Food is a gateway to understanding.
When I told people who had been to Havana that I was heading to Cuba, I was met with nervous expressions. They all said the same thing: the food is the worst they’ve ever had on vacation. Perhaps it says something about my personality that I was determined to prove them wrong. Instead, Cuba cemented my belief that I don’t travel to eat; I eat to learn.
What’s on a plate can tell you as much about a place, its people, politics and climate as a museum or historical site. The same applies in reverse, especially in Havana; what’s not on your plate is an important insight into the extent of government control. This is far-reaching, from local seafood being exported or reserved for state-run restaurants and hotels, to the politics surrounding the many difficult-to-buy basics that power the black market, to the ration system that still feeds most Cubans. And you can get all of that from a quick chat with a local, apologetic for the absence of eggs in the morning or beer in the afternoon.
Strip all that away and you can still eat well. Ropa vieja, which translates to “old clothes” in Spanish, is always a safe bet, the steak braised until it can be pulled apart and served over rice. Tamales and anything with black beans are staples, and no meal in Cuba is complete without a side of fried plantains.
In between meals and sightseeing, walk wherever you can. Havana feels like an oversized movie set; people really do dance in the streets and are Che Guevara is idolised. The city is gorgeous in all its crumbling, neglected glory: Spanish colonial buildings as vibrant as its people, vintage cars repaired over decades with whatever drivers can get their hands on, and a fiery bohemian, artistic and nationalistic spirit that’s endured a trade embargo, multiple wars and a revolution.