Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty – Pinar del Rio

After 25 years of living, working in adventure tourism and criss-crossing Cuba more times than we can count, at WoWCuba we should obviously be intimately familiar with alot of service providers, facilities, activities and areas available to visiting explorers by now. But the largest Island in the greater Antilles has 15 provinces and 1 special municipality, so there are always opportunities to dig deeper on our quest to keep up with new initiatives in farming and ecotourism trends. As a Cuban-Canadian couple we really enjoy and are often inspired by visiting farms, diving, hiking, nature, unique entrepreneurs and indulging in good food. We aren’t suckers for nightlife and avoid discos/hotel-type animation. We love to hit the road in September when the weather cools down just a bit and summer vacationers have disappeared. Following is my wish list so far for what I’d love to squeeze in on our next visit(s) to Pinar del Rio province. Not all places are new to us, but some are.

Dive Maria la Gorda, Blue Hole in Cabo San Antonio
Hike Guanhacabibes “Del Bosque al Mar” or “Cueva las Perlas”, Baby turtle release (mid-Sept) at Playa La Barca
Visit Cueva del Palmarito
Visit Viñales zipline
Visit Mirador/Lookout (22.625503, -83.743849)
Visit “Finca Coco Solo” Farm, “Finca L’Armonia” Farm, Patio MogoteArt, Finca C&J and El Rincón del Café
Visit Palacio de Guasch
Eat El Cuajani
Eat La Berenjena eco restaurant
Eat Agroecological Sunset Restaurant
Eat Jardin del Arte Sano
Drink Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso lookout
Drink Casa del Mojito
Stay Cabo San Antonio
Stay rural Viñales *Mogote Art, Brisas de San Vicente, Finca Media Luna or maybe Las Españolas (affiliate links)
Stay Castillo en las Nubes
Stay|Eat Puerto Esperanza Villa Wendy (affiliate link)

On that list, I have to admit that Mogote Art (available to book on AirBnB, but many  places listed on that platform are available for less $ locally) and Castillo en las Nubes are on the higher end of our personal accommodation budget. That said, we do occasionally spring for an overnight somewhere special and rarely regret it; sometimes we still discover something pretty spectacular along the way that’s not on any tourist radar. We’ll see where the wind blows us this fall. One thing’s for sure; the time we invest into Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty is well-spent. And if you’re one of our lucky guests, then you get the full benefits of our fabulous finds, first-hand experiences and adventures with streamlined planning and targeted recommendations.

 

 

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Havana Girls Trip

A couple of my best Canadian girlfriends are planning a trip to Havana to visit me in May and I want to maximize both our time together and any of their independent exploring with fun, inspirational experiences. While all-inclusives are undeniably easy for organizing and budgeting, I personally can’t think of anything more boring or monotonous to do in Cuba. Especially when your friends are foodies and fortunate to hail from PEI, Canada’s food island. One of my girlfriends has never been here before, so when she asked me if they have 2-ply toilet paper in Cuba (me: we’re sometimes lucky if we have any, might as well a selection or luxury grade!), I decided I better get to work putting together some semblance of an itinerary to truly pique their interest (and tantalize their taste buds) if I’m going to actually pull this off. So if you’re planning a trip to Havana with your girlfriends, sisters or moms, then read on for some of my favorite spots to share with them. If you’re traveling as a group of ladies and prefer to pre-arrange transport & services (for groups, this invariably makes things flow much better), WoWCuba would be happy to oblige. Enjoy!

Getting Around
Bike taxis can be lots of fun and allow you to experience your surroundings a little more interactively, truly taking in the sights, smells and sounds of Cuba’s capital. Hitching a ride in a classic convertible car can be a little exhilarating for those who are new at it. Snapping a selfie with El Morro fortress (or some other iconic Havana landmark in the background) from the back seat of an antique car seems like an obligatory right of passage for visitors to our marvellous and photogenic city these days. Either way, neither of these options are difficult to come by, especially in Old Havana. Just make sure to ask the price before you jump aboard, as some Cuban taxi drivers can be opportunistic. As a rule of thumb, when you do the negotiating up front, there are no unpleasant surprises to deal with later.Shopping
Soaps & Scents
Nothing can remind you of a place or time quite so effectively as a scent or particular flavor and while many features of travel can be now replicated in virtual reality, this is not one of them. So go ahead and indulge yourself, engraining and extending your travel memories through signature scents and flavors.
D’Brujas – hand-crafted scented soaps. Some of the wonderful natural scents include coffee-eucalyptus, coconut, cappuccino, bamboo and more.
Habana 1791 – hand-mixed floral perfumes & scents housed in a historic laboratory-cum-museum
Mariposa perfume – made by Suchel and named after Cuba’s national flower, the butterfly jasmine, this popular Cuban perfume is widely available and costs just $11 CUC.
Locally Handmade Hats, Bags, Clothing, Jewellery, Housewares & more
Alma Cuba Shop – steampunk jewellery, Panama hats, paper products, unusual gifts
Piscolabis – decorative items, glass, ceramics, upcycled pieces, jewellery, café on-site
Galeria Bolo – shoes, bags, wallets and more. Some of their work is exquisite.
Zulu – custom-made leather bags for those who love quality one-of-a-kind items
Clandestina – t-shirts, fabric bags and more by innovative local designers. Quirky humor = free
Mercado Artesanal Antiguos Almacenes De San José – Old Havana Artisans Market
Antiques & Oddities
Bazar Vintage – Vedado storefront specializing in lamps made from upcycled materials
Memorias – vintage gift items in a convenient Old Havana location
Snacking, Cafecitos & Indulgences
Old Havana
Creperie Oasis Nelva – enchanted flower/plant shop & café specializing in crepes
CicloCuba – authentic Cuban sandwiches, fruit smoothies, natural juices, cocktails and radlers (you have to try the pale ale & grapefruit soda combination)! And when it’s in season, their avocado toast is to die for. You just can’t beat Cuban avocadoes.
Jibaro – tapas, delish and varied salads, mains & fabulous mocktails  (it’s super-close to where we work during the week, so great for my girlfriends on their independent forays)
Helad’oro – diverse ice cream flavors, this is their main location. Their ice cream brand can now also be savored in Vedado at the Cafe d’ La Esquina.
Bianchini – homemade sweet treats including vegan options
Café del Angel – café with good breakfasts, tempting (if not a little expensive by Cuban standards) smoothie flavors & designer Jacqueline Fumero’s locally-produced fashions in an artsy neighborhood of Old Havana
Chocolate Museum – savor this Cuban delicacy in solid or liquid forms, dark, white or milk chocolate flavors. They even offer truffels. Product demonstrations also offered on-site at the museum (which is really more of a cafe these days). You’ll often see churro (fried sugar-coated sweet dough) vendors outside. If the chocolate wasn’t tempting enough…
Vedado
Cuba Libro – books & magazines in English, shaded garden, hammocks, coffee, cappucino, tea, scrabble, chess
Café Presidente – great lunch spot with full menu, air conditioning, and consistent service
Café d’ La Esquina – for tapas, mini-pizzas, cocktails, drinks, ice cream, sweets and more
Miramar/Playa
Casa del Gelato – impressive selection of icy gelato treats
Café Fortuna – a funky slow spot where you can select from a broad coffee menu and sip away while seated at a sewing machine, in a bathtub or an old car.

Dining
Guanabo
Restaurante 421 – specializes in Italian-style pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven, closest restaurant to our house in Guanabo
Le Mare – if this place were set any closer to the ocean they’d have to elevate it on stilts. Enjoy it while it lasts – climate change is coming. I like their shrimp and the flan is divine.
Chicken Little – consistently good service and reasonable prices have kept us loyal clients to this little spot.
Piccolo – really great pizza is served here, it’s a little more expensive than at 421, but very good quality and they make some of their own charcuterie
Old Havana
Donde Lis – if avocado’s in season then you have to try their octopus over a bed of guacamole served with sweet potato chips
Jibaro – also mentioned above under snacks, it’s a terrific not-too-expensive option for an evening meal too
Cafe Bohemia – an oasis from the hustle & bustle of Old Havana, the inner courtyard here is a welcome reprieve.
Ivan Chef Justo – this is on the more expensive end of Cuban restaurants, but still relatively affordable compared to dining out in Canada or the US. Regularly rotating menu, great ambience.
Vedado
Beiruit Shawarma – Chef Alicia’s flavor profiles are spot on, and I must admit this is one of our favorite new spots.
Mediterraneo – food is well-prepared, and their farm-to-table concept is novel in Cuba. Individual travelers can opt to tour their Guanabacoa farm and then dine at the Vedado restaurant afterwards (for a package price). Or for groups, a tour followed by dinner right at the farm can be arranged in advance.
Fuumiyaki – diverse sushi menu, demonstration cooking
Playa
Santy Pescador – sushi served beside the boat that probably caught the fish you’re eating. It may not be set in a Pinterest-worthy, high-end marina with luxury yachts to admire while you savor the salty sea smell over your meal, but the view is definitely authentically Cuban.
La Lisa
Conde Baraca – authentic and affordable Cuban food (much of it grown in-house), good service, unlimited repeats on rice/root vegetable sides, and close to several excellent greenhouses / gardening centers I like to frequent. Show cooking also available here.

Nautical
Time will undoubtedly be spent at Playas del Este as the white sand beach is walkable distance from our house in Mirador de Marbella (Beautiful Sea Lookout). Havana’s eastern beaches are spread over a 20+-kilometer piece of coastline and include (west to east) Bacuranao, Tarara, Megano, Santa Maria del Mar, Boca Ciega, Guanabo, Veneciana and Brisas del Mar. We like the beach at Villa los Pinos in Santa Maria for avoiding some of the larger crowds and rocky entries in the village of Guanabo, but where you still have the option of ordering refreshing local treats such as icy fresh coconut water (served in the coconut), cold drinks or hot tamales, served by the restaurant staff or beach vendors right to your beach chair/umbrella. If we really just want to get away from people and chill then we usually try the beach between Megano and Tarara where water entry is a bit more steep. There are also some nice lagoons for swimming there. For beach glass hunting and walking while relatively undisturbed, the Rincon de Guanabo just past the Brisas del Mar residential community is the best. We recommend taking a bag to collect and later properly dispose of some of the plastic garbage that collects there while you’re at it. Don’t let the presence of sacrificed animal carcasses deter you; that’s part of Santeria religious practices, although we sometimes wish its followers would realize that using the sea as a dumping ground for dead goats/chickens or floating entire cakes as offerings on cardboard bases in the ocean may not be the best way to gain favor with the water goddess Yemaya. If you see any blue bulky fabric packages, probably best just not to disturb them. Even the beach cleaners don’t like to go near that stuff, mostly out of superstition. There’s an elk coral garden off of the point that’s fantastic for snorkeling. You can take a catamaran out there or swim to it if you’re feeling especially energetic. We usually kayak there ourselves and then snorkel. The water in front of the Rincon de Guanabo is full of seaweed so best to start out from the point or Brisas del Mar. Please remember, coral is for admiring but not touching.

While we’re on that topic (looking/not touching), do be aware that you might encounter the occasional slightly depraved Cuban male with a hyperactive libido lurking in the dunes and to be aware of them. They may be flashers, or “tiradores” (public masturbators), as they’re known here. My sister was once scared by one and indignant that another brazen Cuban man reached out and actually touched her butt while biking, but the next time she was prepared and charged at the startled flasher like a crazed banshee, and he quickly disappeared in the opposite direction. I’m not sure if that’s really the wisest action. While it worked for her, I think the best plan is just to discreetly ignore them. Rremember, a reaction could be what most excites a perv – and zero reaction might just take the wind out of their sails, so to speak. But do take the precaution of travelling with a friend if you’re going to be in any isolated areas. A final warning to my best girlfriends: if I find out you’ve been hanging out at the deserted beaches more frequently than is normal, just know I’m onto you both…just kidding (well, kind of…)!!! What they do in the dunes of Guanabo, Cuba, has nothing to do what goes on in the dunes of Blooming Point, PEI, girls. But then again, maybe I’m just not with the times – aren’t we all supposed to be protecting (not romping around in) the dunes these days?

Health & Wellness
Pura Vida – Havana’s premiere health & wellness facility, with a full-range of fitness classes available on a group or personal basis including yoga, pilates, zumba, meditation, weight training, massage, and much, much more.
Vida Spa – specializing in massage and skin care services
O2 Spa – reflexology, massage, gym, hair salon, social spaces, yoga
Atlantic Guanabo – hair, nails, skin care, massage
Memories Miramar – day use of pool, gym, sauna, tennis courts
CicloCuba – quality Specialized bicycle rentals (not beater bikes or single-speed beach cruisers). Walk-ins accepted during the week with a $200 CUC deposit/bike, or you can reserve 3+ rental days in advance and just have your credit card pre-authorized for the security deposit.

Educational Experiences
Vivero Loteria – ornamental cactus/succulent arrangements (Cuba’s largest collection)
El Divino – out-of-this-world wine cellar, fruit trees in extinction in Cuba, orchids
El Ajiaco – Cuban cooking & bartending classes with meal and visit to herb-grower included. Ample seafood options on Cuban-inspired menu.
Quinta de los Molinos – gardens on the university grounds with a butterfly sanctuary and occasional gardening/bonsai workshops. This is an historic oasis in the middle of the city.
Alamar Agricultural Cooperative – We have gradually been planting both at home and in our neighborhood in eastern Havana, so with the community of Alamar being relatively close to home, we love to browse their fruit & palm tree selection. This is the largest and most successful urban gardening center in the city.
Tailors & Seamstresses – This is a dying profession in the developed world, so it’s refreshing to see clothing being repurposed and transformed in Cuba. Bring along some clothes or fabric you’re looking to transform/alter and then ask around for the local seamstress or tailor. Many will accommodate you same-day and are very resourceful with making tailor-made adjustments for just the right fit for your body type. If you bring along some extra needles & thread for their machines (or any other cute or useful sewing accessories), that’s a bonus. I usually voluntarily pay considerably more than what my local seamstress charges and am happy to do so to help support her family. I also enjoy watching her work her talents at her well-worn manual sewing machine.

Culture / Nightlife
Cuban Art Factory (FAC) – one of Havana’s most popular cultural gathering places with a diverse lineup with everything from visual arts, to multiple music genres, poetry, fashion shows and more gracing their stages. You can slip between galleries and concert halls, eat/drink, take dance (even tango) classes, socialize or just drink in the distinctly Cuban atmosphere.
Gran Teatro de La Habana – some of the most elevated cultural performances in Cuba take place in this spectacular & recently-restored setting which is the home to the National Ballet
SuenaCubano.com – a good online source for cultural programming, but best to check in closer to your travel dates for updates.

Dining Out in the Capital

Used to be this was a no-brainer question, but these days it seems like there’s a new restaurant opening around here on a weekly basis. It’s sometimes hard to keep up on the latest paladar (private entrepreneur-run) restaurants. But don’t despair, there are a couple of handy online tools that might help to guide you.

A La Mesa Cuba is an easy to use online resource of restaurants in Cuba, available in English and Spanish with search categories for type of cuisine and location to narrow down your selection. Their webpage also has a section for new / popular restaurants. Restaurants can register for free. Some restaurants even publish their menus with pricing here, certainly a great tool for someone who’s never visited an establishment before. They regularly send some pretty enticing updates on their Facebook page.

If you’re an app fan,  then there’s always expat resident Conner Gorry’s Havana Good Time, compatible with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. For just a few bucks, you’ll also get all kinds of entertainment ideas thrown in, many of which you’d never find out about otherwise as a visitor to Cuba. Heck, I’ve been living and working in travel here for almost half my life and Conner sometimes surprises even me with some of the places she knows about. The fact that her app is dynamic and regularly updated makes it so much more attractive than a guidebook  for this type of information.

The folks at Cuba Absolutely magazine have published a fairly comprehensive review of a considerable number of Havana restaurants. Although I have to tell you that a few of my favorites didn’t make their list. And the reviews seem largely geared to an expat crowd. Unlike a decade ago, in today’s Cuba there are a surprising number of Cubans who dine out, but they’re not necessarily frequenting the same restaurants as the expats. Which brings me to the question of what makes a restaurant stand out to and attract different crowds of people.

Quite a number of years ago on Valentine’s Day my husband and I made some last minute plans to get together for a dinner out with his sister, her husband and their family. For most Cubans dining out is a special occasion, much more so on the “Dia the los Enamorados”. They asked my opinion on where to go, thinking we’d pick somewhere different than the usual spots which are habitually inundated with diners on Feb. 14. I racked my brain for somewhere we could try that would impress them, and ended up suggesting something that had been very recently recommended to me by a client but that I hadn’t test-run myself. The client, a server in a 5-star Vail, Colorado restaurant had raved about the place. So who was I to question his judgment? Big mistake. The place ended up being not a particularly attractive Centro Habana rooftop, with a section divided off for what appeared to be some kind of disco. Their menu was the same typical fare that you can get at any restaurant in Cuba, with a few illegal dishes such as crocodile and turtle (eek to my eco self!) thrown in. And the prices were obviously geared to a tourist clientele. The service was slow, and the servings not too plentiful (another huge drawback when you’re dining with Cubans who often judge by quantity, not necessarily quality). What had impressed my client so much? This quote by Dagobert D. Runes kind of sums it up: “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” And sometimes to go to restaurants they wouldn’t frequent at home either, apparently! Good thing my sister & brother in law have a good sense of humor – we still occasionally laugh about that botched Valentine’s Day dinner outing.

There are certain restaurants and paladares in Havana that are distinctly geared towards an expat crowd of foreign diplomats and representatives of foreign firms with deep pockets. La Guarida used to be one of these before it was as well-known as it is today. But then they were discovered by the tourist masses who don’t blink at $15 and up for main courses. They are one of the few restaurants with so much demand from international visitors that they offer  just 2 sittings a night by advance reservation only. If you’re a visitor here you will surely enjoy the well-prepared food and unforgettable ambience. I’m not sure if they get many expats there as clients nowadays; it’s been at least a few years since I’ve eaten there. But I do continue to send the occasional group of travelers. Although  nowadays they have alot more serious competition than they did for this market than they did a couple of years ago.

Several nights ago my Cuban husband and I were returning from the airport and decided that it was too late to cook at home so we were going to head to El Beduino, a relatively new spot that we love in Vedado serving Middle Eastern food at very moderate prices (the two of us can easily drink & dine for $25, and have leftovers to take home for the next day’s lunch). It was Tuesday night but when we arrived we were disappointed to realize they don’t operate on Tuesdays. So we drove a little further down the street talking about where we might try next, when I saw an attractive building lit up and recognized the restaurant name from a review I’d read on Cuba Absolutely. We decided to go in and try it out. From what I’d read their menu was constantly changing and offered some fare that makes it stand out from the regular staples in most Cuban restaurants. As we made it up the stairs to the landing my husband immediately said, “Uh oh, this is a tourist spot, I can tell already”. We’ve been to a LOT of restaurants over the past year, trying to keep abreast of the changes so that we can make informed recommendations to our clients. And he now knows that while some places we have visited don’t do a bad job on the meal, there are certain spots that just aren’t memorable enough meal-wise for the price paid to make it onto our list of spots to revisit. Ambience seems to be a deciding factor for the patrons of a lot of these more exclusive private restaurants. I reminded him not to judge a book by its cover, that you never know, and I’d read some good things about this place. So in we went, and sat on their nice semi-circular sofa to peruse the menu while I gazed around the room and saw that everyone there was either a tourist or an expat. Not a single Cuban diner in the place. Imported bottled mineral water was being served. In places like this San Pellegrino usually costs about three times the price of the local brand. Ciego Montero’s perfectly acceptable for me, so I’m not quite sure why it’s stylish to drink brand name sparkling water. Is it because it’s poured into your goblet from a glass, not from a plastic bottle? And as we took a closer look at the menu which had some pretty expensive appetizers (what we’d have paid for a main at our first restaurant choice had they been open), my husband told me that he honestly didn’t want to pay $50 for a meal that he figured he could eat somewhere else for much less. Maybe the choices are more exotic on this particular establishment’s ever-changing hand-written menu on some evenings, but all we saw were dishes such as ropa vieja (shredded beef), pollo supremo (supreme chicken), and pretty typical Cuban fare. As we drove away my husband said that he might have tried the place out if they’d had something really enticing like, for example, garlic octopus (one of his favorite seafoods of late), but not for comida criolla. No way, no how. Not with those prices.

So where else could we try out? I’ve been wanting to try out the new Swedish place in Centro Habana but didn’t have the street address on me. And even if I did have a Smartphone, there’s no wi-fi connection here except in a few select Havana hotels, and even then you have to pay for it. So we had to rack our brains. He opted to head to La Pachanga, also nearby in Vedado. They serve a variety of Cuban dishes, and also some Mexican tacos. Since we’d had lunch there once already (in the a/c indoor section) we figured we’d try out the outdoor cafeteria seating that night. Until he was informed that he couldn’t wash his hands unless he was a patron of the indoor restaurant. Rather than argue about the questionable policy with the restaurant staff, in we went. With a name like La Pachanga, the first time we went there we expected to be bombarded with reggaeton music, but thankfully it’s peaceful and subdued inside (they even have signs reminding their clientele about keeping the noise level down). The only thing that I don’t really like about it is the funky lighting, which (depending on where you sit) doesn’t allow you to see the true colors of your food. It can be a little unsettling to be eating a blue or neon green colored pesto and wondering if anything made it into your dish that shouldn’t have, but you can’t discern because of the distortion of color. My husband ordered what else? Garlic octopus, of course. It was only $6. The other patrons included a couple of families (one of the teenage girls had a smart phone with an annoyingly loud musical ringtone), two pudgy Mexican fellows accompanied by a couple of young Cuban girls in very short skirts who totally put “The Walk” on for the 4 steps it took them to get to the washroom from their table, another Mexican fellow flying solo and drinking daiquiris, and a very well-known Cuban academic  with his companions. As diverse a mix of guests as you might expect from a country like Cuba. Content we were with our meal, my husband happier still with the $24 tab, and he felt pretty good about the experience as we drove home satiated.

All in all, Cuba’s dining scene is become much more diverse. You can now choose from Cuban, Japanese, lots of Italian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian or Mexican fare. Restaurants are being combined with entertainment such as belly dancing, musical acts, or comedy shows. I heard of a breakfast spot (Cubans aren’t big on breakfast so this must be for the tourist crowd), and have been to a couple of pretty nice new cafes, never part of the scene here before. And for the most part, satiating your hunger or quenching your thirst in Cuba is still very much a bargain compared to dining out in the rest of North America. As for picking the spot that’s right for you, that’s a pretty personal question. But hopefully you can narrow down the choices with some of the tools above, and from there, try your luck. !Buena suerte y buen apetito!