After the revolution in 1959, a string of embargoes and travel restrictions led to almost complete isolation for Cuba. With incredible innovation and improvisation, the Cubans defied the economy of scarcity and the trade sanctions and created a country with a unique flair. Bettina Höbenreich shares the tale of her month riding through the unique island nation.
On our trip around the world we have shipped our bikes so many times, however, they have never been loaded from a pier onto a small motorboat purely by human force, to then be transported in a shaky nutshell around the harbour to finally be hauled onto a two-mast sailing boat that’s 103-years old.
Several times we found ourselves in a cold sweat, our bikes seemingly about to drop out of the motorboat, and it felt like an eternity before they were finally wrapped in big plastic covers and leant, securely tied, against the rail of the ship.
We were shipping our bikes to Cuba and the trip from Colombia took us six days.
Six days that felt like an eternity, the journey on the open waters being far less romantic than we had imagined.
The Caribbean Sea was rough, and the metre high waves broke against the sailing boat with such a force that it threw the vessel around like a little paper ship.
As we finally reached the southern coast of Cuba, the prospect of having firm land beneath our feet, and especially our wheels, filled us with joy and excitement. Though before we could be let loose to discover Cuba, we had a two-day marathon with the border authorities ahead of us. The talks went smoothly and we finally received our Cuban tourist number plates and driving licenses.
To get a feeling for this new country we decided to spend two nights in a so-called ‘Casa Particulares’, a private house with a Cuban family. When we asked about the previously assured parking spot for our motorcycles, the father pointed to the narrow entrance of the two-storey house.
Helmut knew right away that our big bikes would never fit through the door, but the guy insisted that we at least try. As the handguards and handlebars got stuck on both sides of the door frame, realisation washed over his face.
But, as we experienced several times on our journey through the country, there is no such thing as ‘impossible’ here. Cubans will always find a solution to their problems, and in this case, the solution was grandma’s living room, which was in the building next door. They emptied the room out so that we could drive through the wider door directly into her lounge, where we parked our bikes for two days.
We spent these two days getting to know Santiago de Cuba, the capital of Cuba’s southeast, but our fingers were beginning to tingle as we were in the country to explore on our bikes. Our first day on the road turned out to be a big adventure. We followed the coast in a westerly direction, sticking to the quiet roads next to lonely beaches and remote bays.
It’s no wonder that the roads are quiet though, not many Cubans own a vehicle, and horse-drawn transportation and bicycles dominate the tarmac in rural areas.
The coastal road was damaged after several hurricanes had battered the shoreline, and it was touch and go as to whether we’d be able to ride it. After a few miles the tarmac deteriorated, in some places it had been completely washed away by the tropical storms and replaced with provisional gravel passageways.
In other places, Mother Nature had damaged the bridges so much that they subsided by a few metres and left gaping holes in the surface. Crossing these left us with a queasy feeling in our stomachs, and there was great relief when we finally had solid ground under our tyres again.
It wasn’t until we reached the small industrial town of Manzanillo that we saw civilisation again. Before the revolution in 1959, Cuba was one of the most advanced countries in Latin America.
The economy was largely fuelled by sales of sugar, and while the country ceased to trade the white gold with the US, it is still grown, man-high, on the sides of the road before it is harvested and transported to the surrounding factories by means of a horse-drawn cart. These days the sugar is mainly exported to China and Japan.
Our time spent in Manzanillo was brief, but we had a chance to explore the town on foot, walking through the alleys with a contrasting mix of part-demolished and newly renovated houses lining the walkways.
Old American cars from the ‘50s, like Cadillacs, Lincolns and Chevrolets, are famous in Cuba, but next to these we noticed the large amount of old mopeds and sidecar motorcycles. Especially the old MZ Motorrad, which still have ‘Zschopau Germany’ written on them. Most of these had to be well over 30-years old, but they’re a popular choice on the island, with the loving care of their owners meaning that they don’t seem a day older than our Transalps.
The following day we rode across the island from south to north, visiting the beautifully white, sandy beaches on the north coast. As Cuba is, on average, only 60-90-miles wide, and the majority of the roads on our route were in good condition, we moved fast through the open, rural landscape.
Early that evening we reached the small town of Playa Santa Lucia, which mainly consists of touristy hotels. We stayed in a Casa Particulares, only a few metres away from the beach. During our stay in the resort we learnt from the locals about a ride to the remote Coco Beach, which is only accessible over a few miles of long dirt track.
The dusty but easy going ride is definitely worth it, and the beaches are almost untouched by tourists. Brilliant white beaches meet the turquoise blue water, while palm trees provide welcome shade from the beating sun overhead. The real Caribbean dream!
We parked our bikes in the shade of some palm trees, directly next to a 1957 Chevrolet, which was in immaculate condition. We got chatting to the owner who told us that the car has been in the family for two generations. In true Cuban fashion he’s a true gent as well, and lets us look around the interior, even offering Helmut the chance to have a drive of it.
Helmut agreed in an instant, exchanging his 1993 Honda Transalp keys for those of this 60-year old beauty and drove it around the beach. He must have enjoyed it because as he returned he was smiling from ear to ear like a little boy.
The next stop on our grand tour of Cuba was to be the town of Trinidad, which was built in 1514 by the Spanish. Trinidad was once one of the most important sugar metropolises on the island, and the town’s wealth has afforded it many glorious, grand buildings around the central spot, Plaza Mayo. Together with the Valle de lo Ingenios, which is famous for its sugar cane plantations and the, in total, 48 sugar mills, Trinidad is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After a few days, the touristy hustle in Trinidad and the very persistent street vendors became too much for us, and so we looked to find the calmness and simplicity of the Cuban countryside once more. We wanted to follow a small track along the sea, hoping to camp on a sparsely populated section along the coast, so we had to buy sufficient food supplies.
Due to the economy of scarcity and international sanctions, the queues in front of the supermarkets are long, and the variety of food on offer is both limited and expensive. For one piece of salami and hard cheese we had to queue for over an hour, but we managed to reach the local bakery at the right time, just as they began selling fresh batches of baguettes and rolls.
At a small vegetable stand we also managed to buy a cucumber and a few tomatoes, which completed our provisions for the next few days.
During our shopping trip, a large group of people had decided to gather around our motorcycles, some of them taking pictures with their phones, while others looked closer at the finer details. Big bikes, such as our Transalps, don’t really exist in Cuba, and it’s not surprising that we stood out wherever we went.
But, as the Cubans are very open, curious and friendly folk, we didn’t mind these impromptu gatherings at all. Much to the contrary, we were always happy to talk with them about our bikes and our journey, forming a bridge that quickly breaks the ice and facilitates many interesting meetings and conversations. This time it was some information about the track we wanted to ride, and so with detailed directions we set off.
Even before we reached the coast we noticed that we couldn’t find the track on our GPS, or even our road map. This relatively small, sandy path seemed to be near enough untravelled. Again and again, branches of the surrounding mangrove forest reached so far into the road that we had to duck behind our windshields to not be hit by them.
At times we rode directly on the sandy banks with a clear view of the rough, rocky coast. Two hours into the ride and we still hadn’t seen another person. No wonder, a normal car would have had to turn around quickly as the track had deteriorated into a rock-strewn trail.
Due to the secluded nature of the area, finding a camping spot proved to be easy stuff. The rocky cliff where we put up our tent was framed on one side by a dense mangrove forest, while the rough breakers on the other side threw waves against the rugged rocks.
Even though Cuba has a tropical climate, we were there in the winter, and the temperature fell to a cool 10C in the evenings. We quickly collected some driftwood, which can be found in abundance on the beaches, and made a small fire. As the sun sank low into the Caribbean Sea, we settled down around the campfire to recollect the adventures and encounters of the last few days.
After our wilderness experience, we decided it was time to head to one of the most charismatic cities in the world: La Habana, or Havana how it’s known in the Western world. Havana is not only the capital of the Republic of Cuba, and therefore the political centre of the island, but also, due to the historical old town of La Vieja, with its hundreds of well maintained colonial buildings of over 500 years old, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The feeling we got as we rode our bikes through the well-restored US vintage cars down Havana’s glorious ‘Paseo del Prado’ was simply indescribable.
We didn’t have long to explore the city though, as the shipment date of our motorcycles was fast approaching, so we set out to discover the whole city as soon as we could. From Plaza de la Catedral we followed the narrow lanes southwards to the oldest part of the historical town, the Plaza de Armas, which was founded in the 16th century and now hosts the biggest antiques flea market in the city.
The unique Cuban flair is more prominent in the historical streets of Havana than in other parts of the country. Old men sit in the shadows of doorways playing chess, not letting themselves get disturbed by the passing flows of tourists. On each corner, musicians join together and fill the streets and squares with rhythmic rumba and salsa melodies.
It was a fitting setting for us to meet the charismatic fortune teller, Señora Habana, who has been offering her apparently legendary services as a medium on the Plaza de la Catedral for over 20 years.
Overall we spent four exciting weeks on the island of Cuba, discovering the island extensively on our bikes and soaking in the flair and the joie de vivre of the locals. We enjoyed our trip so much, but also felt the hardships of a country that has been fighting embargoes and economic scarcity for decades.
So, we said goodbye to Cuba with one laughing and one crying eye, as we again loaded our motorcycles onto the boat in Cienfuegos and began the next chapter of our journey.
Want to ride to Cuba? Here’s how you can…
Where to hire bikes
Motorcycle Tours Cuba (www.motorcycletourscuba.com) offer a selection of packages which include motorcycle hire (either a BMW F650GS or F800GS or a Harley Davidson) starting from approximately £4,000.
Get your own bike there
If you want to ride your own bike in Cuba then you’ll have to get it shipped over. Be aware, however, that SatNavs are banned on the island and can be confiscated on entry into the country.
You can only obtain Cuban currency once you’re in the country, and you might be taken aback at first when discovering that the island has two: The CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso), which is the tourist currency, and CUP (Cuban Peso) which is the locals’ currency.
You’ll only have to concern yourself with using CUC, and you’ll be able to exchange your sterling for it at the airport or in most hotels around the country. Current exchange rate is 1GBP = 1.37 CUC.
When to go
Mid-November to March will offer you the coolest (but still warm) and least humid weather, so plan your trip in those months. Between May and June you’ll get caught in the wet season and July to early November is the hurricane season.
How to get there
There are direct flights from Manchester to Holguin with Thomas Cook for approximately £460 return. If you’d rather fly from London, Air France offers flights to Havana for £490, but you’ll have to change planes at Charles de Gaulle.
Vaccinations and insurance
There are no compulsory vaccinations required before you enter Cuba, though there are some that are recommended: Typhoid, Hepatitis A and Diphtheria.
Where to stay
Bea and Helle stayed mostly in Casas Particulares, essentially Cuba’s version of B&Bs you’ll see in the UK. Casas Particulares offer the best value lodging, usually better food and friendlier hospitality and can be found throughout the island.
You’ll need a tourist visa to enter Cuba, along with a current passport. Once used, your tourist visa will be valid for 30 days, though extensions of a further 30 days are offered. A visa will cost you roughly £15 and can be obtained from the Cuban Consulate in London.