Do You Smoke? only two a day.

This woman has smoked two cigars a day since the age of 13. She’ll be 100 years old if she makes it to 2021.

This is what she has gone through: she grew in extreme poverty with no school, very limited food, and no access to public places in a state of almost slavery. Then saw Fidel stepping up and after the revolution she received food, healthcare, education, a house, and free access to public areas like beaches and plazas. The US embargo and socialism started and no longer saw the rich people living in their big houses, instead government was taking over. She got some of the Russian goodies as they sent all kind of luxuries like food, basic cars, tools, drinks, machinery, clothing, etc. Then the socialism field collapsed and went through tough days without the Russian breast, “The Special Period”, no food, no nothing for about three years. Taping into some muscle memory from her poverty days, she would go through a complete day or more with no food. Slowly food was grown locally and not brought from overseas reminding her childhood days. Later Fidel stepped down and died. Raul and Manuel took power and soften the socialism allowing private property purchase and trading. In the mean time she had kids, they had kids, they also had kids, and they are having more kids. Thats about it.

Today she sees tourists every day from her granddaughter Casa Particular and gives them that peaceful and wise look while smoking a cigar, free of illness fear, and ready to let the world keep spinning on its own.

Grocery Delivery

We tourists get shocked when going to supermarkets only to find half the shelves are empty. Reality for locals is different though. Beside the government monthly share of rice, beans, pork, matches, and other basic food, they get to buy whatever is sold door to door. The bicycle above is from an onion and garlic seller about to start his day going through Viñales streets. Yes, he was actually able to ride that bike and not only push it. We got to see this with bread, empanadas, vegetables, flowers, etc.

We are not quite sure if this is part of the informal economy -not seen by the government- or if what they are offering is already their share to sell on their own after giving to the state their obliged portion at the price they are told.

High level government can obtain local information very efficiently if desired from any area of the country. The lowest level of power is a kind of zone inspector, he is the area expert. His goal is to serve the people and be informed about everything, he lives and works in that area and maintains relationship with all people around. He knows everyone, their names, where they work, and where they live. If you don’t enroll your kids to school, he’ll easily get to know and will be knocking at your door reminding you that education is obligatory in Cuba.

It is then hard to believe the government is not getting their share from the full production, however we did not get to ask to confirm. On the other hand we can safely say that, despite the lack of basic products offered at the stores, a generous selection of rum, and cigarets never fail to appear.

About 3 hours later we found the onion and garlic seller with half or less of the load on his bike meaning he had had a successful day!

Cuba day 5. Viñales.

We haven’t been to Trinidad yet, but if we were to choose a single Cuban city to visit we would have picked Viñales. People is super friendly, plenty of choices to eat, drink, live music on the street, and everything is walking distance-sh. 

Weather was colder, we both got a virus somewhere and had some cold for a couple of days. We were strongly recommended doing a tour around the area which is normally done riding horses. We said let’s walk for a change and not ride bikes or horses, so we did the tour walking. We are still convincing ourselves that it was worth it, it was a demonstration of cigar making, coffee growing-rusting-grinding, honey, and rum. Definitely was fun and entertaining but mostly we felt that supported the local community.

Coffee grinding

Other attractions we decided to do on our own. Prehistoric mural, I was particularly excited because they were inspired by Diego Rivera’s murals, but as our German cyclists warned us, it is enough to see them from the highway. Mirador view was really nice mostly because it was a super hilly ride, got super loaded Piña Coladas while watching the sunset, and cycled down with almost pitch dark. We decided we could safely skip the Cueva de los Indios after seeing what it looked like through someone else’s pictures.

Some more of Viñales.

This is Our Casa Particular
The Casa Particular owner’s dog looks just like her.

Rear tire was flat again. Self note, when the specialist at the bikeshop says that such a tire is the one the manufacture uses for that specific bike, it might be wise to stick to that combination. Instead we insisted that the tire looked to thin -road like- and wouldn’t be good enough for bumpy Cuba. Before coming over we changed the original tires to something more gravel like called “gravelking”. Our theory is that these tires are too soft and that’s why they easily pinch into the rim. Luckily we had one of original thin tires with us and put it back into the rear wheel. It has worked like magic, no flat tires!

Viñales was definitely worth stoping because of the people, live music in the streets, options for buying needs, and nature around. You can also do day trips from here to other areas. But as in must cases, the journey was much better than the destination. Cycling from La Habana to Viñales was an amazing experience. Specially for us where we got to learn about Spaghetti’s repair needs on tough roads. Three nights were enough and we are ready to continue riding.

Close But No Cigar

Viñales is an amazing town to hang around for dancing, eating, and drinking, and is surrounded by all kinds of tour options. Coffee, cigars, rum, honey, murals, horse riding, cycling, etc. Most price tags are north of $50. Be creative and talk to your Casa Particular or hotel owner to tailor what you want to see and if you can use your own bike to get there instead of them picking you up. Once you negotiate the tour price, expect to pay another $20 or so for their only option they’ll give you for lunch or purchase some of their organic good quality products, either of those will support locals directly.

We gave up the idea of horse riding as we had enough “riding” in the previous days and instead opted doing the cigar-coffee-honey tour walking. The whole tobacco harvesting, drying, cutting and cigar preparation is completely artisanal. The government have local inspectors who accurately count their complete tobacco production ensuring that 90% is sold to the estate. Every other product, like sugar or coffee, have a lower percentage because in comparison, cigars have a better selling price, higher demand, and lower cost.

The word Cigar, Cigarro in Spanish, came from the Mayan word Sikar, which means smoke rolled tobacco. It is commonly known that Habano is a Cigar coming from Cuba. However Habano means anything coming from La Habana. The estate company Habano S.A. owns the trademarks of every brand of Cuban-made cigars in the countries they are exported to. To control distribution Habanos S.A. exports to only one company in each country, except the US.

In 2000 Spanish company Altadis acquired 50% of Habano S.A. and restructured each product, sizes, and marketing –limited edition and special releases are now available– more inline with the global market and maybe with what US consumers would favor in the future when / if the US blockage is removed. Then in 2008 British company Imperial Tobacco acquired Altadis and is said that they are looking in selling their premium division including Habanos S.A. in case you are interested.

To differentiate from these giants, local producers come up with something completely organic -free of nicotine-, hand made, and they are sure of selling you the experience of buying something local from their own hands and forbidden in some areas. The obligatory 90% share to the government is priced at whatever the estate dictates, the other 10% is left to produce their own cigars and sell them locally. This last share is where they live from. They do Cohiba, Monte Cristo, and Romeo y Julieta -stronger to less-. You will get to try each of them and of course buying your 10 pack.

On February 7th 1962, to sanction Fidel’s communist government, Kennedy imposed a trade embargo. The day before though, he ordered to buy 1,200 Cuban cigars, upon the shipment arrival the next morning he signed the embargo order. When structuring the embargo he tried to exempt cigars, but the Tampa cigar companies objected. These companies were manufacturers that originally came from Cuba in the 1800s when the US imposed higher taxes. The solution? Move to Florida and plant your tobacco there. Today their products are close but nowhere near to what the well seasoned consumer would expect from a cigar.

Cuba day 4. Palma Rubia (Cayo Levisa) – Viñales

Palma Rubia is not only a handy stop to break the road towards Viñales but it is the closest place to sleep around Cayo Levisa. Never mind the 35CUC needed to take you there that includes the boat trip, two drinks, and the rather regular meal. The beach is absolutely amazing, picture Cancun a few decades ago. It’s your choice if you want to see people or be on your own at this paradise.

We were told Cubans are not permitted there, we thought it was something similar to the no lobster or shrimps to locals rule leaving the high price tag items for tourists to bring money into the economy. We later understood they are actually allowed to go there, they just need to open their coffers and give away a month and a half worth of their salary to visit Cayo Levisa, enough reason for not seeing any local enjoying their own beaches sadly.

You have a few choices to take the boat in the morning and a few more to come back right before sunset. Don’t expect super nice meals there and be ready to find the typical all inclusive tourist attitude around you. The place is understaffed and is easy to see that they need to be patient with the lack of resources they have and super demanding tourists. The buffet offers the regular rice, beans, fried fish, chicken, pork, pasta, fruit, etc.

Next day we had an amazing breakfast again at the Casa Particular. We left candies to the worker for her daughter who was super excited and had not seen a lollypop before. Our German cyclist colleagues gave a much wiser gift, notebooks and pencils… how come we didn’t think of that instead of the unneeded sugar!

As we were preparing Spaghetti and were about to leave earlier than the Germans -for first time- we noticed another broken connector. This time the change was much quicker but we left the place last. At this point we only have one spare connector that can break, otherwise we will need to improvise on how to make our gears work. Pretty much like Cubans do everyday with anything.

The road had beautiful views, hilly and full of holes. We met over the road another couple on a Tandem. Their bike doubled Spaghetti’s weight but they had almost no gear in comparison to us with our 4 panniers, handlebar bag (for money, passports, habanero sauce, alcohol gel, mosquito repellent, multitool), and our rear “sausage” center bag (carrying shoes and food).

They had a few decades of experience traveling the world under their belt. “Have you cycled Thailand?” we asked. “Yes, we’ve crossed it five times”. And so was their answer for many other countries. Their attire including shoes had nothing to do with our carefully sourced -purchased, tried, returned, repeat- high tech gear, I guess they were at their home couch comfortably watching TV and suddenly jumped into their tandem to travel the world.

Other cyclist also congregated to our conversation at the side of the highway. The German couple that stayed at the same place in Cabanas and Palma Rubia, and a Canadian couple that travelled with one shirt each, they were going to sell their cheap mountain bikes at the end of their ride. Arriving to Viñales we stopped for lunch and before leaving we had again a flat rear tire. So we were not only the less experienced, but also the most gear loaded cyclist and with the most mechanic problems. Not that anyone cared but at least we were the fastest on the road. Overtaking other cyclist is a breeze on Spaghetti -when everything works that is-.

Getting into touring? …panniers are needed.

If you are touring for more than a day you may want to free your back from your backpack and invest in some good equipment. We know some people like to have a trailer but before adding a 3rd wheel we recommend -and have used on our trips- bike panniers.

Panniers are about the size of a bag or larger, and they hook into the side of a front or rear bike rack. It is kind of standard to have 2 smaller panniers in the front and 2 in the rear. We also have a handlebar bag for wallet, passports, alcohol gel, multitool, and any other quick stuff needed.

When traveling on a plane we check-in everything except one or two panniers which we leave as carry on. They may have a shoulder and hand strap to carry them. Just don’t expect them to be as comfortable to carry as a traveling bag or backpack, but you can use it a such for a short time. Buying flag patches and shields from each place is cool, but glue them into your panniers instead of sewing them with a needle… that waterproof function you do want to keep in good shape.

Another great advantage is protection falling. They will protect your shifter controllers when you fall -not in case you fall, but when-. When falling mostly the shifter controller -which happens to be an expensive part- is what is damaged first. With panniers, your clothing, food, books, toiletries, etc inside the pannier will take one-for-the-team and absorb the fall.

Like most things today, you are spoiled by choices. When you shop around make sure they are waterproof, lightweight, durable, and easy to hook in and out of the rack. Even the pricey ones will suffer, so make sure that the pieces that assemble them (eg. the bag attachment to the hooks) have standard screws that you can find on a regular hardware shop.

I’m giving it a try” Entry level doesn’t mean bad quality, either of the three options below perform perfectly for your first rides.

“Give me the best value” When you are out there you’ll be happy you picked the best quality your money can buy.

This last one in the list is the one we’ve been using for 7 years, a few falls, rain, snow, sun, dirt and still works perfectly. If you can buy it from your local shop, please go ahead and do that. After you tried to support your community, if they don’t have exactly what you need, please go ahead and order it online. Please take your time to adjust it to fit your rack.

Cuba day 3. Cabañas – Palma Rubia

Luis and Anabel were amazing hosts in Cabañas, they were nice enough to arrange the next accommodation in Palma Rubia with dinner ready. Anabel was an Agricultural Engineer whom like many more people in the island -and around the world-, left her profession because managing her own Casa Particular was more profitable.

Maps. If you are not going to have internet connection, make sure you do an off-line download on Google Maps, at this point you can download regions of 15-20MB at a time. Download all regions needed to cover the whole island while you have a decent connection. Have a back up plan and download the maps.me app. This last one is very solid but won’t have all the google maps content -as of this moment-. Then you can do any search or look up directions as if you were online.

Up to Cabañas the roads were very decent. Our speed was not limited by our self propel power but by the holes and patches on the road. We did not have any flat tire but Spaghetti (what we call our tandem bike) vibrated like crazy, we learnt later that we were not perfectly synchronized with our pedaling -this bike has independent coasting so either of us can pedal or not-. Now it was even more rare finding cars, the road was still paved but the most frequent vehicles were carts pulled by animals.

The day before we packed our bike for this trip we realized one of the derail cable connectors was broken. A regular single bike does not have connectors, the cable goes from the shifter at the handlebar to the derail, but this tandem bike disassembles for easier transportation, so the cables for derails and rear break are split more or less at the middle of the bike. We stopped at House of Tandem in Houston, where we purchased the bike before taking our flight and Marcia and Ric were generous enough to gave us extra cables and connectors, hoping that we never had to do this operation ourselves.

Right in the middle of nowhere we accidentally over shifted the high gear jamming the chain between the cassette and wheel spokes. We removed the wheel undid the chain links and finally were able to pull it out. Our victory lasted until we realized two cables hanging under the keel. Yep, the fracture at the connector (picture above) propagated completely. We changed the connector instead of undoing the handlebar tape to install a complete new cable and hoped for the best. We hung Spaghetti with a bungee to a tree, replaced connectors, and adjusted gears. It wasn’t the perfect job at first but over the next days it worked pretty well.

We made it to Palma Rubia after so many bumps and hills and were rewarded with an abundant dinner at Villa Luis Montesinos.

Cuba day 2. La Habana – Cabanas

Cycling Cuba is great because of the 50’s traffic. But cycling La Habana in the early morning of January 1st is a luxury. We rode through the remnants of the previous nights celebration that was still alive but much quieter. An older guy yelled “free money” while compacting beer cans and throwing them into a Chinese rice sac which would later be traded. We made our way out and played for last time Guantanamera by Compay Segundo along the Malecon.

We had a few people whom to contact, so we decided to do a quick stop for coffee and continue our 75km ride that was just started. We arrived at the address at the outskirts of La Habana and introduced ourselves.

– “Excuse me, your brother is married to the piano teacher of my brother’s kids in Mexico”.

– “Of course, please come and have coffee”.

Jorge and their family were amazing hosts and we felt we knew them since years. An hour later we kept talking and just when we were ready to leave walking around the garden and swimming pool the terrace table filled up with leftovers from New Year’s Eve. We quickly identified weird objects hard or impossible to find in the country: grapes, Nutella, different kind of cheeses, etc.

Most capitalist countries have different social classes that go hand in hand with their education and purchasing power. That inner compass to guide your talk and measure people does not work here. 9 years of education is obligatory -we heard that they will shift that to 12- and any university program is free. We have crossed 3 levels, those who earn 20usd/month and sort of live with that, those who earn better money through rentals and or receive help from relatives living overseas, and those who have really good income from tourism. You could have all three different classes of people at the same table and have an amazing dinner with diverse conversation due to similar education.

We also came across 3 different mindsets. Those who complain about Cuba, the system and everything that happens to them. Those who prefer not to talk at all about their situation / politics. And those who understand they are in a tough situation but appreciate the little food support, free education, and health system. We often heard, “we’ve watched movies and TV and know that in other countries people would die ill or hungry in the streets”.

We continued along the 5th avenue, forbidden for cyclists, and occasionally found a police waving or giving us thumbs up because they had never seen a double bike before. The idea of sleeping in Cabanas was vanishing so we decided to aim to stay at whatever town we reached by 5pm. We counted the minutes between passing cars in the highway and around every 3 min you would see a car, mostly from the 50’s passing by on the left lane. This was an old movie stage for us.

We made it to Mariel at around 4pm. A town developed around an old cement factory and a 50yo thermoelectric powered by Fuel Oil. Not much environmental regulations apparently for either of them. We thought water would be easy to find but ended up having a pharmacist calling other businesses around to see who had that precious resource in inventory. 

Water filter. It would have been definitely a good investment bringing one of those bottles with water filter integrated.  

We decided to keep cycling 20km of hilly roads and made it to Cabanas. We came to Villa Luis Montesino and Anabel and had a great dinner and conversation with them. A drunk guy in the plaza took us there but we later found that it was actually the only place to stay for tourists and clearly came up in google maps. They were nice enough to do our laundry and had internet available (1CUC/hr). They were also owners of our next destination Casa Particular in Palma Rubia and secured a good rate.

This was today’s ride:

Capitolio

Built during Cuba’s highest economic peak, the Capitolio was, by far, the most expensive building in Cuba. One of its many rooms held a diamond that belonged to the last Russian Zar but it was lost after the revolution and its whereabouts are still unknown. It is said that this diamond was used as the reference point (0 km mark) from which all highways would depart.

Its design was heavily inspired by the Paris Pantheon, St Paul’s Cathedral in Its design was heavily inspired by the Paris Pantheon, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the US Capitol. Still today, even though each of the designs are very similar, Cubans proudly remark that the Capitol’s cupola is taller than its US counterpart. As a result of a severed relationship between both countries in the 50’s and the end of Batista’s dictatorship, Castro refused to maintain the monument nor did he want to give it significance.

El Capitolio in La Habana is the equivalent to a Ferrari in the garage of a falling down house that has been abandoned for over 60 years. It was built with what was thought of as “infinite sugar money” under a “democratic” dictatorship. Sugar was exported primarily to the US prior to the embargo, providing the government and private companies with endless finances. The idea was to continue investing money in the city at the same luxurious tune. However, the Revolution came. 

Recently, Russia has given Cuba financial support to revive the Capitol with the intention of making it useful for Parliament.

The Capitol at the end of a busy Habana vieja street.

8 Tips when cycling through Cuba

  1. Immigration randomly requests travel insurance. Luckily we had that ready and printed because we thought that was needed for the visa. Not sure what would have happened if we didn’t bring it, maybe just a warning.
  2. Be patient when landing. The process was long from landing to exiting the airport. If you ever went through secondary inspection in the US, consider that. We had to do a lot of back and forth, searching for our luggage on the wrong belt, went through 3 lines for customs (because our tandem bike cases look weird, etc.) That said, everyone calls you “mi amor”, “mi vida” -sweetie or darling for Spanish- and were really nice.
  3. Smoking. If you can’t stand people smoking nearby reconsider your destination. People love smoking in Cuba and they do it indoors, outdoors, everywhere.
  4. Change money at the airport. We decided to exchange 5-7 days budget worth of expenses. The exchange is the same everywhere and if you bring USD expect a 10% on top of the exchange rate. Try to get some Moneda Nacional around the city for emergencies, you will see later that not every business take CUCs. We learnt having all three USD, CUCs and Moneda Nacional was the best option. Often -maybe not allowed- Casas Particulares opted for receiving USDs a win-win for both.
  5. Bike assembling. Definitely do that at the place you are staying. Take a taxi which at this time cost around 30CUC. Cycling from the airport is not really worth doing and you wont have a really good time assembling your bike there either. Our tandem is not new or shiny but unavoidably it initiated many conversations. We normally deviate the talk when it comes to how much it cost because most wages are around 12usd, and some doctors earn 80usd per month. (We didn’t want to draw extra attention to ourselves and wanted to be sensitive to the wage gap.)
  6. Walking tours and concerts. We recommend doing research on concerts beforehand or being toured by a local. But you can also experience live music easily in old Habana, there’s live music everywhere all the time!
  7. Internet. We got an automatic message from our carrier as soon as we landed with the super high rate per minute talk, per message and per MB. Followed by “It adds up quickly so be careful”. Plan ahead to disconnect with everyone during your stay. You can buy internet cards sold by the hour for 1CUC and connect to Wifi provided by plazas and hotels. Pictures take long to load. You wont be able to connect to US banks online because of the embargo between the US and Cuba -not sure if other countries have this issue-. Share bank credentials with a loved one not in Cuba and give instructions through regular communication while traveling.
  8. Casas Particulares vs Airbnb vs Warmshowers. At this time there was only one Warmshower and ended up charging as a regular Casa Particular which defeated the purpose. We started with Airbnb to establish first contact with someone and kept going with Casas Particulares. Wherever we stayed we secured the next destination Casa Particular through the owner’s friend or relative. This way we secured a lower rate than just arriving without recommendation.

We had great experience with Jose and his family as you can see on the pictures. He lives and also hosts at Aguila 168B but also hosts at Aguacate 512 #105: