‘You must not drink water after you eat the seafood,’ the Cubatur representative told us, tapping the table to emphasise the seriousness of her advice. ‘This is how people get sick from the seafood. You must drink only alcohol. Water will make the tummy upset. No water.’
This is how one of the strangest and most fun nights of travel I’ve ever had began.
Carmen and I were checking out the southern Cuban coastal city of Trinidad which is known for its beaches, hiking and the holy trinity of Cuba – rum, cigars and coffee.
We were scoping out a place to eat for dinner amid the brightly painted houses and cobbled streets of the old city centre when we went into Cubatur, one of the official communist government tour agencies, to inquire about getting bus tickets for the next instalment of our adventures.
Making the oddest dinner reservation
The power was out and the daily afternoon rainstorm was pounding down so we had time to chat and the lady helping us ended up recommending a restaurant to us that a friend of hers ran. In Cuba, everyone seems to know everyone and everyone seems to be running a restaurant but the lady was very nice so we decided to take a punt.
For 17 Cuban Convertible Currency (CUCs, the hard currency of Cuba, and equivalent to the US dollar) we would get picked up and dropped by an old American car from our Casa Particular, the local home we were staying in, and then get a three course seafood meal with a salsa lesson thrown in.
7pm rolled around and so did the car.
Check it out:
It’s a Chrysler Windsor Deluxe from the 1950s and it’s just one of the many hundreds of classic cars that still bomb around the streets and highways of Cuba, all of them nursed into mechanical health by some ingenious engineering and tinkering.
Now, with the Chrysler it may be old style American on the outside but under the hood it’s all Germany.
“2010 Mercedes-Benz truck engine!” our driver proudly pointed out when I asked what the donk was.
“Five litre straight cylinders with a 5-speed automatic gearbox.” He switched it on and the enormous engine made a noise that would have woken the dead. The whole Cuban vintage car purred and vibrated and when he put his foot down it roared like a WWII fighter plane. The sloppy suspension wobbled all over the place as the iron beast raced over the cobbles.
Out on the highway it was Mad Max time. The driver planted his foot and the Chevy/Mercedes-Benz boomed along the road at ever increasing speed past people walking on the bitumen, horses and carts and other more modern cars driven by panicked looking tourists. Our driver was laughing and waving and beeping the horn at everything that moved.
The doppler roar of the thirsty Merc engine and the blaring horn kept up the whole way there, and even as we pulled up to the restaurant our driver was thundering away having the time of his life.
We got out in a daze and followed the driver into a narrow alleyway that led past someone’s house and into a backyard where a fully equipped tourist trap restaurant had been established.
We were the only people there. We were utterly outnumbered by the staff.
Quick as a flash our waiter brought bread to the table and took our drink orders. Remembering the advice from our Cubatur representative, we both had Pina Coladas and they were super strong and super delicious – great protection for the massive lobster tails we ordered!
In Australia we would have paid a lot more than $8.50 per person for this:
We had barely finished our meal when the salsa teacher arrived and asked us if we wanted to dance! Er, not yet… we pleaded for a little more time to digest the immense meal we’d just eaten and he gave us five minutes. Exactly.
Then we were on the dance floor learning to salsa Cuban style!
Our salsa teacher taught us all the basic Cuban moves which were a little different to the fast-stepping moves we learned in Cali, Colombia. Cuban salsa is very expressive with lots of flashy moves compared to the Colombian style which is very, very fast.
In five minutes I was soaked in sweat and regretting the second helping of rice I’d had!
After settling the (very cheap) bill we got picked up the big old American / German / Cuban vintage car again and got driven at top speed down a pitch black highway straight out of a Nick Cave song. The driver even stopped to give his friends a ride to their house!
He got us to our Casa Particular and then drove off into the night, leaving us giggling in the street at the wild ride Cuba had just given us.
The future of Cuban tourism
Tourism is a growing industry in Cuba and as the government there loosens its restrictions on private business and ownership, more and more locals are getting in on the game.
They have a lot to learn but we both agreed that the rough around the edges informality of the way things are done in Cuba is very charming and a welcome difference to the slick yet soulless experiences you can have in more developed countries.