Away from its sun-drenched beaches, palm-adorned resorts and colourful reefs, the real pulse of the Caribbean is found in the homes of the locals, and on the sometimes sleepy, sometimes vibrant streets. The following five experiences will give you a little taster of Caribbean life.
Root veg and culture, Jamaica
There are carnivals and festivals of all shapes and sizes all across the Caribbean, but few so wholly local as Jamaica’s week-long Trelawny Yam Festival. First held in Albert Town in 1997, it’s a celebration of all things to do with Jamaica’s favourite vegetable – the unprepossessing, potato-like yam. The festival aims to promote the consumption of the vegetable and to thereby boost the local economy. Along with singing and dancing recitals by eager schoolchildren, there’s the obligatory “biggest yam” competition, and the more unusual “most congenial man” – all played out against a constant backdrop of dub and reggae.
Albert Town is 100km northwest of Kingston. For information about the festival and nature tours in the area see www.stea.net.
Get an “overstanding” of Rasta, Jamaica
One of the most common phrases you’ll hear a Rasta say is “I and I”. Often used in place of “You” or “I”, it refers to the union of man and Jah (the Rasta word for God), and expresses their belief in the importance of community. A great place to learn about the Rasta way of life is at the mellow Riverside Cool Cottages, run by Ras Solomon Jackson (known as Mokko), Doret and their four children. You’ll enjoy delicious vegetarian food – what the Rastas call ital – go walking into the surrounding forests, or hang out with the family and their friends. Staying in the rural community of Sunning Hill gives you the chance to move from a limited understanding of Rastafarian culture to an “overstanding” – their particular term for an enlightenment that raises one’s consciousness.
Sunning Hill is a 1hr drive east of Kingston. Mokko will happily arrange a cab for you. For more information, and to find out about other homestays, see www.worldstogethertravel.com.
Get back to the roots, Grenada
Impromptu parties are a regular occurrence in the Caribbean: often kicking off in the middle of the street, with heavy bass beats booming out of huge speakers, accompanied by dancing and liberal doses of local rum. Trouble is, you never know when and where they’re happening – unless you’re staying with a local. Homestays Grenada organizes stays with families all across Grenada – from the picturesque harbour of St George and the long Grande Anse beach to the remote northern village of Sauteurs. Closely involved in the daily life of the home and the community, guests will be treated like a member of the family. Homestays Grenada also runs a variety of “Roots Tours”, which range from a traditional Rastafarian picnic and a visit to local artists to demonstrations of herbal medicine. You could even learn how to play the steel drums – your own noisy contribution to those spontaneous shindigs.
Most of the homes are on the main island of Grenada although there’s also one on Petite Martinique. For details see www.homestaysgrenada.com.
Find the soul of Trinidad
Home to the largest carnival in the world outside Rio, Port of Spain is the heart and capital of Trinidad. But the island’s soul remains in the countryside – in sleepy agricultural communities like Brasso Seco. Paria Springs Eco Community runs homestays here with local families, and offers tours around the surrounding rainforest. They will also take you up to Grand Rivière in the north of the island, a wind-battered beach beloved by surfers and visited once a year by leatherback turtles, who come ashore in their hundreds to lay their eggs. For those few nights everyone in the little village is on high alert, rescuing hatchlings that have taken a wrong turn away from the shore and fending off greedy predators.
The village of Brasso Seco is 2hr east from Port of Spain. For further info see www.pariasprings.com
Get under Cuba’s skin
Cuban families have been allowed to host tourists in their homes since 1997, and there are now several thousand such residences all over the island. Known as casas particulares, they vary from elegant suites in grandiose apartments redolent of the crumbling grandeur of Havana to a sparse and simple room in a modest bungalow deep in the countryside. Wherever you stay, this is the way to get to meet Cubans on their terms, away from the tourist hubs and the accompanying touts. When you’re in the country, these touts will constantly try to persuade you to stay in various casas so you’re better off booking ahead – try the Cuba Casa website (www.cubacasas.net), an extensive directory of the best casas particulares.
The website also features detailed information on travelling around Cuba, including bus and train timetables.