Standing on the highest point of the hotel in Caimonera overlooking Guantanamo Bay and the US military base, I was a little self-conscious because I was pretty sure I could be seen by an American drone or an American sentry in the base watchtower. As I took in the large, beautiful bay spread out before me as the sun set, I reflected on the aspects of the ride that appealed to me the most at that moment. I was grateful to be with Peter and the fabulous group of riders who had assembled for the inaugural Guantanamo Mango ride through the coastal lowlands and mountains of eastern Cuba in the old province of Oriente. This region had always fascinated me. It is where Columbus first landed in Cuba somewhere along the coast near Baracoa, the oldest city in Cuba. Oriente is also where pretty well every Cuban insurrection and war of independence going back to the 16th century started, where the music known worldwide as salsa was born and where Fidel Castro himself was born and raised. Although the imposing geography sometimes steals the scene, the eastern region of Cuba practically reeks with a history going all the way back to 1492, more than a century before Quebec City was founded.
For history buffs like me this gave the tour an added appeal, especially since we managed to visit Castro’s birthplace in Biran, a hamlet in the middle of nowhere, as well as Santiago, the city where he received his education before he went off to university and fame in Havana. But the best part of the ride was the group – 20 riders of varying skill and experience who found themselves thrown together with Peter, our wonderful Cuban support staff (Reinaldo the driver, Carlos the guide and Joe the bike mechanic) and each other in another one of Peter’s excellent pedaling adventures in what he refers to as “hillbilly Cuba.” For sure there were cities: far off Baracoa surrounded by sea, mountains and history, stolid Guantanamo with its proximity to a long-running source of friction between Cuba and the USA, and lively, revolutionary Santiago, Cuba’s second city, but its first city for music, Afro-Cuban culture, rum, intrigue (and baseball, if you believe the locals).
Mostly, however, it was the incredibly varied landscapes in this most remote and undeveloped part of Cuba that gave the ride both its charm and its challenges. From the hot, hilly tour beginnings in Holguin, the city of leafy parks and plazas, we passed into the world-renowned green and damp biosphere around Baracoa, then straight up into the Sierra Maestra mountain range before plunging down from the engineering marvel of the Farola highway that seems to float in the air to the long, but extremely pleasant ride along the coast highway to Guantanamo. From there we rode to Santiago where we absorbed the charms of Cuba’s most Caribbean city, and then another long, but manageably slow climb into the high hills and little towns made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club albums to the cool pine forest at Pinares de Mayari that is home to Cuba’s highest waterfall and one of the best meals we had during our ride. From there we descended to the coastal area leading to the greenest part of Cuba I have ever seen as we rode into Guardalavaca and its white sand beaches and all-inclusive (the beer is free!) tourist hotels.
Through it all our group came together more and more each days as we got to know each other during the daytime rides in the dry heat, the damp heat, the dusty heat and the two or three days of the welcome, cooling rain. We took turns leading, following and riding in the middle of the pack, depending on how we felt on any particular day, sharing food, conversations, advice and jokes (our favourite was Peter’s oft-stated encouragement: “an easy 20 k, wind at our backs” which was only occasionally the case) in the flow of each ride. Our evenings were spent with each other over coffee, drinks and dinner, exchanging stories of our daily adventures and promising to stay in touch – which many of us have done.
Would I do it again? Well, not only am I doing it again, I am leading it, and for the same reasons. Some parts will be the same, and some will be different for that is what makes Cuba such a fascinating and compelling place to ride. That, and the warm hospitality of the Cuban people who smilingly cheered us on our way as we rode by (Lleve! Lleve delante! – keep going! Go on!) and who consistently let us know they were approaching in their cars and trucks and almost unfailingly gave us a safe berth as they passed us on the roads and highways. In short, in many ways Cuba is still a bike riders paradise and will continue to be so for as long as the Cuban people retain the desire to share their unbelievably beautiful country and rich culture with us.