Underground restaurants may be a relatively new trend in the United States, but they’ve been happening for decades in Cuba. Paladares or ‘home restaurants’ have long served the best food in the country, and are now at the heart of Cuba’s newly invigorated dining scene.
Most men I meet in Cuba say the same thing to me: “Why are you travelling alone? Where is your husband?” I vary my answer just to make it more interesting; I have a whole harem of imaginary husbands now. Us solo female travelers may be a rare breed here, but that’s not to say it isn’t a good country to visit as a woman.
For many years, there was as a divide between locals and tourists in Cuba. There were Cuban bars and there were tourist bars. There were Cuban pesos and tourist dollars (the convertible peso). When you went into a restaurant, you would be handed a tourist menu, different to the menu handed to Cubans. And similarly, there were private tourist beaches and public Cuban beaches.
Eating my ice cream at Coppelia, I can’t help but think of the striking first scene of Oscar-nominated 1993 Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate. The title refers to flavours of ice cream, one representing the gay and creative while the other represents the straight in both sexual and political terms.
I arrived to dancing in the streets. There was an all-women conga line proceeding down the dusty road, circling back on itself and returning to the small hall where it had started, a bottom-shaking, whooping caterpillar. As they wound past me - sweating under the weight of my rucksack - they beckoned me to join in. With just a moment’s thought, I threw down my bags and joined the party. That set the tone for my entire experience in Baracoa.
It was as if the people of Cuba decided to counter their country’s problems with color; to take solace in a bombardment of blues and greens, and celebrate in yellows and reds. Everything from the crooked colonial townhouses to the chugging old cars contributes to this cacophony of color.
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