Bike Cuba…Best thing you could possibly do there! (Habana – Viñales)

A second trip to Cuba because the first was not enough!

I went about 1.5 years ago but only saw La Habana. On my way out I noticed the streets seemed to be in decent shape and there didn’t seem to be many cars on the big roads outside of the city. This thought was stuck in my head so I knew I would be back, and with the bike!

I really enjoyed La Habana but I wanted to know and see more of Cuba. Knowing this was what I wanted to do and knowing about a triathlon in Cuba I figured it was the perfect moment to go again. I couldn´t go last year but this year there was no holding back. So I signed up to do the ITU triathlon in La Habana (each February). This way I would already have the bike, be able to comply with US cultural rules (even if I didn’t go thru US for the Tourist card or anything) for Cuba just in case and could now have some time to see Cuba a bit more.

The triathlon offers Sprint and 70.3 distances. I signed up for the Sprint because I would bike a lot after so no need to do the longer distance. I arrived the day before the race in order to have more days off after for my adventure. Arriving Friday was fine except my flight got delayed and I had to get to the Airbnb, put the bike together and make it to get the kit before closing at 5:30 p.m. All good, I arrived at the Kit pick up around 5:00 p.m., only to learn that athletes needed to also hand in our run bag and drop off the bike…ok not all good! I went from chilling to rushed! I took a taxi back, grabbed the run stuff and biked back…thinking I could bike to the 1st Transition (T1) and drop the bike…well when I finally got to drop off the run bag it was nearly 6:00 p.m. and the T1 was 15 minutes out by car…great! I had assumed that the bike was to be dropped off in the morning, and well the run part, somehow I forgot there we 2 transition zones..oops. Anyway life always has to throw a curveball….I finally confirmed that Yes I could bring the bike in the am…but at 5 AM…bummer but fine by me as I could finally rest and prepare for the race relaxed.

I debated biking out in the morning but in the end I took a taxi to the T1. Arriving so early I had time to set everything up and I met another chica who came to race her first triathlon. We hung out until the start, while she informed me of all the details of the race and the practice swim she did days before and not to mention other helpful things before race start. She was doing her first triathlon and was way more prepared than me, obviously.

The swim was in the Hemingway Marina, yes alongside parked boats, a 750m swim. The start was in water start, we had to jump in and swim up to the start. Off we went 10 minutes after the men´s field. I felt great on the swim, I choose to go down the middle unlike many who stayed to the side, I didn´t care I just wanted room, to not worry about boats and get out. I started behind everyone and went at my pace, not fast, not slow just comfy. In the end I ended up passing a few swimmers, even some men. I took just over 16 minutes, no clue if that is good or better than previous swims but I know I am now ready to start up front and push the gas!

Transition was fine, I had decided not to put the bike shoes clipped in so I had to do that before exiting, wet dirty feet, eh now I understand why some go with no socks….I am not down with that but I know the socks I choose were not the easiest to put on…fail in prep. Any who off I went on the bike for some 38 minutes. A quick, flat course. I passed a ton of people on the bike. The roads were good and I felt good, fast and competitive. Traffic was stopped by volunteers and cars respected crossings but either way I was hesitant most crossings just in case. The course was point to point so I got to pass nearly 20km of the city before reaching the Malecon where the last few kms were for the bike. I was being very competitive, so much so that I forget a basic triathlon tip, undo the bike shoes before getting off so I dismounted with the shoes and had to run with them when I got off…oops again. So much for race prep the night before…first race of the season issues…hum ok

Off to the run, my favorite! A nice 5km along the malecon and back with the finishline being up the hill of the National Hotel. I was flying on the run. I wondered where the other women were. Finally I saw them, I was not gonna be able to catch many but I was flying at a nice 6:30 mile pace so again I was passing tons of participants. I even had people shout, Colombia is flying…as on my trisuit I had the Colombian flag and well turns out I literally ran for Colombia this race as my inscription had COL and USA and the COL part won (shows my confusing daily life..ha ha). Up the hill I went, by this time gas was running out, but I only had a few more meters so I pushed past a few more guys and finished. With medal in hand I waited for my new friend to finish. I knew she is also a fast runner so I imagined she was already out on the run somewhere. She was with her mom so while we waited for hours for the bags to get in we took photos and wandered around. Turns out my time was quick enough to get me on the podium. I finished 8th overall female and 1st in my age group…so I brought back a nice trophy too :D.

After saying bye and finally receiving our bags and bike I went off to rest, pack again, shower and eat because in a few hours I would be on the bike again heading out of Habana to start my adventure.

Yes, you got it after the triathlon I started biking again. I left around 4 pm with the plan of making it about 30-40 km out of the city this first day since it was 186 km to Pinar del Rio where I wanted get to in my 3 days. I asked my host for some town names where I might be able to stay and headed out. I figured a good 2 hours on bike would be best as sunset I thought was at 6:00pm. (it is really at 7). I took the National Highway out. As I had hoped the roads were in good shape and had few cars. The first town was Bauta but I still had time and felt great so I kept going as the signs said another 15km to Caimito (the second recommendation) plus the further out I could get this first day the better for the next. From the National I had to switch to the Central to get there which was fine as I liked it more.  The National was boring, nothing to see and was just an open road that let me go fast (not even towns here). Once in Caimito I asked around for where I could stay, the first was closed, the second as well so the third it would be.

IMG_0298
Leaving Habana – day 1 after Triathlon

Turns out it was more of a what Latins call a Motel than a Casa Particular but the owners were nice, the room was decent, they made me dinner and they had a little farm in the backyard. Speaking with them at dinner the man was 73 yr old with a great philosophy, he likes to workout daily and keep his body and mind active..good for him, totally agree; and the wife was very religious and had several miracles happen to her; they were entertaining to say the least. From conversing with them and looking at the map (I used maps.me app which worked well and is what taxis in Habana were using – I also used MapOut to see elevation in the mountains) I learned that I didn´t need to back track but instead keep moving forward and that I would jump on the Nacional and head to Las Terrazas, aka my route changed (best idea is flexibility, as my route changed daily).

I set out on day 2 quite early because it would be my long ride day. I ended up doing something like 80 miles this day. I was taking my time so there was no quick let´s get to 80 miles instead more like leisurely with stops all over which allowed me to really enjoy the ride, talk with locals (it was interesting to find out that many who I spoke with actually watched the Triathlon on TV, I thought that was quite cool how sports seemed to be important locally being as those I spoke with were not on professional bikes or even played sports), be a tourist, explore and still exercise.

The first stop was in the next town over because it was so colorful, no clue why no one told me to stay there (Guanajay). Mind you it was a quick photo opp stop and then off to the Nacional and up the hills to Las Terrazas an artsy community brought to one spot on a nice little lake among mountains…I loved the bike up as the roads were beautiful, shady and all for me. To enter the area you had to pay like 3 pesos, I am almost positive if you come through the other side you do not as upon exiting I never saw a gate. Any who I got to Las Terrazas and looked for a place to eat because it was cute but all failed because it was too early for this touristy place, nothing opened until 12 pm, and I wasn´t going to wait 3 hours. I finally found the cafeteria which offers simple things like the typical cuban sandwich but I got there right after a bus load of locals so I bounced and decided to keep going and look for a spot along the road to eat the Guava fruit the hosts gave me as I left their house earlier that morning. Yumm. There were other bikers up on these roads, some mountain biking others like me on a road bike. Also earlier in the morning on the Central I saw a group of local cyclists practicing so this was comforting…although the rest of the day I saw none of this…maybe it was a sunny Cuba thing…ha ha. (leaving on the last day I also saw others bike touring) So leaving this area was beautiful, and hilly, the worst of them being the one to leave. It was freaking steep, long and well it was nearly noon so it was a sweaty beast of a hill…and I made it but only on the lowest gear and zig zagging. lol…something you can do in Cuba most of the time since you hardly see vehicles outside of the towns. After this hill, again beautiful and still rolling hills but fun. I took a mid day break in Soroa to eat lunch, see the waterfall, botanical gardens and the castle viewpoint…btw gorgeous all of these. This would be a nice place to stay a day or two, as there are also hiking paths, it is not super hot here (mountains) and there were plenty of Casa Particulares after the main hotel. After my break and waiting for the sun to cool it´s jets I headed out…this time down hill…wee. I crossed the National and headed onto the Central and just kept going on my way. I had read that San Diego de los Baños was nice so I was trying to get that far…but when I got to the turn off the road didn´t look too great so I head toward the National instead now with the sun going down and all. I was gonna see if I could make it to the second town (because I liked the name ja ja ) but when I was a few km out from the next town up I noticed my the legs were ready to stop. I made it 20 long ass Km to Herradura and called it a day. The first person I asked where to stay literally walked me over (she lived on the same block). This town was tiny, active and had all you needed. The place I stayed cost 10 CUC and again same style as the night before but this time way more obvious…ja ja this had a disco ball and music..LOL I didn´t really care, it looked nice, it was clean, I was tired and I just laughed. I went to the restaurant near by and ordered food then did a little walk along the main street. When I headed out the owner offered a flashlight and I said ¨no, I will be fine, no street lights but not much going on here¨ That was until I crossed the first street and just after I crossed came a horse with carriage speeding by, I laughed and was like you didn´t need a light but you might easily get run over by a horse with so little activity in town. HA Restaurant was good, it was fun to see I was not in a touristy place as for once the whole menu was in the local currency, CUP, and I was like damn I forgot to look at the exchange rate for CUC to CUP before I landed (last time I took a photo in Havana at a restaurant that posted it.) Main street was hopping…a good km long… some people were at church, others at the many little stores eating, drinking, etc; some in the park (no lights, probably safest park I have seen without lights), and well the many horses with carriage kept zipping by couldn´t be missed because on pavement you heard them. I walked the whole street, bought a cookie and went home.

Day 3 was with a destination, Viñales. I had given up on the idea of making it to Pinar del Rio by this point as I found the backroads much more entertaining and heard really good stuff about Viñales. I got lucky as I wanted to stop at Cueva de los Portales where Che and military held a base during the Cuban Missile Crisis with the US to see and learn some history. Turns out from Herradura it is a direct shot to this cave…on perhaps the worst road of my trip…but hey I didn´t know that (well kind of, the owner did mention it in the morning but I didn´t seem to care). Again crossing the National and straight for the hills! Loved this first part because I kept joking about traffic on a Monday…as horses, bikes, classic cars, etc passed or were passed between Herradura and the next town over…literally back in time, traffic non existent and totally not normal for most of the world.

This route although not the best kept road had awesome views, through the towns, farmland and of the mountains which I hoped the road did not have to summit (luckily they are not mountains to put roads up to the top only around the tops…you could say they are limestone humps). It was hilly, yes, but the views were great and well the road kept you quite occupied watching ahead for holes, bumps, etc. Once to the Cave the roads got so much better…and here I ran into one of the Cuba bike tour groups. They bus around and miss the crappy parts and bike the good parts so they began after touring the cave. They were a group of 20 from Canada and UK and we shared the tour and chatted. They were doing 2 weeks and at a much more relaxing pace than me, also their bikes were neither mountain bikes nor road bikes but more like cruiser bikes. Bike touring in Cuba is becoming quite popular, in case you are interested in doing this and not in my extreme fashion….there are various option and I highly recommend as you see so much more via bike then the usual collectivo cars or buses most tourists take. I will say this was an older crowd but not to detract from the awesome adventure on bike.

The cave was cool, formed a long time ago by the river that runs through it. It was first developed by some local artists and cared for, then Fidel took it over and made it a tourist destination, then during the Cuban Missile Crisis Che and the militia made it their base, and now it is a tourist stop. The tour tells the history of the Cave, it´s importance and shows how the base of 22 militia were setup inside from the Communications room, kitchen, Che´s office/living quarters and a tad more. It was quite the strategic miliary base and due to it´s density it was easily undisguised and hidden from US planes. I spent maybe 40 minutes here. I left the bike at the reception as this is now a campsite for locals, similar to most stops there was someone to watch the bike or a place to safely leave it…this was a plus since I left the lock in Habana as soon as I realized the key was in Bogota….one of the several things left at home, including the sim card for the go pro…but whatever I make due with what I have. Yup!

As I continued along I came to one hill and saw a man running toward me and I was like what is going on. He offers juice and fruit to the bikers…I too decided to have the fresh mango juice and let him know the bike group is on it´s way. So fyi this is a common bike route…even the locals are waiting for you to come by on a daily basis….how cool!

From here I finished the hill, stopped in town to re adjust my bike bag, a bag I borrowed from a friend but from the bumpy roads and the weight it kept dipping down onto the wheel so I had to stop every now and then and fix it. It didn´t occur to me until I was packing the bike to leave Cuba that the bag had actually lowered the seat several inches…aka not helping the situation of lowering onto the tire…good thing I only had 3 days because it only made it through 3 and who knows how long I would have lasted on the wrong seat level (or how long ago it lowered the seat). I also think I didn´t fasten the bag correctly to the seat and might have caused some of the problem but so be it.

Any way only a few more Km and I would be in La Palma or as I knew half way there. After La Palma I took my sweet, sweet time as I found friendly people at a fruit stand, little food places to see what was going on, tobacco farms, tobacco pre packing plants, rivers, restaurants, etc, etc…you name it I stopped…ha ha. Having heard about the tobacco farms and production in Cuba as I passed the first ones I decided to ask the guy at the fruit stand while he served us a smoothie of coconut water, papaya and piña if any were closeby…sure enough I had passed one a few km back so after enjoying with him the smoothie, which he wouldn´t let me pay for :/….I said bye and headed over to see if they would give me a tour. They said yes! but no fotos 😦

This plant is government owned like most things in Cuba but the manager feels like it is his as he has been there 15 years and takes pride in his work and his workers…he retires this year. The tour was mainly about him trying to sell (not literally sell) me to his single workers and get me to come back and work there…ja ja ja This particular plant is the pre packing plant, they do not roll the cigars here they simply separate the leaves and qualify them. There were 2 houses, one full of women, two to a table taking the leaves and separating them from the stem. I loved this room the women were so fast at it, smiles abound and I joked with them that I would come back and work if I could have the window seat..he he The other room is where the leaves went after they no longer had a stem…here they separate them for each destination and package them into bundles of 62/63kilos…about my weight! This room seem like the jokster room, they worked but not really…LOL

Any way the tour was short, the leaves smelled good and I almost left with a date but no one wanted to bike to Viñales with me….next time… ha ha

From here I didn´t make it too far either..I waved bye to the fruit stand guy and continued until I found a river crossing and restaurant…I decided it must be lunch time (3 pm ha) and time for a swim. Great plan! Lunch took forever I probably left by 4:30 pm and while eating the bike tour group passed me…ja ja I was like I will catch them…but 30 minutes later I was finally on the road…I did go fast, the curves and roads were super nice but there was no way I was catching them. As I made it into Viñales all hope was gone…I tried to fit in Cueva del Indio but I arrived literally 5 minutes too late…aka I passed it then returned and missed it just that easily. Finally getting to town I decided I would rather stay in a Casa Particular just outside of town. Viñales you could tell was touristy….nearly all houses were Casa Particulares getting into town so I picked a cute one with a view for sunrise and about 1 km from town. Finally the cost was the regular price I expected before I left on the trip, 25 CUC which included a massive breakfast, bottled water and fruit when you arrived. I didn´t stay long… I dropped off my stuff and headed for a run because I wanted to see town before sun down. This was the best plan EVER! I ran the 1 km to town, beautiful entering town (here, yes there were plenty of cars, tourists, restaurants, bars, things to do, etc etc) but the best plan was taking a random side street that lead to the farms and the horse trails with sunset views. This was now hardly a run, it was so beautiful I had to stop every minute to capture it….any way I eventually made it back after a bit over 5km….literally loved the run through the horse trails, I would strongly suggest this here or at least the horseback ride as it must be amazing too! At home I showered, ate my welcome fruit and walked to town because I wanted to see what Viñales really had going on. Monday night, not much going on but I found a place and ate then headed back…now literally ready to plop over…I think the only thing keeping me moving was the mojito…lol

The next morning, no time to waste….the taxi (colectivo) was coming at 8:30 am…I wanted to leave at 10 am but it cost too much so I dealt with it and made one last ride. A recommendation from the hosts to go to watch sunrise from Jazmine´s Hotel….up the hill. The ride up was great, roads excellent condition, views increasingly better and better, sunrise I saw at a point just before the Hotel but after I went to see the Hotel. A pink hotel on the hill with a massive pool, I almost went for a swim…literally…you can, cost 3 CUC…but from here I saw the other road on the opposite side of the valley that lead to another stop I wanted to see, the Mural de la Prehistoria….Art on a huge limestone rock depicting the Pre-history of civilization…so off I went….this road in ok shape but again views Perfect. Too early for tourist visitors I had the place all to me :D. I did see tourists jogging though on the main road and well plenty of locals waiting for transportation along this same road. Upon return to the house I saw a nice Classic car in the drive way…great photos of it with the sunrise…turns out it was my taxi. ha ha The owner had said it was a big American car so I would have no problem taking the bike in it…I thought a new car not the classic would take me to Habana so I was literally the happiest person, the best way to close out the trip….typical Classic car taking me back…loved it!

The last bit of the trip was packing the bike, visiting the Fine Art museum, finding food and checking out Chinatown. The museum, although I wanted to see it so bad last trip I found that it was not really worth visiting….although the collection was quite well rounded, nothing except the architecture of the building itself and maybe Egyptian stuff caught my attention.

Food for leaving was nothing special, Cuban sandwich, which as I ate it I analyzed the food culture in Cuba. I feel because of the situation there and lack of food options that Cubans are not getting the nutrients they need. There are actually many over weight and I believe it comes from sandwiches…I mean imagine lots of bread, ham and some cucumber or tomato or lettuce…that is not a very healthy diet at all. This made me sad thinking this. I know they have fruit, rice, a few other veggies but really it is super basic and not good for the long term…and it has been long term there so I hope it doesn´t really affect the health of the population the way I see it.

General Feelings:
Solo female – I felt safe, no problems, most people were really friendly, didn´t even hear many Latin comments or whistles (I was literally solo most of the time)
Roads – not as good of shape as I thought but I could have chosen some other routes, the rest were awesome, expect lots of vibration
Food – I actually ate quite a variety of food, not just sandwiches, but I am also very basic when I eat – fruit, eggs, rice (longer I would have needed more vegis I think) and ate at houses I stayed mainly
Water – It was between bottled water and boiled water (no problems)
GPS – Seemed to work (used my Garmin Forerunner watch and the apps mentioned above)
Traffic – Most of the time you are literally alone for long periods of time. Cars seem to respect and pass with distance, even on the National
Wifi – I never bothered with it. You can buy cards and look for places that offer hot spots but disconnecting is preferred
Insurance & Tourist card: Tourist card I purchased at airport before arriving to Cuba (at the gate – 15 USD – don´t wait until you get there otherwise it is like 90 USD — if coming from Latin America) — Insurance this time they asked so I had to purchase, I bought it there, it was cheap (19 USD for my 4 days). Passport this time did get stamps (but you can´t see where they are from 😦
Packing – I brought minimal stuff and it was still too much. Focus on bike clothes, 1 set clothes for bed, 1 set after ride clothes, swimwear, sandals (I brought shoes instead but I headed to mountains – only useful for running – otherwise sandals were fine), spare tires (bolts too), maybe a light jacket (never used mine), undies (etc), shampoo, soap, toothpaste (brush), sunscreen, bike butt cream lol, chapstick, sunglasses, maybe energy bars (in case you don´t want to stop), ziplock or waterproof bags, small camera, chargers (US style), bike light (headlamp I had but never used), mini pump and tools (repair kit), water bottles, bungee cord, helmet, gloves, bike shoes (preference is one you can walk in too bc otherwise expect to destroy them) – the rest will likely be extra!

My First Cuba Trip: MaraBana – La Habana

Useful links I used for information on Cycling in Cuba:
These guys traveled with baby and all plus they cycle the world
Eastern Cuba information by bike (I want to do this next)
Also great although I did not see it before

Cycling Tours
Habana to Trinidad
Habana to Viñales

3 thoughts on “Bike Cuba…Best thing you could possibly do there! (Habana – Viñales)

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