Cuba on Two Wheels
A bike trip takes Americans out of Havana and into a world of baseball, poverty and salsa bands.
By Michael Shapiro
On a bicycle-tour packing list that included bike shorts, sunscreen, energy bars and patch kits, a baseball was the one item missing. Because when I came upon those barefoot kids in eastern Cuba playing with a ball made of rolled-up tape and they asked if I had a real ball, I would have happily traded my patch kit, my Clif bars, even my spare tube for a baseball to give them.
But all I could do was apologize in broken Spanish and offer them American dollars, which, as there was no place nearby to buy baseballs, they politely declined. Though disappointed for a moment, their enthusiasm reignited when I asked to take their picture. They clambered atop a manual scoreboard, and several poked their faces through the little windows used to display the score.
The poignant encounter was among the many I had with locals during a two-week, 400-mile bike tour of the island's eastern provinces. The trip was led by the Cuban cycling club Atenas de Cuba, which works to promote people-to-people connections, and arranged through Seattle's International Bicycle Fund. Our eight-person, all-American group -- including a law professor, caterer, tech-support wizard and a self-described "bean counter" -- ranged in age from 28 to 60 (and it was the 60-year-old who often rode into camp first).
We began with a quick circuit around Havana, where we took in the capital's crumbling colonial architecture, our spirits soaring as we spotted one vintage American car after another. I silently thanked the history gods for bringing Fidel Castro to power in 1959 rather than 1979, shuddering at the prospect of Havana's streets littered with Pintos and Pacers.
But this isn't a story about faded colonial buildings or classic cars. Those tales have been told. It's simply an account of a bicycle tour, beginning with a sea-sprayed ride along the Malecon, Havana's renowned seaside promenade, and coursing through the island's eastern provinces. It's a tale of being serenaded by a salsa band during an impromptu concert under the stars; encountering confounding contradictions, like having our Cuban guide barred from our tourists-only hotel; and riding along deserted coastal roads past mountains that tumble into the sea.A Day in Havana
Our group was welcomed to Havana by our guide, Pedro, who faintly resembles a Latin Bruce Willis. Pedro, who speaks English fluently, shepherded us into a waiting van and drove us to a stately three-story colonial home in Havana's Vedado district. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union brought hard times to Cuba, many families have turned to renting out spare rooms. We stayed with the Morales family, whose warm welcome, generous spirit and sumptuous meals more than made up for the home's slight disrepair.
As Pedro handed out cigars, cyclists who'd brought their own bikes assembled them in the driveway. My fiancee and I instead inspected the group's rental bikes -- most were in fine shape, so we picked out a couple and test-rode them around the block.
Our day-long bike tour of the capital wound past Revolution Square, where a sculpture of Che Guevara's legendary visage clings to the Interior Ministry building, peering over the sprawling concrete plaza. At Cathedral Square, near the Malecon, a carnival was in full throttle as stilt-supported, face-painted entertainers towered over tourists, seeking donations. I gave a quarter to a young woman, apologizing that my wallet was packed away. She smiled and said, "Don't worry, this has value here."
On the other side of the square, a 10-piece band played "Chan Chan," the theme song from "Buena Vista Social Club." It was a tune I would hear almost every day for two weeks.
The next morning, we embarked on a 12-hour van ride to eastern Cuba, with heart-stopping views of sugar cane and tobacco fields at sunset and frequent stops for gas and permits. In tiny Jatibonico, we tried to find a place to eat, but no restaurants could serve us, probably due to the limited supplies of food in small Cuban towns. Somehow a family rounded up enough ham, rice, tomato salad and beer for our group, cooking our dinner over a wood stove inside a small cluttered kitchen. The cost: $5 each.
Up the street, a horse and buggy clip-clopped past a store selling TVs and Scotch to the few wealthy Cubans with American cash.Teddy Roosevelt & 'Porgy'
Known for its rum and independent spirit, Santiago de Cuba, the island's most Caribbean city, was the tour's starting point. We rode up to San Juan Hill, where U.S. Rough Riders led by Theodore Roosevelt joined Cuban troops in a decisive 1898 battle to wrest control of the island from Spain.
Then we coasted down to the Moncada Barracks, where a youthful Castro and a scraggly band of 123 supporters launched an assault on dictator Fulgencio Batista's troops. The July 26, 1953, attack failed miserably: Most of Castro's loyalists were killed by gunshots or torture, but the effort built popular support and set the stage for later victories by the revolutionaries. Today, bullet holes pock the barracks, but I later learned that Batista's henchmen had spackled the real craters: What we had seen were re-creations.
At Santiago's Museo del Ron (Rum Museum), a bartender crushed mint with a mortar and pestle to make mojitos, delightful concoctions of fresh mint, sugar, soda water, lime and rum. Later I wandered toward Santiago's central square, Parque Cespedes. The cream-colored Palacio Provincial dominated one side of the plaza, decorated with red-black banners supporting the revolution. Young women reclined on the plaza's benches in striped Spandex jumpsuits, grizzled men in battered cowboy hats smoked cigar stubs, and teenagers hunkered over al fresco domino games.
Our lodging and dining arrangements changed almost nightly. In Santiago, as in Havana, we stayed with host families; other nights we "camped" in bungalows or bunked in a hotel or luxury resort. Sometimes we ate with our host families, but in Santiago we dined at a restaurant called 1900, where four mojitos cost a dollar and an elderly trio tapped out traditional Cuban songs on a piano, acoustic bass and hand drums.
Wandering the cobbled streets afterward, my fiancee and I came upon a wonderfully cluttered book and record store, packed with everything from English-language copies of Castro's "History Will Absolve Me" to old Duke Ellington records. Pictures and album covers of musicians like Coltrane and Benny More covered almost every square inch of wall space.
The courtly proprietor, asking us where we were from, put a scratchy "Porgy and Bess" album on the old stereo. As we listened to "Summertime," I mentioned how popular Che Guevara was in Berkeley, Calif., where I attended college.
"Oh, yes," he said, "Che is popular en todo el mundo."Ugly Truths
Cuba's cities, though alluring, can be noisy and crowded, and we were ready to blow out of town. Led by Pedro, we headed south to the Caribbean coast, slightly delayed by one rider's persistent flats. But Pedro, ably assisted by his 6-year-old daughter, Claudia, quickly replaced the tube. Claudia rode behind Pedro, peddling a third wheel attached to his bike. She even had her own handlebars and gears, drawing admiring glances from those we passed.
An hour out of town, we reached a gorgeous stretch of coast with broad beaches and cloud-draped mountains rising sharply to the north. A man on horseback silently rode alongside us, picking up the pace until we couldn't keep up. By midafternoon, I could no longer resist: I found an isolated beach, stripped off my clothes and dove into the sea.
Our first day on the coast covered more than 60 miles, the longest ride of the trip. As we pedaled toward our lodgings for the night at La Mula, a slivered moon emerged from the twilight. We stayed in well-furnished tent cabins, near enough to the ocean to hear the waves lapping the beach.
Pedaling out of La Mula the next day, we continued over some moderate hills until we came upon a landslide blocking the road. Skirting the landslide brought us even closer to the ocean, and for about a mile we rode along a dirt pathway within a few feet or the crashing waves. Pedro led us through the settlement of La Plata, where in May 1957 Castro's ragtag army came down the Sierra Maestra mountains and attacked Batista's Rural Guard.
Having spent the previous night in a somewhat rustic bungalow, we looked forward to a night of luxury at the upscale Farallon del Caribe. As we entered the resort's air-conditioned lobby and gazed upon the in-pool bar, a Californian in our group said, "I don't know what country we're in, but I like it." There was much to like: tropical drinks, a placid beach, bountiful buffets.
But the hotel had an ugly underside. Like most high-end properties in Cuba, the Farallon was tourist-only, meaning our Cuban guide and driver weren't welcome.Fun and Games
We left the Farallon before 8 the next morning, eager to beat the heat and -- having spent the previous night with lots of other tourists -- return to the more genuine side of Cuba.
Turning inland at Pilon, we climbed a steep, miles-long pass before plunging through sugar cane fields toward the Gulf of Guacanayabo. I paused in the little town of Media Luna to chat with the locals, as my fiancee rode ahead with the rest of the group toward Manzanillo.
Everyone was out on this mild January Sunday, some lounging in front of their weather-beaten homes but most at the town's dusty ball field.
I stopped to watch and one man called out, "Can you play?"
He ceremoniously stopped the game and thrust a roughly hewn, surprisingly heavy bat into my hands. I knocked a couple of fly balls into center field -- not the stuff of dreams, but enough for the easygoing Cubans to invite the gringo to play.
A tattered glove was tossed my way, and I ran into the field. A few of the players were shirtless kids as young as 12, but they played like adults, and though the bat was homemade, there was a real baseball. Whenever someone hit it foul, kids would follow its flight and chase after it, knowing there was no replacement.
After the game, a player asked me to take a picture of their equipo (team). Then he humbly made another request. "If you could send us a bat . . ." I said I would, but wondered if it would reach him.
I caught the tour group at the lunch stop, and late that afternoon, as a brisk wind swept in from Guacanayabo Bay, we descended into Manzanillo, past dozens of children flying homemade kites. In town, I bought coco dulces (coconut sweets) from a timid, grandmotherly vendor. I gave her an extra peso, she gave me a kiss on the cheek.Play Bol!
As the sun rose over our hotel balcony in Manzanillo, a worker below cut grass with a machete. I rode solo that morning, and soon a middle-aged laborer named Rojel joined me as he pedaled to the fields on a single-speed bike. Beckoning me to pull over, he opened his Thermos and passed it to me to share. The coffee was sweet -- too sweet for my taste. Sugar is one foodstuff in abundance here.
Arriving in the mid-size city of Bayamo, we stayed with another friendly host family, in a typical colonial home with 20-foot ceilings and intricately decorated large-tile floors. Near the plaza we paid a peso to enter Bayamo's grand mid-century cinema, where "The Matrix" was being shown on a small TV-VCR hookup in front of a silver screen.
That evening, after a couple of mojitos, my fiancee and I visited the local music hall. The show hadn't begun, so we walked to a nearby park and asked a young man when the music might start. "You can hear some music now," he said, calling to his friends. Soon we were enjoying a private concert under the stars, as members of the band -- the same one due to play later in the club -- strapped on their instruments and began playing.
On our last night in the industrial city of Holguin, we attended a national baseball game in Estadio Calixto Garcia with about 10,000 people. Tickets cost a peso. No one sold beer or cotton candy, but vendors shouting "Mani, mani!" hawked paper cones filled with warm roasted peanuts.
No energy crisis here: The stadium lights blazed brightly. Even the foul poles were illuminated with neon. Between innings the players sprinted up and down the foul lines, staying limber. Each squad had about 12 bats -- about as many as the average U.S. player -- and each team shared a few helmets.
Late in the game, the home nine were losing badly to visiting powerhouse Villa Clara. In the bottom of the ninth, with his team down 7-1, Holguin's slugger crushed a home run to straightaway center. The mammoth blast wouldn't win the game, but the tiny white ball sailing over the fence gave the locals a reason to cheer, and on this night that was enough.
Michael Shapiro, a travel columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, is a regular contributor to the Travel section.
GETTING THERE: The U.S. Treasury Department's "Cuban Assets Control Regulations" limit travel to Cuba, requiring a license to travel there legally. To learn more about regulations or to apply for a license, consult the Office of Foreign Assets Control (202-622-2480, www.ustreas.gov/ofac) or the U.S. State Department's Cuba division (202-647-9272, travel.state.gov/cuba.html).
Many travelers ignore the government's restrictions and travel to Cuba without a license, going through foreign airports in Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas or Jamaica. To avoid potential problems, visitors ask Cuban immigration officials not to stamp their passports. Cuban officials almost always oblige, stamping a separate piece of paper and folding it into the passport; the document is removed upon exiting Cuba.
BIKING THERE: I arranged my bike tour with the Cuban cycling club Atenas de Cuba through the Seattle-based International Bicycle Fund (206-767-0848, www.ibike.org). Payment is made upon arrival to Atenas de Cuba (cash required). Other groups, such as Global Exchange (800-497-1994, www.globalexchange.org/tours), have licenses to legally take travelers to Cuba.
Atenas de Cuba expects to offer 11 two-week tours between late October and early May. The Pinar del Rio tour covers the western region; Corazon de Cuba explores central Cuba, including the picturesque town of Trinidad. Check IBF's Web site for updates on schedules and itineraries. The western and central tours cost $990 per person; the eastern tour, which requires a 12-hour drive across the island, costs $1,290. This includes all lodging and most meals upon arrival in Havana. A truck hauls gear and water and can transport cyclists who need a break. Bring about $400 for incidentals, though you can get by with less. U.S. credit and ATM cards are not honored in Cuba, so bring cash (and a secure money belt).
WHAT TO TAKE: IBF provides a detailed list of biking and travel items. Because Cuba lacks basic consumer goods, bring gifts for your hosts. Most appreciated are soaps, pens, magazines and books, especially in Spanish. And toss a baseball or mitt into your bag -- you never know when you might need one. If possible, bring clothes, sneakers and bike gear you can donate at the end of your trip.
RECOMMENDED READING: The most thorough guidebook is Christopher Baker's "Cuba" (Moon Handbooks). Tom Miller's "Trading With the Enemy" (Basic Books) may be the best modern travel account of Cuba. A just-released collection of travel lit titled "Cuba: True Stories" (Travelers' Tales) is due in bookstores any day. For historical travel accounts dating to the 19th century, see "The Reader's Companion to Cuba" (Harvest Books), edited by Alan Ryan and Christa Malone. To peruse the daily news from an official Cuban perspective, see the online version of the national newspaper Granma, www.granma.cu, which is published in Spanish and English.
INFORMATION: Cuba Interests Section, 202-797-8518, usembassy.state.gov/havana. For tour and travel advice, see www.cubalinda.com, a tour company founded by Philip Agee, a former CIA agent who is promoting tourism to Cuba.