KNEW we were
in for some serious fun when our Cuban guide mispronounced
"cycle tourists" as "psycho tourists." You don't have to be
crazy to spend two weeks bicycling through Cuba's eastern
provinces — the Oriente that hatched three major revolutions,
sheltered Fidel Castro in cloud-covered mountains, and gave
birth to the hip-shaking rhythms of Afro-Cuban music — but it
helps to have an attitude of cheerfully accepting whatever is
thrown your way.
Years ago I learned that the best way to see a country is by
bicycle. As you round each corner, you often encounter
serendipitous delights, which in eastern Cuba included sparkling
aquamarine water, cowboys galloping across fields of tobacco,
undulating grassland and mile-high mountains that rise like
For this adventure, my partner, Carl, and I met up with nine
strangers from the San Francisco Bay Area — all experienced
cyclists. We had all signed up for a tour organized by the Club
de Cicloturismo Atenas de Cuba, which works with the
Seattle-based International Bicycle Fund. Our guides were the
club president, Pedro Curbelo Alonso, and his assistants,
Julito, Alejandro and Alfredo. Alfredo drove our gear in an open
truck while Pedro, Julito and Alejandro rode with us to help
decipher modern Cuba and its revolutionary past.
Using our own bikes brought from home, we cycled on the
near-empty roads of three provinces: Granma, Santiago de Cuba
and Guantánamo. Apart from layovers in a few larger cities and
one day with a longer ride, we rode 50 to 70 miles a day.
Accommodations varied from a few high-end hotels built for
tourists to home stays with Cuban families. We usually split
into small groups to explore Cuba at our own pace. With the
exception of two riders who were in their mid-30's, all of us
were in our 50's, and everyone was in good physical shape.
While our guides were wonderful, caring people, it turned out
that Pedro's helpers couldn't change flat tires, so we pretty
much took care of ourselves on the road. On the other hand,
their help was indispensable every time we got off our bikes.
After three days of pedaling around Havana — gawking at
decrepit classic cars and decrepit colonial buildings — and 12
hours on a chartered air-conditioned bus, we began our two-week
cycling adventure in Bayamo, the capital of Granma Province,
where the country's largest mountain range, the Sierra Maestra,
dips into the Caribbean. Bayamo may be the cleanest town in
Cuba. We stayed at the immaculate Royalton Hotel on Céspedes
Plaza, where our tour leaders gave us our first indoctrination
in Cuban hero worship.
Carlos Manuel Céspedes is the Abe Lincoln of Cuba and father
of the first Cuban revolution. In 1868, he freed the slaves on
his sugar plantation and invited them to help overthrow Spanish
colonial rule. When Spain fought back, Céspedes burned Bayamo to
the ground rather than surrender it. He then fled into the
Sierra Maestra. Although Céspedes was soon killed, his followers
fought on for 10 years. Spain won.
The second Cuban revolution began in 1895, when José Martí, a
relentless advocate of Cuban independence, launched a war of
liberation in the eastern provinces. A poet who had no knack for
fighting, Martí was killed while riding his white horse not far
from where he landed after returning from exile. Three years
later, his generals were on the verge of defeating Spain when
the United States barged in. Shortly after Theodore Roosevelt,
then an assistant Navy secretary, led the famous Rough Riders up
San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba, Spain surrendered Cuba to the
The third revolution began on July 26, 1953, when Fidel
Castro unsuccessfully stormed a military compound in Santiago de
Cuba, and then was jailed and exiled. In 1956, he returned in a
boat called the Granma and established his base of operations in
the Sierra Maestra. Three years later he defeated the military
dictator Fulgencio Batista and has run the country ever since.
Numerous attempts to overthrow Castro, including the 1961
C.I.A.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, have ended in fiasco.
We spent the rest of our trip visiting memorials of all three
revolutions in towns all over the Oriente. Busts of Céspedes,
Martí and others are as common as McDonald's back home.
Curiously, we didn't see a single bust of Castro. But there are
billboards everywhere advertising the revolution: Socialism or
Death! The first duty of a revolutionary is work!
In Bayamo, we toured the colonial-period house where Céspedes
was born and visited the church where the national anthem was
first sung. We cycled to the nearby village of Guisa, where
Castro's army captured a tank and other weapons from
On most days, our guides helped us find places to eat lunch
although there were days when we survived on nutrition bars
brought from home. Large cities have restaurants, but small
towns and villages do not. Roadside stands sold tasteless doughy
pizza or tiny bits of ham on white bread. Food for ordinary
Cubans is bland. The staples are rice, beans and bananas. Pork,
chicken and fish are generally fried into hard, greasy lumps. We
rarely encountered fresh fruits and vegetables. We were told
that it is safe to drink tap water, but we chose to buy bottled
water. Early in the trip, we bought enough to last the whole
time, and it was readily available from the back of the truck.
On our second evening in Bayamo, we rented horse-drawn
carriages for $5 to take us the couple of miles to the Martyrs
of Barbados baseball park. The warm night air smelled
deliciously of charcoal, loam and tropical flowers. I have never
experienced such comfortable outdoor temperatures; we never felt
hot or cold, even when riding in the rain. That night, a team
from Granma played one from Las Tunas before a polite crowd of
about 2,000 people.
The all-day ride from Bayamo to Manzanillo passes through
fields of rice, tobacco and sugar cane. We took a dirt road
through the back country where we saw hundreds of egrets and
scores of soaring hawks. When we rode past yoked oxen dragging
rusted harrows, I felt as if we were in the 16th century.
Horse-drawn carriages are the main transportation in most
smaller towns and cities. No one is ever in a hurry.
We stopped in Yara to see the 12-foot-high statue of Hatuey,
an Indian who, shortly after the Spanish arrived in 1512, tried
to warn other indigenous people that the newcomers were evil.
Hatuey was burned at the stake near the Yara town plaza.
There is also a small museum just off the plaza that contains
memorabilia from several Cuban wars. Like dozens of other
archives of Cuba's revolutions, this one contained a vast array
of well-displayed personal items belonging to former freedom
fighters — spectacles, shoes, bloodied shirts, wallets, scissors
and the like.
We spent the night at the three-story Hotel Guacanayabo in
Manzanillo, which gave us excellent service, including a tasty
fish dinner. In the morning we took a quick ride through the
central square, which had wonderful Moorish-style architecture.
Then we took off for a 70-mile daylong ride to Marea del
Portillo on the southern coast of the Oriente.
After a stop at the plantation, Farmis Demajagua, where
Céspedes emancipated his slaves, we went a bit farther along the
road and toured the home of Celia Sánchez, who sent supplies to
Castro's army. In the little town of Chura we met our only road
hazard — light rain mixed with diesel oil and horse manure.
Three of our riders went down, providing us with a reason to
visit a nearby medical clinic. The care was professional,
courteous and free.
This part of Cuba, near where Castro launched his revolution,
has almost no cars. Apart from noxious diesel fumes from
occasional trucks or buses, we had the road to ourselves. Rush
hour involved goats, chickens and cows headed home for the
Our lodging that night was a luxury resort called the Hotel
Marea del Portillo. Our Cuban guides were not allowed to cross
the threshold. We were told that most Cubans do not resent this
tourism apartheid because everyone knows that foreign visitors
bring in hard currency. At the same time, many Cubans are
getting relatively rich because they have access to tourist
We spent the next two days on one of the most beautiful roads
I have ever seen. Opened three years ago, this 100-mile stretch
of highway goes from Marea del Portillo to Santiago de Cuba and
has scenery to rival Big Sur. To our right, the Caribbean surf
crashed onto white- and black-sand beaches. Unseen just offshore
lay the 23,179-foot-deep Cayman Trench. We pedaled past Cuba's
highest mountain, Pico Turquino, 6,749 feet high.
Along the way we passed thatch huts called bohíos and saw
coffee growing on mountain slopes. The farmers' compounds were
spotless. Dogs, pigs and chickens ate every smidgen of organic
matter. We also rode past huge tunnels carved into limestone
cliffs, which we were told had been made to hide tanks and heavy
artillery should Cuba ever be attacked by air.
At Uvero we saw a memorial to the first major battle won by
Castro on May 28, 1957: his soldiers overtook a position guarded
by 53 Batista soldiers. Our stop that night was the Sierra Mar
Resort at Playa Sevilla, about 40 miles west of Santiago. It is
a big pyramid-shaped tourist hotel built into a terraced
hillside. Such hotels offer package deals that include meals,
snorkeling, swimming pools, tennis courts and the like. We woke
in the morning to a steady downpour and flooded hallways. By
noon, there was no break in the weather and so most of us piled
into a rented bus for an hour's drive to Santiago de Cuba. Four
of our party, however, chose to ride in the heavy rain.
Santiago de Cuba is the nation's second- largest city, with
many cultural sites. We visited the Bacardí museum with an art
collection and more war memorabilia, including ominous Spanish
instruments of torture. In the Santa Ifigenia cemetery were
mausoleums to the heroes we had been following. San Juan Hill,
where Theodore Roosevelt led the Rough Riders to victory over
Spain, is bedecked with statues, plaques and a tower that
explains what happened in 1898 from both Cuban and American
points of view. We also rode out to El Cobre, to see the
Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre, the beautiful colonial
church that is Cuba's holiest shrine — where Ernest Hemingway
placed his 1954 Nobel Prize for good luck.
Private accommodations in Cuba are not meant for persnickety
Americans who might require luxuries like hot water, comfortable
mattresses or toilet paper. On the outside, our 17-story
apartment building in Santiago looked like Fort Apache in the
South Bronx — grimy, dark, depressing. But the apartments inside
were clean and neat, with basic amenities. We came to call these
little surprises "the Cuban experience" — no service at
restaurants, elevators that skip every two floors, single
40-watt bulbs for a whole room — all delivered by
extraordinarily warm, friendly people. We never encountered ill
feelings toward Americans.
Cuban culture, we discovered, is distinctive and flourishing.
That night we visited a folk music center where young and old
musicians perform. Cuban singers use outstretched arms and
direct eye contact to scoop you into their ballads. Dancers
gyrate in perfect tempo, as if bound by a magnetic force.
Our next stop, after two days in Santiago, was Guantánamo, a
city that held few charms. Even if we had had time, we could not
ride out to see the American naval base because of security
We spent the night at the Hotel Guantánamo talking about the
challenge that lay ahead the next day. Pedro told us that there
were no accommodations between Guantánamo and our final
destination, Baracoa, almost 100 miles away. There was also a
mountain range in between, which he thought would be very
difficult to ride. That was like waving a red flag before the
members of our group. We took off early with a plan to meet the
truck in the town of Imías, which is on the south coast, or to
ride the whole way.
Soon after Imías, the road begins a serpentine 50-mile climb
over the Purial mountains. Called La Farola, this road is an
engineering marvel with cantilevered pavement for much of its
length. The views along the route are splendid. Dense tropical
forests climb staircases of misty hills. Near the summit,
farmers wait for passing vehicles to sell bananas, pineapple and
In the end, only four of our group rode the
whole way while the rest jumped into the truck at Imías. To my
lasting regret, I rode in the truck because I believed Pedro
when he said the climb would be exceptionally difficult. But it
was the kind of climb that cyclists dream about.
Baracoa, the first Spanish town in Cuba, may have been where
Christopher Columbus first set eyes on the island in 1492. The
small, nicely designed museum on the waterfront traces this
interesting history. Because Baracoa is bordered by spectacular
beaches, it is being developed for tourism; for this reason we
were, for the first time on our trip, badgered by jineteros —
hustlers and prostitutes.
After a bus ride back to Santiago and a flight to Havana, we
packed our bikes and headed home. We had ridden up to 500 miles,
and cumulatively had climbed 14,000 vertical feet. And we
thought Cuba was going to be flat.