Across Cuba… the bad way.

Words and Photos by Logan Watts.

After just a single day into our Cuba traverse, we unanimously agreed that the route should be named ‘La Ruta Mala’, or ‘the bad way’. That’s quite a contradiction considering that our bikepacking trip across The Pearl of The Antilles would turn out to be a beautiful and fantastic adventure. But, then again, it took less than 24 hours to realize that Cuba is brimming with anomaly.

Share Facebook 0 Twitter Pinterest Google+

Bikepacking Cuba

“ Let the world change you and you can change the world.” – Ernesto Che Guevara

Cuba Bikepacking Map

The idea of exploring Cuba by bike had been churning and kicking around in the back of my brain for quite some time. Perhaps part of its draw was the fact that — as an American — I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to go there. A forbidden fruit, as it were. Aside from a small number of intrepid Americans who sidetracked travel restrictions via Cancun, not many Yankees have cast their shadows on our neighbor’s sun-bleached coral soil — not since the US imposed an embargo on the country in 1958. I wondered what Cuba was really like… beyond surface impressions from films, Anthony Bourdain, and snapshots of 1950’s cars and portly cigar wielding men in white Guayabera shirts.

  • bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking-Cuba_2
  • Cuba Portrait
  • bikepacking Cuba
  • bikepacking Cuba

It’s difficult to prepare oneself for a new place when 99.99% of your fellow countrymen haven’t been there. From a bike travel perspective, what little information we accumulated prior to our departure was plucked from blogs and trip reports by traditional European bike tourists who had mostly explored the paved thoroughfares of the island. While the proverbial seas between the US and Cuba had just been parted a few months back, Europeans and Canadians have been visiting Cuba for years. From their reports we gleaned three main insights, which all but sealed the fate of our hopes to string together a proper dirt bikepacking route across the island: 1. The Cuban road system is largely limited to gently rolling and carless tarmac roads; 2. There’s no camping — that’s a government no-no. You must stay in hotels or casa particulares, modest homes with one or two rooms for rent; 3. If you’re hungry, you’d better get to a casa particular… the only way to get food is to have it prepared by your hosts. Stores do not exist for tourists.

This wasn’t our first rodeo, so we were a bit skeptical about these tenets. We decided to forge ahead and booked our flights. By the afternoon of Expedition Day 1, all three rules had been dispelled. In fact, we realized that the Cuba we’d landed in was a far cry from the mental picture we’d pieced together.

Bikepacking Cuba

  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking Cuba

¡Malo es Bueno!

Our objective was to cycle across Cuba from east to west using as much unpaved surface as possible. As with most of our bikepacking trips, we intended to seek out the least travelled tracks and find the true character of the country and her people. But, based on the intel we’d gathered, we expected these off-road tracks to account for 50% or fewer of our total miles, so we brought drop-bar bikes with the assumption that gravel and tarmac would be our travel partner for a better part of the route. We stuck with mountain bike tires though, just in case. On the morning of January 1st, Joe, Virginia and I started our route from Santiago De Cuba, the second largest city in the country. We casually warmed up our legs along a rolling stretch of asphalt next to the deep blue Caribbean waters. We were following a route Joe and I’d painstakingly cobbled together by poring over blurry satellite imagery, faint dashes on paper maps, and the dramatic topographic lines that make up Cuba’s three distinct mountain ranges.

After 20 miles, we bumped into our first question mark on the map. We had plotted two options, because we simply didn’t know what to expect. We’d either stick to the safe bet and stay along the the coastal route, where the road might deteriorate a bit, or head north into the thick unknown of the Sierra Maestra mountains — either make good time and find a casa particular in a small coastal village, or ration a couple days worth of food and hope for stealth camping options amongst the rugged folds of the Sierra for a few days. Rarely ones to shy away from the ‘adventure route’, we chose the latter option. We immediately started up a steep, rocky track. The farther we advanced, the rougher the ‘road’ became. By dusk we were pushing our bikes up a rubbly steep grade that made Guatemalan roads look flat. So much for Cuba Bike Travel Rule #1. In the end, we discovered that most of Cuba is crisscrossed with a maze of rowdy dirt tracks, horse paths and rocky mountain roads that, for the most part, never see cars. At least twice daily we were stopped and asked where we are going. Farmers, old-timers, and children all waved and shouted that this way was the wrong way. On each occasion we politely explained that, “Nos gusta la ruta mala; con estas bicicletas, no necesitamos carreteras; no nos gustan las carreteras.” In short, “we like the bad way.”

Bikepacking-Cuba_63

  • Bikepacking-Cuba_12
  • Havana Cuba

Bikepacking Cuba

Bikepacking Cuba

Us vs Cuba

Based on our pre-planned route, I figured we’d be pedaling through backwaters generally unexplored by bike tourists, let alone Americans. I didn’t have high hopes as to how three Americans would be received by Cuba’s campesinos, or country farmers. After all, we hail from the country that, while being one of their closest neighbors, remains the most distant. A 59 year trade blockade has caused suffering for the Cuban people, especially the poorest amongst them. The UN believes that the repercussions of ‘our’ actions have been detrimental enough that the General Assembly has passed resolutions condemning the U.S. embargo every year since 1991. Moreover, as evidenced by roadside billboards and building facades, there’s plenty of government propaganda fueling anti-American sentiment in Cuba, pointing fingers at American imperialism and greed. I knew there would be some politics to wade through somewhere amongst Cuba’s tropical jungles.

Coincidentally, we arrived in the country shortly after the death of its long-time leader and ‘liberator’. Some citizens were still mourning Fidel, while many were enthusiastic about the changes that Raúl has brought about and looking forward to more change in the future. To perfectly mirror the divisions felt amongst Cuba’s citizens, we happened to time our trip just after our own controversial elections. Whether we liked it or not, a new US president would be sworn into power while we were there. We hoped he wouldn’t build a wall between home and us during his first couple of weeks in office. Even more, the timing made all of this feel amplified. Cuba’s history was palpable as was its questionable future. The entire country was a whirlwind of a place locked in time. Everywhere we we turned there were cultural artifacts from the Revolucíon, conspiracy theories and questions about their future… as well as questions about America’s future with its most estranged neighbor.

Bikepacking Cuba, Salsa Cutthroat

  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking Cuba

Bikepacking Cuba

  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Havana Club
  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking Cuba

As we heaved our bikes up the Sierra Maestra that first evening we had our first taste of true Cuban hospitality and caught a glimpse of what to expect for the next 3 weeks of our trip. I was a couple hundred grunts ahead of Joe and Virginia. A man toting a half liter of Havana Rum throttled the reigns of his horse, jumped down, and exuberantly greeted me with an offer to take a swig from the bottle. Why not? There was another gentleman and a cadre of children and dogs to follow — a dirt road parade in high spirits on that New Year’s Day. After a brief conversation, our new friend insisted that we stay at his house. It was dark and the road would only get steeper, he explained. I argued that we had tents and just needed a flat spot to pitch for the night. He then explained that he was a surgeon in Santiago, just visiting his wife’s family for the holiday… hard to believe coming from a man who spoke little to no English, wobbled in a half-drunken sway, and wore nothing but a cutoff pair of tattered brown trousers. I later learned — after a litre of wine and a second bottle of rum — that physicians in Cuba make the equivalent of about $50 USD per month. The house belonged to the doc’s in-laws, financially poor country farmers who insisted on preparing us dinner. We were their guests and we must have a proper meal. As we tried to rebut that we had our own food and it was unnecessary, they beat us back with insistent kindness. Doc sat us at a modest table in a dimly lit room next to the kitchen where wafts of woodsmoke and cooking meat made our eyes water. There were only three place settings. The family would dine later in the evening. As the grandmother served a home-cooked supper of pork, yucca, and Congri — beans and rice — we tried not to look like ravenous beasts as we feasted on one of the best meals we had in all of Cuba. Later Doc explained that Cubans, no matter their wealth, always feed and shelter travellers and visitors. It’s part of their culture.

Throughout our trip, the magnanimity of the Cuban people manifested itself on a regular basis. A dinner of chicken and congri from a family working on a bean plantation. Unknown rubbery meat and rice from three jungle dwelling coffee pickers. A lovely meal of fried bananas, soup and bread from a couple who made their living making bed springs. We were given fruit by men who seemingly popped out of the forest in the middle of nowhere. Time and time again, strangers treated us like family.

  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking Cuba

Bikepacking Cuba

After hours of rum-fueled conversation and singing, we found out American Westerns are Doc’s favorite movie genre. He called me ‘hard-man’ and made gun slinging gestures. I reminded him of a character he’d seen in one particular flick about the gold rush. Maybe it was my beard that won us the spot at his family table that night. No matter the reason, the kindness and generosity we received that night set the tone for the rest of our journey. Ultimately the reception of three Americans throughout the backwaters of Cuba was overwhelmingly positive.

  • Cuba portrait
  • Cuba portrait
  • Cuba portrait
  • Cuba portrait
  • Cuba portrait

Gray is green

On the night prior to our rum-fueled introduction to Cuban bike travel we stayed with an elderly gentleman in Santiago. In the morning, he gave us a jubilant send-off, serenading us with show tunes from classic American Broadway productions. In his youth, Robert had been part of a musical act that performed all over the country, and, to this day, he dreams of making it to New York City.

Contrary to the gray and bleak uniformed society I kind of expected to see outside of Havana, all of Cuba is rippling with music, art, dance, and a culture that embraces life to the fullest. That appreciation for life is reflected in the government’s environmental policies. With its tumultuous history of sugar production, we expected the Cuban landscape to be a series of worn-down farms and fields, the results of slash and burn agriculture. And yes, there are a lot of cane fields in the flatlands, but Cuba also boasts over a dozen natural and national parks, incredible jungles, and 368 bird species. In fact, in its bi-annual “Living Planet Report 2016,” the World Wildlife Federation named Cuba as the most sustainable country in the world.

Bikepacking Cuba

  • Bikepacking Cuba
  • Bikepacking Cuba

Bikepacking Cuba

We had quickly learned to expect the unexpected when it came to Cuba and her citizens, impoverished people with a wealth of character and kindness unmatched anywhere else in the world. A country ruled under the oppressive hand of a bullish dictator that seems, at times, to be a utopian model for tolerance and egalitarianism. A government that quashes any dissent by its people but has fostered the arts, ingenuity, and a respect for nature.

Of course we didn’t realize all of this on Expedition Day 1, but that night we fell asleep glowing from a musical sendoff, glorious dirt tracks leading into the mountains, rum and Doc’s drunken antics, the kindness of strangers, and the unpredictable spirit of Cuba. Oddly enough we were in our tents, which we’d find ourselves in more nights than not. Big Brother didn’t care. Throughout the trip we camped on porches, farms, town centers, and most appropriately, the visitors dugout in a community baseball stadium. All told, day one was a microcosmic taste of what was to come during the three weeks we spent crossing the island. All expectations were left on the safe paved road — the one we didn’t choose — down by the coast.

Big thanks to Big Agnes for supporting these Features, and for the excellent UL Fly Creek tents. And to Salsa Cycles for loaning us a pair of Cutthroats — probably the perfect bike for this trip. Also to all of the Cuban people who were incredibly hospitable along the way, Revelate Designs, Porcelain Rocket, Rob English, Enlightened Equipment, Sea to Summit, Ortlieb, MSR, Outdoor Research, etc. To find out more about the route, including an open GPX file, as well as travel tips and information click here.

If you think you have a story and photos that could make a good Feature, let us know… we still have a few slots for 2017.

Share Facebook 0 Twitter Pinterest Google+
32 Comments
  • DenkoB

    I did the Cuba bike TT hing in 2001. On roads. Well, sometimes they were barely roads. Can’t wait to see your route.

  • Logan Watts

    We’ll have the route up soon!

  • matt wiggins

    Fantastic piece hard-man!

  • http://pedalspacksandpinots.wordpress.com/ Ben Handrich

    Wow, isn’t that always the case – you hear about the dark, oppressed state of the ‘other’ and come to learn that hearsay was about as far from the truth as their understanding of your own culture. Nothing like visiting a place in person to shatter stereotypes and build lasting bonds and ‘true’ impressions, or at least as close to truth as we can get in our post-truth world. Thanks for sharing a sliver of your experience with your readership Logan!

  • Logan Watts

    Thanks man! ??

  • Logan Watts

    Thanks for the great elucidation Ben! Love it. ??!

  • judderton

    Great write-up. There is something so enticing about exploring a route for which proper maps do not even exist. I’m sure I’m not the only one that uses articles like this as inspiration to find new adventures. Can’t wait to read about the rest of the journey. Hopefully there will be a gear list posted at some point. Photos were awesome as well. Thanks for sweat it took to heft along nice photo gear.

    I was bummed, however, when I saw the cute Pinterest-ready Che quote and the relatively uneven treatment of the U.S.’s embargo versus Castro’s murderous, oppressive, dictatorship, which was the real cause of the complete decimation of the Cuban economy and their continued poverty. And although several aspects of Che’s life are easily romanticized, he executed hundreds and hundreds of his Cuban citizens without trial, hated America, and would have probably considered you folks as enemies on your sponsored ride through Cuba. I’m not telling you what to write about, just wanted you to know the thoughts of one reader/fan of your site that doesn’t agree with the romanticization of awful ideas and ruthless hypocrites.

  • Logan Watts

    Thanks for the compliments! And I definitely appreciate your opinion. I made my best attempt to keep the piece neutral on that level; I honestly didn’t intend on swaying either way and tried to keep questions embedded in most political references. I feel that if anything was romanticized, it was the people of Cuba, which are no doubt a byproduct of its turbulent history. The Che quote is a good quote, that’s it. I am not endorsing him or his actions.

  • http://milesarbour.com Miles Arbour

    On point!

  • judderton

    Good point. I didn’t think you were endorsing him or anything, I just felt the need to give my unsolicited opinion ;) I’ll get off my soap box now. One awesome bi-product of bike-related obsessions is the absence of political hoopla (for the most part). Thanks again for the article and response.

  • Doug Nielsen

    This… was awesome.

  • psedillo

    I’ve read through all of the featured stories and this is quite possibly my favorite. From the pictures to the story that was so well crafted. As others have mentioned, I look forward to seeing the route and getting a gear list.

    It may have been mentioned in other travel logs that have been featured, what camera gear are you using to capture these stunning images?

  • Daniel Pastrana

    What an incredible write up, and as always, absolutely stunning photography! Having traveled to this beautiful island several times over the past decade plus, I can only say that your experiences match mine as well as that of many other visitors. The heart, the will, and the passion of the Cuban people shines through so strongly. I thank you and applaud you for sharing – it is exactly this type of person to person contact and interaction that what will help us begin to truly understand each other and build empathy despite the shrouded and complicated history between our two countries. Hasta la victoria siempre!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks for the kind words! On this trip I carried a 5D Mark IV with a couple of primes… a 35mm and a 135mm f/2. Way too much gear!!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks Daniel! A magical experience indeed.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks Doug!

  • Edwin Durning

    I have been seriously pining for a bikepacking trip to Cuba. Glad to see it’s getting some attention.

  • http://pntmagazine.com/ Maciek

    Such beautiful writing and photography. It reminds me of old-school travel writing. I wouldn’t mind buying the whole account in the form of a book.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Wow, thanks for the incredibly kind words! Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Seedub

    Spouse has been pushing hard for a trip for the food, music. Me, I was fantasizing for what I knew must exist – the dirt paths. I too would swallow up a longer write-up.

  • Carlos Matutes

    Wow! My parents and siblings fled Cuba a year and a half before my birth, and I’ve always wanted to go to the birthplace of my family. Bikepacking would be the only way to see the parts of Cuba that draw me, the mountains. Thank you for the write up, now I have something to plan!

  • Phil Osafiqal

    What a photogenic little kid…wow….great article submission, been curious about Cuba for 25 years or so….I find all the latino countries that I have been to, to be extremely welcoming…….que les vaya bien…

  • DamagedSurfer

    Logan, yet again this is truly a superior travelogue. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still prefer reading over endless photos. Your series featuring Uganda is what really drew me to your site and you have continued to progress as a photographer and writer in the intervening years. While I’ve never been to Cuba, I can relate to experiencing a country first-hand that has a certain reputation that you find to be completely, or at least mostly, unearned once you travel its lengths. As I’ve constantly commented on your site, I feel independent world travel (not cruise ships) is one of the most important experiences a human being can have. My 3 favorite articles in no particular order: Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, Cuba. Cheers.

  • DamagedSurfer

    And Logan, if you get this comment, I’m really curious if you have submitted these articles to any larger outlets or if you keep them exclusive solely for your personal website. I’m an avid reader, and yet I’ve never read an article about Kyrgyzstan before your trip report. It seems to me that trip could rate a general interest piece in National Geographic etc. I believe your work deserves wider acclaim than what I see on your site, though I’m not privy to your site metrics, so it could be in wider circulation than I know.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks for the encouraging words! I definitely agree with your comment on independent world travel. Regarding larger outlets: I have submitted articles to Bicycle Times, Dirt Rag, and others, but I usually reserve a spot here. Outside Online will be running a photo piece from this trip; I’m pretty excited about that. And I think there is an article in the future Salsa Catalog for Kyrgyzstan. Thanks for the confidence nudge though! Perhaps I’ll try to get it out there a bit more. I will say, in many cases I find it particularly hard to write multiple stories from a single trip. I wrote three from Kyrgyzstan and I felt the third was a little forced. And this site will always take precedence for me :) Thanks again for the boost of encouragement… readers like you are what keeps it going!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Yeah, she was a trip. The night before when her dad ‘Doc’ put her to bed, she cried and threw a fit. The next morning she was waiting on the porch for us to wake up! Thanks!

  • jamesframes

    So excited to see this recent write up. My wife and I will be heading to Cuba in a month for a short west coast bike adventure. Thanks so much for sharing your experience-pictures and write up are wonderful.

  • http://eltaraumara.blogspot.com/ El_Taraumara

    Que lindas fotos Logan and what a nice writeup… I toured Cuba 20 years ago, its amazing how things had remained frozen in time.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    Muchas gracias! The time machine quality is quite remarkable…

  • JerryS

    just a point GPS units are supposedly banned in Cuba I note you quote a GPX file but you will appear to have probs using it on a GPS – how did you get around this issue?

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    Yes, we didn’t bring a GPS. Just our phones with Gaia GPS installed. No issues. For more on this, check out: http://www.bikepacking.com/plan/smartphone-as-a-gps/

  • http://joecruz.wordpress.com Joe Cruz

    And just to add to Logan’s reply, I had my phone mounted to my stem in what was a pretty obvious use of it as a GPS. We’re not advising you to flout the GPS ban, but we had no trouble.

Tags