Car Free, Carefree Cuba
Pedals and Strolls in Rumba-Land
By Rick Millikan
When there’s good public transportation, pleasant walking conditions and “bicicleta” friendly streets, cars are unnecessary and bothersome. My wife and I looked forward to a car-free, carefree Cuban experience. Though our short vacation seemed to preclude cycling, two wheeling remained very appealing.
After the Soviet Union collapsed leaving Cuba without an oil source, Castro proclaimed the “era of the bicycle!” Fidel obsessively insisted bicycles would solve most of Cuba’s energy, pollution and health problems.
Bike ownership rose tenfold. Within three years 65% of Cubans became cyclists. General health improved. Traffic congestion was reduced. Oil consumption dramatically dropped.
Cyclists are encouraged to visit Cuba. Cuban companies offer customized educational or eco bicycling tours into a variety of intriguing island areas. Their ads declare: “…So much to see, learn and do, these fully supported tours are always educational!”
If you don’t opt to take your own bike, packages can include a bike rental. U.S. groups are organized and licensed to travel on direct U.S. flights to Cuba through Sports or Culture Cuba.
Your own bike assures you of a well set up and geared bike for this big, hilly Caribbean island. A proper fit, racks for panniers, proper lighting, and those additional, special accessories will support touring endeavors. Our Canadian charter made cartage simple. Air Transat supplies heavy-duty plastic bags to pack bicycles and transports them free as baggage. Upon arrival, after repumping the tires and rescrewing the pedals, you’re ready for your Cuban adventure.
Hotels Furnish Bikes
After arriving at our all-inclusive Veradero resort, I discovered yet another option. Resorts all over the island furnish bicycles. Some charge a fee to both guests and non-guests seeking rentals. Many do not. Ours provided no cost bicycles to me and my wife. Though yearning for our helmets, tool kit, caged water bottles and a U-lock, we set off under a blue skied morning to explore Veradero.
Using two gears we zipped over the gentle hills along the wide highway toward the city of Varadero. Lush greenery and royal palms lined our route for the first few kilometers, when we encountered an ecological park and two historic limestone caves. Only a few of the other 43 resorts strung along the water could be glimpsed behind the acres of tropical foliage. However, the former Dupont mansion sat aloof on a grassy knoll.
Stretching along 22 kilometers of white-sand beach, Veradero was once the Caribbean playground for America’s rich and famous. After the Duponts bought half the Veradero Peninsula for 4 cents a square meter, other tycoons followed and purchased winter retreats. Expropriated after the Cuban revolution, the mansion is now a hotel and restaurant; the Dupont lawn, a panoramic golf course.
Just a few more kilometers and off the highway, prosperous sprawling Veradero City offers tourists a few shops, restaurants, and two extraordinary handicraft marketplaces where Cubans proudly display and barter handicrafts that well represent their culture. Cuban-African religion was introduced to us by rows of Yoruba god masks.
These masks were guaranteed to safeguard homes, protect travelers, promote fertility, and provide prosperity. Classic American 50’s cars, which fill Havana’s streets, were sculptured icons, enshrined in colorful paintings, and embellished on T-shirts. In a country overflowing with music, many visitors rumba along the stalls and dicker for guitars, bongos or conga drums. And after seeing Che Guevara proclaim social platitudes on many Cuban billboards and buildings, here the famous revolutionary prevails on T-shirts, paintings and classy key chains.
Before leaving the marketplace, I spotted an old bicycle with a well-crafted wooden infant seat mounted on the cross bar. When I asked the owner about its origin, he broadly smiled and said, “It’s Soviet! The saddle and rack are Chinese. The pedals are Cuban.” Although he was interested in a better bike, we were told newer “bicicletas” are too expensive.
There’s a huge demand for bikes in Cuba exacerbated by a shortage of parts for over a million basic Chinese-built bikes. A Canadian Foundation called Sanctuary delivers 200 donated bikes and stripped-down parts of 800 more every two months to warehouses in Havana. Bikes are assembled, repaired and distributed. Ten and twelve-speeds are being rebuilt as fancy Canadian road bikes with replacement handlebars angling upward like antlers, nicknamed “Caribou”.
On the outskirts of Veradero City, Al Capone’s stone beachfront home now sits vacant behind a ghostly Model T Ford. During prohibition, many thirsty Americans visited Cuba and this fashionable beach destination. After a swig of water, we began our pedal back to our resort 16 kilometers away.
Havana can be a hearty cycle, a hectic rental car drive or an air-conditioned public bus ride. We chose the pleasant three-hour bus trip into Cuba’s fascinating capital and roomed on the edge of Old Havana at the Hotel Inglaterra. Celebrities such as Sara Bernhard once patronized this neoclassical hotel.
Spies and war journalists congregated here during the Spanish-American War! Its mosaics, decorative ceilings, stained glass windows, lace ironwork and skylights represent grandeur of days gone by. Across the street is the Gran Teatro de la Havana, oldest operating theatre in the Western Hemisphere.
From our little balcony, we viewed Havana’s main thoroughfare bustling with vintage 50’s taxis, camellos (semi trucks that pull bus trailers), and a stream of cyclists. Cyclists zip about often carrying more people per bicycle than most U.S. cars. Sturdy “triciclos” are pedaled about delivering heavy loads or as taxi service. In front of us was Parque Central, featuring a huge marble statue of Jose Marti, Cuban patriot and literary giant.
Walking is a great way to experience Havana. After breakfast we strolled the extraordinary 18th Century Paseo del Prado’s shady marble promenade. The Prado is especially picturesque on Saturdays when couples marry at the decorative Matrimonial Palace, once Casino Espanol. The Prado extends to the Malecon, a scenic seaside walkway.
We soon arrived at Plaza de Armas. There, the Americas’ oldest existing fortress overlooks Havana Bay. Encircled by a moat and thick coral block walls, Castillo de la Real Fuerza was built on the site of an earlier fort destroyed by French privateers in 1555. A bronze weather vane, said to depict Hernando de Soto’s wife awaiting her husband’s return, rotates atop the west tower. We rambled cobblestone streets once busy with horses and carriages and now like many of Havana’s streets, closed to cars.
Old Havana exemplifies one of the finest Spanish colonial cities in the Americas. Opulent royal palaces, graceful plazas, sculptured colonnades; churches and monasteries inspire leisurely walks and wondrous explorations. Our last intriguing day in this World Heritage Site ended as one of the many pedicabs returned us to the down town Hotel Inglaterra. Incidentally, this three-wheel bike conveyance cost only $3 including a dollar tip.
Cuba is unforgettable! As Cuba takes a less commercialized and more environmental path, this Caribbean Island has paved a better way for tourists to enjoy healthy, fascinating and relaxing holidays. Will we return? “Si!” And our next visit will be longer including a grand “tour de bicicletas”.
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