The best home-stays in Cuba

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - NI­COLA TRUP Ni­cola Trup was a guest of Home­s­tay.com. THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

There’s a cow­boy wait­ing out­side my room. Kit­ted out in a checked shirt, jeans and a stet­son, he in­tro­duces him­self as Miguel, and soon we’re clip-clop­ping away in a horse­drawn cart. Trinidad, in south­ern Cuba, is more than just a pho­to­genic, UNESCO-listed town (al­though it is that, too). It’s sur­rounded by nat­u­ral at­trac­tions and within just a few kilo­me­tres are some of the coun­try’s best beaches, with sweep­ing hills and val­leys ripe for ex­plor­ing.

We’re dropped off near the edge of town, and Miguel gets our group of wannabe cow­boys sad­dled up. “Only one hand,” he says, as I reach for the reins; the other holds on to a metal han­dle on the sad­dle, which is some­thing I’m thank­ful for once I re­alise I have no con­trol over my horse’s speed. We ride along a dusty trail, through scrubby mead­ows and palm-dot­ted wood­land, stop­ping en route at a grass-roofed open-air bar serv­ing re­fresh­ing cups of sug­ar­cane juice. We ride a lit­tle fur­ther be­fore dis­mount­ing again and mak­ing the short walk to El Pilon.

It’s dry sea­son, so this nor­mally im­pres­sive wa­ter­fall isn’t much more than a trickle, but it flows into a pair of beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral rock pools, framed by caves and for­est. I clam­ber into the cool, dark wa­ter, with cigar smoke and the sound of acous­tic gui­tar drift­ing over from the makeshift bar nearby. Ar­riv­ing back in Trinidad in the late af­ter­noon, the sun is start­ing to slip down be­hind the colour­ful Span­ish colo­nial houses, and I walk slowly back to my pri­vate home­s­tay, slightly bruised from a day in the sad­dle.

It’s two decades since Cuba’s casas par­tic­u­lares, or pri­vate homes, scheme was in­tro­duced, al­low­ing lo­cals to rent out their spare rooms to tourists. They of­fer a sharp con­trast to the state-run ho­tels which, while of­ten grand, tend to come with rather in­dif­fer­ent ser­vice (“They know they will al­ways have a job, so they have no rea­son to try,” one Cuban tells me). Un­til last year, when rules were re­laxed, it was il­le­gal to own a pri­vate busi­ness, but as run­ning a casa par­tic­u­lar is con­sid­ered self-employment, the scheme has been a great way for Cubans to boost their in­comes, which, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures, av­er­age the equiv­a­lent of about $35 a month.

Casas, mean­while, are a cross be­tween a B&B and a fam­ily home — you get your own key but you might also hang out with your hosts. On prac­ti­cally ev­ery street in Trinidad or Old Ha­vana you’ll spot at least one of the scheme’s blue signs, and with so much com­pe­ti­tion, own­ers of­ten come up with a unique sell­ing point.

At Casa El Ceramista (The Pot­ter’s House), where I’m stay­ing in Trinidad, host Alexey will show you how to throw a pot on his wheel, and the walls are dec­o­rated with his clay creations. The next day, I take a tour of the town’s his­toric cen­tre with Roxy, whose par­ents run an­other casa. Hav­ing grown up in Trinidad, she’s full of lo­cal in­sight, such as where to find the best views (the top of the tower at Museo Lucha Con­tra Ban­di­dos) and the most un­usual night out (Disco Ayala, a club in a spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral cave).

Tourism is boom­ing in Cuba, thanks in part to the US eas­ing its rules for vis­it­ing, a move that may be re­versed by Pres­i­dent Trump. For now, though, new busi­nesses are spring­ing up to cater to the grow­ing num­ber of trav­ellers, and among these is Bar Cafe El Mago. With its white­washed walls and quirky reclaimed fur­ni­ture, it wouldn’t look out of place in, say, Syd­ney’s New­town or New York’s Brook­lyn, al­though like the casas par­tic­u­lares, it’s also some­one’s home and that de­li­cious cof­fee is made in the fam­ily kitchen.

Soon it’s time for me to move on to Ha­vana, and a five­hour cab ride in a gor­geous, if some­what rick­ety, 50s Buick leads me to my next casa, Marisela’s apart­ment, part of a grand old town­house in the cap­i­tal’s Vedado neigh­bour­hood. The res­i­dence is dec­o­rated in ev­ery colour of the rain­bow, and Marisela chooses her clothes to match. I can’t leave Cuba with­out a stroll around Ha­bana Vieja (Old Ha­vana), where the pris­tine streets are the city’s most pho­tographed, so the next day I head over in an­other old taxi. Wind­ing be­tween a se­ries of pretty squares, I take in the im­pos­ing baroque cathe­dral and moated fort be­fore reach­ing Ho­tel Am­bos Mun­dos.

Most Ha­vana es­tab­lish­ments trum­pet even the most ten­u­ous con­nec­tion to Ernest Hem­ing­way, who lived here in the 1930s, but Am­bos Mun­dos is bona fide as the author rented a room in the ho­tel for seven years. So I stop for a drink in its art deco lobby bar. Un­sure of what Papa would have or­dered, I opt for a cof­fee spiked with rum. It’s a po­tent, not en­tirely pleas­ant, con­coc­tion, but as I sit back in my chair, the sound of jazz pi­ano drift­ing over me, it feels like lit­tle has changed since Hem­ing­way drank here, even if he fa­mously pre­ferred a mo­jito.

City of Trinidad in Cuba, left; Hem­ing­way hang­out Am­bos Mun­dos Ho­tel, in­set; roof ter­race of The Pot­ter’s House, be­low left; rus­tic charm of Trinidad’s streets, be­low right

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