Cuba - cycling jaunt 2015
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‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.’
Ernest Hemingway (Occasional resident of Cuba)
Following our recent wedding the Central America honeymoon was locked in, counting down the days until my new wife decided to throw in a curveball… Letting me head over a month early. Yes I made the right decision in marrying Emma!
Having never travelled through this part of the world before the mind ran wild should it be trekking through the jungles of Colombia to meet up with the FARC, head to the capital of Venezuela to simply say I’ve been to Caracas or cycle around the slightly mysterious Cuba. I went with the latter, with intentions of using a bike and interaction to learn more about this country before the reported big changes (whilst getting in some winter training…)
With my destination sorted and with the only constraint being of meeting my wife in Guatemala City a month later a Michelin map soon became my chief source of distraction. Previous touring was a unsupported 11,500km cycling jaunt with 4 mates through Africa yet this trip was to take a more minimalist approach due to the short length of time (approximately two weeks) and the assumed manageable conditions knowing that I wasn’t cycling through the Sahara. This agenda encouraged me to leave the Surly Long Haul Trucker, tent and satellite phone behind and instead aim for a simple (cheaper) bike that I could leave behind once finished, a daypack and just my own thoughts. A friend’s commuter certainly fit the criteria with a correctly sized road frame, decent set of wheels and the highly important factor of it looking good. The only modifications prior to departure was a back rack, a fixed hub (adding to its simplicity), SPD pedals and a donated saddle thanks to friends at Busyman.
The intended route avoided the main roads taking into account suitable kilometers per day, destinations in towns that hopefully had some sort of accommodation and an aim of seeing several of the key sites. Overall I was aiming for 120km average days to accomplish the near required 1000kms. Having recently spent a day doing a 500km solo ride around my home state of Victoria I assumed this was manageable.
Landing in the capital Havana with a bike that got lost twice in transit my plan was eventually underway and after dumping my larger items I was soon sitting on an overnight bus heading east to Santiago de Cuba with minimized luggage and my still boxed bike underneath. A few spare hours in the captial and partial insight thanks to my copy of ‘Our man in Havana’ was enough to look forward to my return, a place that seemed to offer inviting residential streets to explore and untold stories (whilst trying its renowned rum to accompany my local cigar!)
A day of rest in Santiago de Cuba was spent being a tourist, losing to locals at chess and setting up my bike in anticipation of what lay ahead. As mentioned the parameter of this trip was simplicity and my belongings suggested as such with my daypack containing one change of clothes, basic tools (multi-tool and pump), some tubes, my smaller camera and a mandatory occy strap (tie down.) The back rack was utilized as avoidance to having my bag on my back with the only other inclusion on the bike being one bottle. That’s right not even a computer to measure my heart rate and calories. Ignorance is bliss. Leaving the comforts of the countries second biggest city I started my indirect way back to the capital, with the first two days hugging the coast towards Manzanillo. Occasionally in valleys hidden from the road and lining the rivers were smaller villages, consisting of a mix of formal concrete housing and wooden huts. With spectacular views of the Caribbean Ocean to my left, with its clear waters featuring the postcard cliché ranges of blue and to my right the countries highest peaks tumbling down through the range of valleys, defining the curves of the road (both horizontally and vertically.) The heat and accompanying sweat certainly made the water much more inviting switching the traditional mindset of aiming for the destination in a good time to stopping and enjoy the random swim. The joys of employing a flexible schedule.
Whist the picturesque view didn’t change much during the initial days the paved road soon disintegrated into sections of boulders to simply not existing. With the roads proximity to the ocean the effects of a 2005 Hurricane certainly left its mark with tunnels disabled and roads simply washed away. The impact for my travels meant being made to walk for sections and several punctures. The first puncture made me curse at having forgotten to replace the 23mm worn Continentals with something of a more worthy width and a few less knicks. I had no faith (as later proven) in the self-adhesive patches I had bought despite the bike shops assurance of this particular brand. It was later that day as I was led down a dark path into a chicken’s shed that practical experience cured my frustration. A local ‘poncherro’ perfectly demonstrated the Cubans approach to making the most of what you have by showing me an alternative way to fix a tube when you don’t have the luxury of a one click 10 pack of tubes delivered to your door quicker then you can throw out the ‘old’ one. An old tyre was cut and used as a patch, a vice used to aid its fixing and finally a void was filled with fuel, lit and burnt to properly melt the patch on. I was now slightly happy that I didn’t bring those wider tyres after all.
The first nights accommodation was an introduction of what varied options were to come in this instance I occupied a room of a school camp. One that seemed to be at near full occupancy, I opted for a single room (with ants nest) to avoid the all night shenanigans. With not much else on the horizon I wasn’t too fussed, as the combination of dirt roads and a 150km day a bed was a bed. Having left my tent and accessories at home in line with my simplistic approach I needed to aim for shelter each night, which in most instances was a ‘Casa’, a locals house with a purpose spare room. In line with communist ideals the expanse of private businesses wasn’t encouraged so this type of lodging was commonplace in most towns. Win for me as I got to enjoy home cooked meals, have my one change of cycling clothes washed and to engage with the locals, assisting my objective for further insight. Sitting down for breakfast at these houses I got to enjoy a variety of fruits, eggs, rolls etc… It was only when you visited the stores and noticed the bare shelves and limited goods that you realized the house owner needed to have visited several stores at a very early hour to provide me with this meal.
The fuel (food) on this trip was predominantly two or three servings of rice and beans, some ‘traditional’ Cuban pizza for the carbs and an occasional energy fix thanks to the state run ice creameries. Fruit was certainly in abundance and something I took advantage of when available whether it was riding past a local farmer on a bike chewing sugarcane for it to be split in half, sharing mangos in a police station or whilst slipstreaming behind a banana filled tractor to be offered a whole bunch before settling on a more manageable three bananas. As for the necessary liquid in these conditions I aimed to avoid continually buying bottled water instead I successfully quenched my thirst by calling on the kindness of strangers, knocking on their doors to ask in my very basic Spanish if I could get my bidon filled up, coupled with a dramatized look of thirst.
By Marea del Portillo a seaside resort town to a nights rest in the sleepy town of Manzanillo and onto Bayamo the provincial capital the rock-strewn roads were behind me replaced by the now continual bitumen. The bike was performing well reinforcing my choice to bring one from home rather then the hope of purchasing one on arrival. This was further reiterated when noticing throughout the country most new bikes encompassing the early 1990’s rage of 27-gears including those of the Police whilst local bike shops only offered the very basic spares. Although having a free-wheel hub on one side I never swapped from the fixed (48x16), adding to the simplicity (stupidity) of knowing that my distances were entirely covered by my pedaling. There were no Alps to conquer yet the route inevitably took in some climbs where I definitely reached for that illusive extra gear.
From the east of the country my route followed a haphazard direction with a predominantly western trajectory, slightly dictated by the direction of the wind. I always aimed for the B-roads despite the taunting main highway (which I crossed over twice) offering a direct route straight to Havana. The scenery of everyday life offered people fishing from bridges, farmers armed with sickles slashing at their fields and informal games of baseball where I was hoping for an invite. It was these roads that allowed the engagement with the hidden Cuba, small towns, places which seemingly hadn’t changed much throughout time. During a visit to one such town I followed the lure of faint sounds of drums to an abandoned warehouse where I listened to a ‘son’ music rehearsal, in another I got stopped by locals for a few cheeky shots of rum from a mysterious plastic bottle whilst others centered around their once economic defining sugar mills. Outside of the towns the quiet roads offered the simple joy of me, my bike and the road allowing the cleansing of thoughts to appreciate the surrounding environment whilst having to occasionally avoid the donkey led cart. The silence of the more rural areas was only interrupted as I swapped greetings with locals farmers, allowing snippets of engagement as I was assured of my directions. Throughout the country a common reaction when explaining to locals of where I had ridden from and my end destination was the international symbol of ‘crazy’, shown by a circling finger near the temple. My Spanish vocabulary was increasing!
My days of riding in the middle of the county were shorter, allowing stopping and appreciating the spaces between, long lunches and early arrivals to further discover my destinations. Although shorter its funny how the mind adjusts with distance not being measured in comparison to the day before but your end point. A short 70km ride for the day at times seems just as hard as the 160km days. Over the course of several days I rode from the Che Guevara dominated town of Santa Clara, watched locals get pleasure from their town square at night in Sancti Spiritus, enjoyed the UNESCO town of Trinidad famed for its cobbled streets and coloured colonial houses to Cienfuegos a bayside town with an neoclassical architectural style indicating its important role in Cuba’s identity. I quickly eased into the simple existence of beginning my cycling as the sun was rising in an attempt to avoid the heat of the day (minimizing tan lines) and to allow glimpses into a communities start to the day often riding together in groups until our paths deviated theirs to work whilst I continued onwards aiming for a new town. The landscape was lush, highlighted by a spectrum of greens with the occasional cleared field whilst the road was smooth and directional with occasional ascents to offer elevated glimpses to what lie ahead. Upon entering my daily destinations I aimed for the ever-present town squares finding accommodation close to their activated centers.
The more developed towns allowed opportunities to ignore my failings in Spanish and partake in English conversations with some of my hosts offering further insight into present day Cuba. Many tourist comments centered on their hope that despite the political changes Cuba would remain the same, offering them a glass bubble glimpse into a perceived better alternative. Yet it was the locals who hoped for change, an opportunity for the choices that they thought democracy brings whether it be a chance to try one of those western hamburgers, trust in their neighbor and/or simply allow a doctor to earn more then the current $42/month.
I wanted to reach the capital a day earlier to allow its deserved time so I reluctantly squeeze 2 planned days into 1 learning that 180km on a fixed wheel bike in these conditions is pretty hard. Setting off from Cienfuegos my aim was Matanzas (the ‘Athens of Cuba) with an attitude of that if I didn’t make it that far it was ok due to smaller accommodating towns being in between. Despite the sweat pouring heat, the wind and some other excuses collated on the way it was inevitable that I was going to push myself for that extra day. Fortunately I was inspired by the encouraging revolutionary slogans on billboards lining the roadside featuring the likes of Castro, Chavez and Lenin. On these slightly busier roads as I inched closer to the capital I found the chance to partially judge the locals without actually meeting them, which in Cuba’s case showed them to be a considerable bunch often nearly driving off the opposing side of the road as they drove past me in a common gesture of kindness. In addition this safe space minimized the amount of exhaust fumes you breathed in from the plethora of old American classic cars (not the ones in the glossy ads!)
My final day on the road was towards the capital ‘La Habana’, hugging the northern coast with constant signs counting down the kilometers for me. The easy ride allowed reflection on my fortune for having this experience, smiling to myself to me as I rode. Once closer to the city directions were certainly misleading and the marked distances as through the rest of the country were measured to the edge of town. In Havana’s case an it offered an extra 20km, which I wasn’t banking on and now having to deal with traffic that I was allowed over the previous days to forget about. I was pretty happy to be finally dodging the tourists on the cobbled lane streets of La Habana Vieja, the old town and the area of my hotel and fresh clothes.
Once off the bike and again playing the role of a more traditional tourist I had to adjust to the chaos of the capital having spent the last two weeks in more relaxed settings and mindset. It was only after a day that I grew restless and yearned to discover more, to simply keep riding further to the opposing edge of the country and then some. After a couple of rides through the capital I stuck to my intent (and promise to my wife to greet her in Guatemala sans bike) and met a worthy donor for this trusted stead. I left the bike with Luis Miguel a young local who was keen for some transport.
I already know as suitably articulated in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ‘You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame’ that cycling through countries (or continents) offers so much more then the car. The slow pace really does open a clearer understanding of a country; it makes you more receptive to the subtle changes whether it is the visible transformation of the landscape, differing cultures between regions to the opinions of the locals. The achievement (and hardship) of knowing that the only way of getting from A to B is your legs and mind, at this pace allowing this engagement with all around you is simply joyous. Whilst experiencing new roads heightens this to a level that reminds you why your bike is your preferred choice of transport, whether on newly discovered back roads in your local neighborhood or the rock-strewn roads of Cuba. It’s the experience of difference.
I can now definitely recommend Cuba as a cycling destination. Despite seeing no other cycling tourists on my travels it was incredibly safe and everyone was certainly accommodating and only to happy to offer their clear generosity. It’s something the world over with people able to connect to the cyclist whether it’s through offers of shelter, drink or guidance maybe it’s out of pity coupled by the tired look of desperation. The country has a wealth of experiences whether it’s the varied landscape that one can witness on its quieter roads, the genuine locals to the ability to learn its history through the places visited. I can now say I’m that bit more educated about Cuba, its past and present and the legacy of Fidel Castro and Che in defining historical events and current souvenir sales. Although not the largest country it offers enough back roads for the sense of discovery, the joy that comes from small less visited towns with accommodation and mandatory rice and that shared international sign of crazy from the warm locals.
Although already having plans for the next self supported continent crossing trip in addition I now have to convince my wife that I think it’s a great idea of when now travelling together that I should take a bike over a couple of weeks beforehand for these more simplistic shorter trips, based on the agenda of take a bike, ride a bike, leave a bike.
Thanks for reading.
Please check out my site for photos of this trip, Africa and a few others. Even buy some that way I can fund another trip in the hope of entertaining you again! All sales will support http://www.worldbicyclerelief.org/ through 20% of each photo.
Cuba – http://sevenbythree.com/portfolio/place/cuba/
Africa - http://sevenbythree.com/portfolio/place/