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Thursday, October 25, 2018


HERE WE COME—One of the first stops President Obama and his family made after landing in Havana (first sitting President since Calvin Coolidge) was to find a local restaurant. The Obamas selected San Cristóbal, a paladar in Old Havana ("Paladars" are homes turned into restaurants, an element of free enterprise allowed by the dictatorship).

One tourist’s view of an ongoing time capsule

Cuba, just 90 miles south of Florida, remains a fascinating enigma mainly because of its economic isolation since 1960, when the US enacted sanctions against its anti-democratic communist government.  As a result, the island nation of 11 million (size of Los Angeles population-wise) is a time capsule because of the decades old embargo and chronic deferred maintenance.

On a recent visit, photographers associated with North Park News, a 25-year-old community newspaper in San Diego and its sister publications snapped images of this 500 year old former Spanish colony that’s so near and yet so far away. 
         –By Thomas Shess.  Photography: Gary Payne, Michael Shess, Bruce Henderson.

NATIONAL CUISINE—Our tour of Cuba didn’t have the luxury of arriving in Air Force One, but we made do with a 737 charter flight from Miami to Cienfuegos, Cuba.  Our ten days on the island included visits to Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Havana and surrounding countryside, where we devoured the Cuban cuisine whether it was at a fine hotel or a small home turned into a restaurant (paladar).  For the most part main courses were shredded pork or beef (mainly pork) served with black beans and rice (brown, white or mixed) with slices of tomatoes, small potatoes and lettuce salads the size of a hummingbirds nest.  Replace the meat with fish and you’ve covered the menu. Again, delicious. Pictured pork dinner served at Paladar Largarto along the bay in Cienfuegos. 

RAINY—Our Gate One/Discovery tour to Cuba had just finished a leisurely lunch at Divino restaurant on the outskirts of Havana after visiting the finca (farm) that once belonged to writer Ernest Hemingway before the heavens opened up.  By late afternoon we later learned that the tropical downpour dropped seven inches of rain on Havana.  That’s about a half year’s worth of rain in San Diego, California.  But as our bus driver said “ never rains inside a cantina.”  After the tour someone mentioned we visit La Lluvia de Oro on Calle Obispo.  Once there (above) the beverages, live music and compadres were more than we could ask for (non-touristy).   

MIX & MATCH—While many of the vintage cars in Cuba appear to be in original condition a greater number of them have been cannibalized for parts.  For example, a cabbie revealed that his 1959 Ford Fairlane convertible had replacement parts from Cuba’s trading partners: tires made in Venezuela, brakes from the Czech Republic, and its new jerry-rigged tractor engine was made in North Korea.  Pictured here outside of  Sloppy Joe’s, one of Havana’s best restaurants, an icon of the cold war, where parts of the Brit spy spoof “Our Man in Havana” were filmed.

SKYLINE—Havana is 500 years old and certainly parts of this capitol city are in dire need of rehab.  In this photo by San Diegan Gary Payne the Havana skyline shows the government capitol dome being repaired while one newer refurbished building can be seen on the right side.  Photo was taken from the ancient Spanish fort (Castillo) across the estuary.  Inside the old fort is one of the best cigar stores in Havana.  We bought several and retreated back to our hotel, the National to light up in the 24-hour Winston Churchill pub with a glass of fine Caribbean port.

RATIONS—Citizens are given ration cards enabling them to purchase life’s necessities from government licensed stores such as this family run neighborhood store in Santa Clara.

RICE-A-ROADY--Because the roads belong to the people, Cuban rice farmers don’t think twice about drying their crop on highways such as this one between Santa Clara and Cienfuegos.

FRIENDLY—When Americans enter a shopping area you can hear whispers: “Americanos, Americanos.”  Cubans are used to Europeans and Canadians but when U.S. citizens arrive its rare. But, that didn’t stop the owner of Finca del Mar (farm of the sea) from welcoming a group of U.S. tourists to his Cienfuegos seaside paladar.

PAELLA--We wondered if the rice in our Paella served the lobby restaurant inside Hotel Valencia near Plaza San Francisco had been drying on the highway before we arrived.  Our waiter pretended not to understand our question.  The dish was outstanding—so much so—we’re tempted to dry our rice out in the alley behind our house.   The beer in the photo is one of the more popular Cuban brewed beers.  It’s the Coors of Cuba.

CRAFT CUBAN—Unlike the home town of fellow tourist Mike Shess, who hails from San Diego and owns a monthly craft beer magazine (, there are very few breweries in Cuba.  But, Havana does have Factoria Plaza Vieja, a craft style brewery.  It’s easy to find.  We took a bike taxi and arrived quickly.  We tipped our driver with a cold draft.  Our traveling beer expert preferred the local dark brews.  The lighter IPAs, he claims, are still a work in progress.


Paladar San Cristobal, where the Obamas dined.
Traditional lunch at Il Divino Paladar on a farm on the outskirts of Havana

Paladar El Dorado is in Trinidad, Cuba, a World Heritage City along the southcoast of Cuba

Paladar Villa Lagarto is right on the water in Cienfuegos, Cuba
La Guarida Restaurant, a few blocks from the Malecon in North Havana

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