29 . 09 . 16
A Backpacker’s Food Directory: Changes in Cuba
Two chaps mucking about with a trombone one night in Havana, a lit up flag, a view over Trinidad and a classic Cuban car shot. Writing by Julia Georgallis, images by Julia Georgallis and Miles Morley.
Cuba is having a moment. It’s a destination now, what with the ‘borders opening.’ You know, because people want to go ‘before it changes.’ I most certainly did, anyway. So I flung myself at this Caribbean island, with its tales of music, cigars, rum and political heroes for just 6 days (with one day for travel) with an American friend of mine. For the record, 5 days is not enough time. It’s somewhere to be discovered and unravelled. In 5 days, I dunked my head in and tried to sniff up all Cuba was and what it might become in the future. And my overwhelming feeling to the statement above is ‘before it changes to what exactly?’
The mythical Cuba with its old cars and Buena Vista Social clubs that we want to see was gone a long time ago (although the cars are still there). It has changed though, because change is inevitable and because Cubans are willing it to change with every fibre of their being. So, everybody, stop panicking. Cuba is still lovely. Just go to Cuba for these miraculous things that are there now and will probably always be there…
I would be letting the side down if I didn’t start this guide with a note about alcohol. It is quite literally easier to buy rum than it is to buy water. There are holes in the walls with hand painted signs above them everywhere you go called ronerias, stuffed full of alcohol. If you must insist on staying hydrated, ask to buy water at your hostel or pick some up from a restaurant. But, otherwise, drink ALL the mojitos. Try a drink called canchanchara, which is Trinidad’s baby – it’s a mixture of ice, honey, rum and lime. We also had a cocktail on the first day that we never found again and that we dreamed about, called a negron. It follows canchanchara’s footsteps with its ice, honey, lime and rum, but also has Thai basil and tequila thrown into the mix as well. *smacks lips*
2. Ropa Vieja
Most countries in Latin America have a version of this dish – slow roasted, pulled meat (usually beef or pork). But ropa vieja, or old clothes, is Cuba’s national dish and the country would not function without it. I like its name, it reminds me of all the washing hanging out of the knock down, peeling, ex-Colonial houses in Havana. I assume its called that because traditionally the meat starts its life as soup (imagine old-fashioned clothes in a big barrel of water, being stirred like soup). The soup meat is then recycled, shredded, mixed and braised in a sauce and kept for a few days. Ropa vieja is the ultimate way to long out meat, I guess. Our favourite place for this was called Locos por Cuba, Vedado, Havana – a tiny place that stuffs meals of monumental proportions on tiny plates on a tiny table on a tiny balcony.
Cuba’s answer to supper clubs – when restaurants were not allowed in stricter times, the people took matters into their own hands and began to run paladars – these are not necessarily secret but secretive restaurants off the beaten track. There are lots of these in Havana but we really enjoyed a night at one in particular in Vedado, O’Reilly 304. Like most of the city, the building we arrived at was, at some point, extremely grand. Now, its rolling staircases, high ceilings and remnants of Grecian statues were crumbling and decaying, Communist slogans faded on the walls (but still very beautiful, like much of Havana). On climbing up the staircase we stepped into somewhere very smart indeed and ate an even smarter, very delicious meal. Up more stairs, we found a rooftop bar, that wouldn’t have been out of place somewhere in Southern Europe.
Don’t stay in a hotel. Really, don’t. We stayed at one all-inclusive on Playa Ancon, a a dreamy beach actually stuck in some kind of 70’s time warp complete with leaky, damp beige hotels – we had a great time, drinking all the luminous alcohol and watching terrible hotel acts, but really. Don’t stay at a hotel. Instead, stay in a guesthouse or hospedaje. These are clean, cheerful, usually with a fantastic breakfast and by staying in them, you are supporting small businesses. We stayed at Lesyan’s guesthouse in Havana and enjoyed late night chats, cigars, a parrot and pirated versions of Hollywood films, colourful neighbours and killer mojitos. You can either find hospedajes when you get to Cuba or email in advance.
(Recommended hospedaje in Vedado, Havana: Lesyan Medina, firstname.lastname@example.org)
We had very limited time in Trinidad, but I’m so pleased I went. A colourful, colonial town, cleaner and brighter than Havana, with music everywhere. Listen to live bands at Casa de la Trova or Casa de la Musica and head out to Disco Ayala – a club in a REALLY BIG CAVE! Eat at a place called La Botija, we only discovered this after we had eaten a pretty mediocre meal (which, just to warn you, is very easy to find – you have to search hard for good nosh and go on recommendations).
I think Cuba demands a little bit more of an explanation from me than just a few short points. I was super mesmerized by the place. But it was hard. It’s expensive. You will get gringoed (screwed over) multiple times, even if you speak fluent Spanish. Internet is non-existent. For once, my breezy backpacker let’s-not plan-anything attitude almost didn’t work for the short a period of time that I was there. But that’s the way the country is, it requires a bit of work, and I loved it. And in a way, I didn’t mind getting gringoed. Many Cubans are frustrated and underpaid, with skills and brains and needs and they are simply not getting enough to survive on from their government. So tourists get swindled so people can, literally, eat (example – a lawyer in Cuba earns 15 dollars a month. A MONTH!) So I didn’t really mind. I am in no rush to go back, though, any time soon though, not because I didn’t love it and not because I’ve seen enough, but I would like to go back to a Cuba in years to come when it has found its feet again, where people have a bit more freedom (and a few more funds). It is such a rich place in so many other ways; Cubans think of each other as equal, there is a (supposedly) 50% female workforce, education and healthcare are free. There is so much beauty and culture, history and energy so I hope that this plucky country can push its way back to its heyday which, at present, is just crumbling further and further into the ground.