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Old 28 Feb 2013
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Riding in Cuba

Warning to post-literates: a generous selection of words, mainly in English, follow. There are no photos, no videos, and no smilies or other embellishments. Sorry.

The concept was simple: two of us would ship a Yamaha XT660 in from Colombia on the Stahlratte. Id fly in from Mexico, skirting inconvenient legalities (e.g., the Trading With The Enemy Act), quickly and efficiently dispense with temporary import paperwork, ride around for ten days or so, then turn the bike over to its actual owner, known here as Mountainman. He would do his own ride, then load the bike back onto the Stahlratte for its ongoing journey to Mexico.

Our plan would have been easily accomplished in any of the mainland Latin American countries in which Ive toured on a motorbike--which is to say all of them. The Stahlratte is trying to expand its transport of motorbikes, and along with the XT, two other bikes were brought from Cartagena. Mine was the only one with documentation hastily printed in the privacy of my home the night before I left Seattle. As a general guide, we had Throttlemeisters masterpiece of a ride report, which describes in words and photos virtually every square inch of the island, including a select few where tourists are strictly forbidden.

All did not go exactly as planned. To begin with, the Stahlratte was delayed by mechanical issues, then ran into a bit of foul weather. I waited in Cienfuegos, stress-testing my liver and making interesting discoveries about Cuban internet capabilities, which are minimal. Then, it developed that the crucial person at the Aduanathe only person capable of laboriously completing certain essential paperwork by handwas on vacation until later that week. Other aduana personnel insisted that the bikes be left aboard the Stahlratte, then about-faced and insisted that they be brought ashore, but parked outside the marina office, where the set of three attracted considerable interest. More stress-testing followed, and then more again.

The short version: temporary import of the bike took a full week (which, given my brief vacation, required drastic revisions to plans). The process involved many uniformed personnel in several offices, including aduana and transit police. Many forms were filled outwith breathtaking slowness and in blistering heat. Rubbings were taken of chassis and engine numbers. Inspections were conducted by men who took their roles very seriously, and photos were taken from every conceivable angle. Eventually, a Cuban placa and licencia were produced, along with a large sticker announcing temporary importation of the bike.

In general terms, the bureaucracy involved in this relatively simple task rivaledeven exceededthat required by, say, any south Asian or African country at its worst. Moreover, officials were adamant in refusing to permit anyone but meas purported owner--to ride the bike. They were equally insistent that when I departed Cuba, so must the bike, which rather spoiled Mountainmans plans to take over from me. On a positive note, no one even glanced at my genuine driving license from the States, my genuine International Driving Permit, or my somewhat less-genuine registration and insurance documentation from the province of British Colombia (Cubans having no experience of a world in which anyone can print anything they wish at will, are blissfully un-attuned to certain practicalities of life as we know it). Total cost was about 60 CUCsbasically, USD60.

I had one week left in which to explore Cuba. I therefore covered relatively little ground, and all generalizations which follows should therefore be considered highly suspect.

In general, I found roads quite goodcertainly so by Latin American standards. They range from multi-lane autopistas to freshly-paved two lane rural roads to rather rutted, bumpy, lanes in advanced stages of entropic decomposition, to eroded dirt trackssometimes in rapid succession. On main and secondary routes it was easy to maintain 100 kph speedssometimes much fasterin relative safety. On little twisty tracks through the mountains, slower speeds prevailed. I did not ride at night, although I pushed my luck well into twilight a couple of times. IMHO, riding at night here would be less safe than doing so in most places due to the prevalence of un-lit, non-mechanized vehicles, pedestrians and animals. By comparison, I have done more than my share of night riding in most Latin American countries in addition to quite a few in West Africa.

Once freed of the endless round of aduana and policia personnel, I had few interactions with officials. Frequent puntas de control waved me through with friendly smiles except on one occasion when the uniformed man wished to make a joke about trading my bike for a horse-cart. In another city, a local policeman flagged me down almost gleefully when I ran a stop sign right under his nose, but once I had expressed my lengthy regrets he managed to let me go with a warning.following which we had a lively discussion about the relative capabilities of my bike compared to his. No one asked to see the Cuban plate or license which took so long to obtain in Cienfuegos. In fact, I didnt attach the plate at allit stayed in my baggage.

Everywhere, roads were largely empty of mechanized traffic, with horse carts, pedestrians, bicitaxis, bicyclists, and a variety of domestic animals rather more common than the occasional cars, buses, trucks, tractors, and giant, lumbering, American-made cars of an age equivalent to my own. I found riding here far less stressful than in Africa, Asia or elsewhere in Latin America.although YMMV, and of course there were occasional surprises. Regular gasoline cost about 1.20 per liter, which I thought not a bad deal. There were plenty of gas stations, even on Sunday mornings, but if traveling with a small tank it is generally wise to fill up whenever the opportunity presents. Many cities have just one or two gas stations, so getting complacent is ill-advised. Octane ranges from ridiculously low (80, if I remember right) to more-than-adequate (93 or 94).

Signage was generally quite plentiful, although not without mysterious lapses. GPS technology being illegal (as far as I know), anyone not habituated to asking directions a lot might find themselves confused from time to time. I brought a very expensive map from home, but I found most useful an atlas of provincial and city maps purchased at an information center in Habana Viejo for about $13: Guia Tematica Carreteras de Cuba. Some sort of handlebar or tankbag map case is invaluable, and should also be brought from home. As mentioned elsewhere, Cubans love to help out, and foreigners on large motorbikes asking directions in pitiful Spanish provide critical entertainment wherever they go.

Because Cuba has, in theory at least, a centralized command economy, the little tire repair and mechanics shops so common elsewhere are mysteriously quite absent in Cuba, at least at first glance. When you ask, it turns out that they are in fact present, though not entirely legal and not prone to announce themselves in obvious ways. Sometimes a bit of persistence is necessary to find them, since proprietors might be absentfor example, pursuing their real jobs. In fact, the owner of a ponchara is as likely to be a doctor, lawyer or professor as anything else. As elsewhere in Latin America, minor repairs are done rapidly, cheaply, and with abundant creativity considering circumstances. In my limited experience, people cannot ask you for money in return for such servicesthat would imply operation of an illegal business. You are expected, however, to tip. People are proud, and imbued with a strong sense of the equality of all, rich or poor. This being the case, they do not bow and scrape, and they receive their tips with dignity.

Large bikes are almost unheard of in Cuba, ancient Harley Davidsons aside. Common local models are Czech Jawas and Russian Urals, with police riding small, Japanese v-twins. Spare parts for most bikes you might want to bring to Cuba are totally non-existent, although they can be shipped in from Europe. Bringing wear items like chains, sprockets, brake pads, cables, bulbs, specialty lubes, and other such is strongly recommended. Spare tubes, too, although the men in the poncharas are quite skilled at hot-vulcanized patches. Even standard fluids can be difficult to find: when I went looking for oil, all the servicios had giant displays of brake fluid, but no oil at allI ended up asking around and purchasing a liter privately for a rather tidy sum.

While waiting for my bike to be released, I looked into scooter rentals in Cienfuegos. As I understand it, all rental agencies are owned directly by the central government, therefore subject to its whims, and private rentals are strictly illegal. I was told that scooters normally cost about $25 per day, but that for some reason the government was not renting them at all at this time. I also heard that they are not permitted to be driven to neighboring provinces, but I am not sure whether this is actually true, or who might care. Contrary to what I read somewhere on the internet, helmets are always worn by both drivers and passengers.

Information on certain peculiarities specific to Cuba can best be found in one of the standard guidebooks and/or on the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum, which has a branch dedicated to Cuba. In this category I include the presence of thousands of casas particulares, the 10% penalty for anyone exchanging US dollars, the dual currency system, and the abysmal state of Cuban internet. I will say that I never reserved my accommodation in advance, and although I found a few hotels fully booked there were always ample alternatives. Note that the casas almost always offer better values, friendlier service, and better food. In many cases, off-street parking can present minor problems, but solutions are always at hand.

Cuban people are as friendly, welcoming and helpful as any Ive met anywhere in the world. They are proud of themselves, their country, and their culture, and are well-educated and informed, with carefully-considered opinions on many subjects. Outside of the main touristed areas, little or no English is spoken, but very rudimentary Spanish (like mine) usually suffices. There is no doubt that visitors with better Spanish skills are better able to appreciate much of what Cuba (and Cubans) have to offer. Note thatas in other Spanish-speaking countriesit is imperative that you offer some form of pleasantry before launching into your request for directions, prices, or tiene una habitacion, por favor?

Comments, questions, suggestions, updates and rude, dismissive snark are all welcome.

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Old 28 Feb 2013
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Great report, thanks. Sounds like a great adventure, but I'm really looking forward when taking a bike to Cuba gets a bit easier.
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Old 28 Feb 2013
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Me too. Thanks.
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Old 28 Feb 2013
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Originally Posted by markharf View Post
(Cubans having no experience of a world in which anyone can print anything they wish at will, are blissfully un-attuned to certain practicalities of life as we know it).
Well, at least until now! LOL!
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Old 2 Mar 2013
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Excellent write-up.
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Old 3 Mar 2013
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Excellent post . :thumbup1
( just to increase the smiley ratio)
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