Hi WS Community,
My girlfriend and I would like to cycle around Cuba this February on a budget. Could you tell me about your tips and experiences? What are the cheapest accommodations for those accustomed to roughing it? Are there any camping options? Safety info, how/where to pick up a decent bike and pannier set up, etc? We'd love to stay longer term within a community as we're interested in gaining experience with the Cuban primary ed system and being involved with agroecology and/or ecological restoration work.
I can only really speak to cycling around parts of the country, and not about staying longer term or anything to do with the education system.
I've done three cycle trips in Cuba
Two in 2005 (spring and fall). Each of those was one week cycling and the other week car or moped rental.
One in 2014, all by bicycle except a taxi ride back to Santa Clara from Cienfuegos.
In Cuba you really won't find any legal way to "rough it". Camping is technically illegal and locals are not allowed to let you stay at their homes unless they have a licence to operate tourist accommodations. I hear that those rules are being bent and plainly violated at times but the locals could end up with crushing fines as a result. My view is that when I visit a country like Cuba I want to support the local economy as much as possible.
In order to stay "above board" you have the option of staying in Cuban state run hotels which run from absolutely dismal to downright pleasant. You will not truly be supporting the locals, aside from the few folks who work at those places. Prices will range the gamut from 25 CUC (same as the US dollar) to ...well, a lot more than that.
The other option, and the better one in my opinion, is to stay at a "Casa Particular". This literally translates to "Private House". You'll see the inverted blue "anchor" on the door to signify tourist accommodations. The hosts are usually are very good and those are also the places where you'll find the best food. Cuban food is otherwise not exactly something to write home about. The cost for these is usually between 20 and 30 CUC (Convertible Pesos, which are pegged to the US dollar). In some of the tourist areas, such as Trinidad, you could run into some as high as 40 CUC. But even there I was able to find a 25 CUC room, including breakfast. ....it really helps to speak some Spanish.
Make sure you have some kind of travel book to see which towns have tourist facilities. "Non-tourist" towns simply do not have any "legal" accommodations. So the book will help you plan your distances. Don't assume that just because there's a dot with a name on the map that there will be a legal place to sleep.
Cuba is by and large a country which is very, very safe when it comes to violent crime. I have never felt any need to take any special precautions in that regard.
Petty theft, on the other hand, is quite endemic. Don't leave anything unattended. Things WILL disappear. I fell asleep on a beach and someone went through my shorts pockets and took some cash (no I wasn't wearing the shorts :-)), A waiter thought he was very clever and tried to sweep my eyeglasses up along with the money I had left on the table with the bill, and a water bottle was taken from my bike. Having said all that, I always implicitly trusted my casa particular hosts, including leaving my $2000 bike with them and never had anything taken.
The best place to pick up a decent bike for your trip is at your favourite bike shop back home. YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PURCHASE A DECENT BIKE IN CUBA. There simply are no real bike shops. Since you're in the San Juan Islands check into flying out of Vancouver, BC with Sunwing Airlines. They only charge CDN$30 for the bike (return). Just make sure you leave your bike box with the casa particular where you'll be spending your first and last night. You'll find it very difficult, if not impossible to find a bike box once in Cuba.
There are also some folks who take older, more basic bikes to tour and then they donate them to either an organization down there or to individuals who they feel could benefit from having a bike for transportation. Also check out www.bikesforcuba.com.
Everything is done in cash. They will exchange US dollars but they do charge a penalty. The Canadian dollar or Euros are not a problem but the Canadian dollar is pretty dismal right now. You can withdraw cash from ATMs with a Canadian debit or credit card ...don't know about US cards. Besides, you don't want to use your US cards since your own government could trace that back to you. No one has been prosecuted recently (as far as I know) but better safe than sorry.
There are two currencies. The convertible Peso (CUC) pegged to the US dollar and the Cuban Peso or Moneda Nacional which is about 24 to 1 vis a vis the CUC. Moneda Nacional is not really required but comes in very handy in small towns and once you step only a few blocks away from the tourist areas. I usually get about CUC30 worth of Cuban Pesos and never get to spend them all. But if you're going to be hanging with the local folks a lot then maybe you should get some more. They're not hard to get, just remember what the exchange rate is and make sure to ask whether the price is in "moneda nacional" ...not CUC
Also inform yourself where you stand as a US citizen in regards to your own government. I'm not sure how much really has changed since some of the rules of your government have been relaxed. Of course you can circumvent all of those by flying out of Canada and paying cash for everything.
For the rest of your questions you may want to contact some of the organizations that do volunteer work and cultural exchange programs with Cuba.
Best of luck on your trip. If you have any specific questions please let me know. I've cycled:
Varadero to Havana
Varadero to Trinidad via Bahia De Los Cochinos
A circle tour from Santa Clara north then east via Moron, Ciego de Avila, Trinidad, Cienfuegos.
Michelle, I meant to thank you for all this info long ago. I really appreciate you taking the time to provide such a thorough run down.
I did a cycling tour in Cuba during 2005. There is absolutely no doubt about these two facts
- Don't think about buying anything like a bike. The only good bike I saw used by a cuban was hijacked from a generous ONG ( this is the rule, not an exception). The man was very proud to tell me that, laughing.
- Use Casa Particular for accommodation. This is very convenient. Once a day, I was not sure to find any CP in my next station, so I randomly asked to somebody in the street. He answered only, "don't worry, I'll take care" and I went on riding. One hour later, when I entered the little town where I wanted to stay, I was welcomed by a man who was waiting me, across the road, to drive me to a CP. Very nice.
The big problem is that I found road too dangerous with big trucks ( carrying people, not goods, the economy is dead for years).
But there is often a solution for this security problem, that you can't know if nobody tells you: take highway !!!! They are very low traffic and the right lane is reserved for animal drawn carts and bicycles.
Thank you for the information Philippe!
Hi Andrew, I just got back from 2.5 Months biking Cuba with my family. I talked to tons of cyclists there and there are many ways to do things. With regards to camping, we left our camping gear in Havana and then picked up when we left. The casa particulares are so cheap $15 to $35 a night) that i didnt feel it was worth it to camp. I did however meet a Polish cyclist who was camping and she said she just asked people if she could sleep in their yard-- she was going ultra cheap. There are places you could wild camp, especially in the east in the remote areas, but i wouldn't recommend doing it near a settlement --you may have stuff taken. Speaking spanish (we do) will make things much easier for you. Check out our blog bikingwithkidsadventure.WordPress.com for some more info or I can answer any questions you might have. Another thing to think about is water--bring some form of purification and you will not have to buy bottled water. Also food -- casa food can be expensive -- street food is dirt cheap. Try to eat out as much as you can. We only had the opportunity to cook for ourselves 3 times -- most Casas do not let you do your own cooking. Bring your own bikes!! And give them away at the end of the trip if you can.
A realistic budget for 2 cyclists is about $100 CUC/ day
2 people :
$6-10 lunch on road
( Or $5.00 packed up from Casa supplemented with a few market purchases )
$10-20---6-10 beer,ice cream and/or a good bottle Ron and mix
$5-10- museum or attraction entrance fees.
With discretion easy under $100 CUC /2 ppl