My Cuba Tour: August-September 2002
These pages give an account of the bicycle tour I made around Cuba in August and September of 2002. For the reader's convenience, I've formatted this a little differently by splitting out general topics that apply to the whole trip onto this page, while the specific ride details, day by day, are on the following five pages. I hope that readers will find this account interesting, and that those considering taking a similar trip will find it useful as well.
This is a tour that I have wanted to do for quite some time. For the last several years, most of my tours have been in the western U.S. and, while those were all beautiful, I was really feeling like I needed a change of scene. A tour in the tropics was something that I had yet to try, and with Cuba being right in the neighborhood, with an intriguing culture and history, and being a large enough island to accommodate the fairly lengthy tour that I was hoping for, it seemed a perfect choice.
I originally had planned on doing this trip last winter, but that didn't work out. So, I put it off until this May and, once again, it didn't happen. In fact, for most of this summer it looked like I wasn't going to have a chance to do any significant touring at all. So, I just settled back and jealously read everyone else's ride reports and slid along with my summertime commute routine. Fortunately, that routine gives me about 170 miles of riding a week including 15,000 ft of climbing. So, by the end of summer I'm usually feeling reasonably fit for a good tour. Then, at the end of July, I said to myself, "Screw it-I'm going touring!" So the rush was on to get the trip organized. Fortunately I had already done most of the research for this trip last year, but there were still a lot of details to work out at the last minute. Deciding exactly when to go was tricky. In the end due to the length of daylight hours, flight schedules, events back home, and the approaching hurricane season, I decided on a mid-August to mid-September trip. U.S. citizens entering Cuba need a tourist visa, which is good for 30 days (and costs $20.) This can be extended once you are in Cuba, but the stories that I heard indicate that it's an extreme hassle to do so, taking upwards of a whole day and a lot of dealings with bureaucrats.
In order to make the trip worthwhile, I decided to stay for the entire thirty days (even though that meant using more vacation time than I actually had available.) Since the places that I most wanted to visit were on opposite ends of the island, and I generally prefer to tour by bike-only, with no motorized connections if possible, I decided on a complete circular route around the island starting in La Habana. I was able to plot out a nice route that I could do in 23 days with a slightly shorter distance than the maximum I would do on a difficult tour. This would give me a little buffer in case I had any trouble with the climate, or other surprises, and it would still leave several days available for resting, sightseeing and travel.
The only question left was which direction to go. In contrast to the U.S., the prevailing winds in Cuba are the Tradewinds that blow from the East-Northeast. This led me to choose a counterclockwise route. In that case, along the north coast, the windward side of the island, I'd be going east to west, with the wind. While on the southern coast, the lee of the island, I should expect some shelter from the highlands as I traveled west to east. In reality the winds were not a significant factor on most days. I'm sure that this is not always the case, however, and I certainly was appreciative of the nice tailwinds I had at the very end of the trip. The map below shows the entire route.
The Embargo and the Travel Ban
As most of you probably realize, travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens at the present time is, to put it mildly, complicated. The trade embargo, a relic of a Cold War that has been over for more than 10 years now, is still in place. However, this is a totally one-way affair. The Cubans are more than happy to bring in U.S. products, U.S. tourists, and more importantly, U.S. Dollars. More problematic is the Helms-Burton Law, the so-called "Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996" which tries to undermine Cuba's government by restricting travel to the island by U.S. citizens. Actually, the law allows you to travel to Cuba, but prohibits you from spending money while you're there. Since this is a virtual impossibility for anyone not interested in mooching off the kindness of strangers, the law effectively blocks independent travel. There are loopholes that may let one to travel to Cuba legally under the law, however. Journalists, aid-workers, people with relatives in Cuba, etc. are allowed to travel to the island albeit with restrictions. Doing so requires traveling on a special charter flight from Miami, and having your activities "approved" by the State Dept. beforehand. Since I don't meet any of the criteria for legal travel, and "I want to spend a month cycling around the island" is not the kind of activity that the folks at State would likely approve of, I would have to join the ranks of the "blockade runners."
There are actually some advantages to traveling this way once you reach Cuba, though. Cubans are quite impressed to meet an American, especially one who is travelling independently. So they will often go out of there way to be helpful to you (sometimes a little too helpful). Additionally, I have to say that I have not been particularly pleased with some of the things going on in Washington lately, and this small act of defiance actually did quite a bit to lift my spirits.
From time to time the U.S. government attempts to "get tough" on this issue and this usually results in suspected violators being sent a letter threatening a $7,500-50,000 fine and/or legal action for violating this policy. I have read that those who have gotten such letters can ask for a hearing, which almost never occurs, and then the matter quietly disappears. Generally, it seems that it is best to avoid this if you can by not letting U.S. Customs know that you have been to Cuba
Overall, I have decidedly mixed feelings about this whole situation. On one hand, if we've learned anything from the last 25 years of world history, it's that the simplest way to bring democratic and capitalistic changes, to a small, closed country, regardless of whether that is a good thing, or not, is to allow those factors to leak in and influence the current system (see: East Germany, Hungary, etc.) In this respect, the current U.S. policies are completely counterproductive and even let the Cuban government make a reasonable moral argument to it's people regarding outside aggression towards their country. In general, I prefer not to see our country adopt policies that have the opposite effect to those intended, and would prefer us to pursue more logical and less reactionary methods. Additionally, since the essentially the entire rest of the world is not on the same page with the U.S. on this issue, and now many others, the American polices are substantially watered-down. Tourism in Cuba is doing fine, and is now one of their major sources of income thanks to visitors from Canada, Europe and Asia.
On the other hand, if the U.S. suddenly lifted the embargo and travel ban I fear that Cuba would end up losing some of the best aspects of its current society (social justice, attempts to move toward sustainability, etc.) while importing many of the worst aspects of our society (greed, wastefulness, crime, etc.) After visiting the country, my impressions are that its current problems, which are real, are not issues of capitalism vs. socialism, or democracy vs. totalitarianism, but rather are those of a country that for the past 10 years has been struggling to emerge from 500 years of colonialism, first beholden to Spain, then to the U.S., and finally Russia. My instincts tell me that perhaps the best course for the people of Cuba is for them to work out their problems by themselves without significant "help" from any great world power.
Because of the factors mentioned above, there are no direct commercial flights, nor sea transport, from the U.S. to Cuba. Therefore, American travelers must pass though a third country, and book these segments separately. The most common routes are through Mexico (Cancun or Mexico City), Canada (Toronto, Montreal, and possibly Vancouver), or the Bahamas (Nassau). Due to the particulars of flight times and fares, I chose to go through Toronto. The segment from San Francisco to Toronto was booked on United, but due to a partnership arrangement, the outbound flight was on Air Canada. The flight between Toronto and Havana was on Grupo Taca, the Central American airline (known in this case as LACSA).
I use a BikePro soft travel case to transport my bike, and pack my panniers, tent and a few other items in a large duffel bag that is just barely under the airline size limit. My only carry-on is my small handlebar bag that contains all of my valuables. Since the first leg of the outbound flight was the redeye flight (I promised myself I'd never take one of those again, oh well) to Toronto on a Monday evening, I took all of this gear with me to work that day and then went directly to the airport. I knew that this trip was going to be a big success after the splendid luck I had with my potentially nightmarish transit plan. Here's how it went: walk with both bags 1/2 mile to the train station that I usually use to get to work; board the local Amtrak train; transfer to our local subway system after one stop; take the subway a few miles; exit and catch the shuttle bus to my workplace; walk to the building where my office is and store the gear there. After work, catch the shuttle bus again back to the subway station; take the subway to the closest stop to the S.F. airport (direct service doesn't begin for a few more months, sadly); transfer to an airport express bus; and check in at the airport. With all the potential there for mishaps, everything went perfectly. It was one of those rare days when just as you step of one train, your connecting bus is rolling up right that instant.
Now for the part that we all worry about, getting the bike though the airline torture system safely and affordably;
Outbound: Air Canada, SFO to Toronto. The Air Canada Web site gives their bike policy as: "Bikes should be placed in the supplied plastic bag, with bars turned and pedals removed. Fee is $US 50 or $C 65. Boxed bikes may also be accepted". I arrived to check in about 3 hours before the flight and there was no line at the counter. The agent checked me in, looked at the case and asked "What is that, a bike?", I told her that it was, and she tagged it and sent it on its way, no charge. Way to go, A.C.
LACSA (Grupo Taca), Toronto to Havana. I had exactly two hours to connect to this flight in Toronto, which was just exactly enough time to go through Canadian customs, transfer to the international terminal, and check in at LACSA. Good thing the first flight was right on time. The G.T. Web site say in their excess baggage page; "No article over 85 linear inches (l x w x h ) is allowed." Yikes! The BikePro case is 95 inches. But then they also say; "Sporting equipment such as bicycles, etc. may be brought on as one of your two free baggage pieces." Before leaving I called the airline to confirm this and the agent said she thought that a bike was ok even if it was slightly larger than 85 inches. Would she be correct? Apparently, yes, as I was checked right through no questions asked. While sitting on the plane I was able to see the bike being loaded on the plane, which always puts my mind at ease. Grupo Taca was actually a surprisingly nice airline, with very professional staff and relatively comfortable, newer planes (at least the two that I flew on).
Arriving in La Habana, I had to wait for a while as a rather slow official sold tourist visas to the few of us from the plane who needed them (you are supposed to get them from the airline, but LACSA had run out of them). Then it was of to Cuban customs and the one risky part of the travel, the infamous Passport stamp. Cuban customs are not supposed to stamp U.S. passports because they know that it can get folks in trouble back home. All the guidebooks tell you to remind the officer not to do it, because sometimes they forget. So, in the best Spanish I could muster I politely asked him not to stamp it. He looked at me with one of those "Yeah, yeah, I've heard that a million times" looks, and handed me back my documents.
After customs, you are politely herded onto one of several waiting taxis to take you to the city. It's not the way I'd prefer to go, but there aren't many other options. The taxi was about $30 which was more than I was expecting it to be, and the driver was an absolute maniac. I guess some things are the same everywhere.
Homebound: LACSA, Havana to Toronto. Same as before, nice flight, no bike charge.
United Airlines, Toronto to SFO via Chicago. Same old story from United. Large bike fee applies. Though, since I checked in Toronto, I was given the option of paying $US 75 or $C 100. Considering the exchange rate at the time, I went with the Canadian money, which cost me $US 63.
The last hurdle was reentry through US Customs, which was done at the Toronto airport. If you are going to get in to trouble with the authorities for going to Cuba it will all begin here, as you try to pass through customs. I've seen stories on the 'Net about customs agents watching passengers disembarking from flights from Havana and then seeing if anyone transfers to a U.S.-bound flight. Those folks would then get an extra inspection of their baggage, and if there were any items that said "Cuba" on them, or if they failed to make up a convincing story as to where they'd been, they could expect to receive a threatening letter from the State Dept. I was fortunate that my flight landed in Toronto at 10:30 PM, but the connection did not take off until 6:30 AM the next morning. So, the terminal was practically deserted and there were no "observers" anywhere to be seen. Nevertheless, not wanting to take any chances, I took all my maps, trip notes, and other potentially incriminating items and FedExed them to myself from the airport that evening. My flight was the first one out in the morning, and at 5 AM, I don't think the agents were feeling particularly suspicious, and I passed through without any questions.
My preferred way to spend the night while on tour is the time-honored practice of free-camping. Over the years, I have probably spent over 90% of my touring nights this way, and have developed a personal site selection process that has usually served me quite well. On this trip, I continued this approach, camping wild 19 out of 30 nights. However, I must admit that of all the places that I have toured, Cuba was by far the most difficult place to do this. I would recommend that only those with considerable experience camping in this way try this method in Cuba. The difficulties are twofold. First, it has been my experience that agricultural areas are among the most difficult place to camp due to the generally limited amount of "unused" land available. The Cuban countryside is predominantly agricultural, consisting of mostly smaller and medium sized farms evenly dispersed over all of the prime territory. The only heavily forested land still existing on the island tends to be in the mountainous regions, and in these places the roadway is typically lined with homes and small subsistence farms. For this reason, finding suitable cover in which to camp was a major challenge.
An additional difficulty arose from the daily schedule of the local population. Cubans tend to begin there day just before sunrise, (at the same time as the large population of roosters begins their serenade,) and continue their daily activities until nearly midnight. So, if you are anywhere close to a road at all there will be a steady stream of people walking or cycling by, in addition to the occasional super-noisy truck. This means that if you have not found good cover a considerable distance from the road you will, at best, be constantly disturbed or, at worst, be discovered. With great care, I was able to successfully locate a good site on all the nights I camped with the exception of one, which you can read about later on.
If one desired a more legitimate campsite, that would be a problem as well. There are no campgrounds in the American or European sense in Cuba. There are places called Campismos where many Cubans go for holidays. These seem to consist mostly of spartan little cabins usually clustered at a beach or some other attraction. They would probably let one pitch a tent on the grounds if so desired, but there are very few Campismos still operating, they are very far apart, and never seem to be in a convenient location when needed.
I'm sure that, if they were asked, a local resident would allow one to put up a tent in the yard of their house for a couple of dollars, or so. However, knowing the good nature of the average Cuban, you'd more than likely get invited inside for your stay. This could work out splendidly, or not, depending on the circumstances. It may be that there is a nice room just waiting for you, or the facilities could be less than ideal. In any case, it would definitely be appropriate to offer a little more cash to the household in this situation. If you decide to try this approach, I would think that you would be better off going to an established Casa Particular.
Casa Particulars are one of the newer developments in Cuba that have arisen to cope with the tough economic times of the Special Period. Essentially, they are rooms for rent in private homes, usually available in just about any reasonable-sized town. Casas provide considerable amounts of income to those households that are able to successfully operate one, and they are also helping Cuba make up for the shortage of decent hotel rooms in certain areas. In fact, this is probably the way that most "regular" tourists will find accommodations outside of the highly developed tourist areas. You can expect to pay around $15 per night, and have a simple, but nicely furnished, room with a private bath.
Finding an available Casa is not a problem, especially for a bike tourist. A licensed Casa will have a small plaque near the door with a blue-on-white symbol that looks like the "tent" symbol used on many road maps to indicate a campground. But one needn't search out such plaque, their owners will find you. As you enter a new town, the locals will immediately identify you as a tourist, as a bike loaded up with gear is a dead giveaway. The result is a constant stream of people either stopping you to inform you, or simply shouting at you, that they have a room available, just for you. Many times these folks can be quite insistent and the whole situation can be rather tiresome, especially if you are not planning in staying in that particular town. Getting away from a fruitless conversation like that requires a bit of thought and a little stubbornness. After a few days, I found that "Thank you Sir, but my friends are waiting for me in [insert name of a town about 20 km away here]" worked much better than "Thank you Sir, but I want to ride another 100 km today and then sleep in the bushes".
I did spend one night in a Casa on this trip, partly just for the experience, and partly because I was a bit ahead of schedule one day and wound up in the large city of Santiago at the evening hour. It was a quite pleasant experience and I would say that one could use this method exclusively while on tour and be very happy. Doing so would require a somewhat larger budget than free camping, however.
Though I camp most nights while on tour, I do appreciate a nice hotel room on occasion as well. On this trip, I used hotels before and after the four rest days that I had planned, in addition to the nights that I spent in La Habana at the very beginning and end of the trip for a total of 10 nights. Costs ranged from a low of $16 per night to $85 per night for the five-star hotel I chose in Old Habana. The simpler hotels were absolutely serviceable for a bike tourist, having both of the prime necessities, a shower (with hot water in 2 out of the 4 rooms in which I stayed), and a soft bed. Since I was in Cuba during the slow season of August and September reservations were not necessary, an on only one occasion did I have to look for an alternate hotel when my first choice (a small place, with only 15 rooms) was full.
The Hotel La Rusa in Baracoa
Costs & Money
Cuba is not an expensive country to visit, unless you want it to be. However, it is rather monetarily confused and also throws up a challenge for Americans. There is a rather strange dual-currency system in Cuba. For several years, the U.S. Dollar has been the official currency, and the Cuban Peso has been relegated to second-class status. Dollars are used in all tourist facilities, Casas, State-run stores and markets, Taxis, and to give to locals who "help" you in one way or another. Pesos fuel an almost parallel economy mainly for local goods and services such as food in the countryside, local transport, etc. The rate of exchange is around 20 Pesos per Dollar, and since Dollars are where all the action is everyone wants to change some of your money for you. A certain amount of Pesos are necessary for traveling outside of La Habana, however, mostly for food. I exchanged $42 into Pesos which turned out to be way too much even for 30 days of traveling.
The complicating factor for Americans is the inability to use credit cards, traveler's checks, or to send for more money from home while on the island. This means that one must bring with them enough cash, in small bills, to last for the entire trip and carry it along the way. Cuban merchants would happily accept credit cards issued by US banks, but unfortunately they would never receive the money. This means that it's important to do a little planning before leaving home to avoid the unpleasant situation of running out of funds during the trip. There is one recent development that helps somewhat in this case. It is possible to buy, through a Canadian company, a prepaid debit card called a TransCard. This can be used at large hotels, and a few restaurants in the more popular areas. The advantage is that you can transfer more funds from you regular credit card to the TransCard while you are in Cuba, using the Internet. I purchased one of these, but didn't really use it as much as I though I might. It was nice to have, just in case, though.
I think that my lowest expense day was about $8, days in La Habana were much more expensive, as were days where I did some "touristy" things. Overall, I averaged just about what I had planned, about $30/day, not including airfare or my lodging in La Habana, which I paid for in advance. Of this, I spent less than I thought I would on food, and a little more than I had planned for incidental things and sightseeing.
I knew in advance that the food situation in Cuba would be one of the main challenges of this trip. Cuba could absolutely provide plenty of food for its population, and its visitors, but the legacy of it's colonial past still haunts the island. For hundreds of years, most of the best farmland on the island has been devoted to growing sugar as a cash crop for export. During all of the political turmoil from the mid-19th century to the present, attempts have been made to climb out of this destructive and risky situation, all of which were unsuccessful. Things got worse when Soviet sugar subsidies disappeared in 1991 and the US decided to tighten its embargo. The Cubans are still trying very hard to get past this situation. Just a month before I visited the government announced that it was idling half of its sugar production, but for the time being the agricultural system is still a bit messed-up. Though the island produces a large amount of fruit, most of it is turned into juice and then seems to disappear, probably being exported somewhere, I suppose. The local population is guaranteed a bare minimum of certain staple foods, such as milk, rice, or beans, which they obtain using coupons issued by the government. Beyond that they can purchase other items at various types of official markets, though these are often poorly stocked and complicated by the unusual dual-currency system. It seems that virtually every household, even in the cities, produces some of their own food, either by planting gardens or by keeping cows, goats, pigs or chickens.
My style of dining while on tour is different than a lot of other folks, in that I never cook. On a tour in the States, my preferred method of dining would be to purchase food at a grocery at mid-day for my main meal, in addition to breakfast at the campsite, snacks along the road, and something to munch on at the end of the day. I suspected that I would have trouble with this routine in Cuba, and that turned out to be the case. It ended up being too difficult to find enough food in one place to eat this way. Instead, I managed by nibbling a little bit here and there throughout the day wherever I could find anything that looked like it might have a few Calories in it. Though, even this approach was bit challenging. I'll eat just about anything while touring, even some things that I generally don't like at home, and though the food that was available was usually tasty, though basic, the quantities that were available were limited. I especially had trouble finding something suitable for breakfast. On some days a little package of cookies was all that I could find that could be stuffed in my panniers and forced down the next morning.
Because I am 6' 4" tall, and tend to cover a lot of distance each day, I have learned though experience that I need to eat about 7,000 Calories a day to keep from losing weight. On this trip, with 23 days of riding, I lost about 20 pounds of body weight. That corresponds to about a 3,000-Calorie deficit each day. I never felt that this affected my riding significantly, asI never really bonked on this tour. Though I could tell that the pounds were melting off during the trip, I was surprised by just how much had disappeared along the way. I was quite a comical sight in the airport on the way home, as the pair of pants that I had left in my bike case were now two sizes too big, and there I was pulling the bike along with one hand while pulling my pants up with the other.
Here is a rundown of the various methods of feeding oneself in Cuba:
Groceries are available in most towns, but the selection is very limited. These are available in small, usually air-conditioned, Dollar stores, or at even smaller walk-up Kiosks. Don't expect much variety, or anything particularly delicious or healthy. In general, you can usually count on a reasonable selection of beverages, and usually ice cream, which the Cubans love, in 250-mL or 1-liter containers. On several days I essentially survived on sugary drinks and ice cream alone. Beyond that, it is usually hit-or-miss. Often there are various types of unappealing canned foods, sometimes dried pastas and rice, and a selection of snack-type foods in little packages. On only two occasions did I find a large package of corn chips, which I had been craving for their salt content, and twice more I hit the jackpot for breakfast and found 400-gram jars of marmalade. Fruits and vegetable are essentially not available at these stores. Some of them do have a limited selection of personal items such as toothpaste or soap, and, if you are lucky, the most critical item for Cuban travel, rolls of toilet paper.
Mercados are the Cuban version of Farmer's Markets, and are nowadays present in larger towns. These are the places to go for fruits, though you'll only rarely see many vegetables, at least at the time of year that I visited. They are a nice option because the proceeds go directly to the farmers, who are allowed to sell their surplus produce here. Payment is in Pesos, though the prices are usually absurdly low. Typically you might find bananas, avocados, pineapples, and if you're lucky some of the more exotic tropical fruits like zapote, mamoncillo, mangoes, or fruta bomba (know to us as papaya, but don't use that name, as it is a slang term for a certain female body part in the local lingo). Generally, the fruit is delicious, but sometimes it does look as if it has been sitting out in the hot sun for too long.
Bananas and more at the Baracoa Mercado
Bakeries sell basic bread and various sorts of pastries. Most of these are quite tasty, and you can get enough for a decent breakfast here assuming you have a way to transport your items without turning them into crumbs. The one difficulty is that they were, for me at least, somewhat hard to locate, often hiding inside an unsigned building.
Restaurants are common, and come in four varieties, though all four usually serve only the basic Creole cuisine of the island. Tourist centers and most hotels have restaurants that would seem familiar to most westerners. These serve customers who can pay in Dollars and generally have the most varied menus. Don't expect gourmet dishes, but then, who wants that sort of food on tour anyway? Paladars are the culinary equivalent of Casa Particulars. They are private homes that will serve guests a hearty meal for a reasonable price. They are considered by the locals and guests alike as the best value on the island, where your choice of entree, from a limited selection, a few side dishes, drinks, and perhaps a small salad or desert, will run you about ten Dollars. One could eat rather well this way, however, I rarely chose this route because, I would have felt a little obligated to clean myself up a bit more than was easily done given that I was sleeping outdoors most of the time. Away from the tourist areas, most cites and towns will have one or more local restaurants that charge both locals and tourists in Pesos. Here the cooking can be every bit as good as in the other types of eateries, but the selection is usually very limited. One entree may be available and a few side dishes as well. The facilities are usually on the rustic side as well, but, of course, a sweaty bike-tourist more easily blends right in. Finally, there are the fairly common Cuban versions of fast-food restaurants, the most common being Pollo, sort of a little chicken place which may not actually have any chicken, and El Rapido, the Cuban version of McDonald's. While I would rarely if ever eat at a fast-food place while on a tour at home, or any other time, for that matter, I frequently found myself seated at an El Rapido on this trip. This was mainly for two reasons, first you could be reasonably sure that the items on the menu, usually chicken, ham sandwiches, and little pizzas, would actually be available, and, more importantly, these establishments also possessed that rarity of Cuban travel--the public bathroom. Though these were exclusively B.Y.O.R. (bring your own Roll!)
Creole food is actually a fairly good type of cuisine for a bike tourist, I think. Expect a lot of rice, or rice with beans, fried bananas, fried Yucca, and an occasional tomato or cucumber salad. Entrees are usually some sort of meat, most often chicken, but sometimes pork steak or roast pork. Beef is rarely served outside of tourist places, as it is considered inappropriate or even illegal for Cubans to kill a cow. Fried chicken is something that I rarely eat at home, but for some reason is one of my favorite touring foods. However, it's a little Cuban curiosity that 99.999% of the time when you order it, you will receive only a leg and a thigh. So, either there is some mysterious use for the rest of the bird that nobody knows about, or the Cuban geneticists have developed a ten-legged chicken!
However, the easiest way to feed oneself on a Cuban tour is by patronizing the many street vendors that are virtually everywhere. The food may not be the greatest, but you can fill up for literally pennies. Actually I found it to be a little maddening that these vendors did not charge more for their food. The most common fare at these stalls is little ham or roast pork sandwiches, and Cuban pizzas. These are not quite pizzas as we are familiar with them in the West, but are smaller (perhaps 8" across), with a spongy crust, a very thin layer of some sort of reddish-colored sauce, and a smattering of a cheese-like substance. One of these will cost you 1-5 Pesos (5-25 US cents!). An even more prized find is the vendor who will sell you a small soft-serve ice cream cone for 1 Peso.
Liquid refreshment deserves special mention. Obviously a tour in a tropical climate requires one to take in a large amount of fluids. I found keeping well hydrated to be a little easier than getting enough food. Though you may hear otherwise, the tap water in Cuba is fine. I drank plenty of it and I don't think it caused me any problems. Finding it is another matter. Outside of hotels and Casas, water taps are incredibly scarce. Fortunately, there is abundant bottled water available in 500-mL and 1.5 Liter plastic bottles for sale at stores, Kiosks and even gas stations. However, on a few occasions only sparkling water was available which made for a few surprises when my bottle popped open during a ride. I took a water filter, as well, and needed to use it on a few occasions. Usually where you find bottled water, you will also find some soft drinks, in cans or 1.5-Liter bottles. The most common flavors are orange and Cola, either the indigenous TropiKola or TuKola or, very rarely, an authentic CocaCola that somehow has found its way into Cuba via Mexico. I must admit that I powered down quite a number of these large bottles for the fluids, sugar and caffeine. Even better, though, are the drinks sold by the street vendors. The three most common types you will find here are; Refrescos, which are found everywhere and are just chilled fruit juices (sometimes real juice, but usually made from a drink mix), Batidos, which are made in a blender from milk, ice, and fruit, and my favorite, the Guarapo, which is made by squeezing the juice out of raw sugarcane and packs quite a carbohydrate wallop. Finding one of these vendors at a lonely junction was quite a happy occasion on a hot sunny day. Though for me, alcohol and cycling don't mix at all, others out there may want to know that the Cuban version of Budweiser is called Cristal, and the more premium brew is Hatuey, both of which are not too hard to find. And of course, it's Cuba, so there is Rum (enough said).
After all was said and done, I chewed up enough food to survive the trip, most of which was quite tasty. However, I must admit, that I was feeling ready for some home cooking by the end of the month.
Well, there shouldn't be too much to add beyond mentioning that "Cuba is in the tropics." Given that fact, it's not surprising that the weather was hot with scattered thunderstorms. By hot, let's say an average high temperature of 35 °C, with lows about 25-28 °C. Of course as the old standard goes, it's not the heat, it's the humidity. Well, as I discovered that's true, but backwards. Yes, the humidity was very high, but I decided that I didn't mind that at all. Where I live in California there are often summer days of equally high temperature, but with bone dry humidity. Riding through that causes your throat, lips, and eyes to dry out completely. Sure, in Cuba my clothes were always damp, but at least I didn't have to peel back my eyelids just to blink.
All that humidity lead to some impressive thundershowers. This was rarely a problem. Though I could see rain, or the aftermath of rain, somewhere at least once a day, I actually only had to ride in any significant rain three times. In fact, watching a storm cross my path was a nice treat, because then I could expect the heat to break as I rode into that area. I also liked watching all the lightning, especially at night, because, since I moved to the West Coast 10 years ago, I don't see any lightning at all, unlike when I was a kid in Virginia.
Continuing the good fortune of this trip, I noticed some unusual clouds as I was heading back to the airport for the flight home. I observed that they were not the puffy thunderheads that I was used to seeing in Cuba, but rather were thick and gray, covering the whole southern sky. I learned only when I arrived back home that they were the leading edge of hurricane Isidore that arrived in force a day and a half later. Whew!
Storms were common sights
Society & Culture
I found this aspect of Cuba to be very interesting. Before I left home I had heard, or read, many times that the most impressive part of a trip to Cuba was interacting with the wonderful Cuban people. I took a wait-and-see attitude about that, since virtually every travel guide I have ever read had the same thing to say about the destination it was describing. Well, I must say that in this case that description is right on the mark, and, perhaps, even a bit of an understatement. It was a pleasure for me to see the way that the local people interacted with others. I'm not just speaking of the way they dealt with tourists, which was always very polite (with the exception of the occasional hustler,) but more so the way they treated each other. Friendship seemed to rule, and there was none of the sense of meanness or indifference that we so often see back at home. Regardless of what you may think of the socialist system, it's hard to deny that this sense of community has been one of its prime successes.
Of course, there is also the famous Latin American sense of romance, which I had also been advised about before I arrived. This was also an accurate description of life in Cuba. The Cubans are very open, and fairly casual, about interpersonal relations. It was fairly common for me to be asked what sort of woman I preferred, with the unspoken implication that someone could easily be found that would meet my needs. It wasn't always easy for me to make the point that, when I wasn't cycling, I was mainly interested in some quiet rest, and didn't really need any more "exercise." An additional note for women travelers is that the culture of Machismo is also still alive and well, and men sometimes treat women as if they were a little helpless. I imagine that this could get quite annoying for ladies that are used to doing at least some things for themselves.
Beyond this, the sounds of music fill the air and most cities and towns have a cultural center for musical performances. In addition, many talented musicians often perform in eating or drinking establishments. On more than one occasion, I heard the sound of a women's chorus emanating form a tiny country shack as I rode by. This is another one of the things that I am sad we have lost back home, where the most common music we seem to hear these days is the window-rattling sounds of Hip Hop pounding out from a young man's car stereo.
It is also a great pleasure to observe the Cuban schoolkids out and about in their towns. Education has always been a top priority for the Cuban government, and even is tough times like these, the schoolkids seem to be treated better than anyone else is. Each child gets a neat uniform usually, a white top with pants, or a skirt, whose color denotes the level of school that they have achieved. The kids walk about the town in large groups after school has let out, laughing and playing and generally acting well-behaved.
There is, of course, a virtually constant series of visual reminders of the the days, years ago, when Cuba was under the strong influence of the Soviet Union. This is most obvious in the architecture from that period. Most notably, the ugly concrete, high-rise apartment blocks that dot the island. My most frequent thought on seeing one of these was, "Well, maybe they're nice on the inside." I can only imagine how hot they felt on a mid-summer day. Another curious type of structure seen frequently were the tall, cement watchtowers, apparently now abandoned, that could be found near just about anything that looked like it might have needed watching. I can't say for sure whether these were built to watch out for potential invasions, or to watch over the people at home. I suspect that it might have been the latter. In any case, they now stand as lonely reminders of days gone by.
Schoolkids rule the island
It only took me a few hours to realize that Cuba was one of the safest places that I have ever visited. I truly don't believe that this was due to any sort of extraordinary crackdown by "the authorities" but rather, a genuine sense of respect and a lack of excessive materialism on the part of the general population. Since I was forced to carry enough cash for the whole trip with me at all times, there were many occasions where I'm sure that someone could look into my wallet, as I was buying something, and see a wad of bills equal to about 10 years worth of income for the average Cuban. No one ever gave me the slightest reason to be concerned about that.
Also, I never felt worried about anyone messing with my bike or gear, in spite of the fact that bikes are a valuable item in Cuba, and mine was new and, admittedly, a little nicer than I really needed. I did use a cable lock at most times, partly out of habit, but primarily simply to keep the bike from rolling off on its own and falling over, as it is apt to do when fully loaded.
It's sad to say, but my knowledge of any languages other than English is virtually zero. That has never seemed like a big worry for me when touring, as I can usually pick up enough important phrases to get by (Pardon me, is there a grocery nearby?...), and unlike a lot of other folks, I become less talkative when on tour. Also, I think it can be kind of fun to try to communicate to someone using only smiles and hand gestures.
In Cuba, Espanol is universally spoken though many people know at least a little English and are happy to practice using it with you. Though, it's sometimes those folks whom you least need to talk to, like the guy on the street who wants to sell you something useless, while the person you hope will give you directions when you're feeling lost doesn't understand a word.
I managed reasonably well. Though, I noticed that my pronunciation and vocabulary degraded considerably in proportion to how tired I was. Since I was tired most of the time, this made for some rather amusing attempted conversations. Of course, this could be used to advantage when a street hustler approached and tried to start his routine, in such cases I often used the "Lo siento, No habla Espanol..." trick.
Cities & Towns
Most Cuban towns have a fairly similar layout, with the older, historic section at the center, surrounded by newer buildings. These older parts often dated from the colonial period, some having been partially restored while others obviously need a few good coats of paint. In a few cases, the historic centers of towns date back almost 500 years. In these areas one usually finds one or more open plazas decorated with gardens and filled with many statues of heroes of the War of Independence (but none of the participants of the People's Revolution.) These were always good places to visit first, as they provided a nice place to sit and rest, and they were usually close by to stores and restaurants.
Navigating around the cities can be a bit confusing. The streets are narrow, and some of the very old ones are still paved with cobblestones. There are often several one-way streets in the center of many towns, which are hard to identify from the tiny little metal arrow that is tacked onto the side of a building at each corner. On occasion, the arrow has come partly loose, and has swung around so that it points toward the ground. To make things worse, you might expect that after you cross a one-way street heading left, for example, that you would be able to go right on the next street. I discovered that this was not always the case, and that the next street may also be one-way heading left as well. Add to this the general chaos of a large group of people heading in every possible direction, and using every imaginable type of conveyance, and you begin to get the idea.
Parque Marti in Cienfuegos
The transportation situation in Cuba gives a very interesting example of the true meaning of "multi-modal" and, I believe, a glimpse into the future of the over-developed world after the imminent peak in global oil production. When the Soviet Union dissolved 1n 1991, Cuba lost its previously stable supply of cheap oil on which it had depended. This was the start of the Special Period that still exists today. One of the more famous policies introduced at that time was the adoption of bicycles as a legitimate mode of transportation. Cuba purchased one million bicycles from China, and many more have come into the country from other sources. I saw many fairly decent mountain bikes that had obviously been neglected in some American's closet for years, but were now being regularly ridden. Of course, the poor condition of some of these bikes does not stop their owners from covering a considerable daily distance. There seems to be, however, a great need in Cuba for someone who knows how to true a wheel and make other basic repairs. People of all ages, sizes, and abilities make use of the noble device to perform their daily tasks. Of course, I was not able to make and accurate measure of this, but I would guess that the percentage of the population using bicycles in Cuba is almost 25 times higher than that in the U.S. This means that at any given time there are a roughly equal number of people riding bikes in Cuba, a country of 11 million people, as in the comparatively huge United States.
Rush hour in Bayamo. Ratio of bikes to cars: 14:1
This sign is not needed these days
Other forms of muscle-powered transport are equally common. I was perhaps even more surprised to see the large number of people walking. I'm not talking about walking down the block to the market, but rather along the road out in the middle of the countryside where the next village could be many kilometers away. Sometimes these walkers would be heading to a place where they could catch some form of public transport, but other times they simply appeared to be heading off into the distance alone. Also surprising to me was the high use of animal-driven carts and wagons. These were often pulled by rather skinny-looking horses, but also by cows or oxen. I enjoyed their presence on the roads, as they gave me the opportunity to look like I was travelling faster than I actually was, and it was fun to exchange greetings with the drivers as I passed by. Of course, the presence of so many animals on the road did require me to keep a sharp eye out for the remnants of their morning grazing.
All this is not to say that motorized transport has disappeared from the island. In fact, there was much more of this than I had expected before I arrived. Petroleum has gradually begun to flow to the island again, especially, from Venezuela. The intercity transit system generally makes use of busses, with new, black-windowed, air-conditioned coaches for the tourists, and rickety, old Eastern European buses for the Cubans. Sadly, the passenger rail system, which apparently was once one of the best in Latin America, has all but disappeared. The most common type of short-haul transit is a basically a big, open truck, such as a dump truck, or a flatbed pulled by a farm tractor. These will carry passengers who simply jump on back and pay a few pesos for a ride. Sometimes the back of these truck are so jammed with people there is no room for anyone else. Another variant on this theme are the "Camel busses" in La Habana, so called due to the two-humped shape of their trailer that is hauled about the city by a truck cab. These make up the dominant bus line in the city, and the trailers often appear to be jam-packed with at least 300 people. Private automobiles are still around, unfortunately, including the infamous fleet of "classic" American cars from the 1950's. I don't share the same nostalgia for these that many travel writers do, as I think they stunk in the 50's and stink even more today.
It is, however, this rag-tag fleet of various motorized transports that leads to the one and only bad thing about bicycling in Cuba. Virtually every vehicle with a motor, form the smallest motorcycle, on up to the largest truck, spews out a horrendous cloud of thick, black exhaust from its tailpipe. This is bad just about everywhere, from La Habana where the pollution gave me a sore throat, to the countryside, where it could take several minutes to break free of the obnoxious cloud that often trailed a truck that I was following up a long hill. If I could give the Cubans one piece of advice on how to improve their country, it would be to clean up this problem. Of course, I realize the difficulty of that request.
A Dump Truck loads up with passengers
The topography of Cuba is ideal for cycling. Only a few of the coastal plains are so flat as to be a little boring, while most of the accessible parts of the island have enough curves and rolls to make the cycling interesting and beautiful. There are three main mountain ranges and several smaller ones. In the western end of the island lie the Cordillera del Guaniguanico. This is the lowest of the ranges, though perhaps the prettiest. The highest of the peaks here are only at about 600 meters, and they are spaced far enough apart that the roadways wind between them through beautiful valleys with very little climbing required. At the center of the island is the Sierra del Escambray, which is somewhat higher, topping out at 1,100 meters. Also very beautiful, the Escambray give you a choice of climbing through the highlands or taking lower, gentler routes around them. The most impressive of the ranges is the Sierra Maestra at the eastern end of the island, which is full of incredible vistas and revolutionary history (both the Cuban war of independence and the People's Revolution of 1959 began here.) The highest point in Cuba is also here, where Pico Turqino hits 1972 meters.
Most of the roadways in Cuba, or at least those that traverse any significant distances seem to have been designed to avoid the mountainous areas as much as possible. Though you will pass close enough to appreciate the beautiful scenery. Of course, this is not always the case, and when the roads do tilt upwards, you can encounter some rather insane grades. It certainly seemed to be greater than 20% in a few places, and the heat didn't make that any easier. However, none of the climbs take you up particularly high in altitude, as those in the Escambray and Maestra top out at a little over 500 meters. All in all, compared to the cultural and climatic issues, which were more imposing for me, the terrain of Cuba was a pleasant change of pace from my usual touring environs in the western U.S.
I was quite surprised at the excellent conditions of most of the roads on which I traveled in Cuba. I suppose that this could be due to the lower amounts of heavy traffic and the lack of cold weather. As is to be expected, there were occasionally a few bumpy stretches, and when they were bumpy, they were often really bumpy. But these were infrequent enough that they did not create a problem at all. On only three occasions did I need to travel on short sections of gravel or dirt roads, these were difficult, but manageable. In general, the roads were very smooth and made for very comfortable for riding. Outside of the cities, almost all of the roads consist of a single, wide lane with few, if any, markings. The exception being the small network of Autopistas, the Cuban version of Freeways, which, because they avoid most of the towns, carry very little traffic. They are available for any users, including cyclists, but they seem so much less interesting, that I couldn't see any reason to ride on them. The more common secondary roads are actually, much better for cycling, and bring you right up close to the local population. Signage on these roads, with a few exceptions, was adequate to get me where I planned on going without getting lost. At least not very often.
A typical country road
I could write pages and pages on this topic, because it was the very best aspect of cycling in Cuba. The short version is as follows. There is virtually no sense of entitlement among the many groups of users of Cuban roads, including walkers, cyclists, horseback riders, ox carts, cars, trucks, and busses. All of these modes of transport have equal access to the roadways, in contrast to back home where priority is given to whomever can go the fastest. This can partly be explained by the high ratio of foot and bike users, relative to motorized traffic. But, I beleive, that there is a very real sense in Cuban society that Companero Gomez, on his rickety ox cart, is no less important than the government official driving along in his brand new van.
With such a hodge-podge of road users, one might imagine that chaos would ensue, but this is absolutely not the case. In fact, I personally observed less conflict between road users over the entire 30-day tour than I commonly do on one day of my 30-mile summertime commute. All of this occurs without an extensive amount of signage indicating the rules of the road. There was an occasional speed limit sign, and I'm sure that in some dusty filing cabinet in the Capitol, there is a thick book of road laws, but to me it seemed as if there were only two basic rules. First, everyone has a right to use the road, and second, it is everyone's responsibility to do no harm to the other users. I have been slowly coming around to this school of thought for the last few years as I have watched endless arguments over some minute detail of the U.S. traffic laws. Now, after riding this tour, I'm even more convinced that this approach works better than ours. Of course, I'm not holding my breath for any big changes at home.
It is assumed that faster vehicles can, and will, go around slower ones, passing on the left side when the way is clear. This was good for me, as well as motorized users, because in Cuba, I was actually among the faster traffic. However, no one will accuse you of being "in their way" if you don't move over. So, if you have to ride in the middle of the road for a while to avoid a bunch of potholes, for example, few will give you any grief. It is common for cars and trucks to honk their horn when passing, however, but this was more to indicate "I'm going around now" instead of "Hey you, get out of the way!"
Before I left home, a coworker of mine, who had also been to Cuba recently, gave me a warning that there were large numbers of feral dogs roaming the island. "Oh, wonderful," I thought to myself and had visions of constantly being chased by the type of canine vigilantes we have in many places at home. Well, I'm happy to report that, though this information was technically correct, it does not present a problem in the slightest way. Evolution, as it so often does on islands, has taken hold of our canine friends and is rapidly changing them into their own unique breed. They are a mere shadow of the wolves from which they log ago descended. Generally small, about the size of a beagle, and usually no more than skin and bones, they, in all the important ways, occupy the same ecological niche that pigeons do in North American cities. They tend to travel around in small groups, interacting more with each other than with other creatures. When approached, either on foot or on bike, they scurry away at the last minutes with an air of timidness. Their main pastimes are sniffing around for scraps of food and sleeping in open spaces. I was left with a profound desire to discover what we can do to transform the dogs back home to something more closely resembling these.
A Cuban Pigeon-Dog
This was the first long tour I've take using the custom bike that I put together over the last couple of years. I won't go into to much detail here, because there is a more complete description on this page. Let me just say that I have never felt more comfortable on any bike that I have ever ridden. This made a big difference on this tour, as it generally gave me one less thing to worry about. Everything held up well to the abuse, the only real problems I experienced were a series of tube and tire problems. I'm willing to chalk these up to the harsh climate, and since I am always prepared for such problems, there were no real ill effects on the trip (there was one, though, which I'll describe later.) I carried my gear in a set of Arkel GT-54 rear panniers, which were also on their first trip, and they performed wonderfully. Since the weather allowed me to leave my sleeping bag and cold-weather clothing at home my total gear weight ended up at only 32 pounds. This helped a lot, I'm sure, on some of the more difficult days.
Next: The Ride begins...