24 February 2018

Change is coming to Cuba, but for now the street scenes are laid-back and traditional
Last chance to savour old Cuba
Bridget McGrouther decides that Cuban wheels are the best way to explore this changing island
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'm a great believer in doing as the locals do when I'm abroad and in Cuba, where only five per cent of residents own cars, this means taking to two wheels. Now, I'd never seen myself as another Laura Trott, Britain's double Olympic gold medal winning rider, but cycling through Cuba, where there is so little traffic and such stunning scenery, really appealed to me. It had been 15 years since I last visited this communist country, and before I arrived, I suspected little had changed in the intervening years, other than Raul Castro stepping into his brother Fidel's shoes as the country's leader.

Yet the recent easing of tensions between the Caribbean island and the United States posed a now-or-never opportunity. I longed to relive the heart and soul of this captivating nation before its olde worlde charms, entrenched in the pre-embargo 1950s, evaporated like a puff of cigar smoke. So I signed up for an eight day trip. Staff wheel out the whole kit and caboodle, from modern bikes and like-minded companions to comfortable accommodation and the services of a dream team - smiling guide Jaime, mechanic Fernando and patient bus driver Andres.
A rickshaw for hire, Cuban style
A modest lifestyle for many islanders
with horses and carts clip-clopping over cobbles, oxen ploughing fertile furrows, or the rusty camellos (long buses) crammed with passengers rumbling along empty highways.

But cycling through such idyllic countryside, being warmly welcomed with happy 'holas', serenaded by salsa bands and even being wolf-whistled at by passing drivers made us feel like kings and queens of the road. The spectacular landscape of tobacco plantations, crystalline lakes and steep-sided mountains was breathtaking in more ways than one. But I'm proud to say that I was only defeated by what seemed like one neverending climb - I was forced to thumb a lift from our tour bus.

Much of the terrain was as flat as the infamous Bay of Pigs swampland, where an army of red crabs crossing the road stopped us in our tracks - much like the revolutionaries had halted the botched US invasion attempt in 1961. Although we cycled in the early morning or late afternoon, covering 15 to 20 miles a day, it was still hot and steamy thanks to the humidity. Taking a swim in the Caribbean Sea, followed by an icecold cocktail on deserted sandy shores, was a heavenly way to refresh. Numb bottoms were soon forgotten when we checked into our comfortable hotels or friendly family-run guesthouses, called casas particulares.

From vibrant Havana and quaint Vinales to coastal Cienfuegos and Trinidad, the accommodation had vastly improved since my last visit in 2000. The restaurants also served better food, while the mojitos and sunsets were just as good as I remembered. On the final evening, we dined at La Guarida, a restaurant in Havana frequented by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and Hollywood legends Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson - their photos are displayed on the walls for all to see. Now that definitely would never have happened before. And we would have danced at the trendy new nightclub Fabrica de Arte Cubano but for an untimely power cut. Oh well, at least some of Cuba's unique charms never change.

Original article published in Jan 2016. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
I just needed to pack my well-padded shorts, take cash rather thancredit cards, and prepare to switch off from the outside world. What a golden opportunity. Our little group, dressed in tight-fitting Lycra and brightly-coloured helmets, didn't exactly blend in
"Some of Cuba's unique charms never change."
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