The quintessential visit to Cuba includes the following: a ride in a classic car, a visit to Revolution Plaza’s Che Guevara mural, and the obligatory cigar and daiquiri at one of Hemingway’s old hot spots. This story is not about any of that. Sure, they’re all worth trying, but none offer a glimpse at Cuba’s varied landscape or allow a traveler to engage with a Cuban outside the tourism industry.
Enter Bike Friday’s New World Tourist, the folding bike that would accompany me during a two-month bike tour of the Caribbean’s largest island. Despite already having three bicycles crowded into my Brooklyn apartment, including a full-size touring bike, I decided to make my journey on a folding bike. Having already spent five months visiting each of Cuba’s 15 provinces, I was well aware that some of the most beautiful coastal roads were in terrible condition and I wanted a bike that would be easy to throw on a bus—or the top of a rusty old Chevy, as I did on several occasions.
My love affair with Cuba began in 2013, where a two-week, internet-free trip led to many months in Cuba, which motivated me to create a travel agency specializing in adventure and culture trips to Cuba. As an avid cyclist, I began incorporating cycling day excursions into my group tours. A desire to add multi-day cycling tours to my repertoire was a good excuse to return to Cuba for “research.”
Having traversed the country by plane, train, and automobile—and also by semi-truck, horse carriage, and farm tractor during a hitchhiking road trip in 2016—I noticed how different the response was when I arrived in a city by bicycle. I was still often rushed by hustlers looking to make commission by helping me find a restaurant or B&B homestay (known as casas particulares), but the conversations and connections were much deeper this time.
Pizza shop owners wanted to know about my journey. Families living in homes without addresses, somewhere in between two small towns, invited me in for coffee. Freight logistics engineers and coffee processors offered to transport me in their pick-up trucks during heavy downpours. Many of them told me that I was the first American they had ever met and they were eager to hear my impression of their beloved country.
Conversations typically began with the ubiquitous “Where you from?” or “How do you like Cuba?” and nearly always shifted toward the U.S. trade embargo and Donald Trump. With limited access to the internet and a decrease in U.S. travel to Cuba as a result of the 2017 travel restrictions, many Cubans have few—if any—opportunities to speak directly with American visitors.
Americans traveling by classic car, state-run taxi, or state-run bus typically only come across Cubans who work in the tourist industry, be it officially or unofficially (Cuba is known for persistent street hustlers and jockeys, known as jineteros). Cycling through Cuba allowed for, and in some cases, required, stopping or sleeping in quiet towns where horse-drawn carriages are just as common as cars. I was often the only tourist in town, which ensured there was always someone excited to start a conversation.
Cuba relied on the Soviet Union for virtually everything, including oil, so when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba had to rethink its transportation. China donated about a million bicycles to ease transportation difficulties, and cycling became so commonplace that the right lane of highways is still reserved for slow-moving traffic such as bicycles and horse-drawn carts. Very few Cubans are wealthy enough to own a car, so the majority of the population gets around on foot, by bicycle, or in hot, crowded “colectivo” cars and trucks. Transportation is particularly challenging in very rural areas, where it’s not uncommon to pedal 10 miles uphill to work, on a rusty old bicycle with only one gear.
In Viñales, Cuba’s western-most province known for tobacco production, I met a man who rode his single-speed bicycle 15 miles, up and down steep hills covered in potholes, just to go fishing. As his bicycle rested against a palm tree, he went free diving (no tank, just lungs) and caught a manta ray larger than his own body. The massive fish lay sprawled out on the sand as my new friend went to get his knives.
He asked if I wanted to enjoy some fried manta with him later and I told him I was a vegetarian, a very convenient truth. In a display of true Cuban hospitality, a mango was taken from the bait bag, rinsed off in the Gulf of Mexico, and handed to me to eat. After an hour of butchering, slices of manta flesh were hung on tree branches to dry before being rolled into large plastic bags. The bags were then strapped firmly to a homemade wooden bicycle rack to withstand the long ride home.
As I was biking from the Bay of Pigs to Varadero, Cuba’s most famous beach resort region, I passed two men on old, single-speed bicycles. They quickly picked up their pace, struggling to catch up and make conversation. Their heavy panting prompted me to slow my pace and say thanks for a multi-speed bicycle. The men told me they cycle 20 miles per day to sell yucca, yogurt, and “fresh milk for the babies” in the next town.
Plastic milk crates were affixed to their rear bicycle racks and 5-gallon buckets and nylon shopping bags hung from their handlebars, carrying dozens of pounds of product. They hopped off their bikes and began pushing them up the same long, steep hill they encounter every day, waving goodbye and wishing me luck on the rest of my journey.
While cycling in Cuba is extremely common, bicycle parts and components are scarce, so bike tourists must bring everything they’ll need with them. Locals largely rely on bikes and parts donated (or sold) to them by tourists. My helmet disappeared the day I landed in Holguin and I am still not sure how it happened. As it was clipped to my backpack when I left the airport, I suspect my taxi driver may have unclipped it when he was unloading my luggage.
Aside from professional cyclists and Havana bike tour operators catering to tourists, virtually no Cuban wears a helmet and they are essentially impossible to find. After two weeks of riding “naked,” I met a Guantanamo cyclist who loaned me his helmet. In a country where virtually every item—with the exceptions of rum and cigars—is hard to come by, this was a profoundly generous gesture. Six weeks later, I left the helmet for him to pick up at a bike shop in Havana, some 630 miles away.
The kindness of strangers was evident in every single town I visited. A cyclist in Santiago stopped by my apartment to help tune up my bike. Another cyclist in Cienfuegos insisted I let him clean weeks’ worth of mud off my bike. Note to self: Bring fenders next time you bike tour during rainy season. A funeral home in Mariel (where the famous 1980 Mariel boatlift took place) let me use the bathroom when I couldn’t find public restrooms. A man riding home from work in Mayari rode me home to ensure I didn’t get lost. This is not to say that I didn’t encounter any challenges. Women in particular must be careful when riding alone, since a woman—in any country—is more likely to be harassed by men. That said, I felt far safer cycling through Cuba than I would through much of my own country.
Farmers waved to me from their tractors, as did dozens of men cutting grass with machetes each morning, many of them also calling for me to take them with me. However, unsurprisingly, it was children who were the most excited to meet a bike tourist, waving enthusiastically from their homes. At a primary school in rural Viñales, an entire class gathered at the front door of the school to wave to me. Young girls, in particular, were curious about the foreign woman riding alone on an obviously imported bicycle.
In Bayamo, a city in Eastern Cuba that is home to Cuba’s highest peak and Fidel Castro’s former secret headquarters hidden in the mountains, two young girls approached me in the town square. Seated on the ground in the shade, I was struggling to connect to the internet for 30 minutes, as the girls pretended to have business next to me. When I put my phone away and got on my bicycle, they stopped me and the questions began.
Where was I from? Where did I ride from? How long was I riding? Was I afraid to ride alone? Was it more difficult to ride a “bici pequeña”? I happily answered their questions and rode off to find the old horse carriage factory. A few blocks later, the girls rode up next to me, the smaller one perched upon a bike rack as the older girl pedaled furiously to keep up. Both were dressed in crisp white shirts and mustard-colored skirts, the customary uniform for secondary school children. We rode together to the edge of town then parted ways. It would not be the last time that cheerful children would accompany during my adventure.