Cuba's "casas" offer rooms with social views

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      Our high-ceilinged, second-storey rooms resemble a set from a Humphrey Bogart film. Tall arched doors and louvred windows open onto a street-front balcony and a private roof garden shaded by mango trees. The plumbing in the big, tiled bathroom looks as ancient as the rest of the 19th-century house but manages weak flows of hot and cold water. We have no phone, no television, no mini-bottles of shampoo and lotion-no air conditioning, even. At night, we turn on fans to move the air around. And this is Cuba, not Casablanca. We are in the historic town of Trinidad, in a casa particular-a private home with accommodation for tourists. It may not be ritzy, but it's spotless and has plenty of style.

      Amparo, the proprietor, loves to talk. Our Spanish is rudimentary, and she, like all the casa owners we meet, knows only a few words of English. She's patient with our Spanish efforts and enjoys teaching us new words. Her neighbours, she claims, say she talks all the time. "Habla, habla, habla," they tease. This sounds just like "blah, blah, blah" in English and means much the same, allowing us to share a cross-cultural joke. Amparo occupies the rambling ground floor with her husband, twin daughters and their husbands, and two much-treasured infant grandkids. She yaks mostly about her family, but she's often surprisingly candid about Castro-or Fidel, as everyone refers to him-and his policies. As we travel around, we find that casas particulares, besides being great places to meet real Cubans, also offer an intimate glimpse into the progress of the country's extraordinary social experiment.

      We arrived in Trinidad by bus after an overnight stop in Havana. The town's colonial architecture has earned it a UNESCO World Heritage designation, and its baroque church towers and red-tiled roofs are a delight. The restaurant fare, though, is bland and unvaried. In Cuba this is often the case, as the pick of the produce is reserved for the big tourist hotels. We usually eat breakfast and dinner at our casa. Despite the food restrictions they face, Amparo and her daughters never fail to serve up tasty home cooking-chicken, pork, and, for a special treat, shrimp, along with the ubiquitous rice, red beans, and cabbage-and-tomato salad.

      After dinner, before we head out along narrow streets to find son, salsa, and jazz groups performing on cobblestoned terraces and in cool courtyards, Amparo usually stops by for a chat. If Fidel is making one of his frequent speeches, we join the family in front of their TV. According to our hosts, Fidel has improved his act in recent years; now he cracks jokes, and extols the virtues of refrigerators and stereos as well as socialism. Before, says Amparo, he was just too boring.

      Amparo is as curious about us as we are about her. She's especially fascinated by my energetic spouse, Katherine, who is roughly her age. One day Katherine and I rent bicycles and spend a leisurely day pedalling to nearby Playa Ancíƒ ³n, a long fillet of white sand washed by warm azure waters. This is a 32-kilometre roundtrip under a hot sun, and Amparo is flabbergasted that a woman past 50 would choose (or could manage) to do this. What are taxis for, anyway?

      It's normal, of course, for those in an emerging segment of the tourist trade to have preconceived notions about their guests' plans-especially when tourism seems in a state of constant reinvention. In Havana, especially, where dining out is feasible, and intriguing paladares, or private restaurants, are springing up faster than guidebooks can keep track of them, the casa operators' recommendations can be worth paying attention to.

      On our first visit to the bustling capital, we stay on Avenida de Italia, a noisy thoroughfare with easy access to Centro and Vedado, two of Havana's main residential and commercial districts. The neighbourhood lacks charm but not so our casa hosts, Elizabeth and Gíƒ ¼icho, worldly Habaneros in their mid-40s. Elizabeth, high-strung and affectionate, dresses with typical urban flair, in short skirts and revealing blouses cut to her navel. Gíƒ ¼icho is an easygoing jack-of-all-trades: buyer, seller, fixer, enabler. Few Cuban men seem to work at the occupations they were trained for, and everyone has a mysterious sideline or part-time gig.

      The casa is a worn but spacious upper- storey apartment with two guest rooms, and it's busy enough to employ a live-in maid. We take breakfast in the family dining room and sometimes join other guests at nearby restaurants and music venues. Here, we also encounter Leo, equipped by his casa particular organization with a cellphone and doomed to spend his days riding Havana's slow, ultra-crowded buses, checking up on guests and seeing to their needs. Sweet, youthful Leo speaks good English and willingly fields the questions we've saved up that are too complex to negotiate with our hosts. How is housing assigned in Cuba, for instance, and why do some people get better houses than others? (If your family owned a home before the revolution, you have first claim to it.) And how can eight people squeeze into an "unofficial" Lada taxi? (It's still a mystery, but tinted windows help shield such infractions from the eyes of the police.)

      Havana is intense. A few days at a time are all we can handle. Soon we're headed by bus to the rambling village of Viíƒ ±ales, 170 kilometres west, where the landscape is the draw; eroded limestone hills, or mogotes, erupt in a profusion of strange shapes from a red-earth valley quilted with green fields. A rock-climbing scene attracts young travellers, but we're content to hike through this astonishing countryside, spying on Cuban birds and learning about tobacco agriculture from friendly farmers.

      Every second home in Viíƒ ±ales announces itself as a casa particular. Ours is run by husband-and-wife doctors, whose place (imagine!) is no fancier than any of the others. We sleep in a separate air-conditioned guesthouse in a quiet back yard thick with orange and banana trees, palms, and coffee bushes, but we eat and hang out on a pretty patio attached to the main house. A steady stream of patients drops by for consultations and prescriptions. José works 24-hour shifts in the Viíƒ ±ales clinic and in a neighbouring village, while Dianelys is taking time off to look after the family's two young children. They sort out the Cuban health system for us, in which care is universal and well-trained medical personnel abound, but supplies, equipment, and pharmaceuticals are virtually nonexistent.

      We spend our last days back in Havana, in pedestrian-heaven Vieja, the old colonial section of the city. Also a World Heritage site, it's a jigsaw puzzle of mellow squares and restored plazas. Our casa is another vast, high-ceilinged apartment, with three guest rooms and an array of high-end appliances and home-entertainment gear. The two hard-working elderly sisters who run the place are careful to display no outward signs of affluence but clearly rake in a small fortune by Cuban standards, despite the high government fees and stringent regulations that all casa operators are subject to.

      Tourism, we see, is allowing Cuba to rebound from the economic collapse and desperation that followed the fall of the Soviet empire. It is also permitting a few individuals to prosper-a potential problem in a country that guarantees equality for all. But the nation's leaders seem willing to endure, or even encourage, a little private enterprise in order to keep those all-important tourist revenues flowing. -

      ACCESS: We flew Air Canada to Havana via Toronto, a long and perhaps unnecessary trip when you consider the number of charters shuttling back and forth between Vancouver and the beach resort of Varadero (Canadians comprise about one quarter of Cuba's total tourists). Savvy travellers wishing to stay up to two weeks may be able to save money by booking only the flight portion of a charter package to Varadero, then arranging a three-hour Astro or Viazul bus ride to Havana (four trips daily, CAD$10-13).

      A quick Google reveals numerous on-line casa-particular networks. By virtue of its listing in Lonely Planet's Cuba (the best guidebook going, with its own lists of casas, though the 2004 edition is already badly out of date), Casa Particular Cuba (www.casaparticularcuba .org/) is perhaps the most prominent organization. You can read about and view photos of the individual casas on-line by region and make free e-mail reservations; you pay on arrival. Staff answer e-mail queries promptly, in English, and are efficient and friendly. All the casas we stayed in had en-suite bathrooms with hot and cold water; they varied in price between $25 and $40 per couple. Rooms with shared bathrooms are cheaper. Prices are higher in cities. Big breakfasts run $4 to $5 per person and dinners $8 to $12.