Cuba has friendly people, quiet roads and you can tour there on a budget.
That was the experience of Canadian couple Margo & Chris, who spent January of 2006 bicycle touring across Cuba; an 1,800km journey.
Pedalling west out of Havana, they were initially nervous because it was their first bike tour. Those worries soon faded, however, as they were greeted by shouts of “hola” and warmly welcomed in the B&Bs where they slept.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Food could be hard to find, and sometimes they were greeted in towns by young touts, trying to lead them to a particular B&B.
Margo tells about their Cuban cycling experience in this week’s 10 Questions.
1. What attracted you to Cuba as a bicycle touring destination?
We’d planned to travel as a couple once our youngest left for university. We each had various destinations in mind, but Cuba was at the top of the list because we knew we wanted to see it while Fidel was still at the helm. Cuba is a cyclist’s dream with its fairly good paved roads and minimal traffic, due to its oil shortage since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We’re in our 50s and have always been self-propelled outdoor people, and I speak some Spanish. Chris finds languages very difficult, but compensates by being good at reading body language and understanding cultures.
2. How were you received by the people?
I set out feeling nervous because it was our first tour, but I soon relaxed when I realized it was generally a safe and friendly country. For the most part, people were very welcoming, and my arm nearly fell off from waving “Hola. ” We stayed mainly in casas particulares, the Cuban version of B&Bs licensed by the state. Often these were run by a couple our age or older, and sometimes señora would be busy cooking while señor would have more time to chat, patiently answering our questions. Many enjoyed sharing their knowledge of their country’s history and culture with us, and an older couple gave us a serious account of their harrowing experiences during the Batista era. I wasn’t used to dealing with the obvious wealth disparity between ourselves and the locals, and at times on the road at times I found the demands for regalito (small gift) or chicle (gum) from kids made me feel I was viewed as a shop or a bank more than as a human being.
3. What were the roads like?
The roads we were on were paved, but in places there was broken pavement or sizable potholes (baches) to watch for. There was very little motorized traffic due to the oil shortage, but some of the vehicles that did pass left a heavy cloud of black smoke because they ran on very dirty fuel. We’d hold our breath!
There were quite a few oxen and horses on the roads, so that meant manure. We dealt with the heat by starting very early, sometimes before dawn, and in low light it was tricky to see the difference between piles of manure and potholes. The centres of a few towns were cobbled. In a few places there were unpaved options, but we didn’t take these.
4. And the landscape?
We headed west from Havana into Piñar del Rio’s forested limestone hills, and past extended areas of tobacco fields with A-frame tobacco drying sheds. From Baracoa, we climbed to 600 metres on the road known as La Farola (the lighthouse) crossing the Sierra Maestra from its humid north slope to the dry and windy south coast of Guantanamo province. It was a fast flat ride NW across the great plains, which are used mainly for cattle grazing, and the terrain became gently rolling in central Cuba as we rode back to Havana. Cuba isn’t mountainous, so it made a manageable first tour. Much of the land is farmed, as the country tries to improve its food self-sufficiency. Outside cities you can see organoponicos or intensive community vegetable plots, from which produce is brought into the towns.
5. How easy is it to get your bike on public transport in Cuba?
We made a single logistical move during our trip, so as to pedal the length of the island East to West with the prevailing trade winds. This involved a taxi into Havana from Piñar del Rio, with our bikes crammed into the small vehicle, wheels removed. We took a Viazul bus (for tourists and wealthier Cubans) From Havana to Baracoa, and the bikes went vertically into the spacious hold with only the front wheels removed. There were two other cyclists on the bus, so four bikes fit into the hold, and there was a small fee for the bikes.
6. You say in your journal that finding food could be difficult. Why?
Food staples were still distributed to locals under a strict rationing scheme when we were there. The country was only just emerging from the “Special Period” after the Soviet collapse when hunger was very real. There wasn’t much infrastructure yet for independent tourists; I think they’re only just beginning to realize that not everyone wants to be incarcerated into an all-inclusive resort which Cubans aren’t allowed to enter. Breakfasts and dinners in the casas were hearty and delicious, since the locals know where to get fresh food directly from the producer. There didn’t seem to be markets to buy any range of lunch items, however.
Produce was brought into towns from the organiponicos by bike early in the mornings, and we’d hear the seller calling out what he had just as we were rubbing sleep from our eyes. On the road, we’d buy fruit from sellers, and there would be street food in towns or at junctions: small pizza cooked on an oil drum, roast pork on a bun, or sugar-coated peanuts (mani). Towns were widely spaced, so we learned to eat whenever food was on offer, and resorted occasionally to a small stash of power bars and beef jerky from home.
7. What kind of a budget should you count on, and is money easy to access?
The two of us lived in style for about US$50 per day. This covered staying in casas where breakfast and dinner were provided, plus buying street food and snacks as we found them. Free camping is strongly discouraged in Cuba. If you camp on a farmer’s land or stay with a local, you may get the landowner or your host in big trouble, because the government controls cash flow from tourists by a strict licensing system. Cuba does not have standard ATMs, and $US dollars aren’t accepted. We understood you could get cash advances with a Canadian or European (not U.S.) issued credit card. We didn’t do this, but did cash some travellers’ cheques (Lloyds, not American Express) at a bank mid-trip.
We used the two currencies: Convertible pesos (1 Convertible peso = approx US$1) designated for use by tourists to pay for casas, and Cuban pesos (25 Cuban pesos = approx US$1) for buying most street food. We bought convertible pesos at the airport with Canadian cash, and converted some of these to Cuban pesos at an exchange kiosk in Havana.
8. Can you cycle year-round there, or does one season stand out?
Cuba is tropical, with a hurricane season that lasts from June to November that you probably want to avoid. We’d read that December to February could be humid, but we only had one day of light rain even though we were there for the entire month of January. From March to May the weather is meant to be more reliably dry, but it’s also a bit warmer. January is the coolest month, but the seasonal temperature variation isn’t large.
9. What’s one challenge people cycling in Cuba might run into?
The hustlers (jiniteros) can be annoying or downright aggressive. These are usually boys in their late teens who approach as you enter a town and try to lead you to a friend’s casa. Unfortunately, there was no complete listing of casas when we were there, so we would sometimes arrive in a town without knowing where we would stay. I preferred to ask an older woman for help than go with a jinitero. The boys are strongly motivated because they usually get a payment from the casa owner, but we’d heard they sometimes take you to stay somewhere unlicensed or where a theft of your belongings has been planned.
As we got into our Cuban routine, we would ask our casa hosts if they could recommend a casa in the next town, and señora would call ahead and make arrangements for us. Before entering that town, we would look carefully at our sketch map of the casa location to memorize the approach route, so we could ride there without pausing. It’s when you stop to look at your map or notes that the jiniteros descend upon you.
10. What’s your most treasured memory of cycling in Cuba?
I think we’d only been on the road two days, and we were pedalling across Piñar del Rio on a stretch of badly broken pavement. The only traffic we’d seen for some time was cowboys herding rangy cattle. Ahead, we saw a festive looking family group.
Several young women in long frilly dresses were having their photos taken with the family’s rusting Lada as a backdrop. Their mood was festive; this was a qincenaria or special coming-of-age 15th birthday party for one of the girls. There was no hesitation in making us part of the celebration, and they insisted that Chris take photos of me with the whole group. I was covered in sweat and dust, but they gathered around me and my bike in their best clothes, unconcerned by my warnings about the bicycle chain which I feared would damage the dresses. Never mind; this was a party and we were to be part of it!
During the rest of the trip, we would often be shown heavy albums of professional photography depicting a more comfortable family’s most recent qincenaria. It became clear that these were occasions when a family pulled out the stops and displayed their wealth. As well as group shots, Chris had taken solo portraits of each of the girls, and we later mailed prints of these to the family of modest means that had welcomed us.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in Cuba:
- Bicycling Cuba – From the authors of a guidebook to cycling in Cuba comes this website, with general and helpful information.
- Touring Cuba By Bicycle – Just one page, but some nice stories and practical tips from a bike tour here.
You can also watch this video, of a bike tour in Cuba: