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Adventure / March 12, 2018

Bikepacking Cuba’s “Ruta Mala”

Written by: Jan Bennett

Late last year, a friend asked me to join an adventure on the La Ruta Mala: a new bikepacking route in Cuba. The route was conceived and scouted by Logan Watts and Joe Cruz, and was published while I was riding the dirt roads of Mexico’s Baja Divide.

The 860-mile route connects the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba with the western port of Viales, traversing almost the entire island by dirt roads. These roads are often impassable in the rain, and are rutted and bumpy even when dry. They climb over three mountain ranges and through some of Cuba’s most remote communities. 

I said yes, of course.

As an American, legal travel to Cuba is a novelty. During the waning months of his tenure in office, President Obama eased restrictions on travel to the island by implementing the ‘People-to-People’ visa program. President Trump soon replaced this plan with his own ‘In support of the Cuban people’ visa, one of 12 categories of legal travel. 

Travel in Cuba is more than just a 60 year step back in time. Yes, there are still classic American cars. But the breadth and depth of experience available in Cuba far surpasses that of a taxi ride in a 1958 Thunderbird. The streets of Old Havana alone hold countless relics of the island’s past, including the original fortifications built to defend the almost 500-year-old Spanish colonial city. 

Classic cars are a common site on the streets of Cuba.

A rare example of a very well cared for classic car in Cuba.

Out there, we encountered a vibrance and a zest for life that told a completely different story from the one presented by American political rhetoric. Children would often ride alongside us, and adults would grin with appreciation of our chosen method of travel. 

Almost immediately after setting out on the 38-kilometer ride between the towns of Las Tunas and Jobabo, we were greeted by the grinning rider of a brakeless single-speed bicycle. His bike, unlike most on the island, was in perfect condition. Stopping for a short break in order to take in the scenery, he pulled out a handful of small oranges and offered them to us as a mid-ride snack.

I learned that he used the bike for his daily commute between his family’s home in Jobabo and his job at a nearby medical clinic. His bike afforded him great opportunities, and he was grateful for them.

 

 

Beisbol, very similar to American baseball, is a national past time.

A rancher taking his newly purchased horse home via bicycle.

A proprietor of a roadside snack stand, some of the first individually owned businesses allowed in Cuba.

A road side snack stand displaying rare food goods for sale.

The experience of eating in Cuba is unique, mostly because there are limited options. While Cuban dishes are celebrated, even outside of the island, they are mostly reserved for home cooked meals like you would have when staying in casas particulares. State-run cafeterias provide much of the daily sustenance for those traveling via bicycle in Cuba. These cafeterias typically offer a limited menu of one or two food items, delicious café Cubano (Cuban espresso), and numerous choices of rum.

As much of the food is still rationed in Cuba, locals generally share coffee in lieu of hosting a dinner party. If we camped in an area where others were present, we would be offered coffee at all hours. While traveling their local roads, ranchers and farmers would spot us and offer for us to camp on their land. As we would usually already have our tents set up, we would kindly thank them only to have them arrive back a few moments later with fruit from trees on their property. This was always a welcome gesture of kindness and would regularly lead to conversations that offered great insight into life on the relatively isolated island.

Pet ownership is relatively common across the island.

One of the rare treats while on the road, a full plate of food and a fork to eat it with!

A road lined with Royal Palm trees makes for an excellent camping spot

Ample rain during our trip meant that there was ample mud, too

Everywhere we traveled we were greeted with warm stares of curiosity and questions of genuine intrigue. Many faces would light up upon learning that we were from the United States. It seemed as if nearly everyone had an immediate family member living and working in the US. The desire to learn more about our lives back home was ever present, even though the pride for their homeland was palpable.

If I have one take away from this amazing experience it is to travel more and step outside of your comfort zone. The world is vast and the experiences are life changing. Embrace them and never stop exploring.

Do you have questions about La Ruta Mala or comments about this feature? Email them to us at [email protected]

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about the author

Jan Bennett

An adventure seeker at her core, Jan Bennett has always been drawn to the outdoors and being active. Completing three different wilderness expeditions before graduating high school, Jan has always been at home in the wilderness. Even though she has a degree in Technology Management and a minor in Business, Jan took the leap and left corporate America in 2015 in order to persue her cycling passions. On any given day, you can find Jan in Dallas, Texas preparing her mind and body for the next outdoor adventure.

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