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A foodie's tour of Cuba

Tell someone you’re planning a trip to visit Cuba and you’ll likely hear, “Cuba? Really?  How are you getting there?”

Travel restrictions preventing American tourists from visiting Cuba have relaxed over the past few years, providing more opportunities to explore a country and culture that has long been off limits.  American tourists traveling to Cuba must use a travel company licensed to operate in Cuba. The tours typically involve a fairly detailed itinerary throughout the trip. 

On a recent trip to Cuba, I discovered the many sides of the island-nation--most notable through its cuisine. Food in Cuba has a bad rap and many think its ingredients are of poor quality due to the country's isolation or that it's heavy on the meat dishes. But for the most part, I found fresh, well-prepared meals, including fish and fruits right off the tree.  And the drinks, well, it is Cuba after all.

Given the chance to explore Havana on your own for a day, here’s a quick guide to give you a taste of Cuba you will remember for years to come.

To maximize your energy level, be sure to start your day with “Cubita,” Cuba’s premier coffee. Don’t go overboard. You typically drink it similar to a shot of espresso. It’s naturally sweet, so remember less is more.  For a longer lasting caffeine fix order a café con leche at one of local cafes like Café Paris, lining the cobblestone streets in the heart of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana).

As you walk down Obispo, one of Havana’s oldest streets,  you’ll pass the famous Hotel Ambos Mundos writer Ernest Hemingway rented a room while writing one of his novels. Soon you’ll arrive at the historic Plaza de Armas.  Savor the sounds of live salsa music drifting through the air as you approach Plaza de Catedral where you’ll find one of the city’s most famous Catholic churches. 

After touring the inside of the church (no charge) wander over to El Patio and grab a table in the shade outside. Enjoy an ice cold cuba libre (white rum & coke with lime) and nibble on crab cakes or calamari while people watching. Be warned, once the live salsa band starts playing you'll be tempted to dance (or one of the band members will use his charm to convince you).  

Before you leave here be sure to sneak a peek inside the more formal restaurant to admire the unique open-air design as well as the second floor balcony where you can dine overlooking Cathedral Square.

As you leave the square, hang a left and you’ll stumble upon another Havana landmark, La Bodeguita del Medio. This is where Cubans take credit for inventing the mojito! La Bodeguita is a well known tourist hang out, thanks to Ernest Hemingway. This was his favorite place to drink mojitos (as we know, Hemingway never turned down a good drink). The demand for mojitos is so high here, at any one time the solo bartender has 8-12 mint filled glasses prepared and waiting under the bar.  

The bar itself is cozy to say the least, with only six bar stools expect to make friends fast here.  And be sure to make room for the band performing live salsa music in the bar.  The actual restaurant is in the back and much larger, the menu is full of Cuban favorites. Don’t be afraid to express yourself, graffiti covers the walls with messages from visitors from around world.

Paladars, restaurants that operate inside locals homes, are by far the best places to eat in Havana. Think of it as ordering a home cooked meal. Ask anyone in Havana and they’ll tell you the most famous paladar in the city is, La Guarida (reservations required.)   La Guarida was the setting for the Oscar nominated film, Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry & Chocolate).  The only way to reach the restaurant is to climb three floors up a wide spiral marble staircase located inside an aging apartment building off a quiet street in Havana. Described as the “palate of the stars” on its website, it’s worth eating here for the ambience alone. 

Although I will admit some of the food here didn’t live up to my expectations, others in my group did enjoy their entrees. Hits: Red snapper with carrot and coconut sauce. Ravioli with cheese and pesto salsa. Fried yuca and plantains. Misses: Pork medallions (too tough). Lobster with papaya & pineapple salsa, sweet corn ($20 CUC), (too salty).  Ceviche with coconut and plantain chips (too soggy).  By far the best part of my meal was dessert: Dulce Café Especial de la casa, coffee with rum, condensed milk, cream milk and cinnamon ($ 4 CUC). Possibly the best four dollars I spent during the entire trip.

If you have a desire to dine outside of Havana, take a taxi to Cojimar, a small fishing village located about 20 minutes east of downtown Havana.  Famous for its seaside restaurant, La Terraza, it's where Ernest Hemingway was inspired to write his book, “The Old Man and the Sea.”  Before dinner, stroll along the water and see where Hemingway docked his fishing boat and hung out with local fisherman.  The views of the water from inside the restaurant are quite picturesque. As for the food, we couldn’t eat here because the restaurant was closed for repairs (call ahead if possible). But previous diners tell me if you order the seafood paella and you will leave happy.

There is no lack of options for ending your night in Havana on a high note.

Perhaps the most talked about night spot in Havana  is Cuba’s crown jewel, Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Built in 1930, the art deco hotel sits on a hill overlooking the Malecon, Havana’s famous highway that stretches along the sea. Hotel Nacional is where dignitaries, celebrities and foreign journalists typically stay when visiting Havana. 

One of the hotel’s bars showcases dozens of pictures of Hollywood A-listers from the 1950s who came to play in Havana. The outdoor patio is the place to be on warm nights, with lively salsa bands and plenty of space for dancing.  If you’re lucky you’ll snag one of the oversized wicker chairs, perfect for lounging with a classic Cuban cocktail in your hand.  The cocktail menu offers a variety of Cuban favorites, including the Ron Collins (white rum, sugar, fresh lime juice and soda). Of course, a nice selection of handmade Cuban cigars are available for purchase at the bar.

If you prefer to cap the night off with a daiquiri then there is only one place to go, El Floridita. This bar – made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s love of lemon daiquiris – is now a top tourist spot in Havana. Located a few blocks from the city’s busy Capitol square, the classic 1950’s cars parked outside El Floridita give you a small sense of the time travel you’re about to experience when you walk inside.

If you can, find a seat at the bar otherwise grab a table and watch the excitement on other patrons faces when their drinks arrive.  Of course the lemon daiquiri is the most popular drink on the menu but if lemon isn’t your flavor there are others. Unlike Hemingway I went with strawberry.  Salud!