There were many things I expected of Cuba before I landed. Cars from a bygone era, shops with empty shelves and wall murals of Che Guevara and the revolution. However, on my flight in to the country my mind was elsewhere.
I was worried about actually being allowed past emigration. As a British citizen with a visa in my hand I shouldn’t have any concerns. However, stories of strict emigration controls spread far thanks to their bizarre nature. A reader of London Cyclist told me of a previous visit where he wasn’t allowed to bring in a tandem bike. The guidebook mentions strict controls on GPS devices and what Western media you can bring in to the country.
Fortunately, my overactive imagination was far detached from reality. Despite a two hour queue we were soon sat in a 50’s Chevrolet. With my limited Spanish I marvelled as the taxi driver explained how many years old each component of the car was. The roof 35 and the engine 60. We paid in Convertible Pesos, the foreigners currency and received our change in Cuban Pesos, the currency of the locals and thus our Cuban experience had began.
The trip was partly for a project outside of London Cyclist and partly as a holiday. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be covering it on the blog, but after a couple of email requests I felt a write up was in order. After all, there are few places in the world that come close to the experience of Cuba.
So what is a typical Cuban experience? Seeing a car from the 50’s followed by an Audi which is 40 years its younger, listening to the locals chat as you walk along the Malecón enjoying the sea breeze and marvelling at the decadent decaying past glory. Oh, and of course, a Romeo Y Julieta Cuban cigar to ease away the frustrations of getting barely any internet access for a week.
There’s also a noticeable lack of cars. Instead, you’ll see horse drawn carriages and that strange old mode of transport known as the humble bicycle.
The humble bicycle is taken beyond its initial purpose in Cuba as I’ve seen previously in Vietnam. By adding hand made wooden chairs to the bicycle frame, parents can carry their children on the front and back. I also frequently saw wives and children sat on the top tube of a bike.
After two days taking in the sights of Havana it was time for us to move on to Cienfuegos. We had been told to wake up for the taxi to the bus station at 7am. As I awoke, my iPhone said 8am and for a moment I panicked that we had missed our bus. Much to my confusion, there was a knock on the door telling us the taxi was waiting for us. It seems that while the rest of the world has their Cuba time set as 5 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, the Cubans themselves have it set to 6 hours behind GMT. I didn’t ask too many questions and instead was happy we had caught our bus.
During the long bus journey I was also fortunate enough to spot more professional road cyclists training on Cuba’s roads, followed closely by their coach in a van. Although, the words professional and athlete are rarely seen together in Cuba. Fidel Castro banned professional sport after the revolution due to their perceived capitalist implications.
Cuba didn’t strike me as the sort of place I’d like to come cycling. Whilst the beauty of nature exists in abundance here, the road conditions and attitudes of drivers wouldn’t make it the most pleasurable place to cycle long distance. None the less there are some excellent shorter journeys to be enjoyed. In particular, the Valle de Vinales is a common addition to the tourist trail. You cycle alongside tobacco fields with beautiful backdrops.
Our last two days were somewhat devoid of local culture as we decided to relax on Cayo Guillermo in a resort. Which is also where I gave it my best impression of Che Guevara (see above!). This part of Cuba contains some of the most beautiful beaches of the Caribbean and couldn’t be missed. For me it was a chance to give jogging a chance instead of cycling (I’ll never understand joggers!).
Cuba is genuinely one of the most fascinating places I have so far visited and I can see why it continues to capture the imagination of visitors.