Cuba

A cycling holiday in Cuba

“I am Fidel Castro and we have come to liberate Cuba”

Fidel Castro

Wow – Cuba – what a country, what an experience!  Arriving in Havana, it feels like you’ve landed in not just a different country but a different age. Within seconds of being in a taxi (probably a Lada), you saw the old cars that Cuba is famous for, along with the revolutionary signs “Viva la Revolucion!” and pictures of Che Guevara. I stayed in an old hotel with a beautiful pink art deco style lobby. The rooms didn’t quite match up, but it didn’t seem to matter, I was instantly bewitched!

First up in the priorities for me was a mojito. So off we took on a cycle rickshaw to the Hotel Raquel. It was a great way to travel, and we soaked up the atmosphere, eyes on stilts. Havana, in fact Cuba itself as we were to discover, is like being in a museum. Almost all the buildings were old and crumbling, the 1950s cars outnumber anything else, and everything was steeped in history. We were already beginning to suspect just how different this country was going to be.

Cuba

Cuba

The Hotel Raquel was suitably grand, with a stunning lobby stuffed with beautiful furniture, so enjoying a mojito and chatting to the bartender was no great chore. We then wandered up Obispo, one of the main pedestrian streets, to get back to our Hotel. That evening a few blocks from our hotel we stumbled across El Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts and where he would go for daiquiris, so we decided to stop off for a quick daiquiri on our way to dinner. Delicious! Mr Hemingway sure knew his stuff.

Cuba

Cuba

The next day was when the pre-arranged cycling tour I had booked started.  After meeting the guide and my fellow cyclists, we piled into the bus and headed for Pinar del Rio, about 160kms west of La Habana.  We settled into our first hotel for the trip, and got our bikes and set ourselves up. We then headed off by bike to the city of Pinar del Rio, about 7kms away, to get used to the bikes and have a look at the architecture.

We cycled into the town of Pinar del Rio and had a quick look at the gorgeous architecture – coloured houses and pillars. It was very quiet in Pinar del Rio, perhaps because it was Christmas Day, but more likely because it was Sunday. Christmas didn’t seem to be a big deal in Cuba, although I saw Christmas trees and decorations in people’s houses. It’s been a holiday in Cuba since the Pope’s visit there in 1995.

It was with much more trepidation that I got on the bike on day three. Douglas had prepared us well, telling us that it was a very hard day with many hills. It was a very hard sixty kms, but through some gorgeous quiet country roads. Horse and gig, oxen pulling carts, horse riding, trucks and buses transporting people were all very common sights.

Cuba

Cuba

When we finally arrived at our destination, Cayo Jutías, it felt that it had all been worth while. On the north side of the island it was an idyllic Caribbean beach, with white sand, turquoise water, fringed with palm trees and almost entirely ours alone. Heaven!

Cuba

Cuba

The next morning we awoke to a beautiful day. I opened the shutters at our hotel overlooking the Valle de Viñales and was greeted by a stunning view. Wow. Simply gorgeous looking over the valley, and the colours were amazing.

First up we cycled down to the town of Viñales itself where we had around 30 minutes or so to wander around the town. Although Douglas told us that there were about 160,000 people living in the town and the surrounds, it was a one-horse town, with a main street no bigger than Taihape’s. It was very pretty however, and fascinating peering into people’s living rooms and reading all the Revolutionary signs people had on their houses.

Cuba
Cuba

The plan for the rest of the day was to cycle to a small river for a picnic lunch, then visit a tobacco farm. Everything went awry however when about 15km away from La Palma, one of our riders, fell off her bike. The bus, which was following us was at the accident scene very quickly and within minutes the Cuban family, whose house she had crashed outside, had scooped her up and bundled her into the bus and our driver had whisked her to the emergency hospital in La Palma.

We waited for a long time at the local medical centre, and found out the bad news was that her elbow was badly broken and she would require surgery, plus her collarbone was also broken. Her back was also very badly grazed and required treatment. The next day we learned that she had also broken her leg.  Poor girl!

Our plans for the next day went out the window a little too, as we were all keen to try to visit our friend in hospital in Pinar del Rio.  So there was no riding for us, as we tried to fit this in and catch up on what we had missed the previous day.

Cuba

Cuba

First up we visited a tobacco factory where they made the cigars. It was incredibly labour intensive, with the leaves selected individually and rolled by hand, different leaves from the tobacco plan used for different parts of the cigar. We were all a little relieved to discover that the children at the factory were not working, but were killing time waiting for their mothers during the school holidays.

Cuba

A village in the Vinales valley, Cuba

From there we went to the hospital in Pinar del Rio. It was a very large hospital, being the main one in the region, but was not like anything I had come across before. In fact I had the misfortune to need to use the bathroom there and it was the dirtiest and most disgusting one that I have come across to date. It didn’t have any running water whatsoever. Needless to say my hand sanitiser got a good work-out that day. There was a lot of waiting , but we finally all got an opportunity to see our fellow rider, say goodbye and wish her good luck. It’s certainly a sobering reminder about the importance of having good travel insurance, which luckily our friend did.

From the hospital we went to the tobacco farm, which was really interesting. The farmer is told by the state how much to plant (as a minimum), and once it is grown and ready, the state come back and buy back 90% of it. Naturally they determine the price. If he plants more, that is fine too but they still buy 90% of it. The amount that they give him is the minimum amount that he has to grow. The remaining 10% he can do what he likes with, including make his own cigars and sell to tourists.

Cuba

Cuba

The political situation was fascinating to us and we asked lots of questions trying to understand it better. Our guide had originally studied and qualified as an electrical engineer however the money as a tour guide is much better, as although he is an employee of the state (his services are contracted to various tour companies) he gets tips which he can keep. He is saving to buy a house, which he should be able to do in about 3 years. It is only recently that you can buy and sell property, however like most things in Cuba, there was a black market where it went on anyhow. The state has now allowed houses to be bought and sold and I imagine takes a cut. However even though life is changing for Cubans, they don’t exactly know what the future could bring, although it will include “socialism” as Douglas called it. It’s not logical in many senses – the country is filled with slogans about continuing to fight the revolution, however they are already embracing the opportunities to establish their own small businesses such as restaurants and homestays to make extra money. So it’s a very strange mix of capitalism and socialism that is hard to explain.

Last stop of the day was at Los Portales, which is the cave where Che Guevara was holed up during the Cuban crisis in 1962. It was in a beautiful spot, however I wouldn’t want to have been cooped up in the very austere office and bedroom that Che occupied during that time. They had left it almost exactly as it was when Che was there. It is fascinating to hear the history from the Cuban’s side. Apparently the Russians the US resolved the crisis using diplomacy, but they never bothered to keep Fidel informed, so when he discovered what had happened he was furious.

Cuba

The cave where Che Guevara stayed in during the Bay of Pigs crisis

That night after dinner began the first of our dancing lessons. In Cuba there is music and salsa absolutely everywhere you turn and it seems as if to be born Cuban is to be born dancing. Our dancing efforts were less successful but a lot of fun. We had proper lessons one night, but the rest of the time anybody and everybody would be teaching us and pointing out what we should be doing. My most discouraging moment was after dancing with one Cuban who said, “We’ll call that the NZ version of Salsa”. I had thought I was doing ok!

Cuba

Cuba

Another local custom that we have also adopted with gusto is enjoying a rum or two in the evenings. They sure know how to make a good mojito here. And a very good Cuba Libre too. Our guide told us the story of where the Cuba Libre comes from – in 1898 Cuba and US joined together to fight the Spanish, and when they finally conquered them in 1901 they brought together two things symbolic of each of their countries – Rum from Cuba, and Coca Cola from the US to create a drink in celebration of “Free Cuba”. And thus the Cuba Libre was born.

Day six of our tour saw us visit Las Terrazas, created in the late 1960s as part of government funded conservation and reforestation project, as well as providing housing for local farming families. In 1990 it became an ecotourism resort – so Cuba was well ahead of the times in that respect. We also visited an old coffee plantation perched at the top of a very high and nasty hill. However once there it was all worth it – absolutely gorgeous.

Cuba

Cuba

While we there we saw the Tocororo (or Cuban Robin), which is the national bird of Cuba. This is for three reasons: because it is native to Cuba; its colours are the same as the Cuban flag – white breast, red on the front and blue on the back; and it’s a bird that can’t be caged, like the Cubans themselves in their quest to be free. Well that’s how the guide put it anyhow.

Back in Havana we visited the rum factory and a few sites in Havana, before having a walking tour of La Habana Vieja, the old town. It really is a gorgeous city, and it is slowly being refurbished. Because it was January 30th and all the hotels were booked we couldn’t go back to the Hotel Plaza, so after being pushed from one hotel to the next, we finally ended up in the Hotel Deauville, down by the Malecon. We knew it mustn’t have been a great hotel when we were offered two free drinks at lunch and an upgraded meal to lobster. The meal was delicious! However we arived at our hotel and saw what we had sacrificed. It was kind of creepy and seedy, not helped by the prostitutes, or jineteras in the lobby plying their trade.

Cuba

Cuba

The next day was New Year’s Eve, and I had booked a night of luxury at the Hotel Nacional. It was heaven after the Dirty Deauville! We met up with our group for dinner, drinks and cigars and to celebrate the New Year.

Cuba was a fantastic experience and I loved every minute of it. It’s a hard place to explain, to understand and to describe. Like the bird that can’t be caged, Cuba’s national bird, you can’t wrap up Cuba and put it in a box. I highly recommend it, it’s fantastic!

Cuba

Cuba

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