Traveller Stories: That's Cuba, eh?

Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio Province, Cuba
Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio Province, Cuba

By Jan Gemmell

Editor's Note: In 2019, New Zealand adventurer Jan Gemmell took our Cuba By Bike cycling tour. She loved it so much, she wrote about it for World Expeditions. Enjoy!

Day 1

After 27 hours of travelling (Sydney to Vancouver, Vancouver to Toronto, and Toronto to Havana) Jan arrives in the capital Havana, decompresses, and meets up with her fellow adventurers.

Oh, just to lay flat in a bed after flying 27 hours! We just touched down on the last and final leg of our journey into this country, one that I have been longing to visit.

This adventure started in May, 2019 when I sent a text to my Australian buddy Robbie asking if she would like to go to Cuba and ride with me. That was the beginning of putting all this travel stuff together for Robbie, Janice, Sharon, and myself.

After travelling via Sydney, Vancouver, and Toronto, we are now settled in a place called Hotel Memories in Miramar, waiting for the rest of the group as well as our guide – who we are looking forward to meeting – to turn up.

The “airport hopping” did not go without a hiccup. When we arrived at the Havana airport (Jose Marti), Sharon’s luggage didn’t come off the carousel.

We slept for five hours then it was up to breakfast to face the first of our wonderful 14 days of adventure. We went for a walk to the beach, which was very volcanic.

We walked back to our hotel and then spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool. Meanwhile we were still trying to locate Sharon’s lost luggage. Henry from Mangawhai (NZ) turned up later that day. Then came the two Canadians, Heni and Hugh, plus the two Americans, Ann and Janellen. So, there were nine of us all up, and we all shared our stories about arriving in Cuba.

Robbie and I also realised our safe no longer worked so I called the consignor for help. An employee eventually arrived, drilled a hole in the safe to unlock it, and we got our passports out. The guy couldn’t speak a word of English but when he heard me say ‘that’s Cuba,’ he laughed out loud. He understood. Chaos again, eh?

Dinner was a real banquet and included giant prawns barbecued as you waited. Later, we went back to the bar to hear the first of many musical gigs that followed us along in this colourful country. The band that night was made up of a pianist with a grand piano, a violinist, a drummer with bongos, and two singers. I was totally in my element.

Day 2

Jan and her friends learn about the ‘brekkie battle’ at the hotel, the cycling begins, and the riders bounce along over Cuba’s gigantic potholes.

The day arrived when we were to get our bikes. Our guide was a wonderful young man with considerable knowledge that he was more than happy to share with each and everyone of us (as we later found out). Robbie and I set off for a quick and early breakfast, but when we arrived at the restaurant there was a line of many, many guests; obviously also on some sort of tour themselves. Utter chaos – once again.

After being fitted with our bikes our wonderful Cuban tour guide Lee gave us firm instructions regarding hand signals. The potholes were huge in Havana. So, we quickly learned to avoid them by riding single file.

Our ride passed through the suburb of Miramar where wealthy Cubans once made their homes. Our tour today included the old part of Havana – oh what history. We stopped at Revolution Square, then we continued through Vedado passing the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and heading down to the Capitolio via the centre of Havana. We continued riding down Paseo del Prado promenade, near the former Presidential Palace where Fidel Castro once lived.

We rode past the remains of the wall that protected this old city, learning the history of that time in the process. Then it was on to the Plaza de Armas Square (Arms Square).

We then walked through Old Havana where we had lunch, a delicious combination of soup, black beans, rice, and fresh vegetables. So many parts of this city contain governmental departments that contribute keeping Cuba running. We also viewed the famous church of Saint Francis of Assai. There were many squares to explore.

We then set off for a tour through a rum factory where we learned heaps about that drink, which I have now come to love.

Dinner tonight was at the Florida Bar (El Floridita) where Ernest Hemmingway used to socialise and drink with his friends. We ordered the local beer or a mojito, which has since become my favourite drink. Piña coladas are also popular among us as well.

Cuba Waterfall

Day 3

The journey continues with a ride to Las Terrazas, a sustainable community that was born of a reforestation project in 1968 and named a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1985. It is also the site of the earliest coffee plantations in Cuba.

It rained all night and once again we experienced the ‘breakie battle.’ Still, we were on the bus by 8:30 am and were taken to the edge of the city to start riding – en route to Las Terrazas. After six kilometers of dodging immense potholes we arrived in the little town of Mariel – surrounded by police, military, and agents. Our guide Lee bought us Cuban churros – yum. We got on our way again, dodging these wheel-swallowing potholes. We eventually turned into a beautiful country lane – no traffic but a few wandering cows.

We noticed sugar cane is still being grown here – but no sweet corn. Cuba is now importing sugarcane from Brazil as it’s cheaper to import than fix up broken farming equipment. Later, we rode through a national park and up a long, slow hill – four of us did it, at least. The others took the bus.

The weather was hot and humid. Fortunately, there is plenty of water on our tour bus. Horrarido, our driver, is so delightful and always very helpful. At the end of each day the bikes must be lifted onto the bus. We sampled a new drink today called ‘Cuba Libre.’ This was introduced by the Americans because they thought the Rum was too strong.

Onwards we went, to a lunch stop high in the hills – beautiful surroundings and lovely food. We then continued to Pinar del Rio, the capital of this province, a bustling town with many historical buildings. After lunch Lee took us to see where the coffee trees were once planted and where the beans are dried. He also pointed out the stone ruins where the slaves of the day lived. We were introduced to the national tree of Cuba – some sort of palm tree with beautiful colourings on the bark.

We were next taken to a tiny cafe where the best coffee was made. Awesome. As this particular area we were visiting is an eco-resort, Lee gave us a full account of just how people live and work here. We then had a two-hour bus ride to our accommodation for the night. The food was very simple here. Our rooms were quaint and featured lime green bedspreads. There was a similar colour to the dining room – quite memorable. It’s rained on and off today. It was wonderful to see the locals going home on their tiny little carts – drawn by their much loved and road-proof ponies. Such a pretty noise as they clip-clopped homeward.

I decided to give one of my raincoats to one of the locals. Hopefully it will be well loved. We stayed in in a two-storied red brick building painted the colour of red earth: Villa Aguas Claras (lovely owners, by the way). Oh, I forgot to mention we passed through a horticultural area this afternoon, and I had my photo taken with one of the local workers. We were in bed by 9 pm and there was only one light in our bedroom – that’s Cuba….

Cuba by Bike

Day 4

Today we travel through the Viñales Valley, play more ‘dodge ’ems’ once with the potholes, make a visit to Cueva del Indio, and a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

Today we departed after a breakfast of pawpaw, pineapple, and scrambled eggs and took a bus 20 kilometers to the day’s ride – in an ecological self-farming community. The cycling was beautiful today and we took many pictures of the sweet corn growing along the side of the road. Our terrain today was moderately light across undulating countryside. This place is a true gardener’s paradise. Our awesome lunch today was accompanied by local musicians and two sweet kitty cats. We passed limestone mountains and travelled through the Viñales Valley, which contains small self-sufficient farming communities. This gave us plenty of time to wander on our bikes at a leisurely pace.

Today we had lunch at Palenque de los Cimarrones restaurant – finely grated cabbage, with sliced tomatoes, rice, black beans, and roasted road runner. Yum. That was accompanied with a beer. The local beer here is really good. Then we enjoyed moderately graded riding with no big hills.

After lunch we visited Cueva del Indio, a huge limestone cave. We walked through it until a short boat ride brought us back outside. Then we were back on our bikes again with a few more hills in a head wind, eventually winding our way into the town of Viñales, a town of approximately 4,000 people. I played dodge ’ems once again with the potholes. We stayed two nights at the Casas Viñales, an awesome hotel. The weather wasn’t very good.

Robbie and I donned our raincoats and took a walk down into the village where we ordered a local coffee and where there was wi-fi. At 5:30 pm we gathered at a wonderful eco-organic restaurant to watch the sun go down and to enjoy yet another mojito. The bottle of rum stayed on our table and it was quickly demolished by us all – such a wonderful tradition. What a pity this doesn’t happen at home.

We also visited a tobacco factory. The seeds of a tobacco plant are the size of a flea. These are planted down by the river and when they are several inches high, they are individually moved by hand and planted in raised beds. When they are 150 centimetres tall, the pickers strike the leaves off the plant. The top leaves are the strongest. The bottom leaves are used for the filling of the cigar. Drying these leaves takes approximately 45 days, during which they turn a mild brown in colour. Even today, every cigar you see is hand rolled. Tobacco growing farmers have to sell 90 percent of their crop to the government. They can then sell the remaining 10 percent whoever they like.

Day 5

Today, our travellers visit Santo Tomas Caves, which is the second largest cave system in the Americas. While the caves boast 46 kilometers of galleries on eight levels, only a one-kilometer section accessible to visitors. Still it’s a beautiful section. Inside the cave are stalagmites and stalactites, underground pools, interesting rock formations – and of course bats!

After breakfast of fresh fruit and scrambled eggs and bread buns, we had a very short ride. We visited more caves – including the Santo Tomas Caves where Fidel once visited. We learned about the first militia group, which was formed in 1959, in honour of the local hero Leandro Malagones (a local farmer). There was an adventurous climb up into the caves, and we held onto boulders as we slowly climbed more than 200 metres.

It was easy to see how revolutionary groups could shelter in there for weeks. Today’s lunch was at the Mural de la Prehistoria restaurant. We dined with a backdrop of the huge mural painted on the limestone cliffs. We had black beans, cabbage, tomatoes, and nicely cooked pork followed by a semolina dessert. We were then bussed to our sweet casas particulars for our second night there. My piña colada was refreshing again this evening. We were in bed by 10 pm, anticipating a boat ride to an island in the morning.

Explore the photogenic streets of Havana in Cuba

Day 6

A boat ride to the beautiful Cayo Levisa in the Archipelago de los Colorados.

We woke up this morning to the peaceful sound of ponies’ hooves clip-clopping as they took their masters off to work. We left our beautiful casas after a nice breakfast of fresh coffee, tea, buns, rolls, and fruit juice. There’s no biking today as we are catching a ferry to Cayo Levisa, a small coral key which is part of the Archipelago de los Colorados in the Gulf of Mexico. We were supposed to board the ferry at 10 am, but it didn’t arrive until 11:30 am. Oh well, that’s Cuba….  We reached the island 45 minutes later. I was really a little concerned because the duckboard was only about six inches above the water line, and I learned that the boat had only six lifejackets.

Walking along the boardwalk reminded me of the Pacific Islands with the confusion of the roots that bear down towards the water line.

Because of our late arrival, lunch was served for us almost straight away. This time it was a buffet, and while we ate our food we were once again entertained by two wonderful guitarists. Music is everywhere in this country, and I can’t get enough of it.

Then it was time to hit the beach. Robbie, Janice, and I walked along the boardwalk to sit on royal blue–coloured deckchairs that were placed in the most wonderful silky white sand. Unfortunately, it was very windy. But the water was warm and inviting. Robbie bounced around like a graceful little dolphin. All too soon over it was over, and we had to head back to that non-seaworthy boat and return to the ‘mainland.’

We then had another two-hour journey with Hirrado. As the bus rolled along, we went over some barn door–sized potholes. If you had a puncture in this part of the country or broke an axle, you would be in serious trouble. As the day wore on and evening approached, we all began to wonder where we were going and when we would arrive. Darkness was beginning to descend and still we cruised along, up hills, around corners, over tiny one-way bridges – and the only other mode of transport were dozens and dozens of little ponies pulling their carts (more about that later).*

Finally, we arrived at a casa in Soroa. The owners didn’t have enough room, so Robbie and I were sent down the road to another little casa with the friendliest of owners. We all washed up (only cold water this time) and headed down to dinner with the rest of the group. Gorgeous dinner with heaps to choose from, even sliced beetroot – once again the meal was accompanied by wonderful music. This time the rhythm of the music got the better of me and very soon Henry and I were up dancing the salsa. I then got up and acknowledged our driver and our guide Lee for giving us such a fun day.

The tiny houses that we saw as we travelled late last night appeared to be run down. I wasn’t able to take any photos as it was getting too dark, but this was the only place that we saw such poor dwellings.

The potholes in these small secondary roads never get fixed – they just get bigger and bigger, and I guess with every downpour it just makes them deeper and wider.

Another thing Lee told us was that he wasn’t too sure if he could go with us on the Island as small boats like the one we were on can easily be stolen and taken to Miami as it’s only 90 miles by sea. Evidently this has happened many times in the past with people escaping Cuba.

*Getting back to those ponies we saw last night: When I asked Lee what that was all about, he said that it was illegal racing and that there are many people here in Cuba that back those ponies.

Day 7

On the road again: World War I tractors, ponies and carts, cyclists without helmets, and small electric motorbikes.

Well guess what! No electricity in our room – oh well never mind. We are getting used to stuff like this happening every now and then. Breakfast today was outside in a quaint little garden area. This morning we rode our bus again and went to an organic orchid farm of eight acres. There was 70 to 80 percent humidity which is why these beautiful flowers are very abundant. Then we did a walk to a pretty waterfall before getting on our bikes again – this time, though, it was virtually uphill for the main part of the ride.

We passed World War I tractors pulling small trailers – barely achieving 5kph – as well as these dear little ponies pulling their carts and going somewhere, probably off to work. Small electric motorbikes are everywhere, and traffic is very considerate of everyone on these small country roads. It’s really noticeable, especially because of where we come from. Cyclists over here do not wear high-visibility clothing, nor do they use helmets.

And now back to the cycling! Today’s temperature is already high and we had the sun on our backs as we took off – heading up, up and more up. I only made it two thirds of the way up – gasping for breath. With every tight turn there seemed to be more uphill. Anyway, we all made it, even the three who were on the bus.

Lunch today was down a 5km sealed road filled predictably with Cuban potholes. You had to be careful because of the shadows made by the trees. Sometimes it was hard to see right in front of me, and then all of a sudden I was on top of one – bam! Another one of those holes.

We sat by the end of the river and enjoyed a swim and our packed lunch. Later we boarded our bus and set off to the Bay of Pigs, which was the scene to the 1961 US-backed invasion of Cuba. A two-hour video of the Revolution was shown, giving us an understanding of the history of Cuba.

Our bus rolled on, and we finally arrived our destination for the night – a casa in a village called Playa Larga. With dinner also on the beach, we are once again accompanied by three musicians playing the music they love (more piña coladas and mojitos). Our hotel room didn’t have a hot water tap, so it was a cold shower tonight – but that’s Cuba, eh? I allowed myself to get up with the band and join in.

Local Cuban man riding his bike down the street |  <i>Vanessa Dean</i>

Day 8

A war museum telling about the invasion of the CIA and Fidel Castro’s activities, the magnificent Caleta Buena in the Bay of Pigs for swimming and snorkeling, and a visit to the beautiful French city Cienfuegos.

We woke up to a magnificent view of this very pretty beach – blue, blue sea accompanied by blue, blue sky. After a hearty breakfast our ride took us to Soroa. It was a dead flat ride, but once again the roads were extremely rough – obviously the government had attempted at some stage to repair them but to little success. We visited a war museum telling us about the invasion of the US and Fidel Castro and his followers. What a tangle this country must have been in. Our guide Lee told us a great deal about the political situation in this country – more on that later.

After our visit to the museum, we got back on our bikes to finish the rest of the morning’s ride. By this time the temperature had risen to 28 degrees.

We followed the edge of the Caribbean Sea until we arrived at our lunch stop. Lunch was served at Caleta Buena in the Bay of Pigs. To date, I would have to rate this luncheon as the best on the trip – there was absolutely everything that you could have on your plates, a wonderful buffet. This part of the island was formed by the movement of a huge tectonic plate. You you can swim in crystal clear waters protected from big waves by a rim of volcanic rocks. We spent the afternoon here, reading and swimming and having as many drinks as we could as they were all free. This was a great way to spend some time off the bikes.

We got back on the bus to continue our journey, which in this case was to Cienfuegos, a beautiful French city. Cienfuegos was very clean and tidy – a place where wealthy families of yesteryear built beautiful homes and apartments. We wandered around the square for an hour or so taking in the beauty of the city. We noticed another statue of Jose Marti, a poet, writer, philosopher, and leader. He led the Second War of Independence and was gunned down while riding his white horse. He was born in 1851 in Havana, and is regarded today as one of the heroes of that era. We then drove along the Malecon, a broad esplanade, roadway, and seawall that stretches for 8 kilometres along the coast in Havana.

Lee pointed out the many homes that were once owned by the wealthy of those former days. Shortly, we arrived at our accommodation for the night, Hotel Fuja, a really nice four-star place. As Robbie and I were walking our suitcases along the hallway we noticed a particularly beautiful view. The sun was slowly setting over the Caribbean, gradually and slowly falling into the sea saying ‘mañana’, until tomorrow. The next day was to be our last day tomorrow of cycling – sadly.

Day 9

A visit to old Trinidad and meeting the drink called Canchanchara.

This morning we bussed about 14 kilometres out of Cienfuegos to where we would start our last ride of this unique tour. The road undulated, and I found myself rolling along with the breeze. We passed farmland on our way to our lunch stop some 36 kilometres away. Hacienda La Vega was a lovely little place and once again we found ourselves asking for a beer called Hollandia – costing us only two euros but delightfully replenishing our thirst as we had several hills in this part of the ride. I noticed the wind was getting stronger, and since we had another 18 kilometres or so to ride, I suggested that we should start heading off.

There were only four of us that wished to ride into the wind, so the rest of the group hopped on the bus to follow. Sure, the wind didn’t make the last part of the ride easy – you just had to put your head down and get on with it.

We arrived in Trinidad at approximately 3:30 pm and walked up to the huge doors of the hotel in which we were staying for the night – they slowly opened to reveal an oasis. Spotless. Incredible detail in the immaculate tiles on the floor, huge palms, ornate iron furniture as well as a well-stocked bar. We all sat down and enjoyed a pleasant fruit drink of some sort. After a shower in our delightful little room, we then went with Lee who took us on a walking tour of the old part of Trinidad.

This city has 37,000 people and was built some 600 years ago by the Spanish who came to live here. The tiny cobblestone streets were designed in such a way as to confuse the bandits who came down from the nearby mountains to rob those living here. As we walked over the cobblestones, Lee told us they were of the original stones laid here centuries ago. Amazing!

During our walking tour, Lee told us of the ancient beverage the locals used to drink called Canchanchara. I then suggested to Lee that we trot off to the bar that makes these drinks and sample one or three. Several minutes later we were seated. This drink is made up of raw rum, lime juice, honey, and water and is served in little pottery bowls. Charming.

And then it was time for dinner – back to our rooms to dress. We went to a restaurant that supposedly served creole food, but I didn’t see much creole food on the menu. Still, it was good, and we finished the meal with a French dessert of crème caramel (my fav).

The beautiful Vinales Valley

Day 10

Swimming in a river, a visit to Topes dee Collantes, and the phase out of convertible pesos.

This is our last day today as we head up to the mountains for a swim in the river. People are going about their business as usual this morning, and it was again lovely to hear the sounds of the hooves of the little horses as they trotted up and down the cobblestone streets.

Today we were driven up the steep windy hillsides to Topes dee Collantes (850m), a nature reserve in the mountains. We boarded a truck that obviously had once been used to carry Russian Troops in this area. Up and up we went into the clouds. The road up was made of concrete which didn’t have many potholes. On the way up I noticed a huge four-story concrete building. Apparently, it was once used as a spa – a rehabilitation place for the military.

We were given a guided tour along a well-worn track through an organic coffee plantation that sits amongst the banana plants. Then it was on to the swimming hole but there were about 100 others there, so we decided to give it a miss and carry on to the lunch stop. I noticed there was a bar in the middle of this area of bush –so one didn’t go thirsty. The vegetation was very lush, and the soil was a rich red colour.

Once again, our lunch was typical of what we getting used to. I really loved the road runner as it had been marinated in pawpaw wine. Finally, we went back at the bus to take us back to our casas in Trinidad.

We then had a few hours in which to wander this ancient and gorgeous city, and it was here that I purchased a bright yellow apron. I had been looking for a tea towel, but no one knew what I was talking about. So hence the apron, which I love. We came across a local market that sold all sorts of trinkets, from clothing to jewellery to pottery, as well as sorts of other handcrafts.

Dinner tonight was at the local casa. During dinner Lee explained how the government had suddenly decided that the convertible pesos were to be fazed out, and the Cuban pesos would still be in use. Very confusing, but it just goes to show how this government can make rules overnight. Very confusing.

Day 11

Lessons of the battle of Santa Clara in La Revolución, a presentation in cigar rolling, and mojitos, beer, and piña coladas all round.

I could have spent a lot more time in this lovely old city. But it was time to go. We boarded our bus so it could take us to Santa Clara. It was a lovely mild day, but we were told that Havana – where we will go at the end of today – has had heavy rainfall and may be without power.

We passed through an area known as Sugar Mill Valley, which was rich in heritage. We visited a tall tower that was used to watch the slaves in the cane fields. In those days there were something like 2,500 of them. Travelling again, we arrived in Santa Clara, which is best known for the historic events that took place concerning the great revolutionist Che Guevara.

He led the rebels against Fulgencio Batista’s army in the battle of Santa Clara. The rebels won,

and the revolution was successful. We viewed the memorial held in honour of Guevara. Apparently, Guevara was murdered and buried by the CIA in Bolivia and after many years his remains were brought back to this town where he fought and won the battle. He is recognised as a martyr and a hero to this day. Lee was master of knowledge about these times.

Lunch was just up the road and what a spread it was – absolutely wonderful. It was the best we could have hoped for on our last day. Then it was a 3.5-hour journey back to our hotel in Havana. A video was shown to us as to how Cuban cigars are made – incredible. It’s all done by hand to this day.

When we arrived at Hotel Memories, it was time to re-check in and then head back up to our rooms to shower and get ready for dinner. And then it was back on the bus. Dinner this night was at another of Ernest Hemmingway’s hang-outs, and of course it was mojitos, beer, and piña coladas all round.

Sadly, our wonderful adventure was coming to an end, and it was time to say goodbye. Lee and Hirrodo were each given a special farewell from us all as we had become quite a bonded group.

After years and years of planning a trip to this part of the world, it was time for us all to say our goodbyes and farewells. Hasta luego and adios amigos to a country of laughing people who just go about their days doing what this country has done for decades.

Book your own cycling trip to Cuba here

For other World Expeditions cycling adventures, click here.

Cuba cycling, Cuba travel, Cuba culture, Cuba food, Cuba drinks, Cuba pina colada, Cuba mojito, Havana cycling, Havana tour

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