Cuba invites the world to visit its fantastic white sand beaches. But for those with a nose for places beyond the thin coastal rim, there is a fascinating land and people. Just don’t go for the food – or so we were told.
I had trouble with this since there’s very few places that I’d visited that the food was not good. Was this a legacy of the old Soviet state that refused to go away?
Cuba had to adapt to survival without a lifeline to the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Food security was a real crisis in the 1990’s, but it led to innovations in food production that have since been mirrored elsewhere. This was very interesting to me from living in food growing areas of Canada (The Prairies, the Okanagan and Fraser Valleys).
What We Experienced
I made contact with a Cuban tour company to help organise an exploratory trip that might turn into a tour that we could sell later on. It turns out they had a pretty good agricultural tour already designed and they were able to tweak it to fit our special interests. We were most interested in the ways that Cuba had created a kind of intensive near urban agriculture called organoponics.
Three places really stood out. Vivero Alamar, El Retiro and Vista Hermosa. (If you’d like a copy of the exact itinerary, please send me a quick email.)
Organoponico Vivero Alamar is an urban farm co-operative in the outskirts of Havana. They grow a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers for the local community and restaurants.
This system uses organic and permaculture techniques to create super healthy soil and does not bring in any synthetic agricultural chemicals. We were told they have about 1 million workers as our guide pointed out the huge vermiculture system. Worms. Constantly fed by recycling plant material produces tons of castings that go back to replenish the soil. This is also supplemented by rabbit droppings and plant compost.
“El Retiro”, our second stop, is located inland and is quite different. They also produce vegetable (huge cabbages) and herbs, have a mixed farm with pigs, goats and poultry. The farm makes their own bio-gas from animal waste with a bio digestor and they process fresh foods with a solar dehydator. Their processing includes pickling. We were hosted to an interesting tour here that also included one of the best meals in Cuba.
Finca Vista Hermosa was another fairly large scale mixed farm with quite a bit more animal husbandry. This farm supplies food to Havana and is allied with a restaurant in Havana.
We visited a farm that grew onions and became friends with the owners. They are more like the farms we have in Canada in that they produce food on a larger scale than the organoponicos. They buy seed, sow it and let the rains water it. Garden work is more manual than mechanised, as it would be in Canada, so it keeps quite a few people busy.
The produce is sold by the state in local markets at very low prices to feed the Cuban citizens. Farm owners typically can sell 10% of their excess production privately for personal gain. The same plan goes for tobacco so if you want real highest quality cuban cigars, visit a tobacco farm and get them hand rolled for you. They will sell them at a much lower rate.
I had heard that the food in Cuba is anywhere from awful to mediocre. Absolutely false. We had a number of really good meals (and mojitos and pina coladas and Cuba Libres).
Cuban food is typically not spicy or strongly flavoured. (They leave that to their music and dance.) It is more natural tasting and this may seem plain to people accustomed to the intense flavours of Italian, Asian or Mexican cuisine. Meat is featured on almost every menu since protein is considered an essential nutrient that harkens back to the “Special Period” when Cubans were suffering from food shortages and calorie deficits.
I think most of the bad food comments have probably come from vacationers at the more economical all inclusive resorts and group buffets at the older state owned hotels. We were the victims of a couple of these. The food was edible and healthy but a bit like mushy hospital food here. We never once got sick from bad food or water in Cuba though.
We also travelled to several different towns and in the more popular places found ample restaurants that serve local foods. There are some vegan ones as well.
We were delighted to discover that Slow Food is making a great impression in Cuba and there is an emergence of farm to table restaurants. We met several owners and while they provide fresh products like vegetables, cheeses, beef and pork to the local people, they are innovating with small restaurants, right at the farm gate. Some operate their own restaurants in nearby towns as well.
Where To Stay
We stayed in a number of casa particulares and some nice boutique hotels. You can sometimes order meals besides breakfast by asking the owner. You might eat with the family.
Most “adventure” tour companies use casa particulares for their small group tours. Casa particulares are bit more unpredictable with advance reservations. They may sell the room before you get there and move you to another house. The problem is not huge since Cubans are hospitable, resourceful people and you’ll get a place to stay, even if it’s a bit unplanned.
Cuba is a crumbling masterpiece and fair warning, it can be a bit of a shock. Once the hub of the Caribbean, decades of trade embargos have left the beautiful old colonial cities in sad repair. Cubans are unable to buy so many goods and materials that keeping up the infrastructure has fallen down, literally in most cases. Things are changing, but progress is slow. It’s a great experience, maybe more so because of the decay. A reason to see Cuba now before it gets fully gentrified.
Cuba deserves exploration beyond the beaches. Go now. There are some tour videos here on my website. I recommend you watch them.
If you want to mix and match a beach stay vacation with a group tour, or a shorter set of day trips from your hotel or a private trip such as I’ve done, contact me. I’ve got some great contacts in Cuba.
Small Group With Intrepid – if ever on sale, buy quickly as they sell out. Fun and well priced.
Exodus Small Groups – a little upgraded from Intrepid or G. More inclusions.
Cuba by G Adventures – they have best prices normally but the least included. Good variety of tours and they have some brilliant sailing trips. Their video is short and sweet.