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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:

The Romance of Reality

Many buildings in the 500 year old city of La Habana have this appearance. It is said that at some point the city was compared to New York and Paris for being vibrant and luxurious. This was one of the first cities to have a running train, Spain had its own later. Cinemas were built right after they were invented. Then the Revolution came bringing basic rights to all Cubans through socialism and with that the country was converted into a time machine, a coffer of memories where past and present share the same space.

Some old buildings fall by themselves, others have a planned demolition, on either situation the government is determined to save the facade -as shown in the picture- for a later rebuild respecting their original appearance. When resources are scarce and the government is the only powerhouse for building, projects are left on the back burner for years as the trees and bushes grow on the 3rd floor balcony illustrating this neglect.

The vision is romantic and in line with the spirit of bringing the city back to its glamorous architecture. In the meantime, reality is different. Habitants are forced to live on temporary grounds where no one has a sense of belonging. As opposed to other countries, Cubans rely heavily on the power of communities; they share skills, food, education, etc. not as an act of goodwill but rather a means to survive. Something like this is hard to create when everyone thinks they are there for a short time and a new house is around the corner.

Should the government opt for a quick, simple, low-budget building to accommodate their habitants, or is it worth the sacrifice of waiting and respecting the original architecture?

Domino game on a premium location.

A Drive Through Time

I love my SLR camera but it did not pass the first filter when initially fitting all of our belongings in 4 panniers for two people traveling. Still this iPhone night shot shows more light, detail, and colors (at an ISO 2000 and 1/8 second) compared to the 20/20 naked eye.

Given the tools and capability to source parts, Cubans do an incredible work of art restoring 60+ year old cars. Everything from the outside looks very authentic including the paint colors. Under the hood is a different story. The Cuban government buys 2nd/3rd/4th hand diesel truck engines from South Korea or China to sell locally. They arrive to Cuba -very likely- without the emission and noise reduction system to make the shipment cheaper and more compact. The process is well known depending on the handful of choices your car belongs to. It goes into one of the workshops that is ready to do the adaptations needed.

The result, a car that looks amazing but pollutes, drives, and sounds like a diesel truck. Quality varies, often it feels that the engine is not sitting on the right mounts. In fact, it feels like the whole car is the engine mount sending all the vibrations from the pistons to your bones. Chances are that the car’s lack of tightness creates a vacuum that pulls the diesel exhaust back into the cabin. Despite all of this, the car will make you will feel as if you were sitting on your own couch traveling back in time through La Habana Malecon listening to some Salsa tunes.

Cuba day 1, Arrival.

La Habana, Cuba. December 2019

You are warned, Cuba is a place where stones float and logs sink. Expect to see a different world to what you are used to, and even then keep yourself alert to different ways of doing things. This is a place where there is no extreme poverty, no one starves to death, everyone has a roof to sleep under, all citizens receive food from government, healthcare system is free, education is free and obligatory up to 9th grade, there is a paid job for everyone who wants to work, people lives deeply in communities, and likely, it is the safest place you’ve ever been to. All that is 100% true, but before you idealize the perfect place, keep in mind that some resources are extremely scarce and the majority are non existent.

We stayed at the old Habana for 3 nights to do some sightseeing and cycling preparation before tour cycling around the island. We probably should have hired a tour guide but instead we just guided ourselves with local info, the Lonely Planet, and our own research. It’s easy to be guided by the live music in La Habana vieja and stop every now and then to drink, eat, and just watch people.

More of La Habana and around.

We assembled Spaghetti for first time in Cuba, our tandem bike, and went around La Habana all the way to Fusterlandia. A flat ride from La Habana vieja through all the Malecón and then the 5th avenue. José Fuster is using all kind of mosaics, tiles, plumbing and electrical parts, glass, and any other kind of waste to convert it into public-art.

Our AirBnb landlord, Jose, -Aguacate 512 #105, La Habana jcordero1960@yahoo.es – with whom we immediately became good friends, helped us to find places where locals go to. We were invited for coffee and New Year’s Eve dinner at his place and were immediately adopted as part of his family.

We had pork (Valentina and I haven’t had pork in years), rice with beans, yuca and other veggies. Everything was amazing! He had an extensive culinary background and proved that right away. Born and raised in Mexico and Italy we both are used to long table conversations after dinner is over. Not here. A few of us were still eating dessert when the table cloth was pulled and the improvised table disassembled.

We were ready to leave since the meal was finished -or our food driven culture suggested that-. How wrong we were… Tables and chairs were removed leaving a large, empty room right at the street entrance to create a make-shift dance floor. Everyone in the family started dancing salsa. We eagerly participated, and everyone noticed our skills -or lack thereof-. Our joints needed some grease, that’s all.

It’s apparently good luck to throw water on the street of La Habana on New Year’s Eve. (or any liquid you may have with you) That also includes garbage and eggs. Their tradition to celebrate the New Year lasts around 30 minutes and starts at 12:00am sharp. It is wise to wait until 1am to walk home through the center of the streets. It was an unexpected and fun way to celebrate the new year, and was a night we will always remember!

Capitolio

tips & tricks

Hi, I just created a new page on my site, in this section you will find very useful stuff for your cycling tour whether you have thousands of miles under your belt or are new to this. Prior to my first trip I read a few books, watched many videos, and talked to my cycling gurus which inspired me to follow this liberating lifestyle. It was until I put all that theory together in practice though, that I created my own experience and based on this you are reading my own recommendation.

What inspired me to write this?
First, the “paying forward” attitude. I’m very grateful with all the people who helped me before, during, and after my trips, and I want more people to tap into the information learnt.
Second, many people asked me for advise on different topics, for instance “what to pack?”, so this is an easier way to share my recommendation.
Third, I stop writing my blog for 9 months and people over 40 countries are still opening it…

Feel free to drop a comment on any section!