Cuba’s political murals are one of the most potent images of this country: the faces of Che and Castro, strong and resolute, looking out over their people. But in recent years, new voices have emerged: they started as a clandestine whisper, a few words - often in English - here and there; but the voices are rising in volume and noise, and graffiti has begun to change the urban landscape.Read More
Underground restaurants may be a relatively new trend in the United States, but they’ve been happening for decades in Cuba. Paladares or ‘home restaurants’ have long served the best food in the country, and are now at the heart of Cuba’s newly invigorated dining scene.
Paladares didn’t always exist, and for several years the culinary culture of Cuba was arguably in decline. In 1968, the state assumed governance of all restaurants throughout the nation and many of these were a success. However, in the hard years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union – Cuba’s main economic partner following the Revolution – and during the Special Period that followed, the country suffered from serious food shortages. Naturally, the priority was to meet the ‘basic needs’ of the people, not keep state-run eateries in good stock. Equally, for the average Cuban, dining out was a luxury they could no longer afford, and many of these restaurants closed down. Despite the rich culinary heritage of Cuba, the country gained a reputation amongst outsiders for poor cuisine.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that this situation began to improve. In 1993, amongst a wave of other reforms intended to boost the economy, Fidel Castro announced the legalization of more than 100 self-employed positions, such as in the food sector. Some paladares had probably existed illegally before, but now they were legitimate they could be taxed and regulated. In the mid-nineties, the first wave of official paladares opened up – small family-run operations with a government license to sell food to Cubans and tourists alike. Hosted in family homes, with the law stipulating that staff must be relatives, each paladar offered a completely unique dining experience: the wedding photos on the wall; the abuela rocking in a chair in the corner; and the kids occasionally peeking in from the kitchen or helping to wait tables. From tourists previously only seeing a state-sanctioned view of the food culture of Cuba, these paladares gave an insight into real Cuban life. More importantly, it offered Cubans the chance to supplement their state salary and run their own business legally and with a degree of independence.
Most paladares were simple mom-and-pop affairs serving up delicious comida cubana while some were more adventurous or glamorous. However, they were subject to certain conditions such as a limit on the number of seats and ban on ‘luxury’ foods such as beef and shellfish, reserved for the ongoing state-run operations.
It wasn’t until Raul Castro’s 2011 reform program again loosened the laws on private enterprise that the restaurant scene could truly flourish. In the months that followed more than a quarter of a million entrepreneurs applied for licenses, an estimated 22% of which were in the service industry. By 2012, new ventures were opening up every week, and today, there are close to 2,000 private restaurants.
Paladares have come a long way from simple family-run operations. Restaurants like Le Chansonnier with its high design interiors and chic French-inspired cuisine could compete with its Parisian counterparts and Casa Miglis could well be the only Cuban-Swedish fusion restaurant in the world. In the last few years, the dining scene has completely revolutionized to rival its capital city counterparts without losing its distinctly Cuban foundations. Better still, it is largely Cubans benefitting economically from these improvements, despite ongoing issues over taxation and bureaucracy. But there is further change on the horizon, as more than 20 state restaurants are about to become employee-run cooperatives, as part of a pilot experiment, with hundreds more to follow if successful. The pace of change in Cuba, in the dining scene and beyond, doesn’t look set to slow for some time.
As published in Insight Cuba, leading experts in people-to-people travel between US and Cuba.
Most men I meet in Cuba say the same thing to me: “Why are you travelling alone? Where is your husband?” I vary my answer just to make it more interesting; I have a whole harem of imaginary husbands now. Us solo female travelers are a rare breed here. Predominantly, this country attracts couples lost in the romance of it all, solo male adventurers fulfilling their Che Guevara motorcycle fantasies and touring groups. But that’s not to say it isn’t a good country for women to visit alone.
To start with, Cuba is incredibly safe with the lowest crime rate in the Western Hemisphere. Violent incidents are rare and even petty crimes like pick pocketing or mugging are not common. Use the same sense you would in any city: take care on the unlit streets; make sure someone knows your movements; use taxis late at night and sit in the back seat; be aware of where you’re going. The chronic lack of street lighting and frequent blackouts is discomfiting, but often the cities are buzzing even after hours, with families sitting out on their step to enjoy the cool night air and neighbors mingling. A lot of socializing in Cuba is done on the street by night.
Walking around Habana Vieja or other tourist areas, you’ll be stopped every few steps with the shout of, “Friend, where you from?” This applies to men as much as women, but female travelers can seem an easy target for touts or hustlers, of which there are many. It may feel like bad manners to ignore people, but most often, these ‘friendships’ lead to offers of cheap cigars or the promise to take you to the ‘best’ mojito bar in the city, for which they gain commission. It’s easy to end up on a goose chase out of sheer politeness, but never feel obliged to part with any money. At times it can feel like you're set upon from all angles - getting off buses especially - but do keep in mind this is a country with scant opportunity to earn a decent wage: one night's custom in a restaurant, one night in a casa, a small commission a tout may make, these all can make a huge difference to the $20 the average Cuban earns a month.
This country has done much work to improve gender equality, with women well represented in parliament and the work force. A woman’s position in society is respected, though that doesn’t stop men from catcalling girls at every opportunity, as in most Latin American countries. As my Spanish improved, so have my retorts, and any exchange usually ends in easy laughter. There is no malice in this kind of attention.
Many women have children at a young age, and some local bars can feel like intimidating hives of testosterone. Being hit on is something we all know how to deal with, but what was harder to fathom were the jineteros. These hustlers target both men and women, and are the key purveyors of sex tourism. This is sadly rife in this country for a wide range of socio-economic reasons perpetuated by an unscrupulous minority of the tourist trade. Sitting at a bar on my own, the occasional man would dribble adoration in my ear. “You’re the most beautiful woman I have ever seen - where are you going? Can I come with you? I’ll go anywhere you want.” Out of sheer naivety, the intensity and frequency of these come-ons baffled me at first.
Sometimes they’re after a straight up financial exchange; others are happy to spend a few days being nicely looked after with drinks, meals and gifts. A few are just looking for a foreigner to befriend who might be able to send assistance from abroad to improve their own often low standard of living. Some might have thought I was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen. Either way, this was probably the greatest nuisance I encountered. It can be difficult at times to distinguish genuine advances of friendship – which you will encounter everywhere you go in this joyously friendly and open country – from someone hoping to benefit from it. This is true of anywhere you are out of your cultural context, but in Cuba it can be a complex dynamic to grasp.
But, as far as I’m concerned, I refuse to forego the pleasure of having a cold beer in a bar on my own just because of a bit of unwanted male attention. A firm refusal usually does the trick.
As published on Insight Cuba, America’s leading provider of people-to-people travel to Cuba
For many years, there was as a divide between locals and tourists in Cuba. There were Cuban bars and there were tourist bars. There were Cuban pesos and tourist dollars (the convertible peso). When you went into a restaurant, you would be handed a tourist menu, different to the menu handed to Cubans. And similarly, there were private tourist beaches and public Cuban beaches. Ever since Raul Castro’s reforms of 2008, the law does not enforce these divisions – for example, Cubans were granted access to enjoy beach resorts and hotels – however, at times it feels a hangover from these days remains, albeit in the process of fading.
Access to many of Cuba’s beaches is prohibitively expensive. The most famous and arguably most stunning, often touted as the Caribbean’s best beach, is Playa Pilar, which is really only accessible if you’re staying in one of the all-inclusive resorts on Cayo Guillermo or Cayo Coco. While the white sand and clear turquoise waters have a undeniable daydream charm, it also feels somewhat devoid of the what makes a place distinctly Cuban: the people.
I’ve chosen the below beaches because they are all regularly used by local families, as well as tourists, and are affordably accessible to all.
Playa Maguana, Baracoa
This is a beautiful beach in its own right with golden white sand, lined with mangroves, and warm calm waters, protected by a coral reef. But, with a small village here as well, it also gives a lovely chance to mix with the welcoming community. Old men play dominoes in the mottled shade of the trees and kids play with the piglets, running wild. Located 22km from Baracoa, it’s a 45-minute journey either via collectivo (5 CUC) or in a taxi (25 CUC). The road is incredibly bumpy, but the scenery is splendid, passing by the majestic Rio Toa with the grand mountain range in the background, and offering glimpses into family life on the campesino. As you sunbathe, you may get offers of lobster lunch, craftwork or even salsa classes, but these are always polite. Make sure to find out the time of the last truck home, though there are worse places to be stranded.
Playa Las Salinas, Villa Clara
Part of the hundreds of small keys that make up Cayerias del Norte, Las Salinas remains fantastically rugged and quiet, and as a public beach, is used by holidaying locals. This is one of the more recent development projects by the Cuban government, and it has been more delicately executed than in other areas, with care taken to protect the local flora and fauna here. The long strip of white sand is dotted with a few tatty palm leaf shelters and backed by thicket and dunes. At the rocky headland you’ll find the resort of Villa las Brujas, where you can get lunch and drinks if needed. The beach is accessible via El Pedraplen causeway (there’s a CUC 2 toll), and 65km drive from Remedios.
Playas del Este, Havana
Just 18km from Havana’s city centre, is a seemingly endless stretch of palm-fringed white sand. There are numerous resorts along the 15km, but walk just five minutes away from them, and you can find a sand dune to nestle into, as if it were your private Caribbean beach. Santa Maria del Mar is the most popular, and has a party vibe every summer weekend, as the whole city decamps here. But head to the village of Guanabo, the furthest point, when you get hungry. This ramshackle little town is home to El Picolo, serving the best pizza in the city.
Playa los Cocos, La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia
My favorite beach of them all, this little village is decidedly local, home to the many Cubans who work in the imposing all-inclusive resorts lining Playa Santa Lucia. Accessible from there by foot, bicycle or hitchhiking (it’s 7km from the nearest resort), the beach here has golden sands with sheltered water (as long as you don’t swim too far out) to one side and the Laguna el Real to the other, dotted with pink flamingoes. You can snorkel to the reef just metres from the shore. The best thing about this beach is the neighbourhood: local holidaymakers roast pigs on the beach and drink rum in the shallow waters. Make friends with the charming Kiki on the snack stall, and learn about life in this tiny village.
As published in Insight Cuba, America's leading provider of people-to-people travel to Cuba
Eating my ice cream at Coppelia, I can’t help but think of the striking first scene of Oscar-nominated 1993 Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate. The title refers to flavours of ice cream, one representing the gay and creative while the other represents the straight in both sexual and political terms. In that opening scene, Diego eats his strawberry ice cream with all the innuendo available to him, while attempting to seduce the straight David at Havana’s most famous ice cream parlour. You can visit Coppelia yourself, which at peak times has queues around the block, and they still only have two flavours of ice cream, at best.
Fresa y Chocolate is Cuba’s most famous and internationally acclaimed film to date. Part of the film’s success was in its daring critique of the Cuban government and the confrontation of the country’s ingrained homophobia, but for international audiences it was as much about the magical way in which it conjured the chaos and beauty of Havana life.
Many visitors to Cuba made the pilgrimage to the apartment of Diego - fabulously played by Jorge Perugorria - wanting to walk through the towering wooden doors into the airy colonial courtyard and to see the room itself, where the bulk of the action takes place, as crowded with antique bric-a-brac and religious iconography as with the chemistry between the two men. In 1996, the enterprising owner turned part of the building into paladar La Guarida (www.laguarida.com), which for years offered the best meal in town.
In Vedado, they also opened up a bar in homage to the film. Fresa y Chocolate is a hip hangout for local film students with red director chairs and film paraphernalia plastering the walls. In the adjacent Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) headquarters, you can also pick up film posters, rare DVDs and see exhibitions. Located on Calle 23, this is cinephile central with the Cine Charlie Chaplin opposite (one of the biggest art house cinemas in Latin America) and the small cinema Calle 23 y 12, which screens just one Cuban movie a day.
Fresa y Chocolate is just one in a long line of art house movies created with the assistance of ICAIC that has made Cine Cubano famous world over. Established in 1959, it was part of the government’s programme to educate Cubans and support Latin American cinema. In its heyday, it nurtured acclaimed directors such as Humberto Solás and Fernando Pérez. Increasingly however, Cuban films are independently financed and digitally filmed to avoid the political limitations imposed by the institute.
Cuba is also home to the Havana Film School, which lists Soderbergh and Spielberg amongst its fans. The initiative of director Julio García Espinosa, novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Fidel Castro, they wanted to create, in Garcia’s words, a “factory of creative energy.” Designated a non-government organisation, it does not actually count as Cuban soil, therefore Americans can bypass the travel ban and study here too. I met dozens of American film students in the city, and sometimes it feels like every young person in Havana is a film fan or critic.
For any lover of cinema, a fantastic time to visit is during the annual Havana Film Festival (www.habanafilmfestival.com). For the first two weeks in December, the entire city is gripped with film fever, and the often dilapidated and sweltering art nouveau cinemas are packed day and night hosting screenings of the best cinema Latin America has to offer. Those visiting outside the festival, should go to the prestigious Ludwig Foundation (www.aflfc.org/eng/whoweare/ludwig) to discover the emerging art scene of Cuba. They host a daily exposition with talks from every discipline including film.
But anytime you wander through the city you’re likely to stumble into a film event, a home cinema hosted in a local’s front room or just a group of friends discussing the classics over a cafe cubano.
As published in Insight Cuba, leading providers of legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens