Havana / Cienfuegos / Trinidad / Topes de Collantes / Cayo Santa María / Santa Clara / Las Terrazas
For our trips in Cuba we have created a very unique partnership with Ernesto Guevara, his wife Maria and his best friend Camilo. Ernesto is in the unusual position to have “access” to the only big bikes in the country and along with Ina, (his government sanctioned guide) he runs trips with us around the island for clients from every corner of the world. This tour is unique and unlike anything else, it’s as much a cultural introduction Cuba, it’s history and people, as it is a motorcycle tour. Year after year our riders have the time of their lives.
Cuba conjures up romantic images of classic cars, beautiful empty beaches, a sleepy attitude to life and of course enormous Cigars. Well, luckily, our riders were in for a treat on this tour as they got all that and more! All from the saddle of their Harley Davidsons, being led from sight to sight by Che Guevara’s son.
We arrived at the airport and each rider was worked through a VIP area skipping all the difficult immigration and luggage queues, a sign of how well we were all to be treated for the rest of our Cuban tour.
We arrived at various times over the few days before the tour, with some people taking the opportunity to explore Havana before the trip started and even indulge in Salsa classes. I’m afraid I came to the deluded conclusion that an hours lesson would equip me for a night on the town, which was not the case! After our teacher had rolled his eyes for the hundredth time and essentially confirmed my worst fears (that I do in fact have no natural rhythm) we embarked on a salsa-free night out before the rest of the troops arrived. Lots of fun was had (and rum consumed!) none the less. For those with the time there was also the classic 50s car tour around the city with obligatory stops for Pina Coladas.
On day one of the tour we all met up at the 5 star Melia Cohiba Hotel, right on the seafront of the new town. We had riders from the UK, Germany, France and the States it was amazing that everyone hit it off immediately (over lobster) at the welcome dinner. We were joined by Mark, Paul, Nene, David, Sam, Gary, Jean Marc, Isabelle and Hardmut all exchanging wondrous tales of biking from their respective countries and getting to know Ernesto our guide and his wife Maria. We were very well behaved that evening and retired early without succumbing to the temptation of more Cuban rum as the excitement to get up early and go and meet our bikes was overwhelming us all.
After a slap up breakfast at the hotel we all met in reception wearing all our gear, ready for the off! A minibus took us out of town to a government owned bike storage warehouse, and we got the first look at our steeds for the next nine days. We had a great selection to choose from: with road glides, street glides and wide glides, street bobs, low riders and more. We all took our chosen bikes for a little spin around the car park, and then we were off for the first sample of Cuban traffic and roads.
Riding in Cuba is nothing like riding in Europe, the roads are very quiet and the other traffic is polite and generally fairly slow (most of the cars and trucks are 50s vintage so max out at about 40!). Ernesto led the way with us in the middle, Camilo taking up the rear and the support truck following us with supplies and our cultural guide Ina.
After a quick familiarisation ride around the city where we practised how to point out pot holes to our fellow riders (some you could pretty much lose a Harley in!), we stopped at the the Cabaña fortress (Che’s old headquarters) for a coffee before heading over toward the old town.
Squeezing through winding colourful backstreets on ten loud Harleys certainly draws some attention and we soon realised quite how much of a stir we were going to cause on this trip! There aren’t any other big bikes in Cuba so you’re endlessly waved at, honked at and photographed everywhere you go… especially when you have the stereo turned right up belting out Bruce Springsteen on your street glide!
After negotiating the old town we pulled over in a small square and Ina took us on a walking tour of the city. We visited the cathedral square, old university and a plethora of other sites before coming full circle back to the bikes and our lunch stop at a cool little biker bar tucked down a back street. Mojitos (alcohol free if required) all round and rice and beans were well received and, before we knew it, we were back on the bikes to tour around revolution square and ogle at all the old classic cars.
That evening we were free to lounge around the pool and eat any one of the many restaurants on site in preparation for our first full day’s riding the following morning.
Our third day was the longest day mileage-wise, but with regular stops and plenty of scenery to take in, it really flew by. We met, with the bikes, in the underground carpark and Camilo took the lead while Ernesto followed in the support truck with a spare bike on the trailer ‘just in case’. Then we blasted out of town on the highway dodging potholes as we went and watching the scenery change from the colourful hustle and bustle of downtown Havana to the beautiful countryside that surrounds it.
Our first stop for coffee brought the first tumble of the trip. Gary parked his bike up at the rear of the pack and a huge gust of wind from a passing truck toppled his huge street glide upside down onto the bank. Luckily there was minimal damage apart from a slightly scuffed pannier… these machines really are sturdy bits of kit!
We continued onwards to Cienfuegos and after settling the bikes on a side street, we took a leisurely walk around the town where Ina filled us in on the colonial history of the place and stories of its founding fathers. The city was ‘settled’ (taken from the indigenous Tiano) by French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana in 1819. Its prime trade location for Jamaica and South American cities gave it power and influence that vastly outweighed its size.
The weather was heating up and we were glad to get under some shade at a beachside cafe for lunch. A huge three course meal was followed by a lazy hour on deck chairs watching the world go by before we continued onwards towards the world heritage site of Trinidad.
On our way Gary’s bike threw a bit of a wobbly and jettisoned his pannier (probably loosened by his earlier topple!) lucky, as we ride in a convoy with plenty of distance between us, David spotted it. This meant that Jean Marc could pick Gary up and ride him back to pick up his lost luggage! It was the beginning of some serious ribbing for Gary… what would his bike do next?
We arrived at dusk in Trinidad and were treated to a heroes welcome as we rode in, processing along the old cobbled streets to our quaint back street villa. Cold beers and Rum were the order of the day once we’d settled in. Some took a walk into town to take some pictures but Ernesto propping up the bar giving cigar smoking lessons was too much of a draw for the rest of the group.
After spotting a classic 1941 Panhead outside earlier in the evening we couldn’t resist getting Ernesto to show us how the hand shifter worked and he obliged by starting her up and giving us a little lesson. We only learned later that he didn’t even know who the bike belonged to! It’s amazing what you can get away with when your dad’s picture is plastered on every wall in the country.
Dinner was a lovely affair with cocktails and a lobster and shellfish medley complimented by some lovely Argentinian wine that even got the thumbs up from Jean Marc and Isabelle, our resident experts. After dinner Ernesto informed us he was off to play guitar in a local bar if anyone fancied joining him. Some of us caught an early night but the braver ones joined him for what looked (from the photos and sore heads the following morning) like an epic night of cigars, rum, falling over, dancing, knocking tables and chairs flying and being carried home…we won’t mention any names!
When we got back the truck was loaded up and we put our gear on and mounted our bikes. The rumbles produced by eleven Harleys on a tiny cobbled street at tourist rush hour can’t be understated and was made all the worse me my belting out ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ as we rode out to waves, cheers and thumbs ups! We had a nice short ride this afternoon meandering up and over some nice twisty roads through the hills and past little sleepy villages with the ubiquitous stencilled images of Che on the walls. We often remarked how strange it must be for Ernesto to see images of his late father everywhere he looked.
It was getting hot by this point and seeing David cruise past me in his t shirt looking cool as a cucumber and like he had been born on a Harley, it hit me just how quickly an English gent can switch to hog riding dude in the right environment!
After a quick stop for fuel and coffee we continued on towards the coast and out to Caya Santa Maria. This island is part of the Jardines del Rey archipelago, just off Cuba’s north coast, and is attached to the mainland by a mangrove-lined private causeway. We stopped off just after joining the causeway having been given special dispensation by the police to do so and took some pictures. It’s a stunning bit of engineering especially in the middle of such a traditional area.
At the end of the causeway sat our 5 star hotel for the next 24 hours. We parked the bikes up and gorged on a huge buffet lunch with fresh grilled seafood and steaks then were shuttled by golf cart to our rooms. The group spent the afternoon on the beach, in the bar or lounging by the pool.
When we met up for dinner at 8pm we were shocked to see that mark had been in a fight! It turns out it was with the wall of the swimming pool! That’s what you get for swimming without goggles, haha.
A few cocktails later and we were in the restaurant sharing stories of our biking lives. I sat at the naughty table with Ernesto and Camilo and learnt that not only were they best friends but also their fathers had been, both being killed in Bolivia and buried in the Che mausoleum that we were to visits later in the week. Camilo Cienfuegos Gorriarán was one of the top five Cuban revolutionaries along with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raul Castro, and Juan Almeida Bosque. They all arrived in Cuba on the Granma yacht in 1956 and started the revolution against the government of the Cuban dictator at the time, Fulgencio Batista.
Over dinner conversation Hardmut it turns out was a serial tourer with his eye on an epic Europe to Beijing trip on his classic Harley, well Hardmut if you’re game so am I… see you on the road to Beijing! Jean Marc and Isabelle were on a busman’s holiday as they run randomoto.fr a very popular french motorcycle touring company but like me even on their own personal holidays are bike trips. Some people think we’re mad but I can’t think of anything I’d prefer to be doing.
Over dinner I finally plucked up the courage to ask Jean Marc about his choice of facial hair, he rolled his eyes and explained that NO he wasn’t trying to look like wolverine but in fact his favourite road racer, someone utterly unheard of in France, did I know him? Who else could it be but the legendary Guy Martin. Superb!
There was a dance show and disco after dinner as well as lots more Pina Coladas, after which while wandering back to my room I couldn’t help but thank my lucky stars that here I was in Cuba, on a cool starry evening with 5 more days riding a Harley still to go!
Another late start this morning and breakfast after a quick dip in the pool was followed by a lazy morning and then another HUGE buffet lunch. We recovered at 1pm loaded up the steeds and set off back across the causeway to the mainland.
Half an hours ride saw us entering Remedios were we stopped for a short walk around. It is recognised as the eighth oldest city in Cuba, but its real date of foundation has been obscured over time, and it may be the second Spanish settlement on the island. The main attraction in the Plaza Isabel II is the “Iglesia Mayor” of San Juan Bautista containing 13 beautifully decorated gold altars.
From the train it was only a short ride to the hotel that night and although we stopped off at the Che mausoleum we found it was closing soon and decided to come back in the morning. The next few minutes gave us our first introduction to rain on Cuban roads. Slipping and sliding a round in stop start traffic our Harleys looked more like the elephants in Fantasia than American hogs, but we all just about stayed upright, and the clouds soon parted as we all pulled into our classic Hotel.
Sitting by the pool drinking some beers while our bags were whisked to our rooms (2 storey circular bungalows in palm lined fields out the back), Gary admitted that he had turned down a cigar earlier that evening and immediately regretted it in case he never got offered another! Between us we were all developing a cigar and rum habit, it’s amazing how quickly the Cuba lifestyle rubs of!
Another slap up dinner and some cocktails saw off our evening and we all had another great night’s sleep (possibly not David who was a little worried that the enormous white toad he had unceremonious throw out of his bungalow might home!).
Next morning we visited the Che Monument and mausoleum. Many different aspects of Guevara’s life are represented throughout the complex. For example, his time in Guatemala and at the United Nations is sculpted, and his farewell letter to Fidel is inscribed in full. The adjacent decorative wall depicts him in the Sierra Maestra consulting with Fidel, beside Camilo Cienfuegos in the mountains on horseback. Another section shows Guevara as Minister of Industry performing his usual voluntary work. Lastly literacy tutors, children in schools, and young pioneers are depicted issuing the daily salute that all Cuban children recite each morning “We will be like Che”. The tour was great with Ina explaining all the exhibits, it really gave you an idea of quite how charismatic Che was and that he was (without fail) never photographed without a cigar in his teeth! The tour was made all the more poignant being with Ernesto and Camilo, both of whose fathers were buried inside.
We took a few minutes outside to take it all in and then in a slightly more somber mood made tracks towards Varadero.
The roads today were full of potholes as always and at one point Nene bounced so high out of her pillion seat we decided to use the patterns on the back of her t-shirt as a marker of pothole size! None the less the scenery was superb, stopping for lunch we pulled into a little restaurant and were served trays of lobsters, chicken, fish, pork, vegetables, rice, beans and more whisky watching as the local cowboys rode past and the occasional local stopping to take pictures of the bikes.
Our hotel that evening was right on the beach in Varadero and we made the most of it by popping in for a quick swim before dinner, another huge buffet that left everyone turning in for an early night feeling like they’d eaten a whole whale!
Our final morning of the trip allowed us all to go for a wander on the beach and even another quick dip in the sea. We spotted a local coming out the waves in full diving gear with a bag hanging from his waist and we wandered over to see what he’d caught. Turns out he was a Ray-Ban fisherman! Collecting tourist’s glasses that had fallen off in the surf and selling them on. Not a bad little business in a country that slaps a 240% import tax on foreign goods!!
After a nice 30 minute cruise along the coast the heavens absolutely opened, and we took shelter in a cafe on the other side of Cuba’s tallest bridge. As we waited for it to pass… Ernesto reliably informed us that we would be ok for the rest of the day although everyone was quite suspicious! At an earlier point in the week he had said that it only rained when Camilo was leading and today guess what…Camilo was leading
We had another 20 minutes of sunlight and then the mother of all showers hit us on the way into Havana. Traction on the bikes was fine as the water had settled by then but the potholes were another matter, at one point Camilo went into one at the front and his bike nearly disappeared! Hardmut then followed him and for good measure David decided to park in the middle of it! We were all riding so slowly it was more swimming than anything else and I’m not sure the receptionist at out 5 Star hotel saw the funny side when we turned up in the marble lobby looking like we’d just come off a six month stint on a fishing trawler!
The hotel kindly agreed to dry out our gear for us and earlier that day I’d managed to secure us all tickets for a Tropicana Cuban dancing show so we wolfed down some quick pizzas and headed off in a taxi to the venue.
Yours truly who lives in t-shirts and flip flops when on tour was summarily turned away at the door and told to go and get some trousers on! Some haggling with the reception staff made it clear no one was going to rent me their trousers so I had to jump back in our cab (who I financially incentivised to be quick and my god he was!) to the Hotel and get the zip-on legs to my shorts. I just made it back in time to take my seat, be handed my bottle of rum, and light up a cigar to enjoy the show.
Our final day together on the bikes was a bittersweet one, as even the most anti Harley bikers on the trip were coming round to the appeal of these marmite bikes and little did we know but today’s riding would be the best of the whole trip. Lovely twisties brought us up into the forests of the Sierra del Rosario a mountain range in the provinces of Pinar del Río famed for its local flora and fauna.
We had lunch in a palm covered restaurant and whiled away and hour of two in the shade there, before heading up to explore an abandoned coffee plantation. The ride back was equally fun apart from a disaster on the motorway where Sam’s prized Cuban baseball cap that was going to go back with him to Tennessee blew away when his pannier popped open!
At the end of the day we returned the bikes to the garage and gave them all a fond farewell. I for one will certainly miss my big, hot, vibratey, temperamental, loud and slightly obnoxious bike. So much so that I might just get one!
Our final night saw us dinning at the local veijo gringo restaurant, one of the original private restaurants in Havana run by Ernesto’s friend. This guy is a serious character and there’s pictures of his collection of classic cars up on the walls. The food was delicious, as always, and after dinner we retired for cigars and rum on the terrace. Ernesto had “sourced” a box of his favourite brand of cigars for all those who’d asked and duly signed them as well as some books we had bought earlier in the week. We had a very emotional farewell with promises to stay in touch and come back to see him, Maria, Camilo and Ina.
We all left at various points the next day with taxis taking us to the airport for those flying straight home and a few of us electing to stay another few days to explore Cuba.
This tour really does get under your skin, there’s no better introduction to the country than from the back of a Harley with a Guevara as your guide. You see past all the facade and get to understand the history of the place, what makes its people tick and their fears and hopes for the future.
Everyone had a great time, loved the food and the company and all remarked on how reasonable it was once you got there. Cuba can be very expensive but the all inclusive nature of this trip meant you only have to pay about £20 a day for fuel and maybe the same again on the evening for extras… (rum and cigars!).
The oft quoted adage is that Cuba isn’t going to remain the way it is for long and everyone we spoke to expressed the same fears. In many way some change would be good but I really do hope it’s at a slow pace and that rampant commercialisation doesn’t take over. They don’t realise how special their country is as it is, with limited internet no advertising or chain stores, and a real focus on quality of life and family that we are losing more and more in the West.
With political developments on the horizon change will certainly be coming to Cuba so make sure you get yourself out here before it does!