February 18, 2001

Pedaling With a Revolutionary Spirit


Jorge Rey for The New York Times
Rides were about 50 to 70 miles a day.

The New York Times

Jorge Rey for The New York Times
Cespedes Plaza in Bayamo honors Cuba's Abe Lincoln.

I 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 petrified waves.

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 United States.

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 Batista.

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 evening.

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 dollars.

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 checkpoints.

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 coffee beans.

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.   

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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