In July of 2017, I had the opportunity to fly to Cuba. Settled in Costa Rica back then and looking constantly for cheap tickets, I got a 10-day ticket package. I thought it was an excellent opportunity to pack my bike and go for a micro cycle-tour experience around the island.
The idea of the article is not to talk about the route itself but about the learnings and advice that I could gather from the experience. Being Cuba a politicized country, many of the ideas or thoughts that may come up are fully up for debate. By no means is this a political statement. I hope you can enjoy it as much as I did writing it and re-living my experiences.
Decision making is always the first step
I knew close to nothing about Cuba as a country and about the trails I could do. At the same time, I had few days and didn’t find that much information on the web. But that is what it is all about, I thought to myself… Travelling without planning that much and improvising on the way. The problem is that in Cuba, you cannot completely lose yourself to improvisation. In other words, you can’t trust yourself that much.
Airport issues & logistic
The first thing that came to my mind, besides the route to choose, was food. I had read a lot about airport policies in Cuba and about what you can and cannot bring into the country. At the end, after reading several comments in blogs about different people’s past experiences I figured out that it was all a matter of luck. In the worst scenario, I should trust myself and my power of persuasion to the chance of being stopped in customs.
It was so that I decided strategically to divide my provisions into two. Half in my bag and half inside the bike case.
As I was expecting, I was stopped in customs and when asked about what I was carrying inside the box and after reading a sticker that stated “bicycle”, they let me through with no problems. Pasta and rice are something you will find along your way but dried fruits, nuts, peanut butter, milk powder, granola and special supplements as electrolytes, power bars or energy gels can´t be found anywhere. If you have some favorites to count with while you cycle tour, I would suggest to buy them beforehand and take them with you. Another good way to be on the safe side if stopped in the airport is to use vacuum pack bags.
As soon as you get out of the airport you will find an “exchange house”. The rate is the same all around Cuba so don’t mind chaining it somewhere else to save some money. You have two types of currencies: The CUC and the Cuban Peso. The CUC is the one used by tourists and the Peso, the currency for locals. The CUC has the same value as the American Dollar ( only inside Cuba! ). You won’t be able to pay in American Dollars or other currency. Perhaps in some places in La Habana but it is not normal. Bear in mind that when leaving, if you have to pay any extra at the airport you will also be asked to pay in Cuban money.
The CUC has the same value as the American Dollar ( only inside Cuba! ).
You won’t be able to pay in American Dollars or other currency. Perhaps in some places in La Habana but it is not normal. Bear in mind that when leaving, if you have to pay any extra at the airport you will also be asked to pay in Cuban money.
Another important detail to take into account is the bike box. You won’t find another one apart from your own so I would suggest to leave it in a safe place before you start your ride and trust to find it when returning to pack your bike again with it. Same regarding spare parts. You should take everything with you. And if necessary, if you tend to lose certain things, take more than one spare.
I began the route in La Havana. As soon as I left the airport I went to the hotel where I would stay until the last night before leaving. After convincing the concierge of holding the bike box for me till my check-in, I went outside with all my bags and started mounting the bike and panniers. The first stop was the town of Matanzas which lies 104 km away. The ideal would have been to stay that night and leave early the next morning but my days were counted and there was no time to lose.
It was a Saturday and I ended arriving around 09:30 pm to Matanzas. It was an almost non-stop ride from three in the afternoon when I left. Unless you stop by in fine Hotels, you won’t be able to book your stay forehand through the web. If you are willing to stay in hostels, in Cuba you would call them “Casas Particulares” (private family houses). Whenever you see a blue upside-down anchor alike sign, you’ll know you are in front of one of them.
At that time, January 2017, everybody was asking for 25 CUCS ( 25 Dollars) for the night ( breakfast included). Pretty expensive! It is up to you if you want to bargain the price. I usually ended paying something around 17 to 20 CUCS maximum. It also depends on the season and demand they have. The “Casas Particulares” are a pretty new concept. When it seemed that Americans would be given the permission to visit the island and hotels would be overcrowded, in order to handle the demand, the government gave Cubans the possibility to subscribe their houses under the name of “Casas Particulares”. If the houses met certain demands, they would be qualified to open as one. As said before, you won’t be able to book this Casas Particulares before, but trust me, you will find them and surprise yourself with how cozy and welcoming they are. All of them with private rooms, private bathrooms, and showers, air condition, tv and wi-fi.
When being too kind can leave you broke
That same night I decided to take a walk and see what the Cuban night was like. Incredible as I imagine, everybody was gathered in the middle of the main street dancing to the rhythm of a salsa band playing live. I approached a Cuban guy to ask where I could buy a beer. To my surprise, he offered to come with me. When we got to the counter he asked the waiter for two beer. “Two beers I thought… Ok, I understand, one is for him”. When I went to buy myself a second one, he came behind and again, asked for two beers. Same with the third one. Beer is sold for 1 CUC (one dollar). It is not a matter of how much it costs, but the attitude. I was having a nice conversation with him so I didn’t mind at first but after a while, if you don’t know how to politely say no, you end up paying a beer to all Cuba. Cubans are really nice to tourists but you should always be aware.
School of punctures
The best route highlight of the trip was when riding from Playa Girón to Jagua. I had to arrive first to a little town called Guasasa and from there, continue for almost 50 km through a gravel sandy road till Jagua. After the 30 km ride in the morning, I got to Guasasa. An Argentinian friend who had bike toured Cuba before told me to look for “El Chino” once I arrived (a friend she made while she stayed there).
People looked really surprised at me when I approach them and ask for Chinos house address.
I guess the situation was not an ordinary one… or my look was too much the one of a “lost gringo tourist” in the wrong place. It didn’t take me long to find him. There he was, in front of his house handling with a big fish he just caught. Chino wasn’t different to the rest of the Cubans I met along the trip. A simple, welcoming and humble person, eager and opened to share his time with me, a complete stranger. He offered to cook me some of that fresh fish, something I couldn’t refuse. It was actually the best “Pargo” and best fish I ever tasted.
When I told him of where I was heading next he warned me about the many tree thorns I would have on my way. It seemed that drug packages that didn’t make it to the States had been arriving at the shore and there were plenty of army trucks patrolling the way and because of their size they broke the branches making it a path full of thorns everywhere. I still had 50 km of the gravel road to the pavement. At the beginning, I was confident that my old tyres would make it through. I ended having seven punctures and losing my hat caught on a branch…
Positive thinking above all
In my fourth day, I was changing another flat tire in a park in the town of Cienfuegos, when a Cuban approached me and offered help. I thanked him and told him I was OK but he stayed for a talk. When I had finished, I asked him for a place to eat some pizza. “There’s a pizza restaurant in front of my house”, he said. Once arrived, he suggested leaving the bike at his house. “Why not” I asked myself. We entered the house, he showed me around and went in front to order the pizza. Previously I took my wallet and camera from the handlebar bag, the only pannier I considered easy to open in case somebody wanted to take something quickly. As soon as we entered the restaurant, my new friend left! I couldn’t stop thinking my bike was alone at his house so I told the waiter to make some to take-away and deliver it in front. Once in his house again, I put the wallet and camera back in the handlebar bag. While we enjoyed the pizza at his dining room, somebody entered the house. The thing is that when leaving I checked my wallet and was missing several CUCS.
My money was as little as the days I had to travel around the island. I couldn’t afford to loose some.
But I was in Cuba to enjoy, so after talking to him and having a little discussion I decided to leave and keep on cycling. I had already changed my mind to positive when I got a flat tyre. It was then when I realized the worst. My only pump, the one I left in the handlebar bag, was not there! Nor Yoga or meditation could calm my despair. I had overcome the money issue but this was too much. Where in the world would I find now a French Valve in Cuba! I pedaled as far as I could to make it to the next stop. I was only missing 17 km. When arrived at the “casa particular”, the first thing I did, this time forced to, was to try to pay less. I told the lady my story, also being heard by a stranger. He was a French film director that once fell in love with Cuba and was building his new house next to that one. “I think in the last move I brought a spare pump with me”, he said. I couldn’t believe it. But the surprise didn’t end here. The foreman of the construction was also a “ponchero” (stands for tyre repairer). “This is Frenchest Valve you will ever find” he told me. Indeed, the pump had a “Made in France” sign on it.
“Positive thinking”, he continued, “always stay positive and things will come out”.
From this experience, I learned two things. To always stay positive no matter what, of course, and to never trust yourself that much in any situation. I was also lucky that day, the owner birthday was being held in the house and I was given the opportunity to share the meal with them. So, fresh fish and real Cuban Ron for all! A nice way to celebrate what at the beginning seemed to be an unfortunate day.
Traveling Cuba is traveling back in time. This is no news and I can’t tell anymore than what we nowadays see in the movies. It is just like that. The farther away from La Habana and the tourist destinations you go, the more deeply into the real Cuban way of life you go. I was really surprised at how welcoming, noble and simple Cubans are. There’s an immense and powerful sense of unity that they all share between them that I had never experienced before and they act in the same way towards tourists. The lack of opportunities and difficulties to find things may be a reason why. Helping each other is sometimes the only way to push together and overcome difficulties.
Time is another thing to learn about in the island. People don’t live life in a hurry like we use to. This may also be aligned to the fact that we are constantly being driven by future dreams, that must be achieved as soon as possible, instead of living in the present. When there is no time for dreaming, there is only present.
The issue is that “their present” or reality is in the major cases, not the ideal or the one they would like to be living. Nevertheless, they are happy and grateful people and that is something to admire and learn from.
The journey started when seated in Costa Rica while working in an ad agency. The impulse drove me to buy a ticket and suddenly I was organizing a micro experience around Cuba. I had no idea what I was going to encounter there. I only figured myself out cycling again under the heat of the sun. But Cuba is not an ordinary destination. Cuba is history and so much culture.
10 days felt like a whole year of learning and would definitely go back again and cycle the rest of it. Trust me, Cuba is worth it!
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