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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.
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 support vehicles 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 the inclination to do 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 Travel has a two-week sample of Cuba’s roads complete with shuttle van
a similar package from Saddle Skedaddle titled Cuba Revolutions
3. an 8- day October 2011 Oriente tour from Santiago to Baracoa (much more ambitious than the 17 days I spent to cover pretty much the same distance !)
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”.
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:
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 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 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. [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.]
So my load will definitely 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 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 knew that there was a room 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 means that I didn’t have to travel around with a lot of money on me or make frequent use of 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 end point after a longer 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 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.
The rest of the time I sampled 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 stayed in casas particulares in Holguin, Banes, Mayari, Santiago de Cuba, and Manzanillo- a total of seven nights.
Obviously, you need some basic Spanish to get by so any time you spend beforehand upping your fluency will be a plus! You will sometimes be approached by people as you are cycling through town; they will offer you illegal accommodation at their home but it can be somewhat 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.
I take a more detailed look at accommodation and food in the following post –