Another surprise for me was the food – everyone had warned me that Cuban cuisine was basic and to expect rice and beans, fish and vegetables. In fact, I thought I would use Cuba as a detox session before hitting Mexico where I knew I would have the opposite problem with the food! But what we had was hugely diverse ranging from the basics of rice and bean and Ropa Viaje (their national dish which is basically shredded meat like “old clothes”) to some of the best Ceviche I have ever tasted to some great fine dining experiences in old paladares (private restaurants) highlighting an exciting, emerging food scene. This is one of the big advantages of traveling somewhere like Cuba with a group tour – Creative Escapes have years of experience of trips to Cuba and so know all the best hotels and dining options while their local contacts keep them up-to-date on the latest openings. I am sure my experience of Cuba would have been very different if I attempted to travel alone the first time. In fact, I met an American lady in the bank who was really unhappy as she was there on her own, did not speak Spanish and had no idea where to eat or how to travel around the city.
My favourite places we tried were El Cocinero in the Vedado district, a bar and restaurant in an old factory; La Guardia (considered the best Paladar in the city) which not only does great fine dining but its crumbling, palacial interior has made it a favourite for photography and filming (including Fresa y Chocolate); El Dandy Bar y Galeria, a cute little hipster cafe/bar with lots of photos/arts and quirky artifacts (could have been straight out of London’s Hackney); and Coppelia for ice cream, the only one of the places I have mentioned where you can experience the real Cuba. The futuristic, iconic building from the sixties was unfortunately under renovation when we were there but we were able to sit outside and have ice cream (try the Ensalada if you can’t decide what to go for, a trio of flavours). A newer opening is the Italian 5 Esquinas Trattoria, down a little side street but with some of the best Gazpacho and wood-fired pizza I have had!