Airbnb offers authenticity and a few challenges in Havana
In the two months since Airbnb started doing business in Cuba, listings have ballooned to about 2,000. The website makes it relatively easy to find lodging in a country that's largely been cut off from the online booking systems most travellers take for granted.
But while Airbnb offers authentic local experiences and cheap options in Cuba, just like it does elsewhere, several things make listings here a little different.
For one thing, most Cubans don't have easy email access. So it can take days to get booking confirmation.
For another, while Airbnb accommodations vary everywhere, it's especially hard for Cuban hosts to get quality materials and skilled labour to spiff things up, and many neighbourhoods suffer from decades of neglect. You might end up in a luxurious villa that looks like a magazine cover, or a rundown building reminiscent of the Lower East Side of Manhattan circa 1980.
On the plus side: Airbnb is a great way to connect with locals and see daily life up close.
DINGY BUT SPOTLESS
My $42-a-night Airbnb was in Old Havana, where many buildings just off the tourist track are mere shells with crumbling facades and no roof. The mailboxes were ripped out of the hallway. It wasn't dangerous — just dingy. It was walking distance to many tourist sites, and cabs were easy to find, but I needed four keys to reach my bedroom.
The apartment was spotless, with decor that reminded me of the working-class tenements of my 1960s childhood in New York City: lace doilies, plastic flowers, slipcovered sofas. Through open windows, dogs barked, babies cried, roosters crowed. My air conditioner was rumbly but worked. Nearby terraces and rooftops had caged songbirds and hanging laundry. One roof had caged rabbits — for food, I was told.
My hostess, Lisette Sobrino, lived next door. She was warm and caring, like the Cuban grandma I never had. And the $4 breakfast was fabulous: eggs, a plate overflowing with mango and pineapple, delicious espresso with warm milk.
I was curious about another Airbnb listing I'd tried but failed to book. Owner Majel Reyes agreed to show it to me. It was nicer than mine — newly renovated, modern and airy like a boutique hotel, on a nicer street. But no grandmotherly neighbour.
BOOKING ONLINE IN AN OFFLINE CULTURE
I first tried to book my Airbnb on a Friday. Twenty-four hours later, an automated message apologised because the host hadn't responded.
On Saturday night, the host — Reyes — emailed that she had an inquiry from another guest and needed another day to confirm. On Sunday, I was told the apartment was unavailable.
Monday, I tried another listing and got immediate confirmation. I then heard back from Reyes, saying her apartment was available after all — the first guest fell through. Too late for me.
Many property owners hire middlemen like Vienna Garcia to manage online inquiries. "I'm the bridge between the owners who don't have Internet connections and the guests," explained Garcia.
But tracking reservations is complicated. Many Airbnb properties are also rented out through other sources, but there's no central database. These accommodations, called "casas particulares," get guests through word of mouth, travel agents, street signs, TripAdvisor and even taxi drivers paid to steer visitors their way.
Jonathan Ashton, who lists two Airbnb properties in Central Havana, checks "email every day so we can communicate effectively. But I have to go to an Internet centre at a hotel and pay $4.50 an hour" to get online.
COMPLICATIONS AND CHARACTER
Airbnb hosts say renovating properties is not easy. "It's complicated to do it here," said Ashton. "It's difficult to source products."
There's no Home Depot in Cuba. Some items can be purchased locally in hardware stores, some bought on the black market, some brought in from abroad.
Other travellers who used Airbnb in Cuba had experiences like mine, reflecting both online and material challenges.
"Shower worked, A/C did not," said Parag Raja, CEO of the flash travel site http://travelmore.co/, describing one of two Cuban Airbnbs he stayed in. Overall, his accommodations were "a little dated but had a lot of character." It was also "challenging to communicate with the hosts before our stay because Internet is lacking but you just have to be patient."
On balance, though, he "was very happy with my Airbnb Cuba experience because it allowed me to get a local Cuban perspective instead of being just another tourist."