Friday, February 9, 2018


On our last full day in Cuba, the first thing we did was visit a cigar factory -- a "factory" with no machines, where every single thing was done by hand, from sorting the tobacco leaves by size and color to assembling the boxes, and everything had to be perfect. It was really quite fascinating. Our guide warned us that if we wanted to take photos we must be very discreet, which I am not good at, so I didn't even try. John was able to get a few good ones though and, hopefully, I can share those with you later. One of his favorites is a woman rolling cigars, wearing a San Francisco baseball cap, a baseball t-shirt with a ruffled collar, and with her glove and cleats tucked into a cubbyhole on her work table. In case you haven't heard, baseball is very big in Cuba! So big, in fact, that there is an area in their central park known as Hot Corner -- slang for third base -- where hordes of people gather every single day, just to argue about baseball!

The triumph will be in the sum of the effort of all.
From there it was a short trip down the street to Estadio Latinoamericano, the main baseball stadium. Unfortunately, the Industriales had just recently lost out of the finals, so there was no game to attend. Hubby's disappointment was assuaged by getting them to open up the stadium's gift shop for us, so he could buy a few souvenirs.

From there it was off to the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, to try what our guide Mandy declared to be the best Mojito in all the world!

The secret is that dark layer floating on top, which must be stirred in before drinking. Bitters, perhaps?

We liked it!

Then came a big surprise -- one that wasn't on our itinerary. Welcome to Fusterlandia! You can read all about it here.

Does this scream Becky T. Lane, or what? It was like Antoni Gaudi on steroids! And, since we had gone off script to get there, Mandy thought of a great little place nearby where we could have lunch. He had us at "Hello", when we had to walk through their impressive herb and veggie garden to get to our seating area on the water. Welcome to El Laurel.

But wait, there's more! Coming from one who hates coffee, cigars and most alcohol, you would probably never guess what was my favorite thing we did throughout the entire trip. This!

We got to have lessons on the right way to do all three! First you sip your tiny cup of the best Cuban coffee. Then you take a swig of good, seven year old rum and swish it around in your mouth a bit before finally swallowing it. Then, if you are me, you spend several minutes coughing yourself silly and, according to everyone else, making some pretty bizarre faces. But, then we were taught how to light thin strips of cedar from the candle on our table, holding it to the tip of our cigar, rolling it around until it's evenly lit, and how to take several puffs and hold the smoke in your mouth, never inhaling. We were also taught that the way the cigar is held in one's hand says a lot about a person. Are you a Churchill? A Groucho? A Frida? A Fidel? The Most Interesting Person in the World?

I'm sad to say that, after growing up with a father who smoked cigars in the car on all of our road trips, and coming to associate the smell with carsickness, I just couldn't make myself put it in my mouth. I regret that. For, then he told us to take another swig of the rum, comparing the taste to the  first one. Apparently the cigar smoke affected everyone's tastebuds in such a way that the rum now tasted so velvety smooth and delicious that, before long, it led to this!

Our last dinner was at yet another wonderful paladar, called Ivan Chef Justo, whose specialty was roast suckling pig - a specially bred mini pig that fits on a plate. Tasted great, but don't order if you are the type that doesn't like to be reminded that your meal was once alive. And, for sure, don't sit next to my hubby, who kept waving its poor little limbs at us!

And thus, our adventure came to an end.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


There were also platters of scrambled eggs and cold cuts.
Sunday morning began with our usual color-mad breakfast, followed by a visit and show at Callejón de Hammel, the high temple of Santeria Afro-Cuban religion and culture, and the only place throughout our trip where Mandy insisted that we leave our purses and other belongings locked in the van with our driver.


From there we went on to immerse ourselves in all things Hemingway, visiting his two favorite bars and Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he always stayed while in Cuba. Apparently he loved the view of the harbor, where he often went fishing on his yacht Pilar.

The worst lunch of the whole trip was at a government-owned cafe where it took us two hours to get terrible Cuban sandwiches. But that's OK, because dinner more than made up for it!

Welcome to Paladar La Guarida (The Hideaway), located on the third floor of this eerily gorgeous mansion from the early 20th century.

An Oscar-nominated film called Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) was filmed here some years back, and one of the families who lived here decided to open the paladar in homage to the main character's hideaway. We are ever so glad they did.

Outdoor Dining Terrace

Dinner was served in much the same manner as the previous night, with an assortment of delicious appetizers, platters of yucca, plantain, rice, and the most amazing black beans ever, called "sleeping beans" since they are allowed to cook overnight.

Those tiny fresh tuna tacos on the appetizer plate got us all to moaning -- and wishing we could just have a plate full of those as our main course! There was also an eggplant caviar and a cold soup, both delicious.

Lucky for me, one of the main course options was roasted chicken with orange sauce -- pretty darn tasty even if it wasn't from El Aljibe!

Ballroom/Laundry Room
I swear, I could almost see the ghosts of the building's former residents swirling about us as we dined!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


Perhaps you recall my mentioning that, before every trip to somewhere new and exotic, I always try to find a fun novel based in that country, that was written by a foodie. It started with our trip to Marseille, where I had the best meal of my life in back of a little butcher shop, thanks to a tip from Peter Mayle in his book The Vintage Caper.

This time, when I googled "Cuban Foodie Novel", I came up with this book.

It's the story of a young man who tries to save his failing restaurant in New York by returning to Cuba, his dead father's homeland, to get ahold of a top-secret chicken-with-orange-sauce recipe which was lost to them when the Cuban government took possession of their family restaurant, El Ajillo. I assumed it was all made up.

So, imagine my surprise when, just a few days before we left for Cuba, I googled "Anthony Bourdain Cuba", found an episode of his travel series set in Cuba to watch on my computer, and there he was, eating at a state-owned restaurant called El Aljibe, whose recipe for their famous chicken with bitter orange sauce is a state secret!

Alas, we did not get to eat there while in Cuba. It does, however, reinforce the validity of my pre-travel ritual, don't you think?

Monday, February 5, 2018


On our first full day in Havana, we began with a lovely breakfast at our B&B. Then we were picked up by Armando-Please-Call-Me-Mandy for a driving tour of the city, in order to "get the lay of the land". We ended the tour at the Havana Club Rum Museum, for a fascinating look into Cuba's national beverage, invented as a way to use up the molasses left over from sugar production.

Scale Model of a Sugar Plantation
The Tasting Room
Lunch was at La Moneda Cubana Paladar, and was waaaay better than what we got at the Tropicana the night before!

The First of Many Many Mojitos To Be Enjoyed Throughout This Adventure
I ate shrimp and/or lobster almost daily while there.
A paladar is a non-government-owned restaurant, mostly family-run -- one of the few privately owned businesses allowed -- serving homemade Cuban food.

I love this photo I took leaning over the edge of our rooftop dining area -- Cuba's history in a nutshell.

You've got your horses and buggies, reminiscent of the era when the Spanish were in control. Then there's a row of cars from the era where things have been "stuck" for the last 50 years or so. But, you also have that giant luxury liner, filled with thousands of tourists and their pockets full of money, cruising into the harbor and providing Cuba with the possibility of moving forward.

Next, we were treated to a walking tour of Old Havana and its five main plazas, where some of the buildings date back to the 1600's, and there are even streets paved with wooden bricks.

After that we had a wee bit of time back at our B&B to rest and clean up. We came back out, expecting to see our yellow taxi van awaiting us. Instead, we found these!

Our Chariot For The Evening!
First they took us on a tour of of the hoity-toity neighborhoods filled with gorgeous mid-century homes in beautifully wooded areas. Not sure who they belonged to. They must be pretty special! Then there was a stop at the Cuban Missile Site, with a walk up to the giant Jesus statue. Most fun and educational was our stop at a guarapo shack. Yes, more rum, but this time we had to work for it!

Guarapo is a popular beverage that starts with the liquid you get from extracting sugarcane juice under pressure, which is what LB is doing in the photo above. You then add some lemon juice, some chipped ice, rum if you're an adult, et voila! But you gotta drink it fast. It starts to ferment within minutes, which is why you'll never find it in any store.

Dinner was at an Italian seafood paladar called Rio Mar. I love the custom of spreading 4 or 5 kinds of appetizers along the center of our tables, for all of us to share (the ceviche and beef carpacio were to die for!). Then we each got to select one of four or five main dish options. Then of course, there was dessert. Oh, and two drinks (more mojitos!) were included in the price of our meal as well. I wish more American restaurants served this way. Having so many choices to make, from so very many options, can be exhausting, don't you think?

Speaking of exhaustion, we were supposed to go to Fabrica de Arte Cubano after that, to see lots of local art, enjoy live music, and mingle with Cubanos and other visitors. But, since it was probably 10 or 11 pm by the time we finished eating, and it had been a very long day, we all voted to adjourn to the B&B. I guess we're getting old.