Around the World a Bit at a Time

Travels: Past, Present and Future


Posted by Leanne on January 17, 2011

I’d heard so much about Cuban food before I got there… how bland it is, how fried it is, and generally just how terrible it is, that I was almost impressed with my beige buffet breakfast of hard, yellow rice, dried out beans, an over-cooked egg, spam fritters, fresh pineapple that somehow managed to taste tinned, and soggy cake.  Robin and Yvonne on the other hand, had been there for 4 days and so were anxious to find something just a little bit tastier which is why we set out that morning to find La Guarida, Cuba’s only internationally recognised restaurant.

Stepping onto the streets for the first time in the daylight gave a much more accurate impression of Havana, with the buildings brightening up the streets- their faded shades of pastel were occasionally embelished with bright orange streaks where rust had crept down from the metal which gave birth to it, and onto the painted, flaking buildings below.  Every so often, a cage would appear in the wall of a building where a man or lady stood selling coffee or substandard sandwiches and everywhere, Cubans sat out on doorsteps, watching the world amble by.

Pastel coloured streets

Pastel coloured streets

The old fashioned cars which are so iconic in the pictures of Cuba, come with old fashioned parts which have inevitably worn away throughout the years, and so, down almost every street is a man with his head under the bonnet or his car up on ramps as he tries to revive it to bellow out black smoke just one last time

At the top of a peeling staircase in a residential building we walked into La Guarida to make our reservation for dinner.  At 10am we were just about early enough.  On our way back to the Old Town a woman walked close enough to covertly get my attention.  She asked for a pen, whilst motioning with her hands as if writing in case I didn’t understand, so I dutifully reached into my rucksack and handed over a biro, which she gave an appreciative look before concealing it on her person and hissing the word ‘jabon?  But I didn’t have any soap, so he hurried away from us, pretending that she had never broken any rules by speaking to a tourist.

Around every corner, a new smell – from exhaust fumes to rotting rubbish, from urine to petrol leaking from a car, and of course, that unmistakable smell of fried stuff.

On the way to barrio Vieja – the old town we stopped to experience our first Cuban mojito (not as good as the ones I make at home!) and our first attempted short-change.

A stroll around a second-hand book market revealed that we were in fact with Che Guevara, who we managed to lose as we followed the sounds of Cuban percussion and brass to another open square at the end of which a salsa band was playing to an audience which was seated on the terrace of a restaurant.



“Let’s dance Jon!” I said.  We’d been in Cuba for more than 12 hours now and the music, which oozed from every building, and every crack in the pavement was something that salsa addicts can never resist for long.

Under the heat of the midday sun, on the cobbles, with backpacks still firmly strapped to our backs, we played at dancing until a ‘typical Cuban’ intervened and showed us how it was really done.  Having seen him pose with tourists with a big fat cigar in his mouth, we knew he was just after our tourist money, but we indulged him in an impromptu lesson before handing him a peso (in place of the 5 he asked for) before moving on.

Down one of the main streets, the sound of a live band drew us into a cafe for something to eat and the second mojito of the day.  Every now and  again the band members came round to collect money in return for the entertainment and to covertly offer us some cigars… The fact that he looked like a Cuban Del boy didn’t help the fact that his attempt at being ‘covert’ was almost comedic.  Yvonne took a picture of him to remind her to the time she met Cuban Del boy- which he posed for, but then came back  to make sure that she didn’t mention cigars if she ever put the photo on the internet.  ‘I’m a musician” he declared, “and nothing else.  I will get in trouble if you mention anything about cigars.”  In Cuba, Big Brother is always watching you.

Later, after a quick nap back at the hotel, we headed out again to find somewhere to take in our third mojito before dinner.  As we wandered down one of the streets, we spotted a group of people crowding around a doorway.

“I wonder what’s going on there?” said Robin.

“Huevos.” Called out a  man as he hurried past us to join the hustle.  Word gets around fast in Havana.  If a shop gets some eggs in, people find out about it fast.

And finally, it was back to La Guarida, for dinner.  The restaurant sits on the top floor of a deceptively dilapidated building, but behind its sought-after doors are three cosy rooms, crammed with tables of tourists who are sipping on a glass of house wine, or cocktails, chomping on unusually well-cooked and flavourful food.  As we enjoyed our meal, we were almost oblivious to the storm which lashed the streets outside – only making its presence known to us through bright flashes of lightning.

On the way to La Guarida

The stairway to La Guarida

We ran back to the Hotel Lincoln once the thunder had eased off, but still climbed into bed soggy from the continuing downfall and tired from our first full day in Havana.


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