Rebel without a room

Click to follow
AT THE most revolutionary Cuban hotel, they do things by the book. The dingy Hotel Rex in central Santiago de Cuba resembles a cross between a prison and a barracks, which is unhappily appropriate: a contingent of rebels shared their last meal - of chicken and beer - here on 25 July 1953. Next day, led by Fidel Castro, they launched an attack on the nearby Moncada Barracks, aiming to strike a blow at the Batista dictatorship.

The assault was a dismal failure, and those who survived were jailed. But after the eventual success of the revolution in 1959, room 36 at the Rex became a shrine; the red-and-black flag of the 26 July Movement - and possessions of Abel Santamaria, who was tortured to death in prison. Book room 35, and a tour of room 36 comes free.

Never have I stayed in a Cuban hotel where something wasn't awry. The particular problem with room 35 is that the air-conditioner doesn't work. So the desk clerk consults his copy of Resolution 59/89 of the State Prices Commission, and promptly lops 13 per cent off the room rate of pounds 14. Had there been an "irregularity in the bathroom", the discount would be 7 per cent, while "radio not working" earns a meagre 2 per cent saving.

What I like about the Rex, though, is its adherence to the principle that it exists to provide lodging for travellers. Walk up the gloomy staircase to the desk of the Rex, and if there is a room then you will be allowed to stay upon payment of the official rate (less the odd 10 per cent for "mattress in a bad state").

You might think it would be reasonable for any hotel to offer the same service. Yet in Havana the week before, I had trudged from one property to the next, being assured that each was full.

The story was the same every time: there is no room at the hotel, but if I should care for a "casa particular" (a private house, like a B&B without the breakfast) then they know just the place. Outside the three- star Lido hotel in central Havana, even the security guard on the door was trying to redirect me and only reluctantly let me in so that I could receive the same sales pitch from the receptionist.

Unless hotel occupancy in the Cuban capital has increased dramatically, there is no "bed crisis" in the Cuban capital; it is simply that the staff make $5 (pounds 3) commission from private householders for introducing a gringo. But if you stay at their hotel, they earn nothing.

A solution is to book in advance through a specialist such as Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) or South American Experience (0171-976 5511) - or just give up and take a private room.