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Cycling Cuba with Fidel and Che

01 December 2006

by Patsy Bass 

While making wedding plans and sifting through glossy brochures touting honeymoon-type resorts, Shane and I hastily reassured each other that none of that soft stuff was for us. At some stage Cuba bumped the radar. While Castro was still at the helm and Guevara still sexy, we reckoned it had to be a blast on bikes. Apart from still being on sleeping terms after five weeks in the saddle, we aimed to see the 'real' Cuba, pick up a few salsa moves and get as close as possible to Guantanamo Bay without getting shot at.

After a suitably epic flight, we were spat from customs into midnight Havana, hustled into a taxi and taken away to find a bed. As we sped through the Plaza de la Revolucion, we were dwarfed by the enormous face of Ché Guevara plastered on the side of a building and by a giant Cuban flag covering another. Hola Cuba!

The first few days in Havana were an assault on the senses- fending off hustlers and struggling to find any food apartfrom bread, ham and cheese. Keen to escape the madness and fight off scurvy, we set about freeing the bikes, but not before a few hours touring Casablanca in a restored1950's Chev taxi.

Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf only weeks before our arrival, making it tricky to distinguish between Cuba's general state of disrepair and natural disaster. In 1959, Castro was named President after Batista fled with US$40m of government funds. Castro promptly nationalised US assets worth US$800m and Uncle Sam has slam-dunked Cuba with all manner of embargoes ever since. The 60's also saw the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy's nervous finger on the button during the missile crisis. Economic assistance from the USSR ceased in 1991, and by 1994 Cuba was in subsistence mode.

Amidst all this, Cubans remain vibrant, generous, determined and possess a strong sense of community. There is enormous pride in 'their' Cuba. We were surprised to find a US Embassy in Havana... and doubly so given its prime waterfront position. However, blocking its magic views were huge billboards with photos of Guantanamo atrocities and slogans like 'filthy murderers' and 'terrorists'. We visited a Cuban military base that looks over Guantanamo Bay. In typical understated American style, there is a full airport, hospital, schools and 3,500 staff - all ringed by the biggest minefield apparently ever laid by US forces. Scary stuff.

Cuba is long and skinny with little traffic outside the main centres - leaving us on (mostly) good roads with only the occasional cow, chicken or local on horseback for company. Our route was an elongated figure eight tipped on its side. It's easy pedalling along the coast with squillions of stunning, deserted beaches. For the masochists there are four regions of rugged mountain ranges. Shane hit those on my rest days. He came back fizzing after one ride, having climbed the steepest sealed road imaginable - 15km worth of our very own Baldwin Street.

Locals travel standingon trailers towed by tractors or trucks. Shane enjoyed racing them up hills while the locals cheered and laughed. He would often be taken on by groups of school kids on single-speed bikes. One boy lost his chain while racing. He just bent down and flipped it back on without missing a beat.

On Xmas Eve we cycled 120km to the ramshackle port of Batabano. We were keen to spend Christmas on Isle de la Juventaud, only to be told that "bikes are no longer accepted on the ferry". Not comfy leaving them behind and 50km from the nearest bed, we resorted to hiring a couple of gangsters in an old Chevy to drive us to Havana. The chrome bits had been touched up with silver paint, the doors flew open at every corner and we coasted the hills with the engine turned off to save gas. We celebrated Christmas at a music festival with an 80 year-old man who claimed he fought alongside Ché. Later we explored the Cueva de las Portales - a series of caves with paved stairs, balconies and a river winding through the middle of it all. Ché and his revolutionaries hunkered down here during the '61 missile crisis. Hell, if they were still enlisting, we'd have signed up on the spot.

New Year was danced in to the beat of Afro-Cuban music in some dodgy joint in Trinidad. Shane had an obligatory cigar, turned green and only regained his composure after cleaning his teeth about 17 times. Cigar factories are everywhere, and contrary to popular myth we found no evidence that the process involved young virgins rolling them between their thighs. We were struck by the irony that American trade embargos exclude Montecristo and the like - still mandatory measures of corporate success in the land of opportunity.

On the eastern side of the country, it wasn't unusual to cycle 100km only to be told "we don't have tourist accommodation anymore". This usually meant the plumbing or power no longer worked - tricky when it was 4pm, would be dark in three hours and the next town was another 100km away. We resorted to taxis or buses a few times.

Travel entered the reckless mode when after about 60km of remote riding we arrived at the edge of a brush fire. Stopping to ponder our options, we were suddenly engulfed in a smoky haze. We hadn't seen any vehicles for hours and nightfall was nearly upon us. A bed for the night necessitated going forward. Shane decided to 'probe' ahead to see how bad it was. #&$@! After what felt like hours (ok, about two minutes), he reappeared looking sheepish but unharmed. At that moment, the wind changed and Moses-like, the smoke dispersed. We high-tailed it to safety.

On the road to Maria La Gourda we saw crabs with red bodies the size of your hand. In breeding season (April-May) thousands writhe over the roads, playing chicken with the trucks and bikes. Apparently it's impossible to avoid them and they're reputed to tear bike tyres - making them either hungry or upset at being interrupted.

The southwestern coast is stunning - especially the Bay of Pigs and Playa Larga. We spent one day following a barely discernable trail close to exquisite beaches, without meeting a single other person. We'd cycle an hour, swim, dry off in the sun, cycle another hour...

Our memories of Cuba are of the friendliest people on the planet, green countryside, stunning beaches, vibrant music and a heavenly climate. Leaving was tough, but a 1951 Buick convertible taxi-ride to the airport was a fitting finale to the best honeymoon imaginable. And yes, we are still on sleeping terms.

Nitty Gritty

  • When to go: Dec to Mar - there's minimal rainfall, lower temps (26-30deg) and is after the hurricane season. The Vuelta Ciclista is in February - Cuba's answer to the Tour de France. 
  • Accommodation: Avoid hotels, Varadero (bad and mucho-expensive) and campismos - unless you like squalor, bad food and worse service. Look for houses with green triangles onthe door. These are government registered 'Casas Particulare' where you're a guest of the family. Most are clean, safe and you'll eat like kings for about $US40 - 50 per couple, per night (dinner, bed, breakfast). Ask for a recommendation for a casa in the next town to ensure something of similar quality. There are no campsites as we know them Jim, and while camping is permitted on beaches, there's no fresh water or facilities. 
  • Food: You'll be fed well at casas and can usually purchase some bread, cheese and water for the day's lunch. Any other food like snack bars or sports drink powder you'll need to take with you. There are few shops, and they stock little more than sweet biscuits, olives, Pringles and pasta. It was quite unsettling to see row upon row of empty shelves in the 'supermarkets'. Locals are given ration cards for the basics, ie. black beans, rice, tomatoes, bread - oh, and rum, coffee and tobacco! 
  • Money: Cuba isn't cheap. Locals use the peso but tourists are charged in 'Tourist Dollars' (pegged to the US dollar). There are hustlers everywhere trying to make a quick buck and you get stung up to 20% in fees when exchanging money. 
  • Book: Lonely Planet's 'Cycling Cuba' is about the best you'll find. 
  • Best map: The Rough Guide Map- Cuba 1:850,000 waterproof and tear-proof. Buy in NZ, maps of any detail are pretty much non-existent in Cuba. 
  • Bug-off: A mozzie net, duct tape and some bungy cords ensure bug-free nights. > Take tools and spares. Locals ride cheap Chinese bikes with components that don't match anything else. There are no 'bike shops', but plenty of willing locals.