For as long as I can remember, communist Cuba, first ruled by Fidel Castro and then his brother Raul, was nearly off limits to Americans. Though only 90 miles from Florida, Cuba might as well have been on the moon.
Those rules were loosened under the Obama administration, but President Trump has since begun closing doors, starting in 2017; U.S. citizens, however, can still visit Cuba on people-to-people trips, one of roughly a dozen permitted categories where the emphasis is on interacting with locals.
This is how I found myself dancing the salsa one night in the small town of Viñales on Cuba’s northwest coast. I was there as part of a Backroads trip, which led me and a dozen other adventurous bicyclists on a fascinating, 200-plus-mile journey that started in Havana and took us west to the national park, through a protected biosphere, and let us off on a remote Caribbean beach.
I had jumped at the chance to bicycle through Cuba, even though the State Department advised Americans against traveling to the cloistered nation, warning that we might become victims of mysterious attacks. I took this advice with a grain of salt.
I also received an email from Backroads telling me to moderate my expectations and that in Cuba, "the plan is that few things will go according to plan. It’s essential that you arrive with an open heart, a curious mind and a supreme level of flexibility."
With that in mind, I flew into Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport last December, eager to cycle on a tropical island in winter and learn more about Cuba, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite vacation haunts and the site of his second home, sample a mojito, and smoke a Cohiba cigar.
The first night, I booked a room in Casa Compostela, a private residence in Old Havana near the neoclassical Capitol Building, a square where scores of juiced-up 1950s Chevrolets, Fords Plymouths, and even one Cadillac, were lined up for taxi rides. It was also just a short walk from Hemingway’s daiquiri haunt, El Floridita.
The next morning, I connected with the other intrepid cyclists in my group, our two Spanish cycling guides, Pablo and Lara (aka “the fixer), plus Oscar, our Cuban handler and guide outside the luxe Hotel Kempinski. Then we were off on a three-hour bus ride to the Viñales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where tobacco farmers still use horses and oxen to till the soil. The area is also home to Viñales National Park, which has dozens of limestone hills called mogotes in Spanish.
We dropped off our bags at the pink Jazmines Hotel, situated on a ridge above the valley, changed into our cycling duds and drove through the town of Viñales, where there were numerous, brightly painted casas particulares (private homes) with rooms to rent.
Cuba’s economy is evolving, and it’s only in the last decade that residents have been permitted to buy and sell property or even own cellphones. It was clear, Oscar told us, that small-scale capitalism was proving a boon to Viñales, which has prospered from tourism.
Not far from town, our bus stopped at the one-room, blue-and-white “El Cuajani” restaurant, a short distance from a pin cushion-shaped mogote. Here, we had a lunch prepared by chef-owner Jose, who had worked in Madrid before returning to Cuba, of freshly pressed sugar-cane juice, guarapo, fish, salad and bread, and a dessert of flan.
Then, after being fitted with hybrid bikes by our guides, we spent the day riding on roads which rolled through the national park.
That night we had dinner at a hilltop organic oasis owned by Wilfredo, a former carpenter. He’d brought fertile soil up from the valley below to grow fruits and vegetables in his “Finca Agroecologico Paraiso” gardens and produce delicious meals. After touring the grounds, but before sitting down to dinner, he showed us how to make a tasty, rum-based drink.
We awakened the next morning at the Jazmines to the sound of cattle lowing in the valley below our hotel. The animals were obscured in parts by fog that hung like a curtain. After a delicious breakfast of pancakes, fruit and sweet Cuban coffee, we climbed some challenging hills, descended and then climbed (whew) again. It was worth it, as the last 15 miles ran along the northern coast of Cuba to a village called Cayo Jutias, where we swam in the warm sea before another tasty lunch of cerveza, local fresh fish, salad, and organic veggies.
That night we had dinner at a restaurant called Da’ Tuti, the highlight of the evening a rooftop salsa dancing lesson with a pair of experts. Most Cubans, locals boast, are born to dance and make music.
The next day brought more riding past fields where farmers walked behind wooden plows, as their great, great grandparents might have done. Nor was it unusual for us to pass clip-clopping, horse-drawn buggies that seemed right out of a living-history museum.
Later, we dismounted in the small village of San Blas, where we were introduced to a teacher and her students, in crisp uniforms, in a one-room school. Oscar also showed us a small shop where Cubans can use their ration cards to get a set amount of staples each month.
At another stop, a 60-year-old artist named Alejandro told us he was born into a poor campesino family of eight children. He credited the revolution with allowing him to go to school and improving his lot in life. But he was also pleased that rules had eased in recent years, permitting him to sell his paintings to tourists and keep most of his earnings.
On the way back, we visited the Portales cave where Che Guevara commanded the occidental army during the Cuban Missle Crisis in 1962. This is just one of the many stops on the island, off the beaten path, in some cases only accessible by bike, where you can experience true Cuban history.
Our digs for the next few evenings were the Hotel Moka in Las Terrazas, which is part of a UNESCO biosphere. Once a clear-cut, it was sculpted starting in the late 1960s into terraces, reforested and turned into a self-contained eco-village of around 1,000 souls.
On our final day, we rode about 40 miles back to the outskirts of Havana to a seaside village called Jaimanitas, where Hemingway once fished. We’d come to peruse the fanciful mosaics and murals of Jose Fuster, who had decorated so many of the homes and buildings in the neighborhood that it's now called Fusterlandia.
We stopped at a monument honoring author Jose Marti and then rolled by huge murals of Che Guevara and fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos. Within 30 minutes, we were back in Old Havana, where I headed straight for Hemingway’s La Floridita and a grapefruit daiquiri.
Though the cycling was fun, and at times challenging, more than anything I appreciated how seeing Cuba by bike allowed me to spend time off the main tourist routes. To meet the dance instructors, rural doctors, organic farmers and cafe owners, the master cyclists, with whom we pedaled on the final day and who had built their racers from spare and recycled parts.
I left feeling like I had not just seen Cuba, I'd truly experienced it.
( Prices start at $6,099 for the seven-day, six-night tour; backroads.com)