Cycling in Cuba
Mandy’s Cycling Adventures
Most of my month in Cuba was spent in Viñales, a small farming town on the west side of the island. Viñales has one of the most unique landscapes I have ever seen:
red earth roads carving through lush green rolling hills, surrounded by stunning stone mountains with cave-like formations etched in their sides. Tethered and wild farm animals roam everywhere: pigs, roosters, goats, cows, oxen, horses, cats, dogs, chickens, turkeys. Quite the different scene from San Francisco!
Besides staying in hotels, the most common form of accommodation in Cuba is renting a private room/bath within a family home, which is called the “casa particular” system. Cubans have basically mastered the Airbnb concept, all without the internet, heavily depending on word of mouth. These casas particulares allow for a much more personal stay in Cuba. In Viñales I made home at the lovely “Villa Ariel El Músico,” with the Alfonso family. Check out this room! Like waking up in sunshine.
It was in Viñales that I did most of my bicycle venturing, renting a bike from one of their neighborhood kids for about $4USD per day. Nearly everyday I would take some kind of bicycle trip, mostly along the town’s main river so that I could take a dip and have some respite from the unforgiving Caribbean sun. Some of the riding I did by myself and some I did with the mother, Yadira, of the house where I stayed. Her nickname soon became “la guía,” or the guide, for her frequent companionship.
In this post I’d like to highlight a few of my favorite memories that riding a bicycle allowed me to have while in Cuba!
My first day with the bike, I rode out about 12 km to a peaceful watering hole that I had discovered via foot the day before. I had ditched the bike by the side of the road, hidden in the grass. I was reading while cooling off in the river and all of the sudden, this machete-wielding older man appeared from the bushes. Completely caught off guard, I looked up from my book and answered back to his friendly greeting. He had simply wanted to know to whom the bike belonged. Before long, he invited me up for an afternoon café after I finished reading. I asked, “Which house, caballero?” He responded as if I should have known, wasn’t it obvious? “The yellow one!” Well, of course.
After reading I crossed the road, carried my bike over the small footbridge and up the hill to the yellow house (of course).
And, while he went inside the check on the café, he offered me his reading literature, “Cien Horas con Fidel.”
I thought to myself, “I can’t even make this up! This is classic. He’s reading ‘One Hundred Hours with Fidel Castro’?” When he came back with the coffee, we ensued conversation about Fidel, naturally, among other things. The machete-wielding man, Juanito, ended up being the kindest soul and we made plans to go fishing later in the week. He sent me home with the biggest and longest avocado I had ever seen along with enough tropical fruit to make my backpack burst at the seams.
As soon as I carried my bike down the hill and hopped back on to head home, I realized that my rear tire was flat. Just a few minutes had gone by pushing the bike down the road when this woman called out to me, “¡Señorita! Did your tire blow? Ponchera aquí. Tire repair shop here.” And sure enough, one of the town’s only two tire shops was in my vicinity. “Qué suerte. What luck,” I thought.
At first the retired-pig-inspector-gone-bike-repairman struggled to remove my rear wheel. I thought to myself, “is this guy for real?” But, with the help of his son who happened to show up, he managed to free the wheel and take a look. Turns out that the tube was punctured adjacent to the air valve. After seeing the tube, it looked as if it had already been patched multiple times. He said he would give it a shot. The equipment he had was phenomenal!
He zapped on the electricity to heat up an old iron and properly adhere the new patch to the tube. After it had cooled down, he put the tube in a small concrete pond to assess for air bubbles. I thought I saw a few little bubbles sprouting up from the tube, but he ensured me it had sealed properly.
Then he filled up the tube and reassembled the bicycle. And, alas!, the tube deflated. He diagnosed it as being in need of a new valve, possibly a new tube. His wife came out and sent me home with two more homegrown avocados! And with that, it was back to town via foot. Twelve kilometers later, I dropped off the bike at the neighborhood kid’s house and he upgraded me to a Ferrari edition bike for my remaining adventures ahead. Quite the stylin’ set of wheels.
As planned later in the week, I bicycled down early in the morning to meet up with Juanito for our fishing trip. We trekked through some dense jungle to finally arrive at his fishing spot, “La Culebra,” The Snake. After baiting the hooks with worms and casting the two poles and four nets, we sat down and waited. He had come well prepared with plenty of tropical fruits and sweetened coffee to keep us entertained as the morning drifted by.
Little did Juanito know, but he was fishing with a Murphy, and according to Murphy’s Law, Murphys cannot fish. But sure enough, as the hours ticked by, something finally bit!
“Una guavina! Qué rico!” As the formidable clouds rolled in and we started to hear thunder, we headed back to his yellow house (of course) and fried up that fish for lunch. Mighty tasty. The only sizeable crawdad that we had netted, I left behind, hooked up and hanging by the river. Oops. Poor crawdad. But we sure enjoyed that fish!
Another day I accompanied la guía to her work. She works with the Department of Health, collecting larvae from mosquito traps to assess if any dengue or malaria positive species are found. This day she had to go to two popular outdoor attractions, El Mural Prehistórico and El Campismo. As we collected our bikes to return home, one of the guards offered to take us on a hike through some rural farmlands and up the mountains to take a dip in a small cave lake. Lake in a cave? Of course, I was game. So I convinced la guía to come with me.
A few days earlier, I had asked la guía how to say the name of a certain turkey-like bird in Spanish, “el guanajo.” She had it stuck in her mind that I had desperately wanted to eat guanajo and had made it her mission to find me one. As we crossed the rural farmlands, she asked every farmer we saw if they had a guanajo for sale.
Finally, after tracking down a willing farmer, la guía had found her lucky guanajo.
She secured the guanajo to the bike and we were off.
Yadira, la guía, always greeted everyone everywhere we pedaled. And she loved to give the passerby a tidbit of news as to what her and I had ventured into that day. This day, she indulged everyone with the news of the guanajo and our hike to Los Aquaticos. We made it home sometime between 5 and 6 in the evening. I thought there would be no way we’d actually be eating the bird that very night.
By 8pm, that guanajo was on the dinner table…what a woman! I was so impressed. She was delighted by my easy amusement of, for her, an average day feat.
Those are among my fondest memories of where pushing the pedals lead me to in Cuba. To wrap up, I will share a few more general observations of my perception on bicycle safety in Cuba, perhaps to inform you for your future explorations there.
Almost anywhere in Cuba, expect to share a two-way road with a variety of vehicles: oxen or horse-driven carts, bicycles (with cyclobatic drivers much more talented than me—see Part Uno, motorcycles, classic old Cuban cars putzing along, large cattle cars transporting workers.
To my pleasant surprise, every single vehicle always gave cyclists a very wide shoulder, often crossing well into the other lane.
For the most part the road conditions were very good, consisting of either asphalt pavement or firm earth. There was only occasional flooding due to the inevitable Caribbean downpour on most afternoons.
One big mark against bicycle safety in Cuba was the almost non-existent use of helmets. I did not personally hear of any bicycle accidents, only motorcycle and car accidents. Despite me not hearing about any bicycle related accidents that does not, however, negate the importance of helmet use!
For your own Cuban cycling adventure, I’d recommend bringing along a helmet. And if you are particular about the way a bike fits you or functions, I’d also suggest to BYOB (bring your own bike).
After Part Uno and Dos on Ciclismo Cubano, I hope you’ve had a taste of what it is like to push those pedals in Cuba. And maybe you’re inspired to take a bicycling adventure there yourself!
Happy pedaling. ¡Quizás, algún día, en Cuba! Maybe, someday, in Cuba!