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: 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 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.
Quiet 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 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 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
12th November 2012 at 9:50 pm #
I’m curious why more people don’t camp in Cuba. If you go in the winter its not overly hot, its very cheap to camp but its it available in most areas? Can you just crawl into some bushes and setup camp? Do the locals spot you right away? Crime tends to be low in Cuba but if you’re sleeping in an isolated area you are VERY vulnerable.
And is Cancun the cheapest place to travel from?
12th November 2012 at 9:53 pm #
And I should have mentioned that the Casa Particulars are the main cost of your trip. Eliminate them and your trip costs almost nothing. Especially if you have a bike. Of course you’ll pay a lot more for airfare because of the bike but that bike allows you accessibility to areas you would never have a chance of seeing by taking public transportation. And are trucks/cars considerate of bikes on the faster moving highways? What about in urban areas? Is there respect on the road?
13th November 2012 at 9:13 am #
Will, you are right that the main cost (for us at least) was the casas particulares, which also provided most of our meals. Taking the bus/van was also not cheap. The other costs, for food and snacks during the day, entry to a few places and a ferry or two were negligible in comparison. Although the cost of the casas particulares is high, compared with lodging and food in most other third world countries, the experience is definitely worth it, in our opinions, and it’s still cheap compared with most western countries.
Camping in Cuba should be no problem – safe and easy. Why don’t more tourists camp there? Perhaps some people prefer to carry less weight, not have to worry about where to camp and whether they are safe, and prefer to sleep on a bed. Also, in many areas staying in town is much more interesting than sleeping in the bush – but it depends on what you are looking for.
As mentioned, we only ended up using our tent twice, since where casas particulares were available, we preferred to use them, not for comfort but rather for the experience, but there were definitely places where you could have camped easily. The general protocol, which we have used in other countries, is either to camp out of view of people, or approach a house/restaurant/etc and ask for permission to camp on their land (I wonder if this would work in Cuba). Campismos might also allow you to camp, probably for a small fee.
On most roads that we cycled, even the “main roads”, there were very few vehicles, and many of them were bicycles, horses and ox-drawn carts, especially in the west. In the center we found more traffic, which generally gave us space, but I would definitely recommend a side mirror. The diesel trucks that pass every now and then are very noisy and belch black smoke. We avoided cycling the autopista for the most part, simply because cycling along a highway with a few lanes in each direction tends to be boring. But if you’re going to do it, Cuba appears to have some of the most sparsely populated highways I’ve seen anywhere. In Havana we cycled on some main roads, and didn’t feel in any more danger than at home.
Regarding Cancun, I really don’t know – we flew from Vancouver with Air Transat.
13th November 2012 at 3:50 pm #
Just thought of something: What about camping in people’s yards? Not in a city of course where most of the people seem to live in apartments but maybe in less densely populated areas? Would that mean you’re not part of the Casa Particular system? You wouldn’t be in the house. You could leave your stuff inside for security. You’d need basic Spanish of course to communicate most of the time probably.
13th November 2012 at 3:56 pm #
The bike would also probably be more useful outside of urban areas because of the lack of public transportation there. I’ve always wondered how difficult it would be to pack a bike into the space occupied by a large piece of luggage so you’re not paying for “the bike”. Most people don’t break down a bike very much but with some care and thought, it might fit into a surprisingly small space. I was thinking of a 24″ wheel mountain bike design as the wheels seem to be the headache. You could pack all your stuff around the bike components for padding/protection. And that would be your one piece of checked luggage.
Too bad the roads there weren’t better….it would be cool to fly through Havana on inline skates. 🙂
BTW, did you see anybody on inline skates in cities there besides perhaps kids in a park?
15th December 2012 at 7:56 am #
I have a Surly LHT that I had S&S coupled (after having paid Northwest/and now Delta, $600 r/t Denver to Bangkok several years ago. Sent it to Bilenky in Philadelphia in 2009 who cut the frame and installed the coupling and now the whole bike, including wheels (700 wheels) fits into a standard size hard suitcase that meets the airline baggage size requirements and I don’t pay anything (except on British Air). This has more than paid for itself.
15th December 2012 at 9:43 pm #
Wow, that’s an interesting solution, I had no idea it was possible. How much did it cost, roughly?
13th November 2012 at 4:08 pm #
This may sound ridiculous but it would save a lot of money on some airlines.
Buy or rent the wheels at your destination. Bring everything else. Tour operators could do this. The wheels are always the biggest items and don’t matter much as long as they’re alloy and straight. And you’re not using disc brakes of course. It would definitely fit into a large piece of luggage if the frame wasn’t enormous and the forks were popped off. Remove the freewheel/cassette off your bike along with the chain and bring that so now you’re retained your drivetrain. (Kind of a hassle, granted.) Wouldn’t work in Cuba of course but any place that has a normal supply of common mountain bike parts would suffice. 99% of mountain bikes out there do use 26″ wheels. In fact, if 26″ wheels are used a lot (like in Canada) you could just buy them used. Pop on your freewheel, chain and you’re good to go with your own drivetrain. The hassle would be the different types of freewheel/cassette options. Why can’t manufacturers just get along!? I find it difficult to extract $10 a wheel for basic, alloy, used wheels.
13th November 2012 at 4:09 pm #
If you like fireworks head to Remedios for Christmas Eve. Make sure you book a casa well in advance as folk will come from miles around to see this. May not be suitabel for small children as it goes on all night!
17th December 2012 at 7:15 am #
Crazy all-night fireworks are one of the reasons we’re leaving the Netherlands for New Year’s eve! I will make a note NOT to go to Remedios on the 24th 🙂
20th December 2015 at 1:48 am #
We are going tomorrow to Cuba for 3 weeks cycling, whilst we have bikes bags we are wondering if is easy find carboard boxes in Havana to take our bikes back to the UK?
What did you use in your journey?
Many thanks for any suggestions.
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