Cuba is a lot bigger than I thought! In the end, eastern and southern Cuba was the right place to focus for a fantastic eighteen-day 1100 kilometer bicycle tour route. From what I’ve read and heard, I picked the best of Cuba in terms of dramatic scenery and traffic-free roads.
From the hurricane-battered road between Moa and Baracoa, the epic (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 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 – 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.
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, the trip will end up costing you 65% less and you’ll avoid travelling in an English-speaking bubble!
Click here to see the interactive Google map of the above for more detail.
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 all sorts of 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 who have developed trips specifically for cyclists.
Here are some of the links that I found very helpful in planning my trip:
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 eight days later. The Orient route they did – the same as mine except for the missing section from Baracoa to Santiagos is about 800 kilometers (500 miles) long. Their other miles in Cuba I think were spent heading north from Holguin towards Havana.
5. If you like the idea of 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, there are a few small group travel companies that 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 their 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. It can be done for a quarter to a third of that if you do it independently! I boxed my own bike and took it along. Flying direct from Toronto to Holguin, I spent the next three weeks on a 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).
Useful Books To Look For:
There are a couple of books which come up when people discuss cycling in Cuba. Both were published over 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 public 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 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.
Before I learned how Cuba works, I had planned to bring my lightweight tent and a sleeping bag along. Enticing visions of my tent tucked away under a palm tree on an empty beach filled my head! The first of the following links explains why I ended up leaving the camping gear at home.
Accommodation: Why To Bicycle Cuba’s Oriente- And Where To Stay
Road Conditions:The Roads of Cuba’s Oriente – A Bicyclist’s Perspective
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 site is a goldmine of potential bike touring destinations!