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Thursday, May 17, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

Renting rooms in Cubans' homes

By Mimi Whitefield
McClatchy Newspapers

SANTIAGO, Cuba — Norma Arias Puente has been learning the hospitality business for more than a decade in this Cuban city.

That would be in her apartment in a wedding cake of a building where she operates a "casa particular" — Cuba's version of a bed-and-breakfast — and rents out two spacious rooms.

One thing she has learned since opening for business in 1997, when the government first allowed Cubans to rent out rooms in their homes — although they had been doing it under the table for years before that — is give the customers what they want.

At her bed-and-breakfast, you can get breakfast, of course. But for an extra charge, guests can order lunch or dinner, use her kitchen to cook their own meals or have their laundry done. She's also available to help with lost cellphones and other dilemmas.

Casa Havana, an Old Havana home run by retired dentist Emilio Nodarse, even has a rooftop terrace bar complete with a full-time barman. Other casas provide guests with cold Bucanero and Cristal beers from the fridge or cigars — for an extra fee.

Most of the casas charge $20 to $35 a night, payable in convertible pesos (CUCs) — the currency used by foreigners. Some provide breakfast for free; others charge around $3.

Unleashing the entrepreneurs

In the 1990s, Cubans who wanted to earn some extra money would offer clean but generally Spartan rooms.

But when the law changed in 1997, allowing casas particulares to register as businesses, it really unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit for people like Arias.

"When the law came out, I said, 'Wow, this is for me,"' said Arias, a retired educator who has lived in her colonial-style apartment for the past 41 years. "I have learned this business by doing it ever since."

In the past year, there have been other changes that allow the casas to rent out more than two rooms, hire employees that aren't family members to help with cooking and housekeeping, and that lower the monthly per-room taxes from 200 pesos per room to 150 pesos. During slow periods, proprietors also can close down for the month and aren't responsible for taxes.

Now guests can travel from one end of the island to the other, renting rooms from Cubans all the way. Some of the casas are featured in guide books such as Lonely Planet; others show up on online booking services.

But for advance bookings, most still rely on the telephone or email exchanges, often relayed by third parties.

Matthew Sellar, a London-based research assistant, decided to take the concept one step further. At his Cubacasa site (www.cubacasa.co.uk), you can click on the desired casa and check a calendar to see which dates are available and book the accommodation on the spot.

The Edinburgh-based website was an outgrowth of Sellar's own travels in Cuba. "I didn't want to stay at a resort. If you really want to see what Cuba is like, you should stay in a casa," he said. "But I found it was relatively difficult to book a casa from abroad."

Cubacasa charges a 10 percent booking fee and then guests pay the proprietor of the casa directly when they arrive in Cuba. Sellar uses Moneybookers, a British-based online payments company rather than PayPal, to make sure neither the company nor any potential guests run afoul of the U.S. embargo against Cuba or any Cuban or U.K. laws.

Since the website went live last July, it has handled more than 150 bookings and works with about 90 casas.

Sellar said it's been challenging to try to professionalize the casa business.

Often casa owners jump on the largest booking they can get, even if it means canceling a previous registration. They want to ensure they'll be able to pay their monthly tax to the government. But Sellar said such bookings have "traditionally been very flimsy and do not materialize."

Now, he said, casa owners know the customers he books will actually show up and he's started to concentrate on marketing and building ties with travel agents and guide books.

Among other booking sites are www.MyCasaParticular.com, which recently had 254 accommodations listed across the island, and www.cubaparticular.com, which offers a "Welcome Service" to greet visitors at the airport.

But some casas' marketing efforts are more rudimentary.

In Trinidad, a picturesque colonial city, people with signs advertising their casas are in the parking area when the tour buses pull in about 5 p.m. But some visitors find their way to a casa simply by walking down the street and looking for small signs with a blue symbol representing a roof line that indicates the casa is registered with the government.

Rebecca Mohr and Jan Kuhn, a German couple, began a recent three-week trip to Cuba on the western end of the island in Pinar del Rio and ended it in Baracoa on the eastern tip of the island, staying at casas particulares all the way.

"It really put you in touch with the Cuban people. It's a great experience," said Mohr, a lawyer.

The casas also appeal to some travelers concerned that their tourism spending goes into government coffers.

MyCasaParticular.com, which is run by Basel, Switzerland-based ABUC Media Network, says it "is convinced of the social and economic importance that each visit of a tourist to a casa particular has for a Cuban family."

Mohr and Kuhn liked the variety they found. The couple stayed at casas ranging from a home dating to 1850 in Trinidad to a very modest place in Vinales, with roosters pecking in the yard, dogs barking in the night, and a cupboard that served as part of the bedroom divider.

"We really were living with this woman for two days," said Mohr. "She was a simple country woman but she knew her casa was in Lonely Planet."

At Arias' Casa Catedral, they found more stately quarters — a spacious air-conditioned bedroom, a sitting room with a refrigerator, a balcony with views of a cathedral and a huge azure-tiled private bathroom with the original porcelain tub.

"These tiles are from France — 1929, the year this house was built," said Arias, who runs the business with her husband, Manuel Rondon.

Some of the casas have unexpected treasures — period architectural flourishes amid makeshift repairs, wooden rocking chairs on a sunny terrace or, in the case of Casa Colonial, a second-floor bedroom where the doors to the balcony can be flung open at night to catch the breeze and allow the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee to waft in at dawn.

Because they are family homes, the casas all have their own characteristics. Some offer guests more privacy and are more commercial; but others come complete with children playfully crawling under the dinner table and meals shared with the family.

"We are your family now" is the way Nivia Melendez greets guests at Casa Colonial, her Santiago de Cuba home that has two rooms for rent. She lives there with her husband Roberto, her daughter and son-in-law and two grandchildren.

Although both her daughter and son-in-law are scientists and have full-time jobs, everyone pitches in with running the casa — keeping records, cleaning up after dinner or slicing fruit for breakfast.

The family has been renting rooms for about a decade. It was Melendez's daughter Beatriz's idea. "She said, 'Let's exploit the house,'" explained Melendez.

The rambling colonial-style dwelling has been in the family since 1919, and it is expensive to keep up. A 1950s-era Westinghouse refrigerator still keeps beer cold for guests, but a termite-ridden staircase leading up to the second-floor rental had to be replaced with sturdy metal stairs.

Operating a casa particular "really helps out" in making ends meet, said Melendez.

She charges 30 CUCs a night. Breakfast is 4 CUCs and the family offers dinner for 10 CUCs. (The official exchange rate is 1 CUC to $1 U.S., but Cuban exchange houses impose a 20 percent fee on dollar exchanges.)

On a recent night the evening meal at Casa Colonial included vegetable soup, rice, French fries, chicken fricassee; a cucumber, tomato and cabbage salad dressed with homemade banana-peel vinegar, a fruit salad and coffee.

Arias said running a casa can be a lot of work but it suits her. She's had visitors from Macedonia, Japan, China, England, Scotland, and the United States. "Really the entire world," she said.

"It's very interesting work; there's always something going on," she said as she sat in a rocking chair in the apartment's front room, "and I like to talk, to converse with the guests."

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