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Planning For A Bike Tour Of Cuba

October 1st, 2012 52 comments


With a first family bike tour under our belts, we feel ready for a bigger adventure so this winter we’re heading to Cuba for a month of cycle-powered adventures.

Cuba!!!!!!

The Island of Cuba (1920)Image courtesy of Eric Fischer, on Flickr.

 

To say that we’re excited about this trip is an understatement. Cuba has been high on our ‘bucket list’ for a long time but it’s been hard to justify the relatively expensive plane ticket from Europe. This year, however, we have some savings burning a hole in our pocket and Cuba just happens to be a good destination for a baby as well as for cycling.

Cuba is a cyclist’s dream with its fairly good paved roads and minimal traffic. -Chris & Margo

There’s no concern about traffic (there’s very little of it, and bikes are respected). The medical care is good and there’s no risk of malaria. We don’t need to camp because there’s a large network of family-run B&Bs – and that’s just as well. After all, we won’t have room for a tent and sleeping bags with 150 diapers to pack.

No, we’re not kidding about the diapers.

The notes below represent the information we’ve gathered so far as part of our planning, outside of the usual ‘Lonely Planet’ recommendations.

If you have any tips to add, please chime in with a comment. We can use all the help we can get at this stage!

Books & Maps

The only bike-touring specific book we’ve found is Bicycling Cuba. It’s a decade old but still a comprehensive guide bike touring routes across the island. Updates are available on the authors’ website.


For maps, we bought a 1:600 000 scale map of Cuba from International Travel Maps. It had the best detail. We still don’t know if it’s accurate but we hope to pick up something better when we get there. Apparently GPS systems are not allowed in Cuba, so our Garmin GPS will be staying home.

With A Baby

Finding baby-specific information for Cuba is tough. Most recommendations for families focus on older kids.

What we have gathered is that most ‘essentials’ for babies are not easily found. The UK’s FCO says:

Baby food, disposable nappies, and other baby supplies are only sometimes available in Havana and normally unavailable in the rest of Cuba; if you are bringing a baby it is best to come self-sufficient.

We expect to use about 5 disposable diapers a day and will probably also take 2-3 cloth nappies as an insurance policy. This will be challenging to pack at the start of the trip but at least the diapers will slowly disappear as the trip goes on – leaving lots of room for souvenirs!

We’ll also probably take:

  • Snack food such as fruit leather for Luke
  • A water filter, in case we can’t find bottled water for him to drink
  • A good first-aid kit and a big bottle of high-quality sunscreen

The Bikes

We’re almost 100% sure that we’ll take our Brompton and Dahon folding bikes to Cuba. We have a few reasons for this:

  1. We want to fly direct from the Netherlands to Cuba. That means going with KLM but they charge an outrageous €400 per bike* for a return trip! Clearly this offers an economic incentive to stick within the normal baggage allowance and that means folding bikes…
  2. We’ll be in Cuba during high season (Christmas and New Year). Our plans may also include taking a Viazul bus and we want it to be as easy as possible to fit our bikes on the bus as normal luggage.
Apparently, we could also rent bikes in Cuba but we’re not sure about the quality and at $15 U.S. a day the cost would add up for a one-month trip.
*Since we booked our trip, the KLM website indicates their bike fee has dropped by half but this news comes too late for us, we’ll still take folding bikes.

Helpful Blogs

Dreaming of a Bike Tour? see our Survival Guide
What Next?
Related Pages
 

48 Responses to “Planning For A Bike Tour Of Cuba”

  1. Honestly, I can’t imagine that diapers aren’t available in the major cities. Even 14 years ago when we were traveling to remote countries with our baby twins, we were able to find diapers everywhere. I wonder if you could find someone who lives there to ask??

    • friedel says:

      We’ve asked around a few places and it seems they are not widely in use. Remember – Cuba is not a place where you can buy anything you want. Bike parts are also in short supply. I imagine families there use cloth diapers but we don’t want to be bothered with all that washing and drying on our holiday.

  2. Rob Prouse says:

    My wife and I toured Cuba and loved it. Check out our trip notes at http://www.prouse.org/bike-touring/cuba-bike-1000-km-2-weeks/

    Because of the US embargo, everything in Cuba is in short supply, so don’t count on finding diapers. It was hard enough finding a variety of food in some places. It is also VERY hot, so try to take that into account.

    One problem that we ran into is that you can only stay at approved hotels and B&B’s. These were plentiful in tourist destinations, but some smaller towns only have one or two and they were often full or hard to find.

    We wanted to keep our trip open, so we didn’t pre-book any hotels. It was great to decide each day how far and where we wanted to go, but it caused us several problems. One night we couldn’t find a place, slept on a beach and had gear stolen. Another night, the only hotel was booked and we had to ride on. We ended up doing 170km that day on bad roads and through the mountains.

    Riding in Cuba is great though. There are very few cars and drivers are very respectful. Imagine riding down the middle of a 4 lane divided highway and not seeing another soul!

    Bring a water filter. I wouldn’t trust the tap water in many places. We ended up filtering everything.

    Maps are a problem. We had several and none of them were accurate. That was part of the fun though :) Don’t count on finding maps in Cuba. Maybe in Havana, but we couldn’t find any where we were.

    • friedel says:

      Rob – the notes and tips on your website were great. Thank you! Enjoyed reading them this morning, and will continue with your journal entries later. I added a link to your site to the ‘helpful blogs’ list above.

  3. Tom Oxby says:

    Another book is Lonely Planet Cycling Cuba available on Amazon and elsewhere.

    Rental bikes are of poor quality so bring your own. As others have suggested the roads are quiet. A friend of mine took a guided tour in January and found it extremely hot which made the cycling tough – Cuba is hilly for the most part. I was there in early April and it was very hot and rained hard at times. I hope you have a great journey, I love cycling in Cuba.

    • friedel says:

      Tom, I tried to find the Lonely Planet Cycling Cuba but on Amazon and other sites it’s listed as a ‘rare’ book and goes for $50 U.S. and up! I suggested to one seller that this was a bit much for a used guidebook but they insisted it was a book in demand and wouldn’t lower the price. If you see it for cheaper, do let me know…

      Thanks for the other tips :)

      • Andrée-Anne says:

        The book might be available at a library nearby. I was surprised to find it at my library (although after my cycling trip to Cuba)!

      • friedel says:

        Unfortunately not at ours – I checked too! I will keep hunting…. it’s a nice to have but I’m sure we can get on without it.

  4. Exciting! We were there 4 years ago (not by bike) and I’m sure a lot has changed, but for our two cents:
    - Homestays or small B&Bs are definitely the way to go – we had a great time getting to know people in small towns this way. Our first homestay in Havana basically sorted out our onward accommodation, (I’m sure for a small commission!) You could probably do this from town to town fairly easily as well.
    Can’t wait to read about it!

  5. Andrée-Anne says:

    My spouse and I did a wonderful cycling trip in Cuba in December 2010. I’m now contemplating the idea of going back to Cuba this winter for another cycling trip but with our baby son, who’s actually 12 months old :-)

    So I will probably come back often on your page in the coming months…

    I hope you’ll have and amazing trip!

    • friedel says:

      I hope we can provide some handy tips! When are you thinking of going?

      • Andrée-Anne says:

        The thing is we are a bit short on holidays in winter, we only have 10 days around Chistmas and 10 days at the end of February, start of March. So it would be either one of those.

        And we are waiting to see if the dengue situation is over. I read that dengue eclosions are usually over by December, so we hop it’s gonna be the case also this year.

  6. Mb says:

    Hi,

    I fully agree with the great tips from Rob. We cycled for three weeks in 2008 around the eastern tip of Cuba starting in Santiago. The highlight was the section along the coast — 3 days of amazing coastline with hardly any cars, and also the ride from Baracoa back to Santiago (we took the bus *to* Baracoa to avoid a back and forth on the same route given our short time.) We found the ‘Bicycling Cuba’ book right on, and we highly recommend it. You don’t even need a map with their detailed directions.

    We went in the spring and it was still VERY hot at times inland, but we also had some cooler nights on the coast and wished we had brought a warmer pullover and a very light sleeping bag.

    To get to lodging we sometimes had to pull a long 100k day. For exammple, the day from Baracoa we only found a closed campismos, but they allowed us to stay anyway, but no bedding and very spartan conditions. On another leg we had no choice but to stay in an all-inclusive resort hotel but it was nice to have some food variety there at least, and it wasn’t too expensive. In the bigger towns we always found a room available, though not always the choice selection without an advance reservation.

    One last tip… outside of Santiago city, it was often VERY difficult sometimes to find snack food. Cookies, crackers, bread, etc was difficult to come by believe it or not. Definitely NO diapers around. We will bring much more food next time as we went hungry a lot (especially because we are vegetarian and the one menu option was often just chicken, rice, and banana chips.) We did find bottled water available most everywhere though btw.

    Of note, we also did a road trip by car on the western half of Cuba a few years prior and found it amazing and surely more tourist friendly, with much less spartan shops, though you’ll find more big hills there for cycling. Havana is very interesting and is worth a couple days, definitely reserve ahead a room in the old town if you can, it’s amazing. avoid hotels if you can, they are overpriced. private run houses always better.

    It’s one of our favorite countries to visit! Have fun!

    • friedel says:

      Thanks for the tips! We are now trying to plan a route but our one worry is having to cycle a long day (more than 50km or so) with Luke. I don’t know how he would hold up against 100km of cycling in one day. It’s a long time in a trailer for a little boy…

      • Andrée-Anne says:

        I have the same worry regarding the daily distance… It’s not easy to find an itinary with little stages!
        I’m also worrying about food supply on the road. Not for us but for the baby. I guess we would bring baby cereals and baby food pouches just in case… Our little boy don’t like them anymore, but I guess he will eat them if he’s very hungry.
        It might also be possible to ask the casa we’re leaving to prepare a lunch for the road for extra $.

    • Weird, we cycled in Cuba last year, in the west and center for three weeks, and had no trouble finding snacks, whatsoever! Fruit stands, bakeries, outdoor markets, guarapo stands (sugar cane juice), soft serve ice cream stands, coconut trees (all over, just ask around!), pizzerias, people on the side of the road selling random items (cheese, fruit etc), and dollar stores provided us with ample snacks. I also heard of a shortage of bread and plastic bags from a friend who traveled there several years ago.

      Cuba has been going through an intense period of changes – we heard that it was only recently before our trip that Cubans were allowed to start their own businesses. Perhaps things have changed since you were there? or maybe we were just looking in different places…

  7. Chakra Vedi says:

    Well, I have done many bike tours in Cuba and of course have had the good fortune of having lived there as well, during the most difficult times (economically speaking).

    You can get bottled water almost everywhere these days. Last X-Mas time we found water in even in the remotest places.

    Start with a private B&B (what the Cubans call Casas Particulares) at the place you start. Usually, if you ask the family will provide a good meal for an additional charge.

    Many of these families will also hook you up with another family at your next destination if you ask them to. Some of them volunteer on their own.

    If you happen to stop at a place, unplanned ask around for a Casa Particular. Locals will always help out.

    Cubans love kids and am sure they will help you out with your baby. Diapers are a menace to the environment. Take a few. Many families will wash your cloth-diapers for you, if you don’t like to do them yourself, for a small charge. If they are washed in the night, they will be dry by the morning.

    Check out smaller airlines, and you will definitely save on bikes. I have never paid more than $120 even when I flew to Europe from Canada. Check out Air Transat, Iberia probably, TACA, Cubana Aviacion etc. Perhaps, you can pack away your folding bikes and not pay at all.

    We have stayed on many occasions in Hotels meant mainly for Cubans. They were good and the buffet excellent.

    If you have a baby along, it is not a good thing to plan to cover the whole island in a rush. Don’t forget you could be climbing a lot of hills too. Look up good places like Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, etc., relax and enjoy locality, the people, music and other activities. In Havana alone I could spend a whole week and not be able to see everything.

    Eastern part of Cuba is warmer and also quite hilly.

    “Bicycling Cuba” is supposedly the best book is not easily available. But I rarely use books, since I prefer talking to people and ask the locals. Locals have always given us good tips, advice and help.

    Good luck and enjoy your trip!

    Eastern pa

    • friedel says:

      Thanks for the tips, Eastern Pa.

      It’s encouraging to know that most families will wash and dry diapers if we ask. I don’t imagine we will go without disposables entirely, but maybe we can strike more of a balance between cloth and disposables if we know they can be washed.

      One question: do you know how busy the buses and casa particulares tend to be around Christmas? Do we definitely have to book ahead?

      • Andrée-Anne says:

        We did a cycling trip between Christmas and New Year in 2010-2011. I had booked all the nights beforme our departure because I was worried it would be crowded, but finally it wouldn’t have been necessary.

        Altough I would reserve the first night and the last night near the departure and arrival airport(s). We arrived and leaved from Santa Clara last time, and we arranged in advance the transport with our boxed bicycles from the airport to the casa, so we could confortably prepare the bikes in the casa and leave the boxes there while touring.

        For a long trip I guess I would reserve the casa once in Cuba as the trip unfold, one or two days prior the arrival, at least in the smaller town where there not so much casas.

      • Andrée-Anne says:

        When I cycled Cuba, I washed my clothes (all synthetics) in the afternoon, but they weren’t always dry in the morning. I had to put them in a string bag tied up to my bike in order to pursue the drying while cycling. I guess you can do the same with diapers, altough you will need at least a dry one in the morning.

        I agree with you that a provision of disposables is justified… just in case.

  8. Chakra Vedi says:

    Well, I was down with 8 people during Christmas 2010/11 and had no problem finding places to stay anywhere.

    But, it is a good thing to have at least one place booked where you start from. You have a place to go to, when you arive, after a flight of 10 hours or so and rest a bit.

    So far I am not sure where your starting point is! Havana, Santiago, Holguin…?

    Chakra Vedi

  9. Chakra Vedi says:

    I always worry about little kids in the trailers. Yes, you are talking about riding several hours. My European friends have always refused to travel anywhere with their little kids. Even a 50 Kms ride takes about 2 to 3 hours depending on the route and terrain.

    Good Luck,
    Chakra Vedi

  10. Margo Mactaggart says:

    In addition to the International Travel Map(which I believe has errors) we used “Guia de Carreterras” (Road Guide) “una publicacion especial del directorio turistico de cuba.” We managed to order this online before we left for our 2006 trip. It wasn’t mailed to us from Cuba; I think it was distributed from somewhere in the UK at that time.

    Good luck,
    Margo

    • We found this same road guide at a book store in Old (Vieja) Havana – it is packed with details, and was useful for planning purposes. It might be difficult to find elsewhere in Cuba though.

  11. Leif says:

    I have visited Cuba several times by bicycle. Check my homepage at:
    http://www.rydingsplanet.com/RYDINGS_PLANET/CUBA.html
    I have never paid for my bike when flying KLM.

  12. Ken S says:

    The person that thought you can get diapers etc., everywhere in Cuba obviously has never been to Cuba. Cuba is a great country to visit but lots of things are in very short supply. You are best to plan on taking what you need for your baby. Cloth diapers in Cuba would likely be the norm, can’t say for sure, but from my experience basics like tooth paste and TP (locals carry their old newspaper with them for TP if required) were not readily available 4 years ago when I traveled around Cuba by car. Maps are hard to find and not very accurate, road signs are even more limited (Bay of Pigs thing), when you rent a car you need to pick up hitch hikers just to find your way. Every hitch hiker seems to live on the very road that you need to drive; you get to where you are going eventually and it’s a fun adventure getting there. Have a great trip, the roads are very quiet and bicycles, tractors, horses, oxen and buses are the usual transport. Only the really privileged have a car.

  13. Bob Adair says:

    I had a great 2 week trip in January 2009, flying into Holguin in eastern Cuba on a cheap Canadian ‘package tour’ airline (Sunwing) from Vancouver. While the other passengers headed for the resorts on the east coast, i took a bus west to Sancti Spiritus and did a one week loop through Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and back to Sancti Spritus.

    I then took another bus back east to Bayamo, and cycled through Manzanillo to the south coast and then east to Santiago. A wonderful experience, although the coastal part was probably the most challenging cycling I’ve done – washed out roads and bridges (bicycle portaging!), and scarce food & accommodation, exacerbated by some sort of stomach bug for a day or two (I don’t think it was food related…) which was finally taken care of by a very helpful Cuban doctor. Overall, I learned to stock up on food and water and not rely on finding another shop ‘down the road’. There may not be one.

    Met some wonderful people of course, and Cuba remains one of my favourite destinations. Language was a real problem, since I had only about 10 words of Spanish, and relatively few people speak English. The casas I stayed in were very friendly and comfortable, and in spite of the constant hard sell to take some lobsters out of the freezer, I developed a real taste for simple stewed chicken with rice and beans! My guess is that I spent about $50-$60 a day (all casas seem to be $40-$50 a night (breakfast incl), with supper maybe $5 extra).

    I took my steel touring bike, and had no problem taking it on the Viazul busses. I changed money as necessary by taking cash advances on my Canadian credit card. I would advise against changing more than $10 or $20 into ‘national’ pesos. There are few places to spend them, and even when you can the prices are so low you will never get rid of them! Some internet access was available, but it was expensive and temperamental.

    I advise every keen cycle tourist to consider going to Cuba before it changes too much. You won’t regret it. Have fun!

    • Bob Adair says:

      Sorry – I should have said casas were about $25 a night, plus $5 for supper, so I probably spent about $35-$40 a day.

  14. cindy engel says:

    Hi, I am going to cycle cuba this january for 6 weeks on my own so am interested to read about your preparations.
    I have a few questions…
    1. gps not allowed? does this mean my iphone is not allowed in the country? Surely not.
    2. everyone tells me to take cash but I dont want to carry 6 weeks worth of cash. I do not have a credit card but can get one for the trip if that is a system that works in rural areas? I also intend to put about £200 on a transcarribean card but am slightly concerned about having to pay out and then collect it at the airport.
    3. is campasinos are open, do i need a sleeping bag? the rest of the time i am going to use casas.
    thanks for any help you may have on this…

    • Bob Adair says:

      Lonely Planet has some info on the cell phone / GPS issue ( http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=2022005 ). You might want to check that your phone will actually work there.

      I took some dollar travellers cheques with me, and cashed them at the airport when I arrived, but the exchange was pretty bad. I think they charge a fee for the cheque itself, plus a fee for the currency conversion. Credit card ‘cash advances’ (Canadian credit card) however incur only the currency conversion cost, so they were a better deal. I didn’t have any problems finding banks – generally got CUC$100 or 200 at a time, enough to last for several days depending on the situation. I wouldn’t hesitate to use that system again for future trips.

      Can’t help you with the campasinos – didn’t use them. But might a sheet/silk sleeping sack be an option for you?

      My only other advice is to put new (good) tires on your bike, and new tubes as well. The roads & the heat can be hard on a bike, and I was surprised by what a beating my tires & tubes took even in 2 weeks. Although I took a sturdy steel touring bike, if I was going again I might consider a mountain or hybrid bike with somewhat wider tires.

      Have fun!

      • cindy engel says:

        that’s useful thank you. I am taking my phone for storage of useful info offline rather than taking loads of paperwork and books. It might also work as a phone but even my phone company doesnt know whether it will or not :)
        someone told me there are complicated digits to dial first and most tourists dont know these. I shall see.
        I will get a credit card and try that.
        And am going with 32 touring tyres on a tricross which survived Laos rubble roads OK. They should be OK you think?
        Will take quite a few tubes! And that silk liner and mossy net.
        thanks again

      • Bob Adair says:

        I’m sure if they worked in Laos they’ll be fine in Cuba :)

  15. william says:

    i do a lot of touring me and my wife and we know how hard it can be why would you wanna subject a kid to that mess taking a kid on a reguler vacation is fine but it being a bike tour is really not cut out for a kid under 6 one the formula if you half to filter water who says it will get all the junk out 2 the heat if it is that hot that will cause a lot of rashes for the kid and medical bills i’m just putting in my 2 cents worth do as you do but i would not do that to my kid….

    • friedel says:

      1. He’s breastfed – no formula required.
      2. It’s not THAT hot in Cuba in winter, no warmer than a nice summer in Europe.
      3. There’s insurance for medical bills but being pretty healthy, we hope we won’t need to use it.

      We’ll be fine, and even have fun doing it. I think a car trip would be far more torturous :-)

      • Medical care in Cuba is generally excellent. The training and expertise is certainly there, even if there are infrastructure problems. We met a French family whose five year old had to have an embedded object removed from his eye, and they were very impressed by the treatment their child received.(The object in the eye was related to travelling by car!!! The child had out his head out the open window. Not likely to happen to Luke.)

        A potential issue could be a shortages of some drugs due to the USA’s embargo. Companies that hold US patents will not sell(are prevented from selling) their medications to Cuba.

        If you take medications to Cuba when you go as we did, customs officials will likely just say “Gracias!” as they did to us. If you give these to a clinic or a physician so they can be fairly distributed, they will have helped people. If you give them to any old casa host or whomever, they will be distributed less fairly via the black market.

        A pediatrician in Cuba told us they generally needed:
        Antibiotics, broad spectrum and other.
        Adult vitamins,supplements: Half is given to kids, far more economical than sugar-laced Flintstones brand!
        Topical ointments: Antibiotic, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory etc.etc.

        Margo

      • And if you take drugs/ointments as above in your travel kit, consider donating everything you have left before you leave Cuba.

        Margo

      • Bob Adair says:

        And bottled water is available everywhere in Cuba.

  16. When I said: “If you take medications to Cuba when you go as we did,” I meant that we took a large box full of supplies for the sole purpose of donating it. This was separate from our own travel kit, which we also donated as we left.

    I have also been told that this aspect of the US embargo may have been repealed since 2006, so access to a full range of drugs is no longer an issue.

    • Bob Adair says:

      I also took packages of pens to give to kids & a few supplies that I dropped off at a school in Granma. People often asked me for soap, and I’ve heard that ibuprofen is very welcome.

      • Giving pens/candy/soap to kids or others on the
        road is quite regrettable, in my opinion, and serves
        mostly to make the giver of these articles feel
        good. Don’t be surprised then when a band of kids
        goes running after you yelling “pen! pen! pen!”,
        as happens in many touristy areas.

      • Bob Adair says:

        I know what you mean, but Cuba has pretty high educational standards combined with a real hard currency shortage, so I don’t think that giving pens to kids is only a ‘feel-good’ thing for the traveller. I think most people that go to Cuba see a country with real political democracy issues but which nonetheless has managed to give its citizens educational and health services far above most other Caribbean countries, all in the face of a punitive economic blockade.

        I guess I would say feel free to take along any small items that might be useful, whatever you think they might be.

  17. Wim Leunen says:

    Hi Chris and Margot,
    also planning a trip to Cuba, from 9.january – 6 february 2013, I’m very pleased to discover your site,
    also because I have the same ‘luxury concerns’ as you had: the west does not seem so interesting to me, but I want to visit Havana. Also want to visit the east, to be precise: Baracoa.

    Planning, (still) depending of the costs and possibilities of an inland flight:
    Varadero-Havana-(by plane?: ideas are welcome!)Santiago-Baracoa-Northern coast(-perhaps Cienfuegos)-Varadero.

    (solo bicycle tour: First time to Cuba- First time alone on vacation – First time by bike: Just do it (with some preps))

    Have a nice journey!
    Wim

  18. Gareth says:

    I spent 3 months biking around the entire island. Take a tent – Cuba is like one bug campground. Don’t be shy about knocking on doors to buy food from people when you’re in the campo.

    For more detailed info, see the following article…
    http://elpedalero.com/?page_id=1378

    Best of luck to everyone planning a tour in Cuba!

  19. Its very nice.

    Muito bonita a viagem e o relato… parabéns.

    Atenciosamente
    Joãozinho
    Santo André-SP (Brasil)

    • Catherine says:

      We biked from Varadero to Havana and return in November 2013. It was a great first ever bike tour and we are returning to do another tour this year. We used the Lonely Planet guide and it took us 3 days, on old mountain bikes. We biked from Varadero to Matanzas, to Playa Jibacoa, to Havana.
      Stayed in cases and resorts. Not the most scenic road, a “major” highway to Havana, biut not much traffic and met local bikers. We left our bikes with Cuban friends. We mostly made reservations Before. Can’t wait to return, just deciding our new route!

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