It only took a brief look at the snow bank out of my window to realize that my wife’s idea of a quick, last-minute flight to sunny Cuba for a week of warmth had some merit.
But then, I’m not one to take much pleasure out of lying on a beach all day, trapped by the luxury confines of an all-inclusive resort, but trapped all the same. A little research showed the resort had scooters for hire, and that would be my passport away from the white whales of the beach and into Cuba proper.
A week later, we were sitting on the beach at an all-inclusive resort on Cayo Santa Maria. A few days later and I was all smiles, riding down the island’s 50-km causeway to the mainland on a 49cc Jialing QT-22 scooter.
Fifty kilometers is a long way to ride on a causeway, but there’s a lot to see on the roads in Cuba. The vehicles are either smoke-belching industrial relics of past Communist ties, or relics of an even older time when American money flowed into the country, bringing with it gleaming tail-finned beauties from a bygone era.
Thanks to their own government’s restrictions, Americans haven’t been able to spend money in Cuba since the 1960s – as a result, you don’t see any new domestic vehicles.
My scooter had an indicated 990 kms on the odometer. Of course, my speedometer cable was broken, meaning the odometer was wildly inaccurate, but at least my scooter was going to stay forever young.
But despite my scooter’s dubious maintenance record and distinct lack of horsepower, it felt good to be riding. After all, cruising along with turquoise water, lush green marshes, pelicans and other wild birds all around you sure beats shoveling your driveway in January.
I’d hoped I’d see plenty of Cuban riders, but most of the traffic was four-wheeled, except for one local on a 125cc Jialing machine. Vehicles are a prized possession in Cuba, and his love for his ride was apparent, as he happily posed for a shot next to his shining bike. It shows that motorcycling is all about perspective – Canadian riders would laugh at that same machine, but for this rider, it was his pride and joy.
A few kilometres later, I was finally at the end of the causeway, where I paid my 2 CUC toll (a CUC is worth about $1 US), passed through a police checkpoint, and was riding off to the nearest town, Caibarien.
The police take their job seriously for good reason — in 1994, terrorists (allegedly U.S.-based) landed in this area twice, in an attempt to infiltrate the mainland, cause mayhem and disrupt the socialist government, but only managed to murder a local in the process. Cuba still has plenty of enemies.
Heading to Caibarien, traffic picked up, as I rode amongst local farm and industrial traffic. If you’ve never shared the road with a horse and buggy, head to Cuba – they’re everywhere. But it didn’t take long to get accustomed to the traffic, partly because I’d kept a close eye on traffic signs and patterns out the bus window on the way to the resort from the airport, earlier on in the week.
As soon as I got to what appeared to be Caibarien’s main intersection, I stopped and pulled out my camera, confronted by a kaleidoscope of vehicles. Detroit-built dinosaur cars and Moscow-built mammoth trucks constantly rumbled by, mixed in with decrepit bicycles and three-wheeled pedal taxis, with motorcyclists filtering through the whole mess.
They weren’t the motorcycles you’d see at a Canadian intersection, though – they mostly appeared to be Jawas and MZs, with small-capacity Chinese and occasionally a Japanese machine mixed in. Many of the younger riders had plastered their machines with stickers, telling the world how extreme their motorcycles were. Older riders seemed to be happy with more conservative paint jobs, and many had sidecars attached.
I spent a considerable amount of time photographing the traffic, but decided I’d best be on my way. The sign said the next town, Remedios, was only a few short kilometres away, and I wanted to see it before the day was out. So, I packed up my camera, left the intersection and its trademark crab sculpture, and rode off through the outskirts of town, stopping to take a photo of a steam train on display. As I snapped the shot, I could hear the whistle of another steam engine off in the distance, while horses trotted by … and then a local’s cell phone rang.
Welcome to Cuba.
The suburbs in Cuba’s Santa Clara province are vastly different from their Canadian counterparts. As I rode towards Remedios, I noticed two things about the houses; they were all in poor repair, and they almost all had goats tied up in the yard. Apparently, when you’re talking about fast food in Cuba, you mean your supper has just chewed through its tether and is hoofing it down the street at top speed.
But then you can’t fault the Cubans for the state of their houses. Building supplies are hard to come by, and hurricanes are frequent. Still, it’s ironic to see a billboard with Che Guevera’s face along the side of the road, proclaiming the glorious benefits of the socialist state, while behind it, the houses have no windows.
It didn’t take long to reach Remedios from Caibarien. Signs were easy to follow, and the roads were in good shape. Oddly, our government discourages Canadians from driving in Cuba, but frankly, I didn’t find the roads any worse than the streets back home in Saint John, N.B.; in fact, they were often better. You had to keep your eyes open for potholes, but that wasn’t hard. Of course, roads in other areas of Cuba could be far worse.
Remedios was a treat to ride through. Arriving in town, I promptly got lost down a series of one-way streets, but I didn’t care. Cruise through most Canadian towns, and you’ll be surrounded by blah, boring buildings. Cruise through Remedios, and you’re surrounded by 400-year old houses with window bars originally intended to hold out pirates.
Traffic wasn’t heavy, even in the heart of the town, and nobody cared that I was riding the wrong way down the street. In fact, everybody was happy to talk to me, the clueless gringo. Too bad I didn’t understand what they were saying. Mental note: Must learn Spanish!
Riding around, I found a town square that seemed to be the centre of action, with small schoolchildren reciting lessons under a tree, while their older sisters sat around the corner, waiting for their boyfriends to show up, and old men sat at the curb, leaning on their jalopies.
On one side of the square, a local band sat in front of a hotel, getting in some much-needed practice on instruments that appeared to outdate the Cold War. A big Catholic church dominated another corner of the square, but clerical business didn’t seem to be booming – nobody went out or came in.
Reluctantly, I eventually left town and headed back to ride around Caibarien some more before I went home. I was a little worried about my gas gauge’s accuracy and had to buck a ferocious headwind all the way back up the causeway to the resort. Thankfully, I managed to make it with a quarter of a tank left, filled up for 4.58 CUCs (not bad for a day’s riding!) and dropped the scoot off well before my rental ended.
Of course, my day’s ride around Santa Clara province wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things – I didn’t cover vast distances, and only managed to see a couple towns. But I had the chance to see the country from the ground up, instead of the idyllic view you are fed at the resort.
It was the best day of the trip, and I’d love to return for more rides farther afield in the future.
A chance encounter on the ride home summed the day up for me, as far as I was concerned. While leaving Remedios, I met a rider who appeared to be in his late teens or early 20s, on a two-stroke MZ. I flagged him down, and handed him a Horizons Unlimited sticker I’d saved for just such an occasion. He thanked me, and asked me if I rode a motorcycle back home in Canada. I said yes, a 650cc Suzuki.
He sighed, pointed at his motorcycle, and said he only had a 150cc engine. I told him that as far as I was concerned, a motorcycle was a motorcycle, at which he brightened up, smiled, and said “A motorcycle is freedom,” mounted his bike, and rode off.
I thought about that for quite a while. It didn’t matter if he was a Cuban under government restriction, or if I was a Canadian tourist, rich by his standards; we were riding for the same thing. You don’t need a fire-breathing V-twin to make you feel free from everything dragging you down in life – a 150cc bike, or even a 49cc scooter will do the same.
What you should know
If you’re considering the same sort of ride on your next Cuban vacation (and you should), there are some things you should know.
First, check your scooter rental contract carefully before heading out, and then make sure you check your scooter. Before I rode to Caibarien and Remedios, I’d spent a couple of days putting around the roads close to the resort with my fellow vacationer and long-time riding buddy Glen Howatt.
Not only did this give me a great chance to see the area’s back roads, it also gave me a great chance to see what the scooter could do (cruise between 50-60 kph) and couldn’t do (my signals, taillight, and headlights didn’t work – a real treat on our pre-dawn ride. Thankfully Glen’s worked fine).
The greatest safety hazard we found on the Chinese scooters was a leaking front tire on the first machine I rented. The scooter had seen over 8,000 kms of flogging at the hands of resort tourists, and the front tire was slack when I got it, giving it a disconcerting low-speed wobble.
We thought we’d solved the problem when we pumped it up at the local gas station, but over the first morning’s ride (I rode three days in total; the trip to the mainland was on the last day, on a different scooter), it quickly lost its pressure again. We headed back to the service station for more air, figuring this meant a serious blow to any adventure plans for the rest of the morning.
We figured wrong. The gas jockey quickly summoned a mechanic, who spirited the scooter away to solve the problem. Glen and I waited in the sun, wondering how long the repair would take – hours, perhaps? Happily, the mechanic returned 15 minutes later, after replacing the tire’s valve stem core – with no charge. Try getting that sort of on-the-spot service at your local dealer!
Other hazards you need to be aware of are unfamiliar road signage and traffic patterns. In rural areas where I rode, traffic was pretty forgiving, but in a major centre like Havana, this might not be the case. And, just like in Canada, the roads do have potholes, as noted earlier.
You should also be cautious if you plan to take photos along your travels. While riding around Caibarien, I stopped to photograph a motorcycle on the side of the street. Immediately, people spilled out of a door on the other side of the road, telling me not to take photos.
Apparently, I’d whipped my camera out across the street from a militia base, a big no-no in Cuba. A soldier peered out the door and yelled at me to put my camera away. Thankfully, he was laughing as he said it, but some other soldiers — or policemen – might not be as forgiving.
Be careful around policemen, too. Cuba’s cops have a reputation for being ticket-happy, and it’s not hard to unintentionally break a traffic law in a foreign country. Don’t take their photos, either, and don’t point at their Lada police cruisers and laugh – tempting as that may be.
Also, it’s probably not a good idea to abuse your scooter. If you’re in a crash because of something stupid you did, it might cost you money back at the rental office, and you’d likely ruin your vacation picking gravel out of your scabby knee. Vehicles of any kind are hard to come by in Cuba, so it’d be best to show some respect and not trash your ride, no matter what your view of its Chinese origins.
If you’re planning a scooter ride ahead of your trip, it might not be a bad plan to try and bring your own helmet; nothing expensive, as you don’t want customs to seize it, but even a $49 bike show special would offer more protection than the skid lids they give you at the rental office. Glen’s helmet had a nicely repaired crack in the brim – not exactly confidence inspiring.
Don’t expect to find a motorcycle rental – I looked, couldn’t find any, and the rental office didn’t know of any either.
The Moon guidebook for Cuba doesn’t list any, although it lists a place where you can buy Suzuki GN125s in Havana (about 3500 CUCs), and plenty of scooter rental places, beside the ones at the resorts. Expect to pay about 25 CUCs a day (I paid 26), although rates drop if you want a long-term rental.
Remember, too, that you can’t necessarily buy gas just anywhere. Service stations can be few and far between, and they won’t necessarily serve tourists. Bring a stack of 1 CUC notes in case you need to buy fuel, as stations may not be able to change a bigger bill.
Most of these warnings are just common sense, though – use your brain, and you’ll stay out of trouble, while enjoying the experience of riding in another country, and getting away from the confines of the resort and its sandy white beach.