In many ways, Cuba is a bike tourist’s dream.
The roads are quiet. The accommodation options are plentiful, including a widespread network of family-run B&Bs, known as casa particulares. Its history of revolution and communism is compelling, and the balmy climate makes bike touring possible virtually year round (you might want to avoid hurricane season).
Wide, open roads in Cuba; this photo was taken between Sancti Spiritus and Trinidad.
For all of these reasons and more, we packed our bags and flew out to Cuba in December 2012 for a month of two-wheeled exploring. While we were there, we received a flood of emails from other cyclists looking for the latest hints on touring in Cuba. This post is our reply to those requests.
If you’re looking for more tips, be sure to check our packing list and pre-departure notes. We also found this short primer by fellow cyclist Cass Gilbert very helpful. In terms of guides, we carried the popular Bicycling Cuba book (still helpful, even though it’s quite old) and route notes in Dutch from Global Cyclist.
Andrew seeks out some shade, against the backdrop of colourful houses in Cuba.
The Route: We cycled about 750km in total on folding bikes (one Brompton and one Dahon Speed TR), starting with a trip west from Havana to the popular destinations of Las Terrazas (a touristic hotspot set around a nature reserve), Pinar del Rio and Vinales. From there, we took a bus to the central Cuban city of Cienfuegos and rode a clock-wise loop to the cities of Santa Clara, Remedios, Sancti Spiritus and Trinidad.
Finally, we took a bus to Varadero on the northern coast and cycled the remaining distance back to Havana. We spent a month in Cuba but were travelling slowly because we had our 11-month-old son along for the ride. We were also slowed down by a case of the flu. A baby-free cyclist could easily cover the same distance in half the time.
We cycled slowly and took lots of breaks so that Luke didn’t become exhausted, hot or bored.
Visas: There’s no visa required for Cuba but rather a “tourist card”. We’re travelling on German and British passports, so we needed to get ours beforehand at the consulate in Rotterdam. No appointment was necessary and it was processed while we waited. Entry is for 30 days, with one extension possible. Sometimes you can get this card on the plane but check before you board. Several people were kicked off our KLM flight because they didn’t have a tourist card to show the airline staff. Canadians get a 90-day tourist card on arrival.
The hills weren’t too bad. These were some of the worst, around Cienfuegos, but they didn’t last long.
Roads & Traffic: Cuban roads are very bicycle-friendly. There’s not much traffic (even cycling into Havana was relatively easy) and all of the vehicles left ample room while passing. The only downside was the cloud of black smoke that invariably came from the aging cars as they chugged past. Sometimes the roads were in rough shape but this tended to be only in rural areas. We had no trouble negotiating the roads on our folding bikes, which lack both suspension and wide tires.
Grades also tended to be moderate and easily achievable (note: we did have the gearing lowered on our Brompton folding bike before leaving). For the hillier roads in the east of Cuba, or the mountainous route that runs directly from Santa Clara to Trinidad, you’d be wise to bring a touring bike with a proper ‘granny gear’.
Accommodation: Most of our nights were spent in casa particulares; the Cuban equivalent of a Bed & Breakfast. They are easy to find (just look for the blue, angular symbol), set in family homes and were always sparkling clean. Storing bicycles safely inside was never a problem. There’s a wide selection in every town. Even though we were in Cuba during peak tourist season (Christmas / New Year’s), we never had to reserve. Casa owners are well connected with each other and often recommend casas in your next destination. If a casa is full when you arrive, chances are the owner will help find a place of similar quality.
Rooms were 25-30 CUC on average and breakfast cost 3-5 CUC per person. Laundry service was also available. We paid 8-10 CUC for a big bag of clothes (for 3 people) to be washed, dried and folded. This normally took a day, as the casas prefer to wash in the morning and leave the clothes drying all day on the line.
TIP: When looking for a casa, it pays to test the shower. Water pressure is an issue, so in some casas we struggled to get more than a few drops out of the shower head. The peculiar tendency to heat shower water with an electrically charged shower head (sounds scary but it works) also means that if there’s no water pressure the “hot” water quickly becomes scalding and your only real choice is cold water or nothing.
Cubans adore kids. We snapped this picture as Luke practiced his newfound waving skills with a young girl.
With A Baby: Cubans love kids and couldn’t do enough for our son Luke. Ladies in the street played peek-a-boo with him. Burly looking men in bars waved enthusiastically. Casa owners took him on tours of the house while we ate. There seemed to be no end to the affection coming Luke’s way, and this is one very good reason to travel Cuba with a child.
In terms of supplies, we were told that disposable diapers were hard to find in Cuba. In fact, we saw the “Tenders” brand in most major cities but were told by locals that the quality of these diapers was below that of Western brands. We brought diapers from home and used 4-5 diapers a day on average. We also had 2 cloth diapers, in case of emergencies, and used them once but noticed that they took a long time to dry in the humid climate. In our opinion, it would be very difficult to travel Cuba using only cloth diapers.
We also brought 3 packs of baby wipes (used sparingly, they were nearly gone by the end of the trip), diaper cream (helpful against heat rash) and a small stash of emergency food like rice crackers and dried fruit. We were thankful for the food, as Cuban food turned out to be fairly salty. Luke was also breastfeeding. We only rarely saw formula milk for sale.
Cuba has two currencies: one for tourists (the CUC), and one for locals (moneda nacional). If you can, buy in local pesos. It’ll be far cheaper.
Budget: We spent an average of €70 a day in Cuba. This covered everything: daily expenses, cocktails, bus journeys, a 100km taxi ride, souvenirs and the airport departure tax (25 CUC each, babies exempt).
To cut costs significantly, skip the expensive meals in your casa. They’re convenient and portions are generous but we were usually able to eat well at a fraction of the price from regular restaurants. For breakfast, a street stall can supply fresh juice, omelette and a shot of coffee for about 50 cents. The casa breakfast costs up to 5 CUC.
Food & Drinks: On the whole, you don’t come to Cuba for the food. It’s adequate but generally uninspiring. We also found it very salty and poquito sal (just a little salt) soon became a standard part of our vocabulary.
Rice and beans feature on just about every menu. A typical evening spread in a casa or traditional Cuban restaurant would also include a salad, a bowl of soup and chicken, pork or fish as a main dish. Desert tended to be guava puree with tangy Cuban cheese, followed by coffee. Sometimes the food was very good but we also ate a lot of overcooked, dry and chewy cuts of meat. After days of the standard fare we were thrilled to find pizza, spaghetti and Chinese food, all prepared surprisingly well and at reasonable prices by restaurants in the bigger towns.
If supper was hit-or-miss, lunch was a feast. We relished delicious street pizzas (available everywhere for pennies), glasses of fresh juice, batidos (a delicious iced fruit and milk shake) and occasionally a custard or sweet pastry for desert.
Street pizza was one of our lunchtime staples.
TIP: Keep your eyes open for enterprising Cubans mixing up cocktails on the street! One of our favourite treats came from the men who would often appear in city squares, combining juice and Havana Club rum in a blender to make delightful pina coladas for mere pennies. Nearby, you’ll often find street pizza and ice cream to counteract the alcohol.
For drinks, we carried a water filter and used it to fill our water bottles every evening. Bottled water was generally available from shops for $0.70 for a 1.5 litre bottle but sometimes only smaller bottles were in stock. Soft drinks and juices were easy to find, if not from a restaurant then reliably from every gas station, with the bonus of shady tables or an air conditioned room where we could relax while we drank.
TIP: Buy a big bottle of water and ask your casa owner if they will put it in the freezer for you. If you store it in a shady place the next day (in your panner, for example), you’ll have ice cold water all day long.
Internet: If you need a break from the online world, Cuba is a great place to be! Internet access is tediously slow and expensive. To check your email, visit the nearest office of the national telecoms provider Etesca and buy a 6 CUC card. This entitles you to one hour of access from any office in the country. We’re warning you though, it’s slow. Our basic webmail service was usable. Facebook? Forget about it.
Our folding bikes on top of a Cuban taxi.
Buses & Taxis: Taking a bus with your bike in Cuba isn’t a problem, although you should reserve a seat 1-2 days in advance in high season and expect to pay 5 CUC extra for the bike (having folding bikes didn’t exempt us from this fee). Taxis are also available and may even be cheaper than a bus, if you can find a few fellow passengers to split the fare. As an example of prices, we paid 60 CUC for a 110km journey from Las Terrazas to Pinar Del Rio. By bus, we would have paid 50 CUC for ourselves and our bikes.
With our folding bikes, we could fit everything into a normal sized taxi. With a full-sized bike, you’ll have to book in advance and make sure to ask for a car big enough for the bicycle. A van may be available, or your bike may fit on the roof racks commonly fitted to the retro 1950s cars.
Friedel on a Cuban bike.
Pitfalls: Like so many popular tourist destinations, Cuba has its share of hagglers and hustlers. The more touristy the destination, the more you have to keep an eye on your wallet. Overcharging in shops and restaurants is common and you will certainly be met with requests for money and gifts from people in the street. We rarely felt that this begging was based on genuine need. Standards of medical care, housing and food seemed – to us at least – to be far higher than in many other countries we have visited.
Also, make sure you bring plenty of spares for your bike. Although more and more shops are opening in Cuba the quality and availability of bike parts is still not great. In an emergency an intrepid Cuban mechanic might help you out but it’s better if you at least have spare tubes, spokes, multi-tool and some other basics in your panniers.
We met a few local cyclists on our way to Trinidad.
Don’t Miss: Our favourite ride led from Sancti Spiritus to Trinidad; a delightful 70km with views of the sea to the left and mountains to the right, plus a healthy dose of cowboys on horseback. We passed through in January, during the sugar cane harvest, and this meant we could refuel on glasses of delicious sugar cane juice every few kilometers.
Almost everyone will pass through Havana and when you do, treat yourself to a cocktail in the Hotel Nacional. Their back garden is an oasis in the city. For a cheap and cheerful supper, try the roast chicken or pork skewer from Cafeteria Bahia on the waterfront (see details below). They also make an excellent (and strong) mojito.
Casa Recommendations, Restaurant Tips & More:
Havana To Vinales. About 25km out of Havana, the Bicycling Cuba book recommends stopping at Villa Cocomar for the night. The Villa is no longer open (as far as we could tell) but nearby, in a tiny village, is Casa Silvio (2 rooms available; about 50 CUC for 2 people, including dinner, breakfast and beer). There are no signs. You’ll just have to ask around. Any neighbour should be able to lead you to Silvio’s door. The entrance to the village where the casa is located is opposite the sign pictured below. If you see the go kart track on your right, you’ve gone too far.
Casa Silvio can be found in a small village, just opposite this sign.
A little further on is the town of Mariel. It’s not interesting enough to stick around for the night (nor did we see any casas) but it is a bustling little town with many shops, ice cream sellers, snack stands and a Cadeca for changing money.
Next up is Las Terrazas. If you want to stay at the popular Hotel Moka then book in advance. There was nothing free in Las Terrazas when we arrived, so we stayed 4km outside the park gates at Villa Juanita (25 CUC for a room, including breakfast). You pass her house on the way to Las Terrazas. It’s well marked with a prominent sign and Juanita is simply a lovely person. We highly recommend staying here. A fridge next to the room is packed with beer and other drinks.
At this point, we needed to get a taxi to Pinar Del Rio city because of illness. Should the same happen to you, Juanita can arrange it. Cost: 60 CUC. In Pinar Del Rio, try to go to a baseb