Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A bike tour in Cuba

Barack Obama's dramatic announcement last week that he was going to push forward on normalizing relations with Cuba had the predictable result of conservatives going into an uproar over their deep concern about the Cuba government's human rights violations, even as they shrugged off the coincidentally-timed damning report about the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" (aka torture).  Ironic too that in the same week five Afghanis  who had been imprisoned at our (very weird) offshore prison Gitmo but of course had never been charged with a crime were finally allowed to go home five years after being exonerated!  If they weren't anti-US terrorists before, after 10 years of potentially unjustified imprisonment that likely included plenty of enhanced interrogation they may harbor a bit of bitterness....

But don't get me started (I already went off on facebook last week).   

In any case - geopolitical gamesmanship aside - we were really keen to hear about this development, because we have had the good fortune to travel to Cuba twice and it's a beautiful and fascinating country.  And it really set a high bar for bike touring for us; the lack of ability for the Cuban people to be able to import/own cars makes for nearly-deserted roads, and much of the charm of the country lies in the quiet countryside where tourists rarely go or else just speed past on their way to the tourist destination cities, leaving the roads mostly to a few old American cars, horse-drawn carriages, and sunburned bike tourists.  

At the holiday parties we've been talking a lot about our Cuban trips, so I thought I'd throw up the tale that I wrote after our 2007 trip along with a bunch of pics, and maybe later I'll do it again with a an account and pics from our 2011 trip.  

Our trip to Cuba started with the potential of a trip to Panama.  I was intrigued by the concept of paddling some of the rivers in Panama and possibly combining that with a bike trip there, so I visited the library to pick up one of the Panama guides.  As it turns out, the Cuba guidebook was right next to it and it piqued my interest.   While I had known of some old friends who had visited there and I had seen and liked the Buena Vista Social Club, it hadn’t occurred to me to try an adventure in such an unknown place.  But a quick glance looked intriguing so  I picked up the book and brought it home. 

Each country’s Rough Guide/Lonely Planet/Let’s Go guidebooks have a small section on “bicycle touring”.  The Rough Guide to Panama said that there were very few roads, but at least they had a lot of traffic.  That didn’t sound that appealing, so I looked for the same section in the Cuba book.  It said something to the effect of:  “Cuba is a bicycle tourer’s paradise.  50 years of US embargo has rendered a society that doesn’t have a lot of cars, but has an amazing network of beautiful, small roads”.  Now we were talking.  Then I went to the US State Department’s official website on Cuba, where it stated in no uncertain terms that Cuba was a communist/terrorist state where any interaction with Cuban people was likely to be encouraging subversive action against the US, and we were likely to be under secret surveillance at all times.  This sealed the deal: we knew that Fidel Castro was an aging charismatic dictator in fatigues whose cigar-chomping, epic speeches, and 50 years of thumbing his nose at US presidents had resulted in a uniquely-suppressed society, but we also knew that the Cuban people were not terrorists in training and would likely greet cyclists with open arms.  And for our own country to deny us the freedom to travel to this fascinating country in the efforts of preserving our own freedom; well, we felt compelled to go. 

A couple of other things helped us along in our decision making; a book was published last year titled “The Handsomest Man In Cuba” (reviewed in the Fall 2007 Utah Cyclist) and another book simply called “Bicycling Cuba”.  The former is an entertaining account of an Aussie woman who spent several months cycling solo all over the island, and the latter is a guidebook written by a Vermont-based ‘boomer couple that has good routes and suggestions for lodging.  We did have to learn a bit about how to actually get to Cuba; contrary to popular opinion, travel to Cuba is actually legal for Americans who aren’t on an officially-sponsored trip, it’s just illegal to spend money there!   But even though no US-based airlines fly to Cuba, with a little bit of research and the knowledge that our neighboring countries have many flights to Havana per day, it’s not difficult to find your way there. 

Cuba is a 700 mile long island with a wide variety of topography to satisfy any level of cyclist.  There are three significant mountainous areas; the Oriente in the Far East, the South/Cental Mountains, and – for a couple of hundred miles West of Havana, Pinar Del Rio.  We chose the latter for its ease of access from Havana, wide variety of both beaches and mountains, and reputation for great beauty and stellar roads.  In addition, despite the fact that Havana is home to over 2 million people, the density of the city and the relatively low volume of cars made it easy to ride right out of the center of town without having to take any additional transportation, so after a couple of days of walking around Havana sightseeing (and listening to bands play the BV Social Club soundtrack for cheesy gringos sipping mojitos) we headed for the countryside.
some pics from Havana:
A typical street scene

Looking down from a window in the Revolution Museum (really interesting)

Italian (and Canadian) tourists love coming to Cuba because there are no American tourists!

Buena Vista Social Club-esque musicians giving the tourists what they want (Cubans don't listen to that music).

Not sure who the middle guy is, but the message is unmistakeable....
One of the best aspects of cycling in Cuba is the lodging.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba spent most of the ‘90s in what they call the “Special Period”, which apparently is a wry euphemism for “severe economic depression”.   Without the Soviets’ consistent demand for sugar, the economy – already ailing from years of the US embargo – was devastated.  As part of the rebuilding effort, Castro’s government recognized the value of tourism and therefore allowed the inception of “Casa Particulares; basically, Bed and Breakfasts where individual homeowners simply rented out spare rooms in their homes to foreigners.  This enables travelers a great opportunity to meet the ultra-friendly Cubans and eat their excellent home-cooked food virtually every night instead of staying at the noisy, infrequent, and somewhat dingy (and expensive) state-run hotels.  Some of the great folks we stayed with:

the meals were great.   

Whenever we rolled into a new village or town, we would get asked (but not harassed) by people who would take us to an available Casa.  We soon realized that the Casa owners had to pay these “agents” a finder’s fee, and therefore realized that collecting the Casa owner’s business cards and exchanging them with other travelers enabled the Casa owners to keep more of the money from our stay, which we felt was important because the government licensing fees for the Casas are expensive and are required year-round, despite the fact that the tourist season only lasts from November to April (too hot in the Summer and too much rain in the Fall). 

Once out on the roads in Pinar Del Rio we realized that our romantic visions of beautiful roads snaking through lush tropics with almost no traffic was indeed a reality.  

While what little motorized traffic there was consisted mostly of big stinky trucks (full of people; major-league carpooling is a way of life in Cuba) and pre-1959 American cars (that were indicative of how far we’ve come in terms of emission controls since then) the vast majority of “traffic” was horse-drawn buggies, 20 year-old Soviet bicycles, and pedestrians.  As we moved between the mountains and the sea, varying our hilly days and flat days (and avoiding severe headwinds by going with West with the prevailing winds near the ocean and rolling through the low but steep limestone mountains in the center) there were days where we’d see only about one vehicle per hour.  And while we weren’t sure if it was due to the lack of surface-abusing traffic or civic pride in what roads were there, generally the road conditions were excellent with only a little gravel only in the most remote locations. 

As we got closer to towns the traffic would increase, but towns also represented another important aspect of post-Soviet Cuba that we took advantage of:  the concept of “Organoponicos”.   Recognizing the agricultural value of copious rain and sun, their 100 year reliance on sugar, tobacco, and rum as “staples”, and the resulting fact that many Cubans were malnutritioned during the Special Period, the Castro government mandated that towns create their own community gardens, which became very successful.  
Ash was so excited about the organoponicos!  

Not a lot of fossil fuels being used in farming

they were pretty big
We were amazed to see copious quantities of leafy greens (that we thought did well in more temperate climates) growing right next to banana orchards and orange trees, and these generally supplied the Casas where we stayed with their produce.  As with many Latin countries, however, meat (of all types) was king, and many of the meals were pretty meat-based (with one memorable night in a small coastal fishing village where our gracious hostess served up literally several pounds of “langosta”, or lobster).  Much of our daily caloric intake came from what we were calling “power bananas”; these small but super-stout, filling, and incredible-tasting bananas seemed to last well in a handlebar bag and cost about 2 cents apiece.   

And of course, no trip to Cuba is complete without delving into the important tobacco culture; our one off-the-bike day was taken as a hike to a local plantation where the owner showed us how Cuba’s famous cigar tobacco is seeded, planted, replanted, harvested, and dried to make the “world’s finest” cigars.  Being neophyte smokers, we gave it a try and - despite having previous aversions to cigar smoke – the vanilla, honey, and lemon-dipped cigars that he gave us were surprisingly tasty once we learned not to take major pot-like inhales. 

showing us the rolling

showing us the smoking

World's Biggest Dorks, trying not to cough violently

they start the plants in bunched rows

Then pluck them and replant in longer, individual-plant rows.  

Among the many interesting things we experienced in Cuba; a guy alongside the road in the middle of nowhere selling pieces of cake, a guy with a B.O.B.-like trailer that he towed behind his body as he ran 100km every weekend (including midday siestas of painting images of Che Guevara), the cave where Che spent the days of Cuba’s successful repudiation of the US’s Bay of Pigs invasion

seeing the crazy juxtaposition of Canadian-filled beach resort hotels against a backdrop of an entire population that earns not much more than a dollar per day, a kid riding a Cervelo road bike with clipless pedals and a ragged old pro jersey (who is now sporting a pair of shorts I gave him), the owner of a small coffee plantation on a dead-end road with an impeccably-swept floor – of dirt, and a town’s primary fruit seller that literally had pigs and chickens raging through his house. 
some random pics:
a super little drink in an orange peel "glass"
sweetened with sugar cane

glorious and vacant beaches

China donated a couple million bikes in 70's.  And Cubans love cake!

Soviet moto sidecar

All the world wears cheesy english t-shirts

Cuban society is an amazing place of contradictions that provided hours of conversation fodder as we pedaled side-by-side on the rolling, deserted roads:  the people are basically not allowed to leave the island, are issued food rations, and are incredibly limited economically, yet we have never seen a society that – at least to these gringos – seemed to be so full of friendly people, had little or no homelessness, drug use, alcoholism, or overpopulation as well as having 100% literacy.  And despite 50 years of neglect by its next-door neighbor, they not only had no animosity towards the US or Americans, they were very excited that we were there.   With the inevitable demise of the Castro regime, change in Cuban society is bound to happen (just in the past few weeks Cubans are now allowed to enter the nicer “tourist-only” hotels and cell phones have just become approved for use), and – as bike tourists – it was difficult to decide if changing Cuban society to reflect more US-centric ideals and economics would/will be a good thing or not for the people. 

In any case, as it currently stands, Cuba is a country that is not only has had a profound effect on the US over the past 50 years but is also bicyclist’s paradise, and visiting there before the effects of possibly-inevitable Americanization is a fascinating experience in a unique culture. 
More random pics:

People seem to be sorta lukewarm on Fidel, but they love Che

US Customs guy:  "Were you in any farming areas, with any pigs or other livestock?" Us:  "Oh no!"

sure, the apples and pears we grew up with are good, but they aren't papayas!  

Tho clearly child laborers, these coffee pickers were having a ball

sleepy roads

nice to have parking bicycle
another sweet t-shirt

a pretty decrepit bike still in use

the bike's owner left this note on my bike that he wrote while I was in the store after taking the above picture; basically saying this is the only bike he can afford.  I felt like an absolute shithead.
drying rice right on the road

Idyllic riding

a cool cave, and the guide showing us musical stalactites (or is that stalagmites?)

Gringo exiting cave looking very adventuresome!

some more great Casa hosts
"Which way to Havana?"

this mini piece of work will likely eventually overthrow the communist regime!
There's a lot of lounging and watching the world slowly go by in Cuba
Viva La Cuba Aventura indeed!