How to get off the eaten track in Santiago de Cuba
A trip to Santiago de Cuba should start with dinner at a paladar
(family-run restaurant) and end with drinks on the roof of the Hotel
By JENNIFER BAIN Travel Editor
Wed., June 21, 2017
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA-Ramon Guilarte welcomes us to his home and
restaurant with a cocktail full of vitamin R. Will it be a Cuba Libre,
rum and cola, or Estacazo, rum and lemonade? Rum is ridiculously cheap here.
Esta Caso seems more fun, thanks to our host's animated explanation
(some of it lost in translation) about how drinking this is like getting
whacked with a stick. As we dig into platters of mango, papaya and
pineapple, Guilarte opens a bottle of rum and pours a little on the
ground as an offering to the saints for good luck, and then asks us each
how big a "stick" we want in our drinks.
"Don't expect a common restaurant," he warns with a theatrical flourish.
"Everybody that comes to the restaurant is a friend. I think it's
important that you feel like home — and these are not empty words."
La Fondita de Compay Ramon is a paladar, a family-run restaurant that
boosts the economy and gives tourists and locals the chance to connect.
At this farm-themed paladar we sit in cowhide "taburete" chairs found in
typical farms and our host is dressed like a traditional farmer.
In between a stunning red kidney bean soup and unpretentious platters
full of rice, pork, cabbage, shrimp, chicken and plantains, we learn
that Guilarte is a painter and empty nester with two daughters and two
"Painting, and the life of a painter, is very lonely. Painting is
totally opposite to this business." He opened Compay Ramon in 2012 in
the Ferrerido neighbourhood of Cuba's second largest city. His
neighbours don't mind the nightly commotion, maybe because they often
get to share the leftovers.
"Best food in Cuba," according to "the Intrepid Group" in one of the
many accolades scrawled artfully on the wall and dated Dec. 16, just
weeks after Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro died and weeks before my
first visit to Canada's favourite Caribbean island.
You'll find plenty of online accolades for our enthusiastic host. "Ramon
is a character," allows our Cubatur guide and translator Ricardo
Zaldivar Rodriguez, "but this is not a show."
I duck down the hall into the tiny kitchen to meet Guilarte's smiling
wife Mayra Gayoso Romaguera and her helper, who is washing dishes by
hand. I peek at a modest bedroom.
My first night in Cuba ends with a stewed green papaya dessert and
Guilarte showing how to roast coffee beans and brew coffee the
traditional way and then sharing a cigar.
Santiago de Cuba, with half a million people, is often described as "the
hottest city in Cuba" because of its temperature and charm.
We cram a lot into a whirlwind day — historic sites like the Santa
Ifgenia cemetery, where Castro's ashes are marked by a large rock from
the Sierra Maestra mountains, and where national hero/poet Jose Marti
has an elaborate mausoleum. People bring them red and white roses
We hit Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, a former fort/prison called
Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, and a Catholic church with a sacred
Virgin of Charity statue called El Cobre near a copper mine. I buy a
bundle of copper-tinged rocks from a guy in the parking lot.
Cubans make the most of what they are given. There is virtually no waste
here — public garbage cans are nearly always empty.
I'm more curious about the present than the past and so relish the
chance to wander down Calle Enramada, a pedestrian street where I don't
have time to join the lineup for hot churros.
"If you don't mention this street name," says Rodriguez, "it might be
said that you have never been to Santiago de Cuba."
At La Barrita Ron Caney, a bar by a rum factory, I sample seven-year-old
rum, smelling it with closed eyes, tilting the glass to see the body and
holding a sip in my throat while the house band plays traditional Cuban
There is music everywhere, in Plaza de Dolores, in Casa de la Trova Pepe
Sanchez, and at Tropicana, an outpost of Havana's famed cabaret.
"When we hear music, we start dancing," says Rodriguez, who sings and
dances throughout our week together.
At Restaurante Matamoros, the chef pops out of the kitchen to join the
band while we enjoy a soupy meat and vegetable stew called ajiaco. After
dinner we have coffee nearby at Café Constantin, where my Bembito Bomban
is a cheeky reference to Afro-Cuban women and combines coffee, cacao
liqueur and cinnamon.
Cuba is changing, so you will mix and match old and new.
Melia Santiago de Cuba is new, glitzy and a short drive from the
historic centre, with decent Wi-Fi (a very big deal), a pool, and a
breakfast buffet, where I wrapped thin slices of cheese around chunks of
In the heart of downtown, Hotel Casa Granda oozes colonial charm, with a
breezy rooftop restaurant and sweeping city views. For my last meal, I
had a Cuban sandwich (an American invention) and a local spin on
pepperoni pizza (forgive me).
It was no Fondita de Compay Ramon, but it was still equally, magically
Jennifer Bain was hosted by the Cuba Tourist Board, which didn't review
or approve this story.
When you go
Get there: I flew Cubana de Aviacion airlines (www.cubana.cu ) direct to
Santiago de Cuba and flew home with a stop in Camaguey. WestJet, Air
Canada, Air Transat and Sunwing all fly to various spots in Cuba.
Get around: It's easy to take taxis around Santiago de Cuba, but if you
have a driver and guide (like I did with Cubatur), you'll have the bonus
of a translator/fixer.
Stay: I stayed at the modern Melia Santiago de Cuba (melia.com).
Eat: Find La Fondita de Compay Ramon on Facebook.
Know: You can only buy Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) in Cuba and can't
exchange them at the end of your trip. Get them at the airport and
foreign exchange shops. Wi-Fi is limited to public squares and some
hotel lobbies. Buy a 60-minute Wi-Fi card for 2 CUC (about $2.75
Canadian) at the airport or your hotel. North American plugs don't work
so bring an adaptor for the European 220-volt system.
Source: How to get off the eaten track in Santiago de Cuba | Toronto