Cycling through the revolutionary landscape of Cuba
Cuba has existed in isolation for decades, but as travel restrictions are lifted and economic reforms kick in, life is surely about to change for its inhabitants. Jessica Salter went on a cycle tour of the island before it is consumed by the modern world
It was dark in Havana by the time I arrived. I peered out of the windows of the minibus trying to piece together my first impressions of a country I had longed to visit using glimpses snatched in the flash of headlights. Grand Spanish colonial buildings, crumbling and decaying, their front doors wide open to reveal people illuminated by the glow of televisions. Children were outside playing in puddles and a teenage girl chatted on a payphone. A stream of classic American cars – Chevrolets, Dodges and Hudsons – drove in the opposite direction, punctuated by the odd Russian Lada. It seemed a city stuck in not just one time warp, but a series of other times.
Havana marked the start of a cycle trip from the capital to Santiago in the south, where Fidel Castro proclaimed the victory of the Cuban Revolution from the city hall’s balcony 55 years ago last month. Along with 17 other cyclists and a guide, I would pass through the colonial town of Matanzas on the north coast, cycle into the Bay of Pigs, the site of the American-backed invasion in 1961, before going to Trinidad, the Unesco World Heritage Site, up into the farm lands in Camagüey, over the Sierra Maestra mountain range where Fidelfought, and finally down into Santiago, the self-proclaimed ‘city of heroes’.
This was my first time on a group holiday. I felt pangs of dread: I cycle to work but had to borrow most of the kit. But our first evening was spent discussing how unfit and unprepared we all were, over incredibly strong mojitos (rum is cheaper than mixers; by day three we were drinking two or three at lunch).
The first morning in Havana we tried out our new bikes – cycling around the car park as if it was our first time on two wheels – before touring the city, passing beautiful buildings stripped back to their plaster by the sea air, still opulent in their tattiness. Our first stop was Plaza de la Revolución, where Fidel would address his citizens. One end was dominated by a towering statue of José Martí, the national hero who led the first revolution in 1895 against the Spanish. At the other end Che Guevara's face loomed large on the side of the austere interior ministry building. Both of their images are all over the island. Back on our bikes we wended along the Malecón, the road that stretches along the seafront, with signs prohibiting people from using rubber rings to fish in; people have been known to use them to swim the 80-odd miles to Miami.
It was an overwhelming morning, with so much history crammed into one city (the Spanish ruled the island since Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1492; the Americans occupied it from 1899 and French, German and Russian influences are everywhere too), congested traffic, a new bike and potholes. Someone fell off in the middle of a tricky left turn when she couldn’t unclip her cleats fast enough. Thankfully it was our only accident.
Locals pile into an old American car as the group cycles through a village in the Sierra Maestra mountains
Cuba is bigger than you think, only slightly smaller than England, with a population of 11.2 million. The entire trip would cover around 1,200 miles, of which we would cycle 400 miles, with the rest made up by transfers in our mini bus. For the entire fortnight we would have one bus following us, ready to assist with punctures or tired legs, while another bus (carrying our bags) would race on to the first checkpoint and the driver would start chopping up pineapple, papaya and guava for snacks. On the bus transfers our guide Lazaro De La Maza, a 30-year-old Cuban, talked proudly about the island and its history and answered our increasingly discourteous questions. How much is the average monthly wage? (10-20 CUCs – about £6-12). How much do you get paid? (18 CUCs).
The biggest mental challenge was getting used to a communist country. The hotels are state owned. The restaurants are mostly state owned (although this is changing). The banks are state owned. We would pass something and I would ask Laz, is this owned by the government? He would nod wearily. Even Laz was an employee of the state. Although our group holiday was booked through Exodus, a UK-based travel company, on the ground it was run by Cubana, a state-owned travel company. Despite this Laz was startlingly honest, explaining the quirks and idiosyncrasies of his country. (Showing us his ID cards – Cubans must carry three at all times – we smirked at the picture of our normally Lycra-clad guide in a suit and tie. ‘I don’t actually own a suit, but they can Photoshop one on for you,’ he said. In a cafe in Havana, I saw a smartly dressed woman being asked for her ID by a policeman. When she didn’t have it she was led away.)
I had been warned about the food. While the Cuban embassy’s website promised ‘eating in Cuba is an exciting and rich experience,’ Laz was more realistic. ‘You’re not here to have a gastronomic journey,’ he said. It was true that in lots of state-run restaurants the food was overcooked and there were limited choices (fish, chicken or pork with rice and beans). But it wasn’t as bad as I had been told; in some of the new private restaurants it was outstanding.
Spending six hours a day on a bicycle, I found myself continually wondering about the system of government. Apart from the lack of creativity in the kitchen Cubans suffered from having no free press, no free elections and limited chance for self-improvement. But the island has a world-class health system – life expectancy is high at 78 years; education, including university, is free; and no one is starving thanks to government rations of rice, sugar, salt and oil. I came home to stories of one million people accessing food banks in Britain over Christmas.
Outside the bigger towns we noticed fewer and fewer cars until all that was left were sun-baked farmers whipping their skinny carthorses; their carts were made up from different sized wheels and patched together with spare planks. The fields were full of sugar cane, thick and high, a reminder of Cuba’s agricultural history. We stopped for a break at an old plantation that had a monument to the former slaves outside the crumbling mansion.
It only struck me on that third day that there was no advertising anywhere. The billboards had party slogans or quotes from Fidel or Che. (At the top of one particularly punishing hill a sign saying, siempre se puede mas – You can always do more – was galling.) The graffiti, instead of being counter culture, was about the revolution: CUBA LIBRE, VIVA FIDEL.
The life of the peasant farmers was apparently what changed most after the revolution. Castro’s agrarian reform laws sought to break up large landholdings and redistribute the land to the peasants who worked it, co-operatives and the state. Farmers apply for a plot of land and are obliged to sell 80 per cent of coffee and cocoa back to the government at a set price. The rest, along with meat, eggs and fruit, they can sell for a profit.
Later in the trip we went on a walking tour in the middle of the Sierra Maestra mountain range to a hamlet of farms. Roberto, an 85-year-old farmer with milky eyes and a shuffle proudly showed us his home. The living area was decorated with tiny china ornaments, and behind a curtain were two double beds and a single. We sat at a table with a bleached white cloth while his wife made coffee on a stove. Ricardo, a local guide, told us that Castro had brought electricity and running water to these remote villages. ‘Before the revolution people like this had no life, now they have a farm, freedom and can make a profit legally. People here have a better life than those in the city.’
It depended, it seemed, on which city. From the Bay of Pigs we cycled on to Cienfuegos, the industrial capital of the island and a rich-looking town. Unlike Havana the huge colonial buildings gleamed with fresh paint. Why was there this difference? ‘Because the people organise collective restoration projects. The residents have pride here,’ Laz said.
Housing in Cuba is hard to comprehend. Most Cubans own their houses – when Castro seized American-owned properties he gave them to Cuban people – but people don’t have money to maintain them. In Havana families are crowded into flats and because there are no landlords, no one takes responsibility for the property as a whole. It had tragic consequences during the last few days of my trip – a mini cyclone brought so much rain that a house collapsed and two people died. ‘It’s a shame,’ a local man I was speaking to about it said. ‘But at least the people in the other flats will get a nicer apartment in Miramar.’
Until 2011 no one could buy or sell property, one could only swap. Now se vende signs are starting to appear, although Cubans are not allowed to own more than one house. The change was part of the economic reforms brought in by Raúl Castro, who took over as president in 2008, and also included granting citizens licences to trade: running their own restaurants (paladores); renting out private rooms (casa particulares); or driving taxis. These businesses all happened before, but were illegal and carried the risk of jail.
A cobbled street in Trinidad.
We pulled into Trinidad at sunset on the fifth day as the warm light bounced off the colourfully painted houses. For the first time on the trip we would stop for two nights, and for once not in a state-owned hotel. My host, introduced to me simply as Pompi, was a retired schoolteacher who rented out two rooms of the house he lived in with his two daughters and their families. Their home was modest. It was like staying with an elderly relation. When I came home late after watching salsa dancing I had to creep past him sleeping in his chair.
Tourists swarmed in to Trinidad at 11am and hustlers tried to sell everything from taxi rides to tablecloths. But as the last bus left at 4pm, the town transformed into a place where old men played chess in the square and people shuffled around with shopping bags, buying the few provisions to be found in the local shops. Down one side street I discovered a bustling market: U-bends, inner tubes for bicycles and fake Ray-Bans. Since the American embargo enforced in 1961 few new products make their way on to the island and people have become expert at patching up and making do.
After one day out of the saddle, away from padded shorts and the unspeakable chamois cream (we established who was and wasn’t wearing knickers under their shorts – a proper-cyclist’s no-no – by the way they walked on the second day) we set off again, down the Sancti Spiritus highway where Guevara had fought in the mountains above. We cycled past exhausted-looking men in dirty long-sleeved shirts, hacking away at the grass verge in 35C heat at 8am. The state still employs 79 per cent of the five million-strong labour force. Technically, there are jobs for everyone.
A continuous presence all over the island were the turkey vultures circling above us, looking for road kill – or slow cyclists, as someone joked. Like everyone else on the island they were doing their duty – the roads were spotlessly clean. Still it took us by surprise when we cycled past a group of farm hands spreading out rice on the road with rakes to dry, as cars drove round or on it. ‘That’s hard work,’ Laz said. He knew. From the age of 16 Cuban children go to boarding school where they have lessons in the morning and work on farms in the afternoon.
We had a dramatic entrance to the Oriente province, with cracks of lightning guiding the way. It is an area that few tourists venture, principally because it is hard to get to. And the cycling was becoming increasingly difficult. But the reward was the views. Long stretches of road banked on either side by thick green trees and mountain ranges disappearing into clouds ahead. If you pedalled hard enough you could get to the front of the pack and feel, blissfully, like you were alone. There were few amenities, so Laz would pay people along the way to let us use their bathroom and provide coffee. The contrast between us – laden down with bike computers, fancy hydration systems and branded sportswear – and them was stark. One lady proudly showed us into her two-roomed home, with a double electric hob on the counter and three baseball caps hanging as the only decoration on the plaster walls.
The road into the Sierra Maestra mountains.
The climax of the trip was the most challenging day, riding up lactic acid-inducing climbs into the Sierra Maestra mountains, an area illegal to enter as a tourist without an official guide. I had been reading a biography of Fidel and Che, and as I cycled through villages almost eaten up by thick vegetation I could imagine the rebel army camping out, luring government forces into traps. Along the way there were roadside memorials to the fallen Cuban soldiers and signs in every village proudly proclaimed its importance in the revolution.
The toughest day was now behind us: it was literally downhill from there. The next day’s ride into Santiago was the final one for me (the group would return to Havana with two more cycles and two long bus transfers). With the sun setting on its dome, we arrived at the church of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s national saint, nestling on the edge of a former copper mine. Inside the altar was carpeted with bouquets of sunflowers – in Cuba Catholic saints and African deities are merged and sunflowers are the favourite of the goddess Oshun. In the church’s vault was the Nobel Prize Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for 20 years, had left in the 1950s. It felt a suitably poetic end to the trip.
After waving off my group in Santiago (and after a night of watching dancing at the famous Casa de la Trova), I was on my own. For 10 days Laz had arranged accommodation, taken us to restaurants (I tended to order what he ordered; he knew the best dish in every place) and even found us bathroom stops. I wasn’t prepared for how frustrating independent travel in Cuba is. When I tried to stay two extra nights in my hotel, the front desk advised me to go to the travel agent in town; there was then an hour’s wait while she worked out if she had used up her allocation of hotels. I had forgotten, for a moment, that in all things controlled by the state, independence is not encouraged.
The whole trip felt like a precious time. With the economic reforms, travel restrictions liftingand, most dangerously for the government, internet access spreading, the time warp will soon be ruptured and this place will change forever.
Exodus celebrates 40 years of adventure travel this year. The 16-day Cycling Cuba costs from £2,049 pp including flights from London, accommodation, activities and some meals. (0845-8639601;exodus.co.uk)