¡Viva la Revolución! – Experiencing Cuba by Bicycle
Oh, Cuba. Whenever I think of my experience there, I struggle putting it in words. So I decided to simply write about what it is like to see Cuba by bicycle.
Let’s say first, the way I traveled in Cuba is very different than the way I usually travel solo. My entire family joined, flying there all the way from Germany, while I came to meet them from Mexico where I had spent the months before.
So instead of wild, adventurous backpacking, we did an organized group tour across Cuba by bicycle – with a whole bunch of other Germans.
Doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing? And yet it was an adventure in its own way. It’s Cuba, after all!
Since I arrived earlier and stayed a little longer than my family, I did also get to experience what it is like to solo travel as a woman in Cuba, but only in Havana – more on that later.
The route – cycling to some of Cuba’s most beautiful places
We only had two weeks, but the tour we booked still brought us to Cuba’s most important places all over the island.
How that was possible? Well, we actually had a bus drive with us all the time. Which seemed ridiculous at first, but it actually saved our lives (more about that later on).
Hence, we did not cycle one continuous route across the island, a few times we ‘jumped’ a couple of 100kms by bus – our bicycles comfortably traveling with us.
This way we could see many more beautiful places than what would have been possible in such a short time without the help of our magic bus.
We started – how else could it be – in La Habana, Cuba. From there, we made our way westwards to Artemisa and Viñales.
Later on, we skipped to the regions lying east of Havana where our route took us to Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara.
What it’s like to see Cuba by bicycle -some general info
Exploring Cuba by bicycle is absolutely beautiful! Personally, I always love stepping outside of the cities and seeing the more rural areas, too, where tourists are not so common.
With a group this big, we were quite the sight to see – we received many friendly waves along the way.
The streets can be a bit of an adventure in Cuba. They are mostly more than okay, but on a bike, be prepared to get thoroughly shaken up on some parts of the road.
Only off the main roads you get to experience a lot of bumps and potholes and challenging bits.
It’s pretty safe to ride by bicycle in Cuba. Drivers on the road are very considerate and the whole traffic feels rather relaxed than dangerous.
Of course, there simply are no new, fast cars – after all, Cuba is still living like other countries did decades ago. Sometimes, you see more horse carriages and Cubans on bike than cars on the road.
Is it exhausting to cycle in Cuba? It can be! The island’s hills are beautiful but don’t expect it to be all flat and easy.
First impressions in the capital of Cuba
Even just at the airport, I saw a spectacle like in no other country yet. People were bringing the most stuff I have ever seen! They pushed massive towers of luggage around on their carts.
Most of their luggage, however, was electronics and other things that are not available in Cuba – it was expats with Cuban origins who now lived abroad and brought rare items for their Cuban relatives.
As a Westerner, arriving in La Habana feels very different. The buildings still speak of their former glory, but they have become ruins over time. Yet, people still live in them.
Even the best hotels and accommodations are quite rundown.
In Havana, you see the famous, shiny vintage cars everywhere – yet they are only there to amuse tourists.
Cuban people are lively and chatty. Their fast Spanish is hard to understand even when you have studied Spanish for years.
Walking in the alleys of Havana, colorful and dirty at once, was quite overwhelming at first. There was so much to see, hear and witness!
Welcome to communism – where scarcity is the normal experience
Even during my first few hours in Cuba, I started experiencing the first Cuban peculiarities. I was on the hunt for water – a basic good to me.
But as it turns out, rum is a lot easier to find in Cuba than water. Bottled water, however, is a very pricey good and only to find in a few supermarkets.
Cubans simply boil their water to get rid of harmful bacteria, an option you do not necessarily have as a tourist.
Speaking of supermarkets, they are a strange thing to experience in general. The shelves were often half-empty – as it must have been in my country some time ago when East Germany was still split apart.
It was not like you could not buy anything, but they would have masses of the very same product. Maybe one day you would find an entire shelf full of peach juice, another day only shelves full of tomato sauce.
Being spoilt with the over-abundance of products in capitalist countries, it felt strange seeing the scarce availability of groceries.
Separate societies – the money divide
Another interesting thing about Cuba is that they have two currencies. One for locals, one for tourists. I had no idea before visiting and was quite surprised, to say the least.
The Cuban tourist currency – the CUC – was for tourists, the Cuban Peso for local people. The CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) approximately compares to the value of Euros or Dollars.
Which is absurd – most people in Cuba only earn between 30 and 60 Dollars a month.
However, a meal in a restaurant would easily be an equivalent of 10 dollars.
It felt very unjust since it also implied that Cubans working with tourists had a chance of really increasing their income while people in state-governed jobs were kept poor.
Apparently, in 2021 the currency system in Cuba was unified. I wonder how that will change the country.
Experiencing rural Cuba by bicycle
Ariving to Cuba feels like stepping into another time period. La Havana was already interesting, but the rural Cuba was yet something else.
The way people work the land – still with Oxens and very basic tools – feels historic. There are no modern machines available, so labor is hard.
Our chatty Cuban tour guide would often stop to translate a few words of what the farmers told him about their life. When we passed this one, he was just preparing the land for planting beans – a Cuban essential.
Along the way, we got to see the beautiful vegetation and plantations. We tasted fresh pineapple, sold along the way, and stopped to see coffee plants and the most colorful flowers blossoming.
And it was winter, can you imagine? Cuba is rich in vegetation.
Of course, there are also the famous Tabacco plantations, which Cuba is famous for apart from its strong rum. We went to visit some around Viñales – trying Cuban cigars included, of course!
As you can see below, the fresh tobacco leaves first are dried in sheds after harvesting. Seeing the skillful process of how cigars are being hand-rolled was quite impressive.
We enjoyed and we suffered – Cuba by bicycle has it all
Cuba has so much to offer – unfortunately, food is not exactly what impresses most visitors.
There is amazing sea food, but as a vegetarian, my choices were mostly limited to rice and beans (which did taste amazing, however).
Still, its a shame that such a fertile country is limited to the production of only a few foods.
Speaking of food… It only took a few days until everyone got sick. Literally, almost everyone. My brother was the first one to feel the uproar of unknown bacteria in his stomach and little by little it spread throughout the entire group.
That was when the bus became our savior. On the days, where my family felt absolutely terrible, we could simply travel by bus – which followed the cyclists at super slow-mo speed.
It was a shame though, missing out on a few too many cycling days because of stomach bugs – a travel classic.
Nevertheless, the landscapes we cycled through were amazing.
Palm trees everywhere, beautiful hills and paradisical beaches with water so clear it’s almost unbelievable.
It’s truly a pleasure to experience Cuba by bike – seeing the landscape change day to day was wonderful.
Getting to know the Cuban population while cycling
Since usually I travel away from mainstream tourism, I get in touch with locals quite often. This is something I truly missed in this organized bicycle tour.
Apart from occasional chats with our friendly bus driver (I was the only one speaking Spanish in our group), there was not much time to meet ‘real’ Cubans.
At the Casas Particulares (private accommodation with Cuban families) we could sometimes talk to the owners a little.
Only after my family left and I was back in solo travel mode, I had some wonderful, random encounters.
I am sure it would be a very different story if you cycled across Cuba self-organized – this is what I would go for if I was on my own.
I read some great blog posts about people doing bikepacking trips across Cuba, like this one. Guaranteed, when you camp along the way and are not in a whole crowd of tourists, you will have plenty of opportunities to get in touch with locals.
Cuba’s history is still present everywhere
Part of why Cuba is so interesting is of course its turbulent history which is still so present to the day.
Viva la Revolución is still to be seen everywhere. Cuba’s national icon, Che Guevara, as well. Painted on walls, printed on t-shirts.
In some ways, it seems like the country is stuck in a time capsule.
It also seemed like the population seemed to be caught in a balancing act – nobody could talk openly about the things that are maybe not going so great, but many expressed their wish of going away.
You could sense they had to be careful with what to say. And that they have definitely been raised by a system that taught people to think a certain way.
I can only wonder what conversations behind closed doors are like in this country.
But Cuban culture is intrinsically joyful – I am sure they persevere by dance, laughter and music. It is the art of creating joy when you have little to nothing.
We have no right to believe that freedom can be won without struggle.– Che Guevara
Solo traveling in Cuba as a woman
I arrived alone at night at the airport – and, since for some reason withdrawing money from the ATM did not work, I ended up in a sketchy guy’s inofficial taxi who agreed to accept my euros as payment.
Always a great way to start a trip, when you don’t even know if you’re going to make it to your accommodation okay. But as sketchy as the taxi ride was, it got me where I wanted to go. Phew.
I only spent a couple of days alone in Cuba before and after the shared time with my family but it was notably different.
Wandering the streets alone as a woman in Cuba, you will barely walk unbothered. A lot of guys make comments – or my least favorite, the strange hissing noises as if they tried to attract a cat.
However, I also bumped into some quite amazing Cubans. With two fellow travelers, we met a guy who not only introduced us to his brother, but ultimately to his whole family and neighborhood.
And I could suddenly feel the whole warm-heartedness that I would have expected from Cuba but could not experience until now.
They welcomed us with open arms, inviting us into their humble home and we all danced and laughed.
With a giant ghettoblaster, we danced through the street for hours. Here it was! The Cuban passion, the rhythm, the music.
It was one of my favorite moments, just randomly running into some strangers who become your best friends for a day.
That’s why I love traveling solo – you are open to the world and the world comes to meet you.
The Cuban bike travel experience – would I go back?
Cuba was definitely one of the strangest countries I have traveled to. It was full of contrast. And it left me quite torn with what to think about the country.
Full of history, full of broken dreams, a once splendid country in ruins.
Full of dancers, full of tropical landscapes, of colorful houses and laughter sounding in the streets.
Yes, I would go back, but on my own terms, to meet the country and its people more authentically.
And then maybe I could fully fall in love with the country – it was not the differences I witnessed that made it hard for me to love Cuba, it was rather the way I experienced it.
In any case, I can only recommend grabbing a bike and making your way through Cuba. I am sure that wherever you go, it will be wonderful.