A whistlestop guide to Cuba

A whistlestop guide to Cuba Alex and Laurence

This article was written by Alex Robertson, published on 13th December 2010 and has been read 9477 times.

At the end of his first year at university, Alex Robertson and a friend went on a cycling trip around Cuba, covering more than 850 miles in around 22 days with an extra 10 days spent exploring and resting. Here he gives us an overview of his experiences, reviews Cuban towns and passes on his top tips…
Things to know
English is not commonly spoken, especially outside Havana. I managed to get by with an understanding of Spanish (but an inability to speak it), a good amount of French and a fair whack of German. Many of the older generation studied in East Germany during the Cold War and more Germans visit Cuba than other nationalities.  There are two currencies. The locally used Cuban peso (CUP) and the “tourist” Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUC is roughly linked to the Euro and there are approximately 20 CUP per CUC. While I was there, a Cornetto in a tourist shop or a 2-litre bottle of water cost 2.50/3 CUC. The average wage was around 350-400 CUP a month (around 20 CUC).  Food (apart from dry pasta, sweets and biscuits) is hard to come by in supermarkets and is almost always overpriced.  When travelling around the best place to stay is with registered “casa particulars”. These are Cuban families who have a license to let people stay in spare rooms. Food is extra but always fairly decent. I would try to follow guidebook recommended places or shop around a little. Don’t get coerced into staying somewhere that you don’t want to. There is plenty of choice. You can learn a huge amount from your hosts. Why not watch some Cuban TV with them! Prices start around 8 CUC a night, so not that cheap.  Tip people who give you directions no more than 1 CUC and tip 10-20% for a meal or drinks.  Water is not drinkable. Boil it or buy it. This was one of our biggest expenses while cycling.  Once you have bought water, the locals want the bottles after you have used them. This is because they can get a deposit back from the shop you bought them from.  Cuba has the best fruit I’ve ever eaten. Pineapples are fantastic there (seasonal), and mangoes and plantains are also really good. Try to buy fruit with CUP or in large amounts with CUC. Don’t get conned. • Cubans like to barter for just about anything – so be confident and barter to your heart’s content.  Rice and beans are the staple diet in Cuba and they have good fish, pork and chicken. Remember there is no/little beef: “Cows for milk for the children, Bulls for ploughing the fields” (Fidel). Once again Lonely Planet has a stonking guidebook on Cuba. We used this the most. Especially for recommending Casa Particulars/cheaper restaurants. We used Bicycling Cuba: 50 Days of Detailed Ride Routes from Havana to Pinar Del Rio and the Oriente for cycle information.  Havana
After flying into Havana we found a local guest house where we built up our bikes and got settled in. Havana is a busy, invigorating place. It’s full of interesting characters and places to visit, however I also found that there are a large number of people out to get their hands on your tourist cash, so watch out.

Trip to Santiago de Cuba
We took the national ‘first class’ bus overnight to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second city. These buses are fairly cheap and very regular between all the major towns and are useful for getting around with a lot of kit (for us that was 5 bikes!). Our first day cycling taught us something important about Cuban maps: they’re hard to get and they aren’t very good.

Guantanamo
Guantanamo is a charming little town which is probably high on the list of everyone’s “things to see”. When I was there you were able to head up into the hills and see the American base from a viewing platform. Guantanamo had some amazing people and a great atmosphere.

Alto de Cotilla
The cycle over Alto de Cotilla, one of the highest passes in Cuba, was utterly fantastic: a highlight of my trip. I would recommend it simply for the tropical rainforest view from the top. Also, for the cyclists among you, the descent to Baracoa was a pleasure and there’s a beautiful national park you can visit.

The Che Guevara Artificial Insemination Institute
To be fair I just cycled past this fairly quickly. It’s the best-named institute I saw while there (or anywhere else in the world), only narrowly beating “The Che Guevara Nickel Smelting Plant”.

Holguin
While cycling up the centre of the country we stopped in this amazing little town. We met a French girl who was doing research there and was regularly the only non Cuban in the area. Every evening everyone goes to the main square and sits there having a few beers, a chat and some roasted nuts. There was a friendly atmosphere and I would recommend stopping off in Holguin at some point in your trip.

Trinidad
This little town is truly brilliant. It is not far from the beach and has some fantastic music bars as well as a great club called ‘Disco Cueva’ which I recommend. Bear in mind that the Disco Cueva will be closed if it’s raining as it has a tendency to flood quite badly - it is an underground cave after all!! Go from here to visit the Bay of Pigs if that sort of thing is your bag.

Parque Nacional la Guira
Cycling from the coast up into this beautiful national park showed me the amazing diversity of the Cuban landscape. It varied between golden coastal beaches, lower level pineapple plantations and tropical rainforests. I’ve never been anywhere with such geographical variation over such short distances. This park was great (despite the tropical storm we arrived into) and I would like to visit it again. There are some excellent inexpensive cabins you can stay in unless it’s raining as horrendously as it was when we were there.

Pinar Del Rio
The capital of cigar country. There was a great mix of fantastic local bars, restaurants and also a Cuban treat – a Coppelia ice cream parlour. Queue up with the locals on a hot day for the best milkshakes and ice cream you can find anywhere in the world. No picking of flavours here – you get the ice cream du jour when you get to the counter. We stood in the queue with the locals making friends for 2 hours and 5 of us ate as many ice creams and milkshakes as we could for a total bill of 8 CUC, while you can go to the tourist centre and get the same ice cream for 10 CUC – watch out!!!

Vinales
Undoubtedly my favourite place and just a short, beautiful cycle from Pinar del Rio. We stayed with a fantastic family group on a dirt street about 5 minutes from the centre of this tiny town. It’s probably better to let pictures explain how beautiful it is. Tobacco farmland and towering mogotes we spent our time here relaxing and enjoying some guided trekking through the caves and mogotes. Here everyone was laid back, good fun and very much up for a beer!

La Bajada and Maria La Gorda
On the westernmost tip of Cuba there is a National Park and an amazing area for snorkelling and diving. I cycled to this area on my own and managed to get myself a room in a radar station. I spent a few days in this area snorkelling at the Hotel Maria La Gorda and I was also taken on a tour of part of the Parque Nacional Peninsula de Gunanahacabibes by the chief biological officer of the area!

Thoughts

Overall my time in Cuba was an incredible experience. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes dangerous, always exciting and changeable. As a cycling destination I’ve yet to find anywhere with such perfect cycle touring terrain. Logistically though it was horrendous and probably cost me three times as much as I was expecting it to.

Top Tips
Research will help hugely - do plenty! Familiarise yourself with the island and get out of the busy tourist areas.  Avoid the tourist-tastic Varadero. It’s very Brits abroad.  Try the local snack food. Sugar cane juice, “peso pizza” and chilli oyster shots should feature in your trip at some point. Fingers crossed that you have a stronger stomach than my cycling partner.  Bucanero fuerte- good beer. Bucanero Max – AWESOME BEER.  Bacardi bianco/anejo especial were the cheapest runs while we were there.  Use a bike to get around. Cubans love cycling and the towns are fairly flat.  Take time to speak to people. They are very friendly.  Take some antibiotics, plasters, Savlon, Imodium and your favourite painkillers.  Mini mangoes. Don’t peel them, they’re too fibrous. Mash them up carefully inside the skin then bite the top off and suck out the juicy pulp. Like a naturally packaged sports drink!

 

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