The Biking Issue

Bicycling in Cuba Takes Visitors Off the Tourist Track

By Emma Brown and Jacob Fenston
Washington Post Staff Writer and Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 20, 2009

We were coated in a slick of sweat, diesel exhaust and sunscreen when we coasted up to a man wearing just-shined shoes and drinking rum from a plastic cup. He squinted at our crinkled map, nodded, told us we wanted to go south to the beach at San Luis and walked off as we tried to explain that we were headed north.

Next we tried an older woman, who donned her huge reading glasses to examine the map. She held it upside down and agreed that San Luis was probably where we were headed. Her nephew chimed in: Nothing up that other road but mountains and rivers. "Do what you want," he said, exasperated. "But you won't get there before dark."

It was Day 3 of our self-guided biking tour of Cuba. We were lost, and everyone -- including a baseball team playing by the side of the road -- was trying to help.

We had arrived in Cuba on a late-night flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, staying that first night in the home of a friendly, fast-talking couple who rented us a room in their bright blue Havana apartment and kindly stored our bicycle boxes until our return seven days later. Pedaling west out of the city, along its famed seaside promenade, we had passed apartment buildings hung with laundry, crumbling grand hotels and nationalist slogans ("¡Viva Castro! ¡Patria o muerte!") scrawled on pieces of wood and nailed to telephone poles.

Now we were somewhere in Pinar del Rio province, the country's tobacco capital. We'd taken a wrong turn and were trying to find a shortcut back to our route, where our guidebook said we'd find a small guesthouse that had a tendency to fill up fast.

We didn't have reservations or a phone number, but we crossed our fingers, turning down a dirt road that didn't appear on the map. The sky, which had been darkening all day, cracked open, unleashing bolts of lightning and sheets of rain. We hunched our shoulders, pedaled faster and -- what else could we do? -- laughed.

Traveling on two wheels in Cuba, we were discovering, means being exposed to the weather. But it also means being exposed to the country -- its hidden valleys, its roadside fried-chicken vendors, its tucked-away-in-a-courtyard music -- in a way we might not otherwise be.

Soaked and shivering late that rainy afternoon, we finally rolled up to Finca la Guabina, a horse ranch that doubles as an eco-hotel. A young woman who seemed to operate the place by herself offered us a luckily vacant room in the high-ceilinged converted farmhouse, where a flier beside the bed boasted such attractions as horseback riding, cockfighting and crocodile-breeding.

We opted instead for hot showers and cold mojitos and fell into bed exhausted, listening to the occasional shriek of a peacock that made its night home on a trellis outside our window.

* * *

When the Soviet Union fell nearly two decades ago, Cuba scrambled to make up for lost subsidies, and tourism became one of the country's most reliable sources of hard currency. President Fidel Castro legalized the U.S. dollar and eased restrictions on foreign investment; hotels mushroomed and Cubans started renting out rooms in their homes. Now, despite the U.S. embargo that prohibits most Americans from spending money here, Cuba is the Caribbean's second most popular destination (after the Dominican Republic), with picturesque spots flooded with vacationing Europeans and Canadians.

Cubans we met were curious about these two Americans on bikes, and they had lots of friendly questions about baseball, Barack Obama, the economic crisis and hip-hop. ("Wow, I never met an American guy," said a man with dreadlocks whom we met in a Havana cafe. "Do you like Tupac?")

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