As a tourist in Cuba, you get a markedly different experience to the locals. Given that the country is socialist, the government provides or subsidizes many things for Cubans. Tourism really only started in Cuba after the Soviet Union fell as a solution to the economic crisis Cuba faced. Laws keep tourists as separate as possible from the locals so that the socialist ideas that govern life there are not corrupted by tourists coming in with all their (high value) money and free-wheeling ways.
Casas particulares (home-stays) are a form of accommodation for foreigners in Cuba that is legal and formalized. You can tell which houses are casas particulares from the white and blue anchor sign nailed to the door or on a sign outside. Families apply to the government in order to operate this type of accommodation, and pay a high license fee every year as well as regular payments every month, whether they have guests or not. The rooms for guests need to be of a certain standard and are very different to dwellings in which local Cubans may live.
I went with a friend in his house in Baracoa – quite off the tourist-beaten path. He shared with his dad and brother and some of the walls (including an external one) were made/reinforced with flattened cardboard boxes. Quite different to the room I was staying, which had twin beds, a private bathroom with a hot shower, towels, and air-conditioning. Some tourist agencies who operate in Cuba believe that homestay accommodation is only permitted by the government as they have not built enough hotels yet to house all the tourists (thank goodness!)
Breakfast at the casas was included each morning and offered fantastically strong coffee, freshly squeezed/blended fruit juice (generally guava), bread, an omelette (called a tortilla but not to be confused with the Spanish or Mexican versions), and fresh fruit. Delicious!
The food we ate is not typical for a Cuban family as we were offered a choice of meat each night. Chicken and pork are the most common meats served in Cuba, however fish and lobster was also offered (subject to availability) at the casas which get first dibs on food as they have tourists to feed.
Flying into Havana from Mexico City there were signs in the airport gift shops for hot sauce. Cuban food is not spicy; so many Mexicans travelling to the island pack enormous quantities of hot sauce and salsa to see them through their visit.
Sometimes when eating out you would be handed a menu and instead of being told the specials, the waiter would go through the menu and tell you all the things you couldn’t have as they didn’t have seafood, or beef that day.
Dinner is that day’s protein, with Cuban staples such as beans and rice (Moros y Cristianos), tostones – fried green plantain chips and perhaps a salad of tomato and lettuce. I pretty much ate fish every night; in heaven as Oaxaca is about 10 hours from the nearest coast by road and so fish is one of those foods I err on the side of caution with. If I can’t see the ocean, I am not eating fish. Dessert might be platano frito –a fried sweet ripe banana, which they also do in Mexico and is delicious.
Street food is also available in Cuba, sold from stands, windows, wheelbarrows and carts; the ice cream is fantastic and available everywhere. You could buy simple pizzas served on a paper plate the size of the pizza base (sometimes cheese, cheese & onion, cheese & tomato) for under 10c which were delicious – just remember to fold them to eat or all the cheese will slide off into the ground.
Early mornings you might find locals clustered around a house window, all sipping on coffee, as they finish they hand the cup back through the window past the bars, and continue on to start their day.
The food rationing system for Cubans is known as Libreta de Abastecimiento (“Supplies booklet”). I will explain about the Cuban ration system in my next post.
This post is part of a series on Cuba.