In Cuba , the car is not king. For a country whose image for visitors has become so inseparable with classic 1950s American automobiles, this is a remarkably auto-free nation. The most recently available World Bank statistics (from 2011) indicate that there are just 21 passenger cars per 1000 people in Cuba (in the UK it’s 457 and the USA 423). That means a lot of quiet roads. Hop on a bike and you’ve got the run of the place.
You can happily cycle along the single motorway between Havana and the rest of the country in the middle of the day, without being passed by a single vehicle for quarter of an hour.
When an engine does rumble up behind you, a turn of the head is likely to reveal either a tourist bus hoping to get a last peek at the place ‘before the Americans invade’; a truck transporting sugar cane, the principle Cuban crop, upon which the economy depended for so long thanks to the generous prices paid for it by the Soviet Union; or a 1957 Chevrolet taxiing Cubans from A to B – almost the entire fleet of American classics in Cuba are doing the same.
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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.
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.
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.
Cuba was already changing before December 2014 when President Obama announced that the time had finally come to change US policy towards its tiny neighbour. Unlike the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba is not collapsing – far from it. Raul Castro’s reforms, expanding the private sector, allowing greater numbers than ever to pursue their own destiny and create their own wealth, albeit within the constraints of what is still largely a state controlled economy, have proved popular with most.
Dreams or nightmares of a Starbucks in every neighbourhood in Havana are as yet unfounded but for cyclists the time to go is definitely now – soon the car will claim another crown.