Our Man (Lost) in Havana
HAVANA – The day that I went cycling in the Cuban capital was not a glorious one in the annals of exploration.
It didn’t take long for me to become Your Man Lost in Havana – and thanks to the great British writer Graham Greene, who wrote Our Man in Havana, for help with that title.
But sometimes there is a thin line between being lost and making great discoveries. Just ask Christopher Columbus about that. He was headed for China in 1492 when he ended up in Cuba opening up the European invasion of the New World and the looting and pillaging that followed.
But that’s enough about Columbus. Let’s get back to my sorry approach to discovering a new world.
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 7-day vacation organized by Vélo-Québéc Voyages, the travel wing of the big cycling organization which offers trips in many parts of the world.
The plan was to head off by bus the next day to Pïnar 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 harrowing 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 extend 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.
Out on the streets of Havana, residents were out in droves enjoying their day off, it being Sunday. 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, Qc, when we stopped for a red light splitting us from the leading cyclists.
We decided we had gone the wrong way when we noticed there were no other cyclists with us. So we doubled back and met 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 noticed her husband was missing after riding several blocks with the main group. But she never doubted that 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 the tour bus where half the seats had been removed to accommodate our bikes ranging 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 Candelaris, 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 off 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.
Mind at ease
I was concerned about falling behind the group, 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 many 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.
Fresh cane juice
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.
Doug Taylor 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 the 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 sight-seeing 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 and Doug Taylor. We stayed another five days to soak up more atmosphere in Havana.
Good To Go:
Vélo-Québec (veloquebecvoyages.com) 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 as 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.