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food / travel

Cuba, A Bed And Breakfast Revolution

With the expected rush of American tourists to the island, more and more Cubans are opening bed and breakfasts. This is most likely the most authentic way to see the island.

Havana's Malecon esplanade
Havana's Malecon esplanade
Hubert Prolongeau

HAVANA — "Mi casa es tu casa." My house is your house. Odalis stands with a smile on her face. You might look for the portrait of Fidel Castro on the wall, but there isn't one. What you will find are pictures of her dancing and other photographs of houses covered in snow. Odalis is a salsa dancing teacher in Havana.

For several months of the year, she travels to Norway and Sweden to teach classes. Her son, also a dancer, comes to welcome the newcomers. As for her husband, he works full-time as a chef for his wife's guests, and gladly adds a few lobsters to the standard menu.

Odalis opened her house to tourists last year. To do so, she had to get a "licencia," a governmental authorization, and commit to paying a monthly tax to the state. The procedure is now getting easier and easier thanks to the influx of tourists since the 1990s, not to mention the imminent arrival of the Americans.

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A B&B in Santiago de Cuba — Photo: Dirk van der Made/GFDL

With some associations even saying one in two families has opened a B&B, this appeals to both tour operators and independent travelers.

Fifty five years of embargoed Socialism

A community organization has been set up on the street where Odalis lives, and one woman takes care of several apartments. She always manages to accommodate everyone, even if it isn't in the intended room: 55 years of socialism under American embargo has turned Cubans into masters of ingenuity.

From her window, you can see the end of the Malecón, the famous 8 kilometer-long pier. Nearby is Havana's historic area, one of the most beautiful colonial legacies in the world where a restoration program began in the 1970s and is still ongoing to improve buildings from season to season: the cathedral square, Plaza Mayor, Plaza Vieja, churches, museums and the famous Capitol, a copy of the White House …

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Havana's Capitolio — Photo: Brian Snelson

Due to money problems, there's little traffic. But old American cars kept in perfect condition as if they were national treasures pass by now and then. In the evenings, Odalis stays to talk with her guests, showing them the video she made of herself on Havana's rooftops, where she dances, sensually and elegantly. "I enjoy that too, talking with people. We're quite withdrawn around here," she adds.

Here, as elsewhere on the island, comfort is variable, as are the sizes of rooms. Showers and warm water are mandatory. As for decoration, kitsch seems to be the norm, while air conditioning is quite rare, though the evening meals are generous. All this for 25 to 50 Cuban pesos (which is equivalent to the dollar). Staying with a local allows you to save a bit of money but, most importantly, gives you the opportunity to go beyond the well-supervised constraints of official trips, where tourists are often hauled around sinister state restaurants and falsely stereotypical bars.

The Viñales national park

In Viñales, on the west of the island, the streets have actually now become almost a succession of bed and breakfasts, a patchwork of houses with vivid colors and porches with old rocking chairs. Despite some hesitation, Osvaldo and his wife became like the others. A community organization provided them the necessary advance for the extension works.

Then, the local authorities joined in to finance the works, which had cost Osvaldo 5,000 pesos — he gets reimbursed about 30 pesos per month. They rent two rooms (the law forbids them to rent more), at the far end of the house. "We're a bit cramped, but we find ways," he says. Did they actually have a choice? Tourism had made living there so expensive that some of their neighbors have had to move away.

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In Cuba's Viñales national park — Photo: Guillaume Baviere

From their home, you can visit the Viñales national park, a natural wonder listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Across 60 square meters, there are mogotes, eroded rock walls that are the results of caves dug by cretaceous rivers and of which the tops since collapsed. These spectacular hills shelter a whole network of caves and numerous tobacco plantations, most of which can be visited.

The American windfall

The Lienas family lives in Trinidad, a touristic town with colonial splendor, an open air museum with cobbled streets, imposing churches, and houses surrounding cool courtyards. The father, who sells rum, has started major renovations. To welcome tourists, he has rearranged part of his house and is even about to build a second floor. His daughter, with her daughter in her arms, says she quit her job to help with this family project.

All over the country, these hosts are waiting for the likely arrival of American tourists who will come as soon as the normalization of relations begun in 2014 is effective. Or at least they will come in bigger numbers, because many Americans already make the trip by simply traveling through Mexico.

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A bed and breakfast in Trinidad — Photo: Dirk van der Made

"It will change the country's economic activity," smiles Guillermo, who opened a small restaurant in Vinales. "The Yankees, they eat a lot." If most Cubans see this tourism windfall as an opportunity to earn more, others remain suspicious. "All this will lead us to capitalism," predicts Osvaldo. "There are already more and more prostitutes. The beaches of Varadero have become horrible, with all these hotels that Cubans can't benefit off. There's a happiness of living in Cuba that mustn't disappear," he adds. A "Cubanity" that you can experience by staying at a local's.

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