Any opportunity to do what the locals do, anything that lets me step aside from being a tourist, anything that makes a memory that hasn’t already been captured by a host of others on TripAdvisor – that’s all worth doing.
I’m not a great fan of B&Bs or guesthouses. I don’t like having to talk at breakfast. Those I travel with know this. But I’d hate for my hosts to think me rude. I prefer the anonymity of large hotels or the privacy of private apartments. So I was a tad dubious about our five-night homestay in La Boca, a tiny fishing village on the south coast of Cuba.
What’s peculiar about these casas is that each has the name of host on a sign outside, in our case Joe and Noyi. He’s a trained lawyer but the hospitality business pays more. Hector, one of our local taxi drivers, is also a trained lawyer, but driving pays more. There’s plenty of lawyers in Cuba not practicising.
We had the main house to ourselves – two en-suite bedrooms and a living room with a well-stocked fridge and a Post-it pad. When we took a beer or a water or a soda, we’d mark it down. That endeared me to them no end. Meals were taken in the courtyard and open kitchen off which Joe and Noyi slept in their room. We had keys to the gate and to the house and could come and go as we pleased. Breakfast was whenever we decided and Joe would then organise a taxi to take us wherever we wanted to go. He’d have driven us himself but his car was in the shop. And, if we wanted to eat in, he’d cook. We had the best ever lobster dinner (for the princely sum of €15) one night. This sort of living, I liked.
Our days took on a routine. Breakfast anywhere from 7.30 onwards and then a day trip somewhere, with an afternoon at the beach if the mood took hold – Playa La Boco, the local shingle beach or Playa Ancon, the sandy beach with the banded patrons enjoying their all-inclusive stay [even the thoughts of an all-inclusive holiday brings me out in shivers]. We eventually discovered the public end where you could actually buy a beer without a wristband. Glorious. I hadn’t realised that there was a time when beaches in Cuba were strictly segregated for tourists and locals. The tide line has blurred in recently years and travelling tourists often find themselves sunning it with the locals. For me, it’s much better than bedding down with a bunch of tourists (and yes, I know, I’m one of those, too). It reminded me of Bourgas and how happy I was to stay local and avoid the resorts. We watched the lads fish from the beach and when the wind picked up, watched the salvage crew do their thing.
The village is neat and tidy with plenty of classic cars in everyday use and lots of flowers. It was still off-season. Some of the few restaurants hadn’t yet opened. It’s in the book as a fishing village but it wasn’t at all what I imagined a fishing village to be. I was thinking more European – Italian, Croatian, wherever, with its village centre and rockwalled harbor and little cafés and bars looking out on the water. Perhaps I need to get out of Europe more often.
The harbor, such as it is, is clearly a working one. There were no signs telling us to stay way, but the approach was one that deterred casual visitors. You had to know where you were going and have a reason to be going there. I was happy enough to look at the boats go by and wonder at the reality of subsistence living. Apart from a few container-like shacks on the main street selling toiletries and rum, I didn’t see much by way of shops. People fish. They grow their veg. They bake. They live cheaply, more out of circumstance that choice. And from what I gather, few travel. Their knowledge of anywhere but their immediate surrounds seems limited. Containment seems to have been very much the way of life and now that this is changing with more and more tourists venturing outside Havana and the big resorts, their world is going to change immeasurably. Moneyed Cubans returning from America will also upset the status quo. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.
There are a couple of large hotel complexes on the edge of town that were heaving at the weekend – but again, contained, inside the walls. From what I understand, they’re like those places at the Balaton where the state would send employees on holiday back in the day – large dachas or vacation homes with everything provided. Intriguing.
La Boca is within easy reach of Trinidad and Playa Ancun. A perfect place to chill out and enjoy Cuban living.