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A One Month Bike Tour Of Cuba (Part I)

Posted February 6th, 2013

Aaaaaaaahchooo!

It’s December 17th. We’re on a plane to Cuba and excited to cycle for a month around the island but there’s a problem: in addition to our bikes and bags, we’ve also managed to pack a winter flu bug from Europe. Friedel is sneezing and feeling sorry for herself. By the time we get settled in our Havana hotel, she’s lost her appetite and spends the next two days in a hazy, feverish sleep.

Luke thankfully takes little notice of germs or jetlag and instead focuses on countering the 30°C heat by splashing around in his personal, portable bathtub: an Ortlieb bicycle pannier.

Luke in the "bath"

By day three, Friedel has mostly recovered and declares that it’s time to escape the city so we load up our bikes, turn west and cycle out of Havana. The first few kilometers are chaotic: blaring horns, clouds of black smoke from the cars and potholes all distract our attention. We never feel unsafe or threatened by the traffic but it’s also not what we would call pleasant cycling.

Once beyond the city limits, it’s a different story. The roads are nearly empty and there’s plenty of time to admire the stunningly blue water.

First day leaving Havana

It’s not just the colour of the water that’s intense in Cuba. The sun is also a force to be reckoned with. It’s been a long time since we were cycling in such a warm climate but we recover our old habits quickly enough.

The routine goes like this: Up at 6am to pack bags and shower. Breakfast at 7am. On the road before 8am. Cycle like mad until about 11am, by which point it’s time for a break in the shade. We stop frequently in the afternoon and this means that our progress is very slow but this isn’t a concern for us. We’re in no hurry and roadside rest stops are also a chance to play with Luke.

Just outside of Mariel

As usual, we’re amazed by this little boy of ours. The common ‘wisdom’ seems to be that travel and kids are incompatible but our experience has been just the opposite. Is everyone else misguided? Are we just lucky? We’ll probably never know but we can genuinely say that travelling with Luke is no harder than staying at home.

In fact, travelling with Luke is even better than being home because we can both focus on his needs. We are not distracted by work, household chores or the internet. For his part, Luke shows his natural travelling genes by adjusting remarkably well to every new situation, food and experience that we throw at him.

Everything, that is, except the germs. A mere 100km out of Havana and it becomes clear that Friedel passed her illness to Luke. He starts crying for no apparent reason. We feed him, change him and play with him but to no avail. We know something is wrong so we make a beeline for the nearest B&B. That’s how we end up at Villa Juanita, just outside the tiny tourist village of Las Terrazas. It’s on the main road but there’s little around for entertainment aside from the ‘farmer’s market’ that rolls in by horse and cart once every couple of days.

Farmer's Market

We end up spending three days at Villa Juanita, nursing Luke back to health. While we’re there, we play countless games of Scrabble and test out the famous Cuban medical system. The doctor doesn’t speak much English but does give us medication to bring down Luke’s fever and enough antibiotics, painkillers and vitamins to fill an entire pannier. The cost? Free. Even the taxi driver didn’t want to charge us for the journey into town and back.

Finally, we’re ready to move on but Luke has a course of antibiotics to take and they have to be kept refrigerated. This means we can’t cycle from town to town – at least not for a few days. Instead we take a taxi to the provincial city of Pinar del Rio, get a room in a casa particular (a type of Cuban B&B) and go exploring.

We end up at a baseball game: Pinar del Rio versus Matanzas. The tickets to a national league match are 4 cents each (1 Cuban peso). Without a zoom lens, our camera doesn’t do a good job of capturing the game but we do grab this shot of kids in the stands.

Baseball Game

Note the tobacco leaf in the logo of the baseball team. Tobacco is an important crop in this area, as we see the next day when we cycle the 30km or so to Viñales. The broad leaves of tobacco plants are sticking up everywhere from the bright red soil.

Tobacco

The other thing we soon notice are revolutionary billboards, often with images of Che Guevara. We stop to pose by the first one, but soon become immune to them as there’s literally one (and often several) in every town.

Eight days, one taxi ride, 130km of cycling and several vials of antibiotics later we arrive in Viñales. The views are inspiring. It seems the perfect place to park ourselves for another few days to celebrate Christmas, allow Luke to finish taking his medicine and try to get our bike tour back on track.

*This is the first in a series of journal entries about our one-month, 750km tour of Cuba. Click here for Part II. More coming soon!

Going Light: Our Packing List For Bike Touring In Cuba

Posted December 12th, 2012

We’ve been planning for months and now it’s almost here: departure day for our flight to Cuba!

With less than a week to go, we spent yesterday packing our bags. Thankfully – for once in our lives – we have plenty of room to spare. It helps that we’re going on a ‘credit card’ bike tour: staying in hotels and leaving all the camping, cooking and cold-weather gear at home.

Normally we love camping but on this trip we have to contend with a couple factors. The first is a limited luggage capacity. When we booked our flights, we were quoted €800 to fly two full-sized touring bikes to Cuba and back with KLM (it seems this fee has now dropped by half but that’s not what we were told at the time). This was a great incentive to use folding bikes and work within standard baggage limits. The restless sleeping habits of a young baby were also a good reason to go for hotels and B&Bs instead of camping. After years of budget bike touring, it’s time to splurge a little!

That said, you could easily camp in Cuba if you wanted to.

Our full packing list is below. The luggage weighs about 22kg (including the weight of the panniers). All of this will go as carry on (we’re each entitled to a bag of 10kg as carry on luggage). Note:

  • About a quarter of the weight in our bags consists of diapers and food for Luke (rice crackers, dried fruit). Our bags will either be considerably lighter on the return flight, or full of rum and cigars.
  • Electronics such as our laptop and iPad also account for a lot of weight. These sorts of things aren’t necessary for everyone but they are something we like to take along.
  • There are no toys or books for baby. There will be plenty of entertainment from the two jokers this kid has as parents, not to mention the adventures that Cuba itself will bring.
  • The clothes we’ll wear on the plane are not included in the weight but are mentioned in the packing list.
  • We think this list is complete but – as always – we’re human and sometimes we forget stuff. If you think something’s missing let us know and we’ll update the list if necessary.

Put together, our collection of “stuff” looks something like this:

Our stuff for Cuba All packed up in 3 neat bags

The bikes and the bags they’ll fly in total about 30kg (Brompton – 12kg; Speed TR – 15kg; bike bags – 1.2kg each). Luke’s Chariot Cougar 1 trailer weighs 11kg but technically it’s a stroller, not a bike trailer. We can gate check this and it doesn’t count in our luggage allowance.

Want the full details? Read on!

Dahon Speed TRThe Bikes & Bags:

Bike Parts, Tools & Accessories

Electronics

  • 1 Panasonic Lumix GF1 camera
  • 1 iPad 3, plus case
  • 1 13″ Macbook Pro laptop, plus case
  • 1 Kodak Zi8 video camera (a few years old but fine for our purposes)
  • 1 Gorillapod tripod ($80 from REI)
  • 2 USB sticks (for back-up of photos)
  • 1 cellphone (very old; not a smartphone; only for emergencies)

Clothes for Friedel

Clothing (Friedel)

  • 3 pairs socks
  • 3 pairs underwear
  • 3 pairs trousers (3/4 length, lightweight, zip-off)
  • 3 lightweight tops (2 long sleeved)
  • 1 bra
  • 1 large, lightweight scarf (for breastfeeding cover, as a picnic blanket, etc.)
  • 1 sun hat
  • 1 pair Teva sandals
  • 1 pair cycling shoes
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 Gore-tex paclite jacket (£159.99 from Wiggle)
  • 1 merino wool hoodie
Andrew's clothes.

Clothing (Andrew)

  • 3 pairs socks
  • 3 pairs underwear
  • 2 pairs trousers (1 pair zips off into shorts)
  • 3 lightweight tops (2 long sleeved)
  • 1 merino wool t-shirt
  • 1 sun hat
  • 1 pair Teva sandals
  • 1 pair cycling shoes
  • 1 pair swimming trunks
  • 1 Gore-tex paclite jacket

Baby clothes!

Clothing (baby)

  • 4 shirts
  • 1 hoodie
  • 2 pairs light pants
  • 1 pair heavier pants
  • 2 pairs shorts
  • 2 onesies (to be used as light, summer PJs)
  • 3 pairs socks
  • 1 pair sandals
  • 1 pair normal shoes
  • 1 sun hat
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 swim diaper (not something we’d normally use but it was given to us, so…)
  • 1 sippy cup

Toiletries

  • 150 disposable diapers
  • 2 packs baby wipes
  • 2 cloth diapers (just in case!)
  • 2 tubes toothpaste (one for kids, one for adults)
  • 2 bottles 50 SPF sunscreen (one for kids, one for adults)
  • 1 First Aid Kit with medicines (paracetamol, sinus medication)
  • 1 toiletry kit (shampoo, soap, dental floss etc…)
  • 1 travel towel
  • 1 Mooncup

Maps and Books

Emergency baby food.

Miscellaneous

  • A variety of snack food, mostly for baby (dried fruit, rice crackers)
  • 1 notebook with pen
  • 3 pairs sunglasses
  • 1 Eagle Creek Pack-It cube
  • 1 MSR Miniworks EX water filter ($89.95 from REI)

Video: Our First Big Family Bike Tour

Posted July 31st, 2012

We just returned from our first extended bike tour as a family. 

With 5-month-old Luke in tow, we cycled 550km through the Netherlands, Belgium and France. We’ll be blogging more in the coming weeks about the lessons learnt from this tour but first, a video that we managed to shoot and assemble (in our tent at night) along the way.

10 Questions: Cycling Across Tibet

Posted January 2nd, 2012

From 1999 to 2001, Bob Foster rode his bicycle around the world.

He began in Malaysia and headed north to China, Tibet and Pakistan. From there, Bob toured the Middle East and Europe before flying to Central America and meandering his way home to California.

In this edition of 10 questions, Bob tells us about his time in Tibet, one of the most challenging parts of the entire adventure. You can read more about Bob’s adventure, and his upcoming book, on his Cycle Nomad website.

Bob Foster In TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

1. How did you end up cycling in Tibet, and why did you choose that destination above any other route?

I was touring from Malaysia to France. Unable to traverse Myanmar because of visa issues, and without the desire to cycle through Mongolia or Siberia, Tibet was the only option. Also, I was intrigued by a romanticized Western vision of Tibetan culture.

2. Tibet has a reputation as being one of the world’s more challenging cycling destinations. Does the reality live up to the hype?

If you are well-trained the elevation will slow you down, but it won’t stop you. The difficulty, for me, lay in the winds and hail storms. They can zap every last ounce of motivation.

Tibetan roadsPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

3. Because the terrain and climate can be extreme, did you have to carry any special gear?

You will want a four season tent, a robust windbreaker and a balaclava. Essentially, be ready to cover every square inch of your body. Also, be sure to bring extra off-road tires. Although the Chinese are paving the plateau at a breakneck speed you will likely be off road for a good portion of your ride.

4. How did you load it all on the bicycle, and keep your wheels in sound shape while going over rough roads?

Being on a world tour, I had 22 kilos of gear. The most common mistake beginners make when touring (myself included) is to put the majority of the weight in the back panniers. When you stop to think about it this doesn’t make much sense because when you are sitting on your seat you put the majority of your weight on your back wheel. I have found that it works best if you distribute your weight 70/30, with the front of your bicycle carrying the 70%. And given the rough roads in Tibet, it wouldn’t hurt to have tandem-gauge spokes on your wheels.

5. Was it tough to find the essential daily supplies like food and water?

As long as you plan you’ll be fine. Bring lots of dried foods, a map with rivers and bodies of water, and two water filters (I’d suggest a Steripen and a high-end filter pump as a backup). You should never have to go more than 80 kilometers without finding a source of water.

Beautiful TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

6. Any local delicacies cyclists should know about?

Know that even in the most unimaginably remote parts of Tibet you will find kind-hearted nomads offering you yak butter tea. The salty, viscous sludge lines the back of your throat and oozes down the sides of your stomach. You will probably feel like a dog eating peanut butter, using your tongue at the roof of your mouth to try to remove the pasty film of salt. The preparation methods can be difficult on Western bellies, so you will likely be breaking into your Imodium stash if you want to ride the next day.

Tibetan Town

7. Tibet is also a place where you aren’t supposed to travel independently. Did you have any problems with police, or sneak under check point barriers at night?

When I was traveling in 2001 most of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials working the checkpoints were shocked to see someone alone on a bicycle. The usually cheered me on. The few that looked at my passport did so with a greater sense of curiosity than official duty. That said, the political climate in Tibet is constantly changing so be ready for anything.

8. Did you have much contact with the local people? What was their reaction to passing cyclists?

Children sometimes threw rocks at me as I rode by. At other points, groups of women and children would wait for me at sandy river crossings then grab hold of my bike and demand money and Dalai Lama photos to let me go. Please be considerate of the cyclists who will follow you and refuse to give in. On several occasions I held out for over 30 minutes before they let me go. I offered gifts to many gracious Tibetans who hosted me during my traverse of the plateau, but never did I pay ransom.

Tibetan SignPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

9. What is your most treasured memory of cycling in Tibet?

Leaving. Cold wind became the enemy in an exposed valley of the plateau, where on several occasions it forced me into dusty ditches the size of small cars, where I would feel ambition bleed out of my youthful body. When the wind would abate, I moved on, yearning for Kathmandu, shower and a moist slice of carrot cake with icing so buttery that you could slurp it.

The intensity of the wind met a serene hypoxia on the top of the last pass before leaving the plateau: Tong-La.

The drive to keep moving was like an incandescent cole that moved me with a fear of death, yet in the delirium of the hypoxia I began to laugh without ever contemplating stopping. Upon reaching the far end of the pass the peaks of the snow-laden Himalayas spread out before me with a grandeur that commanded reverence. For a moment I made no effort to understand or marvel. The stillness consumed me with the emotional rapture of riding a roller coaster on LSD. I subconsciously observed that the dirt road moved cut sharply down the most conservative grade of the slope. The valley I was to descend lie straight ahead.

As the bliss transformed into uncontrollable shivering I murmured to myself, “f*** it,” and let out barreling down the scree slope ahead into the glacial valleys of the Himalaya below. Bliss.

Mountains in TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

10. What’s one essential Tibet experience that no cyclist should miss?

Descending from the plateau because it is not any one experience that will change us, it is the context of the experience. Tibet is a psychologically grueling cycling environment. From the intense climbs to the gale-force gusts on the passes, it will wear you to the bone. When you come off of the plateau and hear the chirping of birds, feel humid air caressing your skin and bask in the glory of a warm shower you will never feel more alive.

Thanks to Bob Foster for answering the questions and providing the photos. Do check out his Cycle Nomad website for photos, maps and more. And watch for his upcoming book!

Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling Tibet:

If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.

A Weekend Bike Tour To The Dutch Island Of Texel

Posted November 13th, 2011

With a major life change rapidly approaching, and winter closing in, every weekend has suddenly become precious. If it’s sunny, then cycling we shall go.

This ‘carpe diem’ attitude sparked the latest mini adventure: a tour to northern Holland and the island of Texel. This picture sums up the trip: gorgeous.

Alicia on her Brompton

In case you don’t know where Texel is, this map should help orient you. Amsterdam is down in the bottom left corner. The route is about 120km in total, and easily done in a couple of days. You can ride on dedicated bike paths for almost the entire time.

Map of Our Tour

And who was cycling, exactly? Well, this time your trusty cyclists were Friedel & Alicia – not Andrew, because he was away in Germany. A girl’s weekend out. Fun! Even more fun was the fact that we both had new Brompton folding bikes, so we decided to test their touring credentials. Here we are, with our almost-matching bikes.

Brompton Geekery

In the summer, the area we rode through would be heaving with tourists. Happily, in November, it was desolate and beautiful. We rode through empty forests…

A Forest Outside Alkmaar

And alongside sand dunes (the ocean is just on the other side)…

Bicycle Path in the Netherlands!

And sometimes we stopped at a farm stall to pick up treats, like blackberry jam. If we’d been here in the summer, we might have also bought strawberries, honey or even wool!

Time to buy some jam!

The whole weekend turned out to be a bit of a culinary adventure. Cheese, potatoes and Texel beer were quickly added to our small bags.

Cheese shop

Who can resist a farm stall? Not me!

We also got up extra early on Saturday, to photograph the sunrise, with Alicia’s medium-format camera.

Last moon, first light

On sunny autumn weekends, Texel is a landscape photographer’s dream.

Early morning photographer

From there, it was on to see some friendly seals at an aquarium and seal refuge.

Baby sea lions

And finally back home again, via a beautiful lighthouse.

De Cocksdorp Lighthouse

A short trip, but a very rewarding one – and through all of it the Brompton bikes held up admirably. We were impressed at how comfortable they were to ride over long distances, even on some unpaved paths. And there’s no arguing with the ease of putting them on the train compared to other bikes. No extra bike ticket. No time restrictions. Perfect! Other Brompton trips are almost certainly in the planning for the future.