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The Old Havana Hotel Crisis

Kristen MacQueen, 18/11/2015

Since 1993 WoWCuba has been exploring Cuba’s backroads, private gastronomical delights, and hidden beaches. Now that even some of the favorite non-resort areas (such as Old Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos & Viñales) are becoming difficult in terms of securing accommodations at preferred properties, it’s time to share some of my favorite alternatives. This post will focus on what’s happening right now in terms of the private restoration efforts in Old Havana.

Cuba’s high-end hotel room availability can’t meet the current demand for high-end lodging. The private sector is beginning to emerge as the next best alternative until the high end hotel chains can catch up for the masses. One of the most desirable neighborhoods at the moment is known as the Loma del Angel (for the 1604 church there, the Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio). Facing the church is a small square called the “Plazuela del Santo Angel” where a scene of a legendary Cuban romance “Cecilia Valdes” by Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde took place. Check out the statue here. Some of the neighbors will tell you the gentrifying of the neighborhood began with the arrival of Cuban fashion designer Jaqueline Fumero. When the changing of local laws 3 years ago allowing buying/selling of property in Cuba amongst Cuban residents, she converted the corner building facing the church, which sits on elevated ground at the top of the street, into a lovely boutique/café. They have a pleasant outdoor seating area in the Plazuela and my husband and I have shared and enjoyed their $6 complete breakfast (plus crepes on the side, just for weekend decadence). The classic apartment building with the winding wide marble staircase in front is where you’ll find the Hostal del Angel, featuring an even higher view of the neighborhood from their terrific front balcony. The same family has opened up their doors to visitors to Cuba in another couple of properties (one of which you can see from the balcony), restoring the exterior and renovating the interior of a former rundown architectural gem into comfortable tourist rooms plus a rooftop bar/terrace from which to enjoy the surroundings and view of museums, colonial architecture and El Morro fortress across the bay.

Complimentary businesses have sprung up ranging from art galleries, dance studios, an alley of barbers (for anyone looking for a haircut/shave/or maybe even just some local gossip while on holiday), juice bars (some the same juices you can buy in national money from the back side of the apartments situated behind the Cohiba hotel by the way, but of course it costs more to drink lovely fresh local fruit juices in their beautiful Old Havana location). Sit in the shaded indoor restaurant or catch a breeze in the sun, if you prefer, on the upper deck. We like some of the small/creative Cuban restaurants like Chef Ivan Justo (or Aguacate 9 as it’s also known), housed on the second floor of a 1776 colonial home with sight lines to Museum of the Revolution, just steps from the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana). Donde Lis, or Al Carbon are also worth a visit. Casa Pedro Maria has made the most of their space in their prime location behind Al Carbon (because who doesn’t like the smell of barbecue), with their inner courtyard/dining area, a common living room area, and 3 tasteful rooms with private bath separated by curtains from the sleeping areas. With no one living above them, in all likelihood getting permission from the City Historian’s office to add a second floor would be a wise investment. Over 8 years (they were ahead of the curve) the folks at Casa Vitrales have gradually unified their 3-story treasure into a really funky space which spans two pedestrian colonial streets and of course the view’s hard to beat from their 3rd floor rooftop lounge/breakfast bar. Just down the street it’s nice to see that the City Historian’s master plan in this neighborhood also includes beautifully restored and pleasant gathering spaces for the elderly.

Keep heading south from here, about as far as Teniente Rey Street (which we also really like, by the way), to Aguacate and you’ll be treated with views to Plaza Vieja on one end and sightlines to the Capitolio on the other, and picturesque streetscapes in between. If you’re keen on investigating further, you’ll discover that almost every corner building has been purchased by someone or other (from Argentina, China, Italy, France, and of course Cuban Americans with family here, or in some cases Cubans who also have residence abroad) intending to convert it into a small-scale inn with the possibility of other commercial operations on the ground floor. Nice to have all those balconies and exterior ventilation/illumination for guest rooms. Bit by bit the real estate is being picked up (and no longer at a song, by the way). As families relocate (I imagine into more modern and coveted non-shared spaces), the fractured spaces of even the most rundown Old Havana properties, the divided interior courtyards, ceilings (barbacoas) where they never should have been, are now receiving considerable facelifts. Some of these properties face complete reconstruction on the inside (making some of us wonder how long it’s going to take their owners to make their investment back, in fact), but bit by bit some of the jewels are being returned to their former glory. We like the apartment-style accommodations surrounding the tranquil interior courtyard of the Cafe Bohemia building.

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If you had a lot of money to burn and someone to invest it with in Cuba, you could buy 3 bedrooms/1 bathroom for 285,000 EUR right in Plaza Vieja. But that’s still pretty much right in the thick of things and the loud Cuban music at La Vitrola might wear on you if you sit next to it for too long.

If you want to get off the beaten path, you can do that by heading further south to the Jesus Maria neighborhood by the Santa Clara Convent. That neighborhood’s still not overdeveloped, although it probably won’t take much longer for things to start rolling. There’s a new port overhaul going on now that the main industrial shipping port’s been moved out of the city to Mariel. The Cerveceria (beer gardens on the bay) and the largest indoor handcraft fair in Havana are just a few blocks away, and new cruise ship / Havana Bay ferry terminal / train station restoration projects are underway. A new floating promenade has just been inaugurated on San Pedro, extending out into the bay.

There were times when you’d probably think twice about wandering around many parts of Old Havana at night by yourself. That’s certainly changing now, although if you don’t know your neighborhoods/plan on drinking/being out really late you’re probably still better not to leave your room with lots of flashy jewelry or be flashing cash around. While violent crime here is minimum, quick thefts or minor scams are not necessarily uncommon. We were stopped driving to work the other day at a routine checkpoint and the officer wanted to know if my husband had a machete in the car. Seriously. He thought his steering wheel locking device lodged beside the driver’s seat was a big mother knife. Or at least that was the first question we got when we got pulled over. If we didn’t have a knife in the car (which presumably would be assumed for self defense?) he could have been given ticket for leaving the car running (since I was sitting in it enjoying the a/c) because when a driver in Cuba exits the car I guess he’s supposed to turn it off and take out the key. Yes, seriously. Not the first time we’ve been told that when being pulled over for doing nothing wrong either. But I’m straying from my topic…

The payment system for many of the 100% Cuban operated b&b’s is still awkward for the most part, with many establishments not having a way to accept credit card payments, others who have little or no internet presence or email access (or an unreliable Nauta account – the local communications company has been struggling with their email servers for several days now), and I think it’s a fairly safe bet to say that most just really prefer to work in cash leaving them freer to engage in tax evasion. Many of the newer establishments have travel operators (with foreign accounts) looking to secure rooms for their guests as backers, so prepayment and guaranteed reservations in their inns won’t be an issue. But small scale inns featuring more than half a dozen rooms that are actually operating at this point are still few & far between. Many of the newest spots with increased capacity (more than the traditional 2-room rentals that used to be permitted under local laws) that will serve the short-term accommodation crisis have yet to open their doors. I’ve also only seen a handful of private establishments that even publish an online availability calendar/fixed rates yet, which makes the work of checking space and confirming accommodations considerably more laborious. I’ve even encountered a “bumping” already with a prepaid private homestay this season, where the owner inadvertently double-booked the same apartment for two different clients on the same date. Thankfully they were able to protect the clients in a higher-priced property very close by. But even prepaid bookings can sometimes go slightly astray.

There are other areas of Havana, of course, besides Old Havana. There are even some surprisingly luxurious spots that have cropped up in decrepit Central Havana, not too far from the action in Old Havana or just a short bike taxi ride to neighboring Vedado. You can find penthouses or mansions in Vedado, beautifully-doted mansions in Miramar, oasis homes on the ocean in Guanabo, and of course a lot of the lower-end $25/night room family-run establishments in the Capital are still open to visitors. But in that price range you should usually be prepared for satin bedspreads, horse or tiger rug wall art, and in some cases very rustic shower facilities as for that price not all the owners can afford to invest in modern comforts or just aren’t aware of all those home renovation/design shows y’all love to watch on tv so much in the developed world. There aren’t too many $25/night undiscovered Architectural Digest candidates out there in Havana these days I’m afraid. We checked in at one place whose online pictures looked considerably more inviting than the reality. The owners (unwittingly?) revealed that the private Cuban accommodation booking site who they list with helped them a lot with removing crowded furniture from their common space and making their space look optimal when he came to take their pictures for his website. Except they then proceeded put everything back where it was when he left, as it was pret-ty rus-tic and cramped, and while certainly a good base for exploring location-wise, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend too much time in that room or its ensuite bathroom. I’m no princess but at this stage in the game I would absolutely be happy to pay more for a superior room and comfort while on a well-deserved holiday.

Booking as far in advance as possible with a reliable operator who will prepay and guarantee your lodging is key right now and will continue to be so for some time. On Sunday I was speaking with some professional drivers who were accompanying clients and they told me that there were actually tourists sleeping in the park in Viñales. With one of the highest concentration of private home accommodations in Cuba, that’s a sure sign that the hotel situation in key areas in Cuba can now be accurately compared to that of Bethlehem upon the birth of Christ.


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