Find out how and where to enjoy the best food in Cuba.
The best and worst of Cuban food
“In this country, you don’t choose what to eat”, a Cuban local once told me. “You eat what is available”. I was both intrigued and fascinated by food in Cuba, given the fact that the country is a popular travel and tourist destination in its own right. Taking a leisurely walk downtown along the pedestrian street, El Bulevar in Havana, the food on offer wasn’t very exciting: greasy ham sandwiches, over-fried potatoes and soupy spaghetti. However, even away from the fancier resorts and hotels, it is possible for tourists and independent travellers to eat well in Cuba.
As you walk around Havana’s Chinatown restaurants gazing at the menus, you will quickly realise that Cubans love beans and rice. A typical meal for most local citizens consists of these key staples, either cooked together (Moros y Cristianos) or separately (Arroz con/y Friojoles). Traditional Cuban foods are very popular along the streets and affordable too. You can get a plate of Comida Criola, an indigenous dish consisting of juicy pork, black beans, rice, cassava, plantain and squash for just over a dollar.
Where to find the best dishes in Cuba
The best cooks in Cuba are tucked away in private homes. During the 1990s when the economy was on the rocks, home-based restaurants known as ‘paladares’ were allowed to operate and some of them ballooned into big quasi-capitalist businesses. These range from simple pork and chicken outlets to internationally famous joints providing new Cuban cuisine. One such establishment, the La Guarida that is famous with tourists, sits on top of an old building in a dull central Havana street. The dishes served here are really tasty and cost between $15 and $20. Tourists can easily afford this, but the price is out of reach for many locals.
As you reach the pricier hotels, you will soon realise that milk, eggs and beef are not as commonplace as you may have thought. This is because such foods are rationed, with locals collecting their monthly rations at designated centres. This perhaps explains why some people complain of a lack of variety in Cuban cuisine. While it is possible to have both good and bad menu experiences, as in any other part of the world, it’s important to appreciate the unique dishes that only Cuba has to offer. The low cost of Cuban dishes means that visitors to the country have the opportunity to try lots of different meals and pick and choose their favourites.
Cuban drinks and cigars
Soften the occasional culinary blow by sampling the excellent espressos, cappuccinos, bottomless Pina Coladas and Mary Pickfords. Not to forget the Cuba Libre! Researching different resorts and restaurants before your trip will help you to pick out the best spots for dining and drinking. Blogs such as My big, fat, Cuban family, Cubanfood and La Cocina De Nathan will assist you in your research. However, you may come to realise that the best tastes in Cuba are often found off the beaten path.
As you will rightly discover, there are many other aspects of Cuba that will really spice up your vacation. The cities are ancient-like and nostalgic, and many of them are famous with tourists. You should start with Old Havana, and then visit other cities and towns such as Matanzas, Bayamo and Santa Clara. You will fall in love with the architecture and the simplistic way of life of Cubans. Make sure to treat yourself to some famous Cuban cigars while you’re at it. You won’t be disappointed!
Make the most of Cuba’s beaches
A trip to Cuba isn’t complete until you stroll along the picture-perfect sandy beaches. The country is blessed with more than 3,000 miles of coastline, making it the perfect destination for some beach relaxation. Some great beach spots include Varadero, Cayo Coco and Carco Largo. After soaking and swimming in the Caribbean waters, make sure to catch some live music performances in Cuba’s night clubs and music houses. Cuban towns are known to stage free public concerts, so you may just be lucky to be near one and get to enjoy rich Cuban culture in music.
A trip to Cuba is a truly wonderful experience and is a perfect choice for holidaymakers that enjoy authentic, palette pleasing cuisine.