Canada to Cuba on Two Wheels

Story by Larry Simpson// Photos by Larry Simpson
March 15 2017

While it isn’t impossible to take your bike to Cuba, it certainly isn’t easy. But this intrepid traveller has found a way

My Cuba journey is already six weeks old by the time I have ridden from Nova Scotia through the United States to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It’s pretty much a blur now, yet there are some indelible memories of the U.S. southwest and the west coast of Mexico, some of the latter being mixed with the dark side of things, including endless speed bumps and drug cartel shoot-outs along my route. As always, we filter out the bad and keep the good – the serendipitous encounters and experiences that dot the journey.

Travel to cubaNear Cancun, my bike and I board the sailboat Stahlratte, my mission being to experience Cuba by motorcycle before it is overwhelmed by a projected four million American tourists per year as the U.S. trade embargo unwinds.

From the port city of Cienfuegos, my exasperation with two days of bureaucratic inefficiency soon fades and, legitimized with a Cuban licence plate, I point my front wheel toward Santiago at the southeast end of Cuba, the second city after Havana and my favourite. I have good friends there, having been to Cuba many times and travelled by rented car and bicycle, bus, train and even by thumb. But now I’m here on my own motorcycle! The Pope is gone, President Obama is visiting and the Rolling Stones are arriving next week. I feel connected to history in the making.

For Richer or Poorer

Cuba Motorcycle travel My first waypoint is Trinidad, famed for its UNESCO-recognized heritage and its cobbled streets with horse-drawn carriages. The twisty road through the mountains is as therapeutic as the brief stop. Heading south beyond Sancti Spiritus, I literally come to the end of the road and have to hit my brakes at those coordinates where the Russian subsidies dried up. I take secondary roads through small towns and cities that do not have bypasses and continue to Bayamo to spend the night in a casa particular (like our B&Bs), where prices are up 30 per cent over the last two years. I see that the trend of owners of casas particulares and paladares (private restaurants), not to mention taxi drivers and hookers, making much more money than state-paid doctors and teachers has only accelerated. Those paid by the state in the old Cuban pesos struggle, while those with access to CUCs – the convertible pesos pegged by the U.S. dollar and used by tourists and upper-class Cubans (yes, access to CUC defines class now) who work in tourism (hence tips) and those who receive remittances from family in the U.S., mostly Miami (Little Havana) – rush into the consumer frenzy for cellphones, electric scooters and Miami fashions in government-owned “dollar stores.”

I am thrilled as Santiago’s rugged urban charm fills up my visor and hammers me with nostalgia. This has to be one of the best places in the world, rivalling even Cape Town, to sweep out of the mountains and arrive at on two wheels. Santiago is the most Caribbean city in Cuba, known as the origin of Son music, and heralded as a heroic city by Fidel Castro.

Luxurious Food and Beer

traffic on the roads of cubaMy good friends Andres, an electrical engineer, and his wife, Asela, an actress, are both state employees. When I take them out and buy them dinner and beer at 1 CUC a bottle for the potent Bucanero beer, this is a treat they cannot afford on their combined monthly state salary, equal to 40 CUC a month. Out on the town, I see cellphones and laptops everywhere in new Wi-Fi hotspots in reinvented public squares. People are dressing fashionably and are eating better, too, not as thin as they were 20 years ago when circumstances had them eating less and walking more.

After a couple of days of reminiscing with friends and pondering the changes sweeping Cuba, it’s time to move on. While relaxed “Cuba time” predominates, the clock on the Stahlratte is nevertheless ticking away on my three-week stay. Andres wants to join me for the first leg of my trip, westward to Pilon on the enchanting coast road sandwiched between the Sierra Maestra Mountains and the blue Caribbean. This road is my favourite in all of Cuba, but this time I will take a long-anticipated turn northeast into the mountains on an elusive dirt road that is impassable for a good part of the year. This route is a challenge for a solo rider on a bike with off-road capability, more so with a passenger.

The road gets wilder as we head west, and at some points seems to be fighting a losing battle with the sea. Just before our turn into the mountains at Marea del Portillo, we stop to visit my old friend Joel and his family. Six years ago, I was hitchhiking with a broken bicycle when a hospital bus carrying sick along with heavily pregnant passengers dropped me at the roadside house of Joel, a renowned bicycle mechanic. Joel went to work on my bike while the family recharged me with rice and beans and jugs of cool mountain water. A lasting friendship bloomed with three generations of family. We start into the mountains the next morning. Soon we are over a winding and climbing path that competes with the scenery for our attention. Andres gets to stretch his legs on trickier sections. Up and up and up we go. It is easy to see how Castro held out up here against Fulgencio Batista’s soldiers for so long. Perhaps 30 km east of us is Pico Turquino, the highest peak in Cuba, at almost 2,000 metres. Exotica on Two Wheels We pass through a few small mountain settlements, including Habanita and Las Mercedes. One of them has a café with, blessed be, cold beer. The mountain folks, though surprised to see us, are friendly enough, albeit with a dash of reserve. The horse- and mule-riding compañeros I see through the café shutters are keenly interested in my BMW F 700 GS motorcycle. Cubans are familiar with the older Ural motorcycles and East Bloc MZ and Jawa motorbikes, but my exotic high-tech mount is something else. My wife said my older BMW GS back home looks like a German soldier, while this new incarnation of dual-purpose bike looks like a scrappy Italian lady of the night, with its in-your-face red-and-black paint job (lipstick and hose?) shielded from abuse by a skid plate, and engine and hand guards, and heeled with aggressive enduro tread. All in all, a volatile package that Cuban men appear to swoon over, particularly when iced with that honey note that comes after touching the starter button.

Beautiful Ladies of Cuba

After fording a lot of streams and dodging numerous pigs and chickens, we approach Bartolomé Masó, where the road improves and we almost reluctantly pick up the pace. We are soon in Manzanillo and hang a left for Niquero on the southwest coast, where we will spend the night. Strangely, there are a lot of blondes here, and fewer of the typical mixing of blood you see everywhere in Cuba. Cuba is known among other things for its exotic ladies. The country is likened to a pressure cooker kicking out steaming-hot beauties of all hues in assembly line fashion, drawing from a simmering gene pool of African, Spanish, native Indian, Russian and even Chinese contributions. A national melting pot pulsing with Cuban drum beats. Castro blessed the mixed gene pool by declaring that all Cubans are mulattos, in an effort to downplay racial differences. The next day, we complete the loop and are back in Santiago. In the evening, we explore the city and stroll down to the new waterfront, a microcosm of the kind of accelerated change taking place all over Cuba to prepare for the tourism influx. Back in the city centre at Parque Céspedes, I decide to top up my cash reserves at the bank. My pockets replenished with CUCs, it’s time to say my goodbyes to Andres and his family and resume my counter-clockwise loop around the island. Solo Rider Baracoa, the first stop of Columbus’ in North America, will be my next overnight stop. After Guantanamo, the road slows down and clings to the coast for a stretch before swinging inland toward the mountains. It’s a long, twisty climb over the mountains; very scenic, but it’s best to keep those eyes on the road. I’m forced to a stop when I come to yesterday’s landslide with heavy equipment digging out a new path.

I find a lot of tourists in Baracoa, it obviously being on every tourists “to visit” list. The next day, I am headed west toward Moa on a road that looks as if it’s been carpet-bombed. My bike weaves with wild abandon and I am thankful for only periodic traffic. Soon I come to a Canadian silver mine operation. The road nearer the industrial zone is much better, and there are schools with neatly dressed students, an upscale gas station and many indications of a prospering town. On asphalt now, I swing westerly toward Camagüey, for now passing on the smaller rural roads hugging the eastern coast so I can rack up some kilometres before nightfall. A young Cuban cyclist leads me to a casa particular. At the door I always ask first about the price, and this time I balk at $35 CUC, about C$45. We settle on $30 CUC. The casa has a nifty little ramp that the lady puts in place over the three concrete steps, and I am able to zoom right into the living room. She thinks my bike is mucha sexy and offers to trade me her 2,000 CUC electric scooter for it. There are scads of these battery bikes now, what with the middle-class economy picking up, their new availability in government-owned dollar stores and relaxed licensing regulations. Forget trying to rent or buy a real motorcycle in Cuba, though.

Discovering New Ground

The next day, my chosen path is nearer the coast again. I haven’t been in this part of Cuba before and I find the rural countryside is pleasant and relaxing. The country road, often paralleling a railway track, winds through green farmland and small villages. As I get closer to Varadero, I decide to skip it. The beaches are nice, but the place is much too touristy for me. I cut through Matanzas and head west to Havana on a busier highway now thick with tour buses. The heat of the day has left me parched. I stop at a new full-service tour-bus stop for recharging and chat with Pedro, the owner of a 1957 Chevy.

He and his colleagues in the classic car brigade are doing good business with elderly tourist gents who five decades earlier drove the same model, which sometimes accommodated their “first experience,” if you know what I mean. Thankfully, there is that pervasive language barrier at such times. The following morning I head into Havana. Riding my own motorcycle on the Malecón, the famed oceanside strip, then up the Prado is something I have long wanted to do. It’s times like this that I really appreciate being on a bike and being able to pull over just about anywhere and whip the camera out should a scene catch my fancy. It’s cloudy with a stiff offshore breeze and the waves are sweeping in from Miami-way, pounding against the Malecón. After just a couple of hours in this amazing city, I decide to move on, knowing my intended westerly loop through the Viñales tobacco country will return me to Havana, before I head south again toward Cienfuegos.

Just as I approach Viñales on a twisty rural road through the countryside that’s as relaxing as a good cigar and a glass of rum, rain starts to come down in buckets. I have been rain-free all the way down from Nova Scotia through the U.S. and Mexico and thus far in Cuba. I find some shelter from the cascades with some Cubans under a porch. A young couple points out a whole cluster of casas. Many are full, but the various households work seamlessly as a network and steer me one after another until I score accommodations. There are hundreds of casas particulares now in Viñales, testifying to their popularity with tourists and a more permissive government troubled by a shortfall of hotel beds to cope with the impending influx. I’m back in Havana and Obama is indeed here. I have lunch with an old friend at an outside table of the Hotel Inglaterra on the Prado.

Crowds are gathering with hopes of seeing the president, but I have my doubts, as security is light there. Horse Trails The next morning, I head south on the national highway and soon I am making a right turn to visit the Bay of Pigs area. This is where the CIA-trained invading force of Cuban exiles got its butt kicked by a waiting (tipped-off) Cuban military. And the huge signboards around don’t let anyone forget it, either. I contemplate stopping at tourism hot spot Playa Girón for the night, but instead I just grab a meal and keep going on a dirt road that winds along the coast more or less toward Cienfuegos. I run into the annual mating swarm of land crabs that has taken over the road. I miss thousands of them with their raised pincers, but my kill-count climbs with luckily no punctures. I keep going until I come to a nice crab-free camping spot on the coast.

I pitch my tent, have a snack and drink a bottle of cheap Cuban wine as the sun slides into a glassy sea. On my way once again, the little dirt road is getting progressively pot-holed and narrow as the bush encroaches, and I can only see horse tracks now. My map suggests I should be able to continue along this coast and conceivably put myself and the bike on a small boat over Cienfuegos Bay to the city. But somehow I lose the track and go inland and begin to worry about things like gas and punctures and time. I happen upon some backwoods compañeros, who cluster around my map and show me the way out while denouncing my intended route as muy loco. I am soon returned to a paved country roadway, and I ride through pleasant and obviously productive farmland and rural communities. I wave at people working in the fields and they are quick to wave back. I pass a biker on a ’50s Harley and we exchange a thumbs-up.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

All too soon I have completed my loop around Cuba and I am back at my starting point in Cienfuegos. It will be two and a half days of sailing back to Mexico. In Mérida I’ll swap my K60 Cuba tires for my homeward-bound Anakee 3s, and then head out for 10 days of hard riding to get back home to Nova Scotia. Lots of time to think about the changes underway in Cuba – the good and the bad and the ugly. Yes, in a couple of years I might take my bike on a high-speed Miami ferry to Cuba with swarms of other tourists and bikers, and it will be logistically easier and much less expensive. But I know which journey will be the benchmark for the others, and an amazing one I will never forget.

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