Havana by bicycle

Monday, 4 May 2015

Breakfast at Alberto’s was served on the balcony at an outdoor furniture setting made of white wrought-iron lace. The balcony was shaded in the mornings and it caught sea breezes that drifted up from the Malecón. Breakfasts always included fresh tropical fruits, and were beautifully presented. I was adjusting to the Cuban coffee, which I usually enjoyed if I could get it unsweetened. We never adjusted to Cuban bread, however, which is uniformly ordinary. Despite the wonderful service we received from our hosts throughout Cuba, we were somewhat disappointed to find that we never ate with them. On reflection, however, why would they want to eat with us?

We had managed to contact Mez by means of text messages. She was the tour organiser at CubaRuta, so we were heading off to Vedado again for a bicycle tour. When we arrived again at the house, we were greeted by a supremely confident three-year old called Lily who proceeded to marshal the appropriate adults. We were offered bicycle helmets as an option and since we were used to wearing them, we accepted. The bicycles were commuter bikes with gears, and they were in good condition.

Our tour guide was a friendly 29 year-old called Yasser. He spoke some English but we told him we would rather speak Spanish, which he did for the rest of the day. He had grown up on an island off the coast of Cuba, and nowadays conducted bicycle tours not only around Havana, but farther afield to other cities and provinces.

His tour took us first to Miramar, an upmarket suburb across the Rio Almendares. We rested for a spell at the mouth of the river where the Malecón begins, and from there we cycled to a forest at the centre of the city (Bosque de La Habana). There were giant trees draped with vines that made the park look prehistoric. Yasser told us that it had been considered as a location for the film Jurassic Park. The closest thing we found to dinosaurs, however, were turkey vultures (aura tiñosa) feeding off the corpses of chickens that had been sacrificed in rituals of the Afro-Caribbean folk religion called Santería. These enormous, brown raptors range across Cuba and have be known to occupy the upper reaches of deserted sky-scrapers in numbers. They have an enormous wingspan, and feed only on carrion.

Bosque de La Habana
Bosque de La Habana

From the forest we cycled through Nuevo Vedado and then past what is said to be the largest cemetery in the Americas—El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. We did not enter, however. We were not inclined to pay the cover charge and we had a lot more ground to cover on our tour. We rode on through the vast open spaces of the Plaza de la Revolución where Fidel Castro had once addressed a million Cubans assembled on the acres of bitumen. At the foot of the Jose Marti Memorial, Susie discovered that she had a punctured tyre, and Yasser repaired it on the spot.

From the plaza we cycled through Cerro to Centro Havana, and then through a train station with vintage rolling stock on display. We stopped for a juice in La Ciudad Vieja at a diminutive café which Yasser recommended.

When we reached the Eastern end of the Malecón, we turned the bikes back towards Vedado. A cold wind had blown up and it had started to rain. We paused to put on our raincoats. Susie later loosened her helmet so that she could raise the hood of her raincoat, but she was unable to re-fasten the strap on her helmet whilst riding. She resolved to fasten it at the next stop.

Because of the deteriorating weather conditions, Yasser suggested we ride on the wide promenade next to the seawall rather than the road. This seemed like a sensible suggestion, as there was almost no pedestrian traffic but there were plenty of vehicles on the carriageway. As we rode along, huge waves crashed over the seawall, randomly drenching us with warm seawater, which contrasted sharply with the cold, driving rain. It was a joyous and hilarious experience until Susie saw Yasser vanish suddenly. At first she thought he had fallen into a hole. Then she saw me vanish as well. Before she could stop, the hazard was under her own wheels. There was a patch of green algae on the footpath which had become slimy in the rain, and the bicycle tyres lost traction completely as soon as they hit it. So Susie followed Yasser and me in a sudden fall straight onto the footpath. As she fell, her helmet dislodged and the back of her head struck the concrete.

There was a moment of terror as I crouched over Susie, urging Yasser not to move her. I was trying to ascertain whether she was still conscious. She was clearly stunned. It soon became apparent to my immense relief that she was both conscious and able to sit up. A car drew up at the kerb nearby, and a woman wound down the window to ask if we needed assistance. By then it appeared that Susie was not badly injured, so we thanked them for their concern and they drove off into the rain.

Yasser’s bike had sustained a puncture in the fall, so when Susie had eventually regained her senses, we wheeled our bicycles across the carriageway to a small kiosk behind an ugly Soviet-built block of flats, where we all enjoyed a freshly squeezed juice and Yasser repaired his tyre.

From there we rode back to the house in Vedado where we met Mez and the other young Cubans who ran the bicycle tours. The tour was supposed to have taken 3½ hours but we had been gone for 7 hours. Yasser had missed a work meeting, but it was fairly obvious that he preferred to be out on the road.

After we had taken our leave of the CubaRuta gang, we walked up the Paseo until we found a taxi to take us back to Centro. As a result of our spill on the Malecón, Susie and I suffered from whiplash for the next few days.

An old Lada taxi in Havana
An old Lada taxi in Havana

That evening we headed for restaurant in Cuidad Vieja that was recommended in the guide but it was full so we went to one next-door. I ordered ropa vieja and Susie ordered seafood. Afterwards we sat outside the Café Paris listening to a salsa band and sipping what appeared to be the world’s biggest margarita. Unfortunately, it was well short of the world’s best margarita; but the rain had stopped, the music was pumping, and the atmosphere on the street was inviting.

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