Bicycle Cuba: They'll Love You For It
By guidebook authors Craig & Kathy Copeland, originally published in the travel section of the Calgary Herald.
The Canadian Embassy claims that about 500,000 Canadians visit Cuba each year. It's not true. Oh, the number's accurate, but the statement's not. Because very few of those Canadians actually visit Cuba.
They cluster within the confines of all-inclusive resorts that prohibit Cuban guests. They spend their time exclusively with other Anglos, particularly Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Grisham and the like. And they do it sprawling on beaches that Cubanos, unless employed by the resorts, are forbidden to set foot on.
It might be a vacation from Canada, but it hardly qualifies as "visiting Cuba."
If you really want to visit Cuba, shun the crowded resorts. Explore the island. Get to know the Cuban people by staying in their homes, laughing with them, joining them for rice and beans. It's safe, affordable, easy. You can do it with a rental car. You can do it by bus. Better yet, do it on your bike.
Cycling eliminates all barriers between you and the people whose culture you've come to admire. It's an act of faith. It says "I'm not here to just look, I'm here to be with you." Cubanos, a socially exuberant bunch, will love you for it. You'll come home emotionally enriched for having truly visited these long-suffering yet extraordinarily welcoming, generous, fun people.
Our Cuba cycling trip began in mid-December when we arrived in Havana, taxied to the casa particular (Cuban version of a B&B) where we'd reserved a room months in advance, and discovered: no room for us.
We never learned why. Before we could engage our 100-word Spanish vocabulary pasted together with Tarzan grammar, Cuban resourcefulness and hospitality rescued us, as it would throughout our journey. Neighbour spoke to neighbour who escorted us to a neighbour whose spacious, clean, comfortable guestroom was vacant.
Our hosts, Orlando and Raisa, greeted us with warmth and grace. Both are retired physicians. We were astounded to discover that Che Guevara had been Orlando's comrade and patient throughout La Revolucion. Learning about Cuban history and society from Orlando, who speaks fluent English, was surreal.
After a day and night walking through Havana Vieja (old Havana), we assembled our bikes on Orlando and Raisa's porch, loaded our panniers, hugged our new friends goodbye, and pedaled out of the city.
We started late. Our day's mileage goal was too ambitious. The sun winked below the horizon while we were in lonely rangeland, well shy of the next town big enough to have a casa particular. We carried no tent or sleeping bags, because camping is allowed only at a few widely scattered campismos.
Riding into the dark was an option. We had headlamps. Cuban motorists are marvelously considerate of cyclists. And most roads are paved. But a single pothole could render a sophisticated bike irreparable in this land of scarcity. So, on instinct, we approached the one house within view.
A woman was in the yard. We asked her an inane question because it was all we could think to say: "Is there a casa particular nearby?" Her answer was cryptically hopeful. "There might be," she said, then retreated to consult her husband.
A moment later they emerged, opened the wrought-iron gate and invited us in. Neither spoke a word of English. They motioned for us to push our bikes right into their living room.
Both were shy, clearly unaccustomed to spandex-attired Anglo cyclists. This was no casa particular, we realized. These people, Celia and Diego, had never had foreign guests. Yet they ushered us in with sincerity and assurance. No hesitation. No fear.
Celia was instantly concerned for my wife's comfort. She noticed Kathy's cycling shoes were awkward on the tile floor. She left then returned, offering a pair of flip flops. She noticed Kathy's shirt was damp. She left then returned, offering a neatly folded, white cotton dress.
They didn't know we probably carried more in our panniers than they had in their home. They didn't care. Celia insisted we sit while she made up their extra bed. Then, despite our protests, she cooked us a delicious dinner.
In the morning, she refused to let us depart without feeding us a hearty breakfast. Where all this food came from, I don't know, because I peeked into the kitchen and saw nothing.
We thanked them profusely and handed them the Cuban equivalent of ten Canadian dollars—about a month's salary for the average Cubano. They refused it until we pleaded that money was the only gift we had to offer in exchange for their immense kindness.
Celia cried as we left. No doubt she was worried for the crazy Anglos on overloaded bikes who obviously didn't know what they were doing. At least she'd made us keenly aware that we'd embarked on a profound experience.
The cycling was brilliant: past sugar cane fields, through lively villages, and along the ocean. The weather was comfortably hot and consistently sunny. The meals prepared for us by the madres (mothers) at every casa particular were heaping, tasty, and fortifying.
We cycled from Havana west to Vinales. For an entire day, between Soroa and La Tranquilidad, we were passed by just five vehicles while we followed a ridgecrest road lined with an explosion of tropical greenery and affording glimpses of the Caribbean far below. In the east, between Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba, we cycled three 70-km days with the ocean often in sight, the surf frequently audible, and vehicle traffic nil.
But in each hamlet we entered, someone immediately reminded us that cycling wasn't the goal, it was merely the means. Our bikes propelled us into the heart of this fascinating society and into the embrace of its people.
They greeted us with smiles, waves, handshakes. They showered us with attention, compassion, deference. They treated us like rock stars come to town. They showed us that visiting Cuba only to escape the brunt of a Canadian winter is an act of frigid indifference.
Twice more we were invited to stay with families who were as accustomed to Anglo visitors as they were to Martian invaders. Each time they forced upon us the most lavish meal they could muster and the biggest bedroom in the house.
So when a Canadian leaned out the window of a resort tour bus and asked, "These people. Do they steal from you?" I was appalled.
Here was a man whose language I spoke yet whose question I could barely comprehend. I groped for a response.
"Just the opposite," I finally said, then rode away.
If you go
Getting there: Skip Varadero, where there's nothing but mega-resorts. Fly directly to Havana. The old city is enthralling and it's farther west. That's the direction of the country's most rewarding three- to four-day cycle tour, to Vinales, in a lush valley studded with mogotes (limestone pinnacles). If you intend to cycle in the east, consider a return flight to Canada from Santiago de Cuba.
Staying there: A casa particular is a private home licensed by the Cuban government to rent rooms to foreign visitors. You'll find them in every sizeable town. Look for a green triangular symbol on the door. Expect to pay $15 to $35 for a room for two. Book a casa in Havana before leaving home. Elsewhere you'll find lots of vacancies. Just knock wherever you see the green triangle. If you don't see one, ask around.
To make reservations at Orlando and Raisa's in Havana, email email@example.com. Telefono 07.830.3774 and 830.0837.
Address: Calle 17 N. 1251 esquina 20
In Vinales, look for Casa Maricella.
In Bayamo, stay with Manuel and Lydia (cheche@UD6.co.cu). Telefono 423175 and 422950).
In Santiago de Cuba, stay with Mayde and Pedro (firstname.lastname@example.org) Telefono 53 22 643307. Address: Calle 6, No 302, esquina 11, Rpto. Vista Alegre.
For a day or two of privacy and luxury, stay at the Hotel Marea del Portillo, on the coast road southwest of Bayamo. It's a joint Cuban and Canadian-owned, all-inclusive resort, but it's small, isolated, and less expensive than most, with rooms on the beach.
For more information: Visit http://users.pandora.be/casaparticular. It lists hundreds of casas throughout the country.
Food. Eating well is easy and inexpensive in Cuba. But cyclists won't find convenient, nutritious snacks. Bring a couple energy bars for each day you'll be riding. In every town, it's easy to find a café or snack bar to purchase ham and cheese sandwiches or eggs and rice. Plan to eat breakfast and dinner at your casa particular.
The food will likely be excellent, and your host will keep the profit, whereas most of your room tariff goes to the government. A typical casa breakfast—fresh fruit juice, sliced pineapple, papaya and bananas, bread, butter, jam, an omelette, and robust coffee—will cost about $4 per person. You'll pay about twice that for a fish dinner served with bean soup, tomato and cabbage salad, rice and beans (moors and christianos), and fried plantains.
In most towns, also look for signs denoting a paladares, which is a home or privately-owned small restaurant licensed to serve tourists food. The host of your casa can also recommend private homes that might not be licensed to serve meals. It's good to eat in private homes because unlike the charge for the room which is taxed heavily, the family is allowed by the government to keep most of the profit from serving food.
Water. Cubanos are as health and hygiene conscious as Canadians. But their plumbing is ancient and occasionally suspect. Bottled water is widely available, but for savings and convenience bring a water filter or purification drops.
Transportation. Viazul provides punctual bus service to 32 towns and cities across the island. You'll ride in a modern, comfortable, Volvo coach. Your bike will ride in a spacious storage compartment. A ticket for the three-hour trip from Havana to Vinales costs about $15. A ticket for the 14-hour trip from Havana to Santiago de Cuba costs $60. Check schedules and prices at www.viazul.com, but wait to reserve seats and buy tickets until you're in Cuba.
Money. Bring at least $500 cash to exchange at the Havana airport currency exchange office. Don't purchase a Transcard before leaving home, because many banks and hotels won't honour it. Instead, use your credit card to get cash advances at banks. There are two currencies in Cuba: the peso for Cubanos, and the peso convertible for visitors. One peso convertible is roughly equivalent to one U.S. dollar.
Language. Outside Havana, few people speak English, but everyone will try to understand your paltry, mangled Spanish. So bring a Spanish phrase book and do your best.
Sights. Founded in 1512, on the south coast, east of Cienfuegos, the city of Trinidad is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in all of the Americas. It's small—just a few square blocks of cobblestone streets crowded with pastel coloured homes, churches and plazas—but so impressive that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Gifts. Cubano children habitually seek gifts from visitors. Bring notepads, pens and crayons. In most towns you'll also see medical clinics, all of which need basic supplies. Bring them ibuprofen, aspirin, or anti-bacterial ointment.
Guides. "Bicycling Cuba," by Wally and Barbara Smith, is the one book you'll want in your panniers. It contains maps, detailed route descriptions, casa addresses, and advice on planning your trip.
Politics. Fearing government reproach, Cubanos are hesitant to discuss politics in general or Fidel Castro in particular. Besides, fluency in Spanish is necessary to probe beyond the superficial. To begin understanding this complex island nation, read Ben Corbett's "This is Cuba" and Isaac Saney's "Cuba: A Revolution in Motion."
Suggested Itinerary. After your five- to six-day western tour from Havana to Vinales, bus back to Havana. Then bus four hours to Santa Clara. From there, cycle south over the Sierra del Escambray via Topes de Collantes to Trinidad. Or if you prefer an easier, though less scenic route, cycle southeast from Santa Clara on virtually flat roads to Sancti Spiritus. Then head southwest through Valle de los Ingenios to Trinidad. After several days there, bus to Bayamo to start the 4-6 day tour along the south coast of the eastern province of Oriente.