This is Cafe Don Pepe in the beautiful colonial city of Trinidad, Cuba. Thick-trunked trees with rubbery leaves shade the intimate concrete tables. Leaves often plunk down onto the many highlighted Lonely Planet guidebooks you'll find here. But don't be fooled, this place packs a strong social atmosphere that you can feel as you enter through the flaking barn wood doors.
The elegant stone walls are mustard yellow and littered with ashy writings of Cuban propaganda and coffee cups. The tall alcoves cut into the walls are spewing with signs of former Spanish wealth.
As usual, hot drinks are served in ceramic cups. From traditional Cuban coffee drinks like an espresso shot with sugar mixed in, to what I had, an iced coffee with cola, Cafe Don Pepe has a more robust coffee menu than anywhere else I’ve seen in Trinidad. I have not however seen what I ordered, a cafe con cola. I figured I would combine two commonly consumed drinks in Cuba, coffee and cola, and make something out of it. From the sound of it, the cafe staff liked my idea. I know, coffee and cola….gross. Think again. It’s refreshing on a hot and sticky day, and twice as stimulating as a regular cup of coffee.
My friends ordered what I understand to be a carajillo: coffee, rum and honey served hot in ceramic cups. While sipping their coffees out of ceramic cups was fun, I think they would have enjoyed this local beverage more after dinner.
Others are drinking the typical mojito in the skinny “Havana Club” glasses. Tasty and refreshing, but basic if I do say so myself.
COFFEE SHOP VIBE
In Cuba, you'll find more guidebooks than you'll find in any other country. Why? Because they don't have easy access to the Internet. With that, you'll find many travelers taking advantage of a place like Cafe Don Pepe to handwrite postcards. It's a nice throwback to see so many people reading books and handwriting letters.
The stringy, clave-clacking sounds of Trinidad remain shut out from the concrete courtyard, staying across the street where you find tourists being serenaded on every corner of the plaza. Classical guitars, bongos, cowbells, marakas and claves can be frequently heard throughout most Cuban cities. Throw in some sexy brass and a sunset and you’ll be sure to attract a crowd.
COFFEE CULTURE AND HISTORY
After enjoying our coffees and planning out the rest of the day’s activities, I hung out at the coffee counter for a bit. The staff was quick and much obliged to respond to my very obvious Cuban coffee curiosity.
Obviously, I knew that coffee reigned king in Cuba. And sugar too. What I didn’t know is how often they drank it. With breakfast, dinner, after dinner, and in-between errands, Cubans love coffee, a lot.
Often enjoyed at home and the hole-in-wall cafeterias, the cafe scene in Cuba is surprisingly sparse, but growing quick. Currently most frequented by tourists, I can see cafes being a joint tourist and local hangout in the future. Like Trinidad’s very popular hangout, Casa de la Musica (an outdoor salsa music venue on a large concrete staircase), I predict cafes in Cuba being trafficked by a similar crowd in the coming years.
Coffee is also grown in Cuba, and cafe staffs are very proud to serve and talk about one of their nation's biggest economic contributors. In fact, everything on the island can be directly tied to either the Cuban Revolution (1956) or the fall of the Soviet Union (1990), especially coffee. For example, just before the Cuban Revolution and the rise of the Castro regime, coffee was a $21.5 million dollar industry. As you will learn, many booming industries like coffee, sugar and tobacco have taken serious hits since the trade embargo with the United States went into effect in 1960.
But change is coming to Cuba, and it couldn’t be more obvious. With the Obama regime's loosening of travel restrictions, Americans will soon be knocking on their doors, looking for that “authentic coffee” to not just keep them going in Cuba, but back home too. The infrastructure in coffee shops will rapidly develop, amongst many other tourist-fueled places. And there’s a good chance that in the next ten years, Cuba can become one of the world’s most popular coffee countries.
Look out coffee world, Cuba is coming.
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