Agrotourism in Cuba 2024

Take a culinary journey with Kacie through the landscapes of Cuba and learn about the country's dynamic and communal food systems.
Learning to cook in Cuba

Havana– It’s 10pm. My casa particular host knocks on my door to share that she and her husband are going to the store. I ask if I can tag along. 

She smiles warmly, “Of course” she says. 

We step out into the dark, warm night– Warm to me, coming from snowy Vermont. Cold to her, compared with normal winters in Havana. Less than a block from the casa, we stop outside of a tiny shop. My hosts ask what I’d like to drink. 

I peer through the vertical metal bars on the store’s windows that separate the world of foodstuffs and other items from the outside world, and see a carton of apple juice. I have the juice and they have a beer to share, and we continue walking through the neighborhood. 

We stop and they point out another store, quizzing me on if it is government or privately- owned. Based on the sign displaying the forms of payment they accept, I guess, government. I am correct. We continue on, linking arms, strolling, laughing through our Spanglish, and stopping to chat here and there with neighbors. 

It’s a perfect introduction to Havana.  

Cuba present-day is very different to pre-Covid times and the elimination of dual currency which happened in 2021. I’ve come to see that much of the information I had read on Cuba prior to my arrival is outdated and no longer relevant, because so much has changed in a short time. Like most countries, it has a complicated and heart- wrenching history, though present day these are still very difficult and complicated economic times.  There are some questions better left unasked, especially in public.

Despite this, the people I’ve had the pleasure to encounter so far are upbeat, talkative, friendly, genuinely kind and return my curiosity. I feel safe walking around Havana day and night solo, and I am in awe of the beauty and people of this country.   

Las Terrazas– A few days after arrival, I head via collectivo, a shared taxi, to Viñales. I chat with some fellow travelers from Switzerland who are sharing the ride. 

They will stop in Las Terrazas, a UNESCO biosphere reserve site and present day ecovillage, where seven million trees were planted in the late 60’s to combat deforestation. 

In hopes to see a bit of the village, I ask our driver if it is possible to stop for 30 minutes and look around. He initially says he cannot, as he is scheduled to pick up another carload once we get to our destination. 

I smile and again ask, “What about for 20 minutes?” He concedes to my second attempt for a quick stop. We end up chatting the rest of the drive with the help of translator apps, stopping before the ecovillage for food near where his family lives.

Upon dropping the other passengers at their destination in Las Terrazas, I ask where I can find a coffee and I am directed to a patio at the bottom of several stairs near the hotel Moka. 

I proceed with caution to avoid further damage to my foot still recovering post surgery, and find a seat in the open air cafe overlooking the water and several houses engulfed in greenery and trees. 

The driver finds me on the patio, tells me to take my time now. I invite him for a coffee and continue chatting with others in the cafe.  We are there for close to an hour despite the initial time constraints. I make sure to ask if he will get to his next carload of people in time upon dropping me in Viñales. 

He offers that he will and that there is no problem. I make sure to tip everyone well, as inflation has made it very difficult for Cubans to acquire basic necessities, and conversely, easier on tourists. 

Though it is challenging even for Cubans with money, many resources are simply not available on the island. It may not make much of an impact, but I make a note to donate any unused medication and toiletries I have brought with me towards the end of the trip, when I will end up on the east side, where resources may be more limited than the tourist hubs of Havana and Viñales. 

Viñales– My first afternoon in Viñales, I set out to meet my guide for a five-hour horse ride through the valley to visit family farms, and to learn a bit about local crops. In this region, the soil is rich with iron, contributing to an aesthetically-pleasing vibrant orange reddish earth color and more importantly, serving as an essential micronutrient in many plant processes. For this reason, Viñales is known for  producing a wide variety of crops. 

My guide is standing outside to greet me, as I hobble down his driveway. He asks if I’ve ridden horses before. I tell him only once, as a little kid. He does not seem at all concerned with my lack of experience or the cane and boot I am sporting. 

He helps me up on Julia, my horse, who appears calm and well-cared for. The sense of joy I felt as a child riding a horse for the first time, returns instantly. Julie knows the route so well, I barely need to guide her to the right or left through the Valley surrounded by massive limestone outcrops. 

Tobacco 

Our first stop is at a family tobacco farm. I am helped off the horse and offered a drink, a virgin mojito with thick local honey. 

We walk around the farm, as I ask endless questions and answer those they have of me. I’ve become accustomed to my boot and cane being a conversation piece over the past four months and have benefited from the kindness of people in the states and abroad. 

I’m not a cigar smoker and after working in thoracic oncology would never encourage anyone to smoke, especially routinely, however as tobacco is one of the most important crops for Cubans and plays a significant role in the economy, I felt it important to explore. 

The farmers explain the tobacco crops are rotated with corn, one of each crop per year to help keep the soil healthy. The rotation is important for repleting soil micronutrients. 

We enter a hut and are joined by his younger brother who expertly explains the lengthy and labor-intensive process his family goes through harvesting and drying the leaves. No tractors or machines are used. 

The farmers continue the explanation of the process of drying, fermentation, and aging as well as the variations in quality, flavor and texture of the leaves based on location on the plant. At their farm, the leaves are sprayed with a tea made of local ingredients: lime, pineapple, guava, honey, cinnamon, local rum (called Guayabita del Pinar made from a small type of guava) giving the leaves a unique aroma after 6 months.  He offered this process his family uses is what sets them apart from the government-made cigars. By not using chemicals to treat the tobacco, the quality of the cigars his family makes will last for about 3 years, whereas the chemicals used by the government preserves the cigars for many more years. 

The stem of the leaves containing 90% of the nicotine is removed, and glue made from potatoes is used to seal the tip of the cigar.  It is a fascinating process the entire family is involved in. From start to finish it takes about 25 minutes to roll one cigar. 

The government purchases 90% of the tobacco leaves at a price set by the government, and 10% is left for the families. Only the government is allowed to sell Cuban cigars with labels. 

Produce

I locate my guide and we carry on through the valley. Our next stop is at another family farm, where I am greeted by a young woman who walks me to a hut. On our way, she points out various plants and quizzes me holding up a cilantro leaf to smell which appears different to the cilantro I am accustomed to seeing in grocery stores back home. 

She explains the tropical climate in Cuba and unique location (which also comes with its wet season and devastating hurricanes) allow for several foods to be produced locally. The farmers are able to consume some of what their hard labor produces, whereas others are not as fortunate as costs are presently too high for many.  In talking with other locals, many often purchase food (at reduced cost compared with the supermarket) from vendors who trot through the streets with their horses and carts full of goods.

Plants that grow naturally in this region are oregano, cilantro and lemongrass. We walk past avocados, coconuts, mango, tomato, pumpkin, papaya, sweet potatoes, yuca, guava, lime and bananas. One thing I notice is that I have not seen any lemons yet in my short time in Cuba, but limes or limón seem omnipresent.  Even the “lemonade” is made with fresh limes and refreshingly delicious. Looking into this later I discover in Cuba limón almost always means lime, however this is not the case in every Spanish speaking country. 

I have come across bananas regularly and multiple people have told me there are two types of bananas here in Cuba: big and small. Most visitors know them as bananas, explains my guide, but she describes the larger of the two as platanos, plantains, which are often eaten fried or boiled, while the smaller ones are fruit for eating or juice. 

Coffee

Coffee is another main crop grown at this family farm. She points to a coffee plant and explains that Arabica beans are larger and flower only once a year, whereas the smaller Robusta beans flower twice a year and grow on the same coffee plant. 

Robusta is bitter to Arabica’s sweetness and strength, which she personally prefers. The flowering season is January and February produces three colors during the months of March through August, green, yellow and red. Harvesting season occurs September through December, when they collect the red and yellow beans by hand, one by one. Following the harvest, the beans dry in the sun for one month. Once dried, she will separate the skin from the beans with a massive mortar and pestle.

Once the beans are cleaned from the skin, they are roasted. She explains this is the most difficult process. They are roasted in a large iron pot over a fire, for no more than 40 minutes, and it is essential to move the beans almost constantly. The beans should not be black, only brown, and they do not use chemicals.  

Next comes the grinder. The whole beans roasted will maintain quality for up to two-three years, but once ground, they should be used within two days. They typically make the coffee with a traditional filter, or an Italian coffee maker. Finally, she adds white or brown sugar or local honey before enjoying. 

Honey 

The bee yards are about 1 km away in the mountains, which she says is better for the safety of people with bee allergies. The honey is from a mix of different flowers like coffee, guava, and pineapple and the liquid is heavier and thicker than often found in the supermarket. The properties do not separate out like in the supermarket, and no additional sugar is added. 

Fun food safety fact: bacteria can not survive in honey.

Local honey is used in traditional healing and medicine for certain issues with the throat, skin (eg: wounds), blood (eg: anemia), various gastrointestinal problems, and even asthma. She tells how people cut the banana plant (platano plant) and mix the water found inside with honey to aid the airways in the lungs. 

Honey is also used to make the popular Coco Loco drink using all local ingredients. Her instructions are as follows: open the coconut, add honey to the coconut water, lime, pineapple juice and rum. 

Guayabita del Pinar Rum 

The family also harvests a type of small guava, which differs from the kind that is often consumed as fruit or made into paste or marmalade. The government then purchases 80% of the harvest and makes rum (she explains only the government is allowed to make alcohol in Cuba). Then 20% comes back to the family. This type of rum from her region is sweeter, smoother, and fruitier than other rum in Cuba made from sugar cane. It contains 40% alcohol and you will see the tiny fruit in the bottom of the bottle.

We walk around a bit more, discussing how her family naturally practices zero waste on the farm. She explains that some food remains are for the pigs and chickens, bananas make good fertilizer, and the center of the tobacco containing 90% of the nicotine in the leaf is also used for the soil. 

I thank her and her family, purchase some goods, and hop back on Julia as the sun is starting to set.

Interested in planning a culinary adventure like Kacie’s? Start your adventure, here.

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