Thursday, April 6, 2017
In Cuba, jutia has its place, at home or on plate

The first time I heard the word jutia (pronounced hoo-tee-uh) was in reference to “Playa Jutias,” a gorgeous beach located about an hour north of Vinales in the province of Pinar del Rio. Back in 1999, the entire area featured gin-clear water, white sand and a lonely, leaky cement shower head and not a soul in sight. I didn’t see any “jutias,” either. Today, there’s a seafood restaurant, beach chair and boat rentals and a bar with a live band. So yeah, you could say things are changing in Cuba, and while the sand and sea are still gorgeous, the presence of typical beach tourists is a bit of a buzz-kill.

But what is a “jutia?” I saw my first one in the wild in the province of Holguin scampering around a huge clump of bamboo on Cayo Saetia. It was quiet exciting, if not a tad disgusting. The plump rodents’ closest cousins are found in the bayous of Louisiana where they’re referred to as “nutria.” And while similar in size and shape, their main difference is that of lifestyle. Cuban jutias are known as “arboreal” meaning they live in trees, while nutria, with their webbed feet, thrives in a more aquatic environment.

Covered in thick, wiry fur, they range in length from 8 to 24 inches, and weigh as much as 20 pounds. Many varieties of jutias have gone extinct on some Caribbean islands due to habitat loss, and yes, human consumption. However, there are reports of huge numbers of jutias at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay where inhabitants refer to them as “banana rats” due to their strangely-shaped faces. I’d have to assume they’re thriving so well down there because Americans tend to shy away from this type of fare. 

Having said that, when Andrew Zimmern from the Travel Channel visited the island a few years back, you can bet he ate one, and it wasn’t pretty. I have Cuban friends on both sides of the jutia argument. Most say “no way,” while others say it’s really tasty meat. 

Over the past couple years, I can’t help but notice how many people are keeping them as pets as can be seen in the photo of my group of Key Westers above. Currently, I know of at least three jutia in Vinales that have dodged the blade and grill of hungry hunters to become fairly friendly pets. I’m more of a traditional pet kind of guy and as far as dining on rats, I’ll stick with pork and chicken, thank you very much.