Cycling Safely in Cuba

mark twain
Is your well-being paramount to the tour company you’re considering for your cycle trip in Cuba?  Should your eyebrows be raised if they are they promoting cycling experiences after dark, in the urban core of the city of Havana, or riding activities during the summer rainy season?

Yes, everyone knows that biking is coming back in vogue in Cuba (for us die-hard bike fanatics it never went out of style…), but as much as we love the sport, it’s not for everyone and it’s essential to be realistic when making your travel plan. Travelers engaging in short-duration bicycle excursions on a holiday are not always frequent riders, and may lack experience navigating urban traffic or otherwise underestimate some of the challenges of riding a bicycle in a foreign tropical country. WoWCuba / MacQueen’s Island Tours takes client safety very seriously and so urges anyone considering incorporating cycling into their travel itinerary in Cuba to keep in mind some of the red flags that are being raised at WoWCuba / MacQueen’s with several of the promos we’ve seen for new 2-wheeled adventures popping up around Cuba.
 
Biking in urban centers comes with certain risks.
Is the tour operator trying to sell you a Havana City Bike Tour focused only only gushing about the benefits…like appreciating the sights/sounds/smells of its busy streets from the seat of a bike? Are you picturing the wind running through your hair while your selfie stick sticks precariously out of the super-cute wicker basket on your beach cruiser’s handlebars and everything always turns out hunky-dory? If that’s the case, then they are probably sorely remiss in preparing you for the reality and risks of riding a bike in Havana.

One of them is traffic, especially in the urban center of Havana where designated bicycle lanes are practically non-existent. While Cuba’s capital was ahead of the times in the early 1990’s with its bike lanes and infrastructure, much of that has gone by the wayside. To get to/from Old Havana the bike (and passenger) boats still operate between Casablanca & Regla. When I see groups of tourists taking up the limited # of spots on these “shortcuts” originally intended for moving the local (not visiting) population, I sometimes feel that it’s unfair to locals who depend on these methods of transportation to conduct the essential activities of their daily lives. We also have the bike bus that connects Habana Vieja to Habana del Este, but the special bike lanes in the city core disappeared with the Special Period. So don’t let them kid you with clever travel copy. Yes, a trip designer can always try and pick some of the lesser-travelled streets when designing a cycling route without leaving Havana’s urban center. But if you ask anyone in Cuba with half a notion of what the term elevated liability means, they’ll agree that you almost need an extra set of eyes in the back of your head to safely navigate Havana streets by bicycle these days.
Havana drivers (and their sometimes rickety cars) are not particularly courteous to each other, much less to cyclists, and there are several areas where cycling is in fact prohibited. Even along the iconic Malecon seawall and 5th Avenue in Miramar, where the non-allowance of cycling activities is signaled by a sign with a bicycle in the middle and red circular band around the outside.

Noxious vehicle fumes (or the stench of garbage rotting in heat) are another negative for cyclists in Cuban cities. This remains a frequent report of detracting factors to city riding. Getting out of the city altogether and heading east or west are two of the best ways to avoid some of the above hazards. .

Helmets are not the law in Cuba, but if you value your head…
We’re not sure what self-respecting bicycle company would not provide helmets for their clients, or neglect to ensure that they use them while riding in Cuba, but as advocates for helmet use based on a lifetime of professional and retail experience, we suggest you don’t leave your safety up to chance. Just use a helmet while riding. Brain injuries happen when you’re least expecting them, and not protecting your non-returnable hard drive with one of today’s lightweight/vented helmets is simply not smart. A company that offers you a bike tour while claiming they look out for your safety, but then neglect to take responsibility for something as basic as committing to providing a helmet on a bicycle tour is probably not a true specialist in cycling activities.

Biking in the rain in Cuba can be hazardous.
With a high number of diesel-fuel vehicles on Cuban roads, a film often coats paved road surfaces, making them very slippery when wet. This is especially true at intersections where concrete is more common than asphalt. It can be a braking hazard for those unfamiliar with local road conditions. Rainy season in Cuba typically runs from May to October and rain is more common in the afternoon than morning.

WoWCuba’s tour leaders inform riders of what to expect in rainy conditions before they occur, and our support vehicle is always present when needed as back-up. The decision to ride is ultimately the client’s, but our team always makes participants aware of potential weather and road-related hazards in advance so that riders’ awareness is raised when riding conditions are less than ideal.

Summer temperatures in Cuba are not ideal for cycling.
Besides being rainy season, higher summer temperatures in Cuba can lead to an elevated risk of dehydration for cyclists in Cuba. If you choose to cycle in Cuba in the summer, be sure to always have an adequate supply of potable water. This may not be readily available in retail outlets. A bicycle tour company that suggest clients take care of their own water needs could be risking their dehydration.
WoWCuba’s guided group cycling programs shut down for the summer as we simply feel that the combination of heat and humidity make it a less than ideal time of the year for that type of trip in Cuba. Filtered water is provided for all rides with WoWCuba and immodium is not always available in Cuban pharmacies.

Bicycle repair shops are generally not well-stocked in Cuba.
There are few places where cyclists can purchase spare parts in Cuba, so independent cyclists must be prepared with basic toolkits and spare parts for their equipment. “Poncheras”, or tire repair outlets, do exist and getting a flat repaired is not usually difficult or expensive, providing the tube/tire damage is limited to a puncture (not a blowout).

Riding at night is not recommended.
Well-lit areas are few and far between in Cuba, and night riding is not recommended in Cuba. Even if you have lights and reflective gear, not all drivers will be looking out for cyclists, and with a general absence of designated cycling areas plus Cubans who continue to mix alcohol and driving (elevated risk for this after dark), then you (or the tour operator you choose for your adventure) could be taking your life into your hands by riding at night.

Does your guide team have first aid training?
WoWCuba’s tour leaders are trained to international standards as first aid responders and carry basic first aid supplies in the tour bus at all times, in addition to being in contact with the national public health system’s network for any emergencies that go beyond the scope of their training. Our team is certainly not immune from handling the occasional minor accident, but their accumulated knowledge and training has undeniably come in handy over the years when dealing with a variety of unexpected health complications on tour. If the cycling trip you’re considering :
-is accompanied by Cuban “tour guide” with no official government tour guide accreditation
-has no support vehicle or in-house back-up plan for transporting injured/incapacitated riders
-has no staff with first-aid training certification
then you should be prepared to accept the consequences of signing on for a tour that might be improvisational and carries higher than just the inherent risks of cycling in general.

WoWCuba advocates for a safe, sustainable bicycling experience in Cuba. Choose wisely when comparing tour operators for any active travel endeavours.

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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.

My Latest Pet

Lucky2“Lucky” walked into my life a few months back, skittish with sad-looking eyes and dermatitis. We don’t know if he was abandoned by his owners or just got lost, but after a month of us and our closest neighbors all tossing this sickly mutt of a dog food scraps every day (which only made him want to stay around longer), I finally caved in and decided to take him in. I started by shampooing him down which didn’t seem to bother him a bit. On the contrary, I think he loved the attention. That went well, so I picked him clean of fleas and set him out in the sun to dry. My neighbor recommended a very reasonable and competent local veterinarian where we took him for an injection and some blue anti-flea liquid she massaged into his neck. She suggested some anti-itch tablets and we took him down into Guanabo for a total of 3 shots over 3 weeks. He got to take rides in the car which he wasn’t so sure about, but he was very cooperative with the shots and barely even flinched. He also basked in the daily brushing in the opposite direction of his hair growth, which lifted out all his dry flaky skin. For a total cost of under $10 and in just a few weeks of treatment his hair had all grown back in and he was a shiny new boy feeling much more confident in himself.

I call him Lucky because he’s darned lucky we took him in when I definitely wasn’t looking for or wanting the duties a dog requires. We had a dog when we first married, a Belgian Shepherd. Who died of “moquillo”. That dog loved my husband but was a little crazy and would repeatedly throw itself against the metal door in the hallway when we’d leave in the morning, so much did he not like being left alone. After a couple of weeks of treating it with shots and “sueros” the neighborhood veterinarian concluded that the dog was past the point of no return, that even if he recovered he would have suffered irreparable neurological damage and it was time to put him down. I still remember the poor thing looking at us as it died, trying to hang on and the vet telling us to move out of his vision so he would just go to sleep. And then having to figure out where to get rid of the corpse. When you live in the city and back then we were traveling mostly by motorcycle. Only more recently have I discovered an improvised pet cemetery on the outskirts of Alamar, but I’m sure disposal of dead pet is an issue for many city dwellers.

We didn’t have a dog for awhile after that but my husband’s elderly grandmother had a small white dog called Canela. She loved that dog, and it was her constant companion. While I was visiting family in Canada my husband once took Canela home with him to stay at our house for a couple of days for one reason or another. Canela also hated to be left home alone during the day; she howled and howled all day long. Until she figured out how to escape and we never saw her again. We felt so bad for his grandmother’s loss that one day when we were at the beach and an evidently lost dog approached us, we decided to take him home. We bathed and perfumed him, tied a red bow on his ears and brought him to his grandmother as a present. But by then she (or perhaps more so her primary care-giver at the time) had decided that she didn’t want the work of a dog. Oh, crap. What did we do? We brought it back to the beach close to where we found it, convinced that he was quite healthy (probably not because of the abundance of beach scraps) and must have a home near there somewhere and if not somebody else would take him in.

Before Lucky arrived, I’d acted like a surrogate mother to our neighbors’ dogs for years without having the obligation of having to ensure their daily food. But those stupid sad eyes. I just couldn’t say no. He looooooves me. I assigned him a food and water dish out back in the patio. He knows they’re his, although the next door neighbor dog Dora would like some of the action since she was always the scrap recipient before Lucky. Dora the Explorer I call her, because she spends more time roaming around in our patio than her own, even though she has a guaranteed meal next door every night. She knows how to get through our wrought iron/brick fence but none of the other mangy neighborhood dogs have caught on yet. So being his most frequent visitor, Dora’s Lucky’s best friend. Dora’s the dominant female in the relationship. When they play-fight, Lucky more often than not rolls over and gives in to Dora the Boss at the first sign of trouble.

He has good habits such as doing his duty in the garden so I don’t have to clean turds off the patio. I can’t complain there. Early on during his first month living in our yard, one day at dusk I noticed his belly was swollen up like a balloon and I asked my neighbor if she’d happen to notice what he’d gotten into. She’d given him congris (rice & black beans), nothing out of the ordinary, but as we were talking he and Dora started fighting over the “frasada de piso” (Cuban mop cloth) I’d placed under the beach chair in our covered patio where Lucky used to sleep. They’d ripped it to shreds and quite a few of the pieces were missing, so we figure he ate it. My neighbor said we could take him down for an enema. But the vet was sick, and I wasn’t about to give the dog an enema, seriously. I have my limits. And my husband? Don’t even go there. My dog, my responsibility. By the next morning he was back to his regular size and apparently he’d passed the frasada in the garden. He now sleeps in an area he’s dug out in the dirt under the cover of a trailer in our garden. No more frasada de piso, sorry buddy.

He’s recently developed a bad tendency to nip at the heels or calves of strangers as they’re walking. He sneaks up behind them and catches them unaware, not quite so brave (or stupid?) as to confront them head-on. He’s nipped my stepson and my brother, and a few other people have sent in their reports. The utilities people who come to the house usually circumspectly eye him up before coming in to see if they can trust him or not. Best that they think he can only be trusted when we’re around, according to my neighbor. I wasn’t so sure about that and the other morning when my husband opened the gate to take out the car, unbeknownst to me Lucky escaped to roam around the block and mark his territory. We live on probably one of the quietest blocks in Havana and I can usually count the people who stroll by in the course of the day on one hand. Absorbed in the computer, all of a sudden a woman across the street starting yelling and I ran out to see what was amok. All puffed up with his new confidence, Lucky thought he was doing his job protecting the block, of which thinks he’s now the boss, and he’d nicked her calf with one of his sharp little teeth. The woman turned out to be my neighbor’s doctor cousin who has blood coagulation issues. She is not a dog person and was not terribly understanding about the whole situation, but fortunately my neighbor was able to smooth things over with her and explain some of his history before I sheepishly slipped over there to apologize after I thought she’d had some time to calm down after her initial fright.

I’m not about to take him to obedience classes but I am probably going to be paying a little closer attention to Cesar Milian the Dog Whisperer on Multivision. In the meantime, Lucky’s not going to be one of those dogs who has to be tied up all the time, but he’s definitely going to have to be confined to the perimeter of our property until he learns how to behave around strangers. You can bark all you want, but the biting has got to go if I’m to stay in the good graces of the neighbors.

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!