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!