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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Cuba – two weeks of cocktails

February 8th, 2012

Back in Havana, we prepared for our visitors to come and join us.  Excitement of a different kind was now mounting and we were both thrilled to see my Mum & Dad and Hester & Richard step out of their taxis into the craziness of Centro Havana. They on the other hand, slightly jet lagged and culture shocked, took a little time to register they had just flown halfway round the world to see two familiar faces…albeit one a lot more bearded than it had been six months ago!

After a good night’s sleep we planned and plotted to see Cuba together, squeezing in Havana’s sights, some colonial treasures, a taste of revolutionary history, a bit of beach time and even a salsa lesson too.

Havana is an assault on the senses in so many ways but what struck us all first was the abundance of classic American cars. These are not museum pieces, they are truly functioning everyday vehicles for Habaneros. Relics of the revolution, some are falling to pieces and cough out plumes of black smoke but many are cared for beautifully and fixed with whatever possible means; trading in and buying new just isn't an option here.

Havana Vieja, the city's most central and visited district has been lovingly and beautifully restored by the city's historian. Other parts of Havana however have been left to crumble and decay and far from being deserted, it's likely that even though it's in this state, there may well still be people living in this building.

Where restoration has begun, it has sometimes stalled too. The greenery growing amongst this scaffolding suggests that work to restore this building was halted some time ago, perhaps around the time the car in front of it was a new model?

The view from the Malecón shows that major development in Cuba just hasn't happened - in any other capital city, you'd expect the seafront boardwalk to be awash with bars, cafes and skyscrapers. The biggest buildings here are the few hotels outside of the city centre.

It was Dad's birthday while we staying in Havana and the birthday fairy arranged for two classic cars to collect us all for a sightseeing trip around town. The '55 Ford and the '59 Buick were an instant hit.

The '55 Ford car that took us around Havana.

The '59 Buick in dazzling orange was our other classic taxi.

Then on a trip to the Hotel Nacional for birthday drinks, we found ourselves in yet another classic car. This one managed to squeeze all six of us in.

Piña Colada, Cuba Libre, Mojito, Daquiri...the delicious classic cocktails of Cuba enjoyed in a classic setting. Outside, on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional, overlooking the Malecón and watching the sun set over the Atlantic, we felt like we'd celebrated Dad's birthday in style.

Birthday celebrations over, we headed for pretty Trinidad in the centre of the island. Once a Spanish colonial stronghold little has changed here over the past couple of centuries...

...we stayed in beautiful colonial casa particulares, like this one with Buri and Ernestina, who by a stroke of luck, happened to make delicious cocktails for us to enjoy on their patio!

From Trinidad, we headed out to the jungle for a day's hike to a waterfall in the Sierra del Escambray. Half the hike was a hot rocky descent, the other half a hot rocky climb...

...but we were rewarded with cool green pools of mountain water which James of course couldn’t resist jumping into!

We saw hundreds of majestic palms and many tropical birds including the national bird of Cuba, the beautiful tocororo.

They're all smiles now they've reached the bottom, but wait until they realise it's a two hour climb back to the top!

Leaving Trinidad for a few days, on a side trip to Santa Clara, we stopped at the site of a former sugar plantation. This tower was used to check on workers in the fields and the bell sounded when a day sweltering in the heat chopping down cane was finally over.

Under the shadow of the watchtower, a man makes cold sugarcane refrescos using what looks like a mangle.

Truly delicious, the ice cold sugarcane juice with a hint of lime keeps me buzzing all afternoon.

As the site of one of the crucial battles of the revolution, Santa Clara has a special place in Cuban history. Ché led the guerrillas to a victory here that sealed Fidel's bid to become Cuba's new leader. When Ché's body was found in Bolivia in the 1990s (where he had been executed following guerrilla battles on behalf of Bolivian revolutionaries), it was removed and brought back to Santa Clara. A monument, mausoleum and museum have been erected in Ché's honour and the whole city echoes with his legacy.

Our last day back in Trinidad provides an idyllic day on the beach. Out at Playa Ancon, we snorkel, buy coconuts with straws in and lounge around in the sand. We're rewarded with a beautiful sunset....

...and it seems a good time and place to take a group shot of the happy beach campers.

A pit stop on the way back to Havana from Trinidad at Laguna Guanaroca for the bird enthusiasts in the group. We spot flamingoes, hummingbirds, terns and giant egrets and a few "black and white thingies" that we can't identify. The keen ones with binoculars have got it sussed, the rest of us just squint and point.

One more chance in Havana for cocktails and silly faces. A great fortnight had by all, it's hard to say goodbye to each other and to Cuba....

....but as night falls in Havana we feel there will be a "next time" here...the music, the people, the history, the setting, the cocktails have had us all hypnotised and it won't be hard to find more than one reason to return.




Cuba: Propaganda in pictures

February 15th, 2012


Cuba: celebrating 53 years of the “battle of ideas”

Welcome to Cuba’s special brand of socialism. Equality, harmony, self-sacrifice….and a wonderful lack of advertising. After months of a daily bombardment of roadside advertising boards, flashing neon signs and people generally just trying to sell us stuff, Cuba certainly came as a breath of capitalism-free fresh air.

Instead, Cubans go about their daily business against the backdrop of socialist “thoughts for the day” from Fidel or Raul, the stern revolutionary gaze of Che Guevara and reminders to beware the imperialist Yankee aggressor to the North.

It was fascinating to see how using public space in this way remains such an important part of Cuba’s propaganda machine; a means of constantly re-asserting the spirit of independence and defiance which has somehow carried it through over 50 years in a state of “permanent Revolution”.

Even more interesting would be to know what Cubans really think about this endless backdrop of austere propaganda. In a country where there is little option but to tow the party line, it’s hard to crack the surface and know – especially for us, operating as we do in the strange parallel world of Cuban tourism, carefully screened from the realities of Cuban life.

Maybe Cubans do roll their eyes as they pass under Fidel’s wagging finger on the way to work each day? Or maybe this resurrection of past glories does still inspire them to sacrifice themselves even harder for the revolutionary cause?

Or maybe – like so many other elements of “Cuban-ness” which are so surprising and baffling to our capitalist eyes – they don’t even notice it anymore.


The now frail but ever-combative Fidel still took pride of place on many of the billboards we saw…

…although his brother Raul, who took on the role of President after Fidel became ill in 2006 was also much in evidence. Raul’s call for unity here: “By working together we move forwards”.

Every available space is used to promote the revolution and its ideals – here a roadside oil tank proclaims “In every neighbourhood, Revolution!”

Central to the grass-roots spread of the Revolution within each neighbourhood were the CDRs, or “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution”. In time they became took on a more sinister reputation as community spies (think Neighbourhood Watch but even more sinister) – but were still evident in every town and village we travelled through.

Some propaganda was more spontaneous – like this “Long live Fidel and Raul” scrawled by hand onto a concrete post in the middle of nowhere, along the old coast road back to Santiago.

“Without culture there is no life” – one of a series of slogans sprayed onto rocks on the road up to La Plata, the wartime guerilla camp in the Sierra Maestra.

Unsurprisingly, the USA – Fidel’s eternal nemesis – remains the target of much Cuban propoganda. This billboard celebrates the Cuban victory at Playa Girón, where Cuban forces defeated a disastrous CIA-sponsored attempt to overthrow Castro’s new government in 1961.

In Santa Clara, a series of murals declare “Guerra a la Guerra” (“War on War”) and take a more humorous approach – here Uncle Sam lures the dove of peace…

…while the troops struggle with their new weapons – “I warned you they were intelligent missiles!”

The US “Special Interests” building in Havana has been the site of some of the most comical propaganda battles between the two countries. In 2006, the US erected a scrolling electronic billboard in their top floor windows, delivering anti-Castro messages such as: “How sad that all the people that would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair”. In response, Fidel erected this “wall” of 138, 20 metre high flags to block out the billboard, along with their own board for a fake US blockbuster called “The Assasin”, starring George W. Bush as an axe murderer. Global politics meets primary school playground…

Almost every town in Cuba bears the date 26th July in some form or another – the date in 1953 when Fidel launched his first attack against the Batista regime in Santiago de Cuba, and the name of his fledgling revolutionary movement.

As the birthplace of the Revolution, Santiago province remains vocally loyal to its ideals – here the perimeter wall of a city baseball field proclaims: “Santiago is Santiago, with everyone’s effort we will be victorious!”

“You do not need wings to make a dream, just hands, just heart, just legs, and commitment.” Detail from a wall mural in Santa Clara featuring a verse from the Cuban “trova” singer Silvio Rodriguez.

“The best form of saying is doing”…

…a sentiment that this man, Che Guevara, would no doubt endorse. Che’s face, as embodiment of the “Cuban revolutionary spirit” is everywhere in Cuba.

By far the most interesting homage to Che was this understated statue of “Che y el nino” (“Che and child”) outside a government office in Santa Clara.

A closer look revealed that the statue included lots of tiny details of Che’s life: in his belt, his comrades from his last, fatal revolutionary expedition to Bolivia in 1967…

…a woman sheltering in the folds of his shirt…

…and of course, a Cuban cigar in hand.


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