Veer off the beach for a spin along Cuba’s northern coast
A week of salsa, cigars, cycling and plenty of post-riding mojitos
If you’re a fan of Varadero, Cuba’s stunning beaches and electric blue waters, you may have noticed us last February. We got off your flight, but our names were not on a resort clipboard. We sat to the side of your bus, along the dusty curb, waiting for the bus that runs between Havana and Varadero every three hours.
Armed with one bike pannier each, stuffed with tools and snacks, we were there to cycle from Havana to Matanzas.
Our plan was simple—rent bikes in Havana and ride east for about a week, 110 kilometres in total. Along the way, we would stay in casas particulares—bed and breakfast-style lodgings, that are run by government-approved families who provide rooms in their homes to tourists. While we didn’t know what to expect, one thing was certain—in Cuba, everyone bikes. Rusted single-speeds are the primary model, but that’s no bother because it’s a country particularly suited to cycling.
John Kirk, a professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, has been researching Cuba since 1976. He says cycling reached its Cuban zenith in the early 1990s, during what’s known as Cuba’s “Special Period.” During that time, more than 700,000 bikes were sold in Cuba.
“The Soviet Union imploded in 1989. Cuba had received approximately 95 per cent of its fuel from them, and suddenly that disappeared,” Kirk says. “So they imported several hundred thousand clunky bikes from China.”
“[Bikes] become very important in the rural areas and towns,” adds Catherine Krull, a professor at Ontario’s Queen’s University who also studies Cuban culture. “I remember being in one household where two bikes had been donated by a Canadian. The woman kept saying it was a miracle because it allowed her to work outside the home.”
Our ride was simple compared to the average Cuban bicycle use—three days of riding, mostly on paved roads, with just a few grinding hills to keep us working hard.
When Javier Pena, an employee at bike rental company CubaLinda, picks us up in Havana, he sounds an ominous warning: “Stealing bikes is a national sport in Cuba.” The sleek, Specialized mountain bikes we’ve rented are nicer than any we’ve owned in Canada, and we’re aware of how simple it would be for someone to grab one and earn a year’s worth of Cuban pesos.
On the first day of riding we don’t manage to pick up the bikes until 11 a.m., when the sun has already baked the city to 26°C. We ride in the midday heat from the rental shop down sleepless La Rampa, swerving between buses, cars and hundreds of pedestrians.
Turning right onto the Malecon, we follow its curve into Old Havana. The six-lane Malecon now sees cyclists in addition to the automobiles. We pass by spots we had spent the previous days admiring—the Partagas Cigar Factory and the Catedral de San Cristóbal. Arriving at the ferry terminal that will take us across the harbour to Casablanca, we realize there is no Humphrey Bogart in this version—we’re only five minutes away from Ernest Hemingway’s daiquiris at El Floridita and, while there can be no “real” Cuba to a tourist, Casablanca is one step closer. We ride through car-free streets and find ourselves in countryside thick with tobacco leaves but, oddly, people-free.
The trip to Guanabo, our first stop, is 30 km along the Via Blanca Highway. It takes us a solid three hours of biking before we reach the fun downhill whoosh, right into a hub of bars, restaurants and other stalls. Our plan is to bike one day, rest the next. And so we lay on the beach, wade into the almost-fake blue water. On menus everywhere around Cuba, you can order one of a hundred ham and cheese sandwiches. For dinner, we investigate rumours of an excellent Italian eatery, El Piccoli, by the beach. We get lost trying to find it, but a cafeteria worker takes our request for directions as a cue to shepherd us there herself, in her uniform, before running back to work.
Our next destination is a campismo—a campground with huts that have rooms and sinks at rates around US$10 to $30. The ride to Jibacoa Beach, another three-hour, 30-km trip from Guanabo Beach, is primarily along the highway. Highways might be easy riding, but they’re dull and the sun bakes the pavement quickly. We are often enveloped in a cloud of diesel smoke when cars pass, so we’re happy to take a ramp down through a winding, tree-lined road.
But soon we’re worried. Passing crumbling, abandoned shacks, we begin to question if our handbook is wrong about the tourist-friendly spot, Campismo Los Cocos. In the distance, we spot a compound with bright pink and yellow cabins, and we can hear music pumping from two kilometres away. We have found ourselves in Cuba’s Miami—the party ramps up in the morning, the pool is full and the kids are ruling the roost. For 30 Cuban Convertible Pesos ($31 Cdn.) we get two nights in a roomy cabin.
There’s no other way to say it: Jibacoa Beach is paradise. For our layover day we wade into the ocean, gawk at birds diving for fish and watch a baseball game at the local police station.
At 8:30 a.m. the longest, highest bridge in Cuba is already sizzling. At the Mirador de Bacunayagua lookout, we haul our giant bikes up the steps and round the corner, where we hear blenders before we even see the patio. Our fellow tourists are on their way to feeling punch-drunk already, and the smell of coconut rum drips off everything as they pause for photos.
It’s a stunning view from the Bacunayagua Bridge, but we’re exhausted from our ride, which has already included a five-kilometre uphill grind. Despite the much-vaunted view, I confess there were moments of envy—for the blended drinks, unlimited pool time, clean clothes, the pure R&R that comes with an all-inclusive holiday.
I remind myself that this is not the point. The point is we are trying to see parts of Cuba most people don’t. But I’m struggling—I want someone to have a clipboard with my name on it, just like when we arrived at the airport.
But there is no turning back, so we cross the bridge and turn down a dirt road that takes us through the Valle de Yumuri and eventually into Matanzas. The minute we turn off the Via Blanca, our mood improves—now this is a ride. Bumpy gravel roads meander through farmland, cows and goats graze beside the road and farmers with horse-led buggies tip their cowboy hats at us.
Ahead of us, we know what is coming. In conversations we’ve referred to it as The Hill . . . “If you think this is hard, what happens when we get to The Hill? Don’t worry, we can always walk up The Hill.”
And so we try to get ourselves pumped up before the grind but in no time the road up The Hill becomes so bumpy that we get off our bikes and push them. But the view from the summit rivals anything else we’ve seen—the Valle de Yumuri, with its cowboy-hat ranchers and huge swatch of tropical forest, has been stuck in my mind ever since. Soon, we find ourselves at our casa in urban Matanzas. An hour later, Javier pulls up in his car to pick up the bikes and just like that, our trip is done. Javier, for one, seems relieved—and surprised—that these two gringos had made it.
Cuba is not an easy country to travel around. Stepping off-resort to experience anything not pre-approved, is not part of the country’s plan for a tourist economy. It can be hard to move amongst the red tape. But despite some of the road conditions, the exhaustion, the language barriers and truly lacklustre food, it was worth conquering those massive mountains. That’s because Cuba’s beauty cannot be hidden, and it can’t always be witnessed from a bus window. The true spirit of Cuba lies in its complications.
Specialized Sirrus Expert Disc
Tools and accessories
Rat-trap, pannier, water bottles, many bungee cords, pump, wrenches, Allen keys, Leatherman knife