Havana to Vinales - Triplogue

Wednesday, 25 December 1996, Havana to Las Terrazas, 48 miles

It was Christmas morning, and the first time this trip that we had slept past 6:30. We woke up just in time to watch the sun rise over the meeting of smog and sea that constitutes Havana. The ambiance (and the food) on the 10th floor breakfast room was pure Eastern Bloc, but the view from the terrace was breathtaking and the coffee gloriously strong. On the ground floor I discovered a travel agent who called around for me. I had picked Soroa –70 kilometers west of Havana—as our place to spend the night, but she learned that it was closed, being used as a movie set. After some thought (actually I think it was the car rental boy at the next desk who came up with it), she proposed the Hotel Moka in a "Zona Turistica" called Las Terrazas. She couldn’t reserve us a room for some inexplicable Cuban reason, yet felt certain that there would be space and assured me that it was a fantastic spot. Given the gloomy surroundings of the lobby where we sat, I didn’t expect much.

Packing our bags in our room, I wondered about the sounds of schoolchildren across the street. Wasn’t Christmas a holiday here? Apparently not. "Every day is a working day," a cheerless desk clerk explained to me later, with more than a touch of irony. I’ve learned since that Christmas was officially canceled as a holiday some time in the ‘70’s. Pretty amazing when you consider that this country was virtually 100% Catholic before Castro came to power, and that even in Islamic Indonesia, Christmas is an official holiday.

So we hit the road on a day like any other in Cuba. Billboards wished us a happy 1997, but there were no signs of Christmas anywhere. A Champs-Elysees- like boulevard led us to the Plaza de la Revolucion, where an enormous steel portrait of Che Guevara –the national saint—graced one monumental building. All the clichés of Cuba surrounded us: decaying colonial grandeur, jury-rigged mass transit, the world’s most antiquated auto fleet, communist slogans, and bicycles everywhere.

For several miles through town we kept apace of a funny-looking tractor pulling two tanks. The three drunken peasants aboard this vehicle kept trying to get us to stop and drink with them. Eventually we conciliated and let them fill one of my water bottles with rum –which is what their tanks (and bellies) were filled with. It was the first of many such encounters with what appears to be a national trait of boundless generosity.

Shortly thereafter we hit the autopista, taking a cloverleaf ramp onto the most amazing road I’ve ever been on. Instantly we were plunged into a hallucinatory experience, surrounded by every kind of vehicle imaginable, most of them confected from various bits of metal and wood and held together by wire. The whole aesthetic was eerily apocalyptic, but the pace was Caribbean sluggish. "It’s like ‘Road Warrior’ on Valium," I shouted to Fred over the din –a pretty astute first impression, it turns out.

The autopista is a misnomer, since there are very few autos on it. Instead, it is six lanes of harmonious chaos. A sign explains that the right lane is reserved for bicycles, but we found it full of tractors, horse carts and pedestrians as well. One poignant image we witnessed was a guy waving us down desperately to sell us his wedding ring from the roadside as we pedaled by. Other objects for sale included garlic, fruit, lettuce and livestock.

The speed limit for the middle lane is 40km/h, 60km/h in the fast lane, and here you find all the vehicles from "Road Warrior." The motorcycles all have sidecars and are loaded down with people and goods. The Cubans have taken the term "multi-purpose vehicle" to its (il)logical conclusion: semi trucks have been converted into buses, and 1950’s Plymouths are stuffed with sugarcane. Many flatbed trucks have wooden shacks constructed upon them, to provide shade for passengers. Nearly every motorized vehicle also had bicycles attached to it –even the gas trucks. On the buses, the bikes are hung out the windows by their seats or handle bars. Not surprisingly, many vehicles of all sorts were stationary on the shoulder, broken down.

Under every bridge were entire colonies of people looking to hitch a ride, and many of the prospective female passengers overtly used their sex appeal to get picked up. The air was all but unbreathable, choked with black exhaust in spite of the wind.

About thirty kilometers out of Havana, though, the lanes decreased to four (plus a shoulder) and the traffic volume dwindled to practically nothing. In the countryside, we were quick to discover, the bicycle is the undisputed king of the road. Amazingly, we were able to ride abreast for the hundred-odd miles of autopista, a glorious tailwind blowing us the whole way.

We could have made it all the way to Pinar del Rio city, given our average speed of 20 mph, but Fred wasn’t feeling great, so we set our sights on the Hotel Moka. Along the way we stopped at all three roadside cafés we came across. At the first there were only two menu items: cookie-sized hamburgers and rum. We decided to push on, but before we did we were stopped by two Cuban cyclists totally decked out for sport cycling. The more talkative of the two explained that they worked at a hotel in Havana and were on a training ride. As they pedaled back towards Havana against the wind, we pondered over how they were able to acquire such decadent merchandise.

At the second "cafe" sandwiches were available, but not to us. It was commie weirdness that I didn’t dare question. But then a black guy on a bike loaded down with oranges came by. We still had no local currency, and asked him timidly how many a Yankee dollar would buy. The answer: thirty or forty. I realized we wouldn’t go hungry in Cuba, and was happy to learn that one could easily get 20 Cuban pesos for a buck. Our dollar got us a dozen oranges and our first fifteen pesos (which we still hadn’t exhausted six days later).

The third café looked more elaborate, and it was. There was still the perplexing lack of food, but refrescos could be had –for dolares only, thank you. So Fred and I dug into the salty snacks purchased in Merida and sat down to a couple of hours of backgammon and chatting with the auto tourists who passed through. Patrick and his family were English and living in Luxembourg, and then there were the French, whom we soon found to be ubiquitous in Cuba.

Had we known the proximity and fabulousness of the Hotel Moka, we wouldn’t have tarried there so long. A billboard announced the "complejo turistico" after less than a kilometer’s pedal, where we turned off the autopista to climb some rather big hills before being greeted by the incomparable Doctora Maria de la Concepcion Perez-Eiriz at the reception desk. "Yes," she announced cheerfully when I asked if there was a room for us. Quite an elegant room, too, with marble floors and a big terrace. I jumped into the bath with my welcome cocktail, and turned on CNN to listen to doings on Wall Street –it all seemed so surreal after the autopista experience. Later we hung poolside for a bit of backgammon and prawn brochettes, followed by yoga on the terrace and a tasty dinner. Altogether a perfect first day in this mysterious, ceaselessly surprising country.

Click on image to see full-sized version

Generosity pervades - rum toting friend

Myriad of Products

Click on image to see full-sized version

Transportation in Cuba

Andrew and Enrique "after pedaling slowly uphill"

Thursday, 26 December 1996, Las Terrazas to Vinales, 74 miles

After the previous day's experiences, we knowingly had the kitchen make us some sandwiches for the road. After some deliberation with Doctora Maria (winner: most elaborate hairdo in Cuba), we decided on the autopista route to Vinales. It was longer, but with far fewer hills. Besides, we liked the autopista for its halluciatory twist on the American Interstate network.

Again we saw pigs being pulled in trailers behind motorcycles, bikes loaded down with sugarcane, fabulous fifties cars with bike racks chugging along at 30mph. And today there were bonus wonders: A whole series of unfinished bridges over the road; farmers drying their rice on the highway’s shoulder; a farmer herding his goats in the median strip. At kilometer 120, another tourist stand cropped up, far more elaborate than the previous one. We bought Che Guevara tee shirts and a map of Pinar del Rio province, and chatted with the two young, educated commies who manned the shop and spoke uncannily perfect English.

Rather than going through Pinar del Rio town, we took a shortcut through Las Ovas. Instantly, the whole experience changed. We were now witnessing everyday rural Cuba rather than Cuba on the move. It was surprisingly, almost shockingly, clean. Tidy houses with immaculate gardens. Each house had a shaded terrace in front with at least two rocking chairs. We stopped in front of one such house to check out the shrine to the Virgin standing on the lawn –the first evidence of religion we had seen in Cuba. The woman inside the house came out and started jabbering at us in nearly incomprehensible Spanish. She was old and obviously a card or two short of a full deck. Pulling out a wad of American dollars from her shirt pocket, she asked us if we would sell her our clothes. Considering the way we were dressed –and what we doubtless smelled like—we pronounced the woman mad and pedaled onward.

Soon the road joined up with the main road to Vinales, whereupon we met with two young Cubans who were going there too. Enrique pedaled alongside me the whole 17 kilometers up a seemingly endless (though mercifully graded) hill. His was the first multispeed (5 gears) bike we had seen in Cuba. He kept telling us we should pedal slower uphill in order to conserve energy.

He took us right to the doorstep of Los Jazmines, a communist-style resort with a drop-dead view over the Vinales valley. Guzzling beer by the pool, we met two Brits who were also touring Cuba on bikes. We also met Anita, "Public Relations Director" of Los Jazmines, who seemed to fancy herself the activities coordinator on a cruise shop and epitomized the perky young communist. She first urged us to join her on a hike up a mogote –the local name for the bizarre karst hills which make Vinales famous— the following day, but later reneged when she learned she had to pick tobacco with the UJC (which I correctly guessed as standing for Union de Jovenes Comunistas). They were picking her up in a tractor at 7am, she said. Needless to say, it was an activity we chose to skip.

Later we discovered the Brits to be correct in their assessment of the hotel’s cuisine and service, both of which were awful –very Eastern European in style and flavor. After drinks at the funky old bar and a round of badly played pool, with nearly 75 miles under our belts, we were ready for bed.

Home Page Contact Andrew and Fred About their adventure

© 1997 Frederick Felman and Andrew Broan, All rights reserved. No part of this web site may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from authors or their agents.