Visit Cuba before the US spoils the fun

Once Fidel Castro goes, the American blockades will come down, and Cuba's unique character will vanish forever. Tony Kelly visits before it's too late

Five Thousand miles from home in Havana, I heard the familiar sound of an English football chant. What was that they were singing in a courtyard bar - "one Alan Shearer, there's only one Alan Shearer"? What were the Toon Army doing in Cuba, of all places? But it wasn't a group of beer-soaked Geordies, just another salsa band playing Guantanamera, Cuba's unofficial anthem, with words by the poet of liberation Jose Marti.

Music is one metaphor for the cultural blend that makes up modern Cuba. Spanish guitars, and African maracas and drums, have combined to produce a uniquely Caribbean rhythm that tempts even the most wooden Englishman - and I should know - on to the dance floor.

The amalgam of Europe, Africa and America is everywhere, reflected in the faces of the people, every shade from caucasian to Negro and mostly in between. Throw in a passion for baseball, and the Buick and Chevy cars left over from the Fifties, add a few tired Marxist slogans and murals of Che Guevara, and you soon realise how history can create a cultural cocktail as potent as the mojitos with which Ernest Hemingway effectively drank himself to death.

"My mojito in the Bodeguita, my daiquiri in the Floridita" is Hemingway's contribution to the walls of the former establishment, La Bodeguita del Medio, beside Havana's cathedral. Visitors are encouraged to add their own graffiti to walls which are already covered, from the political ("Viva Cuba Libre!" - Salvador Allende) to the plain silly ("Sunderland for the Cup"). A mojito, for the record, is a mixture of lime juice, sugar, fresh mint and soda water with a generous measure of Havana Club rum.

But I was in Cuba not to get drunk, but to get fit - by cycling 350 miles in a fortnight. It may not sound much, but until then my idea of a bike ride had been a trip to the village to buy a paper. Okay, so Bike Tours had lent me a brand-new 18-speed mountain bike, but I knew so little about bikes that I had to ask how to use the gears.

My fellow travellers, by contrast, arrived at the airport with bikes neatly packaged for the flight as if this was something they did every year. Most of them did, and had the T-shirts to prove it. They wore their previous conquests - Bordeaux to Barcelona, Cracow to Budapest - like hunting trophies on their chests, only adding to my sense of inferiority. Did I know what I had let myself in for?

After a morning in Havana, we were taken by bus to the start of our route at Santa Clara. We spent the night in a fake "Indian village", a group of thatched huts set around a swimming pool. That night the hotel laid on a fashion show; beautiful mulattas appeared under floodlights while the MC delivered a running commentary. "A nice number for the beach there, just $25." "Does that include the swimsuit?" I heard somebody ask.

This was not entirely a joke. Prostitutes swarmed around us, asking for drinks, and in the interests of research, I asked our local guide about the going rate. "Five dollars, or a T-shirt," he suggested. You could hardly have a better illustration of how the American embargo has brought Cuba to its knees. When a teenage girl in the disco asked me to go for a walk before bed, I was back in my room before you could say Fidel Castro.

"The first day is often the hardest," warned Alex Badell, our Catalan tour leader. On the map, Santa Clara to Lake Hanabanilla was just 36 miles. Call me a wimp, but 36 miles, uphill, in unrelenting tropical heat, is not cycling for softies.

A support bus trundled backwards and forwards, carrying our picnics and supplies of blissfully cold water - or, for the foolhardy, Hatuey beer. The mechanic, a young man named Joel, kept up the rear in his one-gear Chinese bike so that if you got into trouble you knew he would reach you eventually. As a last resort you could even have a lift in the bus - but I wasn't going to give up that easily. Day two was the killer - a steep, stiff-limbed climb through the Escambray mountains until we reached a crest and looked down at the Caribbean coast. Then a terrifying descent, freewheeling at breakneck speed around hairpin bends and trying to dodge the potholes at the same time. Alex had advised me to do only half the day.

"You bastard!" he exclaimed as I arrived at the hotel in third place, driven on by adrenaline and sea fever. Within half-an- hour, I was soothing my thighs in the warm Caribbean and knocking back cocktails provided by some Canadians on an all-inclusive holiday.

After a rest day in the colonial city of Trinidad - all pastel houses and cobbled streets - we rode for 52 miles along the coast road to Cienfuegos. Suicidal crabs threatened our tyres and a young boy held out a live turtle for sale beside the road. When I opened my panniers to get my camera he tried to slip the turtle in. Riding beside the Caribbean was bliss, as whenever I got hot I would just pull over to a deserted beach and plunge in.

There really is no better way to see Cuba. Most tourists are marooned in resort hotels; by cycling between them, you get to see the country in between. You notice the things you'd never see from an air-conditioned bus. A piglet strapped to a bicycle luggage rack, striking the farmer's bare back in a final bid for freedom; oxen ploughing the fields; tobacco leaves hanging out to dry.

At one point I crossed a bridge and looked down over Cuba's main motorway. There was a man selling bananas, a dog on the hard shoulder, two men walking along the road, and a crowd of hitch-hikers being organised by a government official - but no cars. The only cars I remember are the Cadillacs and Chryslers, pre-revolutionary relics somehow kept going and driven onto the beach by young lovers at weekends in a scene straight out of Grease.

On a bike you are on the same level as the locals. With a fuel crisis caused by the embargo - and exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's only friend - everyone travels by bike. By joining them you have time to chat, to take pictures, to drink freshly pulped sugar cane juice from wayside stalls, and to offer gifts of soap and shampoo filched from your hotel in exchange for small kindnesses like water and fruit. And you meet the people, from party officials and schoolteachers to the teenager who took me home to show me his Guns' n' Roses posters and his American flag.

And the cycling? Each day it got a bit easier, as my thighs loosened, and by the time we came to the longest day - 70 miles - I could anticipate it with pleasure rather than fear. We rode through the tobacco-growing areas of the west, where limestone cliffs rise like pillars out of the fields, and ended with a triumphal return to Havana, forming a cavalcade along the seafront with a group of Cuban students and their professor.

They showed us parts of the city we'd never have found - a bike factory, a market - then left us free to explore the Caribbean's finest city, half Third World shanty town, half elegant colonial capital. There are splendid buildings with patios, balconies and wrought-iron balustrades, crumbling through neglect and economic impotence. You just cannot get away from the effects of the blockade.

One day soon, Cuba will change. Castro will retire or die, the embargo will end, and Cuba will become just another small Caribbean state, tied to the US economy. McDonald's will open branches in Havana and Havana cigars will go on sale in New York. Americans will pour into Cuba, taking their money and their values, tossing yet another ingredient into the cultural cocktail. Only then will America realise that it was the embargo which sustained Cuban Communism for so long; only then will Cuba see that although the blockade left them without soap it protected them from soap operas as well.

I wonder what the Cubans will be singing then. How about: "One Fidel Castro, there was only one Fidel Castro..."?

FACT FILE

Basics

The author was a guest of Bike Tours (01225 310859) which has two-week tours of Cuba departing on 10 November and 22 December 1997, and on 16 February and 6 April 1998. pounds 705 includes accommodation in twin rooms, all meals, plus detailed route notes, maps and back-up.

Visas

A Cuban visa costs pounds 15. Flights to Havana on Iberia via Madrid can be booked through Bike Tours for pounds 530 plus taxes for the November trip, or you can make your own travel arrangements.

Getting about

Most people take their own bikes, though you can hire a bike through Bike Tours.

The tour is designed for people of reasonable fitness. Cuba is hot and humid (though generally dry from November to May) and it is essential to take a water bottle and good sun protection. A helmet and cycling gloves are also advised. Tourists are expected to pay for everything in US dollars. American Express travellers' cheques cannot be exchanged in Cuba.

Further reading

Lonely Planet has recently published Cuba: A Travel Survival Kit by David Stanley (pounds 9.99); the similarly named Travellers' Survival Kit: Cuba by Simon Calder and Emily Hatchwell (Vacation Work, pounds 9.99) is by far the best guide to the country being both practical and informative. The same authors have written Cuba in Focus, a guide to the country's history, politics and society, available from the Latin America Bureau, 1 Amwell Street, London EC1R 1UL for pounds 5.99.

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