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.
Thanks to Margo & Chris for answering the questions and providing the photos. They have some wonderful Cuba cycling resources on their website, if you’re planning a trip there.
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:
Salsa en la Calle from Blanche on Vimeo.
If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.
25th October 2010 at 3:37 pm #
Excellent article. My wife and I did a two week tour of Eastern Cuba a couple of years ago and loved it. Cuba is an amazing place to tour and I would highly recommend it.
If anyone is interested, I put up a page about our tour along with our diaries and photos. You can see it at http://www.prouse.org/bike-touring/cuba-bike-1000-km-2-weeks/
1st March 2022 at 5:26 pm #
I needed to write you that very little word to be able to thank you so much the moment again for those splendid tricks you’ve shared in this article. This has been certainly particularly generous with you giving unhampered all many people could have marketed for an ebook to get some dough for their own end, notably given that you might have tried it in case you decided. The good ideas additionally served to become fantastic way to realize that other people have the same interest the same as mine to grasp much more in respect of this issue. Certainly there are thousands of more fun instances in the future for folks who looked at your site.
21st July 2022 at 11:16 am #
I simply needed to appreciate you again. I do not know the things that I would’ve done without the hints contributed by you over my situation. It was a very alarming crisis for me personally, nevertheless encountering a new well-written approach you solved it took me to weep over contentment. I’m just thankful for your work and in addition believe you know what a powerful job you are always accomplishing teaching others using a web site. Probably you haven’t got to know any of us.
29th July 2022 at 10:58 pm #
I am also commenting to make you know of the helpful experience my child obtained using yuor web blog. She realized several details, which included how it is like to have an ideal giving nature to get the mediocre ones without hassle grasp certain tricky topics. You undoubtedly surpassed people’s desires. Thanks for imparting such warm and friendly, trustworthy, edifying and in addition unique thoughts on the topic to Mary.
29th July 2022 at 11:04 pm #
Needed to post you a bit of observation to help thank you very much as before just for the awesome strategies you’ve shared at this time. It is really shockingly generous of you to give extensively what exactly a number of us would have marketed for an electronic book to generate some dough on their own, primarily considering that you might have tried it in the event you considered necessary. These points additionally served like a good way to realize that other people have the identical fervor just like my very own to learn more in terms of this problem. I’m sure there are some more enjoyable times in the future for individuals that scan your site.
6th August 2022 at 3:12 am #
I would like to show my gratitude for your kind-heartedness supporting persons who actually need help on your question. Your special commitment to passing the message across was certainly effective and have consistently made most people like me to get to their targets. This informative publication can mean much a person like me and even more to my office workers. Thanks a ton; from each one of us.
8th August 2022 at 6:19 pm #
I precisely had to thank you so much once again. I do not know the things I might have implemented without the entire ways shared by you relating to my subject matter. Entirely was a scary problem for me personally, but coming across the very specialised avenue you processed it forced me to cry over gladness. Extremely grateful for this work and even hope you realize what a great job that you are carrying out teaching people today through your site. Probably you haven’t encountered any of us.
11th August 2022 at 10:03 am #
A lot of thanks for your entire work on this site. Gloria really loves setting aside time for research and it’s easy to understand why. We all hear all relating to the powerful manner you convey vital guidance via this blog and in addition increase response from some others on this subject plus our princess is truly discovering a whole lot. Take pleasure in the remaining portion of the new year. You have been doing a powerful job.
22nd August 2022 at 12:17 am #
I simply wished to appreciate you all over again. I’m not certain what I would have used without the advice contributed by you on that field. It seemed to be a very fearsome concern for me personally, but seeing your specialized mode you managed the issue took me to weep for delight. I’m just grateful for this help and in addition sincerely hope you recognize what an amazing job that you’re undertaking educating many others all through your site. I’m certain you’ve never come across any of us.
25th October 2022 at 3:47 am #
I intended to post you that very small note to finally give many thanks yet again for those amazing guidelines you have featured above. It’s shockingly generous of people like you in giving easily what exactly some people could have supplied for an e-book to earn some cash for their own end, most importantly given that you could have done it in case you considered necessary. These advice as well acted to provide a easy way to recognize that other people online have the same zeal just as my very own to learn a lot more with reference to this matter. I am certain there are millions of more pleasant periods up front for folks who see your website.
26th October 2022 at 5:23 am #
I would like to point out my respect for your kindness supporting men and women who have the need for guidance on in this matter. Your special dedication to getting the solution all through came to be unbelievably invaluable and has consistently enabled men and women like me to realize their goals. Your amazing interesting publication entails this much a person like me and a whole lot more to my office workers. With thanks; from each one of us.
1st November 2022 at 4:17 am #
Needed to write you this little bit of observation so as to say thanks the moment again with the exceptional solutions you have featured in this case. It’s really seriously open-handed of you to allow freely what exactly a lot of folks could have distributed as an electronic book to make some dough for their own end, chiefly given that you could possibly have done it if you desired. The basics as well worked to become easy way to comprehend other individuals have the identical dreams the same as my own to grasp very much more in terms of this condition. I think there are millions of more fun times up front for individuals that check out your site.
4th November 2022 at 8:21 pm #
I wish to voice my love for your kind-heartedness giving support to those people who really need help with this issue. Your real dedication to getting the solution along became unbelievably good and has without exception helped women like me to attain their objectives. The warm and helpful hints and tips denotes a whole lot a person like me and further more to my fellow workers. Many thanks; from each one of us.
6th November 2022 at 8:44 am #
I would like to point out my passion for your generosity supporting women who absolutely need help with the issue. Your special dedication to passing the message all-around had become surprisingly interesting and has continuously helped professionals just like me to realize their desired goals. The invaluable suggestions entails this much a person like me and even further to my office workers. Many thanks; from each one of us.
11th November 2022 at 3:27 pm #
I must show my respect for your generosity giving support to those people that need assistance with this important issue. Your special commitment to passing the message throughout turned out to be rather effective and have without exception empowered folks like me to realize their pursuits. Your own helpful suggestions means a lot to me and even further to my office colleagues. Thanks a lot; from each one of us.
23rd November 2022 at 10:30 am #
I am also writing to make you understand of the incredible discovery our daughter found visiting yuor web blog. She came to find several things, which include how it is like to possess an ideal teaching spirit to get the others clearly completely grasp a variety of tortuous subject areas. You truly surpassed readers’ desires. Thanks for supplying the useful, safe, explanatory and also cool thoughts on this topic to Gloria.
26th November 2022 at 4:02 am #
Needed to send you that little bit of remark to be able to give many thanks yet again for your gorgeous views you’ve contributed at this time. This is simply surprisingly generous with people like you to convey unreservedly what exactly many individuals would have sold for an e book to generate some money for themselves, especially given that you might have done it in case you wanted. These pointers likewise acted as a great way to realize that other people have the same passion really like my very own to understand somewhat more when considering this matter. I think there are some more pleasant opportunities in the future for individuals who find out your blog.
27th May 2023 at 10:46 pm #
I simply had to appreciate you once more. I am not sure what I could possibly have accomplished without these ideas shared by you directly on such a concern. Certainly was a very scary concern in my position, nevertheless coming across the very expert way you solved the issue forced me to weep for joy. I will be happier for the guidance as well as believe you are aware of a powerful job you have been doing teaching the rest thru your website. Probably you have never come across all of us.
29th May 2023 at 1:06 am #
I want to get across my passion for your generosity supporting men and women who must have assistance with this field. Your special commitment to passing the message all-around turned out to be really helpful and has usually permitted others like me to get to their pursuits. Your own informative suggestions entails a great deal a person like me and much more to my colleagues. Thank you; from all of us.
29th May 2023 at 9:07 pm #
I’m just commenting to let you understand of the really good discovery my daughter enjoyed browsing yuor web blog. She noticed some details, including what it is like to have an excellent teaching character to have many others smoothly learn about various very confusing subject areas. You actually did more than her desires. Many thanks for providing the warm and friendly, trusted, informative and even fun tips on that topic to Kate.