Two weeks ago I returned from my trip to Cuba. Not a lot of people can say they’ve been there (it’s still restricted to travelers from the states), but I can say that I’ve been there twice now! The first time was with my parents nearly ten years ago. I call those times pre-foodie times. That was when an all-inclusive hotel buffet was sufficient for me. Now? Not so much. So what did I do this time around knowing what I was getting in to? Hunt down street food on days we weren’t relaxing at the hotel and beach.
Not to say that I didn’t enjoy any of the food at the hotel at all. The best was the meat platter of a “BBQ” theme night at the a la carte restaurant at Blau Varadero. Cubans sure like their meats. Pork specifically! And although most of what Joe and I ate was on the blander side of things, this particular meat platter was well done! The buffet was meh, just okay. It’s what you get for all-inclusive and I knew that coming in. My down time still was food-related though: catching up on Lucky Peach magazines wherever we chose to sit that day.
We had two separate day trips planned from the Varadero resort area. One of which was to Havana, the capital city of Cuba. En route, we stopped by a pina coladas stand. Our tour bus basically swarmed the place, pesos thrown left and right just to get a glass. What was so special? Aside from the fresh pineapple juice, fresh coconut milk, and of course, rum… there really wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It tasted otherwise. Delicious! Maybe our hotel’s premix versions had gotten our standards lower but I swear, we’ll never have a better tasting pina colada than the one at the little booth.
Havana, by far, was the coolest part of the trip. And although I had already been there once, everything to me looked brand new. My fondest memory with my parents were the coco taxis! The cutest taxis shaped like a coconut. It’s honestly like a theme park ride though as there’s no glass or plastic covering to protect you, no seatbelts, and your driver is in complete motorcycle gear cruising down the narrow streets. Fun times!
We had a tour guide show our group around town but broke away as soon we got a chance to ask when and where the tourbus was going to be. The reason? I was going through a food withdrawal. I needed good, authentic, what-do-locals-eat, type of food. I had found one article online on a churro stand in the heart of Old Havana. It was my mission to find this cart! It really wasn’t that hard to find and our tour guide knew exactly what I was talking about. Fresh. Off. The. Cart. Churros.
On the intersecting streets of Obispo and Mercaderes, stood the churro cart. For 0.50 CUC (pesos), we got a cone of churros. I made Joe get his own, obviously. And we were lucky enough to see them make a new batch! One worker started making a fresh batch of dough and ladled it into a machine that pipes out the perfect width of churros. He would guide it into coils making sure they didn’t touch each other.
Deep fried and cut to order, the churros were simply sprinkled with sugar and wrapped in a newspaper cone.
De-licious. Best thing I ate in Cuba. Seriously.
And while we headed back to where the famous poet Ernest Hemingway help create the beloved daquiri, all I could think about is the crisp texture.
Just down Mercaderes was another cart with even a longer line up than the churro. Fresh corn on the cob! By the time we got to the front of the line, she was out of corn and we couldn’t take the risk of missing our tour bus to wait for more corn to grill. Major sad face. But it looked delicious! Fresh off the grill, rubbed with butter, sprinkle of what looked like plain salt. She was even making fresh lemonade from scratch!
We ended up rushing back to the tourbus only to discover that the rest of the tour had just ended and it was now free time for everybody else. Argh, could have waited for the corn! Wandering around Old Havana for a few more minutes led us to a fresh coconut juice stand though. Cut with a machete, cleaned with a paring knife, and *plop* a straw. Done. Good way to wash down the second round of churros I went back for…
Our second day outside of Varadero was to see a sugar cane plantation, one of Cuba’s largest exports. I think most people go in to see Havana and miss out on other parts of the island, so it was nice to see a whole different side of Cuba.
The plantation that we went to was now converted to a museum so we didn’t actually get to see any complex processing done. It was cool to learn about sugar cane production and how there’s different varieties for different purposes! At the end of the tour, we did get to sample some fresh sugar cane juice though, via a small extractor!
It’s astonishing how much juice came out of the canes and how brightly colored it was. In its raw format, it was absolutely delicious! Refreshing, naturally sweet, and surprisingly smooth. I watched them simply filter the juice through a sieve before serving it to us. A bottle of rum was available for you to mix your own drink, but the juice was good enough for me! Did you know that if you ferment and distill the sugar cane juice, it becomes rum?
After a quick lunch, we toured a small “zoo” that showcased some indigenous species of trees and plants. Then we headed to the swampy, south Cuba for a tour of a crocodile farm. They’re huge! I noticed the cafe in the reserve was also advertising “crocodile meat” on their menu. Um… ? I thought the whole point of the farm was to help preserve the endangered Cuban crocodile species! Interesting. I didn’t eat that.
If you ever get a chance to visit Cuba, highly suggest you try and catch these eats. If you have time to do Havana on your own (without a tour guide), that’s a plus! I’m sure I would have found more eats if we had the time to scout the place out. Maybe staying in Havana for a couple of days would have been ideal. It’s hard when you stay at an all-inclusive hotel to really experience the culture of food! Lesson learnt! I also heard that the Cubans have their own variety of churros, a straight long one, filled with fruits such as guava. Be on the look out for that! I can’t stop talking about churros…