Tips for Cycling Cuba – Havana to Viñales

If you’re like me, you love the idea of taking a cycling trip through a foreign country. It’s tons of fun to explore the wilder places in the world as you move from town to town, and it’s a great way to get a different perspective on the countries you travel to. Biking across Cuba from Havana to Viñales was one of the coolest travel experiences I’ve had yet, and if you’re itching to go on a cross country ride I absolutely recommend doing it.

Thinking about taking the same ride I did? Here are some tips to get you started on your journey.

Renting a Bike in Cuba

While there is a history of government support for cycling as a mode of transportation, it also seems that Cuba’s interest in bikes fluctuates pretty regularly. You’ll be hard pressed to find a bike rental shop in Havana, and I only know of two.

Founded by a couple of Canadians, CanBiCuba looks like a good shop. I recommend looking at their touring bikes if you’re planning a cross country ride. You could get pretty far at a base price of $20 per day (extra gear not included), and if you’re just thinking of riding out and back over a few days this might be the way to go. But if you intend to stay at your destination for a longer period of time before returning to Havana like I did, the charges add up pretty quickly on those days you aren’t riding the bike.

If you’re more interested in renting from a local Cuban bike shop, Vélo Cuba looks like a pretty cool place to check out. I learned about it while I was putting this piece together, so I don’t know a whole lot about it – just that it’s run by 2 women who have been working on bicycles since the 90s, so they know their stuff. Their shop is over in Old Havana, and I’d bet they have pretty good prices since they work with both tourists and locals alike.

18403455_1381511901930794_4896859377114598192_n
They seem fun! (Taken from Vélo Cuba FB page)

For me, the cost of renting a bike was more than shipping my own on a flight, so I ended up bringing my own. I also knew my bike well and trusted it to function throughout the trip, which is more confidence than I had in an unproven rental. It’s up to you to decide if you’re comfortable with a rental or if you want your own bike on the ride.

Bringing Your Bike to Cuba

Based on the projected rental cost, my comfort level on an unknown bike, and a general desire to prove my bike was travel-worthy, it just made sense for me to take my own bike along for the ride. That said, getting a bike to a foreign country isn’t as straightforward as it might sound. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

Dismantling and Packing A Bike

Taking a bike on an airplane in one piece isn’t an option. You’ll need to disconnect its major pieces and pack it into a bike box for shipping. Parts to remove –

  • Front wheel
  • Handlebars
  • Seat
  • Pedals
  • Gear racks

It’s up to you if you want to disconnect the brake lines from the handlebars as it may be a hassle. I taped my handlebars onto the bike frame, and I was able to leave the cables connected with no problems.

It’s a good idea to do the dismantling work with small tools and as few of them as possible, because these are what you’ll take with you to re-assemble everything once you get to your destination. What I needed –

Both my seat and front wheel had quick release components, so they were easy to work with. There are a ton of different bike builds out there, so your bike may be different than mine and require a different set of tools to work with. Just remember to keep your deconstruction process as simple as possible, and reassembly will be easy.

97daf851985f1067b4bc01fe7d7ec52a-the-road-bike-design
If it looks like this, you’ve gone too far!

Next you need a box. Don’t have one? Easy! Your local bike shops put together new bikes all the time, and they’re likely to have a bunch of empty boxes they can’t wait to get rid of. Visit them and ask – they may give you a free one! And if you want a little help with packing, they may even offer to pack it for a few bucks.

Here’s a great tutorial if you’re packing a bike for the first time. I didn’t shore everything up quite so professionally when I traveled, but I did learn a lot from this video. Perhaps you will, too.

Some good things to remember –

  • Deflate your tires so they don’t burst during your flight
  • Mark position/orientation of parts before disconnecting
  • Keep screws and small parts together in a safe container
  • Leave space in your box for tools and spare parts
  • Tape your box securely

Are you thinking about traveling with your bike more frequently? Maybe consider a purchasing a sturdier reusable case to fit your needs.

Bringing Tools and Spare Parts

Be sure to leave room in your bike box for the tools you’ll need for bike reassembly and any spare parts you want to bring along for emergency situations. It’s a great idea to pack all of this into a small cardboard box so it’s easy to find later. Remember, you have to carry around whatever you take so pack light.

Not sure what to take? Here are some ideas to get you started –

  • Helmet – don’t forget!
  • Assembly tools (hex keys, adjustable spanner, etc.)
  • Tire pump – consider foot pump
  • Spare tire tube
  • Tire levers
  • Emergency patch kit
  • Tape
  • Bike lock
  • Flashing bike lights

Keep in mind that airport security (the beloved TSA) puts limitations on the tools you can carry on a flight. If you intend to keep your tools with you (rather than pack them in the bike box), they should be smaller than 6 inches in length. Check regulations before you fly.

bicycle_hand_tools_1
Small hand tools are okay!

Consider buying a cheap foot pump to take with you. They pack smaller than a plunger style pump, and they make inflating your tires really easy once your bike is put together. A small emergency hand pump would also work, but it can be difficult to get tires up to higher pressures with those.

If you’re going for an extended tour, consider taking more spare items like extra cables, chain lube, and even a spare light or two. Spend some time thinking about what might be needed, and plan accordingly.

Gear Setup – Racks and Packs

You don’t want to carry everything on your back during a ride, so make sure you have the some extra packs for spreading the load around. I recommend purchasing a rear rack for your bike and a set of panniers to hang from it.

12150924796_839be0acda_b

Panniers come in a pretty wide price range, so it all comes down to what you’re looking for. How much space do you need? What environment are they built for? Do you want them to be waterproof? These are all things to consider.

I went with a pair of Ortlieb Back-Roller Classics. They’re a bit on the expensive side, but I plan on doing a lot more touring in the future so I wanted something that would last. They’ve been pretty fantastic. Most of my heavier items like food and water ended up in the panniers on my ride from Havana to Viñales, and anything that didn’t fit was packed in the Osprey Atmos 50 AG pack. The less you have on your back, the more comfortable your ride will be.

Airline Arrangements

2011-05-09_09-56-33_switzerland_kanton_zc3bcrich_zc3bcrich-kloten_airport

To help keep things focused, I’m going to focus only on flights coming out of the US. Unfortunately, multiple airlines have dropped service to Cuba due to the recent travel changes brought on by the Trump administration. Here is a list of available options as of this publication along with their policies for checking a bike on your flight.

  • American
    • $150 unless smaller than 62 linear inches and under 50 lbs – if so, counts as first checked bag (subject to bag fees)
    • Maximum 126 inches and 70 lbs, based on airplane size
    • Unsure if fee covers both ways or is charged each flight
  • United
    • $150-200 unless smaller than 62 linear inches and under 50 lbs – if so, counts as first checked bag, subject to baggage fees
    • No maximum dimensions listed
    • Fee is charged each flight
  • Delta
    • $150 if less than 70 lbs – if over 70 lbs, charged excess weight fees
    • Maximum weight 100 lbs
    • Unsure if fee covers both ways or is charged each flight
  • JetBlue
    • $50 if 62 linear inches and under 50 lbs, counts as checked bag – no fees if below these dimensions
    • Maximum 80 linear inches and 70 lbs
    • Fee is charged each flight
  • Southwest
    • Normal checked baggage fees apply if smaller than 62 linear inches and under 50 lbs – $75 if over these dimensions
    • No maximum dimensions listed
    • Fee is charged each flight
  • Alaska Air
    • Normal checked baggage fees apply – extra fees waived for oversized packages
    • No maximum dimensions listed
    • Fee is charged each flight

Some of these later policies actually sound pretty great. Of course, all of this information is subject to change. You should be sure to contact your airline before your flights to make sure you have the correct information.

Bike Pickup in Havana

When you arrive in Havana, the first place you’ll go is customs. It’s a small airport, so the baggage claim isn’t far beyond that. Any checked bags can be retrieved from one of two conveyor belts, but your bike won’t come in here because of its size. Walk a little further past the conveyor belts to turn left into a small backroom area, and you should see a garage door to a closed off area.

Larger luggage comes in through that garage, but don’t go get it on your own! Security wouldn’t like that. Wait patiently for someone to come in and process the remaining luggage using their large X-ray machine, and it will be pushed out to you when the time is right.

Congratulations! You now have a bike in Havana.

Choosing a Route to Viñales

The route you take to Viñales could greatly affect your travel experience. The type of road, amount of elevation change, and the stops along the way make a big difference in how relaxed or challenging your ride could be, and it’s important to think it all over before heading out.

Shown here are the 3 main routes from Havana to Viñales, and each has some pretty unique qualities. Keep in mind that Google Maps is somewhat low fidelity when it comes to the roads in Cuba, and the routes here are only the closest approximations of ideal paths.

The North Coast

This is actually the route I originally wanted to take to Viñales, but I ended up taking the A4 most of the way. Up on the North Coast route it looks like there isn’t really any elevation change until you get to a point just north of Viñales. There you have to cross through mountains to finish the ride. You’ll climb from 300 feet up to around 650 feet and then come back down into Viñales. Looks fun.

Mountain Rider

Not for the faint of heart, this route will take you straight through the mountain range spanning east-west through the long center of the island. With multiple climbs and dives, the highest point on this road is over 1700 feet. If you’re looking for a seriously challenging ride, this is it. I kind of want to go back and do this one day.

The A4

The A4 is the standard car route to Viñales, but don’t let that stop you from biking it. This is the route I took, and while my map above shows some meandering around the countryside before rejoining the A4 autopista (highway) near the mountains, you can actually ride on the highway for the majority of the trip – you just have to get outside Havana first since it’s illegal to ride on the autopista around the city.

There are only a few minor elevation changes on the way, mostly as long rolling hills, but near the end is a nice mountain climb that’s pretty rough when you’re as tired as I was. The elevation change there is about 750 feet, and the height tops out at around 850 feet. It’s a cool ride.

Maps.Me – Offline Maps

I highly recommend getting the Maps.Me app and downloading an offline map of Cuba for your trip. No matter what route you decide to take, these offline maps are very accurate and will be extremely helpful on your journey. Just be aware that if you choose to map a bike route from Havana to Viñales the app may just tell you to go straight through the mountains. (It did for me, and it nearly got me into trouble.) I don’t think it’s possible to set a custom route in this app, but it’s worth having to know where you are at all times.

Tips for Your Ride

Visit a Food Market

You’re going to need food on your trip, but Havana doesn’t have grocery stores (or really any normal stores) like you’d expect to find in other developed countries. The best thing you can do is find a street market to pick up some fresh fruits and vegetables. Carrots, peppers, tomatoes (the freshest I’ve ever eaten!), and perhaps even some seed bars or peanut butter bars can be found at various markets, and they’ll be perfect for the ride.

DCIM100GOPRO

Take Lots of Water

It’s hard enough to find bottled water in Havana, and the chances of finding any on the road are scarce. You’ll be riding across long stretches of open, dry country, and it’s unlikely you’ll find bottled water in the small towns you encounter along the way. Stock up on at least 2 full days of drinking water before you leave Havana, and pick up a few extras as you find them on the road. It’s hot – expect to drink a lot of water.

Wear Sunscreen

As I mentioned in my post about staying healthy in Cuba, the sun is always out in Cuba. You’ll be exposed to it all day long on your ride, and you need to make sure to wear plenty of sunscreen throughout the day to protect your skin.

That’s everything! I hope you enjoy your ride from Havana to Viñales, and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have for me in the comments. And if you have any advice of your own, I’m sure everyone would be happy to hear it.

Going on a cross country ride of your own? Share it with us!


Want to know when I post? Visit the site menu and subscribe to my blog to get updates whenever I write something new. And if you like what you’re reading, let me know about it in the comments! I’d love to hear from you. Ciao!

5 thoughts on “Tips for Cycling Cuba – Havana to Viñales”

  1. Sounds like a great trip. Your article was well thought out and informative. I’m going to forward your info to my son Joel and his girl friend Mary they both would take on this adventure.

    Like

    1. Hey Don! Thanks for the support. I actually have a longer piece I’ve been working on about that trip – I expect it to be online pretty soon. Hopefully you’ll enjoy that, too. 🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s