Two hours into the bus ride from Havana to the Valle de Viñales, I found myself unconsciously humming the theme from “Land of the Lost,” the ‘70s Saturday morning TV show about a family whose raft goes over a waterfall and deposits them into a prehistoric alternate world. Along the autopista, farmers wearing wide-brimmed straw hats and chomping on cigars work tobacco fields with yoked oxen and mules instead of tractors and trucks. Enormous limestone flat-topped hills, mogotes, which date back to the Jurassic period, rise up from the valley floor surrounding us like ancient creatures (one formation looked just like a giant elephant.) Goats, sheep, cows and chickens wander along the side of the road as a horse-drawn carriage hugs the shoulder. On the horizon, the dark gray asphalt, punctuated by candy-colored cars from another century, cuts a swath through the lush green landscape. There are no billboards. No rest stops. No Wifi. No cell service. No traffic. No commerce. “We are really off the grid,” I thought as our bus pulled into our lunch spot – a small wooden house with a thatched roof tucked beneath one of the giant domes. This was the starting point for the Backroads Cuba Biking Tour – a five-day trip which would take us from the Valle de Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage site, back to Havana – 160 miles of spectacular scenery, local culture and off-the-beaten-path biking.
Ever since the Obamas’ glamorous and historic visit in 2016, I’d been dying to go to Cuba to explore the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, sip Café Cubano while smoking a hand-rolled Cuban cigar, drive on the Malecón in a convertible ‘57 Chevy, and eat fresh fish and frijoles negros on a white-sand beach while listening to live salsa music. I assumed my dream would be deferred for another four years since President Trump issued new regulations restricting individual travel to Cuba. Then Backroads invited me and a group of other writers to preview its new People-to-People Biking Tour, the first trip of its kind from a US active travel company.
While I was a bit apprehensive about biking 25-40 miles per day along the island’s rugged roads (my achy middle-aged knees had spent the last 10 weeks in physical therapy and my Cuban vacation fantasy involved floral dresses and flip flops more than padded bike shorts and potholes), I had to say yes to this amazing opportunity.
And I’m so glad I did! The tour expanded my limited postcard vision of Cuba by taking me to stunningly unspoiled beaches and biospheres, nature reserves and national parks. It also gave me a feeling of freedom and independence I haven’t felt since my mid 20s. For a quarter of a century I’ve been following my husband through airports, or packing snacks for the kids, or carrying everyone’s passports or making the reservations and planning the itineraries. This was the first trip in decades where I wasn’t someone’s wife, mother, caretaker, organizer. And without cell phone service or WiFi, nobody could reach me…which was a nice break. I had a taste of midlife freedom and, no offense kids, bring on the empty nest!
The trip also invited me to challenge myself physically in a way that I hadn’t since I turned 50 (I ran a half marathon when I was 48 but I injured my knee and hadn’t done much strenuous exercise since.) Much of the cycling felt like mountain biking with stretches of rough pavement (I’m glad I packed cycling gloves!) and a few of the routes included serious inclines like our 35-mile ride on day four. It started out with a long uphill climb and it was steep. So steep. Soooooo steep. I had been bringing up the rear all week or hopping on the support bus when I got tired, but that day I was feeling strong and was determined to crush that hill. I engaged my core and pushed and pushed and sweated and pushed. I might have even cried a little but I rode past Brian, a super fit travel writer who heli-skis and white-water kayaks for fun. I rode past the Soul Cycle-sassy millennials who actually look good in bike shorts because their butts are so small. As if giving birth to my beautiful children I pushed through the pain. And it hurt. A lot. Nevertheless I persisted. I made it to the top and everyone cheered as I screamed in agony and then belted out the theme from ROCKY.
As awesome as these experiences were, the true beauty of the trip was the personal and frequent interactions with Cubans. From organic farmers and chefs to doctors and artists; teachers and school kids to salsa dancers and cyclists, the locals welcomed us into their homes and business with pride, passion and positivity. I was deeply moved by the pervasive feeling of happiness and contentment among the locals (at least the ones we met) who survive on extremely limited resources, meager salaries, food rations, government restrictions and very modest housing. There’s no doubt Cubans still have some big hills to climb. But their indomitable spirit will surely carry them to the summit. Viva Cuba!
BIKE, SLEEP, EAT, REPEAT
The Backroads Cuba Biking Tour covers 160 miles in the northwestern region of the island including Viñales National Park, La Güira National Park, Cayo Jutias, the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve, and Fusterlandia. Here are some of the places we ate, slept and visited:
Sleep: Located high upon a hill, Hotel Los Jazmines offers spectacular views of the mogotes. But this wilting pink flower is in need of a makeover. The rooms had a slightly seedy ‘70s motel vibe (sanitation strips over the toilet, thin bedspreads and towels, earth tones) and there was no running water for 24 hours during our stay (we had to change rooms) All was forgiven, however, when I opened the shutters, stepped out onto the terrace and took in the breathtaking beauty of the Valle de Viñales.
Eat: After touring Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, a gorgeous organic farm, and visiting with the animals (bunnies, baby goats, sheep, pigs, chickens), we picked vegetables for our salads and enjoyed a traditional (and delicious!) Cuban meal – pork, chicken, fish, rice, beans, vegetables and flan.
Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve
Sleep: Perched atop the sustainable eco-village, Las Terrazas, Hotel Moka blends into the surrounding natural beauty. A large carob tree grows in the middle of the lobby – guests are encouraged to touch it for good energy. The rooms are spacious with terra cotta tile floors, modern bathrooms, cable TV and large terraces. With good WiFi, the open air lobby is a fun hangout for guests who can enjoy live music from the upstairs bar while checking their Instagram feed.
Eat/Shop: Part ashram, part kibbutz, part ‘60s commune, Las Terrazas houses one thousand people who live for free and contribute to the community. Nobody locks doors or windows and young kids roam freely around the property with seemingly minimal or no adult supervision. There are several restaurants, two coffee shops, a disco, a school, a museum, a doctor’s office and pharmacy, a playground and even a zip line. We ate dinner at two of the excellent restaurants, scored some beautiful handmade souvenirs from local artisans at the gift shop and enjoyed an afternoon Café Cubano.
Last stop, Havana!
Sleep: The night before I met up with the Backroads group, I was on my own and chose to stay at Casa Compostela, a “Casa Particular.” Not gonna lie, I was a little nervous when my taxi arrived and there was no sign and no formal entrance – I had to carry my bag up a steep staircase while a pit bull barked behind a cage under the stairs. But..for $80, I had a spare but clean room with a small terrace and a bathroom in a private home in the heart of Old Havana. I was steps away from great shopping, food and sights – and if I wandered too far, there were loads of pedicabs (about $5 to get around Old Havana.) For $30 extra, Casa Compostela arranged to have a taxi driver meet me at the airport upon my arrival (which was helpful since I was traveling alone and I do not speak a word of Spanish.)
Sleep: On the last night of the trip and on the opposite end of the lodging spectrum, we stayed at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, the city’s first true luxury hotel located next to Parque Central and the famous El Floridita. The hotel is in a stunningly restored building from the 1800s and is very chic and modern with an infinity pool overlooking the city. It felt a little strange to stay in such overwhelming opulence after traveling through the countryside and seeing how modestly the Cubans live. But it’s beautiful, comfortable and in a perfect location. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth a visit to the rooftop bar for a sunset mojito.
Eat: Although Cuba is not known as a foodie destination and fresh ingredients can be very limited, we had terrific meals at 304 O’Reilly – tiny taco and empanadillos, local artwork on the walls, delicious and huge non-alcoholic cucumber lemonade; Chef Ivan Justo – big portions, fresh fish, fun vibe in an old house with Hollywood memorabilia including an entire wall devoted to Marilyn Monroe photos; El Cocinero – hey, if it’s good enough for Michelle Obama who ate here when she visited Havana; Fabrica del Arte, a massive warehouse space with several bars, art installations, interactive exhibits, live music, boutiques, film and cafes – a must-visit; El Dandy – the cutest little coffee house serving light fare and displaying photography by young Cuban artists; Sia Kara – super hip piano bar and cafe in an alley behind the capitol building with dancing and singing waiters and fabulous frozen lemonade (with or without rum). We arrived at 1am and it was still hopping.
Shop: A boutique that would feel at home in Brooklyn, Clandestina sells trendy recycled t-shirts and totes with tongue-in-cheek phrases and youthful designs. Cubans can also bring in their own t-shirts and get them silk-screened at Clandestina.
On the other side of Old Havana, Piscolabis offers a fantastic collection of paintings, pillows, jewelry and furnishings from local artisans and small but very stylish selection of modern linen guayaberas for both men and women.
Art: On the final day of the trip, we visited Fusterlandia, a formerly impoverished neighborhood reclaimed by Cuban artist José Fuster.
Originally published at pattynasey.blogspot.com