Everyone takes something different away from any experience. For me, the three best parts of Cuba are the people, architecture, and cars. Across the board, we experienced some of the most welcoming and charming people I have ever encountered. There is a warmth and happiness that I have not experienced elsewhere. We were embraced enthusiastically everywhere we went. They are proud of their country, and they want you to see and experience it. They are also the most resourceful people I have ever seen. The U.S. embargo has caused significant hardship in access to many day to day items, but they have developed a culture that knows how to reuse and maintain everything. This has created an ethos that values what they have and not what they want. The focus is on sharing what one has and seeing your brother as one you help. In turn, he is committed to helping you.
The entire island looks like it was frozen in time since Castro took over in 1959. This is not an overstatement. The buildings reflect the assortment of styles from the various colonial influences ranging from the Moorish and Baroque, to the Soviet influenced periods. These are beautiful buildings creating beautiful cities and towns. There is a sadness felt as a result of the crumbling and decay, but the increasing private ownership allowed is prompting more investment in the restoration and upkeep. The outside often belies amazing interiors that offer 14 foot tall hardwood doors, intricate tile work, and detailed ceilings. Everywhere we rode, the buildings and the infrastructure was simply breathtaking (think Charleston, SC, but thousands of times more extensive).
Lastly, the cars. Oh the cars. You will get tendinitis if you try to point out every vintage vehicle you see. The minute we walked out of the airport in Santiago, we saw lines of old Chevys, Pontiacs, Plymouths , and every type of car made during Detroit’s glory years. There are Ladas from the USSR. There really are as many old classics as you are lead to believe. They have very few stock components, and most have bondo and bailing wire holding them together. The best part is everyone in Cuba knows how to fix their cars. They have to because they break down in the middle of the road all the time. In true Cuba spirit, everyone jumps out to help, and it is very common to see two or three people disappearing into the hood of a broken down classic in the middle of the road.
Jeff Wise is the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. National Whitewater Center
The process was not uncommon. In fact, it had happened in a very similar fashion in nearly every town we had spent the night. You would ride in around sunset and start asking around for a ‘casa particular’. (Casa peticulars are basically Cuba’s version of Airbnb, pre-internet.) The first person you’d talk to would typically either know someone who had a room that would fit the team, or would walk you around and through the entire village, town, or city until they found you a room you could stay in.
On this particular night, we had ventured down a side road into a town that was not on the map. Tall, jungle-clad limestone cliffs encircled the village in a wild mystique. Our helper walked us across the entire town until we ended up around the side of a modest, concrete-sided home. He began shouting into the bathroom window of the house and held a conversation with what we could only assume to be the homeowner for about five or ten minutes until a face appeared, fresh out of the shower.
Through extremely elementary Spanish, we understood there were caves nearby, and the owner of the home was a caving guide. When he asked if we were interested in going to check them out, there didn’t seem to be much of a question.
Now I’m no caving expert, nor is my Spanish strong enough to be able to ask the right questions before entering what he called the second largest cave in Latin America (highly debatable), but there was something about the process that simply threw up a few warning signs.
Maybe it was the man carrying only a draw string backpack leading us away from our newly found home for the night, or perhaps it was the baseball field we rode through to arrive at a house in the outfield they insisted we leave our bicycles at, or perhaps it was the thin log bridge and pastures we walked through to get to the cave entrance. It could have been the small, camping style, extremely dim headlamps (not the big, bright caving ones that are used in more professional caving settings) they pulled out as we entered the cave, or the cycling shoes, bibs, and jerseys we were now wearing as caving attire.
Our experiences with almost every Cuban stranger, community, or family told us that despite all the red flags, these guys could be trusted. It was yet another example of the most honest, authentic, and genuinely hospitable interaction you could imagine.
Cooper Lambla is the Brand Development Coordinator at the U.S. National Whitewater Center and curator of EXPLORE.
I’m a planner, an organizer, and admittedly, a control freak. I’ve developed my personal life and built my professional career out of knowing and understanding that attention to the sum of small details typically leads to positive outcomes. ”What can I do now that will make things more efficient and easier down the road?” is my daily thought process.
When the opportunity to ride bikes across the unknown of Cuba with a few co-workers presented itself, everything I’ve known and have been comfortable with for 33 years was thrown straight out of the window.
But wait, where are we going to stay? How are we going to communicate with the locals? What if all hell breaks loose and we find ourselves in a less than desirable situation? Can I even ride 800+ miles in a week? Thought after thought gave me anxiety. Not knowing if we would secure our visas within a week of the trip gave me anxiety. A first-time pregnant wife that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with gave me anxiety. What was I doing? “Stay in your comfort zone, you idiot!”
But deep down, that is fundamentally not what life is about. A true life experience had just presented itself, and I had to take advantage. It was an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and simply let each and every moment dictate the next move. The initial discomfort of the unknown was quickly displaced with the fascination of new experiences, heightened emotions, increased appreciation for others, and a greater sense of the world around all of us.
Adam Bratton is the Sponsorship & Events Manager at the U.S. National Whitewater Center
I was born in 1963, only four years after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. I had grown up during a time when Castro and Cuba were portrayed in the United States as godless communists and our adversaries. When travel restrictions to Cuba began to ease about a year and half ago, the thought of visiting Cuba jumped up on the list of places to explore. It seemed important to see first-hand what had been kept off limits for so long. I was curious to meet and visit with the people of Cuba as well as see the land, architecture, and certainly the cars before changes came as a result of the certainly imminent lifting of the embargo.
In early December of 2015, facing several more months of cold weather bike riding, I started thinking about where I could go for a few days of warm weather riding and explore some place new. Cuba was the obvious choice. I figured I could take a week off without getting into too much trouble with the family and work, so the first thought was to bike around the island. That was my first under-estimation of Cuba. The island is almost 800 miles long which is almost double the length of Florida. I figured on averaging 120 miles per day, so clearly I was not going to circumnavigate the island in my limited time frame. So, plan B was to ride as far as possible for 8 days.
Needing a partner in crime, Cooper Lambla was also the obvious choice. A strong rider, Cooper is even better suited for this trip because he loves the unknown and his Spanish is impeccable (only half that statement is true). Cooper jumped in immediately, and we then talked another co-worker into the idea, and soon Adam Bratton was on board. Adam was also a strong rider with the best trait of a travel partner: the willingness to say yes to anything.
Our thought was to travel in as minimal of a fashion as possible. We settled on just bike packs to carry a pair of shorts and shirt, bike tools, spare parts, and money. We wore a bike kit and bike shoes with recessed cleats so we could walk in them as well. I was able to get by on a half size frame bag, but Cooper was carrying camera equipment, so he had a little larger set up with seat and handlebar bags. Adam had a seat bag.
The rest is history, and perma-grin is still lingering three months later.
Jeff Wise is the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. National Whitewater Center