With deliberate care, Ramon Guilarte places a half-empty bottle of Paticruzado rum on our table,alongside a battered tin coffee pot and some cups made from old soup cans. He sits down, lights a cigar, smiles through a billowing wreath of smoke and proudly proclaims: “Rum, coffee and cigars are the best things produced in Cuba and you have to enjoy them together!”
Guilarte is our host at La Fondita de Compay Ramon, a private restaurant he runs with his family in Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city after Havana. Privately operated restaurants like his, known as paladares, cater to tourists and locals alike—and they’re popping up all over the country.
In a country where virtually every business is state-owned and salaries are low, the opportunity to cash in on the tourism boom is a big deal for many families. The restaurants are also great places for visitors to interact with ordinary Cubans.
Guilarte grew up on a farm in the neighbouring Sierra Maestra Mountains, and artifacts from his youth adorn the walls of his eatery. While he leaves the cooking to his wife Mayra and daughter Viviana, Guilarte serves us a buffet of traditional Cuban fare: pork, chicken, fish, rice, beans and plantain. Everyone’s favourite dish is picadillo—ground beef with green peppers, onion and tomato sauce.
After the meal, Viviana describes the satisfaction of preparing food for guests. Her father echoes the sentiment. “The greatest pleasure for me is to see visitors enjoying our food,” Guilarte says, “I really want them to feel like they are in my home; to see them come in as tourists, but leave as members of our family.”
That dinner in Santiago is just one of many highlights of an eight-day road trip that takes us more than 750 kilometres along highways and back roads, through beautiful colonial cities and dusty farm towns. The journey brings us face-to-face with regular Cubans leading ordinary lives, far from the postcard-perfect beaches for which the country is justifiably famous.
Read the rest of the story in CAA Manitoba magazine at http://joom.ag/IpBY/p44.