Gourmet Chick in Cuba

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Right now I wish I was in Cuba, sitting in a the sunshine in a square with a jazz band playing while sipping on a freshly made mojito. Instead I am in London where the skies are gray and dark and it is pouring down outside. This sudden Cuba craving has come about because my friend The London Foodie is planning a trip there and asked for some tips. He said it was difficult to find information about how to travel independently in Cuba rather than as part of a tour or just staying at a resort so I thought it might be worthwhile sharing my tips from my travels there three years ago more widely. Although my recommendations are a little dated I have rechecked all this information and it seems to still hold true. That’s the great thing about Cuba for visitors, it doesn’t really change and is like stepping back into the 1950’s. Not so great if you are a Cuban though.

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A vintage car cruising past revolutionary slogans in Cuba
 
Where to go
I spent just under two weeks in Cuba with MTV boyfriend and we divided our time between a couple of nights in Havana, a couple of nights in Trinidad and a couple of nights in Vinales. It is probably also worth spending some time at one of Cuba’s beach towns but I gave this a miss as I had just been on a beach holiday.
 
Havana is a beautiful city and strolling the streets looking at the crumbling colonial architecture and vintage cars is an activity in itself. We particularly enjoyed visiting a cigar factory to see the cigars being hand rolled in a large room where one person’s job was to read aloud from the paper in the morning and a novel in the afternoon to entertain their fellow workers.
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Beautiful Trinidad complete with a donkey
 
For a change of pace from city life, Trinidad is an old colonial town set in lush countryside. The bright colours of the houses and cobble stoned streets are picture perfect and there are a few interesting museums to have a poke around in and lots of great open air jazz performances.
 
To experience a little of rural Cuba we also visited Vinales an area of stunning scenery characterised by clusters of large domed mountains. We spent our time riding horses through the tobacco fields and swimming in waterfalls under the mountains.
 
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Inside Paladar La Guarida. This visit was pre Gourmet Chick so I took pictures of the interior rather than the food – sorry!
 
Where to eat
Most of the restaurants in Cuba are State run and so while they are cheap the food is pretty bland and uninspired. A much better option is to hunt down Paladares where people cook in their homes (the original version of London’s supper club trend). One of our favourites was Paladar la Guarida in Havana. Set in a little bit of a dodgy neighbourhood, the paladar is housed up a three flights of winding stairs in an old colonial mansion. The rooms which house the paladar are incredibly atmospheric and are crammed with bric-a-bracs with every inch of space filled or decorated including the walls lined with black and white photographs. The paladar serves great seafood and for dessert its famous home made chocolate.
 
Details: Paladar la Guarida, Calle Concordia 418, Havana, Cuba (Ph +7 264 4940)
Damage: Reasonable
8/10
 
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Inside Coppelia ice-cream park
 
Another Havana institution is the ice-cream park. It is so famous that it is the star of Cuba’s most well known movie Fresa y Chocolat. Coppelia is a whole park serving only ice-cream which is heavily subsidised by the government. There are long queues to enter the perfectly preserved art deco building where the ice-cream is served and families bring buckets in order to stock up on the ice-cream. You can only pay in Cuban pesos rather than the Cuban dollars that are accepted (and expected) everywhere else so make sure to change some at the street vendors before you go in. Once inside don’t make the same mistake as us and ask for four serves each only to be given four bowls of ice-cream rather than the four scoops expected. Flavours are limited. On our visit there was only fresa and chocolat available and the ice-cream tastes like standard commercial fare but the whole setting and experience is pretty magical.
 
Details: Coppelia, Calle 23 and L Vedado, Havana, Cuba
Damage: Such a bargain even my mother would approve
6/10
 
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Four serves of ice-cream means four bowls not four scoops
 
Special mention should also be made of the drinks in Cuba. The mojitos are seriously amazing. I’m not sure whether it is the so-fresh-they-often-grow-it-at-the-bar mint used or the actual sugar cane syrup rather than sugar syrup but the mojitos in Cuba will leave every other mojito you ever have in your life for dead. The Cuba libre which is a popular dark rum and coke mix is not bad either.
 
Where to stay
The best places to stay are the Casa Particulares which essentially means just staying in the spare room of a local. The most popular Casa Particulares are listed in guidebooks and websites and you can try and pre book or just turn up at a recommended one and if they do not have room they will direct you to one that does. Casa Particulares are also marked on the outside with a blue and green triangular sign so you can literally just wander the streets looking for them. The cost is around $25 for a room for the night. The more enterprising Casa Particulares often offer breakfast and perhaps drinks for an additional price.
 
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Our horse riding guide in Vinales (a friend of the family who ran the Casa Particulare) expertly hand rolls a cigar while riding
 
Our favourite Casa Particulare was in Vinales. It was run by a friendly family who engaged us in competitive games of dominoes (a particular Cuban pastime) and the casa had a roof terrace where you could admire the view and sip on mojitos that the family prepared.
 
Details: Casa la Cabana, Calle C 3, e / 1 ra y 3ra, Reparto la Carbonera, Vinales, Cuba
Damage: Such a bargain my mother would approve. Around $20 a night for a room.
 
How to get there and around
It is hard to get direct flights to Cuba. We flew from Cancun in Mexico to Havana. You can fly with Cuba Jet for around £180 return. Once in Cuba we caught taxis and buses. The Viazul bus and Astro buses cover most of the island and were pretty reliable. If you have more cash renting a car is another option.
 
Links
If you liked reading this you might be interested in reading about Cuban food in London at Asia de Cuba.

14 comments

  1. Beautiful post, brings back memories…I went to Cuba Christmas a year ago, also did Havana and Trinidad. Found it fascinating (even though we got ripped off about 10 times and I really hated the food… but there’s always the rum 🙂

  2. Oh my God. I am sopping wet from the rain, and now I have to go to Cuba. I love the 4 bowls of ice-cream shot – how funny!

  3. I travelled around Cuba for a month on my own in 2006 and loved it! I’d forgotten about Coppelia…thanks for the reminder! When I visited, there were 2 queues…one for the Cubans and one for tourists, I braved the stares from the locals (let’s just say I’m 5ft 11 and don’t look in the least bit Cuban), controversially stood in their queue, somehow managed to order by pointing at my neighbours ice cream and was served the hugest, yummiest ice cream sundae for the equivalent of 20p! Happy days!
    All of the casa particulares I stayed in were lovely and the people so welcoming. Quite a few offer to cook you and evening meal aswell and I think these were probably the best meals I had on my trip.
    Such great memories!

  4. “Most of the restaurants in Cuba are State run “

    The law was changed a few weeks (or month?) ago. As a result of deregulation more restaurants are being operated by the private sector, and some restaurants are starting to innovate.

  5. Wow, Cuba, how exciting! I love that first picture, sooo cool.
    I had a friend who once went to Cuba. She told me the food wasn’t great there because they are very restricted by the food which is imported into the country.
    *kisses* HH

  6. What a great post! Reminds me of when I was in Havana back in October… I never went to Coppelia, my colleagues told me it’s not as good as it used to be and now turned to be too “commercial” (just as La Floridita). I went to two Paladares as well, one that only served one dish – some kind of chicken breast with a special sauce (surprisingly good!) and another one which had a beautiful garden and rather served more fish plates. But you’re right – nothing to compare to the usual restaurants!

    I’m glad you had a good time! I love that country, and actually might be heading back in April for work!

  7. Really informative post, thanks a lot! We are now busily planning our journey around Cuba, so this is very timely. Look forward to trying the paladares.
    Dr G

  8. Hey Cara, what a great post – thank you so much for all the tips! Dr G and I were about to give up on Cuba when I e-mailed you. Looking at the main travel websites, it looked nearly impossible to travel independently (and confusing too – two currencies?!) but you put our minds at rest. We just bought our tickets and are now going through your recommendations. The Cuba Junky site is fantastic, so much info there too. Thank you!

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

  9. Love the guy rolling a cigar 🙂 A friend of mine has recently done Cuba, sounds a similar story although the culture is fascinating & a trip I’d love to do for sure.

  10. Cuba is at the top of my travel wish list – it’s just a shame that flights are so expensive from Sydney. Will have to bookmark your post in case I ever get there!

  11. What a beautiful country! It’s a shame I’m stuck in grey England too 🙁
    p.s. I need that car
    x

  12. This evokes seriously strong memories! I went about 12 years ago and loved it but remember the food being… well… bad. I love the style, and vibe (and concrete at the icecream place).

    Please remember to tell the London Foodie not to fly internal flights. NEver ever have I been so close to death as on Air Cubana 🙂

  13. Ute – I agree the food in general is not good. We had a few nice meals at paladares but that was it – still the beauty of the country makes up for it – and the mojitos!

    Greedy Diva – I need some sunshine memories to get me through this miserable weather

    Jo – That’s why we thought four serves of ice-cream meant four scoops – at 20p equivalent or so a scoop it was still only an 80p ice-cream. So funny how the ice-cream is subsidised so heavily by the government.

    Three Cookies – Thanks for letting me know – hopefully that can only be a good thing for Cuban cuisine.

    Heavenly Housewife – Yes that was my experience as well – paladares were the best option for a decent meal.

    Katherina – Lucky you I am jealous – I loved Cuba and would love to return at some stage. I am sure it will change dramatically once it eventually opens up to US tourism so that will be interesting (but a little sad) to see.

    Dr G and the London Foodie – Good luck with your planning and I hope this helps you out on what I am sure will be a brilliant and memorable trip. Such a great country!

    Anna – I know he did it while riding the horse and made it all look so easy. Very impressive.

    Helen – I think it is expensive to get to from anywhere (besides Mexico) unfortunately. I hope you make it there some day.

    Love from Eden – Memories of sunshine are what get us through January I think!

    Tom – Really? I think I had a similar experience with a Nicaraguan airline! We just caught buses around because we were being cheap but maybe it was also a safer option.

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