Eleven days in the saddle, 650 kilometres of Cuban roads, drinking in all the sights and sounds that the fascinating country has to offer was my idea of a perfect cycling holiday, and it turned into reality in November last year when I was lucky enough to accompany a group of like-minded people on this 16 day trip.
The largest by far of all the Caribbean Islands, Cuba is 1200km in length and 85km wide. It has a population of 11 million people and is only a 10-hour flight from the UK, and with the number of flights increasing to the island, it is becoming more accessible. This year, Exodus will be using Virgin Airways and their direct, scheduled service from London Gatwick to Havana, so in the morning you will be having a coffee at Gatwick, and that evening, you will be sipping a long cool Mojito in the hotel bar, as Cuba is 5 hours behind Greenwich time.
The big advantage we had on this tour had to be the excellent local bike guide, whose knowledge of Cuban history was immense. I have never met anyone who could reel off years & dates etc. without any trouble at all. It was not just a cycling holiday, but also a 2 week history lesson about the country, and there is so much that I never knew. I never did Cuban history at school, but it has really stirred a passion to find out more.
On this tour, you get to see so much of the island, starting off in Havana, and then visiting Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Trinidad and Santiago to name the well-known towns & cities, and then many smaller places in between. You cycle an average of 60km each day at your own pace, so there is no pressure to keep up with any cyclists leading the pack, and there is the chance to re-group every 20km or so where you have a refreshing fruit stop and listen to the salsa beats being played from the support vehicle! The road conditions are generally very good, but there can be some rougher areas, and you should keep your eyes open for the odd pothole here and there. Most of the time, the roads are flat with small inclines, but on some occasions there are hills, and if you feel you can’t tackle them, you can always catch a lift up in the support vehicle. There is one extremely steep, short hill on day 13, which is the last cycling day, so the sense of achievement on reaching the top was immense, and I punched the air in amazement that I made it! At the start of the week, I would have certainly given up and taken the easy option of walking up. Speaking personally, my fitness level improved so much during this trip, and I am proud of my achievement.
In total, you stay at 10 different hotels, ranging from 2-4 star standard. All but 2 of these hotels have swimming pools, and all offer comfortable accommodation. Breakfast is included at each hotel, and an evening meal is provided on 6 nights. On the nights where there is no evening meal included, the leader will recommend a local restaurant. An average price for a 2/3-course meal is 16 peso (approx £10), and for this you can actually get fresh lobster! There is not a great deal of choice when it comes to evening meals, and you will find the options consist of either chicken, pork or fish, and sometimes lobster as I mentioned. Wine can be expensive, so whilst in Rome as they say, try the local Cuba Libre (rum & coke), as I can highly recommend it!
The local people are extremely friendly, offering a cheery wave and shouts of encouragement as you cycle past, it must be quite a novelty for them to see a group of 18 people in brightly coloured lycra! The scenery is stunning, and also varied each day. One of the highlights for me was cycling through Cuba’s highest mountain range, the Sierra Maestra on day 9. Even though this was one of the tougher days, you forget about the hills you have to conquer as you soak up the breath-taking views on the way. At the end of the day, we arrive at the Villa El Salton, where, before we checked in, most of us took advantage of the cool, inviting river running in front of the hotel. It was nice just to sit in the water and cool our bodies down. Little did we realise that if we had waited, we could have done this in the hotel’s natural swimming pool, complete with 40-foot waterfall – quite spectacular!
Not all your days are spent in the saddle, and on day 6 whilst you are staying in Trinidad, there is a Catamaran trip to a small island called Cayo Blanco, where you get the opportunity to snorkel, and have a delicious seafood lunch. After lunch, you have time to so some beach combing or just lie back, relax and read a book, before heading back at sunset. This day will definitely re-charge your batteries ready for the next 4 days of cycling.
Trinidad, which was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage SIte in 1988, was also another one of my favourite places. The old town architecture is neo-classical & Baroque with a moorish flavour. Red-tiled roof houses with pastel shade façades, ornamented with artistic balconies and wrought iron railings, adorn the narrow, cobblestone streets. The town comes alive in the evening, especially at weekends at the well-known Casa De La Trobo bar where you get to show off your salsa skills with the locals. The party carries on well into the early hours, and the beats of the music can still be heard as you wend your way back to the hotel! For some reason, it took much longer to walk back than it did to walk down?
In conclusion, this was a truly memorable holiday. I have only picked a few places that hold special memories for me, but there are so many that I could write about. The ideal time to travel to Cuba is November to April as this is the dry season, although I did find the rain very refreshing when I was there in October. We only had a few wet days, but it wasn’t like English rain, cold & heavy, instead warm showers and you soon dried off! The condition of the bikes we used was very good, and there were only a few punctures during the week, and my pedal decided to drop off whilst on the homeward straight on the last day, but all these minor problems were soon fixed by the expert support crew. I loved seeing all the old Buicks & Pontiacs on the roads, and it was like travelling back in time to late 1950’s. Some were so old & slow, that you could overtake them by pedal power alone! There is not a great deal to spend your money on whilst you are there, unless you want cigars or rum, and these can be bought extremely cheaply. I defy anyone not to come back with a Che Guevara T-shirt or fridge magnet! I will definitely go back to Cuba one day, maybe to do the new bike trip that Exodus are offering in Western Cuba as there is still so much to see.
Exodus Sales Consultant.