After a busy start to the year in Travelwise, Cuba still remained as a destination high up on everyone’s must visit list. I soon found myself organising 3 different itineraries at once for some of our clients but not fully understanding Cuba as a destination. I felt I was doing Cuba a disservice; so soon decided that I had to see what the fuss was about. I booked my flights and arranged for myself to visit this fascinating country. In light of the recent discussions about lifting the embargo, it was certainly the best time to get to Cuba to explore its culture, music and zest for life!
Following on from a meeting with one of our trade partners, Intrepid, I had spotted a rather exciting package whilst in Cuba. I knew I wanted to visit Havana but I came across a ‘Cycle Cuba’ tour. I decided to base my trip to Cuba around this exciting & active group tour. As a keen cyclist myself, I thought this would be the perfect way to explore what a country has to offer. I packed my cycle helmet, bike pump and padded shorts and headed to London Gatwick.
Taking the direct Virgin flight out to Havana was seamless. I was welcomed right away by a very smooth, comfortable and friendly service; a great way to start my travels. Having never visited Cuba or the Caribbean, I spent the 9-hour flight dreaming of what exactly I had in store.
Although I expected a beaten up old banger of a car, upon arrival at Havana airport I met my transfer driver and headed into the capital. As we streaked through the highways and main roads to Havana, the sights and sounds overloaded my senses from the word go. There were friendly ‘honks’ from trucks and smiles from anyone who caught your glance; Cuba straight away gave a warm welcome. Not to mention the welcome Caribbean heat a contrast to the winter chills of the UK.
My first port of call was the NH Capri; a charming 4* hotel that reached up above the low rise buildings of the Vedado district of the city. Located a short walk down the Malecón, to Old Havana, the hotel provided a great base to explore the city from. Eager to get out and armed with my camera and guide book, I guided myself down to the old part of the city. My initial thoughts were that Cuba was like stepping back in time; the old cars that chugged and banged around the streets, the bright pastel colours of the houses and the occasional ‘Hola!’ from the friendly locals. It certainly lived up to being a photographers dream!
With the distant beat from Cuban bands playing in the cafes and restaurants there seemed to be an endless playlist of a Cuban groove around every street corner. After a day of exploration and visits to the various hotels in the old city with our in country agent, (Travelwise has me working hard even on my own holiday!), I decided to settle for one of Cubas finest Mojitos. Made with Club Havana rum, local sugar cane syrup, lime and mint, the Mojitos slipped down easily; a great accompaniment to people watching.
My second day I was treated to a walking tour of the city with a friendly guide from our in country agent. My previous day’s exploration was given a sense of direction with countless stories and anecdotes on the buildings, plazas and streets that make up Old Havana. We then embarked on a car tour in an old American car – a must in Havana! After falling in love with the old cars running around the city, I felt it was essential I had to experience cruising around in one., and yes…mine had to be the shell pink car didn’t it! A beautifully manicured 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.
The tour in the old American car was brilliant. Accompanied by a driver and my own personal guide, we glided around the different districts of the city, visiting the Plaza de la Revolution, US Embassy and the Botanical Gardens to name but a few places.
My final day was spent retracing my steps and visiting some of my favourite places I had seen from the car tour and walking tour. I loved the appearance of Havana as a whole; from the quirky street art to the old weather worn buildings, there was certainly a charm about Cuba that I had not experienced in any other country.
After a comfortable 3 nights at the NH Capri, I then uprooted to move to one of the many Casa particulars in the Old city. These are wonderful rustic private accommodations that offer an authentic home stay experience. Unlike the modern high-rise hotels, these beautiful Casas are much smaller, boutique family run bed and breakfasts. It was here that I met my tour leader Jose and fellow cyclists for my cycling tour. It was a good group size of only 12 cyclists – a nice small group.
The following morning we met Eddy, our driver for the week and headed out of Havana, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. With the bikes already onboard our bus we headed out to Las Terazzas. Here we unloaded the bikes and embarked on our first cycle of the trip. Cycling in the fierce Cuban sunshine was hard work, but with several stops for bananas, cakes and water we managed to reach our first stop for the night. Las Terazzas sits on the San Juan River, which gave us a great place to cool off before heading out for dinner with a local family. The food in Cuba was nothing to write home about, but the mix of beans, rice and fresh fish and meat dishes certainly kept hunger at bay.
The following day we cycled on to San Diego de los Banos, our second stop on the tour and home to some of Cubas thermal baths. Sadly these were closed for the afternoon, but an alternative option was to enjoy the hotels swimming pool and take up a spot of Salsa dancing with a local dance teacher.
Moving on from San Diego de Los Banos we battled through the kilometres until we reached the World Heritage listed Vinales Valley. We cycled through the lush tobacco plantations where the roads turned from smooth to rutted. This made for a rather extreme ride! The biggest difference from Havana was the lack of cars; instead replaced by ox and carts or tractors. This gave us breathing space and time to appreciate the rural beauty of the region.
Our next base the following day was a few hundred kilometres from Vinales so we loaded onto the bus and hit the highway to The Bay of Pigs. This was once the epicentre for the failed US invasion of the 1960’s. Here we visited the local museum with some amazing artefacts and stories from the time. From here we cycled on to the beach where we took the afternoon to relax and enjoy the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean.
With our cycling tour drawing close to an end, the following day was spent returning to Havana. Not without us burning some calories and doing our final cycle of the tour. We managed to complete the cycle tour (220km!) with no crashes and just one or two punctures. Upon arriving back to Havana we took one last tour of the city on our bikes. On our final evening we all treated our wonderful guide and our driver to a big slap up meal to thank them for their help over the week. Armed with a mojito in hand, with the blaring of a nearby Cuban band, we congratulated one another on what we achieved.
The following day we all parted each other’s company; some heading back into the Cuban countryside, on to Trinidad or Santiago de Cuba. Sadly I had to head to the airport for my flight back to the UK. After purchasing a few gifts for home (Club Havana Rum and Cigars of course!), I met my final transfer & driver and was whisked away to the airport. I had opted to treat myself to fly back in Premium Economy on the return Virgin service – After all it was my birthday!
Cuba has certainly shot to the top of my list of favourite countries visited. Although not set up for super 5* luxury (yet?) it initially appears scruffy, tatty and crumbling on the outside. But once you get past this, you very quickly realise that the Cubans have a lot of pride for their country and the inner beauty really has a chance to shine through. Cycling was certainly a great way to see a country. Intrepid offers a range of destinations for cycling tours from Europe to Asia or Africa to the Americas; there is certainly something for all levels. As Intrepid say ‘These are cycling tours, but not as you know them…’
Contact Dallal to arrange a fantastic trip to this wonderful country and it does not need be on two wheels.
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