Week 2 & 3 - Cuba by Harley! You will need a cafe con leche to read this article.                                                            

23rd February to 8th March

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Cuba we have decided stands for queuing  a land where patience is paramount and where access to internet and hot water are not to be taken for granted. If you can take that onboard, keep a smile on your face and venture beyond the tour bus routes then you are definitely in for an interesting and good time. 

A little recent history to start....

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Fidel Castro took over the reigns of Cuba in a time known as The Revolutionary Period around 1956 to 1961. This period saw Fidel Castro oust the then corrupt dictator Fulgenico Batista who had aligned himself with the American mafia. As we travelled throughout Cuba signs are everywhere declaring the importance of The Revolution, "Hasta Victoria Siempre” “ Vive Revoluti” and images of Che Guevara the charismatic (argentinian) doctor come guerrilla fighter who stood beside Fidel during the revolution appear everywhere. The revolutionary period saw everything return to the people through government control and everyone we spoke to spoke with great pride of this time in Cuban history. 

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In 1961 the USA declared a full trade embargo on Cuba. At the same time education became a priority and teaching soldiers were literally sent out to educate young and old throughout Cuba. Today this is reflected in Cubas high literacy rates and investment in culture including ballet and theatre. 

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In 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union the main customer of Cuban export (primarily sugar) Cuba entered what was declared the Special Period - a time of massive poverty and restraint and still fresh in the memories of all but the very young.

Skip forward to 2006 when Fidel was taken ill and his brother Raul took over the reigns of Cuba. Since that day Raul has slowly opened Cuba to tourism, allowed Cubans to begin to travel abroad, and slowly allowed private enterprise to develop. 

Cuba is undergoing a change, it will be interesting to see how it continues over the next few years. 

Our Classic Cuba Tour....

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Hiring a motorbike in Cuba is pretty much unheard of so we decided to join the Motorcycle tour organised by an Austrian company Eidelweiss. Eidelweiss ships in bikes for a period of 6 months, runs tours across Cuba before they need to be shipped out to avoid tax. Basically they take the pain out of the organisation and as an added bonus you have two tour guides, in our case Jens Ruprecht from Germany and Carlos Miguel Hernandez a local Cuban both of whom were passionate about riding and Cuba. 

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The choice of bike was a Harley Davidson or a Harley Davidson so a Road King complete with bling it was. For Lee a great armchair from which to take photos, for Andrew something like a tractor powered armchair (but still a lot of fun).

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Our group consisted of five Germans, unbelievably four Australians and one American. Together we were to have many a laugh, confused conversation and the odd mojito in a bar as we traversed Cuba on our motorbikes.

So over nine days we rode from Havana, first east to Vinales, then south west to Playa Larga, onto Trinidad before crossing the Topes de Collantes with its gravel roads to the eastern coast and towns of Remidos, Santa Maria and Santa Clare before making a final run back into Havana. A distance of just 1600km we had plenty of time to stop in small towns, visit tobacco plantations, participate in birthday celebration feasts, explore old town Plazas and enjoy restaurants that without our guides we doubt we would have ever discovered.

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Riding a Harley through Cuba is not disimilar to turning up in remote islands of Indonesia. Everyone gets excited from the very young to the very old and many a photo was taken with locals sitting on the bikes. Not a town did we pass without someone giving the hand signal to rev the engines so of course someone always obliged. 

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Cuba is definitely changing - our guides commented on how in many of the towns it was the first time in years that they had seen the buildings painted and Plazas were literally being resurrected from ruins. The other huge change in Cuba is the food. We were expecting to eat a lot of black beans and rice, and pizza the international dish of all countries, but to our surprise tucked up in street corners away from the main Plazas, or on terraces were some amazing restaurants serving equally amazing food.

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We have not ceased to be impressed by the beautiful examples of architecture that have been maintained in this country where time has stood still. Though many of the buildings are now undergoing repair in a country that is still economically challenged there are equally as many where the electrical works and crumbling interior defy understanding that the buildings are inhabited, particularly in Havana. 

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Then there are the cars. Pontiacs, Chevys Fords, Lardas the list goes on. Some with rust so bad the paint is barely holding them together. Others so beautifully maintained they should be in a motor museum. Throw into the mix of old cars, horse and carriages, ox carts, bicycles, horsemen, roaming goats, pigs, dogs, cattle and the pot holes you have the road chaos that is Cuba. Somehow it just seems to work, most of the time. 

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Finally there is the music. Everywhere we went music was literally in the air. Everyone seems to be able to salsa. Even young children barely able to stand seem to be attempting to groove to any beat or tune. In everytown there is a Casa La Musica the centre for music to be enjoyed by all late into the evening assisted by only Havana Rum. 

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Whilst on the bike tour we managed to get a dive in at Playa Ancon on the eastern coastline. Diving is well established in Cuba thanks to Fidel Castro who was apparently an enthusiastic diver. Though most of the diving is on the east coast we are spending our last week in Varadero a  tourist area of Cuba near Havana. Our hotel has a dive centre and the original plan was to use them to dive throughout the island - alas in the last two months this availability has been removed - they forgot to mention it on their website so we are now in negotiation to get to the east coast for our last few days to achieve our goal of more diving.

This is Cuba plans have to be flexible.

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Lessons Learnt...

We hope to return to Cuba to ride the Southern areas including Santiago in the future. This trip has given us a insight into Cuba and we have learnt a lot. If you have contacts you can organise anything. Learning Spanish will definitely help and using the Casas Particulares for accommodation is definitely something we will try when we return. As for the local currency - Convertible Cuban Peso - bring lots of Euro you can change it everywhere but reality is that if you have a visa card ATMS are appearing and the banks will always change currency. 

Hasta Luego.

(Click for more photos) 

© SV Katherine 2018      Cover Photo: Katherine on Anchor Peniscola from Castle Papa Luna