Revolutionary relics, sweeping valleys and colonial towns – riding Cuba on two wheels puts its slow wonders on full show, and now anyone can do it with a little electric help...
So, Claire, you fell off twice during this trip. And your speed at the time? Precisely zero kph,” my Cuban guide teased. I didn’t recall ever claiming to be a biking ninja but, for the record, I hadn’t exactly crashed, either; I’d simply toppled off the seat, inelegantly, while setting off.
Bikes, balance and I have not always been the best of friends, but cyclists have long since adopted Cuba. I’d watched them chug up and down pine-scented hills and race past quivering sugar cane for years, looking on with a mix of admiration and horror.
The Caribbean island has potholes big enough to wind a tractor, and there’s barely a slip of shade on the 186,554km of tarmac that spiders this crocodile-shaped isle. Yet seeing Cuba from a bike saddle offers a means to experience the island in a way that few others do, letting its pin-up looks and politics unfold slowly around you.
So, when I heard I could jump on an e-bike and explore from the rugged west to the colonial towns of the island’s centre, it was time to get reacquainted with two wheels.
Admittedly, I had thought twice about pedalling 500km across karst mountains and shadeless back routes. But Cuba is a huge seducer. The days ahead saw us ride through bird-filled forests, past beaches, battlefields, sugar plantations and extraordinarily pretty towns; and by night, rum-soaked meals eased our aches.
With an electric-assisted bike, I wasn’t wicking away sweat every 30 seconds, nor suffering a coronary at the first sight of an incline – or Cuba’s infamous potholes. All I needed to do was stay on my saddle.
Our cycling team of 11 ranged from a chef to a pair architects, and was led by our own Bradley Wiggins of a guide, Douglas. I was relieved to clock that I wasn’t the least fit pedaller in our group, and the competitor in me vowed not to come last on any leg of the journey, battery-assisted or otherwise, but it wasn’t long before the scenery dismissed all thoughts of podiums and yellow jerseys.
In western Cuba, the present is a foreign country. Things move at a time-worn pace here. At the end of the central reservation’s Communist-red hibiscus hedge lay a palm tree-peppered valley where ancient know-how and gnarled limestone percolate in a landscape preserved in antiquity and recognised by UNESCO.
Beasts of burden till the coppery earth while sun-wrinkled men plant the pinhead-sized seeds of Nicotiana tabacum. Under the relentless Cuban sun, iron-rich soil and juicy drops of rain yield huge tobacco leaves, which are then plucked, cured and rolled into Cuba’s legendary cigars.
This Viñales Valley idyll was our first stop, but not before we’d earned a first-class degree in Cuba’s famous cigars. We’d arrived in early February, when the tobacco plants were just shy of full bloom, and as we pulled in at the Quemado de Rubí farm, the smell nearly knocked me off my bike.
Cigar making isn’t just a case of slapping a few leaves together and rolling, it’s a slow, artisanal process. This was something that became all too apparent as farm guide Osvaldo showed us around the 250,000 thigh-high, net-covered plants that the plantation nurtures every season.
“It takes a minimum of three years, with 539 manual processes to make the leaves into some 250 shapes and sizes of cigar,” Osvaldo told us as he unwrapped the farm’s own-brand puros (the term for a pure Cuban cigar). He also revealed that the farm’s best leaves went into making the Cohiba Behike 54, which sells for £72 a pop in the UK!
“I didn’t think that cyclists were smokers, but if you want to try one…” he taunted the group. There was some hesitation inside the hut-sized humidor, so Osvaldo began his sales pitch: “You need to do cigars, rum and salsa. If you don’t do any of those, you haven’t been to Cuba.”
Hesitation evaporated and we bought some (unbranded) for CUC10 (£7.75) then hit the saddle, the afternoon sun warming our backs.
The route ahead flitted past 65km of tobacco fields, straight-as-an-arrow glossy royal palms, huge cedar trees, cocoa-coloured horses and tobacco-leaf drying huts. Only one of the group was chomping on a cigar while we pedalled. When a lipstick-red Detroit classic passed, belching diesel from the exhaust, he laughed: “I’m using the cigar as a filter!”
The road kinked through pine hills towards Viñales before spiralling down to the town through the sublimely beautiful limestone and velvet-green valley. Climbing a tad, I tweaked my electric horse, pushing the knob four stops to its max: Turbo. It’s our first day, I told myself. I’m just easing in.
On a 64km ride towards the coast the next day, we zipped past towering palms, flame-tinted African tulips and clapboard homes, swerving beastly looking potholes under a bright cerulean sky.
Over our lobster-and-beer lunch at the postcard-perfect Cayo Jutías beach, I learned that two of my group were speed demons: veterans of the 24-hour ‘Green Hell’ race, an annual all-nighter that sees bike nuts pedal Germany’s Formula One Nürburgring.
I made a mental note not to get into a race with either of them and wandered off to digest in peace, before an afternoon splash in the bathwater-warm sea.
The next journey turned out to be the longest of the trip – 96km – passing through towering karst alleys untainted by modern life. Backroads soared up the quadricep-busting lush hills and rollercoastered over rippling limestone massif.
I had doped up on bananas and energy tablets but, after flying down the tarmac equivalent of a ski-run at 60kph, my thighs were limp, so I edged the e-bike up from Eco mode to Touring, then Sport, and finally to Turbo, where I remained hooked. I was now nailing those hills like a pre-scandal Lance Armstrong.
Things haven’t always been as fast-moving in these remote limestone ranges. Back in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets spent six months hiding their nuclear missiles in the bushes down the road while Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara holed up in a cave, juggling chess moves with one hand and trying to deflect global extermination with the other.
These days, there’s a concrete cabin campground at Che’s missile crisis cave HQ, Los Portales, but I found a distinct lack of local interest on my visit. Times are perhaps changing here, and revolutionary history isn’t the lure it once was – especially for struggling locals. One of our homestay hosts said that her husband had queued for eggs for four hours at dawn so we could pedal with protein.
Just after our tour, the Cubans went to the polls, and some 700,000 of 7.8 million voters voted against a new constitution enshrining Cuban socialism forever – astounding for a country used to polling at 98% in matters involving the Communist Party of Cuba.
I arrived at our next destination, Las Terrazas, tired from pedalling. In 1968, the mountains here were at the centre of Fidel Castro’s ‘green revolution’, when the country set about reforesting land that had been stripped by the Spanish conquistadors and ravaged by plantations.
More than 1,000km of terraces were built and 6 million trees were planted, but in the 1990s the economy crashed, due to the withdrawal of USSR subsidies and the village of Las Terrazas was left facing poverty, only to be reborn as an eco-retreat.
With the rum flowing at dinner that night and a live band at our hotel, I danced a fast-paced salsa with our guide, Douglas, on the tiles. It was only then that I realised I might have that coronary after all. The 96km ride and 1,000m climb had been a cinch in Turbo; the whirl of high-speed salsa with a pro was much more challenging.
The next day began more gently, with an introduction to a different dance by way of a tour of the steam engines of the Central Australia sugar mill. Last autumn, Cuba imported sugar for the first time in its history, which may be the final nail in the coffin for an industry that has long defined the island.
Cuba once supplied Hershey and Coca-Cola, and was the world’s greatest producer of the sweet stuff, though it was never plain sailing. In the heady period following the First World War, for example, the boom days of 1920 saw its sugar price more than double to US$1 billion, earning that year the moniker, ‘Dance of the Millions’, before prices plummeted in early 1921.
Although I’d chewed plenty of cane that morning, I was trailing everyone else on the 63km flat route to the Bay of Pigs. Slowly, I looped past deep-turquoise seas and the graves of the fallen – casualties of the failed 1961 CIA-backed invasion that saw the US try to oust Cuba’s then new leader, Fidel Castro. So, in need of a break from the open road, I stopped for a Cuban cola at a roadside bar and a quick snorkel.
The water in the bay shimmers with a spectacular sheen. The entire coastline east of the boot-shaped Zapata swamp is fretted with sharp limestone and tiny slips of sand, its surface changing colour from one second to the next – gin-clear to black ink, to indigo, to intense turquoise.
Colourful parrotfish and angelfish swooped continuously around stalks of coral, but even here there were reminders of Cuba’s past. Just a little further east lay the remains of a 1961 invasion craft, resting peacefully on the sea bed.
Cienfuegos, our next stop, marks its 200th anniversary this year. Founded in 1819, it has been beautifully preserved, and as we wandered the leafy central park, Douglas narrated its history with glee: “It is filled with Gallic character, with its Arc de Triomphe and wide streets, and was founded by a group of French settlers from Louisiana.”
It seemed, however, that the French flair for cuisine had not filtered through to the 200-year-old city, and we struggled to find a good place to eat. I was keen to try something other than malanga, a tasteless root vegetable that, save for a succulent roast chicken lunch in Viñales, had been piled on our plates since arrival, and I was duly thankful when I eventually managed to wolf down some pasta.
Fortunately, there were more dining options in Trinidad, a 92km pedal away. We ate in a colonial pile with high ceilings and enormous rooms – the signature style of the 500-year-old city at the heart of the country’s 19th-century sugar boom.
But we waited so long for the food that we all got boiled on rum cocktails and later ended up spilling into the Casa de la Trova to practise our dancing.
Time-trapped Trinidad was a welcome break. With its chocolate-box facades, sun-splashed cobblestone streets and cowboys sat on caramel horses, it kept me entertained and off the bike for a day, while there was plenty of aged rum to polish off and live bands to dance to on shaded squares.
The source of Trinidad’s wealth lies in the Agabama Valley, where thousands of African slaves once toiled in its 56 mills, earning it the title ‘Valley of the Sugar Mills’.
After a guarapo (sugar cane juice) at an old mill hacienda-turned-museum and plenty of energy-boosting bananas and meringue, I joined the group in pushing on for another 67km, skirting the Escambray Mountains all the way to the lively colonial city of Sancti Spíritus.
By this part of the trip, I was trailing last – even on Turbo – and had become the group’s confessor as several fellow bikers admitted to me they’d switched onto the easier mode for the toughest sections. At this point, though, I realised that it didn’t matter.
Soon enough, we left the isolated back roads for the sapphire seas of Cayo Santa María island. Stood amid the dozens of sunbathers propping up the bar, it was a surprise change of scene, and the first time we’d seen a large group of people in one place in ten days.
The long island of Cuba is home to just 11 million souls. Slowly pedalling its sun-soaked roads – away from the main tourist routes – immersed us in beautiful lush landscapes and let us meet its people in their homes, on the street and at work. I found a land far removed from the pre-packaged Cuba.
What my e-bike (and its heaven-sent Turbo mode) had done was allow me to breathe in the county as it is. I’d drunk silky rum, smoked the purest of puros, inhaled the sea breeze, witnessed local life, soaked up the addictive percussive music and danced like a diva. And best of all, I only fell off twice.
The author travelled with Cubanía Travel. The 13-day Western and Central Cuba itinerary, including 11 nights’ accommodation with breakfast, some additional meals, ten days’ e-biking, all sightseeing and excursions, a multilingual guide, backup vehicle and transfers.
Prices start from £1,599pp, based on two sharing (excluding international flights).
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