Cuba Survival Tips for the Gluten Intolerant

I have been gluten-intolerant since 2004 when, while living one summer in upstate New York, I became bloated, gassy and afflicted with  the most painful indigestion I had ever experienced after finishing my evening meal with my customary slice of buttered bread. The onset of the symptoms of gluten intolerance was sudden and severe, and left me quite confused. My friends knew immediately what was going on and sent me to nearby clinic where I was advised to give up bread and other “glutonious” foods immediately and see if things improved. Within a few days of following that advice and dropping bread and pasta (two of my favourite foods), I felt so much better that any regrets I had about having to so radically change my diet were few.

Although little changed for me with regard to my daily life in North America, I was faced with real challenges when travelling to places like Cuba where gluten intolerance is rare and where sandwiches and pizzas make up the bulk of the street food and fast-food options. As a cyclist, I found it particularly challenging since, given my body type, I needed to load up and regularly fuel with carbohydrates before undertaking long rides under the Cuban sun. This was especially the case in hilly and mountainous areas of the island – of which there are quite a few – if I didn’t want to bonk and have to get off my bike out in the middle of nowhere.

After some trial and error, I can share my cycling secrets for the gluten intolerant in Cuba. First, and as Peter Marshall advises, bring PLENTY of bars. There are lots of gluten-free options on the market. I like Bounce and Lara bars and well as bars that contain different combinations of dried fruit and nuts. There is a whole science to these bars, but I have settled the debate about high and low glycemic, when and how much to take etc. to my satisfaction based on experimenting during longer rides in North America. In Cuba, I plan for two bars a day minimum with an option for a third to eat or give away to someone else who may need one, so I tend to bring a lot of them.

Second, I also bring plenty of rice cakes to serve as a platform for the peanut butter that I always bring (for the fats and carbs) and for the cheese and whatever else is available in the Cuban hotels or casas in which we stay. I plan on eating four rice cakes a day, typically at lunch or later in the day on the road. The traditional large and thick rice cakes can be bulky, and so I bring the smaller, more compact ones. When other riders are eating sandwiches or other bread products, I can usually be found eating the rice cake equivalent. I keep the peanut butter and rice cakes in the bus and carry only the bars while I am riding. It is increasingly possible to bring gluten-free bread from North America, but even on the air-conditioned bus or the fridge in some of the hotel rooms it will not keep for very long so I do not bother.

The biggest challenge for the gluten-deprived will be breakfast and lunch. Aside from yogurt, eggs, charcuterie-style Cuban meats and cheese, the main carbohydrate breakfast staple in hotels and casas is bread. Lunch on the road can be spotty in Cuba, especially in the outlying areas where we cycle, and will typically consist of sandwiches or pizzas. Dinner is less problematic, as potatoes, rice and fried plantain will normally be available along with beans and other vegetable-based carbohydrates to go with the standard Cuban protein source of fish, chicken and meat.

The third trick I use is to bring a plastic container to dinner and put some rice or potatoes in it for storage in the fridge or some other cool place overnight. That way, in the morning I can have a source of pure carbohydrates to go with the breakfast eggs that are served almost everywhere I have been in Cuba. It is a good idea to grab whatever fruit is available in the morning, especially bananas, and bring it with you on the road. It may also be possible to buy fruit while cycling from roadside vendors.

My fourth tip has to do with a plant-based substitute for bread: casabe, a traditional yucca-based bread that is typically large and round. It is made by peeling the yucca, grinding it, air drying or pressing the resulting flour and mixing it with a little salt before cooking it like a large pancake on a hot surface. It is entirely yucca-based, has absolutely no gluten, is full of minerals and protein as well as carbohydrates, has the consistency of a large cracker and tastes good. It needs no refrigeration and, unlike flour-based bread, will keep for a very long. I much prefer it to rice cakes because it has flavor and can easily be eaten on its own with no toppings. It can be a little hard to find, and so inquiries should be made as most Cubans in the countryside will be familiar with it and will know where to get it if it is available.

A fifth thing I do in order to be sure to have something to eat on the road when everyone else is availing themselves on the gluten options like sandwiches and pizzas is to bring a few little packets or cans of tuna with me. Some brands have corn or beans mixed in with the tuna and I find these ideal. I don’t bring many, maybe four or five, as they can be heavy and bulky, and I leave them on the bus while cycling. However, on a two-week bike trip in what Peter Marshall calls “hillbilly Cuba” they can be a lifesaver as one can is a reasonable substitute for lunch if nothing else is available.

My last tip for gluten-free travel in Cuba is to seek out traditional Cuban food (“comida criolla”) whenever you can. It will typically be rice and bean-based (e.g. moros y cristianos, congri). It is almost always paired with fried plantain – a substitute for, and clear upgrade on, potato chips. I seek it out traditional Cuban food whenever I can as it is relatively inexpensive, gluten-free and, in the right hands, can be delicious.