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Cuba’s vibrant mix of cultures

We’ve already taken a quick look at Havana influences outside of Cuba–the famous ‘Little Havana’ neighbourhood of Miami, for example, and the mouthwatering Cuban sandwich–but how have other countries and other cultures influenced Cuba? What sort of influences will you see when you rent a villa in Cuba? For a nation that was essentially closed off for many years, it’s more diverse than you’d think!

Opt for a Dominican Republic vacation rental ,and you’ll see very distince Spanish influences, from the language to the unit of currency: the peso. Visit Tortola to find rows and rows of British-style fish and chip shops. The residents of St Thomas celebrate American Thanksgiving, while Dutch croquettes are on the menu in Curaçao. However in Cuba, influences aren’t quite as straightforward.

Although colonised by the Spanish in the 15th century, Cuba retained a heavily indigenous population and was famous for its rather unusual foreign policy under Castro which saw strong bonds form between Cuba and many African and South American countries. This history has helped Cuba become what it is today: a very diverse and colourful island that’s a true blend of customs, convention, and folklore.

There are lots of multicultural influences in everything from the Cuban food (see if you can spot a few Chinese aspects!) to the music, but some influences are much more obvious than others. No holiday in Cuba would be complete without a photograph of the classic, brightly coloured American cars lining the roadsides, while the Havana Cathedral is a prime example of Tuscan Baroque architecture.

Once upon a time, the Spanish-styled danzón would have been declared the national musical genre, but today many younger people would claim it’s the Caribbean reggaeton. Similarly, the national sport is officially American baseball, and yet European football really seems to be taking over. There really is nowhere else in the world with such a unique blend, and you can enjoy it all from your Cuba villa.


How to save money on your Havana holiday

A holiday in Cuba doesn’t have to cost as much as you think. Thanks to the low cost of living and affordable homes in the Caribbean, it’s generally advised that you only need to budget for 50 to 75 CUCs per person, per day. Here are some great ways to keep to your budget in Cuba.

Try Local Street Vendors
Depending on where you live, local street vendors may have a very good — or very bad — reputation. However, in Cuba street food is considered to be one of the favorite ways to experience local life. Not only that, but it’s also incredibly convenient and inexpensive, and you’re sure to find something delicious close to your Havana rental.

Drink at Old Town Bars
While the lively and energetic Cuban discos are famous all around the world, they can be costly. Instead, why not head to an Old Town bar for a great night and a truly authentic Cuban experience? For a bit of history, be sure to stop by El Floridita and La Bodeguita, said to serve up the best mojitos and daiquiris.

Book a Casa Particular in Havana
Rather than opting for a beachfront resort, think about booking a casa particular in Havana which can offer a more personal, more intimate holiday experience. You may have access to a full kitchen, which can be useful if travelling with children, and your casa host may be willing to share their local knowledge.

Take Your Own Tour
Unless you’re planning on travelling further afield or feel very uncomfortable getting around by yourself, there’s no reason why you couldn’t book your own walking tour of the city. The advantage is that you can start and end your tour at your villa in Havana, and can enjoy a stroll at your own pace.


All about Havana’s casa particulars

If you’re thinking of taking a holiday in Cuba, you may be considering staying in a casa particular in Havana. These private homes are a fantastic alternative for those who want a real Cuban experience and aren’t drawn to the idea of staying in a large international resort. However, as the casa particular in Havana is a very unique concept, many travellers naturally have questions about this type of lodging. So here’s your handy FAQ, telling you everything you need to know about this type of Havana accommodation.

Are Casa Particulares Located Across Cuba?

Although it is easy to find a casa particular in Havana, not all destinations in Cuba offer this type of accommodation. This is particularly true for locations dominated by big resorts, such as in Varadero.

 Do I Need to Book in Advance?

Although you do not need to book a casa particular in Havana before you set off, it is recommended you do so as Cuban immigration requires a local address where you can be contacted during your stay.

 Is There a Minimum Stay Requirement?

Caribbean Casas mandates a minimum stay of two nights at any of their casa particular in Havana. But upon prior authorization of the owner and if the accommodation is available, you may be able to stay for one night.

 What Documents Do I Need?

You will need a valid passport and visa to stay in a casa particular in Havana. This is for both the owner’s official registry, as well as for registration at the local immigration office. All documents will be returned.

 Are There Any Hidden Fees?

There are no additional fees for local registration, and use of advertised facilities and services should be covered by your agreed-upon rental fee. However, meal services, private chauffeur services, and guided tours can be booked before you arrive or on site.


Havana and the great outdoors

When you rent a villa with pool in Havana, there are plenty of opportunities to get outside and enjoy some swimming under the hot sun. However, if you’re staying in a smaller Havana apartment in the Old Town (Havana Vieja), for example, you may have fewer opportunities to enjoy some outdoor activities. The good news is that there are actually a lot of great outdoor activities to enjoy in Cuba, regardless of where you choose to stay. Here are a few to consider.

Bike Tours 

There are a few bike tour companies located in Havana, which provide not only the equipment you need but also a knowledgeable tour guide who can take you through Cuba’s very best bits while also filling you in on local history. Cycling in and around Havana is relatively easy as the area tends to be very flat, and popular tours travel around the city and to the bay. However, it is possible to enjoy longer tours, too, which travel to places like Viñales, Matanzas, and Trinidad, with accommodation in Cuba included.

Kiteboarding

Did you know that Havana is home to a professional kiteboarding club? Located a bit outside of the city in Cayo Guillermo, travellers flock here as it’s understood to be one of the best places in Cuba to learn this challenging water sport. The waters here are calm and shallow, yet still receive enough wind to benefit even complete beginners. The best way to get from Havana to Cayo Guillermo is to fly. There’s one direct flight each day, and the flight lasts for just 55 minutes, perfect for an overnight trip.

Windsurfing 

As well as a kiteboarding club, Havana also has a windsurfing club! Located very close to central Havana near La Concha Beach, not far from the Havana Yacht Club, the club is a great place to learn as well as further develop your existing skills. The Marianao district, where the club is located, is well worth checking out. This is especially true if you’re staying in a family villa in Cuba and are looking for child-friendly attractions, as the Coney Island amusement park is nearby!


Havana’s plazas and squares

If you ever need to ask a local for directions to your Havana villa, you’ll notice that they may use some of the city’s plazas or squares as reference points. That’s because these large, open areas of the city are not only very well known to both locals and visitors alike, but they’re also ideal places for taking a few minutes to rest and getting your bearings. They’re also great for photo ops and steeped in history!

Here’s your guide to some of Havana’s best plazas that are worth a visit during your holiday in Cuba:

Plaza de la Revolución

Also known as ‘Revolution Square’, Plaza de la Revolución covers the area from the Malecon to the Vedado district, and is perhaps the most famous plaza in Havana. Not only is this one of the largest plazas in the world, but the tall Jose Marti monument can be seen from practically anywhere! You may even be able to see the very top of the monument from your villa in Havana if you’re staying nearby.

 Plaza Carlos III

Plaza Carlos III is the site of one of Havana’s best shopping malls. If you’re looking for some great souvenirs to take back home from your holiday in Cuba for friends and family, then this is the place to browse. Opened in 1997 at the location of the city’s old agricultural market, the unique spiral design here is definitely worth checking out.

Plaza de la Catedral

Located in Old Havana, Plaza de la Catedral was once the site of some of the finest homes in the Caribbean. Today, many of these mansions have been transformed into museums, like the Colonial Art Museum. This particular plaza is the perfect place to visit for anyone interested in Cuban history or architecture, and it’s even a firm favourite of photographers who are drawn to the colonial styles.

Plaza de San Francisco

Close to the Havana harbour, Plaza de San Francisco is often the first stop for cruise ship visitors who sail into Terminal Sierra Maestra. Attractions here include the tall, looming basilica, the commercial exchange building, and the old customs house. However, the plaza is also a central point connecting many of the city’s main sights, including the aquarium, Leonardo da Vinci museum, and the camera obscura.


Smart vacation rental property management with Dawn Buckler of Catalunya & Caribbean Casas

Recently, owner and managing director of Caribbean Casas, Dawn Buckler, was interviewed by Kigo, a vacation property management software company, regarding how vacation rental managers can deliver a great guest experience. Here’s what she shared:

Tell us about Catalunya Casas and Caribbean Casas. What is the mission behind the sites?

Catalunya Casas has been in operation for nine years. Caribbean Casas is two years old and was created out of a need for a winter sun market for our clients. Both offer full-service vacation rental property management. I truly believe that guests feel more confident knowing that there is an agency behind the product – ensuring that service standards will be guaranteed. Privately managed properties with great reviews and testimonials help a lot with guest trust, but this takes years to build up a healthy reputation. As a respected agency, when we contract a new and unproven villa, our clients trust our brand.

 

What have you found travelers tend to steer clear of when it comes to vacation rentals? What causes them to pass over a particular property?

Shared pools. We will only contract a property with a shared pool if it is within 1 km of the beach. For Northern European tourists, private swimming pools are rare and a luxury.

How can property owners/managers make their vacation rentals more appealing to travelers? What should they be doing to not only attract new guests but also keep previous ones coming back?

Without a doubt, owners and managers should be looking for direct ways to market their vacation rental websites. With all major listing sites now adding a “booking fee,” guests are looking for the lowest price. If they can find you directly and avoid paying the booking fee, they will do so.

With all of the recent negative hoopla over listing sites adding guest booking fees, I find this a positive and direct advantage to any villa company. Conveniently, for this very reason, listing sites are trying to encourage advertisers to remove their property name from their listings. Do hotels do this? No. And vacation rentals shouldn’t either!

Also, as we are the ones who have the direct contracts with the property, we have an advantage over booking sites. If you look at it in terms of “direct from the manufacturer (villa owner),” we have the lowest prices.

How should property owners approach creating listings for their vacation rentals? What are best practices for making a listing that will increase bookings?

I think it’s a given that great professional photos and descriptions are the number one draw for vacation rentals, but in the end it all comes down to price. Many Spanish property owners overvalue their properties (it’s the same with the property sales market here in Spain). They demand a ridiculously expensive rental price and then complain that they don’t have any bookings.

Yes, the first two weeks of August will always sell regardless of the price but outside of these dates, it’s a competitive market and no matter how wonderful the property is, there are plenty of others just as wonderful with lower rates. A lot of owners do not understand that rates absolutely need to be on a sliding scale depending on the month of the year – and that includes lowering rates in June, July, and September. We are constantly educating our property owners on the concept of “supply and demand.”

What doesn’t seem to work as well in property listings? What are the “don’ts”?

Don’t take a “do it yourself” attitude just to avoid management commissions. It’s a lot of work and investment in managing and marketing a property and professional services exist for a reason. We are not here to “take your money.” As an agency, we have no problem sharing calendars and working together in unison to make your property the best it can be. The bottom line is to increase bookings and increase revenue for the owner’s “business.” We are not the competition, rather a collaborator. Doing it together is a win-win situation.

Can you talk about a property or properties that you think have done an exceptional job of attracting vacationers and delivering a “wow” experience? What can we learn from these property owners?

I think client attention is the number one formula for delivering a great experience. Spain has always been a bit behind in areas of customer service. Born and raised in Canada, a country very focused on excellent customer service, I find it difficult to educate many owners on maintenance and cleaning standards. We lose many a property because our requirements are too “demanding.” However, what owners fail to realize is that it’s not us that is demanding – it’s the guests, and rightly so! No, it’s not ok if the electricity trips when it rains, if there is a daily limit on WiFi use, if there is a window handle that does not shut properly, or if there is a “trick” to getting the coffee machine to work. We find that our owners from other countries are much more accepting and understanding of our requirements because they have a longer history of customer service standards.

What trends or innovations are you following in the world of vacation rentals today? Why do they interest you?

Programming rates are the bane of our existence so rate management systems continue to interest me. Unfortunately, I think that many of these programs need a lot more work. They are useful for capital city center apartments but for villas, they need to take into consideration a lot of other aspects including location, seasonal occupation, distances to amenities and transport, individual property features, etc.

Also customizable maintenance and cleaning technology for full-service management agencies. We have a large staff covering property care. It’s very labor intensive to provide an excellent service while maintaining client satisfaction from two sides (owners and guests). We have tried various programs, but keep returning to manual control due to each property having its own very specific set of requirements.


A self-guided walking tour of Havana

Many people who take a holiday in Cuba book a walking tour to ensure that they see the very best that Havana has to offer. But why not do a self-guided walking tour instead? On your own tour, you can take things at your own pace, make detours if you see something of interest, and personalise your experience.

It’s actually easier than you’d think to create your own self-guided walking tour of Havana. Here’s a basic route that takes in many of the city’s main sights and attractions, as well as some of the most breathtaking and notable homes in the Caribbean. Feel free to tailor this route to your liking and preferences.

Begin at the Fraternity Park Houses, which is right in the heart of Havana. This makes it easy to reach from your Havana villa. From here, head north to Colon, where you can turn right towards the Museum of the Revolution. On your way, you’ll walk along the scenic Paseo del Prado and pass by the historic and ornate Gran Teatro theatre, as well as the El Capitolio building and the Teatro Marti.

After visiting the Museum of the Revolution, head south down Avenida Bélgica, past the Bacardi Building, until you reach El Floridita Bar. El Floridita is one of the most important historic landmarks in the city, and was a firm favourite of Ernest Hemingway. Pop in for a refreshing frozen daiquiri before strolling along the pedestrianised Obispo, where you can experience the ‘real’ Havana, complete with street vendors, musicians, artists selling their masterpieces, and all sorts of colourful characters.

Head south on Mercaderes to Sol, stopping for some photographs at the Old Square, and then walk towards the ferry terminal to watch the boats sail across to Casablanca. From here, head north to the Plaza de Armas, which is the city’s oldest square, and home to some of Havana’s best restaurants, and then stop by the 18th century cathedral for some more photo opportunities. Make one last stop at the Castillo de San Salvador at the end of the Malecón before ending at the Castillo de la Real Fuerz fort.

Your feet may be hurting and your legs may be aching by the time you get back to your vacation rental in Havana, but it will have been worth it to see so much of this historic city!


Tips for renting a car in the Caribbean

If you book a holiday in Cuba — or anywhere else in the Caribbean — you may be wondering whether or not you should hire a car. The answer really depends on the sort of Caribbean islands vacation experience you’re looking for, and how confident you are as a driver, navigating foreign roads.

Why Hire a Car in the Caribbean?

If you’re not planning on venturing too far from your Caribbean holiday rental, then you will probably be able to manage just fine on foot, or using local transport. However, if you’d like to visit some of the more out-of-the-way places in the Caribbean, such as Coco Beach in Puerto Rico, Cole Bay in St. Maarten, or Sulphur Springs in St. Lucia, then having your own vehicle really can be much easier and enjoyable.

Legal Requirements

The legal requirements of Caribbean car hire vary between the different islands. Some will rent a car to travellers as young as 18 years of age, like St. Maarten, while others, such as St. Lucia, often impose a strict 25 year minimum age. For all islands, you’ll need to hold a full driving licence from your home country, although you may also be required to obtain an International Driving Licence prior to travel, or purchase a local driving licence at the time of hire, which is usually somewhere between 20 and 30 USD.

What Side of the Road?

It’s very important to check what side of the road they drive on in your chosen destination. If you’re booking a villa in Cuba, if you rent a house in the Dominican Republic, or if you’re visiting St. Maarten or Puerto Rico, then you’ll drive on the right. However, if you’re visiting St. Lucia or St. Kitts & Nevis, you’ll be driving on the left! It can be confusing, so make sure you stay alert on the roads at all times.

Car Hire Tips 

One of the best tips for car hire in the Caribbean is to book early. Just like booking a Caribbean holiday rental, you’ll have a much larger choice if you make arrangements in advance, prior to travelling. If you leave it too late, you may have a car that you’re not entirely comfortable with, or no car at all!


Buying fresh produce in Havana

If you’re staying in a beautiful family villa in Havana, you may not want to dine out every night since you will have a fully equipped kitchen at your disposal. As such, you may wish to try whipping up your own meals using fresh Cuban produce. So where is the best place to shop for fresh food?

Where to Buy Fresh Fruit

Although you may be able to walk from your vacation rental in Havana to a local grocery store for fresh Caribbean food, things are a little different in Cuba’s outskirts. In fact, most grocery stores don’t sell fresh produce at all! Instead, you’ll need to visit one of the island’s agropecuarios, or agros.

There are two types of stores: the standard agro, which sells fruits, vegetables, and meats, and which is often state-run with a price cap on goods. You’ll get a great price here, but selection may be limited. Organopónicos often have a better selection, but are privately run with prices dictated by supply/demand.

How it Works

If you’re staying in a casa particular in Havana, you may wish to accompany your host to the local agros to see how the shopping is done. However, if you’re heading off by yourself, don’t worry — it’s actually very simple. Bring your own bags if possible to reduce waste (although there will usually be some Cuban ladies selling plastic bags outside if needed), pick your foods, and take them to the cashier where they’ll be weighed and you’ll pay. You’ll usually need to pay in the local currency, so you may need to exchange some CUCs at the airport upon arrival or at a local bank.

After you’ve paid, head to the Area de Consumidor, or consumer area, where unofficial ‘staff’ re-weigh your items to see if you’ve been overcharged. If you have, simply head back to the seller who will rectify the issue. While the concept is certainly very unethical, it has become a very normal part of life for many Cubans, who are accustomed to checking that they have been charged the correct price.


Four ways to have a romantic Cuban vacation

Although Paris is often considered the romance capital of the world, it would be remiss to overlook Havana as a romantic destination. Simply strolling around the city and taking in its old charm can be quite dreamy, and there are plenty of other ways to bring out the passion and love in this enchanting and magical city. Here are four great ideas for a romantic vacation in Havana.

Enjoy Your Own Private Space

It can be hard to feel like it’s ‘just the two of you’ when you’re amongst the hustle and bustle of the city, so it’s important to have your own private retreat to spend some quality time together. A great idea is to book a villa with private pool in Havana, where you can relax in your own, peaceful surroundings.

Soak up the Atmosphere

Part of what makes Havana such a romantic city is its laidback, informal, and somewhat random atmosphere, and you can experience all of this in Havana’s oldest square, Plaza de Armas. Visit during the warm, balmy evenings for a chance to hear some of Havana’s finest musicians playing street performances.

Take a Classic Car Ride

Classic American cars have become a symbol of Havana, and it’s arguably one of the most romantic ways to get around the city. If you don’t feel comfortable driving on the streets of Havana, arrange for a classic car ride through one of the local companies, who can pick you up at your Havana villa.

Picnic at El Morro

Pack some snacks and cold drinks and take a walk to El Morro Castle, where you can make yourself comfortable on the cliffs and stare out over both the sea and the city. If possible, try to arrange to be at El Morro in time for sunset, which is definitely one of the most magical times of day in Havana.