For adventurous travelers and food lovers alike, it's well worth renting a car and taking a road trip to some of the less visited destinations outside the city.
Havana is a breathtaking, dizzying, confounding and endlessly fascinating city—rightly the first stop on almost any Cuban traveler's itinerary. But while it's easy to lose a week or more in the plazas of Habana Vieja, or along the seaside avenue Malecón, the Caribbean nation rewards exploration. For adventurous travelers and food lovers alike, it's well worth renting a car and taking a road trip to some of the less visited destinations outside the city.
Several hours west of Havana lies Viñales, a center of tobacco farming, whose dramatic karst peaks recall Southeast Asia in their grandeur. Follow a winding road uphill from the town's charming pastel houses to Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso—one of the most impressive off-the-grid restaurants in the country. (The name translates approximately to "Paradise Ecological-Agriculture Farm Estate," although let's go with "Paradise Farm.”)
Part organic farm, part privately owned family restaurant, El Paraiso hosts diners on a blue wraparound porch that looks straight into the valley and mountains beyond, in a verdant panorama that would be, in itself, worth the trip west. Closer in, hummingbirds and butterflies flit between fragrant flowers for a scene that's almost comical in just how paradisiacal it is.
A lunch might start with a rich vegetable soup and pork-stuffed fried plantains, enough to make a meal in itself, but there’s still a cascade of food to come: pickled farm vegetables and home-grown squashes, grilled pineapple, fresh avocado, and easily a dozen other fruit and veg dishes before you even get to the astounding roast pig, chicken, stewed fish and more. Other than the fish, everything served is raised on the farm. (Lest the staggering amount of food seem wasteful, El Paraiso also feeds the children from a local primary school—the kind of pro-social consideration you'll find in many fledgling Cuban enterprises.)
In any country, this meal would be a delight; in Cuba, where you could go for a week without seeing a green vegetable, it's a minor miracle. Cuban cuisine, for reasons both fair and unfair, doesn’t have the best reputation. The country’s agricultural sector has long struggled, meaning that the available foods are basic to an extreme: rice, beans, ham, repeat. Add to that a restaurant system long controlled by the state, with all the charm you'd expect from government-run institutions, and it's easy to see why, superficially at least, it's a difficult country to eat well in.
But emerging private businesses are starting to prove the exception. Independent Cuban restaurants, known as paladares, don't really resemble an American model; they are, by definition, family enterprises. Almost without exception, they are deeply personal establishments, run out of a home, where an extended family runs the show and the server, if not a daughter or cousin, is probably a cousin's friend.
And the sense of hospitality, of dining in someone's home, extends throughout the meal. At El Paraiso, the family's friendly dogs have a tendency to nap at guests' feet as they dine (miraculously, they do not beg for scraps; presumably they eat quite well at the farm). Every meal begins with a drink called an "Anti-Stress": coconut milk with ice, pineapple, and tons of farm-grown herbs like anise, mint, yerba buena (also known as "Cuban mint"), lemongrass and basil, all whizzed up, sprinkled with cinnamon and drizzled with honey. It's available (and improved) with rum; in a typically considerate gesture, a bottle of Havana Club is left on the table, for guests to pour out as they will.
On the road from Viñales back to Havana, but a world away from either, sits Las Terrazas, an environmental preserve and "eco-community" that dates back decades, deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. The village of around 1,000 people opened to tourism in the early '90s, allowing visitors into a lush biosphere with dramatic scenery, over 100 bird species, the earliest coffee plantations in Cuba and an active artist community.
For the food-minded? El Romero, run by a former star chef from Havana, is an exceedingly rare Cuban vegetable-centric restaurant; nearly all of its produce sourced from Las Terrazas itself, some grown with the aid of solar power, with honey from an on-site beehive. And the biosphere's own coffee is shown off at Cafe de Maria, with cappuccinos, frozen coffees and liqueur-spiked espresso all made from coffee beans grown just steps away.
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