Cuba con mi Amor: Introducing a loved one to bicycle touring

Words and photos by Colt Fetters

Staring into the dark, dense jungle ahead I struggled to make out the trail. I studied my GPS, then looked back up—yes, this indeed was the “trail.” Completely overgrown with tangled green branches, it didn’t appear that the trail had been used in the past year. This was new to me. Sure, I’ve hike-a-biked outrageous terrain in foreign countries plenty before, but never with Hannah.

I looked back at her. “I trust you,” she said. Honestly, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. What I was hoping to hear her say was: “Are you crazy? We’re lost in the middle of the jungle, in Cuba for God’s sake! Let’s get the hell out of here!” And instead of turning back, we continued pushing our bikes deeper into the unknown.

I’m ashamed to admit that this was a typical charade of mine: planning an international bike-touring trip with a half-baked route, limited knowledge of the local language and less plans than a college graduate with a fine arts degree. However this time I was responsible for someone besides myself. So there we were, in the middle of Cuba, hiking our bikes down a long-abandoned path, sure of the destination but not quite sure of the route to get there.

By now you can probably tell that this isn’t your typical feel-good travel story, complete with descriptions of luxurious landscapes, delectable cuisine and friendly locals. All of that was still present, but the story I’d like to tell is of sharing my passion for bikepacking with a loved one— and of wanting so damn much for her to be just as psyched to ride her bike as I was. I wasn’t off to a great start…

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On the Road

Our plan was a 16-day bikepacking trip in northern Cuba, covering 450 miles from the tobacco farming valley of Viñales to the bustling colonial town of Trinidad, via dirt roads, horse paths and walking trails. Hannah’s resume of bicycle travel was short, consisting of just one prior overnight bike tour in the foothills of northern Georgia. Looking back, this trip was a bold endeavor for someone with her limited experience. I should have known better. However, my mind was clouded with one desire: To share my love of bicycle touring with the one I love.

Captivated by the images we had seen of colorful streets and colonial architecture, we thought to ourselves, what better place than Cuba for Hannah to experience her first bikepacking trip? A country romanticized for its vibrant salsa music, with locals dancing and puffing on smoky cigars in city squares while vintage American cars chug through narrow streets with their tops down.

Most of our route took the form of long, gravel farm roads, oddly resemblant of the American Midwest. But instead of corn, the roads were lined with towering stalks of green sugar cane. Farmers with brimmed cowboy hats and hearty mustaches would stop and stare in surprise as we bounced along the road before them. It wasn’t long before the Cuban countryside grew on us. Its long, flat roads lulled us into the bike-touring lifestyle.

In between the long stretches of gravel and sugar cane, we encountered small agricultural towns— simple and picturesque, with vibrantly colored homes and streets filled with horse carriages, street vendors and rusty single-speed bicycles. There were no hotels to be found in these quaint towns, so we bunked with the locals—who provided spectacular meals. Breakfasts were usually comprised of elaborate spreads of fruit, fresh squeezed juice, eggs and Cuban espresso. We would leave the casas with full bellies, ready to explore the roads ahead.

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Though we brought more than enough cash to exchange for Cuban pesos, we unfortunately lost several hundred dollars due to a sticky-fingered currency-exchange attendant. After our loss, we had only the money in our wallets for the remainder of the trip. This forced us to impose a strict budget and thus, our standard of living sharply decreased. The food other tourists ranted and raved about was no longer an option. Instead we “enjoyed” a more authentic experience, relying on street vendors for our meals.

Typical meals included bologna and cheese on stale buns, makeshift pizzas and fried-fish sandwiches. The abrupt lack of funds would have had most newbie travelers down and discontent, yet Hannah embraced the challenge. Rising to the occasion, she didn’t complain. She even pretended to enjoy the bologna and fried fish (even though she just converted from her 13-year vegetarianism only a month prior to the trip). What better attitude could I have asked for in a travel partner?

There’s a funny thing about sharing the things you love with the people that you care most about: They don’t always feel the same way you do. I knew this was a possibility, yet I still wanted her to experience the solace of an open dirt road, the thrill of being left broke and stranded and the freedom of carrying everything you need on your bicycle.

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Rolling with the Locals

I’m happy to say, Hannah did fall in love with bikepacking. But it was for entirely different reasons than my own. It’s not that she didn’t value the aspects of bicycle travel that I did, but the appeal for her was different. It was about the people. Connecting with the locals was a cinch for her, not that either of us are fluent in Spanish. Still, the language barrier didn’t stop her like it seemed to inhibit me. Everywhere we went, Cubans absolutely adored her. Maybe it was the blonde hair, the deep- blue eyes, or her big ole smile … Or maybe they just plain liked her better than they did me. Never have I been treated better in a foreign country, and I can assure you, the treatment was based on association, purely.

Apart from the cat calls and unwanted kissy faces that were thrown about unashamedly, the locals would go out of their way to ensure our comfort, whether that meant discounting our room for the night or walking us all the way across town just to find a place to eat. On one such occasion, we were walked to the local state cafeteria where, once we arrived, we were told we were not allowed in the establishment, per government policy. So instead, the manager ushered us into his home next door and set out a feast fit for Fidel Castro himself.

After our chicken bones were scoured and the rice was no more, the host’s father came out to introduce himself. He urged us to follow him, as he plodded outside to a small shed. After working the rusty lock free from its hinge, the door swung open to reveal a simple room with a small desk in the corner. As he sat, we gathered around and watched him pull a clump of aged tobacco leaves from a glass jar. His hands came to life, masterfully rolling the leaves back and forth like he had done thousands of times. Eighty cigars a day, he grumbled in Spanish. He rolled, pressed, then wrapped the bundle with a carefully selected leaf—the entire process took 10 minutes. As the tobacco transformed into a stubby cigar, he held his work to the light, as if to inspect it. And then, before the cigar had been in existence for even 10 seconds, he lopped off the end, held it to a flame and offered it to us with a smile.

It is such genuine experiences, no matter how small, that make a trip extraordinary. This being just one story of many that made a significant impact on us. Interactions as simple as the farmer who gave us a personal tour of his tobacco farm, the young boy that “helped” us plug a hole in our tire, the woman that wouldn’t stop washing our bicycles, or the process of exchanging a Polaroid photograph for a smile—all these events bestow a sense of fulfillment that is hard to describe. However, it’s not always the positive experiences that make for the best stories and longest-lasting memories.

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Our New Friend

Our last night on the road was spent in what had originally been anticipated to be a marvelous campsite, located along a ridge in the Escambray Mountains. The view extended over the valley below, all the way to the coast where Trinidad sat off in the distance. Slowly, the light drained from the sky and we settled down for the night under the minimal protection of our tarp strung above our heads.

As night set in, the jungle started to stir. At first, the noises were present only in our imagination. Then they started to materialize into reality. Something scurried over the foot of our sleeping bags. I scrambled for a light. There sat a large rat in the bush above us. I turned off my light—rats, although not ideal, we could handle. Then came the footsteps. Surely I was imagining the sounds. A bright light landed upon our faces. I scrambled from my bed of dirt and grasped for my headlamp. When my eyes finally adjusted to the light, I stared into a grizzled face. His Spanish reached my frazzled ears, but I wasn’t able to make sense of it. Looking down I saw a machete on his waist and a blanket in his arms. Suddenly, it all made sense. We had stolen his campsite.

Frustrated, he stomped away, and just before I let out a sigh of relief, he threw down his blanket and laid down for bed—a mere 20 feet from our campsite! Surely, repacking our bikes and setting off at this hour was not an option. I racked my brain for the best course of action, but finding no obvious answer, I joined Hannah back under the “protection” of our tarp, attempting to reassure her that all was well. Through the night I laid wide-eyed, unable to sleep. My mind ran rampant with the wild imaginations that are typical when sleeping next to a machete-wielding neighbor.

When morning finally arrived, we rolled out of bed, red-eyed and tired from our sleepless night. It turned out the man had left in the night, and we were left dazed, wondering if it had all just been a dream—which it most certainly was not. It was going to take some heavy persuading to convince Hannah to camp out again anytime soon.

The last couple days of a tour are typically filled with exuberance and anticipation. This day was no different. I hate to admit that we were ready for the trip to end—but in all honesty, we were. Sure, we were coming away with incredible memories and a sense of empowerment at handling such unusual challenges together, but after a night like we’d just had, we were ready for our own bed.

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The End in Sight

Cruising down the long, winding descents from the Escambray Mountains into the coastal town of Trinidad, we knew our first order of business: booking bus tickets back to the airport in Havana. We were no rookies. We le ourselves three days’ cushion to be back for our flight to the States. The bus station was bustling when we arrived. As I stood in line, waiting to purchase tickets, I studied my Spanish translation book, preparing to communicate our urgent need for tickets.

Once at the front of the line, I spoke clearly, absolutely nailing the Spanish phrase I had rehearsed, which was a rarity for me. My victory was short-lived when my request for tickets was met with a resounding, “No, todo reservado.”

“Wait, you’re booked?” I asked.

“Si, para ocho dias.” “For eight days?” I queried incredulously, holding up the alleged number in fingers, just to make entirely sure that I understood.

Bewildered, Hannah and I sat on the bench outside of the station, heads in our hands. Our flight was leaving in just three days and the bus was our only way of transportation. Hannah turned toward me, grabbed my hand and said: “Hey, we’ve dealt with this kind of shit before, we will figure it out. We have to.” She was right. We had to figure it out. Our wallets were dwindling and we didn’t have the budget to extend our stay.

As usual, she was right, we did figure it out. After many failed attempts of finding a taxi that could fit our bicycles, Hannah came across a local bus traveling to Havana. Somehow she was able to convince the driver to accommodate our bikes and our budget. We were off, headed to Havana, thanks to Hannah’s charm. Had the negotiating been left to me, we’d still be stranded on a street corner in Trinidad.

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My hope for this trip was that Hannah would fall in love with touring—amazingly, I got much more than I bargained for. I got a travel partner—someone sharing in the experiences and challenges, and contributing enormously to a trip’s success. Never again will I leave for weeks at a time without her, only to spend my time on my bicycle halfway across the world, thinking about her. From now on, I prefer her right next to me. Experiencing everything with me—the ups and the downs.

I’m concluding this story with itchy palms. Not because of the exhilarating memories nor because of the anticipation of our next trip, but because of the deep-red rash covering my entire body, from head to toe. That’s right, Cuba gave me the Zika virus. But don’t worry, I’m choosing to count this as an experience I won’t soon forget.

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