by Victor Odlivak
May 27, 2010
I have bicycled four times in Cuba. The first three trips were with Bicycle Cuba as part of the International Bicycle Fund
(see http://www.ibike.org.) That was a good introduction. However it included packing all our gear in a very loud polluting truck. The last time I went in January 2003 as the tour guide with three other friends from my bicycle club, The Seattle Bicycle Club. We were a self contained group with no vehicles following behind us. We covered 500 kilometers repeating some of my favorite parts of previous trips and some new places way off the beaten path. For a detailed diary type report with pictures please see: Victor on Facebook
Traveling as a self contained group and speaking the language as much as possible we were able to mix well with the people. We got there the luxury way, by flying directly on a charter flight from Vancouver, British Columabia to Varadero Beach. This is highly recommended as if you fly to Habana, your bike may disappear mysteriously or parts of it. This happened to one of the leaders of the previous trips I went on. Varadero Beach is really luxurious. You can spend easily over a hundred dollars a night on a hotel, but if you look around a bit on the web, you can find something for around 50 -60 US Dollars/night for two people ( http://www.netssa.com ) Varadero is truly luxurious. There are people who stay here for two weeks and think they have seen the real Cuba, but it is really worth your while to get out. Our first stop was Cardena. There is a beautiful old cemetary there with lots of statues from the last century. This is the town the Elian made famous, the 6 year old boy who was caught in a custody battle. We had a great meal there at the restaurant for Cuban locals where you pay in Cuban Pesos. It wound up costing us four dollars a piece with a generous tip for a four course meal. Everything was fresh. We stayed at the only hotel in town, where we were handed one light bulb to put into the room. There was a bit of a prostitution business going on in the room next door, which we politely declined. We did get some nice happy new year hugs and kisses as we had arrived there on New Year's eve.
The next town was a really old town Colon, named for Columbus, where there were no tourists. We stayed in a nice working class hotel for Cubans. There was quite a decent restaraunt downstairs and the old square was beautiful to walk around with a great ice cream parlor. I want to stress the most beautiful part of the trip here for me. This is the fact that Ninety Five percent of the vehilcles on the road are bicycles. It is such a great feeling to go down the main highway , using the entrance and exit ramps on a bicycle. You also see quite a few horse and donkey drawn carts. You can go an hour without seeing a car. It is so quiet as you pedal along. You feel like you are going back one hundred years in time. We spent most of the time in the country side on very small and sometimes dirt roads.
After Colon, the next town was Santa Clara where Che and other revolutionaries are buried in a Masoleum. There is a huge statue of Che and pictures of other involved in the revolution including Celia. There are no pictures or statues of Fidel. When you go into the Masoleum, you must not say one word, not even a whisper. This is a sacred place. I felt that being inside. There is also great culture in this city. This is where the Cuban National Ballet is headquartered which I saw in a visit four years earlier give a stunning performance of an old slave tale with a flamenco and percussion orchestra.
The next stop was Sancti Spiritus. This is a very old town of 50,000 people. Also Santeria is very prominent here. We heard a little about it, but did not see any ceremonies. We saw a tabacco cigar factory, where we were unofficially invited. They also have a nice art museum here. There was only one restaurant in the entire town a Palmera and they opened up when they saw us coming. We ate everything in the house. It was very clean and neat with great fresh food. Do not pass up visiting the library in the central square. It has awesome architecture and good books inside.
We then pedaled another 110 km to Castilda on the sea on the outskirts of another old slave port Trinidad. The slave museum there is really worth seeing, including drawings of the slave boats and a picture of an overseer with his slaves. The others in my group wanted an extra day on the coast and I ventured on alone to the Escambar Mountains to “Topo de los Colantes”. This is one incredible rain forest. At night it goes down to 50 degrees Farenheit and can be drizzly/rainy like Seattle. I had sunshine the whole time. The hike down to the waterfalls there was incredible. It was so cold that I could only go in for 30 seconds before my lips turned blue. Cuba is a very mountainous country. Later I hiked to another cave in the afternoon. I had a feast of a buffet meal that night. Unfortunately because of the world wide slump in the economy at that time (2003 January) they were down to a quarter of their normal business. There is also a very beautiful German Kur Hotel here that was built over a hundred years ago. I heard some German voices and could speak with them. The German Health Care system will pay for you to come here and have a Kur , if you have a severe illness. Imagine that!
The last day of pedaling took us over the mountains through little towns such as Maninicaragua to Santa Clara again. It was a bit of a climb up to 1200 meters with a lot of up and down. We were in shape by then so it was just pure bliss (at least for me).
We finished off by taking a bus and doing some sightseeing in Havana, staying with a family in the Vedado neighborhood where I stayed before. Their son is a string physicist (who knows Steve Hawkin) living in Rome now, married to an equally brillant mathematician.
My most urgent message to you, is to see this place so you have an idea of how a society which is an alternative to capitalism can function. There are not many years left before this place may turn into another Cancun. The people overall where incredibly nice and kind, especially if you attempt to speak their language. I had to dig out that four years of high school Spanish, but it was still there. I even got a few letters from some of the people I met, very well written in beautiful penmanship.
Hasta la Victoria, siempre!