Elizabeth O’Neill joined an international crew circumnavigating the island of Cuba.
The ribbons are for the Cuban 5 – explained our tour leader, Ichael, as we stood around him in the colonial square. The afternoon sun lit up the blues and yellows of Trinidad, Cuba and he outlined the situation for the five prisoners held in the US since 1998, convicted of espionage. Two had been recently released.
Considered heroes in Cuba, the white ribbons streamed from the square’s Royal Palm – the national tree and a symbol of strength – as a reminder of the plight of the remaining three.
This was just one of the signs of unity and revolution that permeates a country that’s spent more than 50 years in defiant isolation in the Caribbean. It’s also a country that had long been at the top of my wish list. I was told many times to “go before it changes?”
To cover the most ground, I chose a cycling trip with Intrepid Travel/Exodus. While a certain level of fitness is required, myself and my 17 travelling companions had no problems with the distances or terrain.
The itinerary seems to be worked out to ease you into the saddle as the first outing is 15km around Havana and the seafront of “El Malecon” to test the bikes. We’d already been introduced at the briefing with couples and single travellers from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and South Africa making up a sociable and easy group.
In circumnavigating the island, we started off on the flat around the Bay of Pigs and on to Trinidad, through the farmlands of Camaguey, uphill to the Sierra Maestra and finally to Santiago de Cuba before returning to Havana.
Most of the cycling – about 70km per day – was done in the morning, so that the afternoons were free for exploring or more typically starting on the first mojito of the day. Rum and music are a way of life.
Four or five days in, having already covered about 200km, learned the intricacies of the peloton, seen remnants of the Missile Crisis and swum in crystal clear waters, we landed in Trinidad and a welcome day out of the saddle.
An Unesco world heritage site, it’s a melting pot of cultures and preserved squares that barely hide the ghosts of the gentrified and brutal Spanish colonisers. Looking at the churches and haciendas I could feel them coming to life as I jostled with the day-to-day lives of the locals.
Just a few minutes away, the street life is full of old cars, workers returning home, kids playing football and the milk delivered door to door by a cowboy on horseback calling “Leche! Leche!”.
In Trinidad, the fusion of cultures is told in the dance shows at the Casa de la Musica where, if you’re brave enough, you can salsa with the locals. Musicians from all over the world play here.
On two consecutive nights I saw the history of the island played out with firstly, a show of African dance that evoked voodoo, and incantations to ward off evil or amorous slave owners.
On the second night the story seemed to focus on later in the island’s history with Flamenco and African dance mixing in a precursor to the intimidating swagger of today’s salsa. Despite an invitation, I still refused to join in.
Back on the road, we entered the province of Camaguey where the landscape is undulating and thick with sugar cane.
While the cycling became more challenging with stronger headwinds, all eventualities were thought of with rest stops at regular intervals, and fruit and water provided by our mechanic Johnny Hips – so called for his prowess on the dance floor.
If we were lagging behind, our driver, Tuna, was ready to pick us up. The ‘battle bus’ became a second home with a washing line strung down the middle.
We landed in the city of Camaguey on January 17 – the day of the announcement of the prisoner exchange that heralded renewed diplomatic relations between Cuba and America. So I finally made it to Cuba and it was changing. We were told of jubilation on the streets when Raul Castro announced freedom for the Cuban 5, the group I’d heard about only days before. From what I saw, life went on as usual. The rice was still drying on the roadside, the pigs were still being brought to slaughter and everyone was going about their daily business.
The city of Camaguey is more commercial than other places we’d been and perhaps primed for change and an influx of franchises. Where it is totally unique is in its practice of honouring the people of the street.
The “estatuas populares” are bronze statues of locals, such as the man who told the time by looking at the sun, or the block president who daily sits beside his likeness on the street he resided in for years.
When I asked about politics, I was told every block votes at four year intervals, and the winning candidate represents all interests of that street on a voluntary basis.
Block presidents collectively elect the next rung of politicians, and so on until you reach the top. This is apparently based on a Brazilian tribal system.
Skimming the surface of a country like Cuba, I’ve no idea how in reality it works or if it works. But this particular living ex-president had his own statue to prove his worth.
Onwards from Camaguey we began our most difficult day on the bikes into the Sierra Maetra, the mountain range where Fidel Castro hid out while planning his revolution.
The climb involved three long ascents with hair-raising descents and a final push off-road to a beautiful mountain lodge. The topography was spectacular. On a hike we saw humming birds, American warblers, mango and mother-in-law trees.
The nearest I got to Christmas was seeing a mistletoe cactus, a resurrection fern and epiphytes clinging to a tree that was as majestic as a cathedral. The stillness was only broken by Raggaeton music that crept up the mountainside.
As our journey through Cuba continued, we came to Santiago de Cuba and took in a tour of Moncada Barracks, the sight of a failed attacked by Fidel Castro that heralded the revolution’s beginning.
For me, this story has so many similarities of 1916 – a failed uprising and the execution of revolutionaries that galvanised a nation.
This feeling of affinity was later echoed on a plaque on O’Reilly Street in Havana – “Muintir dhá oileán sa bhfarraige coibhinte agus dóchas ceanna, Cuba agus Éire.”
On our return to Havana we stayed at the sea-salt crusted village of Gibara. The Atlantic bites at the landscape and Hurricane Ike ransacked the village in 2008.
However, enterprise has taken hold with a refurbished five star hotel and an international arts and film festival every May that has Woody Allen as a patron.
The cycle from Gibara was the prettiest and one of our last.
Before our final destination we stayed overnight at a Butlins-esque resort that boasted live flamingos, a thermal bath-house and chalets.
While not the best accommodation, it proved the most fun as the bikes were dismantled and we let our hair down with mojitos, impromptu salsa lessons and yes, I finally relented and took to the dance floor.
You can book with the above or you can book online with Skyscanner, flights start at €550.
What to see/do off the saddle
Trinidad: walking tour around the squares near sunset & Casa De La Musica for dancing
Sierra Maestra: walking tour
Santiago: Moncada Barracks
Santa Clara: the Che Guevara Mausoleum
Gibara: the fishing village which transforms into an arts & film festival
Havana: walking/cycling El Malecon, tour of the Old Town, trip in a vintage car
Currency is the Cuban convertible Peso(CUC). Bring cash, ATMS are very unreliable and credit/debit cards can rarely be used for cash advances.
The curious 3CUC note seems to be minted for the convenient payment for cocktails – mojito, pina colada, daiquiri, cuba libre are all 3CUC.
Cuba means a digital detox – the internet is not widely available and is very slow.
If you do come across Wi-Fi expect to pay 10CUC (€8.40) for an hour.
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