Cuba is the ideal country for your first serious bike expedition. Why? Well for starters, the roads are well paved, it´s almost impossible to get lost (as there just aren´t that many roads), people are spectacularly kind, it´s a safe country, not too many mountains and best of all the distance between cities are ideal for one day trips.
Brief intro to our Bicycling Cuba trip
The four of us had managed to get the same two weeks off work and all was set for a 15 day vacation destination Cuba. I really wanted to experience Cuba by bike but there was no way 15 days would be enough. …or would it?
For Eli, Mich and Tavo it would be their first bike trip. That is, leave one city with all of ones things strapped to either you or the bike and travel to another city by means of self propulsion. I thought at least 15 days would be time enough for them to experience and be convinced that travelling by bike is the best way to travel.
With this in mind I fired up google maps and started tracing a route that would allow for low kilometre days, rest days and most importantly one 100+km day. Because one cannot consider him/herself a serious cyclist without a one day 100+ kilometre ride.
As mentioned earlier Cuba lends itself perfectly for such a trip. Central Cuba is dotted with a series of cities and small towns of historical significance that stretch from Cienfuegos on the caribbean side to Remedios on the atlantic end. The next city is never too far from the one before. For this we would only require a bus trip which would take us from Havana city to our starting point in Cienfuegos.
The last item on list was of course, bikes. I was pretty adamant that we should need folding bikes for such an adventure. There was no way or `68 Chrysler Towncar that could secure 4 full sized bikes and adults, luggage and a chofer. Impossible.
See, apart from cycling Cuba, my other big bucket list check-off item was to travel on a Brompton folding bike. I´d read so many blogs and spent so many hours on youtube with adventurers circumnavigating the globe on these tiny two wheeled wonders. And the thought of then riding that same bike to work on Monday. That same bike which took me to see spectacular things in far away lands. That my friend is marketing. Still, I cannot recommend these bikes enough. And though you can bike Cuba with any kind of bike, a folding bike has definite advantages.
It took very little effort to get everyone on board my crazy 15 day cycling adventure idea. We had the time of our lives and saw a side of Cuba and its people we would have never experienced otherwise.
What follows are a few tips, recommendations and ideas to get you started on your adventure to Cuba by bike.
15 days is time enough for a great bike trip through Cuba. To get away from the bustling cities. To see the real Cuba and talk to people in the small towns along the way. To convince yourself that Cuba and cubans are singular, cheerful, kind and wonderful people.
This was our final itinerary. I would change very few things with the days we had. We had days enough to explore Havana, small towns, a few days up north and even two nights at a 5 star all you can eat/drink hotel in the keys.
Which Bike will do for Bicycling Cuba?
Any bike will do. Well, any bike with a few speeds and a luggage rack will do. Touring bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, folding bikes. The reality is that most of Cubas streets, roads and highways are pretty well paved. We had no problem on our 16inch 3/8inch thin 110psi thin Brompton tires.
If you are in the lucky position of choosing any kind of bike for this trip, I would very much recommend a folding bike for these 3 reasons:
- Casas Particulares: The best way to experience Cuba is to stay at Casas Particulares. As a means to boost local economies, about 8 years ago the Cuban government started allowing private citizens to rent out their rooms or houses to tourists for a set fee (about 25usd/night). All the houses/rooms we stayed in were perfect (clean, air conditioned, confortable) with the upside of meeting and making friends with local families. We saved ourselves and the families we stayed with a lot of hassle by being able to fold the bikes and keep them neatly in our rooms. Also often times, especially in La Havana these rooms were on third floors of super high ceiling buildings with windy staircases.
- Touristing: This will probably change over time but often attendants would not know how to deal with us arriving by bike or could not point to anywhere we could lock them to while visiting or would panic altogether. We had read there were “aparcamientos” or bicycle parking zones throughout the city but we never ever saw a one. We had a much easier time, even in restaurants, arriving with the folded tubes as, aside from marvelling at the mechanics, they would gladly store them for us behind counters.
- Traveling from City to City: There is nothing easier than storing your bike in the trunk of a car next to your backpack. The four of us would have had a much harder time traveling from Havana to Cienfuegos on 4 full sized bikes.
Roads and Highways : What to expect while Bicycling Cuba
As mentioned before, for the most part all roads in Cuba are pretty well paved. You are going to be up against these 3 main types of roads between cities.
La Autopista Nacional
La Autopista Nacional is Cubas main thoroughfare which acts like a vertebrae running through the center of the island from La Havana to Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. It is an impressive first world highway with 4 lanes on each side plus an extra wide shoulder and after that a deep gutter. In addition, on either side of the highway are at least 30 meters of well kept greens and huge trees before reaching any property lines.
The highway looks and feels completely out of place as it is completely void of cars. We counted on average 2 minutes between one car or truck and the next. The most we counted was six minutes before seeing another car.
As a cyclist you´ll share the slow lane and shoulder with horse or donkey drawn carriages, slow motorcycles and local bicyclists. It´s probably an understatement to say you´ll feel pretty safe riding in the autopista nacional.
It will be pretty boring though. As with US Highways, this road does not run directly through any small towns and it´s hard to see anything interesting beyond the shoulder green. Use this highway only if there is no alternative or if you are in a hurry to get to point B.
About 70% of the roads will be these two lane highways; One lane for going, two yellow lines and one lane for coming back. It will be on these highways where you will spend most of your time as these are the roads that take you from one interesting place to the next interesting place passing through all the smaller interesting places in between.
These roads are much more congested especially when entering or leaving towns. You´ll be sharing the road with cargo trucks, passenger buses, maniac taxi drivers, tractors, horse and donkey drawn carriages and a few cubans on bikes.
Riding on these roads takes quite a bit of concentration at first as there is no shoulder. You´ll be practically riding on the yellow line at the edge of the road for long stretches before traffic quiets down. It takes a bit of getting used to.
Most drivers in Cuba are not only respectful of bikes but also aware of them as slow moving vehicles. When possible, most cars would veer onto the opposite side of the road to give us as much room as possible. Most drivers in Cuba are accustomed to sharing roads with slow tractors, wagons and really slow motorcycles so they know you might be out there chugging along at 12km/h. Except for the maniac taxis drivers of course whose side view mirrors you can almost feel caressing your left arm.
Less Traveled Roads
The 30% remaining roads will be just like the previous 70% except completely deserted of automobiles. These roads are usually the ones which don´t connect any mayor towns. An example? The road from Caibaren to Yaguajay. This road is amazing; lined with green farms that turn to thick jungle and then small villages. If your lucky you might see a bus slowly coming up from the horizon.
We stopped to rest at a bus stop on one of these roads and had a nice chat with an unlucky man who had been waiting for four hours for just such a bus. Ernesto told us all about life in the country, the latest soap opera, Fidel and Juan Gabriel over the course of a granola bar and sugar cane juice.
Pedraplen : a road you can´t miss…
There is a fourth kind of road in Cuba and one you can´t miss; The Pedraplen. It is a thin stretch of highway that runs straight into the sea aiming to connect the mainland with Cuba´s second most important resort town, Cayo Ensenachos. On google maps it´s this thin yellow line with nothing but blue on either side and a small blot of green at the end. And it really is something.
At around 50km in length it is the largest Rockfilled “Pedraplen” road in the world. After a security point you´ll be riding alone with nothing but the sea. In reality the only autos using this road are the large tourist buses, employee buses(early in the morning and late in the afternoon), and big cargo trucks lugging mountains of rocks to and from.
The day before heading we had made reservations for a two night stay at the 5 Star all inclusive Iberostar Ensenachos (it was quite affordable at that). What a magnificent arrival after a long days ride to come up to that magnificent gate and all the kitsch all inclusiveness of it all. Highly recommend it.
How to get my bike to Cuba
It really isn´t that much hassle to travel with your bike. I mean, it certainly feels like it would be a huge pain. I would say it´s comparable to travelling with two large suitcases. Once you hop on transportation from La Havana Airport to your hotel/casa particular you´ve pretty much made it.
Having just bought new tools for my garage woodshop, I was eager to make rigid wood boxes for our bikes (see video here). I´d definitely recommend you transport your bike in a cardboard box or any other kind of rigid container. It doesn´t take to many youtube videos to realize luggage handlers are all aspiring quarterbacks.
Our trip from home to Cuba was like this:
- Carried the boxes a few meters from the house to the awaiting van to take us to the airport.
- Pushed the boxes a few meters from the unloading zone to the check in gate.
- In La Havana Airport there is a special area at the arrivals gate for large packages. Along with our bikes we saw dozens of large screen TV´s, air conditioners, mini fridges, stereos all being brought to condition the rooms at Casas Particulares (there seems to be a big boom in competition between these houses).
- Made it through customs with no questions asked about our big boxes and a few meters later we were at the loading zone. Our flight was delayed and we had arranged for a driver whom had apparently given up on waiting for us but eventually he came back around. He helped us load all 4 bikes onto the large minivan.
- The hardest part was carrying the bikes and boxes up the flights of stairs at our Casa Particular in La Havana. The wonderful lady whose apartment we were renting told us we could leave the boxes on the roof of the building and pick them up two weeks later on our return to La Havana.
Traveling with bikes between cities
I would definitely recommend you hire a driver to take you wherever you might be going inside Cuba. This over taking the bus.
You´ll be amazed at how this network of private drivers work in coordination with each other and with impecable service. Generally you´ll find private drivers on the sidewalk opposite the bus terminals. Like someone selling you cigars or counterfeit merchandise, they´ll approach you asking where your going and making you a better deal than the bus fare.
We took our chances with this service as it seemed more practical to travel with our bikes in the trunk. Plus between the 4 of it was way cheaper than buying individual bus tickets. Juan offered us a 1964 Green Land Rover to take us to Cienfuegos; impossible to say no. Still, we went back to our Casa Particular feeling very uneasy, all he had asked was the pick up time and address the next morning. No receipt, no deposit, no telephone number. We felt we´d still be in Havana mid day the next day in line for a bus.
Yet the next morning at 7am on the dot Jose was in front of our Casa Particular with said 1964 Green Land Rover. We were amazed.
All other experiences taking these private chauffers where very similar; all spoken agreements. We never had an unpleasant experience and they always delivered on time with old but reliable antiques.
What to pack for a Bicycle trip around Cuba
It´ll be either hot or really hot and definitely very humid. And it might rain.
Here is our complete list of items we brought with us. We used every single item and for once, I didn´t feel I´d brought too little or too many things.
And yes, it all packed neatly on my Brompton front bag and rear rack.
- Bicycle Shorts (yes the kind that have that diaper in the bum area. We bought some which had the appearance of regular shorts on the outside so we didn´t look like your typical bikers)
- Light pants. I brought the kind with the zipper legs that can be turned into shorts.
- Bathing shorts (bathing suit)
- 4 pairs of underwear + 4 pairs of socks (three plus the one I was wearing)
- Rain poncho
- Rubber slippers (I used these a lot)
- Confortable tennis shoes (These are the ones I used for biking, no specialized clip shoes for this trip)
- Gloves (try to buy the kind without full fingers as it will be very hot)
- Bicycle shorts (the same as above)
- Bicycle sunglasses (I bought ones with interchangeable lenses so I could switch between the biking light orange tint to the dark lenses for touristing)
- Front and rear lights (very important. Undoubtedly you will run into a situation where it´ll be dark or rainy or both)
- 4 water bottles (Mich had one of those camelbacks which worked great. Try and bring at least 2lts of water with you — it´s super hot and humid)
- Bike lock (any sturdy lock will do, Cuba is pretty safe)
- Inner tubes (one each. I ended up using mine)
- Bike pump (remember you can´t take compressed air pumps on the plane)
- Puncture repair kit (in case flat #2)
- Tools to take off the wheels (Brompton´s don´t have quick release)
- Allen wrench
- Swiss army knife
- Odometer/Speedometer (it´s always satisfying to know how long you trekked that day)
Things for ride
- 10 gel packs (you won´t find these in Cuba so we brought these for the entire trip. It´s always smart to keep your glucose levels up on long rides)
- 10 protein bars (for days where your out on the road for more than 4 hours)
- Small bottle of shampoo
- Lonely Planet Cuba (otherwise you won´t be identified as a proper tourist)
- IMPORTANT: International Voltage Converter I didn´t carry along one of these and wish I had. Cubas voltage varies from 110 to 220v depending on the town or place you are staying. Most USB cubes and adapters will handle both voltages just fine except when they don´t. My GoPro fused out of existence along with out entire Cayo Ensenachos hotel room (TV and all) when I plugged in the GoPro wall charger.
- Cables for android, iPhone, etc.
- Compression bag (These are super useful to compress all your clothes into a tidy wrinkled nothing)
- Inflatable air mattress (This one is expensive but if you camp often it´s a lifesaver)
- Light travel liner (This is a really thin sleeping bag. I find it useful to carry on warm climate camping and when hosteling)
- Camping Tent for two (We usually bring along an inexpensive wal-mart “Golden-Hills” brand for these trips. Its easy to pack and if you loose it or decide to give it away along the way it is never a problem)
Should I bring camping gear for Bicycling Cuba?
In my opinion, it is neither necessary nor something you would like to do in Cuba. And it isn´t because it´s dangerous or anything else. It´s just, there are so many alternatives and places to stay. If you decide you want privacy you can easily find a whole apartment or even a cheap hotel room. I think Casas Particulares are part of the entire experience of seeing Cuba.
We´d seen a few videos of people camping on their bike trip and we thought; just in case.
Since we´d brought our camping gear along we decided on rooftop camping at this amazing apartment we found in Trinidad.
Closing thoughts on Bicycling Cuba
I hope these have been helpful tips in planning your bike trip to Cuba. We have been traveling by motorcycle and bike for the past couple of years and we are quite convinced it is the best way to travel. Our experience in riding Cuba was absolutely an unforgettable one.
So pack your bags, check the air on those tires and go!