“There’s a special blend of Caribbean culture as potent as the rum”
A cycling tour around Cuba holds the same appeal as any visit to this fascinating country: a chance to witness a nation whose highly educated population is still nursing the Cold War’s longest hangover, where decades of urban neglect have, ironically, saved buildings and even whole towns from the bulldozers of progress and renewal, leaving the past so firmly imprinted on Cuba’s present.
Cuba is a place where Spanish colonialism, American and Soviet expansionism and Cuban nationalism, sun, salsa and socialism have created a special blend of Caribbean culture as potent as the rum made from truck-loads of sugar cane.
Yet there are added rewards for cyclists, and they start with all those empty roads. Even in the largest cities you’d be unlucky to see a traffic jam.
Once outside them the lush, semi-tropical, ever-green Cuban countryside can be heard almost as soon as it can be seen. The call of the red, white and blue Cuban trogon, the national bird and one of over 350 bird species found on the island, remains undisturbed by the sounds of carburettors.
You can safely cycle two, even three abreast along main roads, though you may have to swerve for the occasional farmer on horseback. Pass under a bridge and you’ll see whole groups of hitchhikers, waiting for one of those American gas-guzzlers or trucks. Not long ago they were accompanied by yellow-suited officials whose job it was to flag vehicles down and oblige them to load up with passengers: state-sponsored hitchhiking – only in Cuba.
“Cycle from city to mountains to beach with ease”
You needn’t be a super-fit cycling fanatic to join in either. Cuba’s compact size (it’s slightly smaller than England) means distances between places are never that great, allowing you to cycle from city to mountains to beach quite easily in a two-week tour.
There are three principal mountain ranges in Cuba but the landscape between them is generally flat or gently undulating. The mountains themselves are beguiling rather than awesome, the peaks forested and rounded, rather than rocky and rugged, making them accessible to cyclists.
Buying or even just hiring a decent bike in Cuba is near impossible so unless you bring your own, you’re looking at paying for a bike tour – but there is plenty to recommend this too. The chances are you will have a Cuban tour guide which will add immeasurably to your time spent here. It takes a lifetime to figure this place out by yourself but you’ll get there a lot quicker if you’ve got Cubans to engage with.
Refreshingly, given the polarising effect that Cuba has outside the island and the entrenched positions of Cuba-watchers on both the left and right, people inside the country tend to have a more nuanced view of things. What’s more, your tour guide may well have trained as an engineer or a doctor, but ended up in tourism because tips from a weeks work can equate to half a doctor’s salary, so there’s a good chance you’ll get an intelligent take on Cuban failures and successes, politics and culture.
“Ask a farm labourer for directions and you may end up in a conversation about the European Union”
Education is one of the great successes of the Cuban Revolution (literacy rates are close to 99%) and like the health system, free for all. In the early years of the Revolution new schools appeared all over Cuba, particularly in the countryside, part of the huge push to educate the rural poor. Pedal up an empty mountain road now and stop to ask a farm labourer for directions (there are hardly any road signs) and you may end up in a conversation about the European Union.
How much longer will all this last? If the US finally ends its economic blockade of the island, will the expected influx of American tourists and money change the character of Cuba forever? Many seem to think so and there is talk of a Russian-style descent into monopoly capitalism. There will almost certainly be more cars on the roads but it is a mistake to assume Cuba’s destiny is inextricably tied to its relationship with the US.