Back in T.O. after a Great Bicycle Tour of Cuba’s Oriente

Whew- I made it!  My bike tour of eastern Cuba (el Oreinte) is done. The map below shows the towns I passed through on my circuit through some of Cuba’s most stunning scenery- and vibrant towns.

It has almost been four weeks since I flew back to Toronto from Holguin, Cuba at the end of a 99% trouble-free bike tour which covered about 1100 kilometres of the eastern end of this Caribbean island.  It’s been a while since that day at the end of December when I returned home with a bike box and my tuned-up bike from the bike shop-

The morning of the day I flew down would be the last one in a while that my dog Viggo and I would explore the Don River valley near our home in Toronto-

The under-four-hour Air Canada flight from Toronto to Holguin was uneventful. I did  ask the guy at the oversized baggage counter to keep my bike box upright as he put it flat on the conveyor belt; he phoned a baggage handler to come and pick it up for custom delivery further down the line. From their reaction I got the feeling that they  do not really take the time to read the handling instructions on the boxes they deal with.  It cost $50. CDN  to ship the bike plus an additional $18. for a second checked piece of baggage for a total of $68.

I was quite apprehensive about one thing in my baggage as I went through Cuban customs at Frank Pais International; in fact, I had lost sleep thinking about it!  It was the GPS beacon- a Spot Connect- that I was bringing along, knowing that it was, if not illegal to bring into Cuba, then at least subject to all sorts of forms and requests and fees so as to make it better to leave at home.  What the Spot Connect does is create a real-time trail of  your locations so that someone at home can follow along and know where you are.  It also has the ability when paired with a smart phone to send brief email messages (45 characters maximum) to pre-arranged email addresses.  Given that I was going on my own, and given the intentionally pathetic state of internet in Cuba, the device makes absolute sense for any adventure traveller in Cuba. Well, long story short, after all the worry, i was waved through customs in seconds.  Nobody official wanted to see or open anything- not my carry-on bag, not my bike bags, not the bike box!  They weren’t even interested in the Shimano pedal cleats on the bottoms of my shoes which I thought might make the metal detector beep!  Welcome to Cuba- leave all of your preconceived ideas and expectations at the door!

It was about 7:00 p.m. when I got a cab to take me to my casa particular in Holguin- the driver Frank had a van which seated eight and had lots of room for my bike.  I was in such a hurry to leave the airport- not being able to believe my good fortune, I had forgotten to go to the money exchange kiosk- that when we got to the Casa Liba I realized that I did not have any pesos.  Frank was willing to take some Canadian money- I was figuring on about $15 to $18 so was a bit surprised to hear him say $22.  I guess, given the size of the vehicle, it was a reasonable charge.  I had told myself that I was wasn’t going to make a scene about being overcharged  a dollar or two during my Cuba adventure- in the grand scheme of things,  I figure  it really means little to me!  (I might mention that the ride back to the airport three weeks later from the Casa Liba cost me $12. and I gave the guy a $3. tip.)

My first day in Cuba was spent putting the bike together and exploring Holguin a little. In particular, I visited the two miradors- cycling the 8 km or so to the lookout at the Villa de Mayabe and then walking from the Casa Liba up the steps to the viewpoint overlooking Holguin.

Holguin panorama … click on photo to enlarge!

At both  viewpoints I noticed a bird coasting on the wind currents above.  “An eagle!” I thought. “How auspicious at the beginning of my journey!” Just like Alexander’s eagle, a sign that his father Zeus was looking over him in Oliver  Stone’s movie! And then I reminded myself- “Peter, you couldn’t even describe the difference between a sea gull and a hawk! Who knows what that bird is? For all you know it could be a vulture- and how auspicious would that be?”

The Turkey Vulture-a common sight in Cuba!

Further research when I got home told me that it was indeed a vulture.  It also was a lesson in not reading too much (or anything at all!)  into stuff that happens to you or around you- and something I will remember as I describe my bicycle trip in Cuba under the following headings:

1. The Roads of Cuba (click on title to see)

2. Food and Accommodation (click on title to see)

3. Culture and Society (still working on this!)

I came back from Cuba knowing more facts about Cuba,  but I also find myself less sure about exactly what it all means.  While it was definitely a worthwhile trip, I’m left with the obvious feeling that  the reality of  Cuba is more complex than a three-week visit with an guaranteed exit flight will allow me to grasp.

The Roads of Cuba’s Oriente- The View From My Bicycle Saddle

I was not sure what to expect of  the 1100 kilometers of roads that made up my tour of eastern  Cuba (referred to as Oriente in Spanish).  The satellite map below shows my route. All that is missing are the bumps and cracks and potholes and smooth parts too that I would become very familiar with!

(All images enlarge with a click; all blue text leads to a related page with a click.)

my Bicycle Trip Route in  Oriente or eastern Cuba –  click here  for an interactive Google view that you can zoom in on

(If you’re looking for a downloadable map set here is a link that will get you what you need. Remember that GPS devices are still being confiscated in Cuba in mid-2012 so be prepared for a potential hassle- or loss of your device- if you bring it.  I did bring a GPS tracking device (the SPOT Connect) so my wife could follow my route. Luckily, they did not notice it. I did hide it every time I approached an army check point at the entry of some cities.)

Quite simply, the roads were much better than I had expected! This isn’t to say that there aren’t any rough stretches but your legs keep those wheels turning and you do another 20  kilometres in an hour and the rough stretch is already forgotten and you are focussed on the next stretch. I picked the following pictures mostly because they illustrate something about the condition of the roads.

Invaluable for my trip was the guidebook  Bicycling Cuba  by Wally and Barbara Smith. (I just took along the final 50 pages of the book dealing with Oriente- it saved me carrying  270 extra grams for 17 days. However, given that a liter of water weighs over 2 pounds or 1000 grams, and I often carried two or three liters of water, maybe I should just have left the book intact!)

The roads from Holguin to Guardalavaca were A+, certainly as good as anything I cycle in southern Ontario.  Maybe the volume of bus traffic shuffling “snowbirds” (i.e. Canadian tourists)  from the airport to the all-inclusive resorts along the Guardalavaca strip is the explanation for the top-grade quality.

Click on all images to enlarge; click on all blue text to see the related web page.

the road to Guardalavaca from Holguin

I saw very little  traffic over 90% of the roads I travelled, the obvious exceptions being the leaving and entering of towns.  Horse-drawn carriages were a common sight along certain stretches of the tour.

my touring bike- a 1990 Miyata with MEC panniers

You’ll notice that my bicycle is not a mountain bike with super wide tires.  It is a classic touring bike, a 1990 Miyata 600GT with a chromoly frame and  700mm rims.  For this trip I did replace the 28mm Continental Gatorskin tires with a wider 32mm Continental tire called the Touring Plus.  I liked the extra kevlar reinforcement that they had (at the cost of some extra weight) and the fact that the recommended air pressure was in the 70-80 psi range instead of 95-115. It was no problem keeping them properly inflated with my Topeak Road Morph pump. As it was, I did not get even one flat during the trip and I can’t really think of an occasion where I thought even wider tires would be better. Mind you, I have never had a mountain bike so having anything more than 32mm on the road would be a new experience for me.  The only equipment failure I had was my handlebar bag; from the first day the clamps holding the bag itself to the bar kept slipping downwards.  I ended up putting the bag on top of my rear pannier rack, which meant stopping every time I needed something from the bag.

going to Guardalavaca- notice the excellent road surface

the road from Guardalavaca to Banes

The good road continued from Guardalavaca inland to Banes, the major difference being the introduction of some hill climbing.  I stopped along the way to spend an hour visiting Cuba’s largest and most significant pre-Columbian archaeological site at Chorro de Maita.

a memorable rough stretch of road from Banes to Mayari

Perhaps the worst stretch of road I travelled was a short stretch of road going from the junction to Guardalavaca SE to Highway 123.  You can see  the Google Maps view of what I’m talking about here.

a fellow traveller on the road to Moa from Mayari

The day’s ride from Mayari to Moa (map here) was one of the longer ones, involving some climbing in lower gears. It was along this stretch that I caught up with Lars, a German cyclist with whom I’d team up  for the next three days.  Given the hills and the heat after about 10:30, we found shaded spots every 45 minutes or so and got out the water and an energy bar and took it easy.  I had left Mayari around 7:00 and we got to the Hotel Miraflores in Moa around 3:30.

from Moa to Playa Maguana some rough stretches

The road from Moa to Baracoa  (map here) is quite hilly and badly eroded in parts. Luckily it is not a really long stretch- only about 80 kilometres- and my itinerary broke it up into two days, with a stop at the Villa Maguana, near the playa with the same name so it wasn’t too bad. On the plus side it was quite scenic and the rivers that come tumbling down from the mountains to the ocean provided a nice pit stop from the heat of the road.

mi amigo alemán cooling his engine!

on the way to Playa Maguana

Occasionally you come across sections of road with multiple layers of pavement just begging for a proper archeological examination of the various strata- stuff from the 1960′s underneath stuff from the early 1980′s underneath newer pavement from the late 1990′s, and each layer’s content just a bit different than the other.   The trick is to weave your way through it all with the minimum number of bumps to the rim.  And always- especially on downhills- I was on the lookout for the expected rogue pothole, ready to swallow up my bicycle, or at least render my front rim completely warped and unusable.

the lush coastal forest on the way to Humboldt National Park

one of the messier bits on the way to Playa Maguana

Once you get near to Baracoa the road quality goes up and stops being an issue all the way to Santiago de Cuba.

downtown Baracoa

However, you do have the Carretera de la Farola to contend with! It is the dramatic high mountain road which connects the steamy jungle ecosystem of the Baracoa side with the desert-like south coast.  There is definitely a bit of climbing to be done- and just as definitely, one hell of an incredible blast down the other side once you’ve paid your dues. I went over on a Monday morning – starting later than I had wanted to start because I had to stay in town for the opening of the Cadeca (money exchange bureau) at 8:30. Also, it would rain most of the morning as I did the difficult part- cycling up to the top.  I regret now not taking more pictures as I did so- but then again, I could have used a waterproof camera that morning.  My two cameras were tucked away inside multiple plastic bags! And coming down- well, you hate to stop your incredible descent at 50 km an hour to snap a photo, revelling instead in the moment and the giddy feeling of  you, your bike, and the world itself being one. :( still keeping in mind that rogue pothole ready to take it all away from you!  Faster than you expect you are in another world.  Now you are here-

the southern end of the Farola

from humid jungle to desertscape. The Wild West?- nope- just off Cuba’s southern coast road

rainbow along the southern coast

The road along the coast towards Rio Yacobo is mostly flat with the occasional hill when the road dekes in from the coast as in the following shot-

If the day had started off rainy and wet, it ended sunny and dry as I made my way to my first and only campismo of the trip.  From El Castillo in Baracoa to Campismo Rio Yacobo- a contrast, for sure!  (Click here for the post which deals with  food and accommodation in detail.)

on the road about 20 kilometres south of Guantanamo

el ciclista extranjero- y un poco loco?

Or is that el yuma loco?  I’ll consider the right description in the chapter on society and culture coming soon!

a bici-taxi and some two-wheeled traffic in Guantanamo City

From the Hotel Gauntanamo to downtown Santiago was almost 100 km but the road was fine all the way and traffic was quite light except for leaving Gauntanamo at 7:30 a.m. I was heading towards Cuba’s “second city” and my casa near Parque Cespedes.

the view of Parque Cespedes in downtown Santiago from the Casa Granda terrace bar

My two favourite days of cycling were those spent going from Santiago to Marea del Portillo.   The scenery along the southern coast looked like this-  the Caribbean Sea and gravelly beaches to my left, a sometimes battered road below me, and the Sierra Maestra to my right, and above an unrelenting sun shining in a blue sky that contrasted with the different shades of blue of the Caribbean.

And the road? Yes, time and nature have not been kind to man’s efforts to impose a ribbon of pavement along the southern coast of Cuba.  Had I been travelling in a van or a tourist bus on the way to my all-inclusive resort, I’m sure I would be talking about the road to Hell.  On a bicycle it really isn’t that bad.  While there are some rough stretches- and those are the places where tourists will stop to take their pictures (as you will see in a moment!)- the road is not the biggest challenge here.  If anything, I found the lack of shade and the feeling of being sandwiched between the heat of the sun above and of the pavement below that had been absorbing the sun’s energy all morning to be more of a concern. This is where I finally packed away my cycling helmet and put on my wide-brimmed cotton Tilley hat- it really helped to cool me down.

a stretch of road on the way to Chivirico

the road snaking west along the water’s edge to Chivirico on the left

I took the above shot from my room above the bay at the Brisas Los Galeones.  To see the road on the way to Chivirico more clearly click the Google map here.

Going west from Chivirico you come to collapsed bridges and places where the waves have eaten away at the road’s foundation- it is all very dramatic but in truth only makes up 10% of the distance travelled. Here is the best of the worst!

closed to motorized vehicles- but no problem for a bicycle!

Note the gravel road to the side which the jeeps, vans, and tourist buses take.  Add some nifty potholes and you have one bumpy ride. On a bicycle it really isn’t that bad.

And then it is time to leave the coast. Just west of Pilon the road turned inland and took  me over the Sierra Maestra.  A couple of energy bars and a few water breaks later, I was near the high point with some exhilarating downhill as the reward.

the top of the pass through the Sierra Maestra from Pilon to Niquero

the streets of Niquero on a quiet Sunday afternoon

The riding for the rest of the trip, all the way back to Holguin, was easy on mostly flat terrain with the occasional hill. Shade was provided by the fields of sugar cane that came close to the road.

on the road to Manzanillo from Niquero

blue sky, green/yellow sugar cane plants, rough paved road- the three layers

on the road to Manzanillo

the final day- the road to Holguin from Bayamo

dry winter landscape on the way to Holguin from Bayamo

the covered courtyard of the Villa Liba in Holguin

My trip ended where it began some seventeen days before- in the covered courtyard of my casa particular in Holguin, the Villa Liba. While I was taking off the pedals,  the handlebar,  and front wheel to put the bike back into the box,   I looked up through the metal grill covering to see the same birds- the auspicious eagles or the “bad news” vultures!- that  I had seen at the Mirador Mayabe at the beginning of the trip. It seemed like a nice bookend to my Cuban adventure.   As luck would have it, by the time my camera was ready to shoot,  the swooping birds were out of view and did not appear again.  A few hours later I got to take a last shot of a different kind of “bird’ as my Cuban adventure ended!

Frank Pais Airport west of Holguin- going back to YYZ!

I’ve uploaded a few other posts dealing with cycling in Cuba:

1. Useful Information and Links For Planning a Cuban Bicycle Trip

2. food and accommodation are dealt with here

 

Cycling Cuba’s Oriente: Food and Accommodation

Before I left home I made use of  two online sources-Cubaism and Cuba Travel Network-  to book eleven of my eighteen nights’ worth of accommodation.  I am happy to say that they were 100% reliable- there were no hassles or mix-ups at all. Everyone was expecting me and it took very little time to check in.  By the time I got back to Toronto I even found emails from both companies asking for evaluations of each of their hotels I had booked!

my single most expensive accommodation- $110. at the Brisas Guardalavaca

my cheapest night’s stay- 5 CUC’s at Campismo Rio Yacobo

the good life at Brisas Guardalavaca

the bandshell at Brisas Guardalavaca

The one drawback of pre-booking your accommodation is that you lose the flexibility of making it up as you go along.  Given that I had never been to Cuba before,  one reason I booked my accommodation was to eliminate the need to worry about finding each night’s room at the end of a day of cycling, especially given the scarcity of accommodation along stretches of the road I cycled in Oriente.  I also felt better having pre-paid for the rooms via credit card while I was still at home, instead of having to have tourist pesos or credit card ready to pay as I travelled along.  The prices  ranged from $110. CDN for the night at Brisas Guardalavaca to $27. a night for stays at Islazul Moa, Guantanamo, and Hotel Niquero.  The 5 CUC at the Campismo Rio Yacobo on the way from Baracoa to Guantanamo was the cheapest by far! The Islazul hotels were as cheap as most casas particulares but the food was much worse!

In retrospect,  I needn’t have booked the room at El Castillo in Baracoa because there are lots of casas available- but El Castillo was a terrific place to stop for a couple of days. One can get a little bit too caught up in the “saving $25.” mindset when bicycle touring- I figure when you’re spending $1500. + on your adventure a few more dollars does not really make that much of a difference.  Maybe it is just a sign that I’m getting older and appreciate some comfort and luxury at the end of a hard day working in the sun!

Casas particulares were a different story.  I stayed in various casas a third of the time (Holguin, Banes, Mayari, Santiago, and Manzanillo).  Of the three I had pre-arranged with phone calls the night before, only one honoured the reservation. The rest did make arrangements with another casa owner to put me up for the night.  Food at the casas was plentiful and sometimes even memorable!

Casa Las Delicias in Banes…Calle Augusto Blanca #1107- my private entrance was on the left side

The Best Casa Particular(es)

It is a toss-up between Casa Liba in Holguin and Casa Delicias in Banes and San Carlos Hostal in Santiago.  Each provided a comfortable place to relax and made me feel at home.  The owners were all very sociable and helpful- making phone calls, providing information, accommodating my early morning breakfast requests, and coming up with something not involving meat or fish for a vegetarian guest.  I’d recommend any and all of them to a friend visiting Cuba and looking for a place to stay.

The Best All-Inclusive Resort

I stayed at the Guardalavaca Brisas, the Chivirico Los Galeones, and Marea del Portillo’s Club Amigo Farallon.  They all provide exactly what you’d expect for the money you’re paying so in that sense they were all fine. I did find the atmosphere at the Chivirico resort the nicest- this is probably because it was the smallest of the three, with only 32 units available (and some of those were apparently shut down for renovation). It also had a Canadian flag draped in the central courtyard. I thought I had dropped in on a Canuck retirement community! If you’re not from The True North it might be less charming.

Chivirico Los Galeones- 32 units around the swimming pool

The other two places were massive in comparison.  I will admit to looking around at my hundreds of fellow diners at suppertime, after unexpectedly having a pretty difficult time putting an interesting veggie meal together, and thinking- “What the hell  am I doing here?”  Well, eating as much as I wanted of food that was filling if not much else, filling up my water bottles for the next day’s ride and putting them in the room fridge, watching satellite TV in my room, which was nicely cooled thanks to air conditioning, walking along some pretty nice stretches of beach- that is what I was doing.  In the end, you just have to stand back and say- “It’s all good”. In its own way, of course!

a view from Chivirico Los Galeones- post-processed for a HDR look

The Best Islazul Hotel

Islazul is the budget line of Cuban state-owned hotels.  $30. seems to get you a room in most of them.  I stayed in the following during my trip- Hotel Miraflores in Moa, Hotel Guantanamo, and Hotel Niquero.  While all were in need of some tender loving care and maintenance, all were quite adequate for the money they were charging. Showers worked, the rooms were secure, the front desk people were helpful, breakfast was included.

in front of the Hotel Miraflores getting ready for the ride from Moa to Playa Maguana

At Moa’s Miraflores they had a breakfast buffet which made for an efficient way of dealing with the morning diners streaming in at 7:00 a.m. The Guantanamo decided to go with individual orders for breakfast, which would then be taken individually back to the kitchen, and brought out individually.  I got there at 6:55 a.m. and watched one rather inefficient waitress put down the place settings at each table. She was still at it at 7:15 as more and more diners streamed in.  Still no coffee or even the hint of food or even of an order- no, each time someone new came in the most important thing to do was return to the area where the plates and cutlery were stored and return to set yet another table.  I actually left at 7:20 figuring that it would take another hour before I would actually be served.  I had a couple of energy bars instead and  set off for the 100 km. ride to Santiago.  That evening I’d  have a great supper at the San Carlos Hostal, along with a couple of mojitos.

my veg meal at Hotel Miraflores- rice with a hint of beans, tomato (salad!),and bland shredded cabbage

The Best Food

Cuba would not seem to be a destination for anyone looking for great cooking.  Looking for great vegetarian cuisine? That is even more ridiculous.  Somehow even the pepper tastes bland in Cuba- past its expiry date or diluted, who can say how they do it!  But decent meals can be had here and there.  Señor Mezerene’s cucinera Lydia at the Casa Liba in Holguin prepared some very tasty meals during my two day stay there; the folks at the Casa Las Delicias filled the table with edible dishes.  All in all, the three best places I found for vegetarian food were at the already-mentioned San Carlos Hostal in Santiago, the Casa Liba in Holguin, and a restaurant in Baracoa called El Colonial.

El Colonial Restaurant during the daytime

the Colonial at night time…waiting for the calalou (vegetable stew)

The Worst Restuaurant

In Bayamo I found my first vegetarian restaurant.  The most recent edition of Lonely Planet’s Cuba has what, in hindsight, is a ridiculously generous review of its offerings.  Granted I paid for what I got in moneda nacional (perhaps the equivalence of 1 CUC), so it may be unkind to be overly critical.  However, as sad as the overcooked and reheated spaghetti and micro dollop of gel-like tomato sauce looked as it was placed in front of me, to go along with some on-the-way-to stale bread, the worst thing was the indifference shown by the late-teen/early 20′s waitress.

a page of the menu at Bayamo’s Vegetarian Restaurant

She could only look at me as if were mad when I asked her if she was a vegetarian. I never did press her to repeat exactly why the door of the restaurant was locked at 6:45 when I tried to get in and why she locked it again as soon as I got in- and  my question as to why pollo and cerdo were on the menu got a cursory “no se”.  I am just glad I wasn’t sitting there with more yumas with Lonely Planet guides.  Like the Hotel Guantanamo at breakfast, this place reminded me of the saying that in a socialist paradise the workers pretend to work and the government pretends to pay them.  Had I not been a vegetarian I may well have ended up at this place instead-

the hamburger joint across the street from the veg place

The door was open, it wasn’t busy…but no grain or tofu burgers! Vegetarianism  does not really seem to be something that the locals want to embrace.  It’s got to be a poor little piglet on a stake over some coals. However, I should remember  that 95% of the folks living around me right here in Toronto are no more interested in vegetarianism than Cubanos are.  Time to end my little rant…

The Hotel with the Best Views

El Castillo in Baracoa is a great place to stay for the views alone.  The excellent breakfast, the okay lunches by the swimming pool, the very clean room and the friendliness of  the staff- well, it is everything that Restaurante Vegetariano that I told you about just now was not!  Click on some of the following panoramas to make them bigger! They were all taken from the balcony of the El Castillo.

a view of downtown Baracoa- the yellow building in the middle  by the water is Hotel La Russa

I also really liked the views from my balcony at the Brisas Galeones.  Yes, the 5 CUC’s the manager  charged me to change my room from an inland facing to a sea-view room may have been easy money for him, and yes it was dark at 6:30 anyways so the view wasn’t there for long- but in the meanwhile it was great to sit there and inhale the scenery.  I rested my camera on the balcony railing and got these shots near sunset-

looking east from the Chivirico Los Galeones at sunset

Chivirico sunset

If you want to find out about the roads and what kind of shape they’re in, click here  for some of my impressions.

Useful Info For Planning A Bicycle Tour in Eastern Cuba

Cuba is a lot bigger than I thought.  In the end focussing on the eastern and southern end of Cuba was the right way to go about creating an eighteen-day 1100 kilometer  bicycle tour.  From what I read, I ended up picking the best of Cuba in terms of dramatic scenery and traffic-free roads.  From the hurricane-battered road between Moa and Baracoa, the epic (in Cuban terms!) ride over La Farola to get to the Caribbean coast, and the fantastic ride along the southern coast almost all the way to the western tip-  this is cycling in Cuba at its best. A bonus is spending some time in Cuba’s second largest city- Santiago. the pulsating heart of Cuba’s music scene.

The trip up from Bayamo or Holguin to Santa Clara is not described by most in positive terms; the cyclists coming from the north of Cuba that I met on my tour also said as much. Even the guidebooks suggest ways of bypassing the central stretch of the island from Holguin to Santa Clara. As for cycling around Havana, it  sounds too much like bicycling in or around a big metropolitan area.

The favourite destination of tour companies- west to Vinales from Havana is always a possibility for some future trip. Compared to the road from Baracoa to Guantanamo or the one from Santiago to Pilon, it sounds pretty flat and tame, which may be why touring companies like it, given that they have to take into account that they will have a whole range of clients, some of whom will not be in the best of shape .  Bike tours cater to the average. If you’re an avid cyclist you’ll probably get a bit impatient with the pace of the trip and the fact that the slowest people get to set it.

my Cuba Bike Trip map- Oriente or eastern Cube

Click here if you want an interactive Google map of the above that you can zoom in on.

While the odds of spotting a bike tour of  Cuba’s Oriente on someone’s “bucket list” is remote, it is not as if no one has ever done the trip before!  I spent a bit of time googling and found all sorts of useful accounts, summaries, tips and road info that kindred spirits have posted before me.  Here are some of the posts that I found very helpful in getting my trip off the ground:

                                    just click on the blue text

1. the discussion on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree Forum which got me going

2. two cyclists from Saskatchewan do a two week tour of Oriente in March 2008

3. a Dutch couple cycles Oriente in 2003

4. an account of an October 2011 Oriente tour that begins in Santiago and ends in Baracoa eight days later (pretty impressive, given the 17 days I have set aside!)

5. one of the better organized commercial tour companies who may provide exactly what you want for your Cuban cycling adventure

If you’re a Brit (and even if you’re not) there are a couple of U.K. adventure travel companies that have Cuba trips on offer-

6. Exodus’ Cycling Cuba trip- a two week sample of Cuba’s roads

7. a similar package from Saddle Skedaddle titled Cuba Revolutions

Useful Books To Look For:

There are a couple of books which come up when people discuss cycling in Cuba.  Both were published a decade ago and could use updates. The first is Lonely Planet’s Cycling Cuba by Rosa Jordan and D. Choukalos, which was published in 2002.  The Toronto library system has massive holdings but it doesn’t have this one.  I did find it listed on Amazon (see here) but it was categorized as “currently unavailable”.

The other book is Bicycling Cuba (50 Days of Detailed Rides From Havana to Pinar Del Rio and Oriente) by Wally and Barbara Smith, the first and only edition also published in 2002.

The Smiths do have a website (click here)  where you can find some updated info and find out about the book. I found a new copy available on Amazon and spent the $30. to get it ($10. for the shipping!).  Click here  for info.   It was definitely worth the expense- lots of maps, useful info and tips and road descriptions and a gear list that should ensure that you will have what you need.  I ended up taking the last section- the 100 pages on Oriente- along for the ride.  I may use the material on the ride west from Havana on a future ride.

One thing I that I initially planned to do- before I knew how Cuba works- was bring my lightweight tent along- as well as a sleeping bag.  Check out the first of the following links to see why in the end  I did not.  Click on the others for other topics.

Why To Bicycle Cuba’s Oriente- And Where To Stay When You Get There

Cuba’s oriente – food and accommodation 

The Roads of Cuba’s Orient- A Bicyclist’s Perspective

Why To Bicycle Cuba’s Oriente – And Where to Stay When You’re There

 

All images enlarge in a new window with a click; all blue text is clickable.

Cuba is a lot bigger than I thought.  In the end focussing on the eastern and southern end of Cuba was the right way to go about creating an eighteen-day 1100 kilometer  bicycle tour.  From what I later read, I ended up picking the best of Cuba in terms of dramatic scenery and traffic-free roads.  From the hurricane-battered road between Moa and Baracoa, the epic (in Cuban terms!) ride over La Farola to get to the Caribbean coast, and the fantastic ride along the southern coast almost all the way to the western tip –  this is cycling in Cuba at its best. A bonus is spending some time in Cuba’s second largest city – Santiago. the pulsating heart of Cuba’s music scene.

my Cuba Bike Trip map- Oriente or eastern Cube

Click here if you want an interactive Google map of the above that you can zoom in on.

After checking out a number of organized bicycling trips in Cuba, I decided that what I really wanted was something a bit more challenging and less dependent on sag wagons that these trips offered. The organized tours do offer a great opportunity to do some cycling without the need to organize anything. This is great for anyone who does not have a lot of time or inclination to do the pre-trip research and planning. I actually like doing that kind of stuff (maybe the fact that I was a school teacher for 35 years has something to do with the desire to be in control of all the details!) Also, doing it on my own gets me away from that English-language bubble I would be experiencing Cuba in if I were to do it with a group of fellow cyclists from the U.K. or North America.  This way  I’ll be forced to do all the asking and negotiating by myself in Spanish instead of having a tour leader do it all for me.

The favourite destination of tour companies- west to Vinales from Havana is always a possibility for some future trip. Compared to the road from Baracoa to Guantanamo or the one from Santiago to Pilon, it sounds pretty flat and tame, which may be why touring companies like it, given that they have to take into account that they will have a whole range of clients, some of whom will not be in the best of shape .  Bike tours cater to the average. If you’re an avid cyclist you’ll probably get a bit impatient with the pace of the trip and the fact that the slowest people get to set it.

If organizing everything yourself does not appeal to you- or if a more leisurely pace suits you just fine- then there are companies out there who can provide what you want. Here are a few I looked into as I got a handle on what I wanted to do-

a Canadian company- WowCuba- that has been doing this for quite a while-  one of the better organized commercial tour companies who may provide exactly what you want for your Cuban cycling adventure

If you’re a Brit (and even if you’re not) there are a couple of U.K. adventure travel companies that have Cuba trips on offer-

 Exodus’ Cycling Cuba trip- a two week sample of Cuba’s roads

a similar package from Saddle Skedaddle titled Cuba Revolutions

My choice of Oriente began with a thread I found in the Thorntree Forum (Lonely Planet’s traveller post). Further research turned up a number of cyclistas who had done the trip before.
Then I found a copy of Bicycling Cuba and read through it. I eventually bought my own copy.  The Smiths do have a website (click here)  where you can find some updated info and find out about the book. I found a new copy available on Amazon and spent the $30. to get it ($10. for the shipping!).  Click here  for info.   It was definitely worth the expense – lots of maps, useful info and tips and road descriptions and a gear list that should ensure that you will have what you need.  I ended up taking the last section – the 100 pages on Oriente – along for the ride.  I may use the material on the ride west from Havana on a future ride.

There is another book which comes up when people discuss cycling in Cuba.  It too was published a decade ago and could use an update. It is Lonely Planet’s Cycling Cuba by Rosa Jordan and D. Choukalos, which was published in 2002.  The Toronto library system has massive holdings but it doesn’t have this one.  I did find it listed on Amazon (see here) but it was categorized as “currently unavailable”.

Back to why I chose Oriente as my first visit to Cuba- The clincher came when I checked Air Canada’s flights to Cuba and saw that they had twice-weekly direct flights to Holguin.  Air Canada also takes on bicycles for a $50. charge- either boxed by you or bagged by them.  I liked the idea of avoiding Havana and the pandemonium of Cuba’s largest city on my first trip to Cuba-  Holguin was a perfect entry point and it made sense of the idea of focussing on the eastern part of the island on this trip. (I’ve already filed away a plan to cycle from Holguin to Havana next January.)
So here is the plan- fly to Holguin, put my bike back together, and over the next seventeen days bicycle about 1000 kilometres  around the coastal edges of Oriente, finding my way back to Holguin and the airport on the day of my flight back to Toronto.   Check out the map below for an overview of the route I mapped out-

Post Script- The trip actually unfolded pretty much the way I planned it. The only thing I changed was a day less in Niquero and a day more in Bayamo.  The following links will lead you to components of the trip report: 1. road conditions;  2. food and accommodation

Where To Stay When You  Get There:

Picture this- it is 2:00 p.m. and you’ve been cycling along the coastal roads of eastern Cuba and you spot a beautiful stretch of uninhabited beach. It is hot and you decide that this is where you will be spending the rest of the day. You wheel your bike towards the beach and lean it against the tree while you go about putting up the tent in the shade. Soon you are in the water in your own little piece of paradise and looking back at your tent- the end of another great day on the move.

That is how I thought it might be when the idea of Cuba first crossed my mind. Island, beaches, tent…freedom. Not every night but maybe every other. The original plan was to take along my lightest tent (a 1 kg. Big Agnes UL Fly Creek) along with my lightest sleeping bag and a Thermarest pad. I figured I would spend maybe a third to a half of the nights camping and find accommodation for the rest of the time.

Well, it turns out that Cuba doesn’t really work that way. Camping is not encouraged and may even be illegal. There aren’t any KOA campgrounds along the highway or down by the beach. You can, of course, find online accounts of keen cyclists who have camped in the “wild” and had a great time but given that the locals don’t really want you to be doing it, I have decided to pass up on the tenting option this first time in Cuba.  Check out this Lonely Planet thread  for a discussion of camping on the beach in Cuba.

So my load will definitely be a little lighter thanks to my revised plans. It does turn out that Cuba has campismosused mostly by Cubans on vacation but sometimes open to tourists. These are not tenting places but rather campgrounds with rentable huts. Of the eighteen nights I’ll be needing accommodation in Cuba, I plan to stay in one campismo. Campismo Yacobo Abajo is on the way from Baracoa to Guantanamo and will make a great stop after my ride over the Farola, the mountain road that crosses the Sierra Cristal. The fact that I’ll be passing through on a Monday may complicate things if it is closed (as campismos often are from Monday to Thursday). I’ll phone ahead from Baracoa to make arrangements. Time will tell!

My number one choice of accommodation ended up being tourist hotels and resorts. I went this route because I wanted some degree of security and insurance built into my trip. (You may not like the idea of being boxed in and committed to the degree I have accepted for this trip.) I was able to book a number of places on-line so I know that there is a room waiting for me on a particular night. Being able to prebook and prepay also means that I don’t have to travel around with a lot of money on me or make frequent use of my VISA card while there (along with the 15% service and administrative charges). I booked a room at the Brisas in Guardalavaca for one night- it will be my single most expensive stop. It does include lunch, dinner, and breakfast, and may provide me with food I can take for the next day’s ride. I also booked a room at the Islazul Miraflores in Moa, my end point after a hard day’s cycle from Mayari. Down the road from Moa I splurged on a room at the idyllic Villa Maguana after what should be an interesting day’s cycle on what is left of the coastal roads after 2008′s Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. In Baracoa I booked two nights at El Castillo, the hotel with the view and the great restaurant according to the guide books. I also booked a room in the centrally located no-frills Islazul Hotel Guantanamo for the day after the stay at the campismo. Along the southern coast I have rooms booked at resorts in Chivirico and Marea del Portillo and then the Hotel Niquero (supposedly with satellite TV and a decent restaurant) as I head north towards Manzanillo. My last hotel will be the Hotel E Royalton in Bayamo.

The rest of the time I hope to sample what many consider to be the best option when visiting Cuba- the casa particular, the Cubano version of a bed and breakfast. For the past decade or more Cubans who have gotten the appropriate licence have been able to rent out rooms to tourists. The going rate seems to be about $25. or so. I plan to stay in casas particulares in Holguin, Banes, Mayari, Santiago de Cuba, and Manzanillo- a total of seven nights. I think I have a room in Holguin and in Santiago but I have read that it not uncommon to show up and find out that your room has been rented out to someone who showed up earlier that day or has been there for a few days already. What happens in that case is that the owner will find you an alternative casa to stay in for the night. In the next few days- i.e. about ten days before I fly down- I plan to make phone contact with the folks in Holguin, Banes, and Mayari to let them know that I am definitely coming down! Gotta work on my Spanish in the meanwhile!

See here for my later posts different aspects  of the bike trip:

1. road conditions

2. food and accommodation