One of the best ways to truly get to know a destination is to chat to the locals, and one sure fire way to become an instant expert on a place is to go a step further and spend a night or two with them. So leave behind the comfort zone of the international hotel lobby and try one of these homestays for size.
Five essential homestays around the world
Stay with a family in Merzouga, Morocco
Waking up in a nomad’s black-wool tent, surrounded by mile upon mile of ochre-coloured sand dunes, the first thing that strikes you is the silence: a deep, muffled nothing. The second is the cold. You’ll appreciate the three glasses of mint tea by the fireside before you help saddle up the camels for the day’s trek.
The Chez Tihri guesthouse is a rarity in a corner of the country notorious for its highly commoditized versions of the desert and its people: an auberge run by a Tamasheq-speaking Amazigh (Tuareg) where you actually feel a genuine sense of place. Built in old-school kasbah style, its crenellated pisé walls, adorned with bold geometric patterns in patriotic reds and greens, shelter a warren of cosy rooms, each decorated with rugs, pottery and lanterns, and interconnected by dark, earthy corridors.
As well as being a congenial host, Omar Tihri, dressed in imposing white turban and flowing robe, is a passionate advocate for Amazigh traditions and culture, and living proof that tourism can be a force for good in this region.
Auberge Chez Tihri (www.tuaregexpeditions.com) lies 2km north of Merzouga.
Kick back in a casa particular, Cuba
By far the best option for accommodation in Cuba is to stay in a casa particular (private house), always abbreviated to “casa”. It’s also the best way to meet the country’s famously gregarious and charming people: you can sip a mojito while getting a good dose of gossip from the owner, as well as the lowdown on the best nearby music venues, bars and festivals.
There are thousands of casas across the country. You’ll find them in Viñales in the west, where simple village homes are backed by lush tobacco fields and tall limestone stacks; in angular tower blocks and historic homes in Havana; and in the seaside town of Baracoa in the far east. But one of the best is Hostal Florida Center, an airy nineteenth-century mansion located in urbane Santa Clara, burial place of Che Guevara.
For accommodation ideas, see www.cubacasas.net.
Meet the locals in the Amazon's backwaters, Brazil
Of all the wonders of South America, none captures the imagination as much as the Amazon rainforest. Despite its immense size, the forest is disappearing at an alarming rate, and if you want to see the fabulous wildlife close up you need to head upstream by boat, taking either one of the many excursion boats or – better – a motorized dugout canoe.
For accommodation, you can camp out on the riverbank, with the nocturnal noise of the forest all around, or stay at one of a growing number of eco-lodges. Some of these are run by indigenous tribes, built in traditional style from natural materials harvested from the forest but with modern additions.
Staying with indigenous hosts gives an insight into cultures that have developed over many centuries of living with the rainforest. You’ll get a chance to sample traditional Amazonian food – minus the endangered animal species that are now hunted for photographs rather than food – and learn how people survive in a natural environment that to outsiders can seem extremely hostile. Best of all, you’ll get to walk forest trails with an indigenous guide and tap in to their encyclopedic knowledge of the rainforest ecosystem.
Trips are easy to arrange in towns like Manaus in Brazil, Iquitos in Peru or Rurrenabaque in Bolivia.
Check out a homestay on Lake Titicaca, Peru
Set against a backdrop of desert mountains, the shimmering waters of Lake Titicaca have formed the heart of Peru’s highland Altiplano civilizations since ancient times, nourishing the Pukara, Tiawanaku and Colla peoples, whose enigmatic ruins still dot the shoreline. More than seventy of Titicaca’s scattered islands remain inhabited, among them the famous islas flotantes, floating islands created centuries ago from compacted reedbeds by the Uros Indians.
In distant Anapia lies a cluster of five tiny islets near the border with Bolivia, whose ethnic Aymara residents – descendants of the Altiplano’s original inhabitants – make a living from subsistence agriculture and fishing, maintaining their own music, dance, costume and weaving traditions.
Fifteen Anapian families have got together to create their own homestay scheme. Each takes it in turn to host visitors, in the same way they’ve traditionally rotated grazing rights. Accommodation is simple, but clean and warm: you get your own room and bathroom but share meals with the host family on tables spread with brightly coloured homespun cloth. Potatoes are the main staple, and if you’re lucky they’ll be prepared huatia-style, baked in an earth oven with fresh fish and herbs from the lake shore.
Homestays on Anapia can be arranged at the jetty in Puno, a 2hr boat ride from the island, or as a package; try Insider Tours (www.insider-tours.com).
Stay with a family in the Himalayas, India
As one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites in the Indian Himalayas, Baijnath is busy year-round, but over the festival of Makar Sankranti, in mid-January, all hell breaks loose as villagers from the surrounding valleys pour in to town for the famous annual livestock fair. Most desirable among the animals traded on the muddy market ground here are the ponies brought in by the nomadic Bhotiyas, who pasture them on the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau before leading them down to market in the winter.
Visitors can stay with a family for a month as part of a grassroots volunteer programme called ROSE (Rural Organization for Social Elevation). ROSE was set up as a development initiative to alleviate some of the hardships of rural life in the Kumaon region, where around 75 percent of people are landless farmers. Paying guests of the scheme get to work on a range of community-inspired projects that funds raised by them beforehand – along with bed-and-board money – help to pay for. Working alongside your hosts in this way leaves a vivid sense of how such small improvements might make a real difference.
Other than for the festival, the best time to visit Kumaon is in early spring (March–April) or late summer (Sept–Oct). See, www.rosekanda.info for more info.
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