My friend Sharon Gang just recently returned from a sojourn to Cuba. This island state in the Caribbean had been off limits for US citizens for many decades, but recently saner minds finally prevailed and a more relaxed travel policy (among other things) was instituted by the US Government.
Sharon is an avid bicyclist and joined a group of like minded folks to tour part of the island. It has nothing to do with trains, but I thought it would make some interesting reading. Here is her story:
I prepared for my recent vacation in Cuba like I prepared for exams in college, reading and re- reading the Lonely Planet guide to the island like it was a text book. My anxiety before the trip prevented me from sleeping, so to mitigate the stress I tried to learn as much as possible about Cuba, including what to say to government officials from the United States, Canada, or Cuba if I was discovered to be traveling illegally.
The rules for U.S. citizens visiting Cuba are changing daily, but when I left town on March 5, it was still not legal for me to visit Cuba as a tourist. Legally, I should have been part of a group participating in a cultural or “people to people” exchange. Ironically, in signing up for a bike tour with Canadian company WowCuba, I was looking for exactly that kind of experience – I wanted to explore the countryside as well as the culture of Cuba, and I certainly wanted to interact with people along the way. From experience, I know that biking around a country is the best way to see the country, talk to people, and experience a new culture. Slowing your travel to 10 mph or less forces you to hear, smell and even taste a place more intensely than you ever could on a bus or in a car.
My friend Jim and I flew to Toronto from DC and spent the night at a hotel near the airport so as not to miss the once-daily flight from that city to Varadero in Cuba. By going to Varadero we were already breaking the rules – Varadero is Cuba’s resort center where more than 50 hotels offer activities along a 20K stretch of beautiful Caribbean beachfront laid out on a really skinny peninsula. (It’s so skinny that you can see water on both sides of you from some locations.) Americans aren’t allowed to be real vacationers in Cuba, so there are few in Varadero.
There are, however, lots of Canadians and Europeans who book all-inclusive vacations at the resorts so the airport has several gates and lots of duty-free shopping. Arriving there, however, I was struck by how dark the airport was – electricity is expensive in Cuba so lighting is often minimal – and the fact that we were required to go through a metal detector to EXIT the airport. Jim asked a friendly guard what they were looking for; he was told they were looking for routers and other computer equipment.
We arrived a day before we were to meet up with a group of 18 strangers for a week-long bike trip, so we had time for some exploration of Varadero. We went for a quick swim at the beach which was across the street from our hotel. Since technically we were swimming in the Straits of Florida, and not the Caribbean, it wasn’t as warm as you’d expect but it was refreshing, clean and the water was the beautiful green you see at Caribbean beaches.
Before dinner, we went for a short walk to check out the “Casa de Ron” (House of Rum) and the neighboring house of cigars (my name). The tastings at the House of Rum engendered so much oohing and aahing on my part that the proprietor insisted that I take with me a half-full bottle of one of the more exotic mixtures. Jim also bought a full bottle of rum for cocktails during the upcoming week and a few cigars. I splurged on a box of small “Cohibas” (supposedly Fidel’s favorite brand).
Even though all of our meals were included in the cost of our lodging at the Hotel Los Delfines, we opted to eat dinner at Restaurant Esquina Cuba which we spotted on the way to the hotel and which was recommended in our guide book as a one-time favorite of Buena Vista Social Club luminary Compay Segundo. What a great introduction to Cuban dining – live music table-side at a restaurant open on three sides to the warm air. The fourth side of the restaurant was occupied by the frame of a car from the 1950’s.
Jim found out that mass at the local Catholic church started at 10 a.m. the next morning, so we agreed that I would meet him there at 11 a.m. Although the mass didn’t start until 10:30 a.m., Jim was ready to leave when I arrived. We wanted to pack in one more sightseeing opportunity before departing Veradero, so we strolled up to the Parque Josone which are landscaped gardens owned by a wealthy rum baron whose mansion and property were expropriated after the Revolution. While the gardens were a bit listless, we were easily lured into a tidy green gazebo where the bartender offered to make us the best Pina Colada that we would have in Cuba. He was a man of his word – we didn’t have a better Pina Colada at any time during our stay.
It was in Veradero that I encountered my favorite form of transportation in Cuba – aside from biking. A “coconut” was a cab that fit two passengers in the small backseat of a retro-fitted motorcycle. It had a rounded top that made it look like a coconut. The driver wore a helmet – the passengers did not.
A coconut wasn’t an option for long rides or rides with luggage, so we opted for a more conventional cab ride back to the Varadero airport where we met one of the bike tour guides, Dayan, a Cuban living in Canada, and another participant who had arrived on the same flight we’d taken the day before. The four of us plus Dayan’s bike and all of our luggage piled into two other taxis and headed for Sancti Spiritus, the town where we would meet up with the rest of our group.
I’m always anxious on the first day of riding on any bike tour – Cuba was no exception. In pictures of the next day, I’m shown standing alone next to the bus, looking worried, as we sort out bikes and gear at a rest stop near Sancti Spiritus. I’m a slow rider and I like to look around when I ride. I knew that I would be riding last – in spite of the fact that I wasn’t the oldest or the fattest of the bunch.
That first day, we rode about 40 miles on back roads around Sancti Spiritus where we saw fields of tobacco and sugar cane on either side of us. I loved that the few cars on the road gave a short “beep” when they were behind me – less of a honk for me to get out of the way and more of a message to let me know that they were behind me and going to pass. Cars weren’t the only vehicles on the road – we saw lots of horse-drawn carts, other cyclists, and riders on horseback. I waved at everyone I passed and practiced my Spanish by saying “hola.”
It was 90 degrees with a headwind so I was pretty beaten down by the end of the ride which concluded at our hotel in Sancti Spiritus. Riding into town was its own adventure where we shared narrow roads with the traffic of the day including cars, motorbikes, bicycles, carts, and people.
Our comfy air-conditioned bus driven by the amiable Javier was always behind us as we rode. If we were tired or for some reason wanted to ride in the bus rather than pedal, we were to pat our head as a signal for the bus to pull over. I knew that I wouldn’t want to ride on the bus, but I asked that one of the three leaders on bikes stay at the back of the pack with me. I was worried that I’d 1) lose sight of the riders up ahead and get lost; 2) piss off a Cuban who would somehow find out I was American; or 3) die. The leader, who happened to be the owner of the company, Danny MacQueen, agreed, and that is how I got to know Nelson, our local guide provided by Havanatour.
Our hotel in Sancti Spiritus, the Don Florencio, was one of the best of the trip. We were located on a pedestrian-only avenue, two blocks from the main square. All of the rooms fronted on a charming three-story interior courtyard that oddly contained two in-ground Jacuzzis. After a brief look-see at the square, I opted to slide into one of the Jacuzzis and get to know some of the others on the trip who had the same idea. On its second story, the courtyard was also home to a pack of loud and proud roosters who crowed not at dawn by at 2:30 a.m. the two days we stayed there.
Sancti Spiritus is a 500-year-old town that was founded in 1514 as one of Diego Velazquez’ seven original villas. It was beautified in 2014 to celebrate its 500th birthday. The guayabera shirt was supposedly invented in Sancti Spiritus by the wives of agricultural workers who sewed pockets into the shirts so that the workers could store their tools and lunches.
In the little time I had for sightseeing in Sancti Spiritus, I went inside the Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espiritu Santo, a beautiful blue church originally constructed of wood in 1522 and rebuilt in stone in 1680. It is said to be the oldest church in Cuba still standing on its original foundations.
My notes for the second day of riding say “much easier” in all caps and “tail wind.” Nuff said. I did, however, discover the morning of the second ride that my arms and legs were quite sunburned – the result of neglecting to put on sun screen anywhere but my face. For the next two days, I rode in a long-sleeved t-shirt I had stuck in my suitcase at the last minute.
Our 30-mile second-day ride ended at the 44M-high Manaca Iznaga tower near Trinidad. During the 1800s, the slave owner Pedro Iznaga would watch his slaves in the sugar mills from this tower to make sure that they were working. An outdoor market with all kinds of white linens greeted us as we walked up to the tower.
To enhance my bicycling journey, I asked Nelson to teach me some Spanish vocabulary. Fortuitously, that day, he taught me the word for “shrimp” which is camarones. That night’s dinner at a lovely Palador, or privately owned restaurant, in Trinidad, we were offered camarones on skewers.
Trinidad is a better-known version of Sancti Spiritus. It, too, is 500 years old and is known for its cobbled streets and beautiful buildings, many on the Plaza Mayor (main square). We saw more tourists there, than in Sancti Spiritus, although few Americans. Trinidad was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1988. The town’s hey-day was in the early 19th century when hundreds of French refugees fleeing a slave rebellion in Haiti arrived, setting up more than 50 small sugar mills in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios. Soon, the area around Trinidad was producing a third of Cuba’s sugar. Most of the mills were destroyed during the War of Independence and the Spanish-Cuban-American War, and sugar-growing in Cuba shifted west. You can still see ruins of sugar mills in the area and there is even a tourist train that will take you through the Valle de los Ingenios.
Our hotel, the all-inclusive Brisas Trinidad del Mar, for one night was 12K outside of Trinidad on a beautiful beach called the Playa Ancon. It was nice to have a swim before dinner at the beach, but my room had a massive leak from its air conditioning unit which I had to avoid every time I left the room or used the bathroom. This was my least favorite place to stay on the trip. Jim and I couldn’t convince anyone to join us in taking a cab to Trinidad to listen to music, nor could we even get a taxi, so after dinner we played cards, drank rum and Jim smoked a cigar at one of the hotel’s bars.
Hills and a headwind greeted us as we rode out of the hotel the next morning. It was another hot day – near 90 degrees – and I barely made it to the end of the 30K ride. I was begging Nelson for more vocabulary lessons to take my mind off the heat. The scenery was beautiful, however, as we rode along the coastline in the province of Cienfuegos. The reward, aside from the views of the water, was the best lunch of the trip at a Palador near Guajimico. The restaurant was outside of the owners’ house and had a long table that was covered from the elements but open on all sides to cool breezes. We had passed a shrimp farm near the end of the ride and lo and behold, camarones were on the menu along with lobster and fried white fish served family-style. My notes from the day are full of exclamation marks.
Our next hotel, the Pasacaballos, outside of the town of Cienfuegos was built by the Soviets to house workers from the nearby Juragua nuclear plant. This joint venture between Cuba and the Soviet Union folded when the Soviets pulled out of Cuba, but the dorm became a hotel that later served as a destination for loyal Soviet party members. The blocky structure’s bright colors reminded me of a Michael Graves construction. Its enormous salt-water swimming pool was a welcome relief after our hot day on the road. Dinner in town was in the Punta Gorda neighborhood of Cienfuegos which boasted the former homes of sugar barons that were confiscated during the revolution. I sneaked upstairs at one place that was currently a state-run restaurant to marvel at its marble stairs which reminded me of the U.S. Capitol back home.
The next morning, we had a bit of time to explore Cienfuegos, so I decided to pay a few dollars and take a look at the Teatro Tomas Terry. My guidebook refers to Tomas Terry as a Venezuelan industrialist, but Wikipedia describes him as a very wealthy slave trader who bought sick slaves and nursed them to health in order to trade them for profit. Cienfuegos didn’t try to whitewash its history as some have wanted to do in the United States. His name was front and center on the outside of the theater! The theater opened in 1895 and is still in use. The photographs of famous performers who’ve performed there, including Alicia Alonzo, Enrico Caruso and Anna Pavlova, were displayed in the lobby.
For lunch, we rode in our bus to a man-made lake, the Embalse Hanabanilla, where took a 20- person fast ferry to a delightful open-air restaurant – we were its only customers. The surroundings were green and lush – quite a contrast to what we’d been seeing on the road. But this sojourn meant that our bike ride was in the afternoon, and by the time we started pedaling, it was HOT! We only rode 22 miles but I felt each and every one of those miles. There were only a few turns on the ride, but at one point I thought I might’ve made a wrong turn, and it made me realize that I had little way of communicating with anyone if I lost the group. After that day, I carried the cell phone numbers of the group leaders with me along with the name and the address of the hotel.
I perked up for dinner, however, which was at a terrific place called Finca del Mar. I indulged once again in lobster and had a Pina Colada that wasn’t as good as the one we had in Varadero.
Day five was exciting. It began with a completely flat ride to Caleta Buena, a sheltered cove near the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos) where you can go snorkeling and even scuba diving on some days. On the way, we passed banana trees and mango trees and a stretch of road where rice was drying on the shoulder. We had been enjoying the fruits of the banana tree the entire week, but the mangoes unfortunately were not yet ripe.
The snorkeling was great – I saw my favorite black and blue neon fish. And the temperature of the water was perfect – refreshing but not freezing. There were beach chairs for us, changing rooms, and outdoor (cold) showers. And lunch! I enjoyed ALL of these amenities.
I was eager to get to Havana – since Jim and I had flown into Varadero we had not yet been to Havana. Our bus took us to the Hotel Sevilla where Al Capone once rented the entire sixth floor and Graham Greene used room 501 as a setting for his novel, Our Man in Havana. As if that wasn’t enough history, we learned that the Mafia in the 1950s had requisitioned the Hotel Sevilla as the operations center for its prerevolutionary North American drug racket.
We quickly changed and took pedicabs to that evening’s restaurant. The pedicab ride was so fun – imagine having biked for miles and then suddenly having someone carry you in a cart behind his bike!
Our destination, the Paladar San Cristobal, is the best restaurant in Havana, and it is where President Obama ate when he visited Havana a week after us.
I couldn’t get over how dark it was in Havana – no street lights and few lights on the ground floors of the buildings on either side of the narrow streets. After dinner (we returned in more traditional Soviet cars called LADAs), a few of us walked up the street from the Hotel Sevilla to see the Capitolio which to my surprise was a copy of our own U.S. Capitol, complete with scaffolding.
Our final day of riding was challenging -- bumpy and hilly -- in the countryside outside of Havana. Mostly downhill, you had to ride your bike with both hands and lots of concentration to avoid the massive potholes and to stay upright over bone-jarring bumps. I was surprised no one crashed.
Our end point was the small town of Guanabo which boasted an excellent privately-run pizzeria called El Piccolo. I think all of us ate too much as the pizzas flowed. That afternoon, Nelson offered a walking tour of Havana which turned into more of a shopping tour along Obispo Boulevard where he showed four of us where to get the best and cheapest cigars and rum in Havana. I also picked up three colorful movie posters at the Plaza Des Armes.
We had a terrific last dinner in Mantilla at El Divino, a private restaurant with a spectacular wine cellar full of collectibles.
The group trip ended the next day, Sunday. I spent the morning visiting the Museo de la Revolucion with Chris, one of the cyclists who wasn’t leaving until noon, as Jim wasn’t feeling well. Our checkout wasn’t until a bit later, so I also had time to see the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes which displays the artwork of well-known Cubans such as Wifredo Lam.
Jim and I took a quick cab ride to the bed and breakfast where we’d be staying for the next two days. The Café Bohemia was on the Plaza Vieja in old Havana. Quite a switch from the Hotel Seville, it had two boutique apartments and one en-suite bedroom. The food was great at the Café Bohemia – we had one dinner there where we saw more lettuce than we had during the entire trip. Breakfasts were hearty with fresh bread – something else that we hadn’t seen all week.
One evening, we took a coconut taxi to the Hotel Nacionale and sipped mojitos as we looked out on Havana Harbor. The Hotel Nacionale is infamous for many reasons, so here’s just one. In 1946, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano hosted the largest-ever meeting of the North American Mafia at the Hotel Nacionale.
On the last day, I spent the morning wandering the streets of Old Havana and watching people making their way to their morning obligations. I spent some time marveling at the Capitolio and how much it resembled our U.S. Capitol. I joined Jim for the afternoon where we visited the studios of four artists, Raul Castro (no relation to THE Raul Castro) or “Mamo,” Ibrahim Miranda, Beatriz Santacana, and Eduardo Janis. Our tour was “curated” by Sussette Martinez. She chose well. The artists were completely different in media, tone, and intent. Jim and I agreed that that afternoon was one of our most enjoyable of the trip as we spoke with the artists and Sussette about the Cuban government’s support and treatment of artists.
The next morning was our last, and our landlady at the Café Bohemia helpfully secured a taxi for us to get to the Varadero airport. Our taxi provided us with the perfect way to exit Cuba – it was a black 1953 Chevy that had been a police car. The owner/driver was fixing it up himself and what it lacked in amenities like air conditioning and seat belts it more than made up for in charm and a smooth ride.
I loved this experience more than I ever expected to. I loved the people, the countryside, the towns and cities. My research had paid off – I felt comfortable there and prepared, and I was happily surprised by how welcomed I felt by everyone I encountered.