From the pulse of the Cuban music to the pulse of your own heart beat racing - the sounds and sights of Cuba are best discovered on the seat of a bicycle
Rhythm. They say you’ve either got it or you ain’t. Well, Cuba has got it in shedloads – a perpetual latin pulse that courses through each and every one of its citizens like a genetic metronome. Everything they do, no matter how mundane, looks like a series of carefully choreographed steps – women with brooms shimmy across their verandas, men with trays of mojitos ooze their way effortlessly through crowded bars, toddlers wiggle with more panache than any tourist.
And when you see them actually dancing to music, it’s a hypnotic display of fluid twists and grinds that leaves you with a flush in your cheek and a crushing sense of inadequacy.
After just one day in Cuba, it became disturbingly clear to me that if I was to survive my trip, I was going to have to cultivate some semblance of rhythm. Not only to get me through the salsa sessions that beckoned each night, but also to help me on my way across the hills and dips of the north-west of the island. You see, I was on a bicycle – and cycling, I soon learned, is also all about rhythm.
Having left the decaying splendour and pastel haze of Havana, I headed out on a bus with my small group of fellow cyclists, past Fidel-plastered billboards and hills prickled with royal palms, towards the village of Soroa.
Before long the conversation turned towards our respective cycling resumés, a daunting ten minutes during which I realised that I was in the company of several mountain bike enthusiasts, a couple of serious tour-bikers (including one who’d done Lands End to John O’ Groats “without once getting off to push”) and an über-fit marathon runner.
But, as always on small group trips, for each member who is at their physical peak, there are those who are happy to stick to a more sedate pace – chatting to locals, taking in the scenery – and who have no qualms about jumping on the support bus during particularly scary uphill bits. I was quite firmly one of the latter and I was sure there would be others.
Outside our hotel the next morning we were officially introduced to our bikes, a sparkling row of brand new machines, each with 24 gears, bouncy suspension and not-so-cushy saddles. Despite the assurances of Jirshari (our ever-patient Venezuelan tour leader) that this was “not to be a race”, I was still concerned that I was woefully out of my depth.
I shifted uneasily in my padded Lycra shorts (my only concession to ‘professional’ cycling garb) as I watched Anna and Matthew attach their own well-used, bottom-moulded saddles, brought all the way from England, to their bikes. Rob had gone one further by bringing along his own pedals. In a pathetic attempt to fit in, I ceremoniously attached my new water bottle to my cycle, did a few conspicuous stretching exercises and tried not to wobble as we set off on the road out of Soroa.
We started cycling through a flawless landscape of green – forest-clad, rolling hills swathed in thin wisps of errant cloud. Dewy creepers hung down limply from the branches, glinting in the early light, and twittering birds sat gossiping on the telephone wires as we pedalled by. For the most part, the road was deserted – passing traffic that morning amounted to a resigned-looking donkey and his cart of palm leaves, several ambling locals and the occasional tiny dog trotting along the sandy verge.
To my surprise, I found the pace quite comfortable – I was keeping up with the front-runners, I’d mastered drinking from my water bottle while still cycling and I’d held a conversation with Roberto (our smooth Cuban guide) without gasping for breath.
Then we hit our first major hill. One by one the pros sailed past me, pounding up the slope with the same steady pulse that we had stuck to on the flat, brows barely breaking sweat. I, on the other hand, was rapidly working down through my 24 gears, leg muscles struggling to force the pedals round another revolution.
Before long I had reached the lowest gear possible and my legs were a desperate blur of activity, pumping up and down like pistons. And yet I was hardly moving – I was expending every ounce of energy I had but creeping up the slope at the speed of a Stannah Stairlift. So I got off and walked and, thank God, others joined me – we pushed our bikes to the top in an exhausted but united front.
From there it was a heaven-sent whizz down leafy slopes to the eco-settlement of Las Terrazas, a smart cluster of whitewashed buildings overlooking the lake of San Juan. Built in 1971 as a reforestation project, Las Terrazas is a community of 2,000, all committed to the conservation of their surroundings, now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
It’s a tranquil utopia with its own school, cinema, nearby waterfalls and one of the best vegetarian restaurants I have ever visited. Perhaps it was the joy of being offered something to eat that wasn’t fried chicken or fried pork, or maybe we were just dangerously hungry after a long morning’s cycling, but two hours later we were still polishing off endless bowls of fresh hummus, sweet potato soup, organic vegetable pancakes and just-squeezed fruit juices mixed with a dollop of local honey and a cheeky slug of rum.
Slumped in a post-prandial heap, we were then offered the horrifying option of cycling all the way back to Soroa, which four brave – and possibly insane – members of the group accepted. The remaining ten of us climbed on the bus and fell contentedly asleep.
The next day we were cycling along the Cuban equivalent of the M4, the Autopista, which runs between Havana and Pinar del Río. All I could hear was the whirring of our bicycle spokes and the crunch of the road as we pedalled along an almost-empty stretch of dual carriageway, where pedestrians outnumbered vehicles and dogs slept on the warm tarmac.
Occasionally, a wheezing Buick that wouldn’t have passed its MOT 20 years ago chugged past in the fast lane, enveloping us in a cloud of fumes and cigar smoke. The serious shortage of fuel and spare parts in Cuba means that the scant number of cars on the roads are predominantly American classics from the 50s – rumbling, rusting works of art that have been kept going by the sheer ingenuity and bloody-mindedness of their owners.
Jim, an artist in his 60s whose fitness put mine to shame, was in his element. Every time the fug cleared from another passing car he would turn round excitedly to me and holler: “1953 Plymouth!” or “Chevy 1956! Isn’t she beautiful?” Later, I found him hovering round a parked red Buick, gazing through the chrome window frames and running his hands lovingly over the patchy paintwork and silver mascot.
Apart from the short section of Autopista on that second day, we stuck to Cuba’s backroads – surprisingly well-surfaced lanes that wound through pasture and woodland, past oxen-ploughed fields and energetic villages, where children waved and people stopped to stare at the brightly coloured haze of Lycra pedalling through.
Houses in rural Cuba are generally simple, one-storey affairs of wood panelling and corrugated roofs, fronted by a small veranda on which inevitably sat two painted rocking chairs and a plant pot. Without exception they were immaculate and well cared for, with swept paths and sunny gardens filled with poinsettias and avocado trees. It seemed a far cry from the grey skies, tenement blocks and ashen faces that I had somehow always associated with communism, but I was under no illusion that Cuban life was not a struggle.
“It’s not an easy existence out here,” said Jirshari as we cycled up to a farmer’s house to buy fruit, “but I’ve never come across a more dignified and hospitable people.” True to form, we were soon sitting on the farmer’s front lawn sucking our way through a sack of sweet oranges and being ushered into the cool house by his proud wife.
As we headed further west across the island, a new scent in the air heralded our arrival on the fringes of tobacco country. Every so often we’d pass a field of fresh green leaves and the heady smell would waft across the road.
Fellow cyclist Sam, who’d quit smoking only five weeks earlier, was in a state of reverie, breathing deeply and drinking in the seductive whiff of nicotine. Two hours later he was drawing on a six-inch cigar – which, apparently, did not affect his non-smoker status (“you don’t inhale”) – eyes closed serenely and arms clamped round Heriberto, the twinkly-eyed torcedor (cigar-roller) who had made it for him in a dim back-room in San Diego de los Baños.
The sweet smell grew ever stronger as we continued on our journey to the limestone outcrops and tobacco plantations of the Viñales valley. My cycling style was improving every day but any sense of rhythm left me when we met the slightest of inclines. Cubans on decrepit bikes with no gears, no brakes and sometimes no saddles, would regularly whizz past me, grinning at my flushed face and piston-legs. One wrinkled man even offered to give me a push.
“Today is easily the toughest day,” announced Jishari with an ominous uphill hand gesture. “But Rafael is always there for those who need him.” Rafael was our life-support – a charming bus-driver with the same figure, temperament and love of dancing as Baloo from The Jungle Book. He accompanied us everywhere, following at a distance to pick up the limp bodies of exhausted cyclists, or driving ahead to prepare platters of icy watermelon. That day he was worth his substantial weight in gold.
Between the hills we stopped off at Cueva de los Portales, a teardrop-shaped cave hidden in the forest that was Che Guevara’s HQ during the Missile Crisis. After years of adorning the walls of every student bedroom, it’s hard not to romanticise the figure of Che, but Roberto spoke about him with such passion and reverence that when we saw the iron bed that Che had slept on, tucked under a fold of the rock, it was hard not to feel a pang of emotion. For 32 days he stayed here with 200 of his men, keeping their spirits high despite knowing that they were on the verge of military conflict.
It was late afternoon when we entered the Viñales valley and the light was casting veiled shadows across the landscape. The distinctive limestone hills, or mogotes, that rise almost vertically from the ground looked soft as pincushions with their downy palm-forest blankets and halos of evening sun. On the flat valley floor, large squares of fertile red soil erupted with flourishing tobacco and maize, and we started to spot neat patches of verdant kitchen gardens next to the houses.
Unsurprisingly, we ate well that night, rejecting the hotel’s bland menu for a trip to a paladar, a family-owned ‘restaurant’ – one of the small concessions to private enterprise that Fidel allows. In the black pitch of night, two young men waving a piece of strip lighting led us across a field where horses and goats peered at us from the gloom.
At the farmhouse a long table was laid out with pretty crockery, glasses and napkins, and we watched eagerly as plate after plate of pan-fried fish, soft hunks of lobster, floury sweet potatoes and succulent tomatoes were laid out in front of us. It was an unforgettable meal and as the beer flowed we became steadily more raucous to the apparent delight of the farmer and his wife. We stumbled back to Viñales town in a singing, torchlit procession and ended up dancing salsa in a cave.
Back on the bikes the next morning, Viñales seemed an entirely different place to the quiet, darkened streets of the night before. The main avenue of pine trees and colonnaded houses was thronging with asthmatic trucks, old men on horseback wearing straw Stetsons and women selling trays of sweet, gooey cake.
Salsa was blaring out from loudspeakers set up in the main square (the only time I heard music that wasn’t live), cocky schoolboys in matching mustard-coloured trousers strutted across the plaza and young girls practised their dance routines in perfect unison.
We headed out of town towards a classic hilltop viewpoint. For some reason I knew I was going to make this one without getting off to push – maybe my legs were finally getting stronger, perhaps by some strange osmosis I had absorbed some of Cuba’s essential rhythm – but I found a beat in my head, stood up on my pedals and heaved my way up the twisting road, thigh muscles screaming for mercy.
Facing the final stretch, a group of local hombres noticed my valiant efforts and started clapping a beat and shouting words of encouragement. I felt like Paula Radcliffe heading down The Mall – someone really should have found a ribbon for me to cycle through with tears streaming and arms held high in triumph, but I’d probably have fallen off. Instead, I acknowledged my supporters with an embarrassed smile and, to a chorus of cheers, pedalled the last few yards to receive my prize.
I looked out over the raw beauty of the valley, the mogotes rising from the red-and-green chequered fields like prehistoric monsters. Far below, a car wound its way through the countryside, a trail of blue rising poetically from its exhaust. I looked back at the weaving road I had just climbed with a smile. This time the descent would be even sweeter.