Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cuba: a cyclist's dream

Cuba: a cyclist's dream
The roads are well-paved and uncrowded, and the people are welcoming and
generous, which helps when you get lost on the first day of a weeklong
bike vacation
By DAVID YATES, Special to THE GAZETTE April 19, 2013

Cycling along a quiet road in the hilly part of Pinar del Rio, 160
kilometres west of Havana. The province is known for its high-quality
production of tobacco for cigars.

HAVANA — The day started off well, as I was able to reassemble my
bicycle — taken apart and put in a flat box for the flight from Montreal
— in under an hour in front of the Hotel Barcelo on the western side of
the city.

But I had little idea of the anxious moments that awaited me as I and 24
other cyclists, mainly from Montreal and Ottawa/Gatineau, mounted up on
the way to conquering the streets of Havana with a ride of just under
two hours to Cacahual, a big hill on the southern edge of the city about
30 kilometres away. The hill is best known for its memorial to several
Cuban patriots of the 19th century.

It was a chance to see the dusty streets of Havana, and its iconic old
cars belching clouds of exhaust, on the first day of a seven-day
vacation organized by Vélo-Québéc Voyages, the travel wing of the big
cycling organization that offers trips in many parts of the world.

The plan was to head off by bus the next day to Pinar del Rio, the
western province where the best cigar tobacco is grown, for several days
of cycling on quiet country roads. We would also have a day off relaxing
at Cayo Levisa, which has one of the island's many fabulous beaches.

But the beginning of our first day was not a glorious one for me. A
figurative stick in the spokes forced me to stop a few blocks from the
hotel. My handlebars were turned too low and they needed a fix. Daniel
Desroches, also riding at the back of the pack, noticed me stopping and
he doubled back to help. I readjusted the handlebars easily, but when we
looked up, our fellow cyclists had vanished.

We rode a few more blocks looking for our group, but there was no sign
of anybody.

For some people — including myself — there is nothing quite so
unsettling as being lost in a foreign city with no map and only a
smattering of the language.

But the highly experienced Desroches — who has been on many cycling and
camping trips in Europe with his wife, Diane — showed no sign of panic.
"Let's have an ice cream cone," he said as we spotted a street vendor.
And he calmly reached into his saddlebag for a map of the city.

A few minutes later, we pulled into a gas station, where Desroches
scored a big success. Not only did he get directions to Cacahual, a
driver suggested we follow him for 15 kilometres to a point near the
José Marti Airport, where we would make a right turn and follow signs to
the hill.

Havana seems to be full of residents ready to make a kind gesture to
visitors, and there was no shortage of people in our group with tons of
cycling experience and resourcefulness. Put them together and problems
vanish quickly.

On the streets of Havana on that Sunday, residents were out in droves
enjoying their day off. They walked casually on the sidewalks and
gravitated to the parks for picnics and baseball. Desroches and I
pedalled furiously to keep up with our guide in the car. Fortunately, he
had to stop at intersections and we were able to catch up. He waved
goodbye near the airport and we headed up to Cacahual.

When we arrived, there was no sign of our group. Despite getting lost,
we had managed to hit our destination before the other cyclists.

After ham and cheese sandwiches, a lunchtime staple in Cuba, we climbed
back on our bikes and headed for the hotel. But I got lost again, this
time near the airport with my friend Doug Taylor of Chelsea, when we
stopped for a red light, splitting us from the leading cyclists. After
going some distance and seeing no other cyclists, we doubled back and
found stragglers in our group, riding the rest of the way with them and
a Cuban guide hired to bring up the rear.

Back at the hotel, after we had pedalled almost 60 kilometres, about a
dozen of us gathered for beers, laughs and chatter, with me being the
butt of jokes in French and English for getting lost twice in one day.

Diane Desroches recounted with a big smile that she had noticed her
husband missing from the group, but never doubted he would turn up safe
and sound. "He spends a year planning our trips, so he knows every
detail," she said. I guess planning includes bringing maps along for the
ride, a good lesson for me.

The next day, we piled into a tour bus where half the seats had been
removed to accommodate our bikes, which ranged from clunkers (including
mine, which cost less than $400) to custom-made Gurus and Marinonis
costing several thousand dollars each.

At our first stop in Candelaria, we toured a cigar factory where we were
offered freshly made stogies while outside touts tried to tempt us with
the black market variety at a much lower price. And then we were back on
our bikes for the ride to the Hotel Los Jazmines at the top of a big
hill just outside Vinales.

I rode at the back with a small group that included Benoit Portelance,
who is a public transit mechanic in Montreal and our bike mechanic on
this trip.

I was concerned about falling behind, but the ever-smiling Portelance
put my mind at ease.

"We all ride together," he said, and we made 67 kilometres in the
Caribbean heat before the bus caught up to us and we climbed aboard for
the rest of the trip to Vinales.

Installed at the Hotel Los Jazmines overlooking a lush valley, we spent
the next three days touring the countryside, cycling past small farms
and tobacco plantations. Every morning we were awakened by the crowing
of roosters, denizens of the farms below us.

During our stay, we did a ride of 60 kilometres to the beach at Cayo
Jutias, a trip by bus to Cayo Levisa for a day of sun and beach
volleyball and pedalled to the fishing village of Puerto Esperanza and
back, a round-trip of 60 kilometres.

Cycling in this rural area is almost a dream. The roads are well paved,
traffic moves at a very moderate pace and the few drivers give riders
plenty of room when passing.

The rides took us through sleepy villages and past farms untouched by
modern machinery. We saw farmers tilling their land by plow pulled by oxen.

On one occasion, we stopped to walk through a small barn perfumed by
sheaves of tobacco leaves hanging from the rafters.

We hit rain on the way to Cayo Jutias and sheltered under the eaves of
some houses in a village.

On the way back from Cayo Levisa, we stopped at a small shack for a
glass of freshly pressed sugar cane juice.

We stood in line behind kids on the way home from school.

While many tourists like to spend much of their time baking on the
beaches of Cuba, cycling gets travellers beyond the wall of waiters and
hotel staff for a rich experience.

My friend Doug brought four old soccer balls with him and he stopped at
small village schools to hand them over. In one instance, he produced a
ball for some kids in Puerto Esperanza as we lounged near fishing boats.
Their eyes lit up and instantly there was a soccer game with cyclists
and Cubans taking part.

That's the kind of spontaneous moment that makes a trip memorable.

On the last night at the Los Jazmines, we dismantled our bikes and
packed them in cardboard boxes for the trip back to Havana the next day.

We hopped on the bus and drove to the autopista, the divided highway
that leads to the capital. The trip was uneventful except for one thing:
we saw sulkies, yes, horse racing, on the autopista under the watchful
surveillance of a police car.

Back in Havana, we did some sightseeing in the old city with several
people popping into the Floridita for a lobster lunch. That's the
restaurant where Ernest Hemingway quaffed daiquiris. And then it was
farewell to Cuba and many new friends the following morning.

It wasn't quite the end for me: Doug and I stayed another five days to
soak up more atmosphere in Havana.


Vélo-Québec ( offers nine trips yearly to Cuba
with prices starting at $2,125 per week, including airfare, hotels and
meals, bus (sag wagon for slowpokes), a mechanic and guides. Nearly a
million Canadians go to Cuba each year because it is one of the cheapest
sun destinations. The cycling trips are among a wide range available in
the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, including a cross-Canada tour.
Each trip is rated by degree of difficulty. Vélo-Québec trips are very
popular, attracting much repeat business, including mine. Level of
fitness should not be an issue for anyone contemplating the trip: The
bus follows the cyclists, and you can jump on when and where you like.
However, participants tend to be regular riders with butts toughened by
many hours in the saddle.

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