When you think of Cuba, what do you think of? Perhaps Fidel Castro, Cuban cigars, cheap rum, old American cars, communism and the US embargo come to mind. But the experiences we had, such as riding alongside more horse carts than cars, gulping coconut after coconut given to us for free and watching kids ride to school on a tractor, never failed to surprise us, and gave us a glimpse of another Cuba. A Cuba that keeps marching on to its own special drum, despite huge obstacles that have been put in front of it (thanks in large part to Uncle Sam). Not all Cubans are happy, naturally, but Cuba, despite being a very “poor country” (whatever that means) can teach us a few things about social solidarity, education, health care and materialism. If only we would listen.
We had been rolling around the idea of traveling to Cuba for a while. There was some urgency: when Obama was elected he announced he would allow Americans to travel to Cuba and lift the embargo (or something along those lines). Surely, everything would change? Fidel Castro’s illness and imminent departure, with no young successor in sight was also worrying. When we heard Cuba was an excellent cycle touring destination, the stage was set: three weeks in Cuba, and make it in November, before the snow flies for real, the best time of year to get away from rainy and dark Vancouver.
We flew in to Varadero. It was only on the flight that we realized that the airport wasn’t actually in the world famous resort, but rather some distance from it, and we sighed in relief. We had resolved to stay away from the resort scene, and try to see a piece of the “real” Cuba. The week or two before we had left went by in a flurry, and we stepped off the plane in Varadero at 6am with lots of photocopies of routes and information, but no clear idea where we were going and in urgent need of some sleep. Maya promptly rolled out one of our sleeping mats, located her ear plugs, put on an eye mask and collapsed into an undoubtedly peaceful slumber on the airport floor. Gili, in the meantime, spent two hours putting our boxed bikes back in to ride-able shape. It’s too bad Maya was using the camera as a cushion.
Due to Canadian bureaucracy we knew we had to make a visit to the Canadian embassy in Havana, so at least we had a plan for the next two days. We cycled the 6km from the airport to the nearest village, Carboneras, where we chatted with Alexi, who offered to lend us a snorkel and mask for free, trusting us that we would return it to him in three weeks. Cuba is all about sharing and helping each other. From there we cycled on a combination of old deserted roads and the Via Blanca, the main road heading to Havana, and made a few stops at beautiful beaches and imposing sea cliffs along the way. Several times Gili thought he might fall asleep while riding. Perhaps he even nodded off once or twice.
Riding through Alamar, supposedly the largest public housing complex in the world, reminded us of older buildings in Israel: simple, dense, rough, but do the job. We kept on seeing baseball fields and concluded that it is a national obsession.
In Havana we stayed with Cindy and her son Simon (and their cat Pippen), friends of a friend of Maya’s. We spent a day roaming the streets of Havana. Some highlights were: the “hot corner” where locals debate baseball for hours, the side streets with gracefully peeling colonial houses, the archetypal old American cars from the 40’s or 50’s and creamy coconut ice cream in a coconut shell.
On the next day we started cycling west, towards Viñales, which we would reach in three days. As we left the outskirts of Havana, the roads became narrower, the traffic thinner, and we started seeing rural scenes: farmers tilling their fields with oxen, tiny rural schools in every village, always sporting a Cuban flag and the bust of Jose Marti, huge Ceiba trees, a bucket of tomatoes by the side of the road (for sale), rice grains drying on the road and large metal milk jugs being delivered every morning. In the tiny village of Palma Rubia (7 families) we spent time with Gregorio, who took us on a tour of the village, pointing out banana, papaya, guava, and soursop trees, followed by a deeper conversation on socialism, communism, the embargo, and the meaning of life. We often stopped to drink freshly squeezed sugar cane juice (guarapo) and to eat the ubiquitous soft serve ice cream (8 cents each).
When we reached Viñales we started seeing many tourists. Since leaving Havana we had enjoyed the luxury of being in a tourist-less world, as most tourists who don’t cycle don’t spend time in the smaller places. In Viñales it seemed that almost every single house was a casa particular (like a B&B) – a house with a license to host foreigners. You get to stay in people’s homes, eat whatever they cook for you, chat with them, and see how they live. In Viñales, we also thought we’d take the opportunity to send a short email, a mission that proved to be a bit more complicated than we had expected. This whole town had only two computers connected to the internet via a slow modem connection, operated by a governmental office and very expensive. It turned out that the subject of internet is quite touchy in Cuba, as most people are not allowed to have internet in their homes. When Gili tried to ask a local about it, the guy switched from Spanish to English and said: “you understand that I can’t talk about it”. Big brother is not only watching, he’s also listening.
Around Viñales we enjoyed riding by the picturesque mogotes: steep sided limestone hulks jutting out of the flat plains. They formed when the ocean receded, and many of the underwater limestone caves collapsed, leaving only the pockets of stronger rock (which were subsequently shaped by erosion and weather). We visited a cave that has seven levels, only two of them open to tourists. From there we continued to Cayo Jutias, a beach where we planned to camp for the night. On the way Maya got a flat tire and we had to stop to fix it. Fixing one’s bike on the side of the road never fails to get the locals’ attention and we were soon joined by a shirtless guy with a huge belly and two barefoot kids that turned out to be twins.
Before reaching Cayo Jutias the weather became stormy and windy. This place is in fact a small island, but it is connected to the mainland by a road that passes through the ocean, which gives the ride a very dramatic feel of being surrounded by the raging ocean. The wind was strong, and we were getting wet and we didn’t know if it was from the waves or from rain, most likely both. When we reached the beach they were just closing down the restaurant for the day, but they were still happy to cook dinner for us. We were left with the two nice guards, and we camped on the beach. In the morning, we enjoyed the private beach for a few hours, swimming and snorkeling. When the tourists and a few locals arrived, that was our cue to pack up and leave.
We took some very rural roads in which our only companions were carriage horses and oxen, and barely saw any cars that day. In the late afternoon we reached the fishing village of Puerto Esperanza, where we slept at the home of a lovely elderly couple, Florencio and Olga, who really tried to make us feel at home.
We arrived back to Viñales on Sunday and were surprised to discover that almost everything in town was closed. Even the most popular street food stalls: pizza (often baked in a tin drum) and soft serve ice cream were closed. It took some time, but eventually we figured that this is not for religious reasons. It’s socialism, and in socialism, everyone deserves at least one day off. The only place we found open was the bakery, so as we were sitting outside the bakery looking at our map and enjoying some freshly baked rolls, two familiar people found us: Cindy and Simon, who we stayed with in Havana. They came to Viñales for the weekend, and were on their way to visit a local farm. We weren’t in a rush that day, so we joined them for a bit.
Over the next two days we cycled to Playa Maria La Gorda (Fat Maria Beach), on the western tip of Cuba. We had heard that there is great scuba diving there, and it was time to refresh our diving skills. On the way we came across a grapefruit peeling factory, with very impressive piles of the yellow-green peel. The reason for the peeling still remains unclear to us, as they claimed it was not for juice. After a somewhat boring section, which was at least flat and fast, we finally reached the beautiful coastline again, and were ready for a swim.
We camped on the beach, as we chose not to stay at the small resort, and spent the next day diving. The three dives were incredible, with plenty of colorful fish and underwater canyons. As we finished the third dive, we caught a ride back to Viñales with a minivan that brought three Italian tourists there, just for the day. The driver also had a casa particular in Viñales, which he offered us for cheap, and he called his wife ahead so she would have dinner ready for us. Everything works out in Cuba.
We decided to spend the remainder of our trip in Central Cuba, so we caught a bus to the town of Cienfuegos. Back on our bikes, we were surprised by how busy the road was. After riding mostly with horses around us, it was a bit overwhelming to face cars and trucks. It was definitely sugar cane country, with sugar cane on both sides of the road, and sugar cane juice stands whenever we needed them.
In Cuba there are no advertisements on the side of the roads. What you see, however, are many political signs, most of them quotes by Che Guevara, no doubt the national hero. The signs were mostly against imperialism and in praise of the revolution. Deciphering the signs was great way to practice our Spanish. We cycled to Santa Clara, which is one of the biggest cities in Cuba. As we entered the city, a huge monument to Che welcomed us.
It was Friday night in Santa Clara and it was time to go out. In the “cultural house” locals played and sang music. It was a very low key atmosphere, and some very talented people preformed, all for free, just off the main plaza in the centre of town. In the morning we went to the market, where we drank a few “coco de agua”, a small yellow coconut that is mostly for drinking purposes – turns out there are a few types of coconuts. We also bought the usual bananas, pink guavas and papayas, but we were also offered, very discreetly, to buy a potato. We were curious what all the whispering was about, and discovered that it is illegal to sell potatoes in Cuba, since they are reserved for export.
We had a short distance to ride that day, but it felt longer, because we had to stop all the time. The reason for that was – rain! It was typical tropical rain that came down hard for 15-30 minutes and then stopped for a bit. Some locals invited us to hide in their home and to watch a Cuban musical talent show with them. Our next hiding place was an abandoned house on the side of the road. We were joined by another guy on his bike, a local on his way back to his village. This guy wasn’t too happy about life in Cuba and kept on asking us how much money people make in Canada and how much various objects cost. It was hard to explain that everything is relative, because of course he thought the minimum wage in Canada is a fortune, but you can barely pay the rent with it in Vancouver. We spent the night in the small town of Remedios, where our hosts cooked us a real feast. In the town plaza there was a small “amusement park”: one train that went in a circle, and a boat that swings. It was all very basic, but the children were so happy. You don’t need much to get a child excited, which highlights how ridiculous Disney World really is.
As we left Remedios we came across the “milk cowboys”. A bunch of guys were on the side of the road with a dozen metal jugs full of milk. Straight from the cow and not pasteurized, they were waiting for their customers to come and buy the milk (one liter for 12 cents). We were getting a bit tired of eating “Cuban pizza” for lunch every day, so we were happy to randomly find ourselves in the middle of a Sunday fair on the main boulevard of a small town, where we had a fish sandwich and pina colada. We reflected on how busy the streets were compared with most north American towns: insted of spending time indoors, most Cubans appear to spend much of their time outside, working, socializing, and relaxing.
On our way to Trinidad the scenery changed. The sugar cane fields were replaced by mountain views all around of the Sierra Escambray. We hadn’t seen any other western cyclists in days, so we were quite surprised when a German cyclist by the name of Soonka caught up with us, dressed in a red cycle jersey, which perfectly matched his gloves and four red Ortlieb panniers. He joined us for two days, after riding mainly in Eastern Cuba, an area which we were not able to cover this time, so it was good to hear his experiences.
Trinidad has a well preserved old section with cobbled streets. It was one of the most touristy places we had passed through, with the advantage being the many live music venues. Cuban music and dancing has a way to touch your heart and lift your spirit. We stayed an extra day in Trinidad in which we did a day trip to Playa Ancon, where we enjoyed relaxing on the white sanded beach and swimming in the clear turquoise water.
Then it was time to move on along the coast and also to say goodbye to Soonka who decided to ride through the mountains. The road outside of Trinidad was surprisingly quiet and passed through some very nice beaches where we stopped to swim. We spent the night in Rancho Luna where we had mollusks for dinner, a snail like animal that lives in large polished looking shells (which tourists often buy to take home). Our host dove with snorkeling gear and picked them up from the ocean floor, making up a significant part of his family’s diet, together with the rabbits in their garden.
The next day we took a dirt road that led to Playa Giron. We were not sure about the condition of the road, and this whole day felt quite exploratory. In the beginning we also had to ride through a few herds of cows, Maya was a bit nervous about it, but the cows couldn’t care less about us. Every now and then there were small trails that led to the ocean. The sea was quite rough and the beaches were rocky, but luckily we found a picturesque tide pool which was deep enough for a refreshing swim.
We met some interesting people on this road, a hunter who was looking for deer, and two men with a big Russian truck. They told us they are on vacation there, and that their families are about 9 km away, camping. One of the guys gave us a note to his wife, asking her to feed us. Indeed, after about 9 km we reached the camp and the very friendly group. They offered us pork, from a pig which had been butchered the same day. The goat, they said, was for lunch tomorrow, and the chicken would also be eaten over the next few days. Organic, free range and local, we couldn’t ask for more. Then from the ocean appeared two divers in wetsuits who had gone fishing with a spear gun and came back with a bunch of fish and lobster. We bought three fish from them, one of the women cooked one for us, and we gave the other two to the family as a courtesy for their kindness.
We reached Playa Giron at dusk where a sign welcomed us: “Playa Giron: The First Defeat of Yankee Imperialism in Latin America”, referring to the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion. We stopped at a submerged cave which was 70m deep, with lots of colourful fish and a long narrow canyon to swim through.
Playa Larga was at the end of the bay and this is where we had our last swim. From there we caught a bus to Varadero and really started to feel that this was the end of the trip. Luckily we still had to cycle to Carboneras, the village we had passed on the first day, since we had to return the snorkel to Alexi. One last ice cream, one last pineapple, one last lobster dinner. We really didn’t want it to end, but at least we were left with a taste of more. Alexi remembered us, and as a courtesy we gave him some spare tubes we had, it is almost impossible to get bike parts in Cuba. He barbecued us two lobsters that he had caught the same morning, served with lettuce and fried plantains from their garden, and also organized a place for us to stay for the night.
We cycled in the dark to the airport to make it to our early morning flight. During the flight there were three medical emergencies and the flight seemed to last forever. When we reached Vancouver we happily cycled back home from the airport. It felt very natural to be back, and to cycle home, like we usually do.
It was very interesting to travel in Cuba, especially while in many places around the world protestors are calling for social justice. People decry capitalism, but it made us think how far people would be willing to go. It seemed to us that most people want only the good things from socialism: affordable housing, free child care and education and free medical care. Well, Cuba has all that. It’s true that Cuba also has governmental power over everything, and life is not simple there. But maybe we all should take a trip to Cuba, an experiment in socialism, a land where materialism is refreshingly absent (almost), a country that in spite of many obstacles is doing really well, with warm hearted people that will reach out for you wherever and whoever you are.