Colourful nights on the tiles in Old Havana
THERE is a party tonight on a rooftop in Old Havana, and we’re invited. “Just for a few hours, to celebrate Penny’s birthday,” Alex says.
This is our first night in Cuba, and already we feel at home. Just minutes ago we checked into the homestay Alex runs on Calle Lamparilla in the city’s historic quarter. Its facade is painted sharp red and blue to distinguish it from the decay next door, its doorstep shadowed by a lime-green Oldsmobile, and we’ve been drawn immediately into the fold. Penny’s from Australia, we learn; after months spent perfecting her salsa skills while staying at Alex’s, she’s leaving for home in the morning.
“Nine o’clock, the party starts,” Alex calls after us as we make our way down the narrow, winding stairs of his casa and out on to the alleyways of Old Havana. We’ve landed in Cuba just in time to sample the country’s newfound love affair with private homestays.
Cubans have responded enthusiastically to the relaxing of their country’s strict rules on private property and business ownership. They’ve restored crumbling villas, brightened them with paint, plumped up the pillows, shaken out the sheets and invited the tourists. There were just 18 casas in Old Havana in 2012; today there are more than 400. “Three years ago the door was opened,” our guide Mickel explains. “Before, you would have, say, 10 rooms in your casa but you could rent out only one. Now, most casas are in better condition than the hotels.”
We’re sitting with Mickel on the rooftop of another casa one street down from Alex’s on Calle Obrapia. It’s a neoclassical beauty with its double-volume ceilings and broad doorways and the breeze wafting in like a miracle from the cramped city streets. The owner, Raydel, has recently installed a bar up here and we’re christening it with our first mojito. The barman, Wilder, is muddling great bouquets of mint and filling our glasses with Havana rum. There’s a lesson implicit in the generosity employed in this homely making of cocktails, for Cuba is about more than just a mojito in a hotel, Mickel says.
“If you go to a resort you’ll get about three pieces of mint in your mojito,” says Mickel. Then he points to Wilder, “And that guy is not going to put 13ml of rum in your glass. He’s going to put in 35ml.”
The party is rocking by the time we return to Alex’s casa that night. Penny dances salsa with her Afro-Cuban instructor, Silvia, while Alex offers rissoles and birthday cake and bottles of Bucanero beer. Ernesto and Michel, taking a night off from their jobs as cabaret singers, serenade Penny to a backing track that blasts out from Alex’s laptop.
By 2am, Old Havana’s streets are quiet but the party’s still thumping. Through a broken window in the building across the street I spy a woman bathed in soft light, sound asleep on her bed. Michel is belting out the Spanish version of Toni Braxton’s Unbreak my Heart and the rest of us are crooning along in a mishmash of languages. If there were a roof above us we would have blown it off with our exuberant cacophony. Instead, the clamour spills upwards and outwards, filling Old Havana’s night air, seeping deep into its cracked streets and crumbling buildings, yet somehow never stirring the woman, for she sleeps soundly on.
Catherine Marshall was a guest of Intrepid Travel.