Tuesday, January 8, 2008     « Cafe La Isabelica (Santiago de Cuba) »


I've recently made a habit of documenting many of my coffee purchases. I generally only photograph the best ones... and once I've been to the same place enough times I tend to stop. But obviously Cuba was special so I made a point of documenting the coffee I drank there, initially anticipating that in a coffee-growing region of the world the coffee would be exceptionally good. It wasn't.

I traveled to Cuba armed with a long and detailed list of possibilities: things to see, museums worth checking out, bank locations and hours, and restaurants that came recommended by fellow travelers. I didn't have a plan but I felt prepared. I had read reviews that this local coffee shop in Santiago was the place to go for good espresso-based coffee with local treats to accompany your beverage and a nice place to sit and rest one's weary feet. I have a no morning coffee policy but we high-tailed it to Cafe La Isabelica soon after arriving in Santiago in hopes of a bathroom break and getting the first decent coffee in days. It took a few minutes of walking in circles and asking directions on the street but we eventually found the store. I had general directions but they weren't very good. This would be a trend for our entire stay. Directions were often bad and places were not at all how they were described in the numerous reviews I had studied online. It's embarrassing how much I gloated over that damn list; puffing my chest out like the Heavyweight Super-Organizational List Champion of the World; turning away the services of the numerous young men offering to be our tour guide for a couple of bucks because god damn it I had The List; offering my vast and superior knowledge to foolish fellow travelers too lazy or cavalier to put together a list of such finery and excellence. Just about everything on The List was irrelevant and the thing was completely abandoned two days into the trip.

Once we found the store and got inside we discovered a cafe with empty shelves. This was another trend in Cuba. I knew this would be the case but I don't think I fully understood the reality until I saw it with my own eyes. People have very little because they are poor, but people also have very little because there is very little to acquire in the first place. Most stores, from those selling general household goods to baked goods and food stuffs were mostly empty with only a smattering of items on display in windows and on shelves.

I asked to use the bathroom but the store owner had to fill the tank with a bucket of water first so it could flush. I'm not picky and have used some nasty bathrooms in my travels so I wasn't phased, just observant. Locating and taking note of the best and worst bathrooms is a thing I do wherever I go. In the end it was, by a landslide, my second best bathroom experience in Santiago.

On return from the bathroom my coffee was waiting for me. Apparently the espresso machine was broken and had been broken for some time. Thick, black, bitter coffee was delivered to a tiny espresso cup (the same one I saw EVERYWHERE in Santiago de Cuba) via a thermos. This turned out to be the norm during our stay. I tried sips of coffee at a few more locations but they were all the same, thick, black, and BITTER. I've enjoyed thick Ethiopian coffee many times in the past and am familiar with dark, black espresso but this wasn't that. The coffee just wasn't good. I don't know enough about the subtle nuances of different beans to know what made it unpleasant. It may have been the beans and indicative of all coffee in the region or it could have been a rationing issue. It's possible that the beans were just old. Or weren't good beans to start with. It's possible that people just like their coffee this way and it is too much for my exceptionally picky coffee-drinking palette. I did see a few working espresso machines in small stores throughout Santiago but passed, opting to go without caffeine on the trip.

In the end Cafe La Isabelica wasn't what I expected but we did enjoy our brief reprieve there. The owner was a gracious host, very friendly and warm. There were beautiful paintings done by the owner's father hanging on the wall and an old cigar-rolling table sat next to our seats. I would go back again, just not for the coffee.

« Cafe La Isabelica (Santiago de Cuba) »