After liberalization of private tours, restaurants, and cafeterias in 2013, Cuba is becoming one of the most attractive places for gourmet purposes. Eating in Cuba could be now as delicious and abundant as in any other Caribbean country. More than a thousand restaurants and tiptop cafeterias had emerge during last 3 years only in Havana, some of them immediately ranking worldwide lists.
At the same time, myriads of minor food-vendors, many of them lawless, pullulate in cities and towns. From home-made guava pies to any kind of sandwich, pasta and fry ups are always at hand. A great number of drinks like fruit milkshakes, lemonades, coco water and icecreams lean out from many street’s windows and doors.
You probably already know that traveling is one of the best things that you can do for your health, but is eating in Cuba utterly safe? Not utterly, of course. But let us take a closer look.
(TIP: Planning a trip to Cuba? Aside from staying healthy, you should follow these 12 must-do tips to enjoy a safe Cuba vacation)
The Natural Conditions
Cuba is a tropical island where the average temperature of the coolest month, January, gets higher than 70 o F, moving to more than 90 o F during the Summer. In these torrid months, humidity and rainfall get their peak too.
Natural conditions are ideal to proliferation of any kind of pathogens on waters and foods: virusses, bacterias, molds and vectors like cockroach, flies and mosquitoes. Disgusting, but true.
(TIP: Wondering when to travel to Cuba? Read our review of the best time to visit Cuba)
The Status Quo
But please do not be over worried. It is not like many underdeveloped countries. In Cuba 95% of the city dwellers has access to an improved source of potable water. The number drops to 78% in rural areas tough. As an average, the country ranks second in Latin America.
Electrification serves more than 90% of family houses, including the countryside. Cuba’s health system and hygiene agencies cover the whole country and every individual, making a permanent control over transmittable diseases and its causes.
Local media permanently advise the population on how to avoid any tropical disease. In general, eating in Cuba is safe in most places.
It could seem redundant or silly to remind you to thoroughly wash your hands before having any food.
Eating in Cuba is very agreeable, but do not do it with dirty hands, since this is one of the main ways to introduce in your stomach the pathogens that cause food disease. Remember, you are not immune to many of the existing pathogens outside your routine environment or country.
Only a very few number of Cuban residents drink bottled water. Its cost is inaccessible for most of them. Tap water is their main source for drinking. Although Cuban drinking water is mainly chlorinated, especially in major cities (Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara, Camaguey and so), the risk of some kind of pollution is high all over.
So, my advice here is to avoid tap water anywhere you are and get bottled water by all means. Local brands, carbonated or not, are available from 0.40 CUC the small bottle.
Important! As any other good in Cuba, bottled water is not always at hand, especially in street retails. Sometimes, it simply disappears even from the biggest stores. Inside hotels and on major touristic zones the situation is equable. But, if you are planning to walk the city for a while, better take with you at least one bottle of water.
The Cooling Drinks
Please be careful with home-made drinks because they are mostly elaborated with tap water. Besides, lots of sugar is added to sweet anything, including juices and refreshments. In very few cafeterias they use boiled water, which is the most popular way to effectively disinfect tap water in Cuba.
Coconut water is OK only when the vendor cracks the coco in front of you. Usually sold within the very natural fruit, you can drink it without worries.
Watch out with sugarcane juice or guarapo. It is a delicious drink to take under the sun -especially with lemon juice or mint liqueur- but the process to obtain it is not always clean enough for unaccustomed stomachs. Moreover, they always add a handful or frappe-ice to make it cooler… undoubtedly made from tap water. Do not mislay the unique Cuban guarapo, but take it preferably inside hotels or touristic zones, never in crowded places.
The Hot Drinks
Eating in Cuba will usually include infusions, especially coffee. Tea is much less frequent. No major problems with them. As typical, they use tap water but boiling is a must in these cases.
Cow’s milk production has been seriously depressed for lustrums, so it is mainly powdered, skim or not. No problem with powder milk if made with boiling water.
If you have any minor health complaint while living in a casa particular, you will be probably invited to drink some cocimiento (decoction) made with natural plants. In these cases, they use balmy plants like lime-tree, peppermint or anisette. You can take it moderately. Boiling water is always used in the process.
The Ethylic Drinks
Cuba is land of the best sugar cane rum in the world to many. Local beers are also acceptable, wine on the contrary, horrible. No problem drinking the ethylic beverages while factory bottled and labeled.
Anyhow, be careful if drinking at unfamiliar parties or places if you are not sure of the origin. Methyl alcohol’s massive poisoning is infrequent but dramatically dangerous, life threatening.
Roots and beans are always safe, since they cook them in order to eat them. This category includes typical dishes those eating in Cuba will for sure be offered. Some of them are yucca, bananas, pumpkins, sweet potatoes or other viandas; also frijoles negros (black beans) and any other potajes too.
Be very careful with green salads, especially in sub-standard restaurants. Lettuce, chard and cress must be meticulously wash before serving to clean out bugs like little mollusks and aphids. Indeed, it is a custom in the island to carefully wash the vegetables… but the task is always completed with tap water. Tomatoes and cabbage are safer to eat.
As in the case of the vegetables, you must lave fruits before serving them, but only superficially like tomatoes. Mango, grapefruit, mamey, papaya, pinnacle and banana are safe to eat directly.
Nonetheless, once you put them in milkshakes or juices, tap water comes into scene again, plus massive manual procedures. A lot of sugar is habitually added to this kind of drinks in Cuba.
Meats, whenever not raw, do not suppose any threat for those eating in Cuba. Pork is the queen of meats in the island, at least for most people. But beef meat is available too, even if much more pricey. Lamb, goat and even horse is eaten, especially in the countryside. Again, the best care here is to be sure the meat is perfectly cooked, having no reddish part visible.
Be always careful with food fish, especially in tropical weathers. Platform fishing industry is much deflated in Cuba, so most seafood is imported. Anyway, you might see some street vendors, more frequently in coastal towns and cities. Be extremely careful if you are to buy them, since some types of local fish become siguato (poisonous) by eating certain marine vegetables, especially at the southern coast. This is one of the few foods to avoid in Cuba. Most times even the dealers do not perceive if the fish is siguato. Anyhow, eating in Cuba would necessarily lead to have some fish. No problem at all if you do it at good restaurants inside or outside the hotel.
The king-symptom of every food, waterborne disease is diarrhea, followed by vomits, fever, dizziness and dehydration. If you have two or more diarrheas in less than 2 hours, please, go to the nearest hospital. You can take oral re-hydration salts after each diarrhea in the meantime.
Eating in Cuba, the Best Places
Now that you are well-alerted, it is probably time to have some food. Here is the top-ten restaurant ranking made by cubapaladar.org following these criteria. All restaurants mentioned here are located in Havana.
- 29 e/ B y C, Vedado. Tel. 78300711 53862222
- Ivan Chefs Justo. Aguacate Esq. A Chacón, Habana Vieja. Tel. 78639697
- El Litoral. Malecón e/ K y L, Vedado. Tel. 78302201 53446191
- Doña Eutimia. Callejón del Chorro, Habana Vieja. Tel. 78611332
- La Guarida. Concordia e/ Gervasio y Escobar, C. Habana. Tel. 78669047
- Café Laurent. M e/ 19 y 21, Vedado. Tel. 78326890 52977033
- Río Mar. 3ra. y Final, Miramar. Tel. 72094838 52585025
- Castropol Sociedad Asturiana. Malecón e/ Crespo y Genios, C. Habana. Tel 78614864
- El Cocinero. 26 e/ 11 y 13, Vedado. Tel. 78322325
- 5ta e/ Paseo y 2, Vedado. Tel. 78362025
Eating in Cuba is now better than ever, with hundreds of lovely restaurants striving their best for attracting tourists. Those are probably the reasons why the island is becoming a culinary destination for tourists around the world.
Nevertheless, you have to be alert about food and drink health risks. That is the target I hope to fulfill with this post.
Ahora, a comer!
(TIP: Still undecided? Check out why now is the best time to plan a Cuba vacation!)