The Newspaper of the Cuban Youth

 VUELTA DE CUBA

Valle de Vinales

Calle Vapor, Havanna

If you like to see the

CUBAN PICTURES in full size go to RYDINGS PLANET - Newsblog

where they also can be shown as slideshow!

Cycling in Cuba is a unique experience. All claims to the contrary, you can move around almost completely free, discover interesting environments and meet hospitable, enthusiastic people in a vibrant, colourful Caribbean culture. Sure, it sounds like a quote from a Cuban promotion campaign, but there are others who have cycled in Cuba and who express themselves in a similar manner.

E.g. on the website "Cycling Cuba" (whoever they may be) it says:

Cuba is a wonderful place to travel. After having cycled, biked and hiked our way around the world, we can honestly say that we've never enjoyed a bike trip as much as we did Cuba. The cycling was relaxed, the countryside was lovely, the people friendly, and the culture fascinating.


Or as the Canadian Rick Kaselj, who holds a B.Sc and specializes in active rehabilitation and fitness, expresses it on his website:

Cycling Cuba is about the beauty of Cuba and the experience of independently traveling through the country by bike. This hour and a half slideshow (which can be found on his website) is full of the most beautiful spots of Cuba, tips on traveling, tips on cycling Cuba and the adventure of experiencing the country by bike.  Fantastic photos, Cuban music and humors stories bring the trip to life.


There are those who believe that once you leave the tourist thoroughfares you will discovera bottomless misery and extreme poverty.

That would be highly exaggerated, but of course Cuba is a poor country and there is also an element of poverty, especially if you have the industrialized countries in North America and Europe as a reference.

But this is less startling than the fact that calculated as a percentage there is definitely more poverty, by percentage more illiteracy, higher infant mortality, more violence and alienation in the country’s northern neighbour, the US!

A highly contributing factor to the economic problems is also the blockade the United States has implemented on Cuba and the Cuban people since 1962, after the United States orchestrated an unsuccessful invasion attempt in the Bay of Pigs.


(It may be interesting to know that although there is a violation of U.S. sanction laws, more than 100,000 U.S. citizens annually visit Cuba. Maximum punishment for infringement is $250,000 in fines and 10 years in prison!

If you want to know more about the U.S. sanctions against Cuba, you can read U.S. Sanctions Page, and search for Cuba. If it does not work, you can enter via US.Dept. of Treasury and click your way to the pages pertaining to penalties and to Cuba Sanctions.)


Bob Cary is a racing cyclist from Skyland Cycle Club in the US and participated in the UCI Pan American Masters Cycling Championships in 2004. He has some interesting comments on his webpage:

I suppose this system makes sense. It's a socialist country. There's no illiteracy, no malnutrition, no untreated disease. But there is no material wealth, either. Oh yeah, and it's a police state. I try not to be judgmental, but I wonder whether, if I lived in Cuba, I'd be willing to let a couple of people starve so I could have a nicer house.


On day four in his diary he takes a ride to Guanabo, a town some twenty kilometres east of Havana where he takes a short brake and makes the following comment:

For a town sitting on a spectacular beach, Guanabo is amazingly noncommercial, at least by our standards. No pizzerias, no neon, no real estate offices, no touristy shops. It is undeniably shabby, but it is also eerily beautiful in its own way. I feel a little out-of-place, a cyclist in brightly colored lycra on a four thousand dollar carbon fiber bike, but most of the people don't even notice me. Occasionally, I get a look, catch someone's eye, and I smile and wave, say "hola," or the truncated "buena." The Cubans never fail to smile in return.


Unfortunately, many of Cuba’s critics are assessing the Cubans in a prejudiced and biased manner, and get their information mainly from the Cubans who have fled or moved to the United States where rigid and antagonistic Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) controls exile Cubans with the same methods as they accuse the regime in Cuba. In the Miami area, where Cubans dominate, no-one dare to publicly express a different opinion from the confrontational policies dictated by the CANF, even though polls show that a majority of exiled Cubans advocates dialogue with Havana, (See Ann Louise Bardach: Cuba Confidential, Penguin Books 2002.)



“Bicycling Cuba”

Wally and Barbara Smith from Vermont in the U.S. who wrote the excellent book Bicycling Cuba, make on their website the following summary:

“If there is a fair generalization about the conditions and the politics of Cuba, it is this: As a visitor, you can see what you expect or want to see. If you come to Cuba looking for evidence of a police state, inefficient bureaucracy, and dissatisfied people, you can find it. If you look for evidence of a uniquely idealistic society in which people have a strong sense of community, respect their government, and are trying to solve problems without sacrificing the achievements of their revolution, you can find that too. Let's ride.”



PLANNING

I spent some hours on planning. I got the best tip by taking stock of what is written about Cuba and Cycling Cuba on the Internet. There you will find personal and valuable ideas from the many people who have cycled in Cuba. I also used the Lonely Planet "Cycling Cuba", which did not add much and also in several respects was outdated. More useful was Lonely Planet's ordinary Cuba Travel Guide.


I recommend aforementioned Bicycling Cuba and Lonely Planet’s Cuba if you plan to buy books to take along as travel guides. Together they cover almost every kind of useful information. They can be purchased from most bookstores as well as from several Internet-book shops.

(Lonely Planet´s Cycling Cuba was published in 2002, as one in a series of books about cycling in several countries. Most of these books are not updated and out of print but can be found in some libraries and in used condition in second-hand bookstores. I found e.g. Bicycling Cuba at Amazon.com at a price between 50 -150 USD and on Amazon.co.uk the price is between 45-130 GBP! (July 2009) That is an outrageous amount of money for an almost useless and outdated book!)


Note: In September 2009 Lonely Planet will publish a number of new and updated titles in this Cycling series. If the Cycling Cuba will be updated and reprinted is not known when this is written. (August 2009.)


Maps

A Rough Guide Map Cuba (Rough Guide Map) is not ideal, but practical in the sense that it is plastic-coated and withstands a little moisture.



BRING YOUR OWN OR RENT A BIKE?

If you plan just to make short day trips or to ride during a shorter time, you might as well rent a bike. The bikes you can rent in Cuba are usually not suitable for longer trips. They have no gears and are otherwise of a very simple model. In Havana, you can rent a bicycle for a couple of U.S. dollars per hour excellent for cycling around the city.

See also Bike Rental Cuba.

If you are planning for a longer trip, a couple of weeks or more, it is advisable to bring your own bike.

(How to pack your bike and what rules apply to bring it on the plane, look at the Bicycle Page [not yet available in English])



SERVICE

The Chinese bikes that dominate in Cuba are not of highest quality, and as the number of cyclists is large there are consequently plenty of opportunities to get a bike repaired. So-called poncheras are virtually everywhere. They mend punctures but can also do a lot of other minor repairs; replace damaged or broken spokes or draw up a crooked wheel. At a poncheras they may not have special tools for sophisticated bikes. If you break a spoke it almost always will happen on the right side on the rear wheel (Murphy's Law, you know) where it is most complicated as the freewheel-cassette has to be removed and it requires a special tool - a Cassette Removal Tool. Such a tool should therefore be included in your tool bag and can be purchased in a well-stocked bike shop.


The tool-bag should also include a 15 mm. fixed key for the pedals, a multi-tool including usable Allen keys, a chain-link in case the chain breaks, possibly a chain rivet extractor and adapters for different valves making it possible to use different types of pumps in case of pump breakage. There are now small efficient speed-pumps with pressure gauge.

Read more about the equipment on the Bicycle Page (not yet available in English).




WHEN?

Most believe that the best time of the year to visit Cuba is between November and May. During the summer months (June - August) the so-called rainy season occurs and in September-October the island is frequently struck by storms and hurricanes. Personally I decided to visit the country in February and March and took a flight to Havana via Amsterdam one of the last days of January.

Visas must be arranged before departure. In most cases you can quickly get a tourist visa, it depends on your origin. The visa is presented as a removable paper-slip in the passport and can be arranged by most travel agencies. However, you can only get a visa for one month, which can then be extended on-site by an additional month. (More on this subject will follow.)



ACCOMMODATION

Casa Particulars is the Cuban equivalent of the British Bed & Breakfast. Cubans who have large apartments or own houses have the right to let rooms to tourists. The rooms must keep a certain standard, such as minimum size, hot and cold water, TV, etc., determined by the State. The price is usually between 15 CUC and 30, depending on the size and standard.

In the smaller towns in rural areas there may also be hotels for foreign tourists. There are also cheap (and usually quite simple) so-called peso hotels for the Cubans. They are often not available to foreigners, but if there is no other option, it is sometimes possible to spend a night or two here.

On the Internet is a series of links about Casa Particulars. Some of the largest are:

Cuba-Junky

Casa Particular Cuba

Bed-in-Cuba


In Havana, I usually stay at the Casa Miriam and have experienced that it has several advantages: a perfect location (the western part of Centro Havana) between Havana Vieja and Vedado and near the Malecon, and a family atmosphere and large, airy rooms.
They are also used to accommodate cyclists.


Campismo

There are some 80 campismos in Cuba. They are "cabin villages" and the quality can vary widely. Those offered to foreign tourists can usually have both air-condition and refrigerator. The price of a cabañas (shack/cabin/cottage) varies between 10 and 20 CUC regardless the number of people. Cafeterias on campismos often serve cheap and decent food.

Regrettably the campismos are often neither near or close to big cities and towns and that some aren’t open for international guests.

You can find a complete list of the campisimos at Cuba-Junky.


Food

You should not travel to Cuba primarily for the food's sake. It is the wrong place to visit if you want to make a gourmet trip. In addition to the hotels and restaurants for tourists and where food is served by international standards, there are also somewhat simpler places where Cubans have their meals when they eat out. Here the menus are often extremely limited.

At Casa Particulars you will also be served good food with plenty of fruit and vegetables. This also applies to private restaurants known as "Paladares". Staple food for Cubans is mainly rice and beans.


Varadero

Varadero is probably worth its own chapter. But since I haven’t visited the popular destination, I’m not able to give a valid inside information. Most tourists I have met who have visited Varadero say with one tongue: “Varadero is not Cuba”, and as these pages exclusively are on Cuba, I have picked some info from books, other visitors and elsewhere.


Varadero is Cuba's largest tourist resort or tourist trap, if you like. Varadero is situated 140 kilometres (85 miles) east of Havana on a peninsula and its twenty-kilometre-long beach is one of the reasons that hundreds of thousands of tourists come here each year. Here it is teeming of 24-hours-open discos and nightclubs, all built according to mainly North American expectations since most tourists are said to come from Canada. Even in Spain, Italy and Germany Varadero is a popular destination. In Spain alone, twenty flights leave for Havana every week.  A second and probably the most important reason for Varadero’s popularity is a well developed and comprehensive sex tourism.

I recently found an article saying that: Tourism [in Cuba] has replaced sugar as the single most important export in the economy.

I suppose most of these tourists mainly visit Varadero, which, as previously mentioned has not very much in common with the “real” Cuba. Unfortunately many Cuba travellers will never get further than to just Varadero.



Machismo

Machismo is explained as prominently excessive masculinity and an attitude as ranges from a personal sense of virility to a more extreme male chauvinism. Machismo exists in all its forms of course also in Cuba and many female tourists perceive it as stressful and irritating, but according to the book “Kuba” by the Swedish journalist and writer Thomas Gustafsson published at Carlssons Förlag, 2006: [Machismo in Cuba]“... manifests itself not in the same intrusive and degrading way towards women as in some parts of Latin America and the Arab world. Cuban men are attentive and protective. Cuba is a safe country where women can walk alone in Havana during the night without being molested. Cuba is one of the few countries in the world where a single woman can hitchhike.” (p. 520) (my translation)

(Nevertheless. I cycled from Cienfuegos to Trinidad together with a young lady from Switzerland. One of the reasons why she wanted to be accompanied was, that she found that Cuban men showed her "a little too much attention to be perceived as nice," as she expressed it. These men had probably not read the above-mentioned book!)




TRIPS

From Havana, it is a good suggestion to ride west to Pinar del Rio and Viñales and perhaps further west to La Fe. Many consider this to be the most beautiful part of Cuba. Many cyclists  recommend to choose the North Road via Mariel and continue along coast to Bahia Honda, La Palma to Vinales and Pinar del Rio.



I myself chose to ride east towards Matanzas and continue southeast to Cienfuegos and via popular Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus and further east towards Santiago de Cuba and through Guantanamo to Baracoa. It would later prove to be a bad choice.

The wind blows most of the year in a westerly direction, and is often both sharp and brisk and sometimes really fierce when it sweeps over the plain along Carretera Central. A better option is to cycle from eastern Cuba towards Havana. 

A good proposal is to take the Viazul bus down to Santiago de Cuba, or elsewhere in the east, and start cycling from there.


My intention was when in Santiago to take a southerly route around the mountain area of Sierra Maestra. Lonely Planet Cycling Cuba recommended some interesting options.

Unfortunately, it appeared that large sections of the road that was recommended along the southern coast between Santiago and Pilon almost didn't exist anymore! The road had been washed into the sea during the hurricane "Dennis" in July the year before, a severe disaster that also took many Cuban lives!

So if you plan to cycle on that road (or any other road that might be affected by the annual hurricane season), check the current situation.


LEAVING HAVANA

Getting out of big cities on a bicycle can be quite tricky.

Getting out of Havana is no exception, especially if you intend to travel eastwards. Central Havana and the city's eastern parts, Casablanca and Habana del Este are divided by the Canal de Entrada, which leads to the Havana harbour. A tunnel connects the two parts and here cycling is prohibited! The tunnel is also relatively narrow and busy, so cycling would be a reckless adventure.

Instead, there are coaches from Centro Habana (on the back of the Capitolium Building – El Capitolia National), which are designed for cyclists - ciclo-bus. The bus costs ten centavos (2006) and runs every 15 minutes. It ends up at a terminal in the city's eastern part from where you can continue your cycling.

Alternatively you can take the bike-ferry from La Habana Vieja Terminal to Casablanca in eastern Havana.

CUBA 2006
RYDINGS PLANET

If one always chooses the simple solutions or the simplest explanations, one could just as well be a chimpanzee!

Ulrike Rodrigues  
lives in Vancouver, Canada and has been writing about independent travel, alternative culture,  sustainable transportation and riding a bicycle since 1990.
Look at her interesting website here! 
http://ulrikerodrigues.wordpress.com/2005/05/05/cuba-photo-gallery/shapeimage_5_link_0

Portrait B&W

Cuba Pictures

PHOTO GALLERYKubanska_portratt_b%26w.html
PHOTO GALLERYKubabilder.html

Portrait Colour

PHOTO GALLERYKubanska_portratt_farg.html
My Vuelta de Cuba
I started from Havana, the 1st of February and ended my trip in Havana March 21st. Then I had been pedalling about 1500 km in 21 cycling days. You can read about my trip on the next page.

Swedish version