Inside Cuba: A GeoEx Journey -- Paladar

It’s an inevitable request from every group that travels through Cuba. At some point the novelty of the Hemingway bars wears off and visitors to Havana want something a little more authentic: “I want to drink where the locals drink!”

Until recently this was a tough request to honor. There are plenty of bars in Havana, but most are filled with tourists happily handing over the equivalent of $3 for a beer or $5 for a daiquiri, a price few Cubans would dream of paying. To truly drink with locals meant buying a bottle of cheap rum and hanging out on the malecon, the seaside road, or venturing into dingy establishments where grumpy old men huddled around an old TV watching a local baseball game. Neither provided the type of welcoming ambience most visitors were hoping for.

Enter El Chanchullero (pictured) and the paladar movement. In 1998, as part of a series of pro-tourism reforms, the Cuban government started allowing citizens to open their homes as semi-private restaurants. Over the past fourteen years the movement has changed the landscape of the Cuban dining experience and in the last few years it is starting to do the same for bars, with El Chanchullero serving as a prime example. In this Old Havana home, locals and tourists mingle at a bar where a beer will cost you $1 and a rum about the same.

On the other side of town in the Vedado neighborhood, Bar Madrigal is offering something similar yet strikingly new to the Havana night-scene. Owner Rafael Rosales turned his home into a bar trendy enough that it caught the attention of the New York Times in early 2012. And although he was happy for the free publicity, Rafael admits, “I didn’t intend this bar to be for tourists. With all the attention I know I could raise my prices, but that would mean that few Cubans could afford to come and this would be just another bar for tourists.” Instead, Rafael keeps his prices low and his crowd equal parts local and foreigner. His bar, the only non-dance club that stays open until 4am on weekends, is setting a trend that others are sure to follow.

*****

Intrigued to find out more about Cuba? Check out our GeoEx journeys to Cuba.

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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at don@geoex.com.

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