Road cycling in Cuba: my first time

I recently spent a week with my family in Cuba during the March Break. And since I don’t beach, my dearest partner let me piss off and ride a bike — my unusual hobby as my daughter calls it — on a couple of the days. I thought I would post about it in case anyone else there is contemplating a more active vacation. I’m not an expert but I figure I can pass on what I’ve noticed from my one trip. It might help. And more people should go to Cuba. And ride there.

Rent or bring?

It is possible to rent a road bike in Cuba. I found Bicycle Breeze, a cycle tour operator headquartered in Havana who’ve been operating tours and renting bikes for more than 20 years. They provided me with a well-suited-to-the-purpose road bike at quite a good rate.

The bike they rented me was modest by my (admittedly extreme) standards but the perfect horse for the course. It had an aluminum frame, a Shimano 11 speed mechanical drive train and 32mm Continental top touring tires. Most importantly it was totally solid. Brand new tires. Well-tuned drive train. Cable-actuated disc brakes that made me question my ‘give me hydro or give me death’ ideology. They gave me a choice of saddles, put on my pedals and adjusted the saddle height.

As with many things, it was a very personalized, cash-in-hand business. I was dealing with the tour company owners by email but the actual rental transaction went like this: go here, ask for this person, bring cash, preferably USD. But everything works like that in Cuba, unless you’ve purchased a tour package or are doing some sort of all-inclusive thing at a resort. It worked. No hiccups, no delays. Everyone was very kind and obliging. Communication was great.

Most of the people I know who’ve done road riding in Cuba have brought their own bikes. If you’ve done the calculus on that and have decided that’s your best bet, I would suggest bringing something on the gravel end of ruggedness. Read on to find out why.

Roads and rides:

Riding in Havana is pretty easy and safe. It’s mostly flat and people driving cars are a lot more conscious and considerate of cyclists than what I usually experience in Canada. I think this is probably because there are more slow moving vehicles in general on most roads – scooters, pedicabs, haulers and an endless parade of taxis stopping to pick up and drop off people as they patrol the major arteries.

There are, however, two downsides to riding in Havana. First it seems there is not a single catalytic converter on the island. There are a lot of two-stroke engines (remember your grandpa’s old lawn mower?) powering scooters, pedicabs, three-wheelers and the like. There’s also diesel trucks, buses, and other vehicles. And they spew out fumes that will make you fear for your lungs.

The decrepit state of Cuba’s rolling stock does, however, have a benefit for riders inasmuch as none of it’s moving particularly fast. And if you don’t mind the risk of asphyxiation, moto-drafting is often an option.

They also move very carefully. Cars swerve to avoid potholes, give lots of space on overtaking and slow at corners. It’s not about you though. It’s about avoiding damage and wear and tear on the vehicle in a country where spare parts are hard to find and a lot of cars have been on the road for more than 60 years.

And Havana’s road surfaces are a real mix. The main avenues (5ta, Paseo, Linea, Via Blanca etc) are fine. Traffic moves a little faster, but they religiously observe the slower-traffic-on-the-right custom and the slow traffic is still really slow. However many of the side streets are in dire shape. Street cuts are rarely filled in, making light bunny hops a once-a-block necessity. Some use interlocking brick which, while it has not reached Flandrien levels, still makes for a bumpy ride.

Havana’s roads (geography notwithstanding) are a grid. And they mostly conform to a naming system that makes it really hard to get lost.

Road signs are pyramid-shaped concrete blocks with stencil-painted street names at corners, so you won’t be able to pick them out on the fly. And not-infrequently, they’re missing.

There aren’t a lot of stop signs. There are mostly yield signs which do get observed. Almost everywhere is an Idaho stop. But where there are stop signals (lights or signs), they are “hard stop” situations.

When I was here there were strange heaps of garbage everywhere which brought to mind the bulb out traffic calming measures we have back home. But smelling like death and rotting food. I hope, when gas prices have come down and garbage crews can get back to their usual schedule, this won’t be so much of an issue.

I hasten to add that I was there when the country was in full-on crisis mode over gas and fuel prices that have been overlaid on a tourism-funded economy that has not yet recovered from COVID. Your average salary is the equivalent of $200 per month and gas is $6.00 per litre. So pretty serious stuff.

Navigating in a pariah state

The severity of the US embargo against Cuba has waxed and waned over the years, as has the Cuban government’s suspicion of foreigners. This frosty state of affairs (the only thing cold about Cuba) had an impact on my cycling, even though I’m Canadian and Canada, like most of the world, has no embargo-worthy issues with Cuba. According to the Cuban government website, it is illegal to bring GPS equipment into Cuba. You’re supposed to surrender it at the airport and (for a fee) they’ll hold onto it for you until you leave. I think you can safely ignore this prohibition. I did. Because if they were enforcing it, no flights to Varadero would ever leave the ground as each passenger would engage in a civil disobedience action-style argument over having to surrender their phone, their watch, their activity tracker etc etc.

Google Street View has no coverage of Cuba. I expect due to the embargo. But also possibly to Cuban government fears around providing intelligence to some 21st century Bay of Pigs scenario. I can’t tell. This had a major impact on my route planning. I use it to choose roads. So I was flying blind a bit. I got some intel out of this book, Bicycling in Cuba, but it’s 20 years old and it’s a book. It’s best for general knowledge about Cuba and geared to people doing long, linear tours. It was really good to read that ‘highways’ in Cuba are eminently rideable, just kinda boring. On the other hand, their maps were tiny, stylized and short on detail. Their turn-by-turn directions were all very chatty and subjective. If I’m to turn them into a .GPX or a .FIT file I need a real map and birds-eye view directions: “turn right where the road widens” does nothing for me.

In the end, I used the book’s general wisdom and the Strava Global heat map and RidewithGPS’s route collection to ratify or reject my road choices.

Ray Maker, aka DC Rainmaker, also offered up advice that was extremely helpful to me. I drew my routes and copied them to my head unit. But when I loaded them, the preview made it look like I was riding over a vast expanse of nothing. Garmin’s North American Cycle Map (as provided on the Edge 1040 that I have) has no data on Cuba. This is truly bizarre insofar as Garmin Maps are hopped up OpenStreetMap data. And OpenStreetMap does very much cover Cuba. This is a regrettable state of affairs, one which I hope Garmin will correct. But until then, Ray Maker wrote this guide on how to use BBBike Extract to make yourself a tidy OpenStreetMap of Cuba or wherever it is you want to go that isn’t already on your Garmin. With that, I had turn-by-turn directions overlaid on an actual map, just like home.

Riding the countryside

I did two rides on this trip that got me out of town — a total of about 180km. It’s my first visit to Cuba and the only time I’ve ridden somewhere close to the equator. If that’s not you, much of what I write will be old news. But for the uninitiated, I make (I feel) some read-worthy points.

Las Terrazas Loop

Las Terrazas is a UN-designated Biosphere Reserve. It’s beautiful and there’s a convenient, paved (in the Cuban sense) 85km loop that starts in the park centre. With more than 1000m elevation gain, it’s hilly, but only five Garmin Climb Pro-approved climbs, the longest of which is 2.5km with an average gradient of 3.4%. On the whole, the steepest gradient is about nine per cent.

The route takes you through forest and farm fields. I learned very quickly that micro-wayfinding is really important. As in you may not be able to gawp at the scenery as much as you’d like while rolling. Potholes appear without a lot of warning. And by potholes I mean serious ones, the likes of which we have not seen here in Canada. So no staring at your head unit either. Especially on the downhills. I learned this lesson in the first 10km of this ride when I rode through a hole at least 15cm deep and about a bike wheel wide. I credit the bike and its new tires with the save.

You’ll see lots of horse-drawn trailers, motor scooters, people waiting for buses and almost no cars. At one point I had to slalom my way through a herd of cows. There are a couple of places where you can stop for food and liquid. I say this to fellow first-time travellers to Cuba: do not blink as you pass through the towns with the stores. You will miss them. There are no neon signs, no posts, no flags. Just a private residence with their wares on a plank beside or behind their front door.

Another thing for first-time travellers to Cuba: the heat and the sun are serious. I started riding at 10:30am on a day where the forecast high was 33C. Two and a half hours and 1.5l of electrolyte powdered water later, I was exhibiting symptoms of mild sunstroke. I made it back to the start and managed to cool down before my symptoms got any worse, but the last hour or so was very slow. Conveniently, the road surface itself didn’t exactly lend itself to energetic tempo efforts, so I spent a lot more time than normal in Zone 1. Which is just what the doctor ordered.

And over the course of almost four hours on the bike, I went from sallow, pasty white to mid-summer bronze bike dork despite being slathered in 60 SPF sunscreen. And this was a day with intermittent clouds. So I expect any less protection and I would have really been suffering.

The route is great. You’re treated to ridge top views, some overlooking Bahia de Cabañas, much roadside ungulate grazing and a number of small farming communities — mostly modest, shoebox-shaped concrete homes on small plots of land. I hope the pictures give you a better sense.

This one’s a keeper. You just have to get to the starting point. I had mapped it out from Havana but it would have been a double metric century. Too much time for a family holiday ride and, given how unacclimatized I was, it was a right move to skip it. Instead we booked a taxi out to the town of Las Terrazas. It was about a 90 minute drive. My beloveds explored on foot and I rode.

Mariel – Vedado Loop

I took a day off the bike after Las Terrazas. I felt a little foolish paying to rent an idle bike after a mere 84km ride, but the heat did a bit of a number on me and I didn’t want any drama to taint the vaycay. I had a 150km loop in mind for another ride, but the forecast was for more of the same and I figured even if I started earlier I would still be riding at least two hours at the height of the sun. So I did this one instead. My remote control tour guide said this would be more scenic anyway.

First I had to get out of town. Havana is a city of two million people, so that was a significant amount of time. But very informative. My route took me along side streets that paralleled Avenida 5ta, the main urban east-west road, though I spent time on 5ta itself. Again this was not a problem. I expect there are fewer vehicles out on the road due to fuel shortages, and car drivers take the left lane and leave the right to cyclists, scooters, three-wheelers, and (when they start to appear) horse carts. It can be a bit funny negotiating who should overtake who, and the scooters have some of the foulest smelling exhaust, but that’s as bad as it gets.

Just before you start seeing horse carts again you pass through Miramar, which is an extraordinarily affluent looking neighbourhood. A lot of diplomatic residences and embassies to be sure, but not all of them. They would not be out of place in a wealthy Canadian neighbourhood. I felt suddenly like I was in Point Grey in Vancouver, minus the rain. And with more security guards. I have no idea who besides diplomats calls that neighbourhood home but they live quite differently than most people in Havana.

The rest of the westbound leg of the ride is on rural roads surrounded, it seems, by larger enclosures. The roads are fairly flat and exposed. I got rolling at dawn and bought myself a couple of hours riding at a mere 24C, which was a really good thing. Road surfaces were a real mix on this leg. All notionally paved. But some were severely rutted and had potholes that could have hidden a platoon of barbudos.

Eventually the route brought me to Mariel, an industrial municipality. It had huge transshipment facilities, what looked like a disused cement factory — complete with a foundation-to-roof mural of the Cuban flag and ‘Patria o muerte’ — and some other non-descript factory-like buildings. Not at all quaint or touristy. But I felt it gave me actual insight into the country that I wouldn’t get on a rooftop patio in Old Havana or strolling the Malecon. It would have been good to ride this with someone who actually knew the country. I had so many questions.

Through Mariel and then back into Havana on the Carterra Transamericana. So in Canada one does not or legally cannot ride four lane divided highways. Which is what the Carterra is. Maybe it’s busier when the country isn’t in a fuel price-driven crisis, but it was fine. Very few cars that all kept to the left lane (as per custom) except to avoid potholes. The road surface was in relatively good shape. Most of the traffic consisted of taxis picking up people and moving them along the road, closer to their destinations.

The road was pretty flat and the scenery relatively boring. And things were starting to heat up. And I had a head wind. So I was mostly focussed on “just gettin’ ‘er done” by this point. Once you cross the Rio Santa Ana (just at the Latin American School of Medicine) things start to look pretty suburban. Suburban Havana anyway. No brands. No billboards. No strip malls. No massive parking lots. More scooters. Fewer horses.

Back into town was pretty straight forward. A large traffic roundabout that prohibited cyclists but had an easy ride-around for them and a road closure were the only obstacles.

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