Travel Through Cuba on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter & Kay Forwood

Cuba on a Harley (11/5/03 - 4/6/03)
Distance 2397 km (329150 km to 331547 km)

This is part of the ninth section of our around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from  Jamaica

11/5/03 We started radioing the authorities at the 12 mile limit but there was no response till only a few miles offshore when we were advised to anchor in the bay. Santiago de Cuba has a magnificent harbour entry to a country, an old castle on one headland and small boats ferrying people across to islands and peninsulas, opening up into a large bay. Being Sunday it took the authorities an hour to muster before we could come alongside the marina, with quarantine the first 40 minutes and when cleared of diseases a team of seven officials boarded. A few customs officials politely and efficiently searched for over an hour, insisting that we watch to ensure no petty theft. Agricultural inspectors checked food, looking for weevils mainly, and immigration issued us with a tourist card ($US 15.00) valid for 30 days, using the boat as our hotel booking, and yet we were free to leave the boat, travel independently, and no onward ticket was asked for. We were now independent of the boat. The motorcycle could be landed, and was, the tyres had to be washed in case of diseases, and its import could be attached to our passports and not the boat, thus also independent of the boat. Paperwork however for the motorcycle would have to be done tomorrow, a working day. This whole process took till 2 pm, was polite, efficient and thorough. Drinks were offered, and accepted, Coca Cola was not as favoured as the rum, where over a litre was consumed, the officers leaving when the last of the bottle was consumed. The marina manager offered us a welcome drink at the bar in the evening and we watched dancing and partying at another pier out over the water. A great welcoming and a relief to be able to move independently of the boat in Cuba.

12/5/03 Authorities move politely, efficiently but slowly with many forms and the need for accuracy as each piece of paper carries their individually numbered seal. Customs at the marina gave us a form allowing us to ride the motorcycle to customs in Santiago de Cuba. Customs in town issued us with a 30 day temporary import  ($US 10.00), extendable if we extended our visa. The vehicle registration police however were unsure how to proceed and after 3 hours waiting for a response from Havana we were asked to return tomorrow. This was all interspersed as if riding through a 1950's movie set. The few cars on the road were either pre revolution American models or post revolution Russian, both look pre 60's designs. Motorcycles outnumber other vehicles, many with sidecars, again Russian copies of the 50's BMW's or Czechoslovakian MZ 250's. The vehicles are old but well maintained, looking clean, painted, no oil leaks, but blow a lot of smoke. Old 50's Chevrolet trucks carry goods in the city looking just 10 years old and horse drawn wagons operate as local taxies, fruit sellers sell from the back of horse drawn carts. The inner city shows little sign of any new building or renovation with most places without paint or any obvious repair in years. We moved back into the 21st century on the boat, to find the captain had been visited, again, by customs, with a sniffer dog, taking a further two hours to search the boat. A random search and finding nothing, they did however find a couple of marijuana seeds on the Spanish boat next door, giving the captain a warning. Drug related offences here carry severe penalties.Our bike, Jimbo's car rental and local transport

13/5/03 Two hours, the purchase of $US 30.00 worth of stamps from the international bank, a vehicle inspection, a red and white tourist number plate, and the bike was 100% legal in Cuba for the next 30 days. This is the last new country of this trip. The motorcycle now having visited 143 countries, 75% of those in the world. By coincidence yesterday the odometer recorded 100,000 km since the engine was rebuilt by Harley-Davidson of New York using parts supplied by Morgan and Wacker of Australia. The engine hasn't been opened in that time, however it now has two oil leaks, one serious, not bad after visiting every country in North, Central and South America plus the Caribbean. Jim left the boat today, not finding living aboard comfortable and accommodation cheaper ashore. We have a few days left of our agreement on the boat and find being tied up alongside convenient being able to come and go without arranging the dinghy and with shore power and water, although the marina is 10 km from the city.

14/5/03 In the 1990's with the fall of Russia, Cuba had a foreign exchange (hard currency) problem and introduced tourism and a two tiered pricing economy. Tourists paid in US dollars in hotels and special "dollar shops" with western products, locals were not allowed use these facilities. With dollars entering the economy locals wanted foreign goods and would ask foreigners to buy them. Eventually the restrictions were lifted and locals can now buy in dollars. The peso economy, (supposedly only for locals) allows for the purchase of street foods, buses and market foods, where foreigners can pay in local's prices. Then there are the peso/dollar shops. Where locals pay in pesos and foreigners pay in dollars, i.e. 3 pesos locals, 3 dollars foreigners, despite the official exchange rate of 27 pesos to the dollar. Naturally foreigners don't buy here as items are usually better value in the dollar restaurants. The problem is you don't meet many locals in dollar cafes and restaurants. Also the peso/dollar shops are losing business so have started charging what the market will bear, e.g. one peso for a local's coffee and US 0.35c for a foreigner. All sound confusing, yes. It all means you can buy street food for almost nothing and restaurant food is western prices. For the locals it means if you don't have dollars you don't have any more than the basic basics with even soap and cooking oil now almost only available in dollar shops. The one class society now vastly separated into two classes, those with access to and those with out access to the $US, either through repatriation of money from relatives abroad or from tourism. We spent the whole day wandering the city, a museum, a Son music recital, street pizza and bread rolls, even an ice cream (0.04c), internet for tourists (almost unavailable for locals), donated some boat clothes we will not need to a local deaf mute, were hassled by beggars (supposedly illegal), argued over the price of a coffee in a peso/dollar shop and talked with locals who felt oppressed in Cuba and wanted to know about the rest of the world.No new private vehicle ownership since Castro, new vehicles only for tourists

15/5/03 Transport is varied, most people walk long distances, some go on horse drawn carts. Trucks are popular and can carry 100 people, a few are privately owned and run, buses are irregular, private motorcycles carry goods and the old American cars are usually privately owned, yellow number plates. Government vehicles have blue and tourist vehicles, including ours, red number plates, making it easy to identify, for us and the officials, who is who. The only modern western cars are rentals, tour buses and security vans, the rest are old Russian or American. Our 10 yr. old motorcycle is considered new, and is, compared to local motorcycles. The concept of vehicles only lasting 10 years in the west is inconceivable here. Petrol prices of $US 0.75 - 0.90c a litre keep traffic to a minimum. We rode to Gran Piedra, in the mountains at 1250m  and away from the coastal heat, in the morning. In the evening we teamed up with a local for a few hours over a beer and peso dinner, each firing questions about each other's country. Unfortunately the concept here is that without Castro everything will be like the west. They don't realize the turmoil of transition and that they will be giving up job security, pensions and low crime rate for the benefits of freedom of speech and mobility. If they follow the Russian path the times ahead will be difficult. Later we watched a live band and western students dancing with their local instructors till the early morning.

16/5/03 Where there is money corruption and crime starts. The attendant at one museum had her scam to try and avoid giving out a ticket, hopeful of pocketing the $US 1.00 entry fee and we heard reports that often the dollars in the peso/dollar shops are skimmed off by management. This in a country where we have not seen a rifle or hand gun carried by anyone. Shop windows have no shutters or bars and are locked with a simple key, not padlock. Corruption doesn't seem to have yet reached the police as we were stopped for going through a pare (stop) sign, were talked to and let go. Mostly we wandered the city, visited the "Carnival Museum" with its elaborate costumes, talked to people, sat in parks and had an easy day.

17/5/03 Left the boat Monsoon for the last time. Jim couldn't find a motorcycle to rent. Locals aren't allowed to rent their larger private  motorcycles and car rental places only have 50cc scooters, not suitable on the open roads, instead he hired a small car for two weeks. Headed out to Baracoa intending to visit the viewpoint overlooking Guantanamo Bay but it seems the place has become more contentious lately and the road is blocked. No possibility of viewing the Afghanis holidaying there at America's expense. Santiago de Cuba was polluted by smoke stacks and old vehicles but the streets were clean, people not littering and swept regularly. In the country the air is clear and the roadside clean, there are few cars other than tourists, few trucks and we enjoyed the traffic free ride along the beach and over the mountain pass.Roadside signboards to the fallen martyrs of the revolution

18/5/03 Casa Particulars are private houses that rent out a couple of rooms to tourists. Part of the free market Castro allows. Heavily taxed so they don't out compete government run hotels and banned in beachside places where western style tourist hotels exist. For $US 15.00 a night you get a room, aircon, hot shower, and use of a family's home. Some offer breakfast and dinner. A great way to look inside one of the local's houses, not as run down as they appear on the outside and a good way to meet locals. Friendly and extremely competitive on price and features. We took a walk over the gorge at Rio Yumuri and back down to the river for a swim. A guide for almost nothing showed us the way, pointed out the uses of different plants and arranged a boat out through the gorge. Not his usual job, freelancing, practising English on his day off to supplement a $US 7.00 a month salary.

19/5/03 Headed out towards Moa on a secondary road reported to be broken up old asphalt but after 40 km we were stopped by police, the bridge ahead had collapsed, a month earlier. We would have to go the circuitous route back through Guantanamo, and almost back to Santiago. To add to the frustration the motorcycle's electrical system stopped charging and was fast running down the battery. Back at the previous night's accommodation in Baracoa we isolated the problem as the regulator. We have been carrying a spare one for 7 years, you never know when you might need it. Hopefully we will get further tomorrow.

20/5/03 Just passing through the country there is no evidence of the current crackdown on dissidents however the rules governing tourists and locals are different and changing. There are tourists only hotels and as we discovered after our 400 km ride today, locals only hotels. Two hotels out in the country that three years ago would accept both locals and foreigners now only allow locals. There are separate home stay places for locals (a red triangle on the door) and foreigners (blue). Men tourists are no longer allowed to entertain local women in a bar, restaurant or hotel. While western dollars are needed and wanted their spending clientele would preferably be isolated in beachside resorts and not mingle and therefore influence the morals or values of the locals. With only a couple of state run TV stations, news is the government's view and at the moment the fear is an invasion from American forces. It is normal locally to blame all of Cuba's problems on the US blockade but with Afghanistan and Iraq captured, and Cuban officials recently expelled from the US there is a genuine concern by Cubans of an invasion here. We ended up in Holguin, after good roads, sugar cane country, and a long search for accommodation. Again a peso dinner, two beers, chicken and salad, serenaded by three musicians in a lively atmosphere, much more authentic than the stuffy dollar restaurants and only $US 2.50 each.

21/5/03 Apparently the best paid job in the country is bellhop at a tourist hotel. With monthly salary of less than $US 10.00 it is the tips from satisfied westerners that add the cream. The sought after job often requires the speaking of many languages, drivers license plus the ability to solve westerners needs. We caught a bicycle taxi to the only internet in town, three machines. Some bicycle taxi's have a license to carry foreigners, others don't. We dodged police, taking back roads, obviously our taxi had no license. As we slowly get closer to more touristy areas an increase in wealth of locals is apparent. More local restaurants and bars, locals own bicycles and houses are better looked after.An old Harley, kept going with ingenuity, no spares available here

22/5/03 The first Harley-Davidson we have seen here was parked on the roadside. A 1947 model. Parts in Cuba have been unavailable since the 60's so any repairs have needed to be manufactured here, about half the motorcycle. The tank, engine and frame about the only original pieces. The tyres were bald but some extras, like the leather saddle bags, excellent copies of the originals, logo's and all. 200 km to Camaguey with it's historical centre. More modern cars but otherwise still in the 1950's movie set. Still enjoying the local street foods and peso restaurants. Each town has local variations as transport between is limited. Chocolate in mountain towns, soy milk on the flats, sugar cane juice everywhere. A German bus tour group, the first we have seen, staying in the one upmarket hotel.

23/5/03 The Cuban government recently announced the closure of about half of the country's sugar mills and reduced production of cane as it is costing more to produce than the price obtained on international markets. This will affect about 400,000 workers, mostly in poorer rural areas, such as we travelled through today, along the northern coastal flatlands. In contrast they are building many new tourist hotels on Cayo Coco, part of an enormous string of cays just off shore, connected by a 27 km long causeway to the mainland built across the shallow waters in between.A chance to sit on the new model police motorcycle We travelled the causeway to the all inclusive segregated hotels where foreign tourists don't often leave their hotels and rarely travel to the mainland and where locals need special permission to travel to the Cays. Transport options between towns are slow and limited for locals so Jim has been filling his car with hitch-hikers, from whom we found out Carnival is on in Ciego de Avila this weekend, where we are now headed.

24/5/03 Unlike any other street celebrations we have seen. Tens of thousands of people in their best clothes, of all ages, wander the streets between venues strung out all over the city, lined with food and beer stalls and ending with stages of disco music or live bands. They go on for kilometres, three days, 24 hours a day. Most of the food was pork based, pigs whole roasted, lying on benches, slowly cut up and sold in bread rolls. Popcorn and deep fried banana chips. Ice cream and of course, beer. Bring your own container, cup, plastic bottle to be refilled from one of the dozens of mobile special built truck trailers.Festivities Cuban style, cheap beer, street bands and lots of fun Refrigerated vats fill each truck dispensing beer at $US 0.20c a litre. A rough estimate of your container's size and it's full to pass around amongst your friends. In front of each stage young and old bopped to the music, moving in that suggestive dance of Latin America spurred on by beer although hardly necessary as they seem to be born with rhythm here and need no excuse to dance. We wandered the throngs over the two evenings, trying all the foods and truck beers but were in bed before most locals. There was a parade of floats and dancing groups but these seemed less popular than the street wandering. A true entertainment for the masses, where everyone joined in.

25/5/03 A short ride to Trinidad past an historical bridge and a watch tower where from the top the workers used to be checked working in the cane fields. By chance our casa particular's (homestay) owners in Trinidad were celebrating their son's wedding this evening and we were invited along. About 100 guests, two suckling pigs, a whole lamb and at great expense canned quality beer. The short ceremony was in the house and had the usual western trimmings of cake and dancing. As everything here, a lively event.We were invited as special guests at this wedding We were asked to take the motorcycle in the parade through the streets, bride and groom sitting on the back of an old convertible Triumph motorcar, tooting to the waving onlookers who were drawn from their homes. The bride and groom's families are very well off by Cuban standards to be able to afford such an event.

26/5/03 Trinidad is one of Cuba's historical cities remaining almost untouched by new construction. This is helped by not being able to buy or sell houses. Property owned can only be willed to close relatives on the death of the owner, non home owners have to rent from the government. No one is allowed to own more than one home, plus a small farm or holiday house, other property is claimed by the state. Many of the city's buildings are in need of restoration but its appeal still attracts a dozen or more tour buses from Havana or resort towns each day but leaves the place to the relatively few overnight tourists in the evening.The now touristy town of Trinidad, buildings restored to reflect its past

27/5/03 Wandered town, visited craft markets, were offered illegal Cuban cigars, watched musical instruments being made in an open garage, looked in on the chess club and listened to live music over a beer in the evening.

28/5/03 It's been raining in town and on the surrounding hills the last few days so today with clear skies we headed out to a small river that flows out of the mouth of a cave. An hour's walk through forest and some clambering over rocks up through the cave and gorge had us away from town life.

29/5/03 There has been an electrical problem in the motorcycle for some time. One of those intermittent problems you spend hours looking for without success. The starter motor won't fire, the blinkers (flashers) don't always work and the new regulator doesn't seem to be charging the battery properly. At least today we isolated the start problem down to the ignition switch and hopefully the others are related. It all meant riding through the lovely countryside thinking of solutions rather than enjoying the ride. We called in at Cienfuegos Marina to see if there were any boats heading to North America, no, then onto Playa Giron to visit the Bay of Pigs Museum. This CIA backed invasion of Cuba by exiled nationals in the early 1960's is believed to have triggered the Cuban missile crisis, the closest the world has been to all out nuclear war. Soundly defeated were the invaders and those Cubans who died now martyrs. Seen locally as a victory against the imperialists invaders.Nursing a lion cub

30/5/03 Rode straight to Havana, 6 lane rough built freeway most of the way. People hitch hiking everywhere, looking for a lift as the transport service between towns is sparse and traffic light, all buses full. The section of Havana we are staying in is run down. It's reported that 300 buildings a year collapse here, and looking at them you can see why. Old and poorly maintained, some with roofs collapsed and people living on the lower floors. Like many big cities it is dirty, urine smells in the street corners and the first time we have seen people sleeping on the street in Cuba. The unit we rented is typical of the high-rise Soviet influence era. Two bedroom, bath, living and kitchen, small and basic. It's on the sixth floor but as only one lift works we have to walk to the second floor to catch it, for some reason it won't stop on the sixth floor so we have to get out on the seventh and walk down a flight.Still lived in, run down buildings of Havana Whilst the unit is clean the community areas in the building smell of urine and have dog faeces where the family pets couldn't make it to the street. Our toilet doesn't flush, use a bucket of water, and the hot water shower is a trickle, the aircon works as does the TV with it's two national programed channels. The sounds of the neighbours dogs, children, arguments and TV's emanate up the ventilation tubes as there are only wooden louvres as windows and no glass. Jim is leaving in two days and we are thinking of ways to get off the island. Hemmingway's Marina is an enormous complex of apartments along canal developments fully serviced for yachts to come alongside the canal edges. It can accommodate 400 boats, now housing about 60. Many belong to Americans ignoring or circumventing the embargo, usually with Cuban girlfriends or wives and living part of the year in each country. Many have motor bikes to get around while in Cuba and transport them between countries without problems. Unfortunately no boats big enough are leaving soon as most seem to be long stay. Our preferred option is to get a boat from here direct to Key West, just 140 km away, if possible.Almost all cars in the country from the 50's or earlier

31/5/03 Less than 2 km's away from our accommodation is the cruise ship terminal (forcibly closed due to no boats coming since 911 and pressure enforcing the embargo) and the renovated city. This is where most fly in tourists are taken on their package holiday and it is truly magnificent. Forts, churches, palaces dating back to the 1500's, cobbled streets radiating out past other recently renovated buildings. Dozens of buildings are in various stages of renovation expanding the old city tourist area. This in stark contrast to the dilapidation nearby. The government's concentration on pushing tourism unfortunately ostracizing many locals who are left out of the wealth growth causing some bitterness. Back to Hemmingway's Marina to canvas more boats about a lift to North America with reasonable success. A boat arrived today and leaving in three days is seriously considering taking us, will know for sure Monday, two days time.Street entertainment, buskers, the restored tourist sector of Havana

1/6/03 Jim flew home this morning, taking the long way via the Dominican Republic as there are no direct flights to the USA from Cuba. We returned to the old city meeting two teachers, polished in their routine of welcoming tourists, we were shown to a couple of out of the way local restaurants, talked English and asked many questions of the old and new Cuba. On a salary of $US 13.00 a month each, we were happy to buy lunch, two day's pay for them. In the evening a local bar, live band and music, packed with dancers and lively. Cuba is a place where the government tries to separate locals and tourists but where to feel the country you really need to mix with the locals.

2/6/03 9.00 am the captain confirmed he was happy to take us and the motorcycle to Key West, Florida. 10.00 am checked with authorities what paperwork was required.Loading onto an American Missionary yacht, brings bibles etc to Cuba $US 10.00 each to be put onto the crew list (departure tax). 11.00 am after waiting in the bank line for 45 minutes had the $US 5.00 stamp necessary to cancel the motorcycle registration and by 1.00 pm had the required paper from the police after handing in the Cuban number plate. 2.00 pm had permission from customs to load the motorcycle, necessary this afternoon as the tide was right. 3.00 pm hunted around the marina for a loading ramp, borrowed from the marina workshop. 4.00 pm washed the oil from the leaks and mud from road grime of the motorcycle and by 5.00 pm had it on the boat's deck. 6.00 pm it was tied down and covered. The five person crew invited us to dinner and by 9.00 pm we were totally stuffed and caught a taxi back to our private unit in Havana. The authorities in Cuba are problem solvers, not problem makers, and whilst their cogs move slowly things that are logical can be achieved readily. The 60 ft yacht we are leaving on tomorrow is a 40 yr old wooden boat recently restored. Its five occupants are from different denomination churches brought together by Christianity and a willingness to help less fortunate people in different countries. They support an orphanage in Haiti and bring bibles and religious materials to Cuba. The authorities here allow religion but the import of materials is often taxed. Some items are overlooked by customs, either well hidden or not considered necessary to be found, allowing a token duty to be paid.

3/6/03 Returned to the boat and with the Captain arranging paperwork for departure we had interesting discussions with the remaining crew.Bike seems to dwarf the 18 metre boat The only female member had slipped on a set of stairs whilst carrying some mission goods, her ankle being plaster cast and her mobility on the boat restricted. A professional photographer, about to exhibit his works in Key West, based on some of the unusual aspects of Cuba, caught in its 50's time warp. A motorcycle restorer come carpenter come cook capable of turning a hand to anything including mission work. We left by 3 pm without paperwork problems and headed into a calm sea and no wind which soon became choppy and rolly in the light boat.

4/6/03 By our watch at midnight Kay and I were feeling unwell, the sails were up with the wind and swell against the Gulf stream current causing an uncomfortable lumpy sea. We had both fed the fish before our shift ended at 4 am.

Move with us to United States of America


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