In April the American Flyers Motorcycle Club went to Cuba for a ten-day motorcycle adventure. Our timing was perfect given all the change that is facing new Cuba. Paradoxically, the socialist island paradise is experiencing death and a rebirth at the same time. Today Cuba is in the midst of the greatest social, economic, and political upheaval since Fidel led the Revolution in 1959. It was the perfect time to see the island Che Guevara style—by motorcycle.
The disintegration of Soviet Russia brought hard times for Cuba. By 1991 the so-called “Special Period” crippled Cuba as Russia’s financial support of the island collapsed. Russian officials slowly fled the island and left behind rusting Lada’s and a big ugly concrete embassy. Chavez ultimately stepped into Russia’s shoes and provided the island with much-needed funding and oil. However, with his death in 2013, the abundant supply of free resources from Venezuela dried up. Once again Cuba found itself alone and isolated.
It is against this dreary backdrop that relations between Cuba and the United States began to improve. On December 17th, 2014 President Obama announced that he would take a radically new approach go Cuba. Obama abandoned decades of isolationist policy and set forth an aggressive new agenda based on collaboration and cooperation. America rescinded Cuba¹s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and began loosening restrictions on travel. The result? U.S. dollars began washing up on the shores of Cuba. Almost overnight Cuba became a destination hot spot. You can now fly non-stop on Jet Blue from JFK to Havana. You can also legally ride a motorcycle across Cuba! Despite all this progress, the situation in Cuba is anything but stable. Fidel’s recent death and Trump’s ascension to the throne puts Cuba’s future in an uncertain balance.
Our trip was masterfully organized by Skip Massaro and his team at MotoDiscovery. Skip is an expert global motorcycle tour guide, and his company has organized many trips for the American Flyers (including rides in Turkey and Italy). While in Cuba last year I noticed a gaggle of new BMW motorcycles fly past me while stranded on a Cuban tour bus in heavy Havana traffic. New BMW’s are very unusual things to see in Havana. It turned out it was Skip giving one of his first motorcycle tours in Cuba—he only recently got his license to perform tours on the island. I got back to my hotel and made my plan—an American Flyers trip to this historic place was in order! Over the next few months, I rounded up a group of Flyers, and we booked the trip with MotoDiscovery. Every detail was considered and masterfully planned. The logistics in Cuba can be very complicated, and long range planning is essential. Getting the motorcycles on the island and registered posed a formidable challenge. But our cross-island Odyssey went off without a hitch. Overall the Cuban people were friendly, the roads were great, and the weather was perfect. Even the accommodations were acceptable. April was perfect timing for a visit to Cuba, and we had very comfortable weather. For most of the ride, we had low heat, low humidity and lots of shade. Hats off to the team at MotoDiscovery for making our Cuba ride one for the record books. Special thanks to Skip’s wife Nancy who did so much of the tedious and behind-the-scenes organization of our trip.
What follows in italics are formal day-by-day MotoDiscovery itineraries accompanied by my edited daily road journals. Special thanks to Glenn Gable and Brad Meyer for their photographs and videos.
4.1.16: Day 1 Miami FRI Apr 1 The tour officially begins with your arrival Miami, ideally before 5 p.m. for a briefing followed by dinner.
April Fools Day, Wellington FL: It is hard to believe that the insulated bubble world of Wellington is only 300 miles from Havana. I got up early, and I rode Pistoya. It was a gorgeous day, and the South Florida sun was shining. A lazy steady wind blew the palms and ficus trees above me. Around noon I headed home to the Bungalow and finished packing. I hit the road around 2 pm and made a quick stop at BestBuy to pick up a new GoPro camera. I arrived at the hotel in Miami just in time for the MotoDiscovery trip briefing. Skip gave us a full rundown of the many logistics surrounding our trip to Cuba. He covered the importation of the motorcycles and our hotel accommodations. After a half-hour lecture on our route, we hit the hotel bar. We had a fantastic kick-off dinner and headed off to bed. We have a terrific group of sixteen American Flyers who will be on the ride.
4.2.16: Day 2 Havana SAT Apr 2 anticipate an early departure with transfers to the Miami International Airport (MIA). A short flight of approximately 40 minutes. On arrival Havana, transfers will take us directly to lunch followed by transfers to the Memories Hotel in the heart of the city and easy walking distance to the old city. A dinner will be scheduled at one of the city’s best paladars, (privately owned restaurants).
We woke up at 3 am and did not arrive at the hotel in Havana until noon. It sure was a long trip to travel a measly two hundred miles! The flight was a very short forty-three minutes. Our arrival at the Havana Airport was far smoother than my trip last year. Our group enjoyed an excellent chicken lunch and then we went straight to see Hemingway’s house. Last year when Sarah and I visited they had most of the house closed up due to the rain. But today all the doors were open to the public. Hemingway’s house was left exactly as it was when he left Cuba in 1961. The property has been a museum since his death in 1962. It’s very authentic and worth the visit. We headed back to the Memories Hotel for a nap and then had a tasty dinner at a nearby Paladar. I had the lobster which was great!
4.3.16: Day 3 Havana SUN Apr 3 our first morning in Havana will consist of a very short familiarization ride along the Malecon, ocean boulevard along with a couple of people to people opportunities and chance to visit the cigar factory and to stock up! A walking tour of the old city will provide a historical perspective as well as an opportunity to visit the outdoor museum of the Missile Crisis located adjacent to the Castillo de Morro fortress.
The tour of Havana was like drinking from a fire hose. We saw as much as we could with our tight schedule. Everyone at least got a flavor of “The New Cuba.” We had a great evening at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Old Havana. The service was poor, but the food and camaraderie were great. We walked down The Prado (Havana’s Main Street). Glenn, Arthur, Susan and I stayed and had a beer at an outdoor cafe. Havana was alive with a vibrant night life and lively street music. We hailed a 57′ Chevy Convertible and drove to the Nacional Hotel for a photo opp. We then cruised down embassy row past the imposing and creepy Russian embassy. What a scary building! It looks like a giant (and angry) robotic Transformer. It faces Miami with a menacing scowl. We had one last Cuban Cristal beer at the hotel bar. The bartender showed us his phone video of the Rolling Stones concert—we missed Mick Jagger only by a few days!
4.4.16: Day 4 Playa Larga MON Apr 4 (178 miles) after breakfast depart Havana, riding east along the coast then dropping south to the Caribbean side of the island where overnight we will be in a “casa particular” a simple private home on the Bay of Pigs adjacent to the Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata. You will enjoy fresh seafood and warm hospitality of this gracious family.
Havana to the Bay of Pigs: Today was a hot ride. Yesterday we found out just how innovative Cubans can be! We learned first-hand the lengths Cubans will go to to keep their motorcycles on the road. In Cuba, the state controls all tourism and “assigns” guides to each tour group. Skip has carefully managed to control this process so our guide would be Luis Gonzalez Saez Enrriqu. Luis is a Cuban”Harleyista”—and is the king of all motorcycles and Lord of the Havana Harley Club. After breakfast, Luis took us to see his workshop. Located down a ramp on a side street in suburban Havana, Luis has a full inventory of over a dozen vintage Harley-Davidsons. He has piles of spare parts and plenty of tools. He can fabricate and build anything in his shop. He even made his welding machine. Luis told us stories about how Cubans keep old Harley’s running. When it comes to machinery, Cubans have incredible ingenuity, and they are masters of the art of improvising. For years Luis could not get any spare parts—including tires. Harley’s are harder to source parts for because they do not use metric bolts. Given the U.S. embargo, it is a harder to find parts for a Harley than a metric Honda. Luis told stories of using four tubes to fill a tire and once resorting to using grass and straw on the side of the road!. A few years ago he got a flat tire in the middle of the island and shoved underwear into the tube to fix a flat. He then rode the bike for over one hundred miles! About ten years ago when tires were real, scarce Luis installed a 15″ car rim on the front of his Harley and mounted it with a regular car tire. He shaved the sidewalls of the car tire to simulate the curvature of a motorcycle tire. When the chain failed on his bike two years ago, he built a new one using conveyer belt chains from a nearby Coke factory. Luis has made exhaust pipes out of old power transformers. He has used Russian Lada pistons to re-build the motors on his old Harley-Davidsons. Apparently, these guys want to ride and will do whatever it takes to keep their bikes on the road! Needless to say, with Luis, I am not worried about having any mechanical problems on our trip. This guy can fix ANYTHING with NOTHING.
As we rode out of Havana, I could not believe all the staring faces. I took a video with the GoPro in an attempt to capture the look of bewilderment as we rode out of town. I don’t think the locals had ever seen twelve big bikes riding together—and the Suzuki V-Strom is a comparatively small motorcycle. It was sultry and humid today but once we got moving the temperature was comfortable. I was immediately surprised by the quality of the roads outside of Havana. We were easily able to hit eighty miles per hour as the pavement quality was good. In the first hour outside of Havana, we saw lots of lame and underfed horses. They were skinny, and as a lover of animals, it was a terrible sight to see.
A lot of people ride motorcycles and scooters in Cuba. They are economical transportation and use far less fuel than a car. Cubans seem well fed and happy. We stopped in a small town to see some old steam trains. They were made in Kassel Germany over one-hundred years ago. They still run! Cuba was way ahead of its time and had an intricate and complex rail system long before many other industrialized countries. We arrived at the railroad yard just as several young students got out of school for the day. I managed to snap a great photograph of a young boy standing next to my bike—his look of confidence was remarkable. Later we made a stop for a Coke at an old roadside stand. We had the usual chicken lunch and got a tour of a nearby crocodile farm. They are breeding hundreds of Cuban crocodiles at this facility. This Cuban variety of crocodile liked fresh water and was recently almost extinct. The skies were clear, but one big lonely thunderhead spritzed us with a refreshing fresh rain. The light rain felt great against the oppressive humidity. As we neared our destination the roads were wet and cool—it was refreshing, and the moisture felt great. We arrived at the Bay of Pigs, and it looked like paradise. There is a long crescent sandy beach with azure blue water. Arthur and I are sharing a room, and it looks right out on the Bay. It is hard to believe that this was the site of a bloody military conflict. We all spent the afternoon drinking beer in the sunshine and swimming in the bay. It was a fabulous and unforgettable afternoon. A sharp cold front arrived at the end of the day and took the humidity with it.
As part of our “people to people” requirement, we attended a lecture about the Bay of Pigs and the surrounding park. The Bay of Pigs was named by early settlers because it was infested with wild boar. The region eventually became famous because Buccaneros produced bacon and traded it. They didn’t pay tax to Havana, and a large black market in bacon evolved. Today the surrounding area is a one-million-acre wetland park and biosphere preserve. With four different variety of mangroves everywhere, there are over two hundred and fifty-eight native birds in the area. 80% of all variety of birds in Cuba are right here in this region. The lecturer also noted that there are fifteen different mammals, dolphins and manatees. There are wild boar, white tail deer from America, rats, bats, feral cats and dog, and over nine hundred species of plants. There are forty-one reptile species, two types of crocodiles, many snakes, (including the Cuban boa), and lots of lizards. Local scientists believe that the Bay is an inch deeper because of global warming.
The Bay of Pigs invasion became a quagmire for the United States, and its failure solidified Castro’s power:
“The failed invasion helped to strengthen the position of Castro’s leadership, made him a national hero, and cemented the rocky relationship between the former allies. It also strengthened the relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union. This eventually led to the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The invasion was a major failure for US foreign policy; Kennedy ordered a number of internal investigations across Latin America. Cuban forces under Castro’s leadership clashed directly with US forces during the Invasion of Grenada over 20 years later.” (Source: Wikipedia)
4.5.16: Day 5 Trinidad TUE Apr 5 (115 miles) the ride will take you to a nearby crocodile farm where you will learn of efforts to preserve a native species. The turbulent years of the Cold War will come to life as you visit the Museum dedicated to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Lunch in Cienfuegos but not before visiting the Botanical Garden Soldedad. Leisurely riding will eventually take you to the delightful town of Trinidad known for its colonial era architecture. The region once the center of a wealthy sugar producing empire.
Leaving the Bay of Pigs, we encountered a road full of crabs and stopped for a look. There were hundreds of huge land crabs all over the road and surrounding area. The pavement continues to be way better than I expected. We stopped at the Bay of Pigs museum, but there was not much to see. Like so many things in Cuba, the museum was “sort of” closed. A few tanks and planes were parked outside, but nobody was manning the booth.
Along the side of the road there were teams of men with machetes clearing vegetation to keep the roads clear. The jungle would take back the roads rather quickly without maintaining them and keeping the growth in check. We later learned that these guys are in the military and do this work to stay fit during their downtime. We rode through Cienfuegos (a town that is the home of the wife of a fellow American Flyer who is not on the trip). The weather is way cooler today since the cold front arrived—we have been so lucky with the weather. Everywhere we go a wave from pedestrians and friendly onlookers. We seem to create a sensation in every town we ride through. People in these small rural towns have never seen a big group of motorcycles like ours. We have been keeping the speed down as there are loose horses everywhere.
4.6.16: Day 6 Trinidad WEDS Apr 6 A second day here will include a walking tour of the town. A specially arranged visit with well-known horse whisperer and local entrepreneur, Julio Munoz will prove enlightening as you learn more about how business functions in this socialist state. You must spend the evening adjacent to the steps of the stunning Cathedral Santisma Trinidad where nightly musical performances bring out locals and travelers alike to dance through the night to the pulsating rhythms of Cuban music.
Last night we arrived at a resort in Trinidad after a tedious but necessary “people to people” visit to the Botanical Garden. I learned that Hibiscus trees make the best bats and that Banyan trees can live to be 300 years old. The Cuban government still requires us to do “people to people” sessions even though this process is a relic of a bygone era. Upon arrival at the hotel, I had an early birthday present—there was a kitten in our room.
The toughest thing of the trip so far has been seeing the overall poor condition of the animals. Mile after mile I’ve been thinking about how to raise money to help the horses. Kevin thinks they just need to be wormed. We spent the entire afternoon on the beach. It’s a pristine long strand of sand and the water is warm. We got word last night that my friend and art dealer Alberto Magnan is going to get us in to meet with U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis on Saturday! Tonight Luis pulled some strings and got us a private dinner thereby sparing us the torture of an all you can eat socialist buffet.
We had a great ride into the mountains. It was far cooler at elevation. We pulled over and saw a bunch of piglets which I captured on film with the GoPro.
We stopped at a rural intersection, and there were a bunch of young men working with machetes again. They all came down to where we stopped and admired our motorcycles. One of them said, “If I had that motorcycle all the girls in Cienfuegos would be mine!” We had lunch at LaGuitara complete with cigars.
It was a great beach day. Perfect weather yet again! We had dinner in Trinidad at Sol Ananda. The building was built in 1750. The owner opened the restaurant with his wife, and then they got divorced—he converted the bedroom a wine cellar and moved into another room.
The Trinidad town square railings were manufactured in Philadelphia, and the stone tiles came from Bremen Germany. There are five museums in this tiny town. At dinner, I asked Alex, our driver if he has ever left the Cuba. He said no. He explained how his first application was denied. He said getting a visa out of Cuba depends on the mood of the immigration officer at the moment. You can apply and be denied many times and then suddenly you are approved and granted a visa. It’s more about luck and less about process or merit. The haphazard visa process is emblematic of the entire bureaucratic processes that cripple Cuba. He said it’s not affordable for most to go to the United States because the visa can cost upwards of $160 and the flight and related paperwork can run over $1000. The average Cuban earns $20 a month. So a single trip to America can equate to five years pay.
4.7.16: Day 7 Santa Clara THURS Apr 7 (110 miles) riding again to the island interior you will visit the monument, museum, and mausoleum dedicated to Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. There are numerous opportunities for p eople to people exchanges in route including a fascinating visit to a bee farm where queen bees are raised for distribution throughout the island.
I turn 46 today. The years are now going by like the blurring fenceposts we ride past on the side of the road. Today I saw a lot of people carrying open umbrellas, but they were for sun protection. There were lots of kids wearing school uniforms of brown shorts and white shirts. For miles, we drove through dozens of rural towns and everyone was so well-dressed in clean and colorful clothing, It surprised me to see so many well-dressed people in such a rural area. It was the middle of the week, and there was absolutely no business activity of any sort! The memories from today will be lots of kids on horses, full buses, dogs everywhere, laundry hanging outside, and people sitting on porches or in the doorways doing nothing. Part of me can’t help but think of all the potential of these people and none if it will be realized anytime soon.
It was a beautiful ride from Trinidad to Santa Clara with another day of perfect weather! The twisty mountain roads were a birthday gift to me from Skip. What a gift! Before we left for the ride, the Flyers tuned up in the lobby and sang me a happy birthday. It was a great day to be alive and celebrate my forty-sixth year. I caught ten minutes of my great birthday ride with the GoPro camera:
While riding behind the bumper of a 1956 Chevrolet I started daydreaming about all these American cars going through the manufacturing process in Detroit back in the 1950’s. With the constant hum of the motor and a lullaby of wind, my mind drifted off to an assembly line in Michigan, and I watched cars being made. One Buick Skylark was delivered to New York City. The the next one went to Cuba. Now sixty years later the Buick that was delivered to Cuba just passed me going down the road! In many ways its all so surreal. Cuba constantly throws oddball things at you and the old cars are a constant reminder that you are not in a normal country. Many Russian cars have also been used long past their sell-by date which just serves to increase the bizarreness of it all. Indeed, the Chevy BelAir and the Lada are two very different takes on transportation!
Overall the hotels have been satisfactory. The beds are quite hard and uncomfortable, but we are so tired at the end of the day it does not matter. Arthur said it best this morning: “I think all prisoners scheduled for execution should have to sleep on a Cuban bed as then they will be grateful to go.”
4.8.16: Day 8 Playa Beach FRI Apr 8 (125 miles) You’ll appreciate one night on the beach in a luxury all inclusive resort. The beaches of Varadero are famous.
We had a great ride yesterday! I will never forget my 46th birthday in Cuba. Great roads, great people, great weather, great birthday! The route from Trinidad to Santa Clara was one of the best we have ridden so far. Twistees, mountains, sleepy towns, and great scenery! It was a Thursday, and nobody was doing any work anywhere! The quote from a National Geographic article I read is dead right, “the government pretends to pay people and people pretend to work!” We saw the Che museum and then had a great lunch at the Natural History Museum and restaurant. This facility is a quasi-animal sanctuary and restaurant, and it serves and benefits underprivileged kids. The Flyers sang me a happy birthday, and I had a cake at lunch and dinner! Brad sang some great songs last night on the rooftop of a great rooftop restaurant in Santa Clara.
The Che memorial was a very strange place. I kept watch over our bikes while the others went inside—I had no interest and instead rested on the lawn. Based on what we read at the memorial, it seems that Che accidentally got famous helping Fidel and then tried to recreate his success in Bolivia and was shot on sight. And today, many decades later, Fidel is still alive. From JFK to Obama, Fidel has presided over Cuba. His brother Raul is now formally in charge, but Fidel’s influence will always be in the background. It is 2016, and I am riding across Fidel’s Cuba, and he is still alive and kicking—even though his revolution began way back in 1959. (Note these journals were written in April of 2016 and Fidel died in November of 2016. His ashes were recently interred at this very same location).
4.9.16: Day 9 Havana SAT Apr 9 (90 miles) you will enjoy a short ride back to the capital where a lecture by the country’s prominent architect and historian will provide insight into the history of Havana and the challenges ahead as it faces crumbling infrastructure and temptation to put modernization before the need to preserve the city’s heritage and character. The legendary Tropicana floor show may be on your list of Havana highlights.
Varadero Beach: We had a great ride from Santa Clara. I saw a 1980’s W126 Mercedes 500 SEL at the gas station in Santa Clara. A unicorn car in socialist Cuba, it must have once belonged to a diplomat back in the 80’s. It’s the first S-Class Mercedes we have seen, and it was about thirty years old. The road to Varadero Beach which was full of traffic. The Suzuki V-Strom has the headlights configured so they are on all the time. We have noticed that in several towns cars and trucks suddenly pull over and make room for us to pass. Often the roads appear to part for us—today we finally found out why. Apparently, running your headlights during the day is interpreted by Cubans as a sign to pull over. Local Cubans think we are dignitaries! We all thought it was because Arthur Einstein is traveling with us.
Again, on a Friday everyone we ride by is just hanging out pretending to work. We rode by hundreds of Soviet-style concrete block apartments. These big ugly buildings stand oddly in rural areas with people just hanging out on the balconies. As I rode by one big building I thought to myself, “it feels sad, like people are just wasting their lives.” Today we also saw a lot of two up bicycle riders—but it is not what you would expect. The way they do it in Cuba is that the rider pedals standing up and the lady straddles the rear fender with a left sidesaddle.
The resorts here remind me of Cancun Mexico. The weather continues to be perfect. We have been so lucky! The beaches in Varadero were pristine. I’m exhausted and ready to go home. The Suzukis are nice bikes with plenty of power, and they are very agile and easy to ride. The ride from Varadero was an easy trip. We had lunch on the roof deck of the Ambos hotel. Again, perfect weather! Hemingway lived there for five years on the 5th floor. I got a private tour of the Havana Yacht Club with Alberto. It was unbelievable. The building was designed by architects Rafael Goyenche and Jose Alejo Sanchez and dates back to 1921. During its zenith, it was the most exclusive yacht club on the East Coast. Today it is in disrepair and overrun by the electrician’s workers party who uses it as a clubhouse. With a little TLC, it would make a fabulous hotel.
Albert arranged for a visit to the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Miramar. We had a lovely visit with Jeffrey DeLaurentis and his charming wife, Jennifer. They could not have been more friendly. We learned a lot about the current state of Cuba and the transition the is under way with America.
After visiting Ambassador, DeLaurentis Skip arranged for a classic car ride along the Malecon. It was fun, but the fumes were toxic! We had dinner at Paladar Riomar on the water where Sarah and I ate last year.
4.10.16: Day 10 HAVANA MIAMI SUN Apr 10 Transfers to the airport for flight back to Miami USA.
Havana Airport: The trip has come to a close, and we all had a very good time. Great weather, old friends, and hundreds of great miles. This trip was one for the record books, and our timing was perfect. I can’t wait to come back to Cuba. We all loaded up on cigars and Havana Club rum at the Duty-Free shop.
While waiting in the passport control line, I ran into Jorge Pachero. He is a rising star in Cuba. I met Jorge through some musicians we met here in April of 2015. A group of musicians graciously played some Cuban music for our group. A few months later they came to New York with Jorge and played at Lincoln Center. Last year I helped organize funding and lodging for their trip to New York and got to know Jorge. Just by chance he was also on line to get a flight back to New York—this time to record an album! Such a small world—even at the airport in Havana!
Its taken several months to pull together all the photos, journals, and stories from this epic trip. I leveraged the peaceful nights after the holidays to put it all together. Special thanks to Glenn Gable and Brad Meyer for providing additional videos and photographs. Since our ride in April Castro has died and Trump has won the U.S. election. The winds of change are increasing and its hard to say what it all means for Cuba’s future. For now travel to the island remains easy and I encourage everyone to go as soon as possible.
I want to thank all the American Flyers who signed up and participated in this unusual trip. At first, it was a crazy scheme that seemed improbable to pull off. But thanks to Skip and his team at MotoDiscovery the impossible suddenly became a reality. It took a lot of people to make this happen, and I am grateful to everyone for their efforts. Special thanks to Luis for giving us a real insider’s tour of Cuba. Thank you also to Alberto for getting us access to meet the U.S. Ambassador and visit his stunning residence.
I am grateful for the friendships and good times that the American Flyers Motorcycle Club has provided over the years. As a group, we have taken many fantastic global trips together—from Turkey to New Zealand to California. For Cuba, we had a unique group of Flyer veterans and several newbies. Glenn and Susan were just great fun to be around. As usual, sharing a room with Arthur “Living Legend” Einstein was a daily laugh-a-thon. Kevin and Karen are super travel companions because they are always up for adventure. Roger and Edwina never complain and are always game for more. I met Frank for the first time and hope to see him again soon. Mark and Jeanne kept our spirits high even when there was no booze, gasoline, or hot water. The Kirby’s are black belt world travelers and have forgotten more about adventure travel than most will ever know! Brad and Sylvia completed their inaugural Flyers trip unscathed, and they want to join us for another ride—the ultimate endorsement. We are so sorry for those Flyers who had to cancel due to last minute unforeseen (and very sad) circumstances. Given the vast size of the island and the many roads that were unexplored, we just might have to return next year.
To the road!