A snapshot of Cuba pt.2: Eating in Casa’s, and visiting Varadero & Trinidad

Eating in and staying in a Casa

We stayed in Casa Particulare’s as much as possible in Cuba – these are similar to b&b’s (and airbnb, which has only just launched in Cuba), and are normally rooms in a family house. It’s a good way to get acquainted with a town/city and its people – we really enjoyed chatting with our hosts – and they are pretty cheap too. Most will offer breakfast and some also offer evening meals (at a separate price).

Breakfasts usually included fresh fruit (we went in mango season – yum), followed by bread, eggs (scrambled, fried or as an omelette), edam-style cheese, ham or salami, tomato & cucumber, and coffee.

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Breakfasts at Casa Yadilis & Joel, and the roof terrace where we ate

We had an evening meal in two of the casa’s we stayed in, and both were better than some of the restaurants we encountered!

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Evening meal at Yadilis & Joel’s 2nd casa – and view of the sun setting over the sea from their roof terrace

We stayed in Casa Yadilis & Joel in Havana and they were great – friendly and helpful, nice room, good breakfasts and evening meal. They are in Centro Habana which is a bit more run-down than some areas, but it was easy to get to the old town and the malecon.

At Yadilis & Joel’s I loved the fact that even though the breakfasts consisted of similar ingredients each day, they were presented creatively and were always slightly different. We also had various fresh fruit juices and smoothies with our breakfast here. Cuban coffee is really good too so I always looked forward to that.

Casa Yadilis & Joel

Prices as of May 2015: room per night 30 CUC

Breakfast: 5 CUC

Evening meal 10 CUC

Varadero

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After Havana we went to nearby beachy paradise Varadero for a couple of days of well-deserved r&r – you can’t beat the first view of a Caribbean beach with its palm trees, powdery white sand and turquoise, warm-as-a-bath sea – take me back! We stayed in an all-inclusive for 3 nights here (our first experience of one), as they were all on the beach and we wanted as little hassle/movement as possible for a couple of days. I’m not gonna lie, it was pretty blissful going from bed to sun lounger to pool to bed! I’m not sure I could do a full holiday in one though…

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The food here wasn’t amazing, but it was ok for those days – the best restaurant we ate in was actually a Japanese one!

We stayed at Meliá Las Americas which is marketed as a golf resort hotel, but we don’t golf – it just had some of the best reviews online for hotels in Varadero, and it was very nice!

After two days of relaxation we then had a little bit of stress travelling to Trinidad (in Cuba, not & Tobago!). We didn’t realise at the time, but Cuban buses are ridiculously punctual, and you should turn up at least half an hour in advance to check in your luggage… being a fairly chilled-out Caribbean country we’d just assumed the public transport would be at least as bad as it is in England (i.e. crap) but oh no.  We booked a taxi for half an hour before departure, which then turned up 25 minutes late, getting us to the bus station about 3 minutes after the bus should have left – and it had. Being a sunday, this was the only bus making the 7 hour journey that day 😦

Luckily, an Irish couple had also just missed the bus, and we all piled into a taxi which agreed to take us on the journey. The taxi then stopped on the highway an hour and a half into the journey and told us we’d have to swap cars to his ‘brothers’ car, because he didn’t go as far as Trinidad. We all exchanged nervous glances, but did as he said, and we actually made it to Trinidad in one piece and 3 hours earlier than expected!

Trinidad

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We stayed 3 nights in Trinidad but could have stayed longer – it’s not a large town but it is lovely – lots of colourful colonial buildings, and live music EVERYWHERE. We went to two great clubs – the Casa de La Musica which is outdoors on the steps of one of the squares, and the Casa de La Trova which is smaller and indoors – both get very busy with drinkers and dancers, and it’s great to watch!

Trinidad is near some amazing countryside and also near the coast, so it’s a good base if you want to do a bit of travelling around. Seeing as we’d just come from the beach we didn’t go to another, but we did go to the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the sugar mills) to an old sugar plantation which was nice – the countryside on the way there is stunning.

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Valle de Los Ingenios and Manaca Iznaga sugar plantation

We stayed at Casa Elda y Roberto, which was in a lovely colonial house in the old town. We had an evening meal which was good, and excellent mojito’s 🙂 The breakfasts were nice but not quite as interesting or inventive as they were in our previous casa.

Our room was lovely – quite rustic, but colourful with lots of old furniture, and the terrace out the back of the casa was a nice place to eat breakfast – there were even hummingbirds buzzing around!

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The Casa and our food (peppers stuffed with mince on the left, bruschetta & mojito on the right).

The hosts Mercedes, Eddy and their son Saul were friendly and so were the other guests – we spent our last evening out with 3 Australian girls, Saul, and two of his friends – listening to live music, and then listening to Saul and his friends singing and playing the guitar until 2am – and us all joining in on Enrique Iglesias ‘Hero’ 😉

NB. For some reason lots of Cubans also seem to love James Blunt which we found a bit strange – they have all this amazing music – why play/listen to him?!

Casa Elda y Roberto

Trinidad

Approximate prices as of May 2015:

Room – 25 CUC

Breakfast – 5 CUC

Dinner – 10 CUC

Stay tuned for part 3 – Cienfuegos, The famous Hotel Nacional in Havana – and the cocktails!

A Snapshot of Cuba – Part 1: Havana and Eating Out

Well the summer in England this year has been a bit of a non-starter.  July was pretty wet, windy, and decidedly autumnal. August is so far a bit temperamental.  I’m hoping for an Indian summer now…!

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Instead of focussing on the English climate too much, I’m instead harking back to warmer days and remembering a time when it was (too) hot – back in May, when the OH and I went to Cuba. We spent almost a week in Havana, a few nights on the beach in Varadero, then went south and spent some time in Trinidad (in Cuba, not Trinidad & Tobago!) and Cienfuegos.

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When I told friends and family we were off to Cuba for our holidays this year, some were jealous, and some were unsure what the country had to offer. I thought it was obvious: sun, mojito’s, 1950’s american cars, salsa music… the only thing it’s not got much of is great food. The political situation in Cuba has meant that there are not a lot of ingredients to play with, the Cubans also generally don’t like spice and have a fairly conservative attitude to food, so it’s quite a plain cuisine – think plantain, potato, rice and beans, chicken etc. This is fine for a few meals, but it does get a bit boring after a while! We did find some gems in the rough however, and the cocktails were all excellent 🙂

Below are some thoughts on Havana and the nicest food we found there…

Havana

Havana is a very interesting city. It was fairly obvious to us back in May that it is going through a time of change; buildings are being spruced up, businesses are springing up out of people’s doorways and windows, and there were plenty of roads being paved and swept. Overall however, the city still feels very poor. A lot of buildings are derelict and crumbling, there aren’t many shops or cafés in large parts of the city, and the shops that are there have only a small amount on their shelves. We were staying in Centro Habana which is one of the poorer parts of the city, so it may have been more obvious to us than tourists staying in the parts of the city that have had money injected into them (such as Vedado and Vieja), but I was pleased we saw that and not just the sanitised version of the city.

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There’s a certain charm to the city, it’s colourful, the cars are amazing, and the people are generally friendly. It would be interesting to go back in a few years time and see how the city (and country) has changed, now the US embargo has lifted. I think some things will definitely change for the better (the food hopefully being one of them!), but some of the charm of the place may be lost. We shall see…

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Eating out

There are lots of restaurants in Cuba, and they are generally split up into State-run Restaurants and Paladars. We didn’t really eat in any State Restaurants as we were told the food wasn’t great, opting instead for the Paladars. The most interesting thing about Paladars are that most are privately run, and they are quite often in people’s houses. Sometimes it feels like having dinner in someone’s living room, and sometimes they are incredibly professional and have entertained the likes of Jay Z and Queen B.

La Guarida

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L – R: The entrance to the building, the floor below the restaurant, inside the restaurant.

Our favourite meal of the entire holiday was in La Guarida (a paladar that has entertained the aforementioned musical royalty). This was in Centro Havana, but in culinary terms, you wouldn’t know you were in Cuba. The food was beautifully presented, and on a par with any fine dining restaurant in Bath taste-wise. The flavour combinations were excellent and i can’t help but wish they would run a cookery school to help educate some of the restauranteurs in flavour. The building was also very atmospheric.

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L- R: Bread basket, utterly delicious Green Salad with Baked Pineapple, Goats Cheese & Tarragon Vinaigrette, vintage cutlery, crazy looking but really tasty Rabbit Paté with Mango, Tamarind and ‘Cotton’ (similar to candy floss!)

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L- R: Suckling Pig with an Orange & Honey Reduction (perfectly crunchy top, melt in the mouth bottom, lovely sauce), Three Tenderloins with Three Sauces – Blue Cheese & Chocolate, Green Pepper, and Béarnaise (a nice idea but a bit odd in practice – the only dish we didn’t love), and a Mango & Coconut Tart (really refreshing and a good way to end the meal – quite similar to a cheesecake in texture). 

La Guarida

Concordia no.418 e/ Gervasio y Escobar

Centro Habana

Decameron

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Another paladar we were impressed with (also in Havana), was Decameron, in the Vedado district. The food was a little simpler here, but the flavour combinations were still excellent, and they made the most of the produce Cuba has to offer, and made it interesting. My Duck Confit with Papaya was delicious. The decor in here was interesting too, lots of pendulum clocks on the walls.

Decameron

Linea, no.753 e/ Paseo y 2

Habana Vedado

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Part 2 will be about eating in Casa Particulares and our experiences in Varadero, Trinidad and Cienfuegos! And maybe some cocktails… 😉

Have you been to Cuba? Are you thinking about going? Let me know!