Although philologists can’t agree (no surprise there!) about the
origin of the word guarapo, and the drink called by that name has been
adjudicated diverse origins going from Africa to ancient Rome and
passing through the Canary Islands, most Cubans are convinced this is a
typical product of the Island.
Nevertheless, to the amazement of younger Cubans, Esteban Pichardo in
the mid-19th century recorded the word guarapo in his “Diccionario
provincial de voces y frases cubanas” as originating in the indigenous
language and he defined it as a broth or liquid made from sugarcane
juice, extracted under pressure. Both the word and the process are
still around today after almost two centuries.
We continue to drink guarapo in Cuba and the method of extracting it
from freshly-cut sugarcane has not changed. Of course the 20th century
added chipped ice at a time when there were an abundance of little
stalls that would sell a glass of sugarcane juice for just a few
pennies. The low price and the high calorie content made it popular
among the low-earners in the population. Its power to refresh,
especially with the addition of some drops of lemon juice, and its
pleasant taste have kept it at the top of the list of drinks preferred
by Cubans, no matter what their social origins are.
Even though it did not totally disappear during the second half of
the 20th century and there were even some famous guarapo stands all over
Cuba, such as the one close to the baseball stadium in Santa Clara,
places selling the drink became rather scarce until the boom in small
private businesses brought it back out onto the streets, especially
around the agro-markets and some organic garden. It’s there that we have
resuscitated the sound of the trapiche or sugarcane press, the
incredible smell of crushed sugarcane and the cries of protest of
customers whenever they get too much ice and too little guarapo in their
Perhaps the only defect this sugarcane nectar possesses is that it
cannot be conserved for a very long time, and that means minutes. The
sugarcane juice has to be drunk practically instantly because it tends
to ferment rather quickly. It does get consumed in some places in Mexico
and Colombia in its fermented state because of the alcoholic content
acquired, but in Cuba nobody dreams of drinking it under such
conditions. It has to come straight out of the trapiche.
Forbidden to diabetics, restricted for those that need to lose a few
pounds, guarapo nonetheless provides the necessary calories to fuel
walking and similar physical exercise. Not to mention that it is a
really tasty drink and just the perfect refresher in our sweltering
tropical heat. And if you want to make it more exciting, just add rum!