10 Questions: Three Weeks In Cuba
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.
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.
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.
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