Editor’s Note: As this story was in production, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning advising Americans to avoid traveling to the country after embassy staff there were targeted. See one cyclist’s advice for touring the island at adventurecycling.org/ridecuba and stay up to date on government announcements at cu.usembassy.gov.
This story originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of Adventure Cyclist. To receive nine issues a year as well as a host of other benefits, join Adventure Cycling today.
Cuba, the largest country in the Caribbean, has been a popular cycling destination among Europeans for decades, but for Americans this country holds many mysteries. Communist regimes, political turmoil, and ambiguous travel restrictions are enough to ward off most would-be visitors, but the allure of colorful streets, Afro-Latino–inspired food, and rich culture draws in even some of the most ambitious travelers. Although Cuba is architecturally diverse, many recognize the colonial-style buildings and churches influenced by the Spanish Conquistadors who established many of these towns over 500 years ago. These weathered buildings and their decor unintentionally give an impression of a shabby-chic design. Families fill their homes with the niceties they’re lucky to get their hands on, usually passed down generations — floral print china dishes, beautifully aged wooden furniture, and frilly pillows.
Most travelers arrive in bustling Havana, a city that could take weeks to properly explore, from the popular seaside highway and hangout, the Malecón, to the ornate stone churches in Old Havana. Nowadays it takes some effort to get off the main tourist thoroughfares and into the real Havana that only locals know. Our tour started in the tobacco-filled valley of Viñales, a small village that has grown in popularity and is now overflowing with touristy casa particulares (private homestays) and Americanized restaurants with English menus. The tourists aren’t here without good reason, though. Viñales is one of Cuba’s most picturesque regions. Giant limestone mogotes (steep, dome-like hills) tower hundreds of feet from the valley floor as tiny farmsteads huddle at their bases.
As the road leaving Viñales turned from pavement to dirt, the evidence of tourism quickly disappeared. The sandy road coursed its way through the tropical mountains and climbed through densely wooded forests. The roads present on the map became little more than footpaths. Tropical storms are plentiful in this region, hitting the hillsides with fury. Dark, voluminous clouds moved in quickly, hardly giving us enough time to take shelter. A cool wind gusted, and what started as a light rain quickly turned into a torrent.
Moving east toward Trinidad, the mountains vanished into the distance behind us. The steep hike-a-bikes faded from memory as the flat, sandy roads lulled us into an even grind. The western lands of the island became a bright green sea of sugarcane. The roads were quiet — occasionally a car or motorbike passed by, but more often than not, we encountered animal-powered transportation. Slim, ill-fed horses towed small wooden carriages loaded with whole families down dusty washboard roads. The sun was relentless, even in the winter. Reprieve came from small, dilapidated juice stands at the edge of farm towns. Mango or sugarcane was juiced on the spot and handed to us in a decorated glass. The locals came in all shapes and colors, but out among these agricultural lands, their skin was darkened and leathered by the persistent sun.
During the time referred to as the Special Period, when Cubans endured the hardships of the trade embargo and the loss of support from the Soviet Union, new vehicles and gasoline were very hard to come by. Thus, the people turned to bicycles as their solution. To this day, city streets are crowded with bikes mostly of the classic variety, singlespeed and simple, ridden by the young and the old alike. With the use of homemade wooden seats fitted on the top tube, it’s not uncommon for two or three people to be on the same bicycle. Obviously the trade restrictions have prevented carbon frames, electronic shifting, or even multispeed cassettes from permeating the market. Even as more drivers are taking to the roads, it wasn’t long ago that they too were dependent upon bicycles. As a result, we found most drivers to be extremely courteous to cyclists even in large cities and crowded streets.
Bike touring in Cuba is nothing short of a cultural experience, and there’s no better way to explore than by bicycle. The dirt roads from Viñales to Trinidad offered us an illuminating look at the agricultural life of western Cubans. Cuba is quickly becoming a bustling tourist hub for Americans, and has been so among Europeans for decades. Most of this activity has been kept to a handful of cities and beaches around the island, though, as opposed to the farmlands and simple villages we found on our dirt road tour. Locals strolled around barefoot and shirtless, stopping at street vendors for a breakfast of churros, bocaditos, and Cuban coffee. The coffee is a story of its own, sold from windows of local homes. Typically made from moka pots and resembling a weak espresso sweetened with plenty of sugar, 25 cents will get you the typical two-ounce serving in a small glass. Hotels are rare in these small towns; instead we stayed at casa particulares. Marked by a blue anchor painted on a small sign hung outside of the homes, these were some of the most honest experiences we found in Cuba. These homestays were an authentic glimpse into the lives of Cubans. With simple ingredients, meals are expertly prepared and served with pride, the same way to a traveler as with their own family.
Our last stop, Trinidad, was a colorful colonial town brimming with life. During the day the cobblestone streets were full of street vendors, classic American convertibles, and tourists alike. As the sun fell from the sky, mojito stands popped up along the street and the square turned into a party. Dancers filled the square as bands took turns playing salsa for the crowd. It was a perfect place to conclude our journey and enjoy the amenities that accompany the touristy oasis after a two-week tour through some of the lesser-traveled villages of western Cuba.
Colt Fetters is a bicycle enthusiast, mediocre climber, wannabe photographer, and connoisseur of baked goods. He grew up exploring the Cascade Mountains and has recently been converted to a Southern gentleman by nature of a move to Auburn, Alabama, where he works as an outdoor educator. You can follow along with his travels and efforts at ColtFetters.com and on Instagram @coltfetters.