A few views can take your breath away – that first look at the Grand Canyon or a look down from the Hong Kong mountainside into the heart of the glass, concrete and steel jungle. One vista you will never forget is the one overlooking Havana Bay from the second story balcony of Luis’ casa particular on Havana’s Malecon. And at a price of $35 per night, the best value view anywhere in the world. Like a stay at any casa particular, visiting Luis’ is an adventure. When the cab stops outside the door, you find yourself looking up to a solidly built yet obviously crumbling piece of architecture, right on Havana’s waterfront. If you are like me, you will likely ask the cab to wait as you gingerly ascend the uninviting and, I dare say, frightening staircase, to verify that you are going to live through your first twenty minutes in Havana. Up the stairs you go, through an elaborate wrought iron gate that will be locked at night for added security and through a cacophony of sounds as neighbours call out to one another and small dogs bark, until you get to what appears to be your destination with a hesitant “Hola?” A tiny yet extremely fit middle-aged man comes rushing out with a welcoming grin. “Bienvenidos, amigos!” You have arrived. It is now safe to let the cab go. Luis takes you on a tour of your vacation digs. The premise behind casa particulares is to allow Cubans to rent out parts of their living quarters to tourists to supplement their own virtually non-existent income. The inventiveness of some of the layouts is creative, to say the least. In Luis’ case, you enter into a lovely living/dining room with a high ceiling opening onto that balcony overlooking the Malecon. In Miami or virtually any other cosmopolitan location, this would be a $2 million property at a minimum. Luis shyly tells us that he would like to be paid his $35 each day, in advance. For $35, we also get two pristine bedrooms; a private bathroom separates the second in the back. Luis proudly turns on the shower to show you it works (no small accomplishment in Cuba!). Luis has wisely decided not to advertise the two rooms’ mattresses as the most comfortable in Havana but they will do. For a week. Each bedroom faces onto a corridor that runs to the back of the apartment and opens to an inner atrium exposed to the other five apartments inter-connected within this three-story building. You hear a stream of Cuban life as the locals hang their laundry or scream at their children (or husbands.) At the end of this corridor is where Luis and his family live. One does not normally enter this domain, and it is not part of the tour, but there is some comfort knowing that either Luis or some member of his crew is nearby. I would begin the morning hanging out on the front balcony that opened up to life on the waterfront. Ocean freighters mosey past while the four lane avenue just below is an endless parade of vintage cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, yellow Coco taxis and the occasional horse drawn cart or tractor. Fishermen set up on the sharp coral at the water’s edge, sweepers clean the streets and school children head to school in their cute uniforms laughing as they skip along the top of the seawall. Good morning Ha-van-a!Stepping out into the street in pursuit of food would be an easy walk towards Old Havana where a street cafe could be found either on the waterfront or further inland along the Prado (a beautiful tree lined avenue to leads from the water up to the Parque Central and to the Capitolio building). Staying in a casa particular in Havana inevitably immerses you in a Cuban life that is filled with pride and friendliness if not material goods and creature comforts. I recommend it as an experience you will never forget. Finding a casa particular is easy and you can either do it ahead of time by searching on the web or by simply showing up and asking any cab driver. You don’t have to pick the first one you see – they will patiently show you several. Avoid those that involve an elevator. These function only sporadically and, should it seize up between floors due to mechanical failure or a power outage, you could have a very long wait to see daylight again! Some casas will have full working kitchens but food is virtually impossible to buy and with the price of restaurant meals in Havana (if you know where to look) it is much cheaper and less frustrating than trying to prepare dinner yourself. Some casas will offer to prepare meals for you. Just tell them what you would like for dinner (as long it is pork, chicken or fish) and they will have it beautifully prepared for your arrival in the evening for a reasonable cost. Best to pack your own wine, though, as there is a very limited selection of wines available in the stores. Enjoy your casa particular stay and say hi to Luis for me!
Words and photos