I’ve been off the grid the past three weeks, biking in Cuba. I plan to write a full set of reports on the trip on the blog, but will serve up the outline for the experience first.
Intro: Cheryl and I are now retired for three years, and have been doing one major trip each spring, having “fun with our fitness”. Last year, a two week trek in the Mustang region of Nepal. This year: cycling across Cuba under the aegis of a Canadian company, Canbicuba, which has had a presence on the island for over a decade.
The trip: 17 days, 12 days of cycling bookended by 2 days on each end in Havana. Starting in Baracoa, ending in Maria La Gorda, going east to west with the prevailing northeasterly trade winds which are prevalent at this latitude. 80-100 km most days, one rest day in the middle, ending with 140 km the last day.
The group: 13 US cyclists, all in their 60s and early 70s. Two types: about 6 racers/former racers … meaning guys like me, although they were pure cyclists, I was the only triathlete. We made up a good group for long, windy, flat stretches. A tandem. About 5 women Cheryl’s age or older; very strong cyclists, intrepid each and every one. Cubans: bus driver Juan, on the road bike leader and mechanic Yoanis, and trip leader Alejandro. A serious group when it came to the road, but fun loving off it.
Cuba and tourism: Cuba has been hosting tourists since the 1800s, even during its current socialist incarnation. It’s just the US which has been isolated, not the entire world. There is a Cancun-like area of modern hotels at Veradero, and many other beach resorts. Since 2011, private BnB type “Casa Particulaires” have been allowed, a mushrooming segment. In the larger cities, there are industrial strength Soviet era and style hotels for foreigners. Since last November, there have been 1000’s of US airline direct flight seats going in and out of Cuba each week, so we are no longer oddities there, although, Europeans and Latin Americans make up the vast majority of tourists. US citizens still need to fit into one of a dozen approved categories of travel, but as long as you don’t spend all your time lounging at the beach, fitting into the “Education – People to People” category is a snap.
The Economy: Totally artificial. There is a currency for foreigners and to deal with the outside world: CUC, pegged at (oddly) 1 CUC: 1 US $. For Cubans, it’s CUP, pegged at 1 CUC = 25 CUP. The entire internal system of prices and costs is totally planned and managed by the government (duh, socialism), so it is disconnected from any real connection to the value of the work or materials involved. Prices for foreigners in the government controlled segments (hotels, museums, rum, cigars, etc) are in most cases similar to what you’d pay in the US. In the Casas and privately owned restaurants, it can be a bit cheaper.
The roads: Yes, Cuba is the last bastion of those 50’s big-finned US cars. No pollution control so much exhaust and diesel everywhere. BUT: very few vehicles at all – a dream compared to the US, and especially to other developing countries when it comes to traffic. Most Cuban roads are VERY lightly traveled. A sprinkling of private autos, a few transport trucks, some “truck/buses” (think: cattle cars), and many horse-drawn carriages and beat up bicycles share the road. With all the different speeds, Cuban drivers are safe, cautious and polite – everyone stops for railroad crossings, motor vehicles give the human and animal powered ones a wide berth, making the cycling very safe.
The climate: Exactly like Hawaii. Same latitude, same trade winds, same wet/dry side, same winds, same humidity, same temps. If I closed my eyes, I was on Maui or the Big Island
The people: EVERYONE is educated. 100% literacy. And no one worries about health care. It’s free, and there are clinics and hospitals everywhere. Everyone is fed, and there is basically no homelessness. So the people have a minimum level of security, and are free to have a bit of fun with life. There is a lot of music, a lot conversation, and lot of smiling. Never felt threatened, or even stared at. On the down side, of course, are the invariable shortages and lines for the basics of life (outside of food and shelter). EG, this month, no one had pens, and those of us who knew this and brought a bunch were treated with broad smiles and “Gracias”.
Stories: I have dozens, but here’s one: on my last day there (Sunday), I was running along the Malecon, an 8km stretch of road at the seaside in Havana, with a broad sidewalk at the water’s edge. Early Morning just before sunrise. Almost no traffic, some young people still congregated at the seawall after the previous night’s weekly fest of music, dancing and food, along with about a dozen tourist runners like me (and 4 Cubans running as a group in a traffic lane). As I get to my half way point, a young man runs up along me, shouting, “Hey, Ultra-marathon”, and waving a numbered racing bib. I can understand and speak a little Spanish (with apparently a very good Tijuana accent, from my years working at LA County hospital, where 95% of my patients spoke only Spanish), so we were able to communicate somewhat. He claims he is in town from Santiago (a day’s drive away) for a half marathon, which he plans to run in 1:10. He looks in his mid 20s, very lean, about 5’6″, with small calves, big veins and an easy stride, and a small back-pack. Easily keeping up with me so a real runner. He learns I’m a triathlete, so starts asking for things like shoes, shirt, shorts, even a bicycle wheel. While part of this might be a scam, part of it is real: Cubans can’t import anything privately, so real athletic gear is in short supply. EG we brought a bunch of bike parts and kit for a local junior racing team. He also asks for $ for his wife and him to buy some milk. He asks for the equivalent of one US penny! Anyway, when I finish at my casa, I get him to write his name and address so I can send him one of the wheels I have in my garage which I haven’t used in a decade. I gave him my running shoes (he’s been going 5 K with me with the toes blown out of his), and a “Team USA” USAT shirt. And the pen and 25¢. He knows about the Havana triathlon which USAT has gone to the past two years, and I allow as how, after my three weeks on the Island, I may just come back for that race next February.