Sharon Gang, Featured Collaborator
I signed up for a bike tour with Canadian company, WowCuba, as I wanted to explore the countryside as well as the culture of Cuba, and I wanted to interact with people along the way. From experience, I know that biking around a country is the best way to see the country, talk to people, and experience a new culture. Slowing your travel to 10 mph or less forces you to hear, smell and even taste a place more intensely than you ever could on a bus or in a car.
My friend Jim and I flew to Varadero in Cuba – Varadero is Cuba’s resort center where more than 50 hotels offer activities along a 20K stretch of beautiful beachfront laid out on a skinny peninsula.
Lots of Canadians and Europeans book all-inclusive vacations at the resorts so the airport has several gates and even duty-free shopping. On arrival, I was struck by how dark the airport was – electricity is expensive in Cuba so lighting is often minimal – and the fact that we were required to go through a metal detector to EXIT the airport. A friendly guard told Jim what they were looking for — routers and other computer equipment.
We arrived a day before we were to meet up with a group of 18 strangers for the week-long bike trip, so we had time to explore Varadero. We went for a quick swim at the beach across the street from our hotel. Since we were swimming in the Straits of Florida, and not the Caribbean, it wasn’t warm, but it was refreshing, and the water was the beautiful green you see at Caribbean beaches.
Before dinner, we went for a short walk to check out the “Casa de Ron” (House of Rum) and the neighboring house of cigars (my name). The tastings at the House of Rum engendered so much oohing and aahing on my part that the proprietor insisted I take a half-full bottle of one of the more exotic mixtures. Jim also bought a full bottle of rum for cocktails during the upcoming week and a few cigars. I splurged on a box of small “Cohibas” (supposedly Fidel’s favorite brand).
Even though all of our meals were included in the cost of our lodging at the Hotel Los Delfines, we opted to eat dinner at Restaurant Esquina Cuba which was recommended in our guide book as a one-time favorite of Buena Vista Social Club luminary Compay Segundo. What a great introduction to Cuban dining – live music table-side at a restaurant open on three sides to the warm air. The fourth side of the restaurant was occupied by the frame of a car from the 1950’s.
We packed in one more sightseeing opportunity before departing Veradero, the Parque Josone, which are landscaped gardens owned by a wealthy rum baron whose mansion and property were expropriated after the Revolution. While the gardens were a bit listless, we were easily lured into a tidy green gazebo where the bartender offered to make us the best Pina Colada that we would have in Cuba. We didn’t have a better Pina Colada at any time during our stay.
In Veradero I encountered my favorite form of transportation in Cuba – aside from biking. A “coconut” was a cab that fit two passengers in the small backseat of a retro-fitted motorcycle. It had a rounded top that made it look like a coconut. The driver wore a helmet – the passengers did not.
We opted for a more conventional cab ride back to the Varadero airport where we met one of the bike tour guides, Dayan, a Cuban living in Canada, and another participant who had arrived on the same flight we’d taken the day before. The four of us plus Dayan’s bike and all of our luggage piled into two other taxis and headed for Sancti Spiritus, the town where we would meet up with the rest of our group.
The first day of riding, we went about 40 miles on back roads around Sancti Spiritus where we saw fields of tobacco and sugar cane on either side of us. I loved that the few cars on the road gave a short “beep” when they were behind me – less of a honk for me to get out of the way and more of a polite message that they were going to pass me. We also saw lots of horse-drawn carts, other cyclists, and riders on horseback.
It was 90 degrees with a headwind so I was pretty beaten down by the end of the ride which concluded at our hotel in Sancti Spiritus.
Our comfy air-conditioned bus driven by the amiable Javier was always behind us as we rode. If we were tired or wanted to ride in the bus rather than pedal, we were to pat our head as a signal for the bus to pull over. Although I never opted to ride on the bus, I was one of the slowest riders, so I asked that one of the three leaders on bikes stay at the back of the pack with me. That is how I got to know Nelson, our local guide provided by Havanatour.
Our hotel in Sancti Spiritus, the Don Florencio, was one of the best of the trip. We were located on a pedestrian-only avenue, two blocks from the main square. All of the rooms fronted on a charming three-story interior courtyard that oddly contained two in-ground Jacuzzis. On its second story, the courtyard was also home to a pack of loud and proud roosters who crowed not at dawn but at 2:30 a.m. the two days we stayed there.
Sancti Spiritus is a 500-year-old town that was founded in 1514 as one of Diego Velazquez’ seven original villas. It was beautified in 2014 to celebrate its 500th birthday.
In the little time I had for sightseeing in Sancti Spiritus, I went inside the Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espiritu Santo, a beautiful blue church originally constructed of wood in 1522 and rebuilt in stone in 1680. It is said to be the oldest church in Cuba still standing on its original foundations.
My notes for the second day of riding say “much easier” in all caps and “tail wind.” Our 30-mile second-day ride ended at the 44M-high Manaca Iznaga tower near Trinidad. During the 1800’s, the slave owner Pedro Iznaga would watch his slaves in the sugar mills from this tower to make sure that they were working.
To enhance my bicycling journey, I asked Nelson to teach me some Spanish vocabulary. Fortuitously, that day, he taught me the word for “shrimp” which is “camarones.” That night’s dinner at a lovely Palador, or privately owned restaurant, in Trinidad, we were offered camarones on skewers.
Trinidad is a better-known version of Sancti Spiritus. It, too, is 500 years old and is known for its cobbled streets and beautiful buildings, many on the Plaza Mayor (main square). The town’s hey-day was in the early 19th century when hundreds of French refugees fleeing a slave rebellion in Haiti arrived, setting up more than 50 small sugar mills in the nearby Valle de los Ingenios. Soon, the area around Trinidad was producing a third of Cuba’s sugar. Most of the mills were destroyed during the War of Independence and the Spanish-Cuban-American War, and sugar-growing in Cuba shifted west. You can still see ruins of sugar mills in the area and there is even a tourist train that will take you through the Valle de los Ingenios.
Our hotel for one night, the all-inclusive Brisas Trinidad del Mar, was 12K outside of Trinidad on a beautiful beach called the Playa Ancon.
Hills and a headwind greeted us as we rode out of the hotel the next morning. It was another hot day – near 90 degrees – and I barely made it to the end of the 30K ride. The scenery was beautiful, however, as we rode along the coastline in the province of Cienfuegos. The reward, aside from the views of the water, was the best lunch of the trip at a Palador near Guajimico. The restaurant was outside of the owners’ house and had a long table that was covered from the elements but open on all sides to cool breezes. We had passed a shrimp farm near the end of the ride so it was no surprise that camarones were on the menu along with lobster and fried white fish. My notes from the day are full of exclamation marks.
Our next hotel, the Pasacaballos, outside of the town of Cienfuegos was built by the Soviets to house workers from the nearby Juragua nuclear plant. This joint venture between Cuba and the Soviet Union folded when the Soviets pulled out of Cuba, but the dorm became a hotel that later served as a destination for loyal Soviet party members. The blocky structure’s bright colors reminded me of a Michael Graves construction. Its enormous salt-water swimming pool was a welcome relief after our hot day on the road. Dinner in town was in the Punta Gorda neighborhood of Cienfuegos which boasted the former homes of sugar barons that were confiscated during the revolution.
The next morning, we had a bit of time to explore Cienfuegos, so I took a look at the Teatro Tomas Terry. My guidebook refers to Tomas Terry as a Venezuelan industrialist, but Wikipedia describes him as a very wealthy slave trader who bought sick slaves and nursed them to health in order to trade them for profit. Cienfuegos didn’t try to whitewash its history, however. Terry’s name was front and center on the outside of the theater! The theater opened in 1895 and is still in use. The photographs of famous performers, including Alicia Alonzo, Enrico Caruso and Anna Pavlova, were displayed in the lobby.
For lunch, we rode in our bus to a man-made lake, the Embalse Hanabanilla, where we took a 20-person fast ferry to a delightful open-air restaurant. The surroundings were green and lush – quite a contrast to what we’d been seeing on the road. But this sojourn meant that our bike ride was in the afternoon, and by the time we started pedaling, it was HOT! We only rode 22 miles but I felt each and every one of those miles.
I perked up for dinner, however, which was at a terrific place called Finca del Mar. I indulged once again in lobster and had a Pina Colada that wasn’t as good as the one we had in Varadero.
Day five was exciting. It began with a completely flat ride to Caleta Buena, a sheltered cove near the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos) where you can go snorkeling and even scuba diving on some days. On the way, we passed banana trees and mango trees and a stretch of road where rice was drying on the shoulder.
The snorkeling was great – I saw my favorite black and blue neon fish. And the temperature of the water was perfect – refreshing but not freezing. There were beach chairs for us, changing rooms, and outdoor (cold) showers.
I was eager to get to Havana – since Jim and I had flown into Varadero we had not yet been to Havana. Our bus took us to the Hotel Sevilla where Al Capone once rented the entire sixth floor and Graham Greene used room 501 as a setting for his novel, Our Man in Havana. In the 1950’s, the Mafia requisitioned the Hotel Sevilla as the operations center for its prerevolutionary North American drug racket.We took pedicabs to that evening’s restaurant. The pedicab ride was so fun – imagine having biked for miles and then suddenly having someone carry you in a cart behind his bike!
Our destination, the Paladar San Cristobal, is the best restaurant in Havana, and it is where President Obama ate when he visited Havana a week after us.
I couldn’t get over how dark it was in Havana – no street lights and few lights on the ground floors of the buildings on either side of the narrow streets. After dinner, a few of us walked up the street from the Hotel Sevilla to see Cuba’s Capitolio which to my surprise was a copy of our U.S. Capitol.
Our final day of riding was challenging — bumpy and hilly — in the countryside outside of Havana. Mostly downhill, you had to ride your bike with both hands and lots of concentration to avoid the massive potholes and to stay upright over bone-jarring jolts. I was surprised no one crashed.
Our end point was the small town of Guanabo which boasted an excellent privately-run pizzeria called El Piccolo. That afternoon, Nelson offered a walking tour of Havana which turned into more of a shopping tour along Obispo Boulevard where he showed four of us where to get the best and cheapest cigars and rum in Havana. I also picked up three colorful movie posters at the Plaza Des Armes.
We had a terrific last dinner in Mantilla at El Divino, a private restaurant with a spectacular wine cellar full of collectibles.
The group trip ended the next day, Sunday. I spent the morning visiting the Museo de la Revolucion and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which displays the artwork of well-known Cubans such as Wifredo Lam.
Jim and I took a quick cab ride to the bed and breakfast where we’d be staying for the next two days. The Café Bohemia was on the Plaza Vieja in old Havana. Quite a switch from the Hotel Seville, it had two boutique apartments and one en-suite bedroom. The food was great at the Café Bohemia – we had one dinner there where we saw more lettuce than we had during the entire trip. Breakfasts were hearty with fresh bread – something else that we hadn’t seen all week.
One evening, we took a coconut taxi to the Hotel Nacionale and sipped mojitos as we looked out on Havana Harbor. The Hotel Nacionale is infamous for many reasons, including that in 1946, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano hosted the largest-ever meeting of the North American Mafia at the Hotel Nacionale.
On the last day, I spent the morning wandering the streets of Old Havana and watching people making their way to their morning obligations. I joined Jim for the afternoon where we visited the studios of four artists, Raul Castro (no relation to THE Raul Castro) or “Mamo,” Ibrahim Miranda, Beatriz Santacana, and Eduardo Janis. Our tour was “curated” by Sussette Martinez. She chose well. The artists were completely different in media, tone, and intent. Jim and I agreed that that afternoon was one of our most enjoyable of the trip as we spoke with the artists and Sussette about the Cuban government’s support and treatment of artists.
The next morning was our last, and our landlady at the Café Bohemia secured a taxi for us to get to the Varadero airport. Our taxi provided us with the perfect way to exit Cuba – it was a black 1953 Chevy that had been a police car. The owner/driver was fixing it up himself and what it lacked in amenities like air conditioning and seat belts it more than made up for in charm and a smooth ride.
I loved this experience more than I ever expected to. I loved the people, the countryside, the towns and cities, and I was happily surprised by how welcomed I felt by everyone I encountered.
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Sharon Gang is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Prior to her current career, Sharon worked on Capitol Hill in a variety of capacities for several different members of Congress, and also worked as a press secretary to Washington, DC Mayor, Anthony A. Williams.