Interview with Gareth Collingwood, 20 Year Cycltourist in Latin America
Havana is known for being incredibly touristy and expensive. What would you recommend seeing or doing to get the most out of the visit?
I visited Havana twice. The city is certainly worth a visit, but I did not fall in love with it and it's not the easiest place to get around by bike. My favourite thing to do in Havana was to ride around the old city, photographing the crumbling buildings and soaking in the faded glory. Havana can be expensive but it doesn't have to be. I saw tightly-controlled herds of tourists being carted around from one overpriced restaurant to another, paying $30 to eat the same food I was paying $2 for. If you're on a budget, as most who travel by bike are, I recommend following Cubans around and seeing where they eat and drink. Speaking Spanish and talking to people is your surest way of finding the authentic Havana experience and not paying tourist prices.
How does Cuba compare with other Latin American states?
Cuba is the country least like any other Latin American country. Where advertising covers the walls in the rest of Latin America, Cuba has unspoiled colonial towns without so much as a sticker advertising anything. Where restaurant chains and big box stores have taken over in the other countries, Cuba has bare shelves and ration "shops." Where rules are cheerfully ignored in the rest of Latin America, they are carefully followed in Cuba – at least, when someone is watching. Cuba is the cheapest country to tour in Latin America, but you have to travel indepentently and you can't be afraid of looking for unofficial ways of doing things. You have to switch from being hustled to being a hustler and you have to be patient.
You wrote about the differences in currency: the Converitble Peso that tourists use, and the Cuban Peso for everyone else. Did anyone reject your Cuban Pesos?
Who knows how long this situation will continue, but from my own experience riding around the entire island over three months, no one ever rejected my Cuban Pesos. That said, I never bothered patronizing a tourist establishment the entire time I was there. I'm sure those places would have insisted on tourist pesos. At first, it seems like nothing is for sale in Cuba. Then you realize everything is for sale; and everyone already has a price in mind for that thing you're looking for (usually food).
You mentioned a lot of rule breaking among locals in Cuba. Do they ever express worry or fear while hosting small restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts in their homes?
Yes, many people who put me up in their homes told me they feared being ratted out by a nosy neighbour or being blackmailed in some way for having hosted a foreigner illegally. The official casas particulares have no fear because they're doing it above board. But I preferred the illegal casas because not only were they a tenth the price, but the hosts were much friendlier and more accommodating to my needs as a touring cyclist. Because I travelled by bicycle, I spent much of my time in the countryside where people feel more autonomous and less fearful.
Were you at all hesitant to bribe the shop workers or knock on doors asking to buy food?
Initially, yes. But hunger is a powerful force and I soon got over it. If you insist on doing everything by the book in Cuba you will either have a very limited tour or you'll starve.
Is it possible to travel through rural Cuba if you don’t speak Spanish?
It's possible, of course, but even knowing a few key words and phrases is better than gesticulating like a bad mime. Truth be told, even though I'm fluent in Spanish, I couldn't understand many of the older Cuban campesinos. The accent was just too thick.
Cubans are known for being friendly, hospitable, and creatively intelligent. However, everyone has their flaws. Were there any negative aspects of the Cuban culture that you couldn’t oversee?
Most of the Cubans I met were fantastic human beings. Not only were they as generous and kind as their fellow Latin Americans, but they also took a significant risk by helping out a foreigner. But nowhere is perfect and Cuba has its share of idiots. The jineteros (hustlers) are the worst, constantly trying to attach themselves to me, following me around despite my protestations, and then demanding a "guide's fee" for having "shown" me to a place I already knew how to get to. Slightly less annoying, but still prevalent, were the local youth brown-noser brigade who approach foreigners, clipboard in hand, to ask a series of daft-but-pointed questions. I used to have fun with these kids by giving them the most outrageous answers I could think of and watching their eyes bulge. How are you travelling? By jetpack. Where are you staying? I'm camping on Fidel's front lawn. Why are you in Cuba? I'm starting a counter-revolution.
Did you ever have any problems with the government officials in Cuba?
Nothing too serious. The worst was on a road east of Baracoa. A couple of military types stopped me and told me I had violated some law by biking this particular road and demanded I surrender my passport to them. I refused flat out, explaining that my passport was the property of the Canadian government and that unless they wanted to create an international incident, they would have to accompany me to the Canadian embassy and explain their actions. Then I demanded they produce some kind of identification. They backed off immediately. I would never be this bold in other Latin American countries, but in Cuba the rules rule.
What was your favorite campsite in Cuba?
It's so hard to pick one, but my favourite campsite was in a big grove of tall grapefruit trees in Pinar Del Río Province near Sumidero. Flat ground, no ants, and all the grapefruits you could eat (and carry!). I camped here twice, deliberately altering my route back through Pinar so I could hit it again.
What would you see in an average Cuban village? How did the villagers react when they met you?
When I would arrive in the average Cuban village and small town, I would see everyone sitting around on steps, doing what appeared to be absolutely nothing. No one seemed to be doing work of any kind and every school I saw seemed to be permanently on recess break. The adults treated me with total indifference. The children would usually swarm me and ask for caramelos.
How were the cycling conditions, in terms of roads, car safety, terrain, and access to food and water?
Cycling in Cuba is very safe. There is little or no traffic outside of the major cities and I usually had the road to myself. Many roads are in poor condition, but not as bad as the kind you find in Baja, Bolivia, or Patagonia. Wind can be strong in some areas; in headwinds, I often found myself watching the sides of the road looking to see which way the grass was bending and willing it to bend the other way. The hills are shockingly steep in Cuba – it's like they've never heard of switchbacks! Instead, they slap a road straight up the side of a hill creating a grade certain to have you pushing instead of pedalling. Food and water is available, but it's not always obvious where to find it. You'll have to knock on doors and ask for it in many places. Sometimes, you'll be bribing a ration shop employee to sell you something out the back door when no one is looking. Occasionally, you'll find a little stand selling simple pizza slices or egg buns. In almost any small town, you'll find some lady selling delicious paletas (ice cream bars like the ones you find in Mexico) out of her house.
If you were to return to Cuba without the bike, what would you do there?
I'm definitely planning to return to Cuba; probably later this year and definitely with the bike. If I were to return without the bike it would be to spend time in one place (preferably in rural Cuba) and get involved with some kind of community project.
Gareth Collingwood has dedicated his life to travelling in Latin America, where he has cycled unsupported through every country over the last two decades. He holds degrees in Spanish/Latin American studies and Linguistics at the graduate level and is a Certified Translator and Personal Trainer. Gareth is currently touring in Latin America, exploring new areas and deepening his understanding of his favourite part of the world. Read more cycling and Latin American related stories at his website, El Pedalero.