Cycling Safely in Cuba

mark twain
Is your well-being paramount to the tour company you’re considering for your cycle trip in Cuba?  Should your eyebrows be raised if they are they promoting cycling experiences after dark, in the urban core of the city of Havana, or riding activities during the summer rainy season?

Yes, everyone knows that biking is coming back in vogue in Cuba (for us die-hard bike fanatics it never went out of style…), but as much as we love the sport, it’s not for everyone and it’s essential to be realistic when making your travel plan. Travelers engaging in short-duration bicycle excursions on a holiday are not always frequent riders, and may lack experience navigating urban traffic or otherwise underestimate some of the challenges of riding a bicycle in a foreign tropical country. WoWCuba / MacQueen’s Island Tours takes client safety very seriously and so urges anyone considering incorporating cycling into their travel itinerary in Cuba to keep in mind some of the red flags that are being raised at WoWCuba / MacQueen’s with several of the promos we’ve seen for new 2-wheeled adventures popping up around Cuba.
 
Biking in urban centers comes with certain risks.
Is the tour operator trying to sell you a Havana City Bike Tour focused only only gushing about the benefits…like appreciating the sights/sounds/smells of its busy streets from the seat of a bike? Are you picturing the wind running through your hair while your selfie stick sticks precariously out of the super-cute wicker basket on your beach cruiser’s handlebars and everything always turns out hunky-dory? If that’s the case, then they are probably sorely remiss in preparing you for the reality and risks of riding a bike in Havana.

One of them is traffic, especially in the urban center of Havana where designated bicycle lanes are practically non-existent. While Cuba’s capital was ahead of the times in the early 1990’s with its bike lanes and infrastructure, much of that has gone by the wayside. To get to/from Old Havana the bike (and passenger) boats still operate between Casablanca & Regla. When I see groups of tourists taking up the limited # of spots on these “shortcuts” originally intended for moving the local (not visiting) population, I sometimes feel that it’s unfair to locals who depend on these methods of transportation to conduct the essential activities of their daily lives. We also have the bike bus that connects Habana Vieja to Habana del Este, but the special bike lanes in the city core disappeared with the Special Period. So don’t let them kid you with clever travel copy. Yes, a trip designer can always try and pick some of the lesser-travelled streets when designing a cycling route without leaving Havana’s urban center. But if you ask anyone in Cuba with half a notion of what the term elevated liability means, they’ll agree that you almost need an extra set of eyes in the back of your head to safely navigate Havana streets by bicycle these days.
Havana drivers (and their sometimes rickety cars) are not particularly courteous to each other, much less to cyclists, and there are several areas where cycling is in fact prohibited. Even along the iconic Malecon seawall and 5th Avenue in Miramar, where the non-allowance of cycling activities is signaled by a sign with a bicycle in the middle and red circular band around the outside.

Noxious vehicle fumes (or the stench of garbage rotting in heat) are another negative for cyclists in Cuban cities. This remains a frequent report of detracting factors to city riding. Getting out of the city altogether and heading east or west are two of the best ways to avoid some of the above hazards. .

Helmets are not the law in Cuba, but if you value your head…
We’re not sure what self-respecting bicycle company would not provide helmets for their clients, or neglect to ensure that they use them while riding in Cuba, but as advocates for helmet use based on a lifetime of professional and retail experience, we suggest you don’t leave your safety up to chance. Just use a helmet while riding. Brain injuries happen when you’re least expecting them, and not protecting your non-returnable hard drive with one of today’s lightweight/vented helmets is simply not smart. A company that offers you a bike tour while claiming they look out for your safety, but then neglect to take responsibility for something as basic as committing to providing a helmet on a bicycle tour is probably not a true specialist in cycling activities.

Biking in the rain in Cuba can be hazardous.
With a high number of diesel-fuel vehicles on Cuban roads, a film often coats paved road surfaces, making them very slippery when wet. This is especially true at intersections where concrete is more common than asphalt. It can be a braking hazard for those unfamiliar with local road conditions. Rainy season in Cuba typically runs from May to October and rain is more common in the afternoon than morning.

WoWCuba’s tour leaders inform riders of what to expect in rainy conditions before they occur, and our support vehicle is always present when needed as back-up. The decision to ride is ultimately the client’s, but our team always makes participants aware of potential weather and road-related hazards in advance so that riders’ awareness is raised when riding conditions are less than ideal.

Summer temperatures in Cuba are not ideal for cycling.
Besides being rainy season, higher summer temperatures in Cuba can lead to an elevated risk of dehydration for cyclists in Cuba. If you choose to cycle in Cuba in the summer, be sure to always have an adequate supply of potable water. This may not be readily available in retail outlets. A bicycle tour company that suggest clients take care of their own water needs could be risking their dehydration.
WoWCuba’s guided group cycling programs shut down for the summer as we simply feel that the combination of heat and humidity make it a less than ideal time of the year for that type of trip in Cuba. Filtered water is provided for all rides with WoWCuba and immodium is not always available in Cuban pharmacies.

Bicycle repair shops are generally not well-stocked in Cuba.
There are few places where cyclists can purchase spare parts in Cuba, so independent cyclists must be prepared with basic toolkits and spare parts for their equipment. “Poncheras”, or tire repair outlets, do exist and getting a flat repaired is not usually difficult or expensive, providing the tube/tire damage is limited to a puncture (not a blowout).

Riding at night is not recommended.
Well-lit areas are few and far between in Cuba, and night riding is not recommended in Cuba. Even if you have lights and reflective gear, not all drivers will be looking out for cyclists, and with a general absence of designated cycling areas plus Cubans who continue to mix alcohol and driving (elevated risk for this after dark), then you (or the tour operator you choose for your adventure) could be taking your life into your hands by riding at night.

Does your guide team have first aid training?
WoWCuba’s tour leaders are trained to international standards as first aid responders and carry basic first aid supplies in the tour bus at all times, in addition to being in contact with the national public health system’s network for any emergencies that go beyond the scope of their training. Our team is certainly not immune from handling the occasional minor accident, but their accumulated knowledge and training has undeniably come in handy over the years when dealing with a variety of unexpected health complications on tour. If the cycling trip you’re considering :
-is accompanied by Cuban “tour guide” with no official government tour guide accreditation
-has no support vehicle or in-house back-up plan for transporting injured/incapacitated riders
-has no staff with first-aid training certification
then you should be prepared to accept the consequences of signing on for a tour that might be improvisational and carries higher than just the inherent risks of cycling in general.

WoWCuba advocates for a safe, sustainable bicycling experience in Cuba. Choose wisely when comparing tour operators for any active travel endeavours.

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The Big Bang Tour

It’s now official that we’ll be ending our 2014-15 Cuba cycle tour season with a bang of El Morro cannon proportions. Revolutionary travel gurus Michael Kaye, Richard Bangs and their families will be cycling Central Cuba from March 22-29 as part of the last group tour on our roster until November 2015. Michael, a tour operator and hotelier in Costa Rica and his lovely wife Yolanda have traveled with us on our Cuba cycle tour programs four times already (he really likes us!). This time he’s bringing along his sister in law, and if you don’t already know who Richard Bangs is, go ahead and click on that link. Richard is organizing a hiking trip with the Dalai Lama later this year. We are very honored that he has chosen us to host his family’s cycle tour in Cuba. Hiking with the Dalai and biking with our very own Danny. Something Danny will be bragging about for some time to come we’re sure!

Following is the blurb from Richard’s dispatches about the trip: “Join this special departure with Michael Kaye and his wife Yolanda Amaya and Richard Bangs and his family. Michael Kaye is the founder and co-owner of Costa Rica Expeditions, one for the first eco-touring companies in the world with among the first eco-lodges. Michael has often been called “The Godfather of Ecotourism” for his pioneering and relentless efforts to forge ecotourism values and practices throughout the international travel sector. He will share his many stories of the battles fought on the eco-fronts, and his vision for the future of responsible travel. Richard Bangs has been called “The Father of Modern Adventure Travel” and was the co-founder of Mountain Travel Sobek, as well as part of the founding executive team of Expedia.com, and founder of a number for travel media properties for such as MSNBC, Slate, MSN and Yahoo. He has authored 19 books, and produced many award-winning shows (Two Emmys for his Adventures with Purpose series on PBS). He is currently the chair of White Nile Media, which produces travel media for Orbitz and other properties. His wife, Laura Hubber, has been the Arts & Culture reporter for the BBC World Service for 14 years. Richard and Laura will be joined by their son Jasper, 7. A seasoned traveler, Jasper is looking forward to making Cuba the 37th country he has visited. All will share their true stories and tall tales of careers on the bleeding edge of travel. Space is limited. Cost is $3,450 double occupancy; $3,750 single.”

Danny got quite a kick out of such an extensively-traveled 7-year old when I shared the news with him late last week. We’re going to outfit Jasper with a trail-a-bike but Michael suspects he’ll probably also be spending some time in the van with Yolanda’s sister (whom he likes very much) and our top-notch driver Javier. We’re stoked to have such a great mix of travelers forming for this tour and if you act quickly, you could also be among the lucky participants to sign up before space is sold out to ride with WoWCuba & friends on this tour in sunny Cuba in less than 2 months.

Keeping Busy

We’re smack dab in the middle of high season but I’m taking a breather. Besides having our fourth cycle tour of the season (a 2-weeker) underway, we’ve also hosted a group of young baseball players from the USA, and we’re anxiously anticipating the arrival of a container full of motorcycles from Panama at the end of this month. The owners are sending their bikes to take part in the annual gathering of the Harlistas Cubanos and other motorcycles from Cuba & abroad in Varadero from Feb. 6-10. We’re anxious because the ship’s expected to arrive from Panama on Jan. 31 (a Friday, right before the blasted weekend). The group is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on Feb. 4 (Tuesday) and registration of their bikes is supposed to be taking place on Feb. 5 if all goes according to plan. Wait, that should say IF all goes according to plan. Because this is Cuba, and despite the best-laid plans something can always go wrong when you least expect it. But so far everything seems to be running smoothly and all the paperwork’s been delivered to the corresponding authorities, permission letters issued by our ground handler, reservations confirmed, suppliers paid. Now it’s just up to the weather, Cuban Customs, the import agency and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Is it too much to ask that they all come together to make this come off without a wrinkle for Feb. 5? I must remember to light some candles and send up my wishes for positive things to happen. Especially for the occasion I had a seamstress neighbor of mine make a new orange canvas cover made for our old event tent last week (I provided 12 meters of canvas fabric that we found in Havana for $66, and when she finished and told me she wanted to charge me less than $5 for her work, I almost fell off my chair). On the weekend I drew and cut out all the lettering for our logo (a painstaking job, by hand for all 4 sides of the tent). These are the things you do when they don’t sell event tents in Cuba. Repair, reuse.

We have 5 cycle tour groups left to go before we wrap up the group tour season the end of March. So far it’s been a good season. We had a young videographer friend of ours put together a video clip from the first three cycle tours of the season. She told me yesterday that it was the first time she’d been to Cienfuegos and loved the city. I’m hoping to get the files to PEI via a willing client for uploading the end of this month. Our dial-up connection speed here in Cuba doesn’t support video. We had a custom group of male friends do a Central Cuba trip in November and they stayed at the luxurious Iberostar Trinidad for 1 night of their tour. I secured one of only 2 dates available for them in November and planned the rest of the trip around that. We love the hotel, but man it’s hard to get group space there. And while it drives up tour costs, for some the luxury is well worth it. We had a couple of families on a smaller tour in December, and another family & friends group do the Western Cuba cycle tour for New Year’s week and we were able to treat them to a night at La Moka as part of that tour. La Moka’s another one that’s hard to secure for groups no matter how far ahead you plan. That group left some exceptionally generous tips which were much appreciated by the tour team. So far Jagua’s come through with quite a few of my waitlist requests for space in Cienfuegos which puts a smile on my face (and the tour leader’s too). We prefer to stay 2 nights in the city of Cienfuegos whenever possible on the cycle tours rather than the beach.

We sold 1913 car rental days for rentals beginning Dec. 1 to Jan. 21 (applause, applause). Rent Car VIA’s rates are much lower than the competition’s in extreme high season, and 73% of our car rentals for this period were booked with VIA followed by Cubacar, Havanautos and REX in descending order. I had to field quite a few troubleshooting calls for VIA car rentals, but I guess that’s to be expected when almost 3 out of 4 clients have chosen them as their car rental provider.

So far in January we have a 12% return rate on customer feedback. While much of it is positive and we like that, complaints for car rental services are somewhat more frequent during extreme high season due to limited availability of vehicles, glitches with maintenance, and delays in delivery. We’ve had a few people report (after the fact, note to alert clients that you should always notify us immediately if things aren’t as described in our invoice) that the rental counter functionaries charged them a mysterious $5 CUC/day damage waiver supplement for high season. It seems the rental counter functionaries are the only ones privy to this fee as it’s not in our ground handler’s contracts. One functionary returned the $50 CUC he “inadvertently” charged our client to us in cash and now it’s our problem to see how we can reimburse the client for something not paid to our agency. The other claims are pending analysis by the respective rental companies. Note to smart clients: If you’re in doubt, make sure it’s written on your rental contract and save the contract to send us at the end of the rental. Cubans love their signed & stamped paperwork. The more stamps and signatures, the better.

Overall the travel feedback we’ve received this season from clients who’ve chosen Cubacar, Havanautos & REX has been much more positive than for VIA. I attribute that to a combination of factors including newer vehicles, larger fleets, and better supply of replacement parts. I seems to me that most of VIA’s problems are concentrated in a few vehicle categories including the Peugeot 207 SW automatic and the Peugeot 3008 automatic as two that stand out most in my mind. The latter hybrid vehicle has a very attractive price and most of the models in their fleet should have less than a year of use, but nevertheless we’ve had a couple of clients comment about technical difficulties. For those of you who only drive an automatic car and don’t want to shell out for the Havanautos or REX automatic vehicle prices, be duly warned that selecting the above vehicles from VIA can be a “cajita de sorpresas”. If the one assigned you has any technical difficulty prior to or during the rental period, securing a replacement within the VIA fleet is no easy feat.

We have quite a few fishing packages coming up over the next months for Cayo Paredon & the Zapata Peninsula. And diving, which continues to grow in popularity. Just remember that we don’t recommend overbooking diving on Cuba’s north shore in the winter. Those darned cold fronts make it unpredictable. Other places to consider pre-booking diving in the Cuban winter: Maria la Gorda (whose transfer prices were raised to fairly astronomical levels this year, so think rental car as a less expensive alternative to get to Cuba’s westernmost tip), the Isle of Youth (who changed their minimum dive boat departure policy this year to 8 divers which I think is going to kill their dive product), Trinidad, Guajimico, Cienfuegos, Jardines de la Reina, or Santiago de Cuba. Varadero is another destination which has a good guarantee for divers when there’s inclement weather. The dive center transfers clients to the south shore to the Zapata Peninsula if diving on the north shore is cancelled. No extra charge for the transfer. We like diving in the Zapata Peninsula better than Varadero anyway.

So as the wind picks up and another cold front rolls in to Havana, I’m signing off and unless I’m feeling super-inspired, I may not be back to check in until this pace and season slows down.