They say “Don’t mix business with pleasure”, but our personal hobbies and leisure activities are often the inspiration for our Cuba travel product lineup. Our latest project was inspired by my husband Abel’s initiation into the world of antique Harley Davidsons in Cuba a few years ago. My Dad, an incessant entreprenueur, had a Kawasaki dealership for awhile when we were young and I’d been initiated into the Harley world with the parents of a childhood friend. While in university I’d also spent some late nights at the local Charlottetown Harley Club, where a roommate of mine was a member, and had always found the Harley crowd to be down to earth and adventurous. After we sold our sailboat, Abel was looking for a new hobby. In 2007 he bought a 1947 Flathead and spent almost a year restoring it with the invaluable expertise of a local mechanic in Cuba. Since there’s no dealership in Cuba, maintaining these bikes is kind of an art form. The film Cuban Harlistas http://www.cubanharlistas.com/main/?PHPSESSID=nh6m4kv2gqns7726iedp3g31q0h0on5p features a great collection of material from riders around Cuba who have mastered the art of keeping these machines on the road.
Abel was desperate to be riding the bike and almost gave up on his mechanic coming on the end of the 1-year restoration. Eladio, a machinist by trade, tends to priorize a lot of the smaller jobs that present themselves at his workshop on a daily basis since they’re what keep him solvent. But he assured Abel that the bike would be ready within the month, they hugged & made up and sure enough, a month later Abel got his first taste of the wind blowing through his military-short hair. We participated in our first group activity, escorting members of the antique car club on a ride from the Piragua to the Macumba, where eats/drinks and activities by the pool filled the afternoon. What a rush! We made it there in one piece without stalling the machine and everything was rosy.
But his happiness was short-lived. Not long afterwards he was riding on the highway enroute to the mechanic’s house for some tweaking. I was driving behind in the car. Abel was at cruising speed on the open road and all of a sudden there was a loud noise followed by the bike screeching to a sudden stop. 80-90 kms/hour to zero in no time flat. He’d blown a piston, the only part not replaced as part of the restoration. When they opened it up there was some old Lada piston or something inside. Typical. So off I went to the mechanic’s house, where I got re-directed by his octegenarian mother to another venue nearby where they were celebrating his birthday party. We had our schedule mixed up and thought we’d missed the party since we had to work. On my merry way again, I found the party and once I there, recruited some help to tow the bike. We made it back in one piece and spent the rest of the afternoon socializing with the diverse group of new friends we were just getting to know. We were already familiar with one of them since he worked in another travel agency here in Cuba. The crowd included everyone from hairdressers to accountants, machinists, artesans and chemists plus their children, parents and even grandparents. You name it, but the one thing they all had in common was a passion for adventures on their motorcycles. The mechanic’s wife got thrown in the pool, clothes and all.
Abel rode the Flattop for awhile, but soon after also acquired a 1948 Panhead, his favorite ride. The previous owner had spent a lot of time restoring it and most of its motor was new. Abel joined a local motorcycle club called Habana Harley, a collection of about a dozen riders here in the capital. They get together every once in awhile, usually for shorter rides or activities around the city on weekends. The members’ families participate in the events organized by the club too. Men usually sit around and talk about their bikes and the women sit around and talk about the men, so typical of just about anywhere I suppose. He joined another international club called LAMA (Latin American Motorcycle Association), founded by Puerto Rican Mario Nieves, which has chapters in many provinces in Cuba. In Havana alone the club has around 80 members today. The club has no borders, no preferences for race, color, religion, or political beliefs. It’s just a collection of people who like to ride their motorcycles together. We participated in the first-ever national LAMA rally in Cuba last August. Riders from all over Cuba converged for four days in Santa Clara, in the center of Cuba. Adventures with friends are the best. I acquired a new nickname on that trip. It’s “La Sirena”. In Spanish La Sirena can mean The Mermaid or The Siren. I’m the latter of the two. Quite a few people in the group have sirens on their bikes but I can do a perfect imitation of the sound. Good talent to have if you’re excited and your bike siren’s not working I guess. If you’ve been to Cuba before you may have noticed that quite a few cars have funny horn sounds (songs, whistles) which their owners often toot when they see an especially attractive female in the vicinity. David from our office in Canada once purchased a catcall horn here to have secretly installed on one of his PEI-friends’ vehicles when he returned home, unbeknownst to the owner. Gotta love a good prankster.
The LAMA club’s president in Cuba, Adolfo Prieto, approached us since he had been working for several years already delivering motorcycle tours of Cuba with a Danish company. Since there was no independent motorcycle rental in Cuba, they had been sending a container of personally-owned bikes for temporary importation for their tour members, and re-exporting them upon the conclusion of their tour. Adolfo said that with Canada being the # 1 emissor of tourism to Cuba, and the Canadian shipping route being so much shorter (and direct), he couldn’t understand why noone was doing this from Canada yet. He figured that with our connections in the travel industry in Cuba, plus our geographical proximity to the Halifax port from our home base in PEI, Canada, we would be the ideal candidates to promote this kind of activity. We didn’t have to think too hard about it – we agreed that the project was exciting. We’d already had plenty of experience using container ships from Halifax to send merchandise to Cuba for our longstanding bicycle tour operation so knew this would be possible. The shipping time is usually only around 5 days and the boats depart for Havana every 2 weeks.
So with Adolfo’s assistance, we began to research all of the requirements for temporary importation in Cuba, contacted the shipping and insurance companies, plus a friend of ours who managed the local Harley dealership in Charlottetown PEI for exact dimensions of the shipping crates and other miscellaneous information, and began to put together our packages for a 2-week and a 3-week winter program. I spent some time last summer promoting the tours at the Red Island Run and the Wharf Rat Rallies in P.E.I. and Nova Scotia and while interest was high and we had several riders committed to participate, we haven’t yet rounded up the required minimum of 8-10 riders to confirm a tour date. To those who express hesitation on shipping their bike, all we can tell you is that it’s the most economical way to run this kind of program where you ride your own equipment and share shipping costs with a group of friends. The only limitation is that a travel package needs to accompany the Cuban ground handler’s support for the temporary importation process with local authorities.
A couple of months ago another Danish company did a temporary importation of 12 new Harley Davidsons intended for use as part of their escorted tour programs. We’re currently putting together a program together with them designed for the Canadian marketplace using the 2010-11 Harley Davidsons they already have in place in Cuba. While it is sure to be slightly more expensive than the group maritime shipping option, we’re plan on making both options available as we continue to explore this new marketplace.
With a personal passion for this activity, all the personal and professional connections we could hope for to be able to pull this off, all we need now are some committed riders of a similar pioneering nature to turn this dream into a reality. If you know of any, be sure to put them in contact with us. This is Abel’s pet project and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
-WoWCuba has experience providing packages including temporary importation, licensing + pre-booked travel services for motorcycles arriving by shipping container.
-WoWCuba has supported and co-organized the annual Harlistas Cubanos rally in Varadero, Cuba since its inception in 2012.
-WoWCuba also promotes and arranges group tours or private custom-designed motorcycle trips in Cuba using several international companies who maintain fleets and guide staff in Cuba for exploring by motorcycle. Trips range from 1/2 day excursions to multi-day and weekly touring packages. Che Guevara’s son Ernesto is a motorcycle guide and pretty fun to travel with. Adolfo Prieto immigrated to the US but returns to Cuba for tour guide work with one of the Chilean companies. There are other European and South American companies offering guided, supported motorcycle tours using BMW’s and Harleys. Most of them use Cuban guides and foreign tour leaders.
-Independent motorcycle rental is still largely unavailable in Cuba with the exception of some 3-wheel units that are currently operating through a partnership between Ecotur and an Italian tour operator.
-Abel sold the Flathead, the Panhead, and now rides a Sporster with an electric starter. He said to heck with the kickstarter.