Millo has a nearby farm on which he grows vegetables and tobacco. He also likes to talk literature. Passable english. Sergio Dopico #3A. casa 48696994. cell 53642614. has_millo@hotmail.com. tropiccollage.com

* Villa Cristina is a top-tier casa on the western end of Calle Salvador Cisneros. Cristina Gómez and Juanito have a beautiful house with two rooms, parking, convenience. Next-door, their daughter rents too. Together, it’s an enclosed compound of rooms, dining, and living area. A top-rated house on Trip Advisor. Cisneros No. 206. Casa 48793396. Cell 53311737.

* Villa Gena is across the road from Villa Cristina and another excellent house on western end of town. Two rooms, private baths and terraces. Hosts are Eugenia and Sosa. Salvador Cisneros No 209. Casa 48793320. Cell 52483961. sosa80@nauta.cu

Villa Las Vega in El Palmar

* Down the street is Villa La Rueda of Catalina and Orestes. Catalina is a great cook. She caters for French groups, known to set a high standard for cooking. You can take a tour of Orestes’ nearby Finca Ogroecologica Rivera. Sons Roly and Osnan have tours in their 1950s Chevys. Two rooms; one is a large independent, rustic cabin. Salvador Cisneros No. 214. Casa 48695207. Cells 52446620 Roly (who speaks english). Osnan 52486662.

* Our top casa recommendation in El Palmar is Villa Las Vegas. The prominent view from this casa is the nearby wall of Gaujiro Ecologico. Villa Las Vegas is a semi-independent house with 2-beds in a single room. You have sole use of the living and dining rooms and space to spread out gear. Raquel Nodarse, husband Manuel García, and daughter Yomara live in the adjacent house. Genuine Viñaleros and humble country people. Manuel’s large nearby farm produces fresh food daily. Son Yoan guides horse-rides. 48796429. Cells 54508799 and 52671011. yomara.garcia@nauta.cu. Enter El Palmar on the trail that starts just before the last house on west Salvador Cisneros (Villa La Rueda). Turn right/north at the ”El Cowboy” sign and cross a bridge. The trail becomes a dirt road, and you are in El Palmar.

* Across the way from Villa Las Vegas is Villa Las Palmeras of Xiomara and Tito. One room and a view from the large deck of El Mogote del Valle. Casa 48796035. cell 55450770. leidylauralopez@nauta.cu. Las Vegas and Las Palmeras are the first houses on the road entering El Palmar and closest to Viñales. Continuing up dirt road into El Palmar, the next few houses also rent good rooms.

Villa Damarys, El Palmar

* A newly rebuilt casa near the end of the dirt road through El Palmar is Villa Damarys. In the middle of groves of coffee trees and hibiscus plants, a small house on a large property that reaches and fronts on the main road from Viñales. Simple, all new bath and room, and private entrance. Casa 48696893. Cell 55450700. damarys.diaz98@nauta.cu

Camping

For years, we have have been telling climbers, don’t ask about camping. It’s an enormous effort and misses the enchantment of Cuba. The response of most climbers is, “Yeah, but where can we camp?”

For them, there is “Casa Gringo”, a cave-camp established by Craig Luebben and Cameron Cross on their route, Mr. Mogote. To find it, walk or hitch four kilometers north of town, locate a trail through the jungle to the base, and then complete a 40-meter free-hanging jumar to the cave. Free and no camping limits.

There is a campismo outside of Viñales. It is a compound of small, sparse bungalows. Sometime no lightbulbs; never any toilet paper. In Cuba, campismos are popular with Cubans on weekends, but might be deserted, even closed, during the week. To make this option workable, you’ll likely need a car or a bike.

Josué Millo slacklining at a Cuban climbers camp

Some climbers have camped on farms or stayed with Cuban climbers. If you do, however, you should be aware that you are putting them at risk. Cubans are obligated to obtain permission from the Ministry of Immigration before a foreigner can stay with them, even if they are related, as in husband and wife. The authorities in Viñales enforce this to the hilt. Thanks to the network of local Committees For Defense of the Revolution, Immigration will know if a foreigner stays in a home or camps in a yard and presume that the visitor is paying for accommodations. Denials are ignored. Nothing happens to you, but your host will face stiff fines.

Eating: Private vs. State-run Restaurants

Paladares stand apart from state-run restaurants. State-restaurants must accept the food delivered from the government distributors. Little delivery, little availability; rotten lettuce in, rotten lettuce on the plate.

Almost worse for customers, employees in state restaurants and hotels appear to stop trying once they’ve worked their way up the ranks, and the government gives them a job in the coveted tourism industry. Cubans usually say they’re waiting for the government “give” them a house or job. It’s telling.

Paladares have varied menus, fresh foods, and earnest service. A paladar can buy fresh, wholesome foods, most often directly from farmers. For example, La Cocinita del Medio in Viñales may serve the most tender yuca (a tuber) found in Cuba. They get it from a single farm which they believe produces the softest yuca because it grows in the reddest soil. A state restaurant wouldn’t take that initiative for a single dish—let alone a complete menu.

Unlike casa particulares, paladares don’t have symbols at the door. A paladar may even have “restaurant” in its name.

A new outdoor paladar in Viñales

Most paladares stick to a standard fare of “cocina criollo”, indigenous Cuban food. It’s mostly variations of black beans, rice, and meat for around 7 to 10 CUC for entrees. Special dishes will be several dollars more.

Paladares in Viñales

Viñales has been on a paladar-building binge. Too many in last few years to keep up and new ones opening weekly. We will mention only a few.

El Olivo and La Cocinita del Medio are among everyones’ favorites. Cocininta has expanded its few tables, but sometimes closes on weekends. El Olivo is so popular that it will have a line outside. Definitely not the conventional cocina crillio cusine; attentive service, graciously restored colonial, and worth the wait.

Tareco has quickly become a favorite with the younger crowd. Hip and inventive decor and furniture, excellent food, and lower than average prices.

El Barrio on Salvador Cisneros has pizzas big enough for two for 4 to 6 CUC. You can even have real pizza delivered to your casa: Nenitas Pizza, 48 684702, $4 plus .50 for delivery.

Rompiendo Rutinas, one block off Salvador Cisneros, may have the cheapest good, basic Cuban food. Complete dinner for $3.50 CUC (Winter, 2016-17). If there is a line for its few table, buy to-go, cross street, find a table at the state-run, outdoor Cubanita, and if lucky, beer will be available. A second Romped Retinas has opened on west side of Salvador Cisneros. Maybe Viñales’ first chain of paladares.

Almost all climbers and hikers pass through Raúl Reyes’ farm and stop for refreshing fruit drinks, including piña coladas. Don’t pass up Raúl’s excellent food. Chilindrón de Chivo (goat meat stewed in tomatoes and red peppers) is exceptional and hard to find. Raúl’s farm is the only outlet in Viñales for the Cuba Climbing guidebook and is one of the best places to buy quality, locally grown artisan cigars.

Viñales has only a few government restaurants. They are not very good and easy to spot, since mostly empty; no customers and tables and chairs put away by dinner time. Everything else is a paladar.

Preparing Your Own Food

There may be no better insight into the reality of life for Cubans than to feed yourself for a few days or a week.

Finding food to prepare meals in Cuba is time consuming. It can be done, as the owners of casas and paladares do every day—if that is how you want to spend your days in Viñales.

There are couple of stores in Viñales. Even if you shopped at each of them, you’d have a hard time putting together a breakfast or lunch, let alone cook dinner. Cereal but no milk one day; vice versa the next. Butter is in for a couple of hours; then not again for a week.

Eggs and meat are mostly bought on the street. That means you have to ask around and chase rumors about what’s for sale. Cubans see a queue of people, and rush to ask what’s available. If it’s 20 lb boxes of chicken, they buy one, and eat chicken for a while.

Bread is a perplexing challenge. The two local bakeries put bread on sale 3 or 4 times a day, seeming according to he whims of the bakers. There will be up to 50 people waiting for bread. Don’t be fooled if they are spread out, sitting around outside bakery. No one will be in a line. Bread goes on sale, and a perfect line forms according to when each person arrived. It is “el ultimo” system that has evolved from long hours waiting for everything from food to buses.

If you are very lucky, you may bump into one of the bread vendors, who spend most of their days in bread lines, and then peddle around town selling bread for a peso or two more than the bakeries.

Fruits and vegetables are obtained from varying street vendors, and are the easiest snack and lunches to buy. Juices are home-squeezed and rarely in stores.

The government does not allow wholesale distribution. The casas and paladares buy from the same stores and vendors as everyone else. Usually they pay an under-the-table “premium” to get what they need.

An unexpected consequence of Viñales’ casa-paladar capitalism is that they now buy-up all the beer—not unimportant after a hot day of climbing. Mysteriously, the casas and paladares seem to know the moment beer deliveries hit the town stores. Hence, the stores rarely have the most popular beer, Cristal. Stronger-tasking Bucanero is never available. You can buy both for double the price at paladares and less in casas. A shame, because the government stores and clubs, such as Polo Montañez and El Viñalero, charge same price for a beer or bottle of rum as the stores. No need to stock-up. Pricing system hasn’t changed, but it’s no help, since never available.

Costs

Casas are 25-50 CUC in Havana, and less in Viñales. Most casas prices are for the room. Two or more people, same price.

Meals are 7-10 CUC in casas; breakfast 3 or more. A CUC or two more in paladares.

You can negotiate at your casa. They aren’t experienced in the art of the deal. Be reasonable. Offer something for discounts, such as a longer stay or eating meals at the casa.

In general the cheapest stay is if you include with your room all your breakfasts and some or all dinners. The key is to negotiate it upfront. Don’t whine when checking out—“I only drank the coffee and left the bread, fruit, and eggs on the table.”

Casas rarely do a la carte, where you order only what you want at each meal. If coffee and fruit in the morning or salads for dinner is all you need, everyday, you should negotiate for that upfront. Casa owners are wary of guests who pay for breakfast or dinner for one, and then split the meal between two or more people.

Even when a casa has an available kitchen, don’t automatically expect to cook your own meals, without a deal with the proprietor.