It didn’t look at all prepossessing from the street – a lofty double door, brown paint-chipped and peeling. Across the street a neighbour, bare-chested and in shorts, sat on his doorstep, grandson beside him. One door away two teenagers in muscle-shirts set up an old boombox on the narrow footpath.
Inside, however, a white marble staircase, walls lined with a mosaic of multi-coloured stones wound up two storeys, ending at a door into Roberto’s casa particular – a bed and breakfast – in Havana Vieja, the oldest part of Havana, Cuba’s capital, and a Unesco World Heritage site.
Ahead was a semi-open terrace, open to the skies two further storeys above. White-painted wrought iron rocking chairs and potted plants and a vast mural filled the space. Roberto, in fluro orange overalls showed me my room – a bed with a sheet (when it’s 35C even the sheet can be superfluous) and my en-suite bathroom.
Cubans, under their communist government, have been able to rent out rooms since the 1990s but it is only in the past few years, especially since the United States has started to lift restrictions on its citizens travelling to Cuba, and as online booking became possible, that they have proliferated.
During my previous three visits to Cuba I’d used government-run hotels, and had mostly been unimpressed, especially as many hotels were well outside the historic centres of most of the towns I was visiting.
But now I was in the heart of the action. In the morning, Roberto’s wife Maria served up fresh mango juice, a plate of tropical fruit, followed by an omelette and Cuban coffee.
It was time to hit the street. My neighbour was back on his doorstep. We waved and smiled. About 20 metres away my street ended in Plaza Cristo, the centrepiece of which is an 18th century church.
On one side of the square was the bici-taxi rank. Streets here are narrow and often one-way so these cycle rickshaws are an essential means of transport for many locals.
In the square itself elderly men in panama hats sat chatting; a woman in lycra leggings and even tighter halter top walked her daughter to the nearby school. The little girl was in the Cuban primary school uniform of white blouse and maroon pinafore, her hair tied up with a frothy white scrunchy.
I crossed the square, passed a five-storey building almost totally hidden under wooden scaffolding. The interior was totally gutted but on the façade were beautiful 19th century wrought- iron balconies.
Havana is undergoing a long overdue renovation of its stunning, eclectic architectural heritage which spans about 500 years – Cuban Baroque, neoclassical, Moorish, Spanish colonial and Art Deco.
I’m now just a few blocks away from Havana’s most important public squares but there are few tourists here. A truck is pulled up outside the neighbour butchery. Sides of pork are being shouldered inside. A lady stands in her doorway texting – behind her I can see a tiled front-room, television flickering, a chandelier hanging in the gloom.
Above me more ornate balconies festooned with washing. A man stands on the street, alerted as a basket is lowered from a window far above him. He loads bread into the basket which his wife then hauls up.
I make this journey many times, including close to midnight, and never feel unsafe. In the relative cool of the night, people walk their dogs, couples snuggle in the plaza. Through open shutters I can see families gathered for dinner, sometimes with a tiny stall selling drinks and snacks set up in a front window.
In Santa Clara, I stay in a casa just a block from the main plaza. This time my hostess is a retired anaesthetist. “It was getting so tiring and the money from the casa is much better,” she says, steering me to sit beside me on her sofa beneath a photo of her hero Che Guevara. Che is buried nearby, a giant statue of him visible from the casa’s rooftop terrace.
Trinidad, a 19th century Spanish colonial era town, is street after street of mansions, simple facades right on the footpath belying interiors full of antique furniture, English china and Bohemian crystal chandeliers. This was once the thriving centre of the Cuban sugar trade and when that went from boom to bust the town stagnated. Today it remains much as it was more than 150 years ago and with almost too many casa particulars to choose from.
Trinidad houses are unique in Cuba for their bow windows protected with decorative metal grills that actually project on to the footpath. On past visits I’d glimpsed mahogany sideboards, occupants in the shadows.
And now finally, I was living in one; breakfast in the courtyard beside a small songbird the host hung up in its bamboo cage every morning and best of all sitting in a rocking chair in the bay window. Beside me on the wall, black and white photos of family weddings; a bike propped up beside a balloon-backed dining chair. Now it was me watching the other tourists pass by.
WANT TO STAY IN A CASA PARTICULAR?
During the high season (and with more Americans due to arrive any time this could extend almost year-round) booking ahead is essential.
KEEP IN MIND
– Traditional Cuban houses often have bedrooms opening on to interior courtyards so exterior windows are not the norm. In the tropics keeping the sunlight out rather than in is a priority.
– Air conditioning varies hugely from modern heat pump styles to ancient Russian units that can be so loud it’s impossible to sleep. Check to see what you are getting.
– Power cuts are possible so ensure your room does have some kind of exterior ventilation
– Plumbing – shower pressure is also variable. Hand basins don’t always have hot water.
– The art of hospitality and service is still a work in progress for some new operators so be patient. The upside is locations few hotels can rival and some of the most authentic homestay experiences anywhere.
JILLIAN WORRALL, Stuff
August 1, 2016