5 reasons to travel Cuba by bike
5 reasons why cycling is the best way to travel Cuba
The tropical island of Cuba is nowadays very well known for lots of sunshine, colourful antique cars, pristine beaches and delicious rum cocktails. And that is about all you will see if you visit Cuba – like most people – in a package holiday or on a cruise. If you want to explore Cuba beyond old town Havana and Varadero’s beach resorts – to get to know Cuba behind the tourist scenes, immerse into the Cuban culture and experience the real Cuban way of life – the best way to travel Cuba is a cycling adventure!
It’s easy to tell you why:
1. Little traffic
As a cyclist, we all love to ride on quiet roads that are safe, beautiful and traffic free and for this reason Cuba is a cyclists paradise. It’s political and economic present and past result in an island with very little traffic because there are just not that many cars around. Lots of the vehicles you’ll encounter are the 50’s antiques we know from postcards. Besides that, there are a few old Chinese busses used by tour companies, some converted army trucks now serving as public transport for Cubans and a few motorbikes – some of which are electrical and therefore the only vehicle that will be able to sneak up on you. All the others can be heard from miles away and will say a friendly hello by using their – sometimes quite unusual but amusing sounding – horn before they pass you. The drivers are extremely respectful of cyclists leaving lots of space for you and your bike when overtaking, so much so that they were nearly in the ditch on the other side of the road! Keep in mind that in Cuba the most used form of transport to get around is actually the bicycle – so what would make more sense to experience the real Cuba than to explore this magnificent island on your bike and at the Cuban pace of life.
To get advice on which type of bike and what other equipment to bring check out our cycling gear for Cuba tips.
2. Breath-taking scenery and a variety of road surfaces
Regarding the road surface, terrain and scenery, Cuba covers the whole range and more..
Here you’ll probably get the once in a lifetime chance to cycle mile after mile on a motorway without risking your life, in-fact you will probably have it all to yourself like we did! You’ll very likely also enjoy a silky smooth road surface on endless straights through fields of sugar cane and tobacco. Especially because the day before you could have been cycling on hilly dirt roads, hiking your bike over big puddles as you pass one after another small towns in the middle of a preserved national park. Or you climbed up the La Farola rollercoaster and it’s supposedly 261 curves while enjoying stunning rainforest scenery where palm trees grow next to conifer. All that just a few kilometres before you find yourself cruising along a desert like coastline with the turquoise blue sea on one side, and cacti growing over huge rock formations on your other side. And when you think you’ve seen it all, Cuba will surprise you with the most stunning coastal road you can imagine. A path of sand mixed with broken road pieces so close to the sea that the waves will splash over and cool you down a bit – making you understand why this strip is not really passable for cars anymore which makes it even more a must do for every cyclist coming to Cuba on a quest to experience and explore it’s raw beauty. No matter which route you take, you’ll be amazed by how easy it is to get around by bike compared to other options of transport in Cuba. If you really want to get off the tourist trail and immerse yourself in the Cuban culture, check out our Cuba cycling route tips.
3. Accommodation – easy & high standard: Casas particulares
If you are looking for affordable and decent accommodation, Cuba has a lot to offer. Even in the smallest town you will find people who rent out rooms in so called Casas particulares – which can be compared to what we know as Bed & Breakfasts. Local people can register one or more rooms in their house to be rented out to visitors. This way they make a little extra money and you get to stay with local people in real Cuban homes. Nowadays the standard of the rooms vary but we always found them clean and most beds were comfortable. We really enjoyed the adventure and experience of arriving in a new place and sourcing out a new Casa. After 5 weeks we feel like we stayed in every place possible from imposing colonial buildings with high ceilings and huge rooms featuring flat screen TV and luxury bathrooms to small simple sheds with provisional roofs since the last hurricane took the proper roof away. What we definitely always experienced were friendly people trying to make us feel at home – most of them happy to share stories of their life and philosophy about the world they live in and view of the outside world.
Just look for a sign
Casas particulares are super easy to locate and have a distinct sign outside the house. If you ask any person on the street for directions you will most likely be escorted to one. It’s also really convenient when the owner of the casa you are staying at can recommend another casa at your next destination. We found that calling casas to book ahead was not necessary, but this might vary from year to year. The first Casa we stayed in after we arrived at the airport was the only one we booked online, because with our bikes boxed up we didn’t feel like arriving into a new country without any idea where to stay. After that we sometimes followed recommendations from casa hosts or just knocked on random doors with a casa particulares sign – this way we almost always found a perfect place and for sure we always found an interesting experience that opened up many conversations. During our stay most casas would cost 20 to 25 CUC for a double room and in more populated towns owners won’t be averse to negotiate about the price.
Bed & Breakfast
Every casa particular offers breakfast for an extra charge of about 5 CUC. Usually it’s big and tasty and will be served at any time that suits you. Most days we left just before sunrise and therefore didn’t order breakfast since we usually had picnic number one after the first couple of hours cycling – but almost every casa host would get up to send us on our way with at least a morning coffee to get us wired up.
It’s also possible to stay in state owned hotels but there are not nearly as many options and most small towns and villages won’t have any. Hotels are always more expensive than casas particulares. Since we didn’t stay in one we don’t have much first-hand information about their facilities but we are sure that casas particulares are a better value for money and offer a much richer immersive cultural experience.
Another form of accommodation that needs to be mentioned are campismos. They are not the type of campsite we are used to in Europe. Sleeping in tents or traveling by camper-van are not common in Cuba. Campismos are non-touristic nature escapes where Cubas go to for holidays. The sleeping options are usually in cabins, they are spotless clean but fairly basic in standard. Cubans come here to enjoy time with their family, sing, play instruments or just play music on their impressively loud portable speakers. We really enjoyed the experience of staying at campismos and it’s another great opportunity to join in real Cuban fiestas and get to know the Cuban way of holiday lifestyle.
4. La gente de Cuba – the friendly Cubans
As you might have already guessed, for us the Cuban people are definitely the number one factor that makes Cuba special. Everywhere we went we found great hospitality and amazingly friendly people that are open to make new friends and share experiences.
Wherever we went, sympathetic strangers pointed us in the right direction or helped us find the best local morning coffee stand. Every street vendor we met was happy to have a little friendly chat telling us more about the area we were passing through as well as sharing some proud stories of their family. We got invited back to a woman’s house for coffee and cake in the middle of the Humboldt national forest after cycling along side her and sharing our love for the outdoors and life. Young teenage boys working on the sugar cane fields in the middle of nowhere stopped us to take selfies and fuelled us up on sugar cane sticks for our journey.
Meeting local cycling fans
One day cycling back to our casa after a relaxing afternoon in a rather rustic sulfur bath facility we met a local English teacher and enthusiastic leisure cyclist – cycling 25km every day from his house to class – who proudly showed us his personal book collection and the school library and highly impressed us with his huge knowledge about European countries and English literature, especially his in-depth knowledge about Irish history.
You could say cycling in Cuba opened up door after door to unique experiences and created an instant connection with many interesting and inspirational people.
Cuban power women
On top of that, since we are two female travellers, Cuban women opened up to us very comfortably, shared stories about their life and we philosophised together to find out what dreams are really made of and how to catch them. Some of their stories impressed us deeply, made us think a lot and were an essential ingredient to make our Cuba adventure so special. Therefore we decided to collect some of them and give them their own space in our blog (coming soon).
La Farola cycling club
On the furthest east point of our adventure, we met the president of the ‘la Farola’ which is Cuba’s only cycling club. We had the privilege to stay in his casa and received great tips for the rest of our trip as well as a little complimentary bike service and home grown watermelon in our lunch bag..
5. Culture & history
The Cuban culture is unique and clearly shaped by its long history of colonialism and slavery that started the day Columbus first set foot on the island in 1492. Given the many years of Spanish colonisation, old Cuban cities feature impressive colonial buildings often colourfully painted and located on lively squares and city parks with many places around where you can enjoy Cubas world famous music and dances. Even less historically curious travellers will enjoy wandering through the streets of Cuba’s colonial cities and just taking in the grotesque differences between imposing, well-kept buildings and ruins side by side while discovering small hidden bars to enjoy some salsa dancing and local rum.
The unique Cuban culture is even more greatly defined by its rather recent history of revolutions, communism and trade embargoes. For this reason, Cuba can’t be compared to any other country and this recent and ongoing political drama is a constant cloud of obstacles.
Socialism in Cuba
The republic of Cuba is one of the last remaining examples of a communist political system and will therefore provide the perfect place to reflect on your view of the world, capitalism and your part in the consumer society. Cycling through rural areas and little towns, you will find numerous writings on walls praising Fidel and honouring Che for freeing Cuba and making the individuals strong by uniting them. Your bike will give you the freedom to cycle along, just taking these stark impressions in and let them spark off thoughts and with hours and hours and hours and hours on the saddle, trust us, your mind will have lots of time to wander..
What to the Cubans think about it?
Meeting and chatting to locals and small town museums are an interesting source to learn more about Cuba’s revolution and provide an often different perceptive in contrast to facts known outside of Cuba. Even though you will the odd time hear people say they can’t talk freely about the state or government, we met many Cubans who provided us with interesting insights into their way of thinking and their opinion on Cuban economics and politics. One of the most memorable quotes I remember comes from an old man working at an ice cream store – that was open but out of ice cream. We were looking for food in an area that were suffering from a very severe lack of milk, eggs and bread. He said ‘Cubans are used to lacking and missing things. Our strength is to adapt. We survive everything.’
What can money buy?
Our Cuba cycling trip made even simple everyday tasks, like grocery shopping to stock up on picnic supplies, become an eye opening experience. We met people lining up for hours outside a supermarket to buy a bottle of olive oil because they only sell it twice a year. Or tiny stores in provincial towns that employ several people full time to more guard then sell about 3 different products – 2 of them French biscuits – since no inhabitant of the town would earn enough money to actually buy them. That’s why state owned supermarkets like that are sometimes referred to as ‘museums’ by Cubans.
There was not much imported to Cuba at the time we were around. The countries own production couldn’t meet the demand. So the daily hunt for food and water becomes interesting when you realise that you are in a place where your Credit Card can’t guarantee you a warm meal. Luckily a big part of Cuban culture is sharing and looking out for others.