Guest Post: A first-timer’s trip to Cuba!

Thanks to Seasoned Review for the space to share a recent weekend trip to Cuba!  

Quick note on first impressions of the country itself before getting to the good stuff – the food!  Unlike any place I’ve been before, Cuba has a fascinating history, especially with the perspective of visiting as an American Citizen.  There are sights that seem to stand still in time, like the automobiles and architecture, maintained from 50 years ago.  There’s a constant beautiful sea breeze that kept the hot temperatures feeling comfortable.  But, it’s the people that were the real gem of the country.  With very little English spoken (and our limited Spanish), we were still able to communicate with natives through big smiles and we felt very safe and cared for throughout our stay.  This picture sums up the bright personalities and beautiful sights of Cuba!

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Onto the cuisine de Cuba!  We were limited on time so I’ll highlight the few meals we had.  After landing in the morning, we were ready for lunch around 11AM, but had to wait for lunch service until noon, which was the norm.  My trip research led us to Van Van, which was the top-rated by stars, but not the most popular by number of reviews, place on Trip Advisor. Here’s both the food, and drink menu, which in format alone were unique and suited the atmosphere!  The prices on the menu are in CUC, the Cuban Convertible Peso, the most popular currency for visitors, but not the native currency – more on that later…

We chose the Croqueta de Vegetables, Relleno Atuna (I still don’t know what that first word is, but trusted the server’s suggestion), and the Espaguetis Balonesa (not traditional Cuban, but since we were limited on time, we were very cognizant on sticking to fully cooked foods and wanted to avoid the ensalada since we weren’t sure how it would be served).  All were magnificently prepared, but the clear favorite were the fried plantains stuffed with tuna.  I would never have made this combination on my own, but it worked!

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Highly recommend this dish, and the restaurant as a whole!  Here you can see the bar, and the view out the window from our table.  Along with the cute way the bill is shared, which we observed that having a unique way (at least more unique than the typical folder method in the USA) to present the check was common.

The next day we visited the Tropicana Club, described in our travel book as “possibly the most famous nightclub in the world!”  Once again we arrived before noon and had to wait until lunch was served, but when we did, we had the Cuban sandwich and plate of fried shrimp, rice, and vegetables.  

The food was delicious!  Once again we were happy to have something ‘authentico’.  The classic Cuban sandwich had a great blend of ham, cheese, pickles, mustard, and white bread.  The shrimp were unique – the batter was heavily herbed (in a good way) and light and airy.  It was the type of thing that really grew on you while you ate it and left us wanting more!  The design on the plate of sauces is hard to see in the picture, but really was quite pretty, and the entire restaurant had a fancier atmosphere than we were dressed for, but they welcomed us anyway.  The only downside was the lack of imported beverages as we had a hankering for a Coca-Cola. 🙂

Speaking of beverages, we read not to drink the tap water.  When I first ordered a Coca-Cola, I quickly discovered this meant the locally bottled brand, Ciego Montero, which smelled quite strong.  We did find Fanta, Perrier, and Diet Cokes eventually (hecho in Mexico), but they were rare.  To stay hydrated, we brought a water filter and used it on the locally bottled water.  The filter was a little tedious – required a full 90 second submersion in about a 6 ounce portion, but worked great nonetheless.  I’m glad to report we never got sick from anything consumed!

Finally, onto the good part… dessert!  We read about the long lines at Coppelia in the Vedado neighborhood park and were destined to try it with it being in walking distance from where we stayed.  The place was steadily busy, but lines weren’t nearly as long as we expected, moved quickly, and was well worth the wait and $2.50 CUC for two scoops.  It was the type of thing that is so good, that I forgot to take a picture until we were already three-quarters finished!  We tried two flavors – naranja and pineapple.  Both were excellent; the orange was much stronger in flavor.  Both were served with a sprinkling of what tasted like crushed up graham crackers or wafers, which added some texture and was a nice touch!

Because it was THAT good, we went back the next day, and this time I remembered to take a picture from the start!  Once again, we went with pineapple, orange, and vanilla.  The orange and vanilla mixture was a real orange creamsicle taste.  We sat outside at picnic tables watching the crowds waiting at the bus stop and the kids playing in the park while savoring every drop – what a treat!

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One thing we found fascinating was the different spots for locals and visitors, along with different currencies and prices to match!  I took a picture of the menu for locals, which we did not order off of.  The first time we visited, a security guard, speaking in Spanish of course, sternly guided us and another family away from the “local” restaurant to the stand that served other ‘gringos’ like us.  When she realized we didn’t understand Spanish, she just spoke louder and more sternly in Spanish.  So when we returned, we snuck over to take this picture of the local menu.  There were more choices and lower prices.  Notice in the bottom it reads moneda nacional (CUP) different from our CUCs. There are currently 25 CUP per CUC.

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We also scarfed down street food – barbeque chicken and dirty rice and enjoyed the fishing village of Cojimar.  

If you have questions about any of these spots or more generally if you are planning a trip to Cuba, ask away in the comments and I’ll get back to you!  Would love to hear your favorite eateries in Cuba, or other good food country destinations to add to our list.  Cheers!

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