Would you like ham with your cheese sandwich?

When you think of Cuba you think of old cars, cigars, beaches, rum…. I could go on.  The one thing it isn’t famous for is its culinary experiences.  Since 1962 Cubans have been entitled to a Libreta de Abastecimiento (“Supplies booklet”).  This acts as a modern day ration book and the Government sets out what people pay for produce and how much they are allowed.  Prior to 1991, even children’s toys were rationed in this way.  Thankfully for the children of Cuba this is no longer the case.

As a traveller in Cuba, you don’t have to stick to such allocations; however those looking for a McDonald’s destination should go elsewhere. As much as I love McDonalds (everyone has a guilty secret) I would be dead against them setting up in Cuba.  The only amendment to that is there is one branch (just one) in Cuba.  It is situated within the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay and serves as an outlet for the US forces based there.  For those not in the military, the whole area is firmly out of bounds – more about that another time.

Fresh fruit, yum!

Fresh fruit, yum!

So food.  What can you expect?  Breakfast tends to include the mandatory bread (white fluffy only) and eggs.  Sometimes juice is available and if you are really lucky, fruit.  Pineapple, guava or papaya were the fruits of the day whilst we were there, but on rare occasions we also found banana and pineapple.  Lunches, its fair to say, are a simple affair.  One day you can have ham and cheese sandwiches, maybe the next just cheese sandwiches.  If you are lucky you might find some espagetti napolitana (spaghetti in tomato sauce) or even a ham and cheese pizza.  Then you go back to ham and cheese sandwiches.  Quite often a restaurant may have a large menu but in reality all they really have are these four combinations. Get the picture?  You have to hope you like ham, or cheese or both!

Banana chips, a staple of most meals

Banana chips, a staple of most meals

In the evening one of the best places to eat is at your Casa Particular – home stays.  They are easy to arrange and the casa ladies are only too happy to cook you a home cooked meal (in exchange for about US$7).  Normally you will be treated to a feast of soup, fried plantain (my personal favourite) bean rice, and then a wide array of fish, or some basic grilled (often a little tough) meat.  If you were really lucky you could be offered ‘flan’ (a kind of crème caramel) for pudding.  Restaurants often offered a good choice of fish and shell fish.  If it swims (or crawls) in the sea then as a diver I’m on my soapbox and not an eater, but Dean, by all accounts, had some lovely lobster along the way.  Food doesn’t vary that much across the country, although in Baracoa (one of the eastern most cities) things are mixed up a bit and you get a wonderful coconut sauce with meat and fish.

The meals in the home stays are normally very tasty and huge

The meals in the home stays are normally very tasty and huge

On one of our favourite evenings Dean and I wondered out and ate al fresco with the locals.  It was a Saturday night in Holguin and the street fiesta was in full swing (a weekly affair).  There were more pigs on spit roasts than I could count on my hands and feet together, and everyone was in a joyous mood.  We queued up, picked out fancy-laced restaurant and set about ordering.  Pig, chicken, banana chips and bean rice – all with change from a couple of dollars.  Granted the chicken looked a little (there was blood!) undercooked for me, so I dutifully donated it to my husband who is (thankfully) still alive to tell the tale!  The meal was beautiful though and a wonderful experience.

Street food pop up restaurants Cuban style

Street food pop up restaurants Cuban style

Above all eating in Cuba is never going to make you fat!  The food is wholesome, healthy and fills a gap.  You will struggle to find the array of snacks we are used to in the western world (remember we are not talking about in the resorts here – I don’t know what they have but I suspect it’s an artificial home away from home) but there is something really lovely about that.  Who needs Walkers crisps or branded Coca Cola?  When in Rome do as the Romans.  Choices are limited, but embrace them and remember not to overdose on the ham and cheese sarnies…

– Natalie

5 Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Cuba

Cuba is a dream destination for many people. Stuck in a strange mix of the 1950’s and 2000’s the country is sure to enthral you. However being isolated from the rest of the world for so long has presented the country with many challenges and a better understanding of what to expect with help you fully appreciate how unique Cuba is.

1. Currency

Cuba has two currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists. However it is not as simple as that. For certain commodities locals have to use the tourist currency and depending on how local you go tourists may need the local currency. The local money is called the ‘Moneda Nacional’ or abbreviated as the MN. The tourist currency is called the ‘Cuban Convertible Peso’ generally referred to as the CUC (pronounced say-oo-say). Generally speaking the exchange rate is 25 MN to one CUC. It is only when you start comparing between the two do you realise that there is no real conformity when it comes to price comparisons. There is talk that as Cuba opens up more and closer ties with the west are established one currency is likely to disappear and the locals fear it will be the MN.

Posters in the windows of banks help you to get the right currency

Posters in the windows of banks help you to get the right currency

2. Accommodation

Hotel accommodation is government controlled in most instances, expensive for the services provided and overall pretty basic. A far better option is to stay in a ‘Casa Particular’ or private homestay. Rooms are normally very clean if a bit small, far cheaper than the hotels (at around 35 CUC plus or minus) and for a few pesos extra will provide a decent breakfast or a huge home cooked three course dinner. We know where we would rather see the money going.

Relaxing in our Casa

3. Food

Cuba has had to learn to be relatively self sufficient which means outside of Havana choice can be quite limited. Breakfast is normally eggs a mixture of fruits (normally a combination of pineapple, papaya and guava) juice and coffee. Lunch across the entire country consists of ham and cheese sandwiches or pasta with Tomato sauce. Even when a menu looks like it has a wide variety expect the waiter to cringe and sadly inform you they only have the above lunch options! Dinner is normally pork or chicken and occasionally beef served with beans and rice. If you are a fish lover rejoice! The biggest choice you have is with fish. Shell fish is also incredibly cheap with a whole lobster costing only around $10-12 USD!

When it comes to drinking bottled water can be expensive and in some towns scarce (such as Baracoa), but beer is cheap and rum is almost cheaper than water. They make their own soft drinks in Cuba so your Cuba Libre, or rum and Coke, will be rum and the local cola. Fresh juices can also be quite hard to stumble across, quite surprising considering the tropical location. But if everyone is Downing a Havana Club there is no need for much else.

4. Transportation

Transportation across Cuba can be tricky. While the distances are not great road conditions can be pretty poor, even some of the new roads. Car hire is expensive and parking in larger towns can be problematic and intercity buses run on a very limited timetable, often once daily or once every two days. Train travel is even less reliable, in fact the only train we saw in two weeks was stationary in Santiago and didn’t look like it was going anywhere in a hurry. In many instances if there is enough of you hiring a taxi to drive you from one city to another may actually work out to be the most time and cost effective option.

5. The People

The people are the highlight of Cuba and their heart beats to the rhythm of Salsa! They are super friendly and incredibly giving, something that people around the world who have very little always seem to be. We never felt threatened, bothered or harassed during our time there and people generally just wanted to know where you were from and what you were doing in Cuba. You can almost guarantee a great evening out in a local music hall, a friendly chat in a city park or square, even the souvenir hawkers and taxi drivers will normally only ask onece and when given a friendly refusal will smile and wish you a pleasant day! Where else but in Cuba!

Armed with this little bit of knowledge and some pre trip preparation Cuba will dazzle you. It is hard not to get caught up in its unique blend of Spanish, Caribbean and Africa culture. Over the next few weeks we will be expanding on these topics, but in the meant time, ‘ Viva Cuba Libre!’

–  Dean