Cuba is a remarkable place. So much of what I read before I visited had me prepared to return to a different era. But it’s a country in transition. And it’s transitioning quickly. The living history experience desired by visitors is not really the main story anymore.
It exists, yes. Classic car tours and horse-drawn carts are prominent. The step-back-in-time I anticipated wasn’t as dramatic as visitors in years past must have had, though. Modern cars, cell phones, and electric scooters were the norm as we explored Havana and Viñales this year.
Tourist or traveler?
You know the oft-used quote —
The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.G. K. Chesterton
What’s difficult about Cuba is that some of the best ways to learn and see the country are the “tourist” things to do. Turns out a classic car ride through Havana is a great was to get oriented to the city. And a horseback ride into a national park? That’s a chance to see the countryside in a unique way.
We were fortunate that our casa particular hosts understood we weren’t typical tourists. They understood we weren’t simply interested in checking off the standard experiences. So they set us up with local guides who were willing to help us understand Cuba, not just see it. We were able to have real conversations with Cuban people. There were no canned tour scripts, just people proud of their country and curious about ours.
Best in Cuba
One of the oft-occuring themes we encountered is the “best in Cuba” proclamations. Mojitos, cigars, Ropa Vieja—you name it, every place claims they have the best something-or-other in Cuba. We asked one of our cigar plantation guides about that. Was it just a big joke?
He laughed. “Why wouldn’t you say yours is the best?” was his response. Touche’.
At another tiny cigar farm though, our guide said “You probably noticed that everyone says their cigars are the best.”
Yes, we replied, laughing.
“Well, mine are probably not the best,” he humbly responded. We laughed again. And bought his honestly-marketed cigars. They were, in fact, quite lovely. And certainly better than the factory examples we’d had the day before.
Searching for authenticity
The conversations with our guides and local hosts were delightfully genuine. Restaurants were some of the toughest places to get past the tourist scene and prices, though. We had some success in getting off the main streets to find real Cuban food in small food stalls. But it was often a challenge to find good dinner without internet access to help us sift out the real deal as well as navigate the busy, complex streets.
I’m a fan of asking locals for information. Unfortunately in Cuba, many of the locals will point you towards the “tourist” stuff because they think that’s what you want. Especially when it comes to Ernest Hemingway. Their preconceived notion about Americans is that we want to see the places he loved. All Hemingway, all the time. I suppose if I was a Hemingway-ophile I might have embraced it but I’m not. Which brings us to El Chanchullero.
On our last night, thanks to a trickle of internet service, we scored our biggest food success. It was at El Chanchullero, a small authentic restaurant with orgasmic Cuban food.
We wandered into the busy two-story restaurant hesitantly. We were expecting a long line knowing this was a popular restaurant but the lack of one left us uncertain. The place was indeed packed but without wait there were two empty stools at the bar overlooking the kitchen. We wiggled our way back through the tightly spaced tables and asked if we could sit there.
The menu was simple but rich. On it, a mini-manifesto I could only partially translate with my middling Spanish. I got the sense, though. They are unconventional. El Chanchullero celebrates people and conversation with those who are different from yourself. They reject Hemingway as the tourist draw to Cuba. Their motto is “Hemingway was never here.”
Sitting at the bar is our vibe in most places anyway but this was an extraordinary treat. We watched the chefs cook furiously in the small space. Our server suggested dishes and cocktails. We ate and drank and talked with the staff, all charmed by my dear man. Through broken Spanish and English, laughter abounded. When the manager and server ended up buying us shots, we knew we’d made a true connection.
Authenticity and success
But here’s the catch about El Chanchullero. This little independent-spirited restaurant prides itself on being the antithesis of the Hemingway-in-Cuba experience. Yet after being featured on a major travel site, it’s now so popular that you’ll wait in line if you don’t arrive early as we did.
They remain true to themselves so far it seems. Can they maintain their mission for authenticity while still being successful and popular? I hope so.
Cuba is a tough nut to crack if you only have a short time to visit. I know the next time I go, I’ll be able to dive deeper into a non-tourist experience. We found authenticity in unexpected places. I feel like we paid our “tourist” dues to get to that point, though. Next time, dear Cuba, we won’t play that game. We know how to seek out the places Hemingway never saw.