x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Ride and seek in Cuba, the Caribbean's most controversial island

Celia Topping visits 12 of Cuba's 15 provinces in a two-week cycling trip around the island with Exodus.

Cycling past a shelter mounted with a socialist slogan near Pedro Betancourt, Cuba. Photo by Celia Topping for The National
Cycling past a shelter mounted with a socialist slogan near Pedro Betancourt, Cuba. Photo by Celia Topping for The National

Another immaculately dressed, septuagenarian crooner, complete with trilby hat and a twinkle to match Ibrahim Ferrer's, takes to the stage of the Buena Vista Social Club in downtown Havana. Despite his advancing years, the moves he pulls off are as slick as any youngster out on the floor, and his lilting voice makes you want to abandon your life back home and make a living from dancing salsa in the dingy dives of Cuban bars. Even the hardiest of nay-sayers couldn't resist a little hip sway, encouraged by performers old enough to be your granddad.

This Buena Vista social evening was a self-congratulatory finale to our two-week bicycle tour around the Caribbean's most controversial island. Beginning and ending in Havana, our good-natured group of 18 people, consisting of 30- to 50-year-olds with abilities ranging from novice to experienced, had cycled a roughly anti-clockwise route, taking in 12 of the island's 15 provinces, with a few necessary coach transfers on the way to rest our legs (and behinds).

We were out on the bikes by about eight in the morning most days and ended about nine hours later. Covering between 40km to 90km per day, depending on terrain and frequent stops, we struggled and whizzed along Cuba's potholed roads, appreciating the scenery in happy solitude, stopping off to take photos and encouraging each other up the hills. After cycling around 600km, we felt entitled to some time off.

Our first day had begun with a warm-up ride from the 1920s Beverley Hills-styled Miramar district where we were staying, to the shabby elegance of Havana's Old Town. Although I'd been here before and I'm familiar with the wonderful 1950s cars, the crumbling edifices, the music playing on every corner and the thronging seafront, Malecon, or "sofa" as the Cubans affectionately call it, because of how many people sit there in the evening, I'm delighted to revisit. The idiosyncrasies of the city - such as the slightly incongruous life-size sculpture of John Lennon, whose signature spectacles had been stolen so many times that there is now a little old man whose job it is to stand guard and place them on Lennon's nose for a tourist snap, then remove them again for safekeeping - charm me all over again.

Transferring by coach east out of Havana, we crossed the vertigo-inducing Bacunayagua Bridge, and on into Matanzas, all the while being watched by the circling turkey vultures overhead, instilling the uneasy feeling that if we hung around too long, we might become supper. The next couple of sun-drenched days saw us head south through sugar cane and citrus plantations, small rural communities and Pedro Betancourt, a little town where colourful washing was hung on any conveniently placed cactus, old ladies rocked contentedly on their front porches, men played dominoes in the shade and children whooped as we cycled past. We must've made quite a spectacle, 18 Lycra-clad, helmeted foreigners struggling up the hills, while the locals clip-clopped along in horse-drawn carts.

After a hard morning's cycle, we came to Cuevos los Pescos (cave of fish) and took an hour out of the saddle to dive into this gloriously refreshing pool of crystal-clear water, fed by a subterranean tunnel from the sea, which is a couple of hundred metres away. The sinkhole was teeming with brightly coloured surgeon fish, parrot fish, angel fish and damsel fish, making it like splashing around in a rock-hewn aquarium.

Back on our bikes, we spun along wide roads lined with royal palms into the infamous Bay of Pigs, passing pastures full of cattle and farm labourers waving from the fields. It was hard to imagine the brutal fighting that had seen Castro win a decisive victory over the CIA-backed Cuban exiles' invasion of 1961, because this swampy region is now a peaceful home to the hundreds of bird species indigenous to Cuba. We were lucky enough to catch sight of the Trogon, whose blue, red and white plumage of the Cuban flag compelled Castro to honour it as the national bird.

Fidel's island can be a difficult country to understand because of many incongruencies and contradictions, but the first thing to get your head around is the dual currency. Cubans need Cuban Convertible pesos (CUCs) to buy things they want, but are paid in the almost worthless Cuban national pesos, which only afford basic necessities, so jobs in which they come into contact with CUCs are more highly prized than top professions. As our guide Yasel pointed out, "If your waiter fails to remember your order or neglects to clear up the drink he slops on the tablecloth, just bear in mind he may be a nuclear physicist or doctor who is begrudgingly serving you because with your tip, he'll be able to make double the amount than in the job he's qualified to do." In fact, Yasel himself is a qualified lawyer.

During the "Special Period" of the 1990s, when the Soviet bloc collapsed and took with it the economic support Cuba depended on, Fidel was forced into permitting private enterprise in the shape of paladares (privately owned restaurants), casa particulares (privately owned guesthouses) and agromercados, (farmers' markets) where locals could buy their wares at cheaper prices than the bodegas, the state-owned ration shops. Most of these enterprises happily still exist today and are being boosted by the recent moves of Fidel's brother and successor, Raul, who has encouraged limited private enterprise to open up the island's closed economy. On arriving at the Unesco site of Trinidad after a beautiful coastal ride, our guide Yasel hunted out one of the best such paladares, Vivian Y Pablo, a bougainvillaea-filled roof terrace serving delicious lobster and prawns.

It's difficult not to fall in love with Trinidad, Cuba's best-preserved colonial sugar town with its candy-coloured houses and cobbled streets, down which fabulous American cars and horse-drawn carriages drive leisurely around. Even the traffic is laid-back here. At night, you can catch a glimpse of Trinidadian life through the open doorways or windows, each revealing a different scene being played out under low-wattage bulbs: a boy lying sprawled across a worn sofa watching American cartoons on a flickering TV; two men stubbornly taking a bike to pieces in the parlour of an irate woman complaining about the mess; a middle-aged woman being spun across a parquet floor by her dark Cuban dance teacher; and in another, a man sits alone reading, a huge picture of Fidel Castro on the wall looking benevolently down.

Our arrival in Trinidad also marked a rest day, where we had a choice between a catamaran trip out to Cayo Blanco or a nature walk to the Javira waterfall. This was to be the only opportunity to laze around on a Caribbean island, so I joined a few others on a huge catamaran for a languid day of snorkelling and sunbathing. Before departing, I asked Yasel if he'd be joining us on the outing and for the first time on the trip, he looked a little sheepish and said, "It's very difficult for most Cubans to get a licence to sail; the government is worried we'd try to hijack the vessel and escape." It was a sudden, sobering reality check for us holidaymakers.

We continued our tour by both bike and coach for the next few days through sugar fields and coffee plantations and into the province of Granma, named after the yacht on which Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 compatriots sailed from Mexico to Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Batista in 1956. The invasion, however, was a humiliating disaster, and forced the few remaining revolutionaries to retreat into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, our next destination.

By now we'd begun to understand that by "undulating", Yasel actually meant "steep, heart-pounding, leg-pumping climbs, followed by exhilarating downhills, followed again by steep heart-pounding, leg-pumping climbs". Fortunately, everyone on the trip had a good level of fitness and no one had to be scooped up by the support vehicle following on behind; although after one particularly steep section, I arrived at the pit stop to find everyone flat on their backs under shady trees, taking a quick forty winks. Jose Luis, our affable driver, busied himself at these junctures, dispensing water, cutting up fruit and handing out packets of energy-boosting nuts.

Towards the Sierra Maestra, we passed through poor rural areas, where we occasionally stopped off for a cup of strong black coffee. These pit-stops gave us a valuable insight into Cuban life; state-supplied rations ensure no one goes hungry and housing laws prevent homelessness, yet homes are simple, all bearing the same trademarks - a few pieces of heavy wooden furniture, a picture or two pinned to the wall and always a large old television blaring in the corner.

Our most challenging ride up into the Sierra Maestra mountains thankfully dawned cool and breezy, but by the time we reached El Salton Hotel, a gorgeous getaway in the heart of dense jungle, the rain had set in. However, this leafy refuge was generally agreed to be our most pleasant so far, not least because masseurs were on hand to ease away our aching muscles for a small fee. Sitting in the open-sided dining room, overlooking the waterfall and watching rain cascade off the foliage, I could easily imagine Castro and Che camped out with "los barbudos", the bearded ones, cigars in mouths, planning their next revolutionary attack against Batista's forces. Of course, triumph was finally theirs when, in 1959, Batista fled the country and Castro marched on Havana.

Before proceeding to Santiago the next morning, we took advantage of a break in the clouds to go on a gentle trek into the mountains, enjoying the fantastically varied flora and fauna pointed out to us by our guide, Ricardo, with the assistance of his beautifully hand-drawn book, in which he'd painstakingly catalogued every plant, tree and bird. We ended our trek at a farmer's house with sweet coffee and oranges from the surrounding trees.

Santiago de Cuba, also known as the City of Heroes for the part it played during the Revolution, takes a sulky back seat to Havana, having been ousted as the capital in 1589. But the city is thriving, and has a very different feel to the capital, having a strong African influence dating back to the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. This influence resonates strongly in the musical traditions; Santiago is the home of son, forefather of salsa and the lifeblood of Cuban music. So, after a day wandering Santiago's busy streets, and visiting the Moncada Barracks, the site of Castro's failed 1953 assault, we spent a wonderfully sweaty, salsa-soaked evening in Casa de la Trova, the best dance spot in town.

Sadly, Santiago was our turning point, and so we headed back towards Havana, cycling through pretty countryside and small towns such as Velasco and Remedios; sleepy little places with faded paintwork, terracotta-tiled rooftops and people sitting everywhere, simply watching the world go by.

Stopping off in Santa Clara, site of the final battle against Batista, Yasel told us of the quaint 19th-century afternoon pastime of promenading around the town square, where men walked in one direction and women in the other, hoping to make eye contact and coyly meet a potential partner. Opposite the square stands the grand Teatro la Caridad, built in 1885 by Marta Abreu de Estevez, an art-loving patron and philanthropist. The theatre retains most of its original features, including the stunning painted frescoes on the ceiling and fabulous three-tiered balconies. Our timing was perfect - we happened upon a contemporary dance rehearsal where we could sit and rest our legs while watching, for free, others expend their energy, instead.

On our long coach transfer back to Havana, looking out of the window, I see large roadside rocks informing us "Socialism or Death" and "Socialism is the only guarantee of our freedom and independence", and it's hard not to wonder, with los hermandos Castro getting no younger, what will happen to this 1200km-long island when they're gone. My advice is not to wait to find out. There really is no better time to visit, and no better way to enjoy what Cuba has to offer, than from the saddle.


If you go

The flight

Return flights with Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com) to Havana from Dubai via London cost from Dh7,100, including taxes.

The tour

A 14-day package with Exodus (www.exodus.co.uk) costs from $2,038 (Dh7,486) to $2,195 (Dh8,060) per person, depending on the season, including accommodation and most meals. Trips can be organised throughout the year.