Cuba day 6. Viñales – San Diego de los Baños

We took a few hours to source cartons and pack Spaghetti into three home made boxes ready to take the Taxi Colectivo to Cienfuegos and continue our trip on the eastern side of La Habana. We originally had a “regular” taxi (not certified) booked but the day before, the government announced that all taxis effective immediately needed to be certified to avoid illegal cars working as taxis, this change created a bit of a chaos on the transportation system all over and Colectivos (certified taxis) were overbooked. Some say it was announced months in advance without a specific date to be effective, others that it was something they never heard about. Promptly at 8am our driver arrived, stared at our belongings, and broke into a laugh, “there is no way I can fit all your stuff here… see you guys.”

We looked at each other, and went to the bus office finding that the next place available to Cienfuegos would be in 3 days with no guarantees of taking our belongings with us. We went back to the casa particular, assembled Spaghetti and left towards San Diego de los Baños changing our route.

Or that’s what we thought. Half way through we stopped for some papaya rest at a house in a small town. It wasn’t actually a town, it was an intersection with a few houses together. They cut it and offered to sit in front of their house. We sat on their chairs enjoying the shade and their papaya, they recommended that we stayed at Los Palacios for the night because they thought it was a really nice place. The kids seemed to enjoy seeing and hearing foreigners and we really liked seeing them happy surrounded by pigs, horses, chickens, dogs, and cats.

We gave them some alegrias (Mexican amaranth candies, now trendy and considered Superfood) and as we went back into the almost empty highway intersection I heard “Pablo!!!”. Someone jumped out of a taxi towards us. It was Jose, our host in La Havana who was traveling with the family, we hugged, assured that the trip was going well and he jumped back into his taxi.

Even if Los Palacios was further away than San Diego de los Baños -our original destination- we thought the recommendation might be a good idea. We did not talk to 4 more people like we normally do and Lonely Planet insists, we did not ask the living encyclopedia Jose, and we did not search for Los Palacios on any of our books.

To make it faster we decided to take the highway, windy, and rather cold and became a bit boring. We both were tired but made it safely to Los Palacios right before sunset, great timing. Arriving to Cuba is traveling in time, but this place was yet another dimension. Everyone starred at us, the place did not come up in the Lonely Planet, our offline version of Google maps didn’t show any place where to stay and we could not find any. Everyone gave different directions on where to stay overnight. 

We finally talked to someone who actually ran a place but it had the red anchor instead of the blue anchor sign. Red means locals only. This place was not only not meant for tourism but any local who hosted a tourist would have been in great trouble. We had over 70km of cycling on our backs starting at 1pm because we were going to take a taxi and instead we assembled Spaghetti, most of the road was against the wind, and now we were hungry, it was dark, and had no place where to stay.

We asked a few taxis to take us to the nearby town but they all shrugged their shoulders, shaking their heads, and exhaling a “not at this time, thank you”. We thought about leaving Spaghetti at someone’s house over night, take the bus to another town and come back the next day. But the bus was also not meant for tourists. We were trapped into our own mistake.

Being part of a fault in the system attracted some locals around, Spaghetti in itself was weird, but now we, and our situation was also weird. One of them came closer than the rest of the locals and talked to us. The kind you don’t want to talk to, a bit drunk, dirty, and really hard to understand. Freddy. He said he will help us and asked what we needed. We said a truck who can carry us and Spaghetti to San Diego de Los Baños. He signaled “hold my beer”. On any other country we would feel fear from other people in this situation, but being in one of the safest places on earth we had new emotions. Uncertainty, stupidity, fear of not having control?

Minutes later, happy to not having the drunk guy around and thinking what to do next, we kept brainstorming and talking to people who would like to hide spaghetti and us in their yard, but nothing sounded convincing. Then, Freddy came back. “Ok, its going to cost you 25CUC, its all sorted out” he said. He took us to a house where the driver was and the 50’s State truck was waiting for us. He helped us carrying all panniers and Spaghetti into the back of the truck and we sat at the cabin. He completely saved us. I gave him 2CUC, shook hands and thanked him.

We made it there and as we stopped into the first casa particular to ask for information a familiar drunken voice says, “they have no place here, let’s ask for the next one.” It was Freddy, he actually jumped into the back of the truck in Los Palacios and rode with us all the way there. He completely made sure we found somewhere to stay, we paid the driver once we found our place and couldn’t believe how much we underestimated Freddy’s hospitality skills.

We joined a Canadian family cycling Cuba with her 5 year old daughter having dinner with a German guy and never loved so much hearing English accents and broken Spanish.

This is the Strava ride, we just forgot to stop it when we arrived to Los Palacios so it kept recording the leg we did on a truck.

Cuba Cycling route: La Habana to Viñales

We cycled for a month in Cuba with a Tandem bike, and Valentina and I decided this was one of our favorite sections. After 5 days visiting La Habana staying at the super recommendable house of Jose y Lourdes we started our trip towards Viñales. We did stop in Cabañas and Palma Rubia with a day trip to Cayo Levisa. For sure there are other options to break it into more days but definitely we wouldn’t recommend less than that.

1. La Habana – Cabañas. 78km 522m elevation gain. Google map path. Our own ride is here on Strava. We recommend to exit La Habana from El Malecon (if you can, play some Buena Vista Social Club music on your bike speakers while you do that) and then continue through 5th ave, this will become the highway later. Just be careful of not taking the tunnel at the start of 5th ave. The highway starts flat and nicely paved as you exit the urban area. You will be flanked on your right side by the sea -Strait of Florida- and there are always choices to stop along the highway shoulder for a break. Shortly after leaving La Habana you will find yourself surrounded by nature, almost on your own with no traffic. Some American cars from the 50’s, trucks, bicycles, horses, will be with you at some point. Before Cabañas it becomes hilly and the road is full of holes but still manageable. Cabañas doesn’t offer much to see around, just a place to eat and sleep. At the time this post is written there is only one place to sleep in Cabañas called Villa Luis Montesino y Anabel. From the town center this place is a 10 minutes super hilly ride, so be ready for your last leg stretch. There may be people at the plaza trying to get you there for some coins but with the above link you will find your way there.

2. Cabañas – Palma Rubia. 70km 236m elevation gain. Google map path. (sorry, we did not record Strava but the Google link is very close). Its a win-win situation to hear recommendations of places to stay at your next destination -Casas Particulares- if you like the place you are staying at. In this case we asked for recommendations for Palma Rubia and conveniently they recommended a place they also owned but it was even better than the Cabañas’ one so we can safely recommend it too, Villa Luis Montesino – La Curva. The road continuous not in the best shape -consider mountain bikes- and you will start with two hills right away. You’ll continue to be surrounded by amazing jungle like vegetation going through small villages. Super recommendable to stay two nights there so you can go on a day trip to Cayo Levisa. Cayo Levisa was our favorite beach in Cuba. Very easy to find an empty beach area, water is not polluted, and the sand is super clean. Check our post on Cayo Levisa.

3. Palma Rubia – Viñales. 50km 875m elevation gain. Google map path. Our Strava recording. You’ll pass again little villages and the road will be kind of hilly. A further away from Mina la Constancia -3km-, you will start climbing, around km 45 will have the highest slope (100m elevation in less than 1km), then you’ll be rewarded with a similar downhill. We did not have the great experience in Viñales with our Casa Particular so we can’t recommend it but there are a lot to choose from. Check our Viñales post for more info. On the way you’ll have kids asking for chewing gum or school materials. At least for us it was way more fulfilling having ready some notebooks and pencils or colors than candies.

If you have any questions about planning this or other parts please do not contact us!

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-.

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:

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