I had read that finding snack food in Cuba was difficult, but it wasn’t clear why. Maybe the travel guides were referring to the lack of fast food chains. That was no problem for me and Pier; we don’t eat fast food. Or maybe it was because high performance protein bars aren’t sold in Cuba. Again, not a problem. We weren’t riding the Tour de France, after all. Or maybe the guides meant that packable snacks didn’t exist. I had a solution for that – Tupperware!
Those assumptions all turned out to be true, but none got to the heart of why we often found our stomachs growling – Cuba does not have grocery stores!
So where’s a hungry cyclist to buy snacks for the road?
Markets – Fresh fruits and vegetables, local food, etc. Sounds like a great place to get snacks, right? Not if you’re a tourist who doesn’t speak Spanish. At the market in Havana we were hustled and got ripped off. One day I will return, less naïve and fluently conversing in Spanish, and will hopefully fair better.
Mercado Stores – In Varadero, this is where people directed us when we asked where to buy groceries, but this is not a grocery store or a market. It’s most akin to a convenience store, but with even less food. If you want ice cream bars, bottled water, cookies or crackers, you can get those here, but that’s about it.
So, some tips for not starving on the open road in Cuba:
#5 – Get a packed lunch from your casa. Bicycling Cuba recommended this and said that for a couple $CUCs your host will make you a take-away lunch. However, because we do not speak Spanish, none of the casa owners (except for one in Vinales) understood what we meant. So we resorted to nabbing bread rolls from the breakfast spread. But this tactic is desperate and chancy and not recommended. Learn Spanish so you can properly ask for a packed lunch.
#4 – Bring Tupperware. This will come in handy when swiping bread rolls or legitimately bringing home leftovers from a restaurant meal. We didn’t eat out much, but when we did those leftovers sure came in handy the next day! Also, if you have Tupperware, you can buy peso pizza and save it for later. Which brings me to…
#3 – Learn to identify peso pizza restaurants. It took us a day or two to realize that a pizza sign beside a hole in a wall or a person standing in a window were Cuba’s equivalent of a fast food restaurant. These little personal pizzas and ham & cheese sandwiches soon became our staple snack.
#2 – Pack snack bars from home. I was trying to travel light so I only packed a couple dozen, but I should have packed more. Because on the back roads of Cuba, those peso pizza restaurants are few and very far between.
#1 – Always stop for bananas! If you see people standing on the side of the road selling bananas, usually $1CUC for a whole bunch, just buy them. Seriously. You may think, “Oh, the next town is only 20km away; we’ll just get lunch there.” But then the road gets rough, or hilly, or windy, and suddenly an hour has passed and you’ve still not arrived at your lunch stop and you’re cursing yourself for not buying bananas from that random dude on the side of the road. I speak from experience. Or you may think, “I have no room in my pannier bag for a whole bunch of bananas; they’ll get squished and ruined!” Who cares, just EAT THE BANANAS. Right there on the road. Then continue on your way, happy and reenergized.
One more thing…
Casa Particulars vs Hotels – The casas have waaaaay better and more plentiful food. We stayed at a hotel in San Diego de los Banos and it had a teeny breakfast that was completely insufficient for another long day of cycling. It’s best to start your day with a hearty casa breakfast and end it with a giant casa dinner. Because for the hours in between, all you’ve got to eat are peso pizzas, mini bananas and your last Nature Valley bar.