Photography and text by Georg Reiter
Introduction by Karin Svadlenak Gomez
Born in Salzburg, Austria, photographer Georg Reiter now lives in Vienna. His preferred genres are architecture and landscape photography, but he has also done some lovely documentary photography. He has explored Cuba by bicycle twice, in 2018 and 2019, and we are pleased to share his story and photographic impressions, which really convey perfectly the special environment that one still finds today in this Caribbean island country.
Havana: Engine noise from outside, half past six in the evening and starting to get dark. Here we were, in Cuba, more precisely in Centro Habana. Havana, morbid, abandoned to decay, fascinating, loud. The Malecon, located directly on the sea, the living room of the Habaneros, only a block away, is full of life and probably one of the most beautiful places in the world. By contrast, Habana Vieja, the restored old town is touristy, spruced up and boring. Havana is a city full of contrasts.
We got an internet card to be able to send e-mails home at the hotspots. Only very few families have private internet in Cuba. And we exchanged euros for CUC, the "peso convertible" (convertible currency). The two-currency system also divides society into two classes. There is the local CUP, which can only be used in state stores and markets, and the CUC, which is one-to-one pegged to the dollar. Only those self-employed in the tourism industry, owners of casa particulares, restaurants, etc. and tourists can get CUC. As a tourist you only get the CUC, and the CUP only in exceptional cases at markets.
People of Havana
After 3 days in Havana we rode our bikes to the west of Cuba: we wanted to go to Vinales. We didn't book any accommodation, we just rode off and looked for casas particulares, private accommodation. Usually you get breakfast there, but often also a home-cooked dinner. This saves you having to search for a restaurant and you also have family connections. Rural Cuba shows a completely different face of the island. Simple dirt roads lead to small huts covered with palm fronds. A farmer tills his field with an archaic ox plow. Tobacco plants thrive in the fertile fields. 80% of Cuban tobacco comes from the west of Cuba. We overtake cyclists on rickety steel horses alongside horse-drawn carriages with real horses.
The twittering of birds came in from the garden, the nocturnal thunderstorms had cleared, including the thunderstorms in my stomach. We were in Mariel, only 50 km west of Havana. A small town with a large port and a modern container terminal. We spent four days there with incredibly friendly, helpful people. I had caught a violent gastrointestinal virus that put me out of action for a few days. But with the medication we had brought with us and a little "magic" from the neighbor, I soon felt better.
Here we felt real socialism again. In the state shops there is little available: a bit of food, hardly any hygiene articles and the pharmacies have few medicines. But the Cubans have learned to deal with it, they swap, help each other out and are world champions in recycling. In addition, a lot of assistance comes from the Cubans living in exile in the USA.
We rode to Vinales via Las Terrazas, and Soroa, through primeval forests, through national parks, over lonely roads where we couldn't buy anything to eat, on motorways on which mostly horse-drawn vehicles were traveling, and through beautiful little places. We had many encounters with friendly people and we drove through incredible landscapes that were completely foreign to us. It is a journey back in time, to long past, almost archaic times.
Moving on towards central Cuba, we rode from Vinales by bus about 300 km to Jagüe Grande and from there went on by bike, first along the coast to Playa Giron. In central Cuba we found turquoise seas, invasions of crabs on the streets, fishermen and a tranquil way of life in its calm cities. we also visited the notorious Bay of Pigs. Cubans in exile, equipped and supported by the USA, landed near Playa Girón in April 1961 during their Bay of Pigs invasion. Some pieces of equipment and extensive information about the fight are on display in the Playa Girón Museum.
We then went directly to the coast, with a few stays in small towns by the sea, on to Castillo de Jagua and from there took a ferry to Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is a very contemplative small town with the wonderful, old theater Teatro Terry of the former sugar baron Tomas Terry.
The Teatro Terry, with a portrait of the ticket seller
Trinidad was noisy, uncomfortably touristy, and there were a lot of very intrusive Jineteros who wanted to bring us to the "best and cheapest" accommodation.
We rode through the incredible Valle de Los Ingenios, or Valley of the Sugarmills, where, while visiting a cemetery, we chatted with the gravedigger, who told us that although he is 68 years old, he still has to work to survive as he receives almost no pension. So he tends the graves and gets a little money or something to eat from the bereaved.
In Santa Clara we visited the monument and tomb of Che Guevara. During the Cuban Revolution against the Batista regime, the city was attacked and captured in December 1958 by troops of the July 26th Movement under the command of Che Guevara. After Che Guevara's long-lost bones were found in Bolivia, his remains were transferred to Cuba in 1997 and buried in a specially created mausoleum in Santa Clara.
From Santa Clara we drove through a very varied landscape with many small towns, to Colon and on to Matanzas. In Mantanzas, 210 km from Santa Clara, directly by the sea, we spent another 2 days before our return to Vienna.
Guardalavaca and Baracoa
Colon and Sancti Spiritus
In 2019 we came back to Cuba for the second time, starting with Holguin, on our bikes again. This time we wanted to travel to the east. In the Cuban east we found lonely gravel roads, hardly any tourists, but hospitable, friendly people.
It was hot and humid as we strolled through the streets. Familiar smells, familiar noises, we had the feeling that we already knew this place for longer than just a few days. From Holguin we rode to Gibara, a small, rather tranquil town right on the Atlantic coast.
We took a fishing boat through the large bay to Potrerillo, from where we mostly go on gravel roads in the direction of Guardalavaca. Guardalavaca has been developed into a tourist center since the 1990s. On the coast there are large, sometimes very expensive and classy all-inclusive resorts for tourists. Cubans are not allowed there except to work. The place itself is pretty gloomy, some desolate prefabricated buildings from the 60s and 70s. The contrast is unimaginable.
After a nocturnal tropical thunderstorm with heavy rain and storms, we left early in the morning. We wanted to go to Mayari. The road there is only partially paved. We rode through small towns, there was no possibility to buy anything to eat or drink. On occasion a few farmers stood by the roadside and sold a few tomatoes, or, if we were lucky, a few bananas. The plantations had been harvested and then there was hardly anything left to buy. It is not delivered from one province to another like here in Europe. When it's over, it's over, we were told. So in every small town or at every opportunity where we could get something we would provide ourselves with the bare essentials, even in the casas particulares we were given food and, above all, water. The supply here in eastern Cuba is significantly worse than in the west or in the more touristy central Cuba.
In Mayari we stayed with a doctor couple with 2 children and learned a lot about life in the east, about the work in the nearby hospital and the education system. A doctor earns around € 30 a month, a worker around €15. It's a meagre wage.
After Mayari we came to the dirtiest city in Cuba, Moa. Nickel is mined here on a large scale and there do not seem to be any environmental regulations. We rode on quickly.
7a.m., roosters screaming loudly, probably several. Looking down from the balcony of our accommodation in Baracoa, a larger city in eastern Cuba, right on the Atlantic, I spotted them, lined up in a row, tied by one leg with a string. Short neck feathers, bare on scarlet legs. Gamecocks. It's Saturday, there are cockfights. Before the fights, they are exhibited and examined by the other residents. And there is a bet. These fights are officially forbidden and it is not possible to find out where they are taking place.
After a few days of relaxation on the Atlantic, we rode on to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's secret capital , past the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, the American prison camp in Cuba (photography strictly prohibited). It was already dark, we were riding through inanimate streets when suddenly a deafening noise broke out: reggaeton, a form of music popular with young Cubans. A few meters in front of us in the street, young men had set up huge loudspeakers and were obviously filling the whole area with sound. Thankfully, our accommodation was still a long way away.
In Santiago we stayed with Luisa, a retired math professor who lives here with her granddaughter and rents out a room. Luisa is a kind, calm woman, in the morning when preparing breakfast she sings classical arias and she gave us tips for the city. From her we learned that once again there is hardly any flour or grain and therefore almost no bread. That would happen again and again, but at least there were fruits and vegetables.
The next 200 kilometers would be exciting for us. According to the map, there would be only a few small villages, the road mostly just a gravel road, and it would be very dry and hot. We filled up our supplies as best we could and left early in the morning. Santiago was still sleeping and we were making good progress. After about 30 km the asphalt stopped and it got dusty. But there was almost no traffic, sometimes a team of horses or a truck. Otherwise the road was ours. The road was one of the most beautiful we have ever ridden on our bikes, simply unbelievable. On one side the sea, on the other a narrow strip with small wooden houses, picturesque little towns and behind it the Sierra Maestra towering steeply with its impenetrable primeval forests.
We rode through this landscape for three days, were amazed, were often very thirsty and suffered from the heat, but again and again we found hospitable people who offered us fruit or water and invited us into their homes.
After three days we were at the end of our trip through Cuba, for this time. But we will definitely come back again, Hasta la Vista Cuba!