Vegan? Thinking of traveling to the postapocalyptic-esque tropical paradise that is the forbidden isle of Cuba? Here's the real low-down from an American vegan who spent 19 days in Cuba in January of 2008.
I won't lie. The worst meals I've ever had as a vegan were in Cuba. (The most memorable meals were when I was staying at a campismo where the only meal option I had for 2 nights was a plate of raw shredded cabbage, sliced hard green tomatoes, and cola.) Of the more than two dozen countries I've been to on 6 continents, Cuba by far takes the prize for the worst vegan options. But, you're not going to Cuba for the cuisine, are you? With its beautiful beaches, lush green forests and waterfalls, some of the world's best diving and snorkeling, amazing architecture, and a renowned music scene, Cuba proves to vegans that you can't have it all.
Firstly, all travel guides you consult, and indeed, most travelers you meet along the way will balk at you. You'll be snubbed, as I have in many countries, with condescending comments like, "You have to be flexible," and "You have to be willing to try the local culture", as though eating meat will suddenly give you entrance into some kind of Secret Society Of Deep Understanding of what it means to be a local. Sorry, tourists, eating that beef pho / zebra steak / ham sandwich in a country where the average person makes less in a year than you do in a week doesn't make you Vietnamese/African/Cuban.
I took the Lonely Planet Cuba published in 2006. Lonely Planet guides, are, in my opinion, generally the best. They have the most maps, don't have the heaps of extraneous information you'll find in Rough Guides, and offer a wide variety of listings for all budgets, but leaning towards budget/midrange. In the LP Cuba book, the following is offered in the food section under "Vegetarians & Vegans":
In response: I never cooked for myself and I think that's a terrible suggestion unless you're going to be living in Cuba for an extended period. Merely finding food in Cuba (whether you're veg or not) can be a real struggle of trying to navigate ration shops, locals' markets, and the black market, and I can't imagine most tourists have the time to try and devote half their day to procuring food from various sources. I never went into any of the fruit and vegetable markets, but you could also buy fruits and veggies on the streets (illegally?) in many places. I also felt awkward trying to navigate locals' shops and never went in search of soy yogurt, but it obviously existed, because I saw the bags for it as trash/litter sometimes, and in one place, cut up and used as decoration. (See header image.)
You'll be surprised at how easy it is to hack your way through Spanish if you're not already fluent. With a small vocabulary of 50 or so basic words, and the fact that many words are very similar, Spanish isn't nearly as perplexing as trying to pick up and read basic phrases in Arabic or Khmer. Most restaurants that cater to tourists will have a written menu that you can decode with a phrase book, and many have an English menu as well. But, that doesn't really matter since you'll get used to your extremely limited options and don't need to decode 10 different names for pork entrees. Here are your new vocabulary words: Soy vegetariano/a (pronounced with a soft 'g'), Ay manteca/carne en los frijoles/arroz? (Is there lard/mat in the beans/rice?); and Tengo allergia queso/leche (I'm allergic to cheese/milk). And remember, con means with, and sin means without. So make sure to order your meals sin queso, sin leche, or sin huevos.
I never try to confuse anyone with the term "vegan" anywhere outside the US and Canada. (I've been stared at by countless dumbstruck people around the world, as though I was asking for a meal that didn't contain any atoms or carbon or something.) I say that I'm a vegetarian, and order items that also don't have eggs or dairy in them. (I also say that I'm allergic to milk, which is actually true: 8 years of veganism has left my digestive system hopelessly lactose intolerant, so I know when someone cons me.) I'd always just say, "allergia queso" and make a sad face and rub my stomach area to indicate I'm a poor unfortunate soul who doesn't get to eat cheese.
Where you're going to be eating: There are basically two options: the state-run restaurants, standalone or in hotels, that look similar to what you'd see at home, and the paladares, small legal (and sometimes illegal) private eateries run by regular Cubans in their homes. If you're staying at a casa particulare (private home), you'll probably have the option of having your hosts cook for you. The best meals I personally had were at a casa in Vinales where I got rice and bears, carrot soup, fried plantains, and tomato salad, along with fresh fruits.
What you're going to be eating as meals: shredded cabbage salad that sometimes comes with tomato and/or cucumber (and if you're lucky, you'll also get bottles of vinegar and/or oil); french fries / chips; fried plantains (tostones); boiled malanga root (which are like tasteless paste lumps, avoid); rice and beans (arroz y frijoles or morros y cristianos); and in hotels and touristy places, pasta with tomato sauce.
Rice and beans were surprisingly difficult to come by in the restaurants, but you'd always find them in paladares. On the flip side, the other decent vegan option, pasta with tomato sauce, was something I only ever found in state-run restaurants. On a couple of occasions, I was told the rice was meat-free, only to find bits of chicken or a strong smell of chicken when the rice arrived. Most rice, the plain white stuff, seemed to be vegan. It was in the expensive restaurants that they wanted to fancy things up by making the rice with meat. Supposedly, you can find avocados (aguacate) in the summer months.
What you're going to be eating as snacks: Cuba is a country that runs entirely on ice cream, ham pizza, and ham sandwiches, so most street food is limited to those options. However, there are two really great snacks. You can sometimes find guys selling roasted peanuts wrapped in tubes made out of paper or book pages. These are awesome peanuts, buy a bunch when you find them. Also, in beach areas, you'll probably find someone selling coconuts that have been cut open for you to drink/eat. (Or, there will be some guy wandering around with a machete offering to climb a palm tree if you'd like to buy a coconut.) Fresh coconut water is amazing, and I suggest carrying a spoon so you can scrape out the yummy insides as well. Lastly, Baracoa brand chocolate bars are vegan! I didn't even look at them for the first half of my trip, assuming they must have milk in them. Finally, I took a peek, and they're just made with cocoa, soy lecithin, sugar, and a few other things. I couldn't find these in Havana, but they were everywhere in smaller towns.
How you'll be paying: There are two currencies in Cuba, essentially one for locals and one for tourists. Convertible pesos (listed as CUC or convertibles) are worth 24 pesos in moneda nacional (just listed as pesos). I like the up-front system of letting tourists know that everywhere they go, they will be paying 24 times what a local person is paying, unlike some countries, where you're getting charged any random inflated price that the merchant chooses. If you're black or hispanic and can speak fluent Spanish, you might be able to get away with paying in pesos, but don't be a cheapskate, and just accept that you're expected to pay more for your beans and rice than someone with a salary of $10 or so per month. I suggest keeping a small stack of national pesos, though, because some peanut vendors and other people might prefer to be paid that way.
Other tips: Bring some hot sauce with you! Several bottles! I cannot stress that enough. It makes eating a plate of tomatoes almost appealing, gives the rice and beans some kick, and adds much-needed flavor to all sorts of other things on an island devoid of spices. Also, I traveled to Cuba with a carnivore, and it ended up working out quite well. If I ordered something that got screwed up and ended up with cheese or meat, I could pass it off to him.
I thumbed through the entire LP Cuba book on my flight home and made a note of every veggie restaurant mentioned. LP Cuba lists a lot of places as being "vegetarian friendly", but that's entirely irrelevant to vegans since it usually means they offer cheese pizza or omelette (Cuba wouldn't be bad for vegetarians, especially "vegetarians" who eat fish and/or chickens. There's always plenty of cheese- and egg-based options.)
I walked by the Biki Vegetarian Restaurant in Central Havana during a time when it should have been open, but it was closed. It was advertising on its window signs that it serves fried chicken.
I didn't go to this one.
This was a nice little spot near (John) Lennon Park that could have offered more vegan stuff. There were about 15 dishes when I visited (no tamales or eggplant caviar!), but half of them were made with cheese or dairy, like cheese pasta, creamy rice, etc. The veggie soup, rice and beans, salad stuff, and other bits and pieces were quite good, though, but I think vegans are getting overcharged since we don't eat half of the items. Keep in mind that you have to pay admission to the garden to reach the restaurant, which was about 4CUC (~$5) per person. I was in a bit of a hurry, but it would have been good to spend the afternoon. I went to this place on the way to the airport, which might be a good option for other people who don't want to take a cab way out to the garden from Havana just for an expensive lunch.
And while not vegetarian restaurants, the change of pace at these two Havana restaurants was really appreciated:
Al Medina's veggie platter's rice ended up having obvious chicken in it, but other than that, it was pretty good. When I was there, the platter had a sort of black bean salad meant to be fuul, mashed black beans with oil that I presume was the hummous, pita bread, really good fresh tabouleh salad, fried eggplants/aubergines, odd little fried falafel-like balls that may or may not have been made of chick peas (or perhaps corn and some other kind of bean?), and fresh fruit. I was hoping for some garlic, olive oil, or tahineh, but alas, none of those ingredients seem to have found their way to this restaurant.
Tien-Tan is the only place in Cuba I saw tofu, so it was a welcome return to a favorite from home. It's located many restaurants deep into a cave of Chinese places with bright signs and red paper lanterns a few blocks after you enter via the archway from the Old Havana area. We ordered fried spring rolls, vegetable fried rice, a tofu/mushroom/bok choi hot pot, and some kind of veggie noodle dish, and all were quite good. Given the choice between Cuban versions of Arab and Chinese food, the Chinese definitely won.
I ate at tons of other places across the island, but they're not worth mentioning because they all offer the same basic options that you'll find everywhere.
Elsewhere on the island, the LP book lists three places I didn't get to visit:
Links to other stuff:
This page is written by the owner of The Sensual Vegan,