Hello everyone! I have just returned from the most incredible bachelorette party there ever was. My maid of honor, Lauren, went ALL OUT for this trip–and I promise to go into a ton of details on this on my upcoming review of gluten free on Royal Caribbean so stay tuned. But, first, I wanted to tell you about my experience traveling to Cuba with celiac disease. To give a bit of background, knowing my dream of visiting Cuba, we took a 5 day cruise to the Bahamas & Cuba from Miami. We were only able to spend a day in Cuba, but it became one of my favorite countries I have ever visited.
VISITING WAS DREAM COME TRUE FOR ME! After settling on the specific cruise, my next thoughts were: food. How will I eat? For the Bahamas, I was able to easily get back on the cruise ship for lunch, but for Cuba, customs made it a bit trickier plus I wanted to experience Cuban cuisine and not interrupt our tour! It became less clear of my options when very few Americans–let alone Americans with celiac disease—have even traveled to Cuba. I had a hard time finding anything online.
To be safe, I packed gluten free pretzels and 5 small travel size cups of peanut butter to snack on for the day if I couldn’t find safe food. I heard many many stories about customs confiscating food items so to be safe, each of the 5 of us took one small travel size of peanut butter for me in hopes that at least one would make it through. All 5 ended up making it through, but shout out to my amazing friends for helping me out!! I do always recommend dividing up your safe gluten free snacks between bags and people in case some are lost or taken by security or customs.
Due to US regulations and travel restrictions, our itinerary in Havana was pretty tight! In order to qualify for the visa, we were required to take an approved organized tour. However, we found the most wonderful local company, Blexie, that, even if the travel restrictions are relaxed, I would 110% take their tour over and over again. Blexie allows you to fully customize your tour! Our tour guides were completely fluent in English–one is actually an English professor at the university & was mistaken for an American tourist on our tour because of her impeccable English.
We did a two hour walking tour of Old Havana (the architecture and culture were amazing!!), followed by a 2 hour driving tour to see Fusterlandia & other famous sites, then lunch, then another walking tour of downtown Havana. Did I mention that the driving tour was in CLASSIC CUBAN CARS FROM THE 50s?!? (Thankfully, they had air conditioning because I have never felt so overheated as I did in Cuba!!). I really cannot recommend this tour enough (and no, I am not sponsored in any way, shape, or form. I just really loved this tour).
The whole day was perfect, but I was worried about lunch. I told the guides that I have celiac disease and inquired about gluten free in Havana. The guides assured me that aside from bread & pasta, gluten isn’t used in a whole lot of foods in Cuba. Cuban cuisine is very much focused on meats, rice, and potatoes. Simple, natural foods. In fact, the guide told us that Lauren, who is vegetarian, would have a harder time finding something to eat since Cuban food is very meat heavy (don’t worry! She was able to eat plain pasta–which is not traditional Cuban food!! But the chef made accommodations for her).
We arrived at a small restaurant that seemed to be popular for tour groups. Before leaving us, the guides found the chef and spoke to him about celiac disease. In Cuba, celiac awareness is very low–most people have never even heard of celiac so they do not know what it is! I provided the guides and the chef with a Spanish translation card that explained celiac in detail–what I could and could not eat, what celiac was, need for separate utensils, etc. I do speak Spanish, but when in a foreign country where the dialect and accent are quite different, it is a REALLY good idea to bring a translation card!! A physical card can be brought back to the kitchen to cross check ingredients and prevents any forgetting or misunderstanding. The card spells it out for the staff, making it as easy as possible.
The chef spoke really great English too and walked through the menu with me. He took several minutes to do so. The tour guides re-emphasized the need for separate surfaces/utensils and the severity of celiac, which I really appreciated. It helped that the guides were able to converse with me in English and the chef in Spanish to avoid any misunderstanding. The chef explained that it would not be a problem at all and that he alone would personally make my meal. Everything was made from scratch so he knew every ingredient, which made me feel safer. The items that contained gluten was the chicken soup (had noodles), the bread for the table (duh), and the beans. The beans were a maybe but he was unsure of the origin of one of the spice mixes and did not want to risk it!! I loved how he wanted to keep me safe from gluten and took the extra precaution by telling me he could not guarantee that side to be gluten free completely. It showed me how seriously he took it.
Nothing on the menu was fried (good sign). I ended up getting the pumpkin soup and the roast pork. I had the rice and potatoes as my sides. The ice cream was also gluten free, but I did not order it (after a fellow blogger friend previously got sick from ice cream internationally–unrelated to gluten–I was wary of it). I double checked on the soup because often creamy soups use wheat as a thickener in the US, but the chef laughed and seemed like I insulted him by asking if he uses wheat as a thickener. That is apparently unheard of!!! Go Cuba!
The meal was very large and didn’t have any sauce (also a good sign). The meat was drier but came with roasted vegetables. Everything was plain and simple. Knowing that many tour groups go here, it is highly unlikely to be top of the line authentic Cuban cuisine or super high quality, but everyone was content with their meals and I ate safely! I was full, happy, and ready to continue with the next portion of my tour. After our lunch, we continued our tour & I bought some Cuban rum (hey! Rum is gluten free so I didn’t miss out at all!).
Overall, I was impressed with how well my need for safe gluten free was accommodated. I wish I had more time in Havana to explore and try more cuisine, but being able to eat (and not get sick) really made all the difference for me. Our tour day was LONG. We were off the ship from 7AM-4:30PM, which walking for hours in nearly 100 degree weather would have been much too long without a substantial meal. I loved how I didn’t feel left out or a burden. One word of advice, if you are vegan or vegetarian as well as gluten free, it will likely be very difficult to find something safe to eat unless you just want to eat rice and potatoes. Gluten free pastas & breads are very very very rare in Cuba (although there is a 100% gluten free bakery open a few times a week so this may be changing!!!).
Will I return to Cuba? I sure hope so–and hopefully longer than just a day!! It is a beautiful country with incredible people. My trip was eye-opening and left me wanting to plan another trip back.
Have you been to Cuba or do you plan to travel to Cuba with celiac disease? Let me know in the comments!