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Touring Cuba by bicycle: Take the challenge

Touring Cuba by bicycle: Take the challenge
Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2014 12:15 am
Ken Youngblood

So you’ve flirted with the dream of touring Cuba by bicycle. Go for it. But not because the media tell you it’s a “cyclist’s paradise.” Go because there are no real legal obstacles you can’t overcome and you are sure to leave the island wiser, both in terms of the body politic and, more importantly, an emotional wisdom sharpened by a wondrous people.
Cuba’s road system is a bicycler’s nightmare. No wonder horses and bicycles vastly outnumber cars and trucks. Most likely a vintage guzzler — you can breathe in the half century of plying these roads in their billowing black belch.
Because of the U.S. embargo and Cuba’s failed experiment with Socialism, road surfaces are neglected beyond belief. Equip your bike with strong rims and wide tires to cushion the constant jarring and minimize flats.
Then, too, you’ll have to endure long, flat stretches of monolithic agriculture with little in the way of food and lodging. So concentrate your time on the best areas for bicycling and take advantage of the nationwide bus system to skip the dull terrain. For an extra $5 Víazul will carry your bicycle.
Whatever you do, spend time in Valle de Viñales, Bahia de Cochinos, and the highway slithering the southeastern coast in the shadow of the Sierra Maestra, mountains so remote Batista’s military never found Fidel’s revolutionaries.
Because Viñales is popular with tourists, the roads there are about the best you’ll experience. You’ll ride lush green valleys where oxen and horses graze against the backdrop of towering mogotes whose limestone made Viñales the heart of tobacco country. We spent nearly a week there, hiking, bicycling and on horse exploring the communal paths meandering from one little cluster of houses to another. Wherever we went oxen worked the fields to commands issued by the man behind the plow, his soft voice a constant lulling. A bicycler can thank his gods: tractors compact the earth too much for tobacco’s taste.
Yes, Bahia de Cochinos or as history knows it, the Bay of Pigs, is one of those must-see destinations. And not just because of the roadside signs and memorials that boast being the only nation to have defeated American imperialism.
Today it’s tourists who invade the Bay of Pigs. The best offshore snorkeling and diving in this hemisphere draws tourists to the 70 kilometers of coastal highway from Playa Larga at the head of the bay to Playa Girón at its mouth. Wherever we stepped offshore, we experienced a startling variety of corals and colorful fish. So strap your snorkeling gear on the back rack.
Try to avoid Bahia de Cochinos in late March or early April or you will be caught up in the slaughter that occurs during the Migración Anual de los Cangrejos. Crabs by countless millions migrate to the sea to lay their eggs. Every day, thousands per highway kilometer are crushed and smeared under the wheels of buses, the sound of shells popping audible to the tourists holding handkerchiefs up to their noses to shield them from the stench.
And once the Discovery Channel videoed the carnage, the government’s Transfur buses for tourists were so packed they had to add more runs. Bahia de Cochinos had become a tourist destination. Making the slaughter even greater.
Bicyclers can thank bumbling Socialism and Sandy’s fury for what bicyclers see as their mecca in Cuba. The road that hugs the coast from Manzanillo to Guantánamo. This stretch of Cuba’s southeast coast once was busy with tourists. Every turn exposes yet another vista of mountain and sea in collision. But here is where Sandy made landfall, mangling bridges and eating up kilometer after kilometer of pavement where ocean and mountain afforded narrow passage. Now long sections of this route are passable only by horse, four-wheel drive … and bicycle.
Broken asphalt or washed out road bed, the going is tough on a bicycle, but the seclusion is worth the price.
One final word to the wise:
Stay in the many casa particulares that dot towns from one end of the island to the other. In a concession to free enterprise, the government grants licenses to families to rent out rooms. The government collects over half the rent, but there is no way of tracking how many meals a day tourists eat in a casa. You will sit down to more than a few lobster dinners prepared by professional chefs who have learned taking care of one couple for one night can pay more than a month at a restaurant. You will be casting one more vote for free enterprise each time you sit down to a delicious meal invariably priced $4, $6, $8 or $10.
By no means is touring Cuba easy, but as is so often true with a bicycle, the more challenging the ride, the more wonderful memories mark the route.
Ken Youngblood, who made a career writing and teaching writing, is the first place winner of seven Distinguished Writing Awards in the New York News Publishers Association Award for Excellence competitions. In 1992 he was honored with the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching from then Chancellor Johnstone of the State University of New York.

Source: Touring Cuba by bicycle: Take the challenge – The Taos News: Lifestyle – http://www.taosnews.com/lifestyle/article_5646c0e4-2fc6-11e4-bbc0-001a4bcf887a.html

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