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10 Questions: Bike Touring Through Cuba

Posted November 10th, 2012

Welcome to Cuba!Our trip to Cuba is now just one month away, so when Gili and Maya offered to answer some questions for us about cycling there – based on their own trip to Cuba in 2011 – we jumped at the chance.

In their answers to our 10 Questions about bike touring in Cuba, they reassured us that bicycles shouldn’t be too hard to take on public transport, if necessary.

Generally the drivers were very accommodating and we put our bikes in the hold, either as is, or removing one of the wheels if necessary. We found out the schedule of the bus in advance at the bus station, so we didn’t wait long. The buses we took were the Viazul buses.

And they told us how much we’d likely pay for a double room in a family-run B&B:

We generally paid $20-30 U.S. as a couple for a private room, with breakfast and dinner for two. In touristy areas (such as Trinidad and Havana), during peak season and if there are very few casas in the area, the price might be at the top of that range.

Read the full article: 10 Questions: Cycling In Cuba.

10 Questions: Three Weeks In Cuba

Posted November 1st, 2012

Gili and Maya are a Canadian couple (originally from Israel) who spent three weeks cycling Cuba at the end of 2011.

With preparations for our own trip to Cuba in full swing, we were thrilled when Gili and Maya offered to share some of their planning wisdom and trip experiences with us. Read all about it in the 10 Questions below, and check out their trip report on their website.

Welcome to Cuba!Welcome to Cuba: a great country for bicycle touring. Photo by  Gili Rosenberg.

1.Which route did you cycle and how did you settle on those areas for your trip?

We flew in and out of Varadero, and cycled Varadero-Havana-Viñales-Cayo Jutias-Puerto Esperanza-Viñales-Pinar del Rio-Maria La Gorda (the south western corner of Cuba).

After that, we took the bus to Cienfuegos (in the center) and cycled Cienfuegos-Santa Clara-Remedios-Sancti Spiritus-Trinidad-Rancho Luna, and finished by cycling to Playa Larga and catching the bus back to Varadero.

Since we were planning to visit Havana, it made more sense to travel in the west or center of the country. Going to the east would have required a long bus or train ride. We decided to split our three weeks between the west and center in order to add more variety to our trip. We chose to cycle shorter days, leaving more time for exploring the towns and talking to locals, so we cycled an average of around 70km a day.

Camping On The Beach In CubaCamping on the beach in Cuba. Photo by Maya Goldstein.

2. Was it easy to arrange public transport for you and your bicycles?

We used public transport several times: a minivan from Maria de la Gorda to Viñales, a bus from Viñales to Cienfuegos and a bus from Playa Larga to Varadero.

Generally the drivers were very accommodating and we put our bikes in the hold, either as is, or removing one of the wheels if necessary. We found out the schedule of the bus in advance at the bus station, so we didn’t wait long. The buses we took were the Viazul buses. There are also several local bus companies but we were told tourists can’t take them.

3. How was your experience with the Casa Particulares?

We loved staying at the casas! It was an excellent opportunity for interaction with the locals.

We asked our hosts to prepare most of our breakfasts and dinners and the food was generally very good or excellent, and we rarely finished it all. The rooms were comfortable and had a private bathroom with a shower – this appeared to be a government standard.

On one occasion we arrived at the town of Guane and there were no casa particulares. We ended up cycling to a nearby town instead (Isabel Rubio) but it wasn’t far. Another time we arrived in a village to find the only casa full but they arranged for us to sleep in the house of a relative of theirs.

We generally paid $20-30 U.S. as a couple for a private room, with breakfast and dinner for two. In touristy areas (such as Trinidad and Havana), during peak season and if there are very few casas in the area, the price might be at the top of that range.

Cycling In CubaQuiet roads are one of the main advantages of cycling in Cuba. Photo by  Gili Rosenberg.

4. What about money in general. Did you convert any money to local pesos? Did you carry all your cash with you, or could you use ATM machines?

We converted a small amount of cash to local pesos (moneda nacional). This can be done easily at the CADECA offices located all over Cuba. We found that $20 U.S. took us a long way. We used it mostly for buying fruit, vegetables, pizza and snacks. Some restaurants won’t accept moneda nacional from tourists and might insist that you order from the ‘tourist menu’.

We carried all our cash with us and we were comfortable with this, given the high safety standards in Cuba and the length of our trip (three weeks). We don’t remember seeing any ATMs and were told not to rely on them.

5. Was it easy to communicate with people? Did most speak English, or did you learn some Spanish before arriving?

We both speak some broken Spanish, enough to talk about day to day things and a bit of politics. We got the impression that not many people speak English but we always chose to practice our Spanish so we are not sure. Knowing some Spanish would be helpful and would allow for more interaction with the locals but, as almost everywhere, knowing the language is not a necessary condition for traveling there. Regardless, it might be worthwhile to bring a small dictionary or phrase book, as we did.

6. What about finding food? Some cyclists report that it can be difficult to buy lunch, snack food and fresh fruit in particular. 

We brought camping equipment with us, a stove and some homemade dehydrated meals. We mostly ate these meals on the two nights that we camped and on a few other occasions when it was convenient.

We don’t necessarily recommend bringing this gear with you. We could have done most of our trip without it, perhaps making some minor changes. Generally we had no trouble finding food to eat. Lunches were most often a Cuban pizza (available all over, cheap, fresh and tasty) and sometimes bread from a panaderia (a bakery), or a sandwich from the cafeteria.

In larger towns we found markets for fruit and vegetables, which were a good place to stock up. There are “dollar stores” in most towns that are often well stocked with snacks. Look out as well for tiny fruit or juice stands on the side of the road and especially guarapo stands with freshly pressed sugar cane juice.

We once cycled into a small village just to find that they were having some type of festival, with lots of interesting street food, but most of the time we settled for yummy Cuban style pizza, often baked in an old metal barrel.

A Cuban Family Travelling By BicycleA Cuban family travelling by bicycle. Photo by  Gili Rosenberg.

7. Which maps and guidebooks did you use and would you recommend them?

We had Bicycling Cuba (by Wally and Barbara Smith) and the Lonely Planet Cycling Cuba guidebook. We mostly used the routes from the first book. Both books are outdated, but not much has changed.

We also bought the comprehensive “Guia de Carreteras de Cuba” (road guide of Cuba). It’s very detailed and neat but not necessary if you are following routes from the guidebooks. For exploratory trips, we would definitely recommend it. We bought a copy at a bookstore in Havana but they might be difficult to find in smaller places.

8. Of the places you went, which ones would you recommend to others?

It is hard to choose a favorite place, there were so many!

In the west: the Viñales area is picturesque due to the sheer limestone humps (mogotes) and we have good memories of the fruit stands in the area. The fishing village of Puerto Esperanza was a tranquil spot. The causeway to Cayo Jutias was an exhilirating ride and camping on the beach there was beautiful.

In the center: a bit more traffic and more urban, we liked Remedios which is a small and atmospheric town. Cycling the dirt road from Cienfuegos to Playa Giron was a highlight. Snorkeling in the cenote near Playa Larga was excellent, just come early to avoid the masses and bring a snorkel (also useful for various beautiful reefs).

We tried to stay away from the resort towns and tourist hot spots. We passed briefly through Varadero and would not recommend lingering there. Trinidad was the most touristy place we hung out in. Despite the many tourists, it is a beautiful town with lots of live music.

Trying out sandy trails in CubaTrying out sandy trails in Cuba. Photo by Gili Rosenberg.

9. If you had to do the trip again, what would you change?

We would try to spend more than the three weeks we had, allowing us to stay more time in each place and getting to know it better.

Perhaps we could have left our camping and cooking gear at home, since we ended up using it only on two occasions. It could be necessary though, for a more exploratory trip. We do plan to return to Cuba in the future, this time traveling in the eastern part of the country. We were told by a friend, before we left, that we were bound to fall in love with Cuba and so it was…

10. Since bike parts aren’t readily available, did you take a more comprehensive tool kit than normal? 

No, we brought our normal tool kit, which contains basic items such as two extra tubes each, a flat repair kit, chain breaker, spoke tool, extra spokes, a cassette remover etc.

Looking around us we saw many Cubans on bikes but most of them had what we would consider major problems, such as completely bald tires, missing brake pads, no seat, etc. For basic repairs, ask around and probably someone can be found to help you. The improvisation skills that keep American cars from the ’50 and 60′s going might allow some problems to be solved in creative ways so keep an open mind.

For example, we were told that flat tires are fixed by carefully ironing on a small piece of rubber. Some repair parts can be found but they appear to be mostly low quality Chinese products (which might save the day, nonetheless). We gave away some of our spare parts such as all our bike tube patches and brake pads to very enthusiastic Cubans that clearly needed them more than we did. If you’d like to do something good for the local bike community, consider bringing some additional bike parts with you to give out.

On a side note, internet access was also not often available, as far as we could tell. This is not necessarily a bad thing! We only encountered it twice: once in Viñales where the communication office had three slow computers, and once in a casa particular.

More information about cycling in Cuba:

About The Authors: Gili and Maya live in Vancouver, Canada. They enjoy dark chocolate, dazzling fields of wild flowers, eating ripe fruit straight from the tree, the wonderful smell that wafts from their oven when they are baking, and other small delights. Life is delicious, carpe diem! Their website is: http://inmagicland.com

The World’s Only Suspended Bicycle Roundabout

Posted October 7th, 2012

This blog mostly focuses on bike touring but occasionally we get a bit carried away with the bicycle bliss in the Netherlands and feel compelled to share it with you.

On that note, here’s a short video that shows what we did today: travelled to the world’s only suspended bicycle roundabout. It’s the Hovenring in Eindhoven!

And just in case you were wondering, it takes about 50 seconds to bike around it on a Brompton folding bike, while towing 25kg of baby + trailer.

Planning For A Bike Tour Of Cuba

Posted October 1st, 2012

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

Video: Bike Touring In Ukraine

Posted September 28th, 2012

Ukraine isn’t the best known of bike touring destinations, so it’s especially nice to see a new video from keen cyclist and film maker Blanche that looks at cycling in this ex-Soviet state.

If you like what you see here, you can follow Blanche on Twitter, where she also regularly promotes other videos from the bike touring world.

Ukraine from Blanche on Vimeo.