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Colourful Cuba

13 June 2017

Words by Jillian Frater
Photos by Finn McLachlan

Why did I want to go to Cuba? Well I'd heard it was a great place to go cycle touring and that in many ways it hadn't changed much since the 1950s, but was slowly changing after the death of Fidel Castro. Both of which seem like good reasons to go. Also, as of January 2015, it has been possible to travel via the US to Cuba, if you fit one of the 12 special categories listed by the Cuban Government.

Our flight took our family of four to Los Angeles, where upon we checked out the craziness that is Venice Beach, and the boringness that is a 3 star hotel near LAX, before Alaskan Airlines whisked us off on our five-hour flight to Havana. Unfortunately our plane got demoted to Terminal 2 in Havana, which resembles something more like an old school hall rather than in international airport terminal and consequently the queue in the sole money exchange office took two hours to negotiate.

A coco taxi in Havana.

Us at the Che Guevara mural at Plaza de la Revolución, Havana.

We rented two sturdy mountain bikes from a German company in Havana and took two folding bikes with us from NZ. The plan was to bike around the western part of the island of Cuba in 20 days. We started by heading west from Havana along the rocky northern coast. On our first night out, our boys, Finn (14) and Max (16) ate "Dulce de Leche" (translated as "sweet milk") at a small restaurant where we stayed the night. In the morning, we watched the family's cow being milked in the rubbish-filled gully and ate the homemade, non-pasteurised butter. Later that day, in the 30 plus degree heat, Max powered up a hill but then abruptly stopped. As we watched his eyelids closing, we got him to sit down and subsequently spent an hour or so waiting in the hope that he would be well enough to carry on (which he did).

Love that shade. En route from Mariel to Las Terrazas.

Typical breakfast at a typical casa. This green one at Las Terrazes.

We had a night in the eco-village of Las Terrazas in the hills before cycling onto the very small town of San Diego de los Baños (San Diego of the baths). There we met Pilo, a cycling enthusiast and English teacher at the local school. He was very charming and we liked him, and still do despite later reading of him telling the same story of needing donations to buy decent soccer balls to other cyclists back in 2013!! Although we did not know it at the time, San Diego de los Baños was also where we experienced the greatest concentration of cycle tourists on our whole trip, and with a total of 10, we dominated the number of foreigners in the town for the night.

 Just before it hosed down on the way to San Diego de los Baños. Fraser's blood sugar levels needed a boost. 

The faded glory at San Diego de los Baños.

To assist us in our navigation we used maps.me, however we soon learnt that all "white" roads are not created equal and as we pondered the 15 km of dirt road to Viñales, we resolved to check our route with the locals in future. Throughout our time in Cuba we stayed in casas particulares – rooms in people's houses. Although absent in very small towns, in other places like Viñales almost every house is a casa particular, and visitors are spoilt for choice. Commonly there would be two double beds in a room, an ensuite, the offer of breakfast in the morning and wonderful (usually non-English speaking) hosts.

The "white" road on the way to Viñales.

In Viñales we rode straight to "Casa Antonio and Odalys" as shopping around for accomodation seemed a pointless exercise. By the time we reached Viñales we had also realised that biking in temperatures of 35˚C and more each day, sometimes with hills, was a bit much and in order for us all to be happy, more rest days and some motorised transport would be required.

Loading the bikes onto the colectivo.

So after a rest day with a 10 km bike ride followed by an afternoon beside a pool, we organised a "collective" taxi to take us 250 km to Playa Larga on the south coast, in the infamous Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Our colectivo was a converted 1950 something American car and seated nine people. Our bikes were stacked on top of each other on the roof rack along with our luggage and that of the other four passengers. With the wind whistling through our hair, and the sound of Justin Bieber's "Despacito" ringing in our ears, six hours later we arrived in Playa Larga.

We'd heard that the coast here was beautiful and great for snorkelling, which proved to be true. In Playa Girón, we stayed with a couple, Miguel and Odalys. Miguel spoke very good English and as we discussed the following days 85 km stretch to the city of Cienfuegos he gave us maybe the quote of our trip – "If I told my wife she had to bike 85 km to Cienfuegos, she would divorce me". That said, we set off at 7.45 am the next day to avoid a little of the heat as with only one very tiny town on the way, there was not much in the way of respite.

The only shade we could find on part of the road between Playa Girón and Cienfuegos.

A bici-taxi ride in Cienfuegos.

From Cienfuegos it was another 83 km to Trinidad so we decided to stop halfway at a low-key resort in the middle of nowhere called Guajimico. We arrived on the first day of the low season (1 May), which may have explained why there were only two other couples in the restaurant that night. The great thing was though that it was so quiet and in the morning we went SCUBA diving – just us and Michael an Australian cycle tourist who was tired of cycling in the heat and thought he might spend more time diving instead. After our dive we headed for Trinidad, which we'd heard was touristy and expensive.

We stayed near the city centre in a colonial house with two beautiful high-ceilinged rooms owned by a lovely woman called Odalys (of course). Over the course of the next three days we visited the local beaches and swimming holes, Odalys gave me various medicines for my sore stomach, and we ate at the hippest place that we found in the whole of Cuba (Taberna La Botija) – not to mention visiting various museums including the Municipal History Museum.

En route from Trinidad to Sancti Spíritus.

The road from Trinidad to Sancti Spíritus heads in a north-easterly direction for 58 km and passes through the Valle de los Ingenios — a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The valley contains 19th-century sugar mills and associated structures including a 44 metre high tower used to watch slaves. Scenes from "Twelve years a slave" and "Roots" sent shivers through my spine.

In Sancti Spíritus we stayed in maybe the grandest casa of our trip, in a 200 year old room that contained an enormous armoire made from a beautiful dark wood. Our host also had the largest TV screen I'd seen in Cuba and a desktop computer (with an internet connection) — maybe because he was an agent for the national telephone company. He was also very gracious and the boys sat around with him and his son watching Harry Potter on the big screen.

Finn and a blue wall - Sancti Spíritus.

From Sancti Spíritus, located in the middle of the island, we rode north to Remedios – a distance of 82 km. On the way we passed through several small towns containing once-grand buildings that are now in a bad state of repair. In one town, Zulueta, wooden buildings with peeling paint lined the street and made it look more like a ghost town. However, there were a lot of people around and apparently it is home to 10,000 people. It is also considered to be the birthplace of football in Cuba as it was one of the first places where the game was played in the early 20th century. Remedios had a beautiful large town square, where, over the two days we spent there, we came upon a group of teenagers practicing a formal dance, an orchestra playing under the eaves, and the older residents of the town dancing to a band. There was also very little traffic, a few renovated grand colonial buildings and very few tourists, so it's rather pleasant.

Ice cream seller at the beach at Caibarién, near Remedios.

Fraser fixes the only puncture on the whole trip in Caibarién.

Our next stop was Santa Clara - home to various sites of interest for Che Guevara fans. One can visit the mausoleum containing the remains of him and his sixteen fellow combatants (shut when we arrived), and a site commemorating when he and others derailed the train in the Battle of Santa Clara (we stopped briefly on our way into town). From Santa Clara we again opted for a colectivo as it was 266 km to our next stop, Varadero, and we are running out of days. A cycle tourist we had met in New Zealand, said when he went to Cuba, one of the people in his group had decided she was not going near Varadero, so they avoided it totally. However while it is full of "all inclusive" at the many large hotels (the largest has 1025 rooms), it is also possible to find cheap accommodation and the beach is amazingly beautiful, so it is worth visiting. We spent a day cycling to the end of the peninsula and checking out the marina (described as a slice of Florida in Cuba), a cave with 47 pre-Colombian drawings and a dolphinarium.

The dress I was desperate to get a photo of.

From Varadero we headed west to Matanzas. On our way we snorkelled at Playa Coral (Coral Beach) and swam in an underground cave. Overall the heat is bearable, so long as stints on the bike are interspersed as often as possible with swims. In Matanzas we decided against cycling 95 km to Havana the next day as a) it's a long way for us in the heat; b) the road into Havana from the east is a four lane tolled highway and we would still have to get across Havana Bay by ferry; and c) we have to have the hire bikes back by 5pm. Our plan was to spend the morning visiting some more caves near Matanzas, but the colectivo would only come at 9am, so with half an hours' notice, we were off. This time in a modern car, but still with the four bikes tied to the roof rack.

Checking out the faulty rear derailleur while returning the bikes to the two guys from the hire company.

Max walking to the Malecón, through Centro Habana.

Back in Havana, we return to Dulce and José in their home where we stayed at the beginning of our trip. Two Cuban men turned up exactly when they said they would to take the rented bikes away, and we caught our plane at 5.30 am to Cancun, Mexico, for some rest, more cave and beach swimming and some sight-seeing.

So yes, Cuba is good for cycle touring, mostly because it is reasonably flat, and there is little traffic and vehicles are used to other slow traffic on the roads such as horses, bicycles and tractors. But, it is VERY hot, and although the temperature doesn't vary that much, it would be best to go in the coolest months possible. And yes, it is changing, but some things will take a long time to change.

 The wrapper of baggages waits for customers at Aeropuerto Internacional Josè Marti, Havana.