Bicycling Cuba: Bluebird Skies and Welcoming Homestays
By Matthew Kadey
Just a few tire rotations from the arid town of Cajobado along the island’s eastern most fringes, the road takes a sudden turn north and we’re almost immediately forced to gear down.
Save for the occasional ’55 Cadillac and galloping horse with carriage in tow, Tabi and I are left alone to tackle the steep switchbacks one laborious pedal stroke at a time.
Wending through and cresting the Sierra del Purial mountain range on its way to once isolated Baracoa on the north coast, the last bit of pavement of the La Farola road was laid down in the sixties and is widely considered the first great engineering feat of the Cuban revolutionary government.
Surrounded by a world that has come alive with resplendent views of lushly overgrown hills that hold some of the richest biodiversity in the Antilles, it’s clear this lauded road is taking us deep into a landscape on steroids.
These days it seems there are two types of tourists who step foot in this politically charged land: those who are perfectly comfortable sipping mojitos while languidly lying on beaches that many Cubans themselves aren’t allowed to spread beach towels on, and those who yearn to experience real Cuba.
The Cuba saturated with grandiose architecture among ancient cities, marvelous Afro-Latino influenced music and remarkably affable denizens just trying to make a go of things under the noose of the outdated U.S. trade embargo, a government that zealously squashes all capitalistic inclination and morale draining hurricanes.
For the cyclist, roads sans cars, bluebird skies, numerous and welcoming home-stays and the diverse topography of the Caribbean’s largest country are making Cuba an increasingly popular cycle touring destination. Where else do you have beaches and cathedrals and mountains cheek by jowl? All in a caught-in-a-time-warp setting.
From the outset of our trip to Cuba, my riding partner, Tabi Ferguson, and I knew that Cuba’s Oriente region in the far east would make for the perfect place to glide our pannier-laden bikes – lots of ascents and white knuckle drops, opalescent beaches throughout, remote but not too Spartan and chock full of some of the nation’s most important history. A nice, long, angst-free ride was the hope. However early results were not promising.
Rolling our tires south out of Holguin, a low-key city decorated with a number of parks, where cigar puffing grandpas sit under shade-giving trees and talk up all things baseball while playing dominos, we’re greeted by a road that has more ruts and bumps than an teenage boy with a bad case of soda-pop fueled acne.
“Damn, I wish this bike had suspension,” Tabi yells, somewhat defeatingly so, from behind. Ubiquitous squids – trucks squirting out a black plume of smoke – fill our working lungs with a medicine cabinet of cancerous chemicals.
But these inconveniences are fleeting as the road eventually smoothes out, trucks give way to rolling countryside seemingly left fallow and a tailwind that pushes us effortlessly into shadeless Manzanillo on the coast of the Gulf of Guacanayabo.
With no free beds to be had in any of Manzanillo’s casa particulares (Cuba’s lively version of a bed & breakfast), we’re stuck in the town’s one communist-style hotel that has the atmosphere of an ER waiting room.
Not eager to reload our muscles at the on-site restaurant with a menu that varies between fried chicken and extra-fried pollo, we take up an offer from a local Ernesto (name changed) for a home-cooked meal. As we dig into the Creole chicken, rice, fried plantains and omnipresent tomatoes like Augustus Gloop on a chocolate bar, we’re about to get our first sour taste of Cuba.
Fueled by anger and a few too many sips of rum, Ernesto, uncharacteristically for a Cuban, tells us of real life in this island nation. At the age of 23, he gave his ailing mother one last kiss and handed over all his life’s savings for a spot on a boat bound for Honduras. From there he would make a perilous journey by land north to America.
However, an unskilled boatsman combined with murderous weather found Eugene and his fellow escapees making landfall instead in the Cayman islands. After three months in custody abroad, he found himself right back in Manzanillo making $10 a month at a mundane job despite a university education and the ability to speak four languages.
“I sell clothes on the black market to feed myself and mom.” He admits doing his best to stop the well of feeling as he lifelessly slices into the last bits of chicken meat.
Humbled, we hand him a few pesos and thank him for dinner. We are at a loss of what else to do. More charitable, a German tourist gave him the mountain bike he is riding as we make our way back to the hotel. Barely a word is spoken.
Every cycle tour needs to have that magical ride. The one that makes you wish you could keep pedaling forever. For us, just such a glide occurs as we pedal east along the southern coast towards La Mula.
For most of the 40 some miles the road hugs the shore closer than a mother does her newborn. The ocean mist provides welcomed respite from the roaring mid-day sun. Still, I’m sweating like an overripe piece of pork vindaloo.
Each new curve in the rising and descending pavement unveils a view magnificent beyond words. To Tabi’s chagrin, I can hardly manage 10 minutes of cycling before needing to pull out the camera.
“Not too shabby,” she says, nodding at the IMAX view of Pico Turquino, Cuba’s tallest peak whose verdant slopes seemingly tumble right into the calm waters below.
It’s a ride flushed with expletives, superlatives and “baaahs” of sheep that greatly outnumber humans in this god-blessed land. The earth wheels under me very comfortably.
Drunk on Mother Nature’s abundance, we arrive along with Sandra and Martin, an easy going Swiss riding couple who we met on the road, in La Mula as the sun begins its descent and shadows creep across the grassy hills.
La Mula ends up to be little more than a few rough-around-the-edges homes and one shuttered campisimo that we were relying on to bed down for the night. In a gregarious country where neighbors stay up to the wee hours gossiping, it doesn’t take long for locals to find all of us a family to stay with.
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