Cycling Cuba: The Bumpiest, Steepest Roads Lead to Vinales!

August 11th, 2013

STATS – San Diego de los Banos to Vinales

Distance: 61 km Average Speed: 15 km/hr
Time Cycling: 4 hrs 8 mins Top Speed: 49 km/hr
Left San Diego: 9:15am Arrived in Vinales: 4pm

We knew this ride would have its challenges. We were following Bicycling Cuba’s “Pinar del Rio region Ride 6 Day 1” but reversed. The Smith’s routes are extremely detailed, but I was a little nervous about seeing all the landmarks from the opposite direction. Also, the Day 1 ride only had one place to get food. The Day 2 ride had more food and wouldn’t need to be reversed, but it was less scenic. And gosh darnit, I wanted to see Che Guevara’s cave!

So the night before, I highlighted the landmarks and reversed the kilometers in the guidebook. Luckily the only stop for food was closer to San Diego than Vinales, because the breakfast we got at Hotel El Mirador was TINY. After giant casa breakfasts, a teeny plate of fruit and a skinny omelette were not going to cut it. I couldn’t wait to get to that cafeteria outside of Che’s cave.

Mere minutes

Entrance to Parque Nac. La Guira

We left at the same time as a cycle tour group of Germans. Just like our bike trip in Italy – us and a bunch of middle-aged Germans! They warned us that this ride out of San Diego de los Banos through the Parque Nacional La Guira was steep. I wasn’t worried. My guidebook said nothing about crazy steep mountains, and it hadn’t been wrong yet. Mind you, the book gave directions coming from the opposite way. I secretly thought maybe the Germans were just mountain wimps.

I should’ve known better. Germans are cycle touring champs and they were so, so right about the crazy steep route! It took us 30 minutes to go 5km! I was so happy to get to the top.

118 We made it to the top

But, this is Cuba – there is never just one top mountain peak, there are dozens. It took us TWO HOURS to travel the measly 16km from San Diego de los Banos to Che’s cave. At least we didn’t try to do this as a jaunty afternoon trip the day before! At one time, probably many decades ago, this road was paved. Now it’s half gone, washed out and just disintegrated.

121 Mountain Collage

122 We biked that mountain

Bumpy half-paved, half-gravel roads make uphill cycling difficult, but the worst is that they completely take away the reward — after all that slow effort to get uphill, we couldn’t even speed downhill because it was way too bumpy!

Finally, we arrived at the bottom. Look how happy we are, thinking the roughest terrain was behind us. How foolish… Anyway, we visited the Cueva de los Portales, the remote cave Che Guevara made his headquarters during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was worth the trek and the $1CUC admission. Though if the road was fixed up, more people would probably visit.

123 Cueva de los Portales128 Cueva - Pier up high133 Cave collage

It’s now three hours after our teeny breakfast and we’re STARVING. To get to the Cueva, we went through a campsite that has the cafeteria. They were closed when we arrived, but the sign said they’d be open at 12noon. We came out of the Cueva ready to eat… and it was still closed. I approached a man in the little information booth, but of course he didn’t speak English, so I mimed eating food. He shook his head no. I assumed that meant the cafeteria would not be opening. Damn. I pointed to our map and mimed eating food again. He pointed to La Palma, a town a little bit off of our route, about 20km away. My stomach grumbled angrily. Would we make it? It was only 20km. We could be there in less than an hour.

So we ate our last orange and last granola bar and set out on one of the most scenic rides yet.

136 Mountainous countryside138 Roads never look as steep in pictures

But the thing about pictures is that nothing looks as steep as it is in real life, so you’ll just have to take our word for it. Because of the up and down, it was taking us much, much longer than it should have to get La Palma. It’d been over an hour since we left the Cueva, we were barely halfway there, and we were getting hangry (when one is so hungry the lack of food causes anger).

143 Blessed by Banana AngelsThen we saw two Cubans, a man and woman, running down their long laneway to meet us with… bananas! Two bunches of mini bananas. We bought them both and gobbled one bunch up immediately. I dubbed the couple our Banana Angels. We were going to make it to Vinales after all!

Recharged and much happier, we got back on our bikes and continued toward La Palma for a proper lunch. But then, at the corner where we could either follow the road to Vinales or detour in the opposite direction to get food in La Palma, there was a little shack that we’d come to realize meant FOOD! It was right outside a lumberyard, probably the lunch spot for the locals who worked there.

145 Menu we couldn't readWe knew that “pan” meant bread or sandwich, but had no idea what “picadillo” meant. However, we were hungry and desperate not to go 10km out of our way to La Palma – 10km on these steep bumpy roads would be another 45 minutes! Luckily, neither Pier nor I are picky eaters, so we pointed to the sign and waited to be surprised.

What they brought out was a saucy, ground meat sandwich. A little voice in my head warned that eating mystery meat on the side of the road in Cuba might make us sick, but at that moment we were so hungry we risked it… and we were fine. We have tough stomachs! To top it off we got some sugarcane juice (Guarapo on the menu).

146 Sugarcan Juice collage

A few days later we found out that “picadillo” just means ground beef.

Finally fed, we were ready for anything! Which is good, because this crazy day was not yet done with us. Seriously. The roads got even WORSE, and then it RAINED, but we had full bellies so it didn’t faze us.

Oxen wearing rain caps

Oxen wearing rain caps

We didn't think it was possible, but the roads got even worse!

We didn’t think it was possible, but the roads got even worse! Pier gives this road a thumbs down.

A close up of the insane bumpiness of this once paved road.

A close up of the insane bumpiness of this once paved road.

Despite being our second shortest day kilometre-wise, it was one of our longest ride days. But we made it to Vinales and found a casa just as it really started to pour. We used the rain to bathe our dirty Bromptons.

Bathing Bromptons in the rain

Bathing Bromptons in the rain

And ate a giant casa supper. Needless to say, we devoured every last delicious morsel.

158 Supper collageIn conclusion, reversing Bicycling Cuba’s “Pinar del Rio region Ride 6 Day 1” from San Diego de los Banos to Vinales wasn’t hard to follow (all the landmarks were easy to see), but there were a lot of uphills going the opposite way and the roads have deteriorated significantly since the book was written. Maybe we should have biked to La Palma, the road might have been smoother, but then we wouldn’t have as many crazy stories to tell.

 

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