Travellers Review: Cycling Cuba
Adventure World Traveller Alison recently came back from her dream trip to Cuba, where not only was she charmed by this fascinating country, but she discovered one of the best ways to immerse herself was by cycling the back roads with some like-minded companions.
Cuba is a place unlike any other. Despite its unique location in the northern Caribbean Sea less than 100 kilometres from the tip of Florida, it is poles apart from its northern neighbour in almost every way. The contrasts are striking and many. From the lovingly restored 1950's Pontiac cruising the Malecón in Havana to the couples swaying their hips in rhythmic perfection in Trinidad's main square, and the magical white sandy beaches, Cuba beguiles visitors with its charms, so long hidden away from the world.
My trip to Cuba had been a long time dream. As I watched the sea turn from deep cobalt to brilliant turquoise as we flew overhead there was no mistaking that I had arrived in the Caribbean.
As we touched down on the tarmac the evidence of the diverse history and foreign influence on the island nation was unmistakeable. The rusted shells of old planes sat idle in the long grass like a relic of the communist era, a time when life was good and the revolution was only yesterday. I'm keen to get rolling onto the Havana streets and spot my first old car cruising by, but the authorities have other ideas. “Passport”, comes the command as I stand in the old-fashioned baggage hall. “What are you doing here?” My answer causes some consternation. It seems not many people come to do a cycling tour, but that's why I'm here so I answer as best I can as the smiling officer shakes his head, wondering at the sanity of some tourists.
The questions seem to be more in the vein of polite curiosity and soon I am in a taxi on my way through the streets in the heat of the afternoon. Life seems to be on vivid, public display here. As we cruise along the suburban avenues and boulevards of Havana the streets are lined with locals going about their business. People queuing for buses; women chatting with neighbours as they balance a baby on their hips; and the bright pink duco of a Cadillac as it cruises by, a casual hand flicked out the window to indicate a right turn.
Old Havana is a fascinating mix of restored and derelict colonial residences, Art Deco apartment blocks and monolithic Soviet era concrete. Cuba’s history and geographic location has been instrumental in shaping the city, with the Spanish, British and Americans all staking their claim at some point. Here’s the hotel where Ernest Hemingway began his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, there, the Plaza de la Revolución, where Fidel Castro addressed the nation, and everywhere the rhythm and beat of the Son Cubano, the music made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club.
While Havana is a huge drawcard for visitors, there’s more to be seen further afield and our group sets out early in the morning on the road towards Cienfuegos. I’m thrilled as we leave the highway and detour through the back roads and the former sugar town named Australia! The sugar mill no longer operates but a tall chimney stack still dominates the skyline, with the word ‘Australia’ emblazoned down one side. It’s a little reminder of home in a place which is as far removed from Australia as is possible. Following a mid-morning coffee stop, a bike fitting and a quick turn around the car park and we’re off, cycling along the coastal roads towards the infamous Bay of Pigs.
At first the ride is a tentative one as we get used to our new wheels. There are people of varying skill levels in the group, from the novice rider who cycles to and from work, to the full triathlete, and me, somewhere in the middle! Soon we’re speeding along the almost deserted roads in a single file line, occasionally coming abreast of another rider for a chat and a bit of company. Our guide, Juan Carlos barely breaks a sweat as he cruises out in front, decked out in full lycra. Having been part of the Cuban cycling team might just be why he’s making this look so easy.
Our lunch stop today is the Bay of Pigs, where the CIA-backed expatriate counter revolutionary army tried and failed to invade the country and overthrow Fidel Castro’s recently installed regime. The shoreline is lined with mangrove trees and music wafts from an old Buick parked beneath them near the waters edge. A couple sit on the bonnet, sharing a bottle of rum and a picnic as we perch on the rocks nearby to enjoy our own packed lunch. It’s difficult to see how anyone could have thought a landing here was a good idea, as a quick post-lunch dip proves to be an exercise akin to staying afloat in a mashing machine. The nearby Playa Giron Museum offers an insight into the battle and tells the story of the Cuban heroes who gave their lives fighting against the evil capitalists!
As the heat of the day gives way to a cooling coastal breeze we roll into the beautiful French colonial town of Cienfuegos. Our home for the night is the perfectly preserved 1950’s mafia-built Hotel Jagua, complete with authentic furnishings and located on the southern peninsula on the outskirts of town. Just next door is the elaborate Palacio de Valle, built in the early 1900’s as a private home before an attempt to convert the building into a casino in the 1950’s was thwarted by the revolution and its anti-corruption mandate. It’s a brilliant place to recap on the day’s cycling, and to try a few of Cuba’s more famous cocktails. After a long day in the saddle, the mojitos, Pina Coladas and Cuba Libres go down easy!
The next day we set off early, much to the excitement of the other hotel guests, who question and take photos of us all decked out for the ride ahead. We’re finding mostly curiosity with a dash of bemusement. It seems that the usual form of tourist transport around Cuba does not come in the two wheeled, self-propelled variety. We take to the streets, what little traffic there is grinding to a halt as a fun run ambles by. The front runners look determined, despite running in an intriguing variety of footwear and apparel. We clap for a young girl who jogs past in jean shorts and shirt and she smiles shyly back, clearly not expecting to see 20 odd tourists on bicycles acting as her cheer squad.
Once more the roads are deserted so we’re left to concentrate on the journey as we ride up hill and down dale along the coastal road. We take a pit stop at a roadside stall, where Juan Carlos and our driver Jose refill our water bottles and hand out sugar bananas, freshly-squeezed sugar can juice and blocks of peanut-flavoured halva to give us the energy to make it to our lunch stop. The food is fresh, homemade and delicious, and we all wolf down plates of rice and beans and beef, perfect fuel for an afternoon ride through the countryside. We roll into our hotel for the night and after a quick change, plunging into the cooling water at the nearby beach is a welcome end to a long day in the saddle.
The sun dips and our group begins to yawn into our Mojitos as we reflect on the day’s activity and plan for the next ride. The soft waves lapping at the edge of the shore lull us to sleep, as the stars twinkle overhead and marine life emits a phosphorescent glow beneath the water.
Another early start and Juan Carlos is chuckling during his briefing this morning. During a busy winter season, he averages about 16 cycling tours, and it shows, both in his knowledge, manner and fitness. Unbeknownst to us, we’re in for a treat that morning, and Juan Carlos and Jose are preparing us for the ride ahead. ‘If you get a puncture, just stop riding and wait for the bus,’ is the advice from Juan Carlos. And as we head off along the coastal road once more, it becomes clear why. Thousands upon thousands of orangey-red land crabs swarm across the tarmac, creating a moving sea. The sight is astonishing, the noise deafening as the crabs appear out of the trees and make their way right across our path. We have no choice but to carry on, and Juan Carlos takes the lead, picking his way slowly on his bike through the crabs, steering this way and that as they raise their claws as if to fight him. We follow in his wake, and there are squeals and laughter as we carefully avoid collision lest a flat tyre be the end result. It’s a spectacle repeated each spring as the crabs head to and from the sea to lay their eggs, and one we feel privileged to have seen.
That afternoon we hit the historic coastal town of Trinidad, a World Heritage Site. We wander the streets to explore the markets, visit the sugar mansion museum just off the main Plaza Mayor and enjoy lunch in one of the private paladares, or restaurants, which have begun to pop up throughout the town. After a long day in the saddle an afternoon nap is in order, but it seems that my roommate’s luggage has other ideas! As I settle onto my bed, I’m startled awake as a stowaway is discovered in her luggage. A rogue land crab has hitched a ride in her suitcase and there’s hysterical laughter as we extract him from his hiding place!
That evening there’s a birthday to celebrate, so we gather for a group dinner. There’s succulent freshly cooked lobster, delectable garlic prawns, and the ever present but tasty, rice and beans, followed by homemade birthday cake. We’re serenaded by a local band, who are only too happy to hand their percussion instruments over to us gringos, although I’m secretly suspicious that they really want to see if we have their own natural rhythm and talent. Sadly, we don’t, but those brave enough to try are given a rowdy round of applause and a stiff drink to help with the embarrassment.
Wherever you go in Cuba, the night is always young, so we hit the town square to salsa the night away with the rest of the tourists and locals alike. It’s a warm night and the crowd twirls and turns around the Plaza, caught up in the beat of the music and it echoes in the distance as we make our way home late in the evening.
The following day is a rest day, but many of us decide to get back on the bikes and head out of town to Playa Ancon to relax on the beach. We laze under umbrellas by the shore and spend the day bobbing around in the ocean and eating enormous Cuban sandwiches. That night, we enjoy a home cooked dinner at our Casa Particular, or homestay, one of the new accommodation styles in the town. For the first time, private families have been allowed to open their homes to tourist, operating their own version of a B&B. Our Casa is run by Seleste, who shares her home with her husband and young daughter, who watches Dora the Explorer on their television as we pass through the kitchen!
We leave the beautiful town of Trinidad behind and start to wind our way through the mountains. The climbs start out long and slow, and we huff and puff our way up hills and drop over the other side to race down into the valley again. While it’s tough going up, it’s exhilarating on the way down and the encouragement from the passing cars help us to keep going, onwards and upwards. The final hill of the day is a steep one, and at times I feel like hopping off and walking, but as children race from their houses to wave at me along the side of the road, I keep pedalling. At the top the view is worth the effort. Hanabanilla sits on the shore of a stunning lake and is surrounded by lush tropical hills, and we perch by the roadside for a group photo as the last stragglers make their way to what is our finish line. It’s a magical feeling of accomplishment to have ridden all that way across Cuba, and one that makes me want to hop on the bike and do it all over again. Perhaps after a cold beer and a lie down though!
Top Tips for cycling in Cuba
Invest in cycling shorts – your bottom will thank you!
No matter how seasoned a cyclist you are, you’ll know that the long hours in the saddle are made more comfortable with a bit of padding. Cycle shorts may not look the most attractive, but they’ll certainly save you from being a bit saddle sore the next day after a long ride. Triathlon shorts can be a great investment as they’re designed to be quick drying and are easy to wash to be clean for the next day’s ride.
If you’re not a confident cyclist, this trip could still be for you
Even if you haven’t cycled for a few years, well, it’s just like riding a bike! Once you’ve gotten used to your wheels, you’ll find your confidence returning as the trip goes on. Your guide will make sure that you’re comfortable and there are plenty of stops along the way to fix any issues with your bike, should they arise. If you need a rest along the way, it’s simply a matter of hopping on the support bus and rejoining the ride when you feel up to it.
Cycling on the road in all that traffic? No thanks!
After years of economic embargos and a petrol shortage following the collapse of the Soviet Union, cycling became the key mode of transport on the island. Motorists are used to cyclists being on the road and give them a wide berth when passing. Traffic on some roads is almost non-existent, and even in the cities, it’s nothing like cycling on the roads at home.
Our popular trip to Cuba visits the unique historical capital of Havana, the city of Cienfuegos, Trinidad, one of the best preserved cities in the world, and the picturesque tobacco region of Vinales.
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