Freewheeling through the Cuban countryside

Campaign News | Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Cyclists on the 2022 Challenge arrive in Vinales

Cyclists on the 2022 Challenge arrive in Vinales

Joe Bleach recalls his highlights from the 2022 cycle experience

I was fortunate to be part of the Unite team participating in the Cycle Cuba Experience organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in November 2022.

Our ten-day tour started from the hillside nature reserve of Soroa in the west of Cuba. Once we had familiarised ourselves with our bicycles, we were free to visit the local orchid gardens or walk to the nearby waterfall. Turkey vultures with their huge wingspans circle over the hilltops, but if you are quiet and patient you may also see a hummingbird taking nectar from the array of flowers, or the national bird of Cuba, the colourful Tocororo.

After a day acclimatising we set off on our first ride to San Diego de los Baños. Cycling through small villages and bustling towns, we took the opportunity where possible to stop at kiosks offering small cups of strong sweet coffee. Daily rides include scheduled breaks for water stops and lunch, and if you’re lucky you can buy bananas or mangoes at the roadside too.

Over the course of the next week, we cycled to Pinar Del Río and into the beautiful valley of Viñales. Our cycle tour passed through the Cueva de los Portales, the secret hideout of Che Guevara and his army during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The cycling is interspersed with community visits, including to a school for the blind and visually impaired, where the group donated four Braille machines. We had the privilege to visit classrooms and talk to teachers to understand how greatly Cuba values, and provides resources for, special educational needs.

We also visited a polyclinic in Pinar Del Río damaged by Hurricane Ian, which had devastated much of the area on 28 September, just a few weeks before we arrived. The doctors explained how they had continued to provide a high level of medical care despite these challenges. They also discussed how Cuba had had to create its own successful COVID-19 vaccines because assistance from other countries was not possible: another example of how the oppressive US blockade prevents people from receiving health care.

Many of the doctors we spoke to had also been on international aid missions. This, they explained, was part of their role as Cuban medics – to help others around the world.

Our group donated large quantities of basic medical equipment in short supply because of the blockade. We provided specialist syringes, sutures, bandages, plasters, gloves, paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets which were gratefully received by the clinic. Our resources and donations offered in solidarity were made possible by fundraising at home in the UK, so many thanks to all of our friends, family, workplaces and union branches who gave generously.

One evening we were fortunate to be invited to a reception at a local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR). CDRs were set up across Cuba shortly after the Revolution to protect local communities against terrorist attacks from counter-revolutionaries. They still exist today, but take on more community functions, caring for the young and old and organising community projects and parties. Speeches of welcome were followed by a street festival of Cuban music, dancing and fun, which gave us the opportunity to talk and dance with the wonderfully friendly local people.

The tour ended with a few days in Havana. The streets lined with faded buildings and the pre-1959 American cars cruising the streets make the city feel like a film-set in places. The owners of Cadillacs and Chevrolets use their initiative and invention to keep these classic vehicles on the road – a symbol of how Cubans find a way to keep everything going, and of how they strive forward despite the crippling effects of a blockade they have lived through for generations.

The cycling tour was tough at times: the roads can be bumpy and the natural landscape includes challenging hills. But the beauty of the countryside, the wonderful Cuban people, the breathtaking landscape and the camaraderie developed between the cyclists, is worth every revolution of the pedals!

Cycle Cuba Experience 2024
Cycle to the salsa beat in 2024. Register your interest for the next Cycle Cuba Experience and take the leisurely route through the Cuban countryside while supporting the Campaign to end the blockade and delivering material aid. For details email or call 020 7490 5715. Full details can be found here.

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