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Backroads Cycling Tour Takes Riders Through The Cuban Countryside

Backroads Cycling Tour Takes Riders Through The Cuban Countryside

by Lane Nieset Jul 2018 Also on Digital Edition

“This is Cuba,” laughed our Backroads tour leader, Lara, when we arrived at our hotel in the Viñales Valley to find the water had been shut off. I’ve never been someone who craves a long, warm shower at the end of the day. But at this point, I’d have given the last of the quickly dwindling Cuban pesos in my pocket for even a minute of icy cold water to clean off the flaky film of dried sweat and salt clinging to my body. It was only the end of day two on a week-long cycling tour through Cuba with Backroads, the first American company to launch a “people-to-people” educational group bike trip in the country—one of the few ways to get around the Trump administration’s reinstated restrictions on personal travel to Cuba—and the phrase “this is Cuba” was already one we were well familiar with. Anywhere else in the Caribbean you would chalk up a problem or miscommunication to “island mentality” or “island time.” But this is Cuba.

Cuba
The 32-acre Finca Agroecológica El Paraiso serves organic, farm-to-table feasts in the heart of its gardens surrounded by Viñales’ mogotes.

HAVANA NIGHTS

To refer to Cuba as a developing country is putting it lightly. Colonial buildings in Havana collapse almost daily, and infrastructure is just as chaotic with honking vintage American cars crowding the poorly paved streets. But this is all part of the charm, the allure. For Americans, especially from South Florida, having this restricted country so close—just 90 miles off Key West’s shores, according to the landmark Southernmost Point buoy—has made us desire visiting it even more. It’s the Adam and Eve effect. We envision the Cuba of Hemingway, where he wrote classics like The Old Man and the Sea and sipped daiquiris at El Floridita. Growing up in Miami, my grandmother would regale stories about hopping on board a glamorous overnight steamer ship to Havana, a precursor to casino cruises. The “Paris of the Americas,” as the Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Co. touted it, was the St. Barts of its day, with pulsating nightlife, roaring rumba dancers and streetside cafes drawing a motley crew of mobsters, socialites and celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Aileen Johnson Menocal.

Cuban Countryside
Farmer tending to the land at organic farm and family run restaurant Finca Agroecológica El Paraiso in Viñales

In a 1956 quote from Cabaret Quarterly, Havana is referred to as “a mistress of pleasure, the lush and opulent goddess of delights.” On a Sunday evening in December, the scene at Berlin-inspired Fábrica de Arte Cubano, once the headquarters for Havana’s electric company, still exuded this sense of opulence. Sequined carnival characters paraded around on stilts and museum-worthy contemporary art exhibits lined the former warehouse walls. We were told not to arrive too early, and even when we flagged down a taxi around 1 a.m., dancing to the Afro-Cuban live band in one of the hidden theaters was only just kicking off.

THIS SIDE OF PARADISE

A lack of running water after 44 miles of cycling (which is a lot for us non-pros who aren’t used to Cuba’s steep hills) was one of the less pressing problems on the trip. In fact, the new bikes themselves didn’t even make it in time. On their way from Europe, the bikes were stuck in Cuban customs in a process that dragged out so long, the tour operator had to pull in replacement options from one of its other active tours on the island. At one point, we lost the bus transporting the bikes entirely and were “stranded” in Pinar del Río’s La Güira National Park, a pine-covered forest shielding a medieval fortress and labyrinth of caves where Che Guevara based his headquarters during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana
Set in a renovated building in Old Havana, European-inspired Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana is considered Cuba’s first “luxury” hotel.

But moments like these added to the authenticity of the country. After just a few frazzled minutes of landing in Havana and trying to exchange dollars for Cuban convertible pesos before hopping into a cash-only 1950s Chevy, you quickly learn to roll with the punches. We were warned that most cell phone carriers didn’t offer service in Cuba, but when you’re on the back of a bike for nearly eight hours a day, it’s easy to forget about checking e-mails and Instagram. The scenery is distracting enough. Who needs a digital detox retreat when Cuba is a real-life version of one—beaches and all?

On our first day, we set out through rolling hills and valleys painted with rust-red tobacco plantations to Viñales, a town that is the gateway to the Sierra de los Órganos mountains. Impressive domed limestone hills, or mogotes, sprouted from the palm tree-covered countryside in a scene reminiscent of “Jurassic Park,” almost trapped in time like most things in the country. Farmers with straw cowboy hats and cigars permanently clenched between their lips plowed the fields with oxen, while horse-drawn carriages paraded passengers down the pothole-filled streets. Every so often, a classic car painted in vibrant shades of violet and turquoise would zip past our group of cyclists. “Here, it’s rare for a house to have a car,” explained Pedro, one of the members of the Cuban Masters Cycling Club. “Biking is a means of transport; whoever has a bike, it’s either for racing or solving a transportation issue.”

Plaza de la Revolución
Paseo 206 features 10 rooms spread throughout a 1930s-era colonial mansion near Plaza de la Revolución. 

FARM-TO-TABLE FEASTS

As we cycled through small towns lined with pastel-hued wooden homes, Cubans eyed us quizzically. Some waved, others seemed to ask through their expressions: Why are these foreigners on bikes, one of the cheapest modes of transportation on the island, when they could easily afford to hire a classic car? In towns like Viñales, the only way to find food for the day is on the back of a bike, the purest form of farm-to-table foraging. “I decided not to have a set menu because if you want to have a certain quality, you cook what you find,” explains chef José Luis Gomez at his thatched-roof paladar, or privately owned restaurant, El Cuajani, while handing us a cup of freshly pressed sugarcane juice, known as guarapo. Gomez left Cuba in 2000 for Madrid, spending nearly 10 years in Spain saving up money before coming back to start the restaurant in Viñales last spring. Inspired by chefs in the Basque region, Gomez designed a menu of “market” cuisine with international influences, sourcing tomatoes from Havana for bruschetta and weaving pumpkin into Italian-inspired risotto. His dream is to offer a fully organic menu, but there are certain limitations. If you want to sell organic food, “you need to grow it yourself to ensure it’s actually organic,” he explains.

Paraiso de Cuba

One place we could be sure the fare was entirely organic was at 32-acre organic farm and family run restaurant Paraiso de Cuba. Wilfredo’s finca (farmhouse) opens up as a restaurant on the wooden wrap-around terrace, where no-frills checkered tablecloths set the scene for a farm-fresh feast that we helped pick ourselves from the gardens around sunset. Heaping plates of freshly made yucca chips, roast pork and tostones arrived to the table in waves over the course of the evening as we sipped on mojitos and sampled the finca’s claim to fame: the coctel antiestrés, or anti-stress cocktail, a blend of herbs like mint and anise with honey, cinnamon, sugarcane, coconut milk, pineapple juice and, of course, Cuban rum.

BACKCOUNTRY BIKING

“The hardest part about being a cyclist in Cuba is everything,” Pedro said with a laugh over a home-cooked meal of moros (black beans and rice) and ropa vieja in the artist-filled eco village of Las Terrazas, part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve located about 45 miles west of Havana. “I don’t know how there are so many cyclists since there is no infrastructure.”

He has a point. Earlier that morning, Pedro and his team expertly guided us around potholes and up hills on one of the longest rides of the trip, the 52-mile loop around Las Terrazas’ nature reserve. Distracted by streetside stands selling bananas, oranges and freshly pressed lemonade, I constantly found myself at the back of the group—not even close to the Peloton. Pedro or Lara would cycle down skillfully, tackling each turn with the finesse of a figure skater. I, on the other hand, fumbled with gears struggling to climb up hills, Pedro sometimes sneaking up to give my bike a quick boost from behind.

Cayo Jutías beach
Catch of the day at Cayo Jutías beach

As we strapped on helmets and gloves each morning, prepping for the ride ahead, it felt like we had a task to accomplish. We didn’t rely on Google Maps to guide us to the next stop; we had paper maps and simple speedometers strapped to the handlebars of our bikes. Along the way, private homes-turned-paladares invited us for a dip in the Florida-inspired backyard pools, offering us fuel in the form of carb-heavy boiled yucca, moros and fish caught just that morning, simply grilled and garnished with thin rings of sautéed onion.

CULINARY REVOLUTION

It’s easy to write off local cuisine as simply “survival fare,” a monotonous stream of ration-based dishes. Of course, most menus (especially in the countryside) are heavy on classic staples, so if you’re not a fan of rice, you may be out of luck. But these spreads are so spectacular, so full of flavor, they make even the finest Cuban fare in Florida (where restaurants can source top-quality ingredients from markets that aren’t of the black variety) seem meek, paling in comparison to the real deal, which hasn’t modernized in the way of the gastropubs back home. However, some of these paladares are taking traditional “survival fare” and adding a more gastronomic twist. Chefs here don’t require a degree from culinary school. In a style similar to Italians, they learn techniques in the kitchen with their grandparents, mastering ingredients they grow in the garden or source from nearby farms. The solar-powered vegetarian restaurant El Romero in Las Terrazas, for example, is leading the vegetarian wave with ingredients favored by their grandparents like yucca leaves and pumpkin flowers, while also introducing more exotic types of produce like nopal, or prickly pear cactus, and lotus root, served as a vegetarian version of ceviche with lemon, turmeric and herbs.

Viñales

BEACH BREAK

Pedaling through Viñales, horses pranced past and children on bikes raced over to join our team, curious about these strangers cycling through their town. Mogotes enveloped the trails, shielding the view of what lies beyond the valley: deserted coves and mangrove-covered keys with 1950s Studebaker Presidents parked precariously in the sand. When we reached Cayo Jutías beach, deemed one of the prettiest in the province, we parked our bikes, stripped off our jerseys and padded shorts, and sprinted for the water. After four hours of cycling in 98-degree heat, the light prickle from the cool saltwater felt as good as chugging an electrolyte-filled Gatorade. Strapping a towel around my waist, I walked over to the rest of my group sitting at the ranchón, a thatched roof extending over a few tables placed in the powdery sand. “What’s for lunch?” I ask. “Fish,” everyone chimes in unison, laughing as Lara hands me a can of Bucanero Cuban beer. This is Cuba, after all.

La Habana Bay in Havana
Morro Castle stands guard at the entrance to La Habana Bay in Havana.

Weekending in Havana

Where to Eat: Italian chef Vincenzo Frassanito sources Cuban-produced prosciutto for the upscale fare at Italian restaurant Eclectico, where he creates a fusion with Cuba’s finest flavors (think seafood ravioli and rum tobacco gelato).

Pictures of starlets like Marilyn Monroe crawl up the side of the 18th-century walls housing Iván Chef Justo, a market-fresh eatery perched on the upper floors of a colonial mansion in Old Havana. The clutter of antique clocks and museum-worthy porcelain are one half of the restaurant’s grandma-like charm; the lechon, or roasted pork, is the other.

Where to Drink: Take the open cage elevator up to rooftop bar Roma, a late-night spot in Old Havana owned by Cuban DJ Alain Dark. Expect a crowd of cool Cuban hipsters dancing to the electro DJ du jour for a house party feel. In 1959, Esquire named El Floridita one of the “World’s Seven Greatest Bars,” and the Old Havana watering hole—and home of the daiquiri—hasn’t lost its luster. Sample the iconic cocktail at the bar, blended fresh by bartenders sporting signature red jackets, before heading to another Hemingway favorite: Sloppy Joe’s Bar, named after its ropa vieja-stuffed sandwich.

Where to Shop: Three-year-old Clandestina, the island’s first clothing brand, claims to be 99 percent “Cuban Design,” a phrase printed across its upcycled tote bags and T-shirts sold in the Old Havana design studio.

Pick up a print in the factory-inspired Taller de Serigrafía René Portocarrero, a screen-printing workshop showcasing pieces by young Cuban artists.

Where to Sleep: Part of the new travel restrictions instituted last fall, Americans are no longer allowed to book state-run hotels in Havana, but some tour operators (such as Backroads) have contracts that allow them to continue staying at five-star spots like the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana. If you’re booking your own lodging, one of the finer—and U.S.-approved—boutique hotels in town is 2-year-old Paseo 206, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, which features 10 rooms spread throughout a 1930s-era colonial mansion near Plaza de la Revolución. Italian-sourced décor is the epitome of mid-century modern chic (think Mad Men-esque bar carts) and contemporary Cuban art lines the fresco-crowned walls. What’s even more eye-catching is the view, particularly from the rooftop suite overlooking Havana’s famous seaside strip, the Malecón.