MY LAST TRIP to Cuba had been in 1997 when the country was still enduring the periodo especial—the euphemistically dubbed “special period” of deprivation after the Soviet Union’s collapse. At that time, traveling under a journalist visa, I noted roads devoid of cars and bare store shelves. Despair and paranoia pervaded the air, with Cubans miming a long beard when criticizing
rather than speaking his name out loud.
I found things distinctly different during my trip to Cuba two months ago, nearly two years into the U.S. government’s easing of travel restrictions. Cars abounded (new Japanese and Chinese models among the more common ’50s Chevys and Fords). Small private businesses were ubiquitous, especially the B&Bs called casas particulares and restaurants called paladares. Most Cubans were still struggling, though many had accumulated some wealth as capitalism made strides.
For weeks, I had planned a cycling trip in Cuba with my old friend Rob from London. We would meet in Havana and ride about 120 miles west on rented bicycles through small towns until we reached Viñales, a rural tobacco-cum-tourist town surrounded by farms and limestone outcroppings. Upon our arrival, it took Tito Servitje, the Spanish-Catalan owner of Bike Rental & Tours Havana, five minutes to talk us out of our plan. “You’ll waste a lot of time riding there,” he said. “Grab a bus to Viñales and then take day trips from there. It’s gorgeous.” After taking one look at the “good” bikes Tito had promised us by email—actually old, heavy, steel clunkers with worn tires—we decided this was sage advice. (Newer models have since arrived, I’m told.)
We rode our bulky rentals to Havana’s Viazul Bus Station, a microcosm of Cuba’s unpredictability and underdeveloped infrastructure. The experience involved waits on multiple lines, a broken computer and indifferent staff. Cuba has long had unique rules of engagement. But personal relations and humor helped grease the wheels of cooperation. So, Rob and I, who are both fluent Spanish speakers, chatted up various agents, baggage handlers and a bus driver for intel. We snagged two handwritten tickets, finessed our bikes into the bus’s hold and hopped on.
Alighting from the bus in Viñales we were swarmed by business-card-thrusting owners of casas particulares eager to host us. We took one of their offers and headed to Villa El Croto in a quiet spot outside the bustling center, where our affable host Tita rented us her two rooms for $19 a day, including full breakfasts. The rooms, typical of a Cuban B&B, were basic (mine lacked a toilet seat) but bright and clean, with air conditioning.
The next day, Tita contacted a friend to guide us on a walking tour in Viñales National Park. Cuba bans motorized farm equipment in the park’s Unesco-protected valley, where farmers guide oxen-pulled tillers through rust-red soil. The guide, 30-year-old Maikel Valdez, comes from generations of tobacco farmers but now works in tourism. He led us along a tree-shaded path past fields and fruit trees to a tobacco-processing facility, where we sampled cigars with the tips dipped in honey, as is local custom. Mr. Valdez praised Cuba’s universal health care and education, but frankly discussed the contradictions of farm life. His family owns their land, but must give the government 90% of their crops’ yield. They also own cattle and horses, but can’t slaughter them for food. “This is the only country where you can’t eat the animals you own,” Mr. Valdez said. “If you kill an ox you can go to jail for more years than if you kill a human.”
My journey from New York to Viñales, via Havana, was surprisingly easy. In the ’90s, as an American, I could only travel on a journalist visa through third-world countries with the help of foreign travel agents. This time, I booked my Delta ticket online, paying $480 for the four-hour trip. On the Delta site, I ticked the “people to people” education category and paid $50 for a visa. No questions asked. The week we were in Cuba, the U.S. rules changed (see “The Cuba Quandary Dissected”) but independent travelers are still permitted.
A few years ago, President
began to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba, culminating in the renewal of diplomatic ties in 2015 after a 54-year schism. President
new rules and rhetoric against the Cuban government sparked angst in Cuba, where erratic internet and media censorship often give way to conspiracy theories and misperceptions. Many locals worry about the loss of dollar-toting Americans, hundreds of thousands of which have visited Cuba in the past two years. “People were starting to get more money and make more political demands,” said the owner of a casa particular in Havana. “Now we’re going back to the Dark Ages.”
Three days into our weeklong Cuba cycling trip, having barely mounted our bikes, we set off on a 40-mile ride northwest to the beach at Cayo Jutías. Several people warned us about the poor conditions of the road. But nothing prepared us for the giant potholes that forced us to perform a new sport: bike slalom. Yet the rural route’s scenery was sublime, with jagged mountains covered by fat-bellied palm trees and turkey vultures soaring gracefully above. We passed two farmers on a horse-drawn carriage enthusiastically belting out a song about “life as a vaquero,” and oxen dragging a lumber-filled sled.
Arriving hot and tired in the town of Santa Lucia, we rejoiced at the discovery of a shack where a man was pressing sugar cane stalks into juice called guarapo, with an old iron contraption, and serving it with crushed ice. Some time later we rolled up to the white sands of Cayo Jutías, stripped off our sweaty gear and plunged into the warm, clear waters. On a fall weekday, the beach hosted only a handful of people—mainly Europeans. We sat at a seafront food shack and enjoyed cold beers and fresh snapper as a live salsa band serenaded us.
The next day we set off from Viñales southwest by bike with two destinations in mind, the Caves of St. Thomas and the Mural of Prehistory. The color-saturated mural—painted in 1959 on a massive rock face by Leovigildo González Morillo, a Cuban disciple of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera—depicts natural history up until the age of humans. We found it garish, and viewed it briefly from a distance without paying the $2 entrance fee before moving on. Further outside Viñales, about 11 miles from the town, we arrived at the Caves of St. Thomas, the largest cave system in Cuba. We joined a group of Germans and Norwegians for a guided tour, donning helmets with headlamps, then walking up a steep forested path to the cave opening. Inside we saw unusually shaped stalagmites and stalactites, bats, blind crickets and underground pools. Deep in the cave, the guide instructed us to shut off our headlights for a few seconds of delicious darkness.
Biking back to Viñales, we stopped and chatted with a man roasting two pigs on a wood fire alongside the road. He invited us for lunch at his family-run paladar, Finca Emilio, and we spent the next couple of hours chatting, drinking Bucanero beer and eating a farm-to-table feast of beans, yucca, rice and a wild pig that was reared on the area’s nuts and herbs. Rosa García Martínez served us the food and a tea made from local herbs. We sat on a wooden deck looking over the spectacular Viñales Valley where Ms. Martinez’s husband toiled in the fields just below our perch. It began to rain and a rainbow arrayed across the valley. “We are simple people, not educated,” she said. “We do what we can to survive.”
Her words lingered the next day as Rob and I crammed, along with several others and our bikes, into a ’50s-era Cadillac hearse converted into a taxi for our journey back to Havana.
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