Biking In Cuba
Cuba and I
I’m James, when I was twenty-one, I moved to Havana to work for the British Tour Operator called Cubania, who provide bike adventures across Cuba. I went in blind, not knowing the first thing about Cuba. I was sent off on a bike to “get to know the territory”. I quickly discovered the colour and charm of the Cuban people, whilst biking through remote villages & vast natural landscapes, enjoying the same (sometimes bumpy) bike routes we design for our clients. And so, my love affair with Cuba began. I was hooked, and keep coming back for more…
Now every year I return to Cuba to work as a cycling guide working together with the fantastic local Cubania team.
General ideas on Cuba
People always ask me…Is it too late to visit Cuba? How has it changed? Should we go before it changes? Cuba has been changing forever but it also seems to stand still in time. History explains the rich and eclectic mix that is so vital to the Cubans colourful culture. Spanish colonisation, the Dutch, the British, slavery and labourers arriving from Africa, Asia and other neighbouring countries, then over the last century a strong American presence and then the Russian influences after the historical Cuban Revolution of 1959 and so much more… The flow of cultures was endless.
Recently the biggest changes have been political, but there have been huge economical & cultural changes over the last ten years. Private business and ownership in a communist system and Wi-Fi hotspots popping up all over the country. But even with all these changes, in my opinion, Cuba is still Cuba, and nothing is going to take away its unique personality (At least not for a few more generations). It is the people who make this country special and they are still true to themselves.
It’s a world of extremes in Cuba, and everyone has their own perspective. Some see a third world, communist country that is stuck in the fifties, others see a white sand, palm tree paradise perfect for sipping on mojitos while bronzing by the water. Salsa, ballet, art, nature, rum, cigars and the incredible locals are just a few on the endless list of reasons to spend your holidays in Cuba. Regardless of what you expect or what you’re hoping to see, one of the best ways to live this country first hand and get past the typical tourist experience is to pedal your way through Havana, Santiago, Bayamo, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Viñales and all the hidden treasures in between.
Cubania, and it’s team, are either all from Cuba or have been there for over two decades… So when it comes to this rich cultural blend and seeing it from a bike, by foot or on a bus, they know what they are doing.
The cycling community in Cuba
Since the Revolution Cuba has been politically and economically isolated by the United States. The embargo limiting imports & exports means life can be tough on the ground for Cubans. Just finding enough food, clothing and medicine for your family is a challenge, let alone tracking down some rubber to mend the inner tube of your bike. You won’t need to even think of spare tubes because the Cubania specialist team has you covered.
Locals struggle with maintaining bikes and finding parts. There are no fancy “bike shops” in Cuba. Contrary to this norm, there exists a small elite Cuban cycling team with its own clubs such as the Havana cycling club known as ‘La Guayaba’. These clubs get the ‘masters’ (Non pro categories) and elite team together to train and compete against each other. A lot of these avid cyclists are part of the Cubania team and work closely with us, as mechanics in the bike shop and out there on the road with you!
Every character has an amazing story to tell. Elier, a seventy-year-old Cuban club cyclist, told me his first bicycle was bought by his parents when he was fourteen, which they could only afford by fattening up & selling the family pig. Elier is also a shoe-maker and he sells what he can to provide for his family and continue his passion – riding his bike.
Despite the lack of materials and the challenging road conditions, this is a cycling community with a huge heart. The Cuban club cyclists struggle to support their passion, but they do all they can to keep on biking.
Travelling with Cubania will give you a unique insight into this world and on top of that they provide everything you need for a smooth trip cycling through the country.
Cycling in Cuba
The pace on a bike here is a lot like Cuban life – slowly does it. Everything takes a little (or a lot) more time than back home. The best way is to embrace the Cuban pace and enjoy every Cuban you pass, be it with a smile, a quick wave or an in-depth conversation – everyone here is happy to stop what they’re doing for a chat. Cubans are communicators and story tellers – they have had very limited, if no access to the internet and it shows. You will see people storytelling, chatting and playing dominoes in the streets. Even if you don’t speak perfect Spanish a little ‘buenos días!’ or ‘como estas?’ will get you a long way. You will be rewarded with a beaming smile at the very least! Your Cubania guide probably also has friends in just about every community you cycle through!
If you join us on the Cubania Classic Cycle or the Western Skyline Ride you’ll see one of my favourite places to ride ever: The Western province of Pinar del Rio, mostly famous for it’s intriguing mountains named ‘mogotes’ and the bright orange soil that produces the worlds finest cigars. Out there you get a real blend of country life, decent roads and breath-taking scenery. From Viñales you can ride north towards Cayo Jutías and end your day with a mojito on the beach. Then head east towards Las Terrazas, riding through small bustling towns like La Palma, you’ll then come across a tiny farm house where the owner happens to also be a landscape painter named Pedro. Over the last year he and his wife, Mari, have welcomed more cyclists into their home than you can imagine. You’re always welcomed with super sweet coffee or a freshly made mango juice.
There are a few things to keep in mind when cycling in Cuba. Remember that you’re in a tropical country where the temperature and humidity are seriously intense. Water and sun cream are essential! You might also encounter a chicken crossing or an ox pulled cart going from one field to another…
Road conditions are pretty bad – some say there are more potholes than road! If you’re on a touring bike make sure to bring some hefty tires and a few spare inner tubes. A little front suspension will help a lot and your wrists will thank you at the end of the day. If you’re opting for a carbon fibre road bike, you are really brave! If your opting for a trip with Cubania then you’ll have an experienced team following you throughout the trip and you can rely on them just in case you have any mechanical issues… meaning you can ride your bike and relax!!
In any case it’s all part of the adventure and often these elements make a ride even more fun and surprising. Keep your eyes open, stay safe and enjoy the amazing scenes unfolding around you.
Back in Havana the cycling crowd is growing and riding is changing from a means of transport to something that the locals are enjoying and doing for fitness. Every Thursday evening there is a city ride organised by one of the cities cycling clubs, free for anyone to join – they even have bikes to borrow! The ride normally starts at the Parque de los Mártires, but beware, this can change last minute.
There is even a rumour that some bike paths will soon be added to the main arteries of Havana. However, even without designated cycle paths there are plenty of rides. For a capital city there is hardly any traffic and you can find quiet roads such as the one that follows the Almendares river, taking you through a mystical forest in the heart of the city. Or you can go on a sunset ride along the Malecón or an early morning cycle through the colourful streets of Old-Havana. Cycling in Havana will guarantee a smile on your face!
Cuba is an inexplicable, multifaceted, cultural adventure and being on a bicycle with a company as incredible as Cubania only adds to the pleasure. So put your helmet on, jump in the saddle and ‘dale dale!’. Hopefully I’ll see you out there!