Where to Eat and Sleep in Havana:
A Budget Travelerís Guide to Cuba
By Ed Easton

"Are you going to leave all this food?," Malez Sanchez asked jokingly in Spanish.

"We tried," my friend, John, replied, stumbling through his own Spanish. "Thereís just too much. We couldnít finish all of it."

Half eaten plates of rice and beans, salad and fried plantanos littered the table. Malez had made so much food, we barely managed to finish our own plates. The only thing we did manage to finish was the huge plate of marinated roast pork with a smell so good and rich it brought cats from all over the neighborhood to our window sill.

Then Malez turned her eyes to me, so bloated with food I could no longer sit up straight.

"No mas," I groaned, imitating Panamanian boxer Roberto Duranís famous plea for mercy at the hands of his opponent, Sugar Ray Leonard.

Boxing is a popular sport in Cuba, so Malez understood my joke and laughed. Then the tiny woman gathered up all the plates and carried them out in one trip. She even managed to kick the door shut behind her.

Malez is just one of many Cubans who rent out their homes to foreign travelers. This type of private enterprise was illegal under Cubaís socialist system until recently, but the Cuban government realized that taxing these homeowners was more efficient than prosecuting them. Now these hosts must pay more than $100 each month in taxes just to practice this business, whether they have guests or not.

Though finding a hotel room in Havana is not hard at all, most budget travelers could not afford to stay in one of Havanaís fancy tourist hotels, which can start at $100 a night.

Starting at about $10 a night for a cheap room, private homes are the way to go.

Though travel to Cuba by United States citizens is illegal, Cuba is a beautiful place and the Cuban government has no problem allowing Americans to enter the country. You can book flights through a number of travel agencies in the Bahamas, Mexico or Canada. One of the best carriers is Cubana Airlines (www.cubana.cu).

Havana (population 2.2 million) has been Cubaís capital since the 1500s and is a showpiece of some of the best colonial architecture in the Americas. A bustling metropolis only 90 miles from Key West, Fla., the southernmost point of the U.S., Havana seems a world away. The crumbling streets and facades of buildings betray the well-kept homes and fairly clean restaurants hidden inside. People fill the streets at all hours, rushing off to someplace or another or sitting on their doorsteps talking with friends. Classic American cars from the 1950s cruise slowly down the street, packed with people.

Havana is a huge, sprawling city, but most of the action takes place in two districts: Central Havana and La Habana Vieja or Old Havana. The city center is crowded with concrete high-rise apartments like you would see in any socialist country, as well as hundreds of stores and restaurants, which give the traveler the opportunity to see how the people of Havana really live. This area is not as touristed as the old city, so it lets you avoid many of the overpriced tourist outlets of Old Havana.

But Old Havana is the part of the city that houses most of the sights. Situated on the north coast of the city, Old Havana is the site of what is left of Cubaís colonial heritage, including cobblestone streets and grandiose palaces that have been converted into museums celebrating Cubaís history and culture.

You may be worried about flying into a foreign country with no reservations and no idea of where to stay, but donít worry. One of the easiest ways to find a private room in Havana is to ask taxi drivers at the airport. You will need to take a taxi into the city anyway, and most drivers know families in any area of the city that are willing to rent you a room.

Negotiate a price before you get in the taxi, and donít pay more than $20 either for the ride into town or for the room each night. The quality and features of rooms in Cuba can vary widely, so inspect everything before you agree to stay there. Rooms can range from tiny, cramped quarters with a cot in the corner to a spacious suite with a private bathroom and king size bed.

Many hosts, like Malez, also will offer to cook you lavish meals at low prices. Restaurants in Havana can be expensive, and portions are usually small, but you are not likely to starve in one of the private homes. The Cuban government provides its citizens with monthly rations of rice, beans, chicken and other basic goods, but much of the higher quality food is available only at dollar prices. The few dollars you will pay for your food gives your hosts the opportunity to buy better food for their families, so everyone benefits.

But if your hosts do not offer to cook meals, there is another option: paladores. A paladore is like a restaurant in a private home. Many Cubans do not have extra rooms to rent to travelers, so opening a paladore is the next best way for them to cash in on the tourist industry. Finding one of these places can be tricky, as they are not allowed to advertise, but most people in the streets will know of one nearby.

There is one thing to always keep in mind: donít get your hosts in trouble.

Malez says high taxes force many people to run these operations under the table, risking heavy fines.

"Itís hard," she said. "We have to pay the tax even if we arenít making money. Some people donít pay, but they can be fined 400 pesos [about U.S. $20] if they get caught."

The best move is to not go around telling your hostís name and address to everyone you meet.

Perhaps one of the best things about staying in private homes or eating in paladores is the interaction you will have with the Cuban people, many of whom are very nice and would be happy to chat about their homes and yours. Perhaps the hardest thing about your stay in Havana will be leaving this wonderful city and the new friends you make there.

While this guide may not tell you everything you need to know about getting to Cuba and what to see and do in Havana, I think itís a good introduction. Now you will know what to look for and some of what to expect. There are a number of very good guidebooks out there, and many of these will be of great help during your trip. One of the best is Lonely Planetís guide to Cuba, which is available in bookstores or online.