Cuba is a land of contradictions. There’s music and art everywhere, spontaneous dancing, joy and pride. There’s also poverty—generally not the soul-crushing poverty you find elsewhere in Latin America, but constant shortages and the lack of many things. Recently the island seen increased wealth as well, created by the tourist economy and Cubans who receive funds and goods from their families living abroad.

I’ve struggled with these contradictions. I understand and fully embrace that Cubans all receive free, high quality education and health care and I know that families all receive food rations that provide some of the staples needed to sustain them for a month. I enjoy my forays into the local economy, where a full breakfast can be had for 20 cents (just don’t be too fussy about what you get!). And even though it feels like I’m stepping into an entirely different realm of being, I’ve truly enjoyed my participation in the tourist economy. But that took a little work.

Introducing La Guarida

La Guarida (pronounced “Wuareeda”) epitomizes this mix, and in many ways is what won me over to fully embracing this dual economy. But before I go there, let me take a moment to explain Cuban currency. Tourists, and Cubans who work in the tourist economy, spend CUC’s, also called “convertibles”, which is a currency roughly equal to a dollar.* Locals use the CUP, the “peso” or “moneda nacional”, which is valued at 25 CUP to the CUC. While there are no restrictions on Cubans using CUC’s or tourists spending CUP’s, CUC’s are frequently out of reach for normal Cubans.

In recent years, many paladares, or private restaurants, have opened in Havana and other Cuban tourist hotspots, and these restaurants generally charge CUC’s. Prices aren’t outrageous by US standards, but an average Cuban won’t be eating dinner there. Some of the paladares are quite modest, and others have gained a reputation for high-quality food and service.

During my multiple recent visits to Havana, I’ve discovered some true gems. Of those, one restaurant in particular, La Guarida, was recommended again and again, yet despite the glowing reports, I resisted going there: I told myself it’s over-hyped, a tourist trap, etc., and just crossed it off my list.

Embracing the Cuban Experience

However, during my most recent visit to Havana, my travel buddy convinced me to give it a try. Managing to snag a last-minute reservation (this place books up MONTHS in advance!), we walked over to check it out. Entering the foyer, you’re stepping into a building that’s literally in ruins. A wide staircase takes you up over the chaos, through more floors in ruins, and opens into a beautiful dining room. Totally not what we expected!

As spectacular as the setting is, the food is even better. La Guarida provides world-class food at prices that are a fraction of what this restaurant would charge in the US or Europe. Creative salads, sides and mains are served with love and pride. Simple dishes, such as Yuca con Mojo (cassava with garlic sauce) redefine the experience of this Caribbean mainstay, and the avocado salad was a true surprise with each bite. The restaurant goes out of its way to provide for vegetarians, and dish after dish was an example of how to do more with less.

After my evening at La Guarida, I realized that the Cuban “tourist economy” fulfills several needs. First, it provides jobs—GOOD jobs, as the staff is paid well in Cuban terms. Second, it generates much-needed foreign currency, which is required for renovation projects and community development. And finally, restaurants such as La Guarida place Havana on the map and create an opening for entrepreneurship within the socialist economy.

As part of our upcoming Yoga Retreat to Cuba in February, 2018, we will be offering optional dinners at several paladares for participants to explore Cuba’s burgeoning food scene. Personally, I’m counting the days to get back to La Guarida!

Sat Nam,

Julie (Jiwan Shakti Kaur)

*When changing US dollars in Cuba, there is a 10% fee charged. Euros, Canadian dollars, and other currencies are going to get a better exchange rate.