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Getting an early taste of authentic food, drink in Cuba

Chicago Tribune

Breakfast with iced mango juice under an avocado tree. Colorful stucco buildings. A chocolate museum and cafe. Musicians on park benches and in late-night jazz clubs. Salsa dancing in a third-floor walk up. Sweat upon sweat. Fine dining in an old mansion. Hemingway-style daiquiris. And, yes, those amazing vintage American cars in lime green, neon yellow and baby blue.

This was just the first day in Havana.

But what a day. It was a snapshot of a country on the verge of welcoming an influx of American visitors, revealing itself a little bit at a time, like a girl on a first date.

According to statistics from the University of Havana, 75,870 travelers from the U.S. visited Cuba in the first half of 2015, compared with just over 50,000 during the same period the previous year. Those numbers don't include Cuban-Americans returning for visits.

The trend will only accelerate in the wake of a new deal that allows U.S. air carriers to restore scheduled commercial flights to and from Cuba as early as this fall. (Current flights between Cuba and the United States are all charters.)

U.S. law still prohibits tourist travel to Cuba, but Americans are allowed to visit under a broad range of categories authorized by the U.S. government.

I made my journey with Access Trips, a culinary tour company licensed to connect travelers with Cuban people and showcase the arts, culture and culinary style of the largest Caribbean island.

On the first day, our taste buds were just beginning to get used to the idea that the capital city's vibrant melange of sensations would also extend to the country's food and drink. Cuisine in Cuba, as in most places, is shaped by its history and geography. Here that means influences from Spain, Africa and the indigenous people of the Caribbean.

What stood out were the breakfasts in our Havana guesthouse, the fine dining at the privately owned restaurant La Guarida, the just-caught fish barbecued by our local guide in the colonial town of Trinidad and the daiquiris at Floridita, a Hemingway hangout.

Cuba's modern history set the stage for the creation, starting in the 1990s, of casas particulares and paladares, privately owned guesthouses and home restaurants that cater to visitors. Both were a key part of my trip.

The breakfasts at our Havana guesthouse, Villasol, were in a quiet private garden under a huge avocado tree. The morning meals were memorable for the beautiful setting, friendly service and fresh juices that came with the eggs, ham and toast.

One of Havana's most famous paladares, La Guarida, was a revelation, in part because of the ambience — perched on the upper level of a crumbling old mansion with views of lower-level construction areas and laundry hanging on lines — but also for the food. Noted for its suckling pig (about $16 U.S.), the menu also offers beef tenderloin ($16), rabbit ($16) and lobster ($20) at prices that are inexpensive for Americans but out of reach for most Cubans. I ordered lobster at almost every restaurant because it was so fresh and the prices were so good.

La Guarida is a place visited in recent years by royalty (Princess Caroline of Monaco) and by celebrities including Beyonce, Usher and Natalie Portman. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent some time there too.

I ordered the house specialty, the suckling pig, and was surprised at the modern presentation with layered pork and crispy pressed skin skewered by slender, fried sweet potato. The avocado salad was a hit, a bit like guacamole but refreshing and light. Don't miss the fluffy fried sweet potatoes and the strawberries-and-chocolate dessert, showcased because the paladar was the setting for Cuba's first Oscar-nominated film, "Fresa y Chocolate" (1995).

For drinks, go to Old Havana's Floridita where Ernest Hemingway hung out and especially liked the daiquiris. Made with rum, lime juice, sugar syrup and a splash of grapefruit juice, they're popular with tourists who take photos with the life-sized statue of the author along the bar.

Early morning on the last day of the trip we headed to a small fishing village outside of Trinidad. Our guide, known by his childhood nickname Pototo, chatted with fisherman returning with the morning's catch. He bought a half-dozen red snapper. Back in Trinidad, he prepared the fish using garlic and onions bought from a street vendor.

With the snapper roasting on a grill on the second-floor balcony of our casa particular, drinking cold beer and chatting about our day, the traveling companions who had met a week earlier at the Havana airport seemed like old friends. The vibrant, surprising cuisine of Cuba had brought us together.

Terri Colby is a freelance reporter.

If you go

Access Trips: The culinary tour company's eight-day Cuba trips start at $3,590 and include the flight from Miami to Cuba, but not the cost of getting to Miami. Groups are limited to no more than 10 people.    

Lodging: At this point in Cuba's evolution, a trip to this Caribbean nation won't be for everyone. Accommodations in particular aren't what many Americans are used to. For example, our rooms in one of the casas particulares in Havana were nice, but we were warned that toilet paper had to be discarded in a waste basket, not the toilet. My room had a flat-screen TV but the plug didn't reach the wall outlet. You can expect simple, clean rooms.

Money matters: Things are changing quickly, but the U.S. Embassy in Havana notes that ATM and credit cards issued by U.S. banks do not work in Cuba, so visitors should bring enough cash to last the duration of their trip. You need to exchange money to CUCs, the convertible Cuban currency used by travelers. You'll get a better rate if you exchange Canadian dollars or euros, a move that saved me about 15 percent.

Vintage American cars: Our group traveled in a 1952 yellow Chevy and a 1957 blue one. The vehicles from Nostalgic Car Cuba come with drivers who can double as tour guides.

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