Yoanka Gonzalez – A love affair with cycling in Cuba
Once an Olympic Silver Medallist in Beijing 2008, scratch cycling world champion in 2004, and the winner of the 2003 and 2007 Pan American Games, Yoanka Gonzalez is something of a cycling legend in Cuba, a massive achievement on itself given Cuba’s rich tradition of punching well above its weight in the world of sport.
Born in Cifuentes just outside the bigger town of Santa Clara, Yoanka has accumulated medal after medal throughout her illustrious cycling career and saw cycling as such a large part of life; she even married another Cuban cycling legend, Pedro Pablo Perez. You could say it’s in her genes.
Now wanting to inspire the next generation of Cubans to take to the saddle, as well as wishing to promote Cuba as a bonafide destination for travellers seeking fitness-based adventure holidays, Yoanka works in conjunction with Cubania Travel offering a unique way of living; by sharing the Cuba experience.
Working in tandem with the best
If you’ll excuse the pun, Cubania Travel has enjoyed working in tandem with Yoanka Gonzalez sharing something we both have in common; a genuine love of cycling and a deep-rooted passion for Cuba. Yoanka has been helping travellers get acquainted with cycling around the streets of Havana as well as the ribbon roads that traverse this magical island with the pride and humility that define her. Because of her, many cyclists now know what it means when we say that we do it the Cuban way!
We interviewed Yoanka to find a bit more about both these passions she has, so keep watching this space to see our clip.
Cycling in Cuba is gaining momentum – but why?
When an island in the Caribbean with a population just shy of 11.5 million produces two legendary cyclists who bring home a haul of medals over their successful careers, word starts to spread. More and more Cubans are showing an interest in cycling now and as Yoanka confirms,
“Cubans are more motivated to cycle now – cycling really is gaining momentum in Cuba.”
This is no surprise when you think about it. Cuba is, by happy accident, a very beautiful place. To many people who haven’t had the chance to go, Cuba may just be Cadillacs, cigars and Mojitos in crumbling multi-coloured buildings. It’s so much more than that, though.
Cuba has a fascinating political and cultural history dating all the way back to when Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the late 15th century. But it’s too easy to use the year 1492 as a convenient start date. Cuba existed before then, and by exploring the caves and caverns around Baracoa, you can still see the remnants of ancient civilisations which inhabited the island long before the flag of Castile was planted.
However, what really astonishes the visitors that come here predates even humans. All over the island, Cuba is a place of contrasts, from dense, lush tropical vegetation, to picture-postcard white sandy beaches – from subterranean stalactites and stalagmites to gigantic mythical mountains littering the Vinales Valley. Cycling around Cuba offers a veritable kaleidoscope of imagery, human-made or natural, and getting up close and personal to it on a bike is the best way to do that.
Popping in for a coffee
There’s a beautiful organic symbiosis that exists in Cuba. Firstly, the coffee is known on a global scale to be some of the finest on the planet. For more than 200 years, Cuba has grown both Arabica and Robusta coffee, and the eastern mountainous region of Sierra Maestra is famous for its perfect coffee growing conditions.
Secondly, Cubans are very friendly by nature. Lonely Planet compares levels of personal safety in Cuba favourably with other parts of the Caribbean.
“There is almost no gun crime, violent robbery, organised gang culture, teenage delinquency, drugs or dangerous no-go zones.”
Anywhere.com travel agent goes one further, stating;
“Cubans are some of the friendliest and most honest people on the planet. They will talk to anyone, and everyone is generous with their time and money. Put simply; the people are what make this country special. If you want to understand the complex cultural fabric of Cuba, you must first start with its people.”
In short, if a local comes at you holding a machete, he’s probably about to split open a coconut for you.
So what’s the relevance of the coffee being excellent and the people being hospitable? Well, cycling around Cuba can be thirsty work, and it’s common for people to stop at farms or “casas particulares” (Cuba’s version of what we’d call B&Bs) and enjoy a freshly brewed coffee with a friendly farmer. Many of the Cubania Travel cycle tours utilise this interactive form of seeing the island, and many of the night stopovers are at these “casas particulares” or lunching on ranches with markets selling locally produced fruit and coffee.
Yoanka Gonzalez herself says;
“Cubans are really friendly, and many of the farmers are my friends. They’ll often sit down and make me a coffee.”
There’s no “get off my land!” here.
“The most beautiful place in the world”
When Christopher Columbus landed in Eastern Cuba near Baracoa, he declared that it was “the most beautiful place in the world”. And he’d seen a few places too.
Baracoa is just one of the delights that Cuba offers cyclists too. Getting to know cities like Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey and Cienfuegos are all fundamental when visiting the island, and the night-time stopovers that Cubania Travel organises allow cyclists to relax and explore these fascinating places.
But on a slightly smaller scale, very similar to Baracoa’s charming town and the stunning surrounding landscape is Trinidad, a Spanish colonial town which feels unchanged in 200 years, with ornate churches and classical plazas that seem like versions of the ones found thousands of miles across the Atlantic in Toledo or Salamanca.
Add in the valley at Vinales; the numerous National Parks, the Nature Reserve at Topes de Collantes, Las Terrazas environmental project, the limitless jungle trails with caves and caverns, the “Yunque” (Anvil) Mountain in Alexander Humboldt Park or the many unspoilt beaches of Cuba and you have a holiday destination that will take your breath away.
In the words of Yoanka, Cuba’s most celebrated female cyclist;
“Cuba is a really lovely place – I love Trinidad and Cienfuegos, and the scenery at Pinar del Rio is truly amazing. People should definitely come to Cuba.”
Don’t just take Yoanka’s word for it though, come and see it for yourself!
All the expertise at your fingertips
It’s not every day that a travel company can offer you such a unique holiday experience while working in conjunction with an Olympic Silver Medallist. You could say that we’re pretty proud of the package we provide!
Cubania Travel holidays are simply the best way of getting to know this fantastic destination. It’s only by bike that you can get so close to the intoxicating smells and tastes of Cuba, and all with the clear conscience of keeping fit at the same time.
The tours we offer, whether 7-day or 15-day routes, will take you into the heartlands of a Cuba so many people don’t get to see – an unseen interior that isn’t exported in glossy holiday magazines but that charms and surprises every tourist nonetheless. You’ll see mile after mile of white beaches and azure seas, ride along stunning mountain trails with jaw-dropping panoramas, visit unchanged Spanish colonial towns, explore vibrant cities that never sleep, delve into dense jungle and see the tropical wildlife, and all of this enveloped in the island’s history that captures and captivates.
Cuba’s beauty sells itself – it doesn’t need us to do that. All we do is let you fall in love with it as you cycle around, providing you with technical help and professional assistance should you need it.
So take a leaf from Yoanka’s book. Cuba and cycling go together like – well, like white rum and a sprig of mint. But we don’t want to stereotype!