Cuba – two weeks of cycling

January 24th, 2012

Our month in Cuba was to be conveniently sliced down the middle into two weeks of exploring the island by bike followed by two weeks “holiday” when my parents and James’ godparents were flying out to join us.  Having dreamt about cycling here for a number of years, we were both itching to get in the saddle and explore.

With just two weeks we knew that it would be a compromised journey; there was just no way we could see the whole island by bike properly.  So we settled for putting the bikes on a bus and heading to the south-east, concentrating in particular on the Sierra Maestra mountains and nearby coast, where Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army began their revolution more than 50 years ago.

We were excited to be back on our bikes again in sunny Cuba after our long Christmas break – despite me falling off the morning this photo was taken!

 

 

 

 

Setting off from the second largest city in Cuba, Santiago de Cuba, it wasn’t long before we reached rural life. After a gruelling climb out of the city we were soon into rolling fields and laidback cattle.

When we did finally reach a “main” road (this is Cuba’s equivalent of England’s M1), we found it empty. Cuba’s roads are a dream for cyclists: car ownership here is very low and the motorists who do take to the roads are extremely courteous to bikes – they outnumber cars by far as the main form of transport.

James samples peso pizza in one of the first towns we passed through. In the past couple of years, laws have been relaxed to allow Cubans to sell food and drink from the doorways of their homes. A daily staple, we never expected to eat so much pizza in Cuba and certainly not delivered to us from someone’s living room!

The first two days of our tour were fairly easy riding and then it was into the mountains to visit Ché and Fidel’s guerrilla hideaway during the revolution, Commandancia la Plata. Having a guide for this visit is mandatory and so we took part in a tour. The guide was excellent but spoke little English so it was a relief when James offered to translate for the group.

After our fascinating trip into the Sierra Maestra, we then had to climb back out. A 35% incline on this road made it impossible to cycle and here I am pushing with all my might. In the background you can see the steep and wiggly road we took to Fidel’s camp, a mere 45% and the steepest road in Cuba. Needless to say, we didn’t cycle that one either!

Cuba’s main economy used to be sugar (now it’s tourism) and it’s still a lucrative crop; we passed acres and acres of sugarcane fields, mostly being harvested by hand.

Manzanillo, a pretty little Cuban town, was typical of the less touristy places we passed through by bike with many Cubans out and about eating ice cream and sitting in the square watching the world go by.

It is impossible to escape the iconic image of Ché Guevara in Cuba. An Argentinian guerrilla who came to help fight for Cuba’s independence, Ché was and still is the poster boy of the Cuban revolution. Instead of advertisements, all we saw for a month were propaganda slogans and the faces of Ché, Fidel and his brother Raúl staring out at us, inspiring Cubans to keep the revolution alive.

Mmmm! Take one blender and add fruit, milk and ice to make yummy Cuban milkshakes that instantly refresh and revive even the weariest cyclist. 

We frequently passed by horse and carts carrying hay and sugarcane or ancient motorbikes with sidecars. Transport in Cuba is whatever you can put two wheels on and make move…so our bikes looked positively space age compared to some of the contraptions we rode alongside.

Being allied with the USSR for so many years between the 1960s and the 1990s has left a fairly ugly mark on some Cuban architecture. Amongst ruined colonial buildings and decaying grandeur, we found chunky tower blocks and hotels that resembled motorway service stations …didn’t quite fit with the Caribbean backdrop somehow….

…unlike this one, which blended in with its surroundings a little more. What it’s used for is a mystery though; most buildings seemed to keep doors and windows firmly shut and little signage to advertise what they are, even if they offer a service to the public…so it could be anything from a shop to a synagogue!

On the quiet road to Marea del Portillo, we met Edislaidis and her daughter. Her daughter was sick and she was taking her to the nearest clinic with the only available means of transport, her bike. Edislaidis did the pedalling and her daughter balanced precariously on the crossbar. As we cycled around Cuba for fun, this was a reality check that Cubans use their bikes every day as an essential means of transport.

Now here’s a bus stop I wouldn’t mind being delayed at. With that view you wouldn’t mind if the number 26 was running a bit late would you?!

…and if the bus had to go over this bridge, you’d probably have second thoughts about getting on it at all? Collapsed bridges were a fairly common sight along the southern coast, particularly since Hurricane Dennis whooshed through in 2009, but this was one of the more dramatic.

What do Cubans do on a Sunday morning? If you’re in the countryside, expect to see a classic car, parked on the village baseball field, in front of the stunning Sierra Maestra, and the owner preparing to release his five crates of homing pigeons….of course!

Along with peso pizza and batidos, another thing you can buy cheaply from local vendors is delicious homemade ice cream. These two gigantic cones (I did allow James to taste a little of one I promise) set us back less than 50p. It’s a miracle cyclists don’t leave Cuba far fatter than when they arrived!

After 600km and nine days riding, we arrived back at the Plaza de la Revolución in Santiago de Cuba. A fascinating and stimulating journey, it’s whetted our appetite for more Cuban cycling in the future.

 

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Sarah

 

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8 Responses to “Cuba – two weeks of cycling”

  1. skip Says:

    Great time! My Dad always talks fondly of Cuba back in the middle of the last century, his favorite place in Latin America, may have been where I was conceived. Love the colors, and the architecture. We think of you two often and wish you the best of travels.

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  2. Dan Says:

    Awesome stuff guys, looks amazing!! The Soviet apartment blocks look familiar…one question though – in that black and white photo, has Stretch n Vern circa 1997 just come on the radio….? And that beard….xx

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  3. Sam Wyld Says:

    We’ve missed you!!! Totally Envious of Rutland here, on a minus temp Sunday morning, brrrr. Looks like you’ve really settled into the Cuban ethos – can we expect you home at all?? Well done on those inclines btw… I wouldn’t even be able to WALK up them. How do you do your laundry? Keep having fun, massive hugs from us xxx

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  4. Han the Man Says:

    ice creams looked the best! So lovely photos as usual guys. You are looking very brown and healthy! Am so jealous of the Sunshine, we still have snow outside in Highgate – cold, but pretty. xxx

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  5. Anthony Shryane Says:

    Dear Sara, I am back into the cold. Glad that all is well and that you are on your bike again. What a wonderful place. In C. its motor bikes and gentle if cahotic driving. Had a great time there and all our friends are in good form.
    Keep in touch. Lots of love, Tony xx

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  6. Edgimundo Says:

    At last you concede that you are walking your bikes for quite a lot of this expedition! I want my money back…

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  7. Margy Says:

    Hi both, seams ages since the last one thanks for that. I feel very uneducated as I didn’t know much at all about the island, your blogs are like a super Geography lesson but much more interesting!! It’s been very quiet here what with Phil in Cambodia, then Tony, then your Mum and Dad away as well, I can’t even get out of Wigston !!! very frustrating.I hear you had a super holiday with Mum and Dad, I’m sure they were delighted to see you both. We are all looking forward to Katie’s birthday “bash” on Friday now! I had Amelie to stay on Sunday /Monday, –first time on her own– she was lovely and very good!! I was quite exhausted!! She can reel off all the names of everyone coming to Mummy’s Party and keeps on about it. We are off in a few mins to Arnesby to celebrate the day.
    Keep well and safe, los of love Margy xxx

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  8. Phil Says:

    Hi S & J, thanks for this, souds fascinating and very enjoyable, the scenery looks better than one imagines from news bulletins about Cuba over the years. I had a great time in Cambodia and was well cared for by many friends, the priest went away, so I was it for a week. Very cold when I got back and had a tummy bug when I got here, no problem in C, very annoying. Got used to the cold again now, it was -12C last Saturday morning, but beautifully clear and sunny. Glad you had a good time with T & J and the others, will see them on Friday for Catherine’s 40th and hear about their trip. Take care on the next leg of the journey, mentioned you in the homily a few weeks ago, so fame at last!!! Lots of love Phil xxxxxxxxx

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