Cycling in Cuba: tips for touring the countryside

October 1, 2016
The beautiful town of La Palma in the Pinar Del Rio region of Cuba.

“Gentle” and “easy”.

That’s what our cycling in Cuba adventure promised.

Straightforward cycling through pincushion hills, “flat terrain, with some hill climbing or ascents included.”

Ha, those words haunted us every day as we faced steep hill after steep hill on our 8-day cycling in Cuba trip, through the tobacco plantations and limestone mountains of the Vinales, Pinar Del Rio region of northwestern Cuba.

We’d been seduced by the adventure of cycling through rural regions of a country that’s been essentially cut off from the rest of the world for more than 50 years.

And it was spectacular. A fun, challenging trip with a great bunch of adventurous souls, mostly much younger than us, keen to explore this Caribbean island before it changes too much following the rapprochement in relations with the USA.

Vinales – the heart of the Cuban tobacco industry

Cycling through tobacco country in northwestern Cuba.

Cycling through tobacco country in northwestern Cuba.

We started our adventure in Havana and headed straight to Vinales by bus, a beautiful and charming town about 80 kilometres from the capital.

We spent the next few days cycling around this fertile region, the biggest tobacco growing area in Cuba, with stunning views of the surrounding limestone mountains. Our first day of cycling was pretty easy, the hills enough to get the blood pumping.

While the tour had indicated we’d be staying in hotels along the way, we actually stayed with locals in casa particulares (homestays) and used this as a base for our first 3 nights in Vinales. It was a relief not to have to pack up and move on every morning.

Cayo Jutias – a slice of Carribean paradise

Beach umbrellas at the beautiful Cayo Jutias in Cuba.

It was a hot, hard 80km ride to Cayo Jutias. We were so relieved to get there and plunge into the water.

The second day of riding really challenged us. Our 65km ride turned into an 80km marathon trek to the beach, Cayo Jutias, after we missed a key turn off and ended up going around in circles! The roads are in extremely poor condition and the street signs covered in dust and dirt, so we simply didn’t see the sign as we negotiated our way around trucks and cars.

We learned another tough lesson that day: Cuban road side distances are very approximate. The last sign to the beach said it was 4km away when it fact it was about 14km! Talk about mental torture. Every time we turned a corner we felt sure our destination would be within sight. Instead there was just another stretch of long, empty road, riding into a strong wind.

It felt like the longest ride of my life and I can’t tell you how relieved we were to eventually reach the beach. We were hot, hungry and tired, and running out of water.

School kids in front of a street sign to Cayo Jutias, Cuba.

These school kids helped point us in the right direction after we realised this wasn’t the first time we’d passed this sign to Cayo Jutias!

Cayo Jutias is the closest beach to Vinales and probably the easiest to reach if you have a car. There’s not much there – a restaurant on the beach, some sun lounges and a few umbrellas. It’s on the northern side of the Cuban coast so it’s not quite the idyllic Caribbean pure white sand you might expect. It’s very quiet and relaxing though and the water is beautifully warm and salty.

La Palma and the best lunch ever

A Cuban farmer and his bullocks hard at work ploughing the fields near Vinales

A Cuban farmer hard at work ploughing the fields near Vinales in the Cuban countryside.

The next day we cycled along beautiful, quiet rural roads, watching the locals ploughing their fields with bullocks – no fancy machine equipment here – and slowly going about their business.

Cycling through the countryside you see photos and murals of national hero, Che Guevara, everywhere. His legend is phenomenal. Fidel Castro barely rates a mention! We climbed a couple of seriously steep hills to visit one of many National Ernesto (Che) Guevara Monuments across the country.

We had the most spectacular meal of our entire Cuban holiday in this area. It’s an organic family-owned farm called Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso. All the food is grown on the farm and adds up to a stunning feast. Sit back on the deck overlooking the beautiful view of the farm and valley and enjoy one of their famous anti-stress cocktails. It’s quite possibly the BEST drink ever.

It’s a mix of basil, peppermint, spearmint, coconut milk, aniseed, lemongrass, honey, cinnamon, ice and if you really want to feel like a local, a liberal dose of rum. Too easy to knock back a few. If you visit Vinales, make sure you put this farmhouse restaurant on your list.

Lunch at Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso in Vinales.

The best meal of our 10-day Cuban holiday was at this organic farm in Vinales, Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso.

The famous Cueva de los Portales & coming face-to-face with the Cuban army

The Cueva de los Portales, where Che Guevara hid during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, was one of the most interesting stops along our journey. From a bunker deep inside the caves,  Che Guevara commanded the Western Cuban army. Now a national monument, you can see the table where he sat to play chess and write letters, an old phone and the bed he slept in. It certainly felt very remote and hidden far from civilisation.

The Caves are about 10km from the Güira National Park which was very peaceful, and of course hilly, to ride through. We bumped into a 50-strong contingent of the Cuban National Army along the way, quite a humbling experience when you’re hot, sweaty and huffing and puffing your way up the hill. I politely asked if I could take a photo and they very politely declined.

National hero Che Guevara's face on a the side of a building.

National hero Che Guevara’s face greets you all over the countryside.

Soroa – a first-hand view of hand-made Cuban cigars

Our last few days were based in Soroa, at another homestay, where our host very bluntly told us that we drink too much. He did have to dash out to restock the beer supplies after we drank the casa dry, but cycling in 35+ degrees Celsius is seriously thirsty work, especially when you have a few Irish and Australians in the group!

On our way to Soroa we stopped at a rum factory where you could sample rum straight from the distillery (cheap if you can stomach it) and toured a tobacco factory. This was fascinating. Rows of workers hand rolling world-famous, highly sought-after Cuban cigars – Cohibas and Montecristos – with rudimentary equipment.

Not that I’d ever thought about how Cuban cigars are made but after visiting a tobacco farm, learning how the tobacco plant leaves are harvested and dried, it was very interesting to see those leaves being hand rolled into the real thing. In this factory workers were required to produce a quota of 120 cigars a day and got paid the equivalent of about $USD25 a month. Taking photographs in the factory was forbidden.

Cycling Las Terrazas

Las Terrazas is Cuba’s first UNESCO-sanctioned biosphere reserve. It’s a popular day trip from Havana with lots of hikes and bike trails and is also a popular birdwatching spot. Mostly it’s lush and green and was very quiet and peaceful when we rolled in. Riding around here was very hilly and the steepest climb was to our lunch destination, the restaurant/café Buenavista, a beautiful old brick building with spectacular views out over the valley and the site of an old coffee plantation.

Our final ride was along a stretch of freeway, tame by Western standards, but you still feel very exposed on a four-lane roadway with trucks whizzing past. The best thing about it was that it was flat but give me the quiet back roads any day.

Where to stay – casa particulares

Street view of our casa, homestay, in Vinales.

Street view of our colourful casa, homestay, in Vinales. It’s a popular tourist spot and the town is full of similar casas.

The cycling of course is just part of the trip, a great way to get around the countryside. What this adventure offered was the opportunity to stay with locals in their homes, the casa particulares, to get an insight into how the locals live.

When the Cuban economy was devastated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s then major trading partner, the government allowed locals to generate income by accommodating tourists in their homes.  It’s proved a lucrative business for many Cubans and a much nicer option for visitors.

Vinales is full of casa particulares so there are plenty of places to choose from.

What to eat

We stayed in a few different casas and they varied significantly in size and standard. What didn’t change was the food. Breakfast was exactly the same everywhere – fresh fruit (pineapple, pawpaw, banana), bread and an omelet.

For lunch and dinner there was the same choice every day – fish, chicken or pork with black beans and rice. Very occasionally you could get shredded beef but red meat was hard to come by. The Cuban government owns all the cows in the country and farmers face 15 years in jail if they kill a cow without government permission!

Tips for cycling in Cuba

Has that inspired you? Ready to book your flights and hop on a bike to explore Cuba by bike? Here are some tips to help make the most of your trip.

The author resting after riding up a steep hill.

Having a rest at the top of a steep hill. It’s super hot cycling in Cuba in June so it’s pretty hard work.

Tip # 1: Go with the flow  

Remember this is Cuba, a communist country, and things don’t necessarily happen exactly how they say in the trip notes. The schedule may change a fair bit so be prepared to go with the flow. We were supposed to stay in hotels and ended up in homestays, a much better outcome in my opinion, but not everyone may share the same view.

Tip #2: The bikes may not be what you expect  

The bikes weren’t what was promised. In some ways, they were better as they were brand new. However we were told the bikes wouldn’t have water bottle holders, yet they did. Instead they said the bikes would accommodate paniers so we came prepared, only to discover we’d carried our brand new paniers half way around the world and the bikes weren’t set up to take them. GRRR!

Tip # 3: Take your own bike seat

I took my own padded bike seat and was so grateful. I’ve done this on other bike trips and been very happy that I’ve done so. Your legs will probably be tired so be kind to your btm.

Tip # 4: Don’t rely on the tour company’s bike mechanic

The bike mechanic that came with us knew less about bikes than most people on the trip so don’t rely on the tour company for technical expertise. He was the brother of the woman who ran the travel company in Cuba … remember it’s Cuba!

Tip # 5: Drink lots of water

It’s bloody hot. Cuba is especially hot  in June and temperatures were well into the 30s celcius with very high humidity. Cycling in such heat can really take its toll. Make sure you drink lots of water. One girl on our trip suffered dehydration and heat stroke by not drinking enough fluids.

Tip # 6: Don’t wear sleeveless tops

Despite the heat don’t wear tank tops when you’re cycling. I did, as I planned to wear lightweight long-sleeved tops over the tank, however it was way too hot for this. As a result, I felt very exposed riding on gravelly, potholed roads with bare shoulders and arms. One girl did come off her bike and had terrible cuts, scratches and grazing. Wear tops that have some kind of sleeve to protect yourself from sun and possible injury.

Tip # 7: The roads are in very poor condition

The roads we rode on were pretty crappy, with lots of decent-sized potholes and long sections of dirt and gravel. It was potentially dangerous especially when you picked up a bit of speed downhill. I scared the hell out of myself one day when I hit a pothole – my drink bottle went flying across the road and somehow I managed to hold on. Be careful!

Tip # 8: Distances are only approximate

Judging by the roadside signs it would appear Cubans can’t count so take distances with a large grain of salt. Many of the road signs are also covered in dirt so you need to keep your eyes peeled.

Tip # 9: Wifi is extremely unreliable

If it’s not unreliable then wifi is non-existent. This will no doubt change rapidly with the return of American investment. For now, enjoy the escape from the busy digital world.

Cycling in Cuba: the roads aren't in very good condition and are a real hazard.

Cycling in Cuba: the roads aren’t in very good condition and are a real hazard.

Trip notes for our Cycling in Cuba holiday

We travelled with G Adventures, Cycle Cuba 8 Days, . While not everything ran smoothly, that’s just the way it is in Cuba. We had a great group of people and I would definitely travel with G Adventures again. What worked well on this trip was that we didn’t have to pack up every morning and move hotels. It was so nice to stay several nights in the one spot.

We flew direct from Toronto with Rouge Air, a subsidiary of Air Canada. Commercial flights from the US to Cuba have just recommenced after more than 50 years although there are still some rules around who can fly. Americans are not allowed to visit Cuba as tourists, but travel is allowed under 12 categories which include educational, religious, cultural activities and humanitarian projects.

If you’re thinking of heading to Cuba I’d highly recommend going soon. Before long there’ll be 110 flights daily from the US, so it’s going to get crowded.

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