A mere 100 miles off the coast of the United States lies a land of contradictions: rich with the culture of music and profoundly warm people amidst a decaying infrastructure firmly rooted in the past. Since 1492, Cuba has been repeatedly colonized, fraught with corruption and politically and economically isolated from much of the world.
Yet Cuba has an enchanting pull that utterly captivates people. Perhaps it is the contrast of harsh crumbling buildings against the glistening of the narrow island’s seemingly endless coastline. Perhaps it is a yearning for what Cuba once almost had, a hope for what it could still be, and an appreciation for how they have made do with so little.
People are drawn to Cuba and for most of the world, traveling there is nothing new, but for Americans it is. Now that travel restrictions have been lifted, Americans are flocking to the island that lacks a robust waste management program (household and commercial trash is commonly tossed in rivers).
Bike travelers Ashley Lance and Daniel Carter had been considering a trip to Cuba for quite some time. Maybe later, they thought; other trips were higher on their list. As more Americans begin to visit Cuba, the two got to thinking about the ramifications of cruise ships descending upon the island nation. They were concerned that a certain amount of what makes Cuba CUBA would harder to see and experience when coated in a sticky film of American tourism, both in terms of the increased waste and how Cubans perceive American travelers. Insert obnoxious American tourist stereotype here.
So Cuba was quickly bumped up on Ashley and Daniel’s bike travel list. Seven months of planning later, they found themselves eagerly sitting on an airplane bound for a three week trip to Cuba.
PLANNING THEIR JOURNEY
Cuba is a much larger island than most people realize. At nearly 43,000 sq miles, it is roughly half the size of Oregon. Knowing they wouldn’t be able to see it all, Ashley and Daniel chose some destinations in advance, and left the rest up to along-the-way research and recommendations. They designed a 650-mile figure eight loop with plenty of room for adjustment on the fly.
Ashley says one thing was for certain: they knew they wanted to be in Cienfuegos for Christmas. The city, known as La Pearla del Sur (the Pearl of the South) is a World Heritage Site revered for being one of the best examples of early urban planning. With influences from France, New Orleans and Philadelphia, the well maintained city on a bay features gorgeous architecture.
JUST ROLL WITH IT
Ashley and Daniel are adamant that a relaxed approach is key when traveling in Cuba, “Even the best days have rough moments,” Ashley explains. “So much comes up that you don’t expect. And we would hear about interesting places from other travelers. It was great to be able to modify our trip on a day to day basis.”
When prompted to explain what they meant by those rough moments, Ashley and Daniel were hard-pressed to provide concrete examples. Though the two are experienced travelers, Cuba has pervasively challenging elements that seemed to influence everything.
For one, the road was physically rugged; Cuba’s budget for infrastructure of all types is glaringly absent and it was evident in the condition of roads. This led to a variety of problems, including the loss of fresh laundry drying on the back of Ashley’s bike (she eventually found a place to buy a new pair of underwear.)
And then there’s the lack of snacks. It wasn’t just that Ashley and Daniel had a hard time finding their favorite treats, they could barely find any at all. Packaged foods are rare in Cuba, and that certainly applies to snack foods, a rewarding staple of most bike tourists daily diet. Many days they held out for full meals, which were plentiful though lacking in variety or flavor.
Ashley and Daniel quickly realized that a lot of these hassles would continue throughout the trip, and they immediately adopted the copacetic attitude of well-heeled travelers. “You can’t do anything about it,” Ashley explained with a wave of her hand, “So you just move on.”
Struggles aside, they say the trip was special. Daniel, a former bike shop owner, was particularly sparked by the resourcefulness of Cubans “They may have limited resources, but they roll with what they have.”
HOW YOU LIVE?
Most locals were surprised to meet these two Americans traveling through Cuba. Several people told Ashley and Daniel they had met plenty of Canadians, Brits and other travelers, but Ashley and Daniel were the first Americans they had ever met. The travelers were often greeted by Cubans eager to practice their English with native speakers, beginning with “How you live?” a common way of asking, in English, where someone is from.
“People would come out of buildings to wave as we passed,” Ashley explains. “There was almost always a friendly holler and a wave wherever we went.”
Because they were traveling by bike, Ashley says they had more of an opportunity interact with people and see places they wouldn’t have otherwise. “There are areas where all the tourists go, but often just a few miles away is a hidden gem that the tourists blaze right through. Because we were on bikes, we could stop wherever we wanted. Locals were surprised when we told them some of the places we had been.”
AT ONCE QUIET AND VIBRANT
Cuba is a long and narrow island, 760 miles in length and 55 miles wide. It is comprised of rolling hills dotted with frequent towns along the way.
Though the roads are rugged, they are also rather empty. Cuba has a notorious lack of cars and many people travel by bike or with a horse and carriage. Drivers are accustomed to seeing slower moving traffic on the roads and they give plenty of space as they pass by. The quiet of these desolate roads really struck Ashley and Daniel, especially as they were in the remote Pinar del Río region on the west end of the Island.
The food may be bland, the water tainted and the infrastructure crumbling, but there is a gorgeous vibrancy to Cuba that transcends those concrete elements. Cuban ingenuity has allowed people to persevere amidst adversity. Color and harmony radiate from a people filled with love, an openness they extend even to a couple of weary foreigners travelers arriving by bike, ever in search of elusive snacks.
ASHLEY + DANIEL’S TOP RECOMMENDATIONS
A quiet region with spectacular views though the roads are especially beaten up.
A beautiful historic area with very few tourists.
This gorgeous city on a protected bay has been well maintained now that it is a designated World Heritage site.
A cool, artsy, liberal college town.
Known as the Cancún of Cuba, this long peninsula extends a relaxing 12 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.
WHERE TO STAY
Casas Particulares, which are similar to B&Bs or the pensiónes of Europe, are the most common way to stay the night in Cuba. Residents earn extra income from these friendly sanctioned accommodations that include private space and often breakfast. Casas Particulars are designated by a sign on the door, and it’s okay to simply knock and inquire about availability.
WHAT TO PACK
You can easily travel light in Cuba. There is very little open land as most is used for farming, so you won’t be camping or cooking on this trip. Daniel says he wishes they had left all of those supplies behind.
Not all accommodations have enough bedding, so bringing a light sheet or blanket.
Bring your own bars and snacks as you’ll be hard-pressed to find them once you arrive in Cuba.
TP, sanitizer and a water filter are helpful items to have, even when staying in hotels.
CUBAN FOOD AND DRINK
Street pizza is the snack of choice. In most cities you can find this side-of-the road grab and go food, though the quality varies widely. “You’re always sort of rolling the dice with street pizza, “ Daniel explains.
There isn’t a lot of variety beyond $.32 Spam-style sandwiches, egg sandwiches, fried chicken, fried plantains and rice and beans. Vegetables are sparse.
“One of the quickest phrases I learned how to say is, ‘pollo frito y una cerveza por favor,’” says Daniel of his many dinners of fried chicken and beer. Sounds pretty perfect after a long ride.
Like most places, the guide books list establishments that are often over priced and underwhelming. Ashley and Daniel say they found better success walking just a block or two off the beaten path and either looking for interesting signs or asking for recommendations.
HELPFUL TIPS AND NOTES
Internet access is not reliable.
Airbnb does operate in Cuba, but once you are there you will have difficulty accessing the platform. Unless you are certain of your plans, Airbnb might not be the best option.
Filtering water is recommended and the water doesn’t taste good, so you’ll want to add in something for flavor.
Bone up on your basic Spanish. Though Cuba is closer to the US than Portland is to Eugene, it is indeed a Spanish speaking country.
Learning the specific Cuban dialect and some phrases is fun and helpful as there are distinct elements that even fluent Spanish speakers won’t be familiar with.
Daniel recommends the Trimble app for GPS navigation and downloading maps, which he says has yet to let down and is very accurate.
Be flexible. Cuba is not for the rigid traveler.
ABOUT THEIR SETUPS
Bikepacking style: a rando seat bag, frame bags, front panniers. Plenty of places to hold water bottles – Cuba is hot.
Gunner Grand Tour
Comfortable when weighted or not
Sturdy without being unnecessarily heavy
Cinelli Hobo (officially called the Bootleg)
Sturdy, comfortable and good for a touring set up.
Ashley and Daniel are presenting a slideshow and talk on their trip.
Sunday, February 12
Velo Cult Bike Shop & Tavern
More info >