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A Cuban Country Home: El Bohío

A Cuban Country Home: El Bohío

A peculiar form of vernacular dwelling has survived in the Cuban countryside: the boh?o, a tradition born out of popular wisdom. Boh?os are scattered all over the Cuban landscape in valleys, plains and mountains. The 19th century is considered the age of the Cuban boh?o when that it experienced a boom in the construction of this type of rural dwelling.

This kind of building was preceded in historical time by the caney, which was circular with a roof in the shape of a cone, and was the typical house of the most developed culture among the aboriginal groups in Cuba, the Ta?nos. The rectangular version, however, was reserved for the cacique, or chief, and his family. In later years, it became a dwelling for certain communities within the plantation system, especially in coffee plantations.

The fact that all the materials used for its construction come from the natural surroundings identifies it as a harmonious home. Different woods have been used throughout time for the different parts of a boh?o. In the past, hardwoods were used, many of which have almost become extinct. Boh?os were usually made of mahogany and ?cana, or balata, which were used especially for the wooden posts, its main support. Other Cuban native trees were also used in their construction—mara??n de sierra, caney, azulejo, pi??n florido, yarey, yaya, jiqu?, cuy?, periquillo and royal palm. The trees are cut down during the last quarter in order to prevent them from keeping water and moisture in their trunks. The tree known as periquillo is the only one that is cut at any time due to its unique dryness. The wood of this tree is highly valued because it contains a substance that makes it resistant to termites. Bamboo is also used in the construction of these rustic dwellings although the royal palm is the tree that has always been more widely used, which is one of the factors that made it Cuba?s national tree. This contributes to the preservation of other hardwoods that are considered endangered species.

The shape of boh?os evolved from the first circular, square or rectangular single-unit dwellings to multi-space houses with the addition of divisions that delimited parlours, dining rooms, bedrooms and kitchens. Bathrooms were outhouses, and the washing was also done outside.

Boh?os are roofed with yagua, the dried royal palm leaf that is firmly woven and lasts from 10 to 12 years. Circular boh?os had conical roofs while the square or rectangular ones, which still exist, have gabled roofs. The windows are simple and panoramic. They too are made of wood and are painted in bright colours. The boards on the outside are arranged in such a way as to allow the interiors to be always ventilated. The boh?os that use hardwoods last at least 50 years, while the rest last from 25 to 30 years. In the past, the floor was made by beating down the earth on which the boh?o stood. Today, they have been replaced with polished cement floors. In some areas, the kitchen is a building apart from the main house and is always built in the back.

The kitchen is a magical place in a Cuban peasant home. Shiny pots and pans handed down from generation to generation hang from its walls. This spacious room has a wood-fuelled stove, a table and taburetes—typical peasant chairs made of wood and rawhide—and an auxiliary table used for preparing food.

Sometimes, a corner is set apart for preserving sausages, smoked hams, dried salted meats and cheese. A smaller space is used for storing fruits, root vegetables and beans. Bunches of aromatic herbs hang from racks, as well as cinnamon and bija, or annatto, the yellowish red dyestuff that is used in the very popular recipes of arroz amarillo and arroz con pollo—yellow rice, and rice and chicken. Jars of honey and shortening stand on rustic shelves; also, large pitchers of coconut ?milk,? cool water or herb tea. Coffee, made from fresh ground coffee at the crack of dawn, is the first aroma that fills the kitchen. The small tin cup of coffee has survived as an authentic symbol of Cuban rural hospitality, a tradition that has been kept alive and which links the boh?o with the weary traveller, or simply with its neighbours. Everyone is welcome to come in and have a cup of coffee.

The kitchen in a boh?o even smells differently. The wood burning on the stove, the coffee that has just been brewed, the spices all add to its unique smell.

Outside the kitchen, propped up against a wall, you?ll probably find bunches of bananas and plantains that were cut very early in the morning when the leaves were covered with the night dew; or piles of sugar cane or a mountain of coconuts.

A boh?o?s only point of vulnerability is hurricane force winds, which at times have razed these dwellings to the ground, destroying whole communities. But after the hurricane, these homes are rebuilt, intent on living on forever.
December 2011

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