How a tourism boom helped residents of a Cuban town become their own bosses

Artista callejero cubano comparte su experiencia como cuentapropista

El artista callejero cubano, Yohan Ulloa, interpreta a "Tite, El Chichiricú," un famoso torcedor de tabaco en Viñales en la provincia de Pinar del Río.
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El artista callejero cubano, Yohan Ulloa, interpreta a "Tite, El Chichiricú," un famoso torcedor de tabaco en Viñales en la provincia de Pinar del Río.

María Pérez sells little wooden birds and straw hats to the tourists who visit an open-air market near this small town’s main street, but she and her husband dream of adding a room to their home so they can cash in on the tourism boom.

The draw is the scenic Viñales Valley. With its caves and stalactites, flat-topped limestone mogotes, mineral baths, springs and archaeological digs, it has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

You could also call nearby Viñales the town of cuentapropistas. Self-employment has really bloomed in this community of about 28,000 people that lies 130 miles southwest of Havana.

Along Calle Salvador Cisneros, the main drag, you can have your pick of cuisine at the many paladares (private restaurants) and bars that have sprung up in old tile-roofed buildings. There’s El Olivo that advertises “a Mediterranean diet,” the Mar Mágico seafood restaurant, a vegetarian restaurant, pizzerias, and the sleek black-and-white-themed La Cuenca, which serves a mix of Cuban and international cuisine.

At the 3J Bar de Tapas, the blenders behind a bar flooded with pink light are whirring as two barmen churn out piña coladas, mojitos and caipirinhas.

The corner property — the second-oldest house in Viñales — had been vacant for 15 years when Jean Pierre Rojas bought it three years ago. It was a wreck, but the price was right, he said. And the serial entrepreneur was up for the challenge.

“People thought I was crazy when I bought it,” he said. But he turned it into a stylish place with exposed brick walls and crystal chandeliers. The thick wooden doors of the original house remain and open up onto the front walkway where a few more tables have been set up.

Even on a weeknight, the 3J was full of patrons munching on seafood tapas, barbecued lamb, ravioli and croquetas.

Rojas also runs a restaurant that serves typical Cuban food and rents out rooms. Between all his enterprises, Rojas employs 35 people.

His biggest problem, he said, is getting the basic supplies he needs to run his businesses. “I go to Havana twice a week to hunt for things,” Rojas said. He even buys the baguettes for his sandwiches in the capital because no one bakes them in Viñales.

“We’re very happy to have these opportunities, but I think if I were running a business like this anywhere else in the world, it would be four times easier,” he said.

“This was a very poor area before tourism,” Rojas said as he surveyed the lively scene at the 3J, which takes its name from the beginning initial of his first name and those of his two sons. “I think this is great. The moment has arrived.”

With only a few state-run hotels — the Horizontes La Ermita, where guests gather on the lawn to watch sunsets over the valley, the Hotel Rancho San Vincente and the bright pink Hotel Los Jazmines that sits near an overlook with spectacular views of the mogotes — entrepreneurs have sprung into action.

Private homes painted brilliant hues of lime green, pink, sky blue, sunshine yellow, turquoise and coral offer rooms and apartments for rent. Some boast fanciful names: Casa Arcoiris (Rainbow House), La Casa de las Sonrisas (the House of Smiles) and Villa Musical, but they’re generally named after their proprietors.

On some blocks, nearly every home offers rooms, and one enterprising group of neighbors in a row of two-story homes has joined forces and is offering their homes as a package so that larger groups — up to 20 people at a time — can be accommodated.

Airbnb, the San-Francisco-based home-stay company that launched operations in Cuba in April 2015, has 200 listings in Viñales. Only Havana and Trinidad have more Airbnb hosts. The average Cuban host makes $250 per booking, making the casa particular business far more lucrative than most Cuban jobs — even if hosts get only one booking per month.

But there are many more casas particulares in Viñales that aren’t in the Airbnb network. Fernando García, who has listed his casa on the outskirts of Viñales on Airbnb, estimates that there are more than 1,000 casas particulares in and around the town. And he says there are more than 50 private restaurants.

“The competition here is fierce,” he said. In the past year alone, he said hundreds of additional rooms have come on the market.

In this crowded field, the casas compete by offering extra amenities and services. A welcome mojito is pretty standard, but other casas advertise salsa lessons, hiking excursions, horseback riding and bicycle tours. Others tout their rooftop bars, massages, barbecue or special vegan menus. These services and extras are often provided by other cuentapropistas.

García, who also runs a restaurant and bar, knows the importance of differentiation and puts an emphasis on customer service. When his guests arrive, he offers them juice, coffee or a cocktail. “They always like to have something on the house,” he said.

His extensive gardens that produce fresh fruit and vegetables for his guests, his tasty barbecue, the prime views of the valley from his property and his location — rural yet only about  6/10th of a mile from town — help set him apart, García said.

Since joining Airbnb, he’s been booking a lot more American travelers, and recent guests have come from as far afield as Australia and Switzerland. His wife and niece help out, but juggling the restaurant, bar, rooms and gardens is a lot of work, he said.

García said he could have far more reservations if he had Wi-Fi at his house. Every morning, he goes into town to the office of ETECSA, the state telecom company, where he checks email and his reservation requests. But he knows he is losing business — especially from guests who want instant confirmation that a room is available — by not having better-than-once-a-day internet access.

Within six months, he hopes to add at least another room, but perhaps as many as four. “It all depends on how things work out,” he said.

This is the crowded club that María Pérez aspires to join.

During the week, she works for a cuentapropista who owns the stall where she works; on the weekends, she works at her home giving fancy manicures. She and her husband share a bedroom with their baby son, but they’re trying to fix up a room to rent out. “I’m trying, but it’s hard working so much here,” she said.

“Everyone here rents a room,” Pérez said. “It’s because there’s so much tourism.”

She used to have a job at an air-conditioned state store, but she much prefers working at the street fair selling carved wooden spoons, magnets and other souvenirs because the pay is better.

Along Calle Salvador Cisneros, other cuentapropistas have taken advantage of the foot traffic and restaurant-goers to set up shop. One man repairs cellphones; another, watches. Nearby, a young woman awaiting an al fresco manicure soaks her hands in a plastic basin while a man hawks pots and pans and hardware he has spread out on a cloth on the sidewalk.

The cuentapropistas are even more imaginative at Los Jazmines overlook, which provides panoramic views of the valley, the mogotes and Los Órganos mountain range in the distance.

Yohan Alejandro Ulloa, an actor and street performer, has perfected the art of sitting statue-still as he portrays Tite, El Chichiricú, a famed tobacco roller from Pinar del Rio. He wears bronze makeup from head to toe, and even his cigar-rolling table and instruments are bronzed.

He’s so realistic as a bronze statue, right down to the tiny bronzed curls of hair that he makes by rolling thread around a pen and them applying a gum, that he often startles visitors when he changes position or opens his eyes. He has pre-bronzed his clothes, but it still takes him about a hour each day to apply his makeup.

“I’ve been doing this art for more than two years,” he said, adding that he’s a legal independent performer with “all the relevant government permits. I prefer to work on my own, rather than for an organization, because economically it works out better.”

You might think the grizzled guajiro who works the parking lot at the same overlook and offers rides on a saddled ox for about $1 is an enterprising cuentapropista, as well. No, he said, he works for the state.

Ulloa used to work in a tobacco factory in Pinar del Rio — the provincial capital where he lives — portraying, but cameras weren’t allowed inside the factory, cutting into his earnings potential with tourists.

It’s lucrative enough and there are enough tourists at Los Jazmines overlook that he’s willing to make a daily 40-minute trek from Pinar del Rio.

But that commute may start to take longer. On a recent day, several tour buses and classic cars clogged the road leading out of town in front of El Campesino, a popular paladar known for its barbecued chicken. Viñales is starting to have traffic jams.