I had big plans when we started planning our cycling trip to Cuba. I thought a month would be enough, but how wrong I was.
We flew into Holguín and started counter-clockwise towards the east coast, then changed our plans and trucked ourselves into Santiago from a junction west of Mayari. Continuing west following the south coast and visiting the iconic Granma province, we ended up in Bayamo. A 6-hour Viazul bus journey took us to Sancti Spiritus in central Cuba. From there we pressed on to Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Playa Giron, then we cut through the middle through a series of small towns to north towards Matanzas. Following Via Blanca, we reached Havana with a brief stop at Playa Jibacoa. After a few days of indulging ourselves in music and food we did a short tour of the west visiting Las Terrazas and Soroa. We cycled back east to Havana following the auto-pista and the north coast road, then took a bus to Varadero to spend our last day. A short cycle to the airport was the last leg before our flight back home!
Generally, Cuba roads are not well maintained, especially when you venture into rural areas. There is something called “auto-pista” which is roughly the equivalent of a highway in North America and it’s surprisingly safe and in some ways better compared to cycling on other roads, such as a “carretera”. There is a whole lane dedicated to slow moving vehicles and pedestrians and it’s not very crowded so you won’t be inhaling exhaust fumes all the time. The main disadvantage of cycling on an auto-pista is you won’t be seeing anything more interesting than a few shacks along the road. “Carretera” is the worst type of road to cycle on — two busy lanes full of smoky trucks and buses. Unfortunately, most of the time there is no other choice to get to somewhere other than a carretera.
Hills? There are hills in Cuba but they seem to be rare. At least we didn’t experience much difficulty in this tour, except north of Pilon and between Las Terrazas and Soroa. The bigger threat comes from the wind. Make sure you are traveling from east to west.
I prefer camping and wild-camping is the best, but the situation in Cuba makes it difficult to decide. It’s rare that you might find a good camping spot in most routes within Cuba. You need to be cycling in the very east/west ends, away from the crowd. There are some places called “campismos”, but that’s a misleading name: concrete hut with beds and shower inside.
We did come across places ideal for tent camping: especially on the south coast, where there is hardly anybody and there is an empty beach with a clean-looking river nearby. But is it worth to carry all that extra gear for a chance of one or two nights camping?
You will hear a lot about “casas particulares” when you research about Cuba. They are basically a room in a Cuban house, similar to a bed & breakfast. To have a room to rent is quite significant for a Cuban family since the money they get for one night is equivalent to a typical monthly salary (although I don’t know how much is left after the government takes its share).
So the recommended way of lodging is using a “casa”, or “hostal”. They have a weird blue symbol ( ). You will be meeting with locals, and helping them to earn a better living. We didn’t have to reserve any of our lodgings ahead, except the first night in Holguín (the host didn’t know we were coming!) and one of the nights in Havana. If you knock on a door and it turns out to be busy they will find you another, no problem. One warning: when you are looking for a casa on the street, pretend you know where you are going and try not to look around because there are certain people desperately hoping to earn a commission by showing up at the door along with you, and they may become annoying.
As I’m writing this, the money situation in Cuba is quite confusing and hopefully there will be some changes after the 2018 elections. There are two types of currencies in circulation; one for the locals (“Nacional”, or MN), the other for the foreigners (CUC — pronounced “cook”). 1 CUC is equivalent to 1 U.S. dollar and the exchange rate is about 1 CUC to 25 MN. They use the same sign “$”, so when you see a price written there is no easy way to tell the difference. Paper CUC note is colorful, and the other looks pale green/ gray. Coin CUC has corners, other is round. You need to be careful when receiving change from anybody, they get mixed up easily. Businesses geared towards visitors accept only CUC, but if you are in a rural area and are paying a street vendor for a “pizza” or banana, you are most probably be paying with MN, so as a visitor you are allowed to carry both currencies.
Currently, using your credit card as a payment method is mostly not possible in Cuba, especially if your card is from a U.S. bank. It’s easy to exchange currency and you must carry enough cash (Canadian, Euro, etc) for your whole trip — except, there is a little trick we learned from our Canadian friends: load up your VISA card with extra cash before the trip so you can withdraw CUC from ATMs (which are ubiquitous in larger towns) — this is very dependent on how your bank/visa card operates, so confirm this before heading out.
We stayed in “casa particular”s exclusively — no tents, no hotels or resorts. They cost around $25 per night per room (goes up to $35 or more in some places). A home dinner costs around $8-$10, breakfast around $5 pp. So for a typical day we spent around $55 for food and lodging.
Before the trip, one of my worries was the food. Since we are both vegetarian (lacto-ovo pescetarian to be precise), I was afraid to feed on rice and beans the whole trip. On a few occasions we did end up doing that but in most homes that we stayed we were able to get a hearty meal with fish, rice and vegetables. Breakfasts were usually big, with omelette, coffee, fresh fruit and juice. Finding snacks on the road was a problem. There are hardly any stores and when there are, they don’t carry much. We knew this and we took a bag of nuts and berries with us. If you eat meat, there are hole-in-the-wall type of places where you can get pork/beef sandwiches. And there is this thing called “pizza”: a tiny circle of baked dough with melted cheese on it and costs about a quarter.
Finding a decent restaurant is difficult when you need it but when we were in Havana we had no problems with that. Actually, Havana seemed quite different from anywhere else I’ve been in Cuba. I can even claim that if you spend your entire time there, especially in the old town, you won’t know what Cuba is going through. It would even be worse than staying in a beach resort, because when you go to a resort, you well know that it doesn’t represent Cuba.
No one drinks tap water in Cuba and you shouldn’t either; it’s considered unsafe. Most cyclists we saw were buying bottled water the entire trip, and there is no problem with that, but we took a water filter with us and it turned out to be a daily ritual to fill up our water bottles. If you are not taking a filter, you may want to take a few purifying tablets to cover the possibility of not finding a store to buy water.
Wish I knew
My Spanish is limited to some basic words and numbers. Even though locals are accommodating and we got by without any issues, it would be quite a different experience if I could speak fluently with the locals. Cuban Spanish is quite fast and different too.
A month is not enough; you need at least 50 days to tour the whole island. Even then there would be a lot left to see but that’s a start.
Cuba is expensive. Initially I thought $50 per day for both of us would work out fine but we went about %50 over that.
Whatever motivates you to cycle in Cuba, please do it as soon as you can before it is ruined by mass tourism. I will throw another cliche to complete this post: what impressed me most during our visit is the sincerity of everyone we met, even the beggar in the park.
Dates: Feb 5 – Mar 5, 2018
Distance traveled: 1,400 km
Days on bicycles: 23 out of 29 days
Flat tires: 0
Average Expense: $75 CAD per day for 2