MotorcycleUSA adventure-touring guru, Dr. Gregory Frazier, has crossed the difficult borders of Burma earlier this year and now delivers his report on the Cuban roads of Fidel.
Cuba Motorcycle Adventure Hola Raul
“Yankee motorcycle gringo trash, go home!” Instead, the Immigration official said, “Welcome to Cuba. Do you have a hotel reservation?” That was not quite what was expected when entering a Third World country that had strained relations with the United States for over 45 years.
When the Immigration official was asked about an interview with Fidel Castro, he answered, “He is not taking visitors. Very hard to see him. But Raul, his brother, he may be possible. I can ask for you.”
A motorcycle adventure in Cuba? As a destination, most Yankee adventure riders’ eyes quickly pass over this island country the size of Louisiana only 90 miles from Miami. Some are daunted by not being able to ride across the water, others by the circuitous route they may have to ride or float to get there. Others opt to save the big money it costs to fly their motorcycle there from places like Mexico or Canada.
Another reason many adventure riders skipped this riding destination was the embargo the United States had in place prohibiting touristing for Americans. And then there was that main element in the definition of adventure, the word “risk.” Most concluded there was a greater element of risk than they chose to embrace, like the uncertainty of the roads, importation requirements, possibly breaking laws, accommodations, eating and hospitality. And of course the loss of their personal motorcycle.
In the book MOTORCYCLE TOURING: Everything You Need To Know ($24.95 plus $5.00 S/H, from Whole Earth Motorcycle Center 1-800-532-5557) one of the tips for travel in Third World countries, like Cuba, was not to take a motorcycle in that the owner could not afford to lose. That potential existed not only in the country but getting it to Cuba. Confiscation could take place at sea while in transit if US authorities felt there was enough reason.
Numerous foreign motorcyclists have ridden motorcycles in Cuba. One tour company offered to ship customer motorcycles in a container from Denmark for a two-week ride around mainland Cuba. Other adventurers had pitched their motorcycles on ships or pleasure boats and floated them into Cuban ports from places like South America. Another practice was to pay the captain of a fishing or pleasure boat out of the Florida Keys or Miami to carry the motorcycle and rider to Cuba, drop them off and later return and collect both.
One of the more risky options was to fly into Havana with riding gear and some cash, then try to rent or buy whatever was available. Small 50cc scooters were the easiest to find and rent, but expensive. The hardest to find was a straight business deal where the owner of a motorcycle would sell it and attempt to arrange a paperwork transfer.
Old motorcycles and old cars were common around central Havana, often for the benefit of tourists and picture taking, or for use as a taxi. Most were held together with wire and prayers.
Because the government regulated all businesses in Cuba, the option of a motorcycle owner renting his personal motorcycle or sidecar to a foreigner was more risky. This was apparent when passing through some police checkpoints. The officers would ask for the ownership papers of the vehicle and then the identity card of the owner. If the owner was not with the vehicle, the police could impound it.
One option was to arrange with an owner to accompany the foreigner on their ride, sometime driving the motorcycle, other times being a pillion or riding in the sidecar. The foreigner would agree to pay for all expenses, but not to hire the vehicle owner as a guide or rent the vehicle, because the owner would not have a government approved license to transact business as a guide or rental business. After the trip was over the foreigner would give a generous tip to the owner.
This arrangement had a side benefit of the owners being able to secure inexpensive sleeping for the foreigners. Foreigners were only allowed to stay in government-approved hotels or guesthouses, known as casas particulares, whereas Cubans could stay in inexpensive hotels or private residences. The difference could be $50.00 to $150.00 for a foreigner in a licensed facility or $1.00 for the local Cuban facility.
The road system was mostly paved. With the exception of some smaller roads and cobblestone streets in villages, a heavyweight touring motorcycle would easily ride most of the island. There were some toll roads, and these were in very good condition, comparable to those found in Mexico. What was different from high-speed highways in the U.S. was there was very little traffic on the road system. This included downtown Havana. While there was a definite increase in traffic during rush hour it was nowhere near as congested as any U.S. major city during rush hour. The Cubans, with an average monthly income of around $20 just did not have the money to purchase a vehicle.
One of the more popular modes of transport was the camello (meaning camel for their two-humped appearance) or public bus. These were really trailers pulled behind a truck that could hold up to 400 passengers and cost less than a penny to ride. These were being phased out and replaced by 3,000 buses from China. The Cubans laughed when asked about the camello’s being gone. They said the new price (two pennies) and quality of the Chinese buses would bring the camello back when the new buses broke down or no one could afford to ride them.
Gas was plentiful and inexpensive. What was missing were motorcycle shops, for either repair or sales. While motorcycles were seen in many towns and villages, the owners, or friends of the owners usually maintained them. One Harley-Davidson mechanic was able to operate a licensed business, but for repairs and restorations, not for new motorcycle sales.
Other than a few police checkpoints and some obvious closed areas, like the Guantanamo military base, or Cuban military installations, movement around the country was unrestricted. Speed limits were generally very slow, mostly to conserve gas. Another method to keep speeds low were the speed bumps, known as “sleeping policemen.” Hit at speed, these bumps could easily loft a motorcycle and bottom out the suspension.
From the Immigration officer upon entry, to the gas station attendant, and even the police, everyone seemed quite friendly. If the motorcycle stalled, had a flat tire, or ran out of gas, locals immediately came to help, even if it meant turning a truck around on a major highway.
Noticed immediately was the lack of advertising. There were no neon signs or billboards trying to get the consumer to buy one product over another. The reason being was the government sets the prices of everything, from a can of Coca-Cola to a package of Salem cigarettes. Nowhere was to be seen a McDonalds, Burger King or Wal-Mart. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken, which has managed to get into Vietnam, was absent. The country was wonderfully devoid of fast food globalization.
That did not mean there were not western amenities available. A popular tourist destination not far from Havana was the sliver of an island called Varadero (like the Honda motorcycle). Here were golf courses, resort hotels, upscale restaurants, swimming pools and beaches comparable to anything found 100 miles away in Florida. Cable TV was in the rooms, with CNN and BBC broadcasts, as was Internet access. This tourist area was filled with Italians, Germans and Spanish tourists hoisting Bavarian bier, sipping imported wine and smoking endless Cuban cigars.
Away from the popular tourist areas, in the countryside, a whole different side of Cuba was seen. Workers in the fields were doing the backbreaking work of hacking at sugar cane with ancient machetes. School children were attending classes in schools without windows or air conditioning. Taxis were horse drawn carts and people commuted on horseback. They all would wave as the motorcycle and riders would pass by.
Exiting Immigration the official who took the small piece of stamped paper from the passport asked, “We wish you a safe trip and hope you will return quickly.” When asked if Fidel might be available for an interview upon a return trip, he said, “We shall see. He might like a ride on a motorcycle and maybe will have more time.”
Some Cuba Motorcycle Tips:
1) Take your own tools, spares and a good tire repair kit. There were few motorcycle repair shops and nearly no spare parts, for anything, whether it was a Russian Ural or a Japanese Honda motorcycle.
2) Take your own riding gear. Besides there being no motorcycle repair shops, there were no motorcycle clothing boutiques selling gloves, riding pants or jackets. Pictures shown to Cuban motorcyclists of American motorcycle accessory-boutique stores were seen as unbelievable. The idea of sipping an expresso or caffe latte made from the in-house motorcycle dealership’s bistro while the oil was being changed on your motorcycle at $90 an hour plus oil and filter was described as “incredible.”
3) Drive slow, everyone else does.
4) Do not drive at night, almost no one else does, especially away from the big cities.
5) Turn off your headlight during the day. No one else has theirs on and oncoming trucks and cars flash at you to the point of you being a distraction to them. Slow and careful is sometimes better than being seen or heard.
6) Take needed things and gifts. If you hook-up with a motorcyclist before your arrival, see if you can bring them something that they might need, as a gift. They really have nothing and often their motorcycles are out of commission due to something they can not find, make or afford, like a coil or special bearings.
7) Motorcycle stickers and T-shirts are excellent gifts for new motorcycle friends made in Cuba.
8) Take money. Although the average Cuban has no money, Cuba is expensive for foreigners. U.S. dollars were accepted everywhere, credit cards were not.
9) Avoid all talk about politics, whether with Cubans or other foreigners.
10) Be open-minded. Cuba is different from “back home.” They know from TV and movies what they do not have and do not need to be reminded.
For some more on motorcycling in Cuba, you can go to http://tinyurl.com/49ee5. Another interesting look at Cuba was Christopher P. Baker’s travel guide Cuba. Baker used a motorcycle for much of his research while preparing this travel handbook. He also wrote a book about his travels in Cuba titled Mi Moto Fidel.
Make sure to check out Dr. G’s special contribution this month, an excerpt from a soon to be published adventure motorcycling book. The extra snippet is entitled Cuba – Hemingway, Cigars, and Old Motorcycles.
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