Related Post: The Roads of Cuba’s Oriente – The View From My Brooks Bicycle Saddle
Cuba si! ¿Pero dónde en Cuba?
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Cuba is a lot bigger than I thought! From the western tip at Sandino to the town of Baracoa at the island’s east end is over 1200 kilometers!
In the end, given that I couldn’t do it all, eastern and southern Cuba was the right choice for a fantastic eighteen-day 1100 kilometer introduction to the island. From what I’ve read and heard from other cyclists, I picked the best of Cuba in terms of dramatic scenery and traffic-free roads.
Eastern Cuba – El Oriente
From the hurricane-battered road between Moa and Baracoa, the epic (well, at least from a Cuban perspective!) 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 time in Cuba’s second-largest city – Santiago, the pulsating heart of Cuba’s music scene.
2. Central and Northern Cuba
As for the alternatives – 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.
3. Havana to Vinales – The Organized Tour Company Favourite
The favourite destination of tour companies – the area from Havana west to Vinales – is always a possibility for some future trip. However, compared to the road from Baracoa to Guantanamo or the one from Santiago to Pilon, it sounds pretty flat and tame. See the G Adventures Cuba offering here to see what I mean. Its main selling point is its convenience: It is close to the Havana airport that clients will be flying into, and it allows for fairly short – i.e. one week – trips that many travellers are looking for these days. I spent three weeks on my Cuba adventure!
Also, do note that packaged 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 you choose to do it on your own, you’ll also have to have some Spanish language skills and be okay with organizing it all yourself. While all of this takes time, resources and contacts are out there to make it fairly easy.
The reward for your effort?
- The trip will end up costing you 65% less.
- You’ll avoid travelling in an English-speaking bubble and experience a Cuba few gringos in the beach resorts do
- You will gain the confidence to organize other adventures when you see how easy this one was!
Click here to see the interactive Google map of the above for more detail.
Online Information On Bike Touring Cuba
While it is unlikely that a bike tour of Cuba’s Oriente will be on many people’s “bucket list,” it is not as if no one has cycled there before! I spent a bit of time googling and found useful accounts, summaries, tips and road info that like-minded travellers have posted before me. I also looked at the offerings of a number of travel agencies that have developed trips specifically for cyclists.
Here are some of the links that I found very helpful in planning my trip:
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. 1000 Miles of Cuba: the Oriente. An account of an October 2011 tour of eastern Cuba that begins in Santiago and ends in Baracoa 725 kilometers (450 miles) eight days later. The Orient route they did is the same as mine except for the missing section from Baracoa to Santiago, including the great ride over La Farola. Their other miles in Cuba were spent heading north from Holguin towards Havana.
Since I wrote this post, dozens of people who did what I did have also uploaded reports on their Cuba adventures. Google “Cuba bike tour report” and see what you come up with!
Some Organized Tour Group Options:
If you like having someone organize it all for you – the bike rental, the route, the accommodation – and also move your stuff from town to town while you cycle baggage-free, a few small group travel companies offer trips. (Prices current as of December 2016.)
The first two companies listed are based in the U.K.
- Exodus’ Cycling Cuba trip – a two-week sample of Cuba’s roads
- a similar package from Saddle Skedaddle titled Cuba Revolutions
The third company, Canada-based, has been doing cycling trips in Cuba for the past 20+ years and has developed an extensive network of contacts and resources to draw from. It also rents bikes out of its Havana office. How appropriate the bikes would be for loaded bicycle touring is an open question.
I’ll admit that I am shocked at the $335. U.S. a day that the Wow Cuba trip costs. WOW indeed!
Google around a bit, and you may find another organized tour being offered that has a route and a price more to your liking!
You can save a pile of money if you do it independently! I started by boxing my own bike and taking it along. There really are not many (if any) decent bike rental options in Cuba, and if there are, they would probably be in Havana. However, I flew direct from Toronto to the international airport near Holguin, which puts tourists close to the beach resorts in the Guardalavaca area.
I then spent the next three weeks on tour from Holguin to Moa to Santiago to Pilon and then back to Holguin via Bayamo (see the map above for the route and stops).
See this post for more info on the route I followed:
The Roads of Cuba’s Oriente – A Bicyclist’s Perspective
A couple of books come up when people discuss cycling in Cuba.
Both were published fifteen years ago and could use updates! The first is Lonely Planet’s Cycling Cuba by Rosa Jordan and D. Choukalos, published in 2002. The Toronto public library system has massive holdings but 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 published in 2002.
The Smiths have a website (click here) where you can find some updated info and learn about the book. I found a new copy on Amazon and spent $30. to get it ($10. for the shipping!). Click here for info. It was worth the expense – lots of maps, useful info and tips, road descriptions, and a gear list that should ensure you have what you need. I ended up taking just the 100-page section on Oriente along for the ride. I may use the material on the ride west from Havana on a future ride.
Check out the website titled TravellingTwo by two Canadians, Friedel and Andrew, for a downloadable guide to Bike Touring Basics – and read all about their Cuban experience at the same time. Their inspiring site is a goldmine of potential bike-touring destinations!
Where To Stay When You Get There:
Camping On the Beach?
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 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 would 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 my lightest tent (a 1 kg. Big Agnes UL Fly Creek), my lightest sleeping bag, and a Thermarest pad.
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 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. [Do note that the people commenting are not cyclists and, as often as not, have pulled up to their spot on the beach in their car.]
Campismos – Camping Cuban-style
So my load will be a little lighter thanks to my revised plans. It does turn out that Cuba has campismos, used 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 Yacubo Abajo is on the way from Baracoa to Guantanamo and will make a great stop after my ride over the Farola. This mountain road 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).
Update: see below for a photo of the room I got. It cost about US$1. and I had it to myself since there was no one else at the campismo that day!
Cuba Junky’s web page used to have information on campismos, but that web page is gone as of 2021. The website (click here to access) does have lots of other good information. Truth be told, campismos are meant to be places for vacationing Cubans and not for wealthy gringo tourists! That may be while the campismo page has been deleted.
Hotels and Resorts – Islazul and More Upscale
My number one choice of accommodation ended up being tourist hotels and resorts. I went this route because I wanted security and insurance built into my trip. (You may not like being boxed in and committed to the degree I have accepted for this trip.) I could book several places online, so I knew a room was waiting for me on a particular night. All of my reservations worked perfectly – no hassles whatsoever. I was quite impressed!
Being able to prebook and prepay also meant that I didn’t have to travel around with a lot of money or frequently use my VISA card (along with the 15% service and administrative charges). In fact, forget about using a VISA card, as almost no places will be equipped to deal with it!
– I booked a room at the Brisas in Guardalavaca for one night- it was my single most expensive stop. It did include lunch, dinner, and breakfast, and provided me with food and water for the next day’s ride.
– I also booked a room at the Islazul Miraflores in Moa, my endpoint after a long 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 guidebooks.
– 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 booked rooms at resorts in Chivirico and Marea del Portillo and then the Hotel Niquero as I headed north towards Manzanillo. My last hotel was the Hotel E Royalton in Bayamo.
Perhaps the Best Option – The Casa Particulares
The rest of the time, I sampled what many consider 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 license have been able to rent out rooms to tourists. The going rate seems to be about $25. or so. I stayed in casas particulares in Holguin, Banes, Mayari, Santiago de Cuba, and Manzanillo.
The Cuba Junky website has a list of casa particulares that are available.
You need some basic Spanish to get by, so any time you spend beforehand upping your fluency will be a plus! People sometimes approach you as you are cycling through town; they offer you illegal accommodation at their home, but it can be dicey. You will be taking someone’s bedroom for the night, and they will be getting tourist pesos – as long as they don’t get caught, sometimes turned in by jealous neighbours.
For more information and photos, check out the following posts –
Pingback: The Roads of Cuba’s Oriente- The View From My Bicycle Saddle | ramblin' boy
Excellent resource for me – many thanks. I’m planning flying to Holguin on 3rd Jan alone and more or less following your plan. I have 21 days and fly back from Havana so may travel by bus to Santana Clara and bike to Cuba from there. Did you travel alone and, if do, were there any difficulties? Thanks john carney irelxnd
John, I did the trip on my own. On the road I did meet a German cyclist near Mayari and we travelled together to Baracoa over two days. Other than that, it was just me and my Spanish language skills! Once or twice I did meet other cyclists and we exchange observations about road conditions and such.
If there is one thing you should do – you probably have already! – it is learn some basic Spanish. I took a Spanish class heavy in conversation before I went and it made a big difference! Your smartphone with the Google language app will also be very helpful – it did not exist when I was there!
Many thanks – and I wanted to go with a group initially but the tour company was taken over by a US parent and the new restrictions meant they had to cancel the trip for me. Im not overly disappointed as you said I would be in a group of English speaking people and perhaps not meet many real Cubans. I agree with you that Spanish is necessary and yes I’ve started on this exercise. I will be forced to communicate and will take a few resources including pictures of Ireland, family and interesting bits. I start in Holguin on 5th Jan and am looking forward to it. Thanks again for your help and taking the time to upload your experiences and pictures.
Bringing a photo album of your family and house and neighbourhood is a fantastic idea! I am planning on a return visit to Nepal and think I will do the same thing!
Re: learning Spanish. I found the Pimsleur lessons – I eventually did all 90 1/2 hour lessons – worked for me. You still have enough time to perhaps do the first 30!