The first thing asked about Cuba is how to get a motorcycle there to ride - either by renting or shipping. There are no easy answers, and as many things go in Cuba, any answer is fluid.
The price I was quoted for flying a large motorcycle (800-cc) from Mexico to Havana was US$2.50 per pound, and would require a crate (more weight and/or space). Once there, it could not be sold, but would have to be shipped back out of the country. For a 500-lb. bike, the crate and some accessories, that price could easily reach US$3,000.00. However, I am a budget traveler, preferring to spend my $'s on travel, not shipping, so ruled out that option.
The second option was by boat, from Canada or Mexico (nothing goes direct, legally, from the USA, except recently some food for disaster relief). Neither was a viable option, as it was February and getting the motorcycle to Canada or Mexico was either going to be a long, cold ride or a second expensive flight.
That left the option of renting a motorcycle once I arrived in Cuba, which was the alternative I pursued. Fortunately, I had some help from unknown friends.
In July last summer I attended the 100th Birthday party for the Indian Motocycle (the real Indians motorcycles, not the newer company that has sprung up after a proliferation of hucksters and lawyers started placing the name in everything from T-shirts to Harley clones). While there, I met several members of the Latin American Motorcycle Association (LAMA). I am not Latin American, nor was I riding my 1947 Indian Chief at the party. My being a global traveler, on an old and road weary R80 G/S, and American Indian may have attracted the LAMA group to me. We talked for a while, and they gifted me a club T-shirt, asking me to stay in touch. I was very interested in them, their club and chapters throughout the USA, Caribbean and Mexico. The interest and friendship persisted and when I landed in Havana I was greeted and hosted by members of the Havana Chapter of LAMA.
LAMA Club members welcome me with "Hola! Let's Go Cuba!"
LAMA "Club House" party at the home of club President and Master Mechanic/Restorer, Sergio Morales.
Sergio Morales is also President of the MOCLAC or Motos Classics of Cuba, formed in 1972-73. He makes his living as a motorcycle mechanic, independent of the government, but with a government license. He works almost exclusively on Harley-Davidsons, (most pre-1959, when the USA placed an embargo on Cuba so Harley could no longer sell motorcycles there).
Adolpho R. Prieto, Public Relations Officer for the Havana Chapter of LAMA. He was my contact prior to arriving, spoke much better English than I spoke or understood Spanish, and became my amigo. He is one of the many "good guys" in Cuba, and made my stay educational and fun.
Motorcycle rentals are not available in Cuba, with the exception of 50-cc "tiddlers." These scooters were available for rental to tourists in Havana and Varadero. While I was there, Transtur Agency announced the availability of new Yamaha Neo 50's for rent at the National Hotel of Cuba (in Havana). The rate was US$7.00 per hour to US$20.00 per day. A second rental site near Havana was across the street from the Hotel Panamercana in Villa Panamencana where rentals were 50-cc's scooters for US$25.00 per day, plus a US$50.00 deposit (Telephone number 951093). If you made the rental for 8 days or more the daily rate was US$21.00. Neither rental agency would take credit cards issued from USA banks, nor did any car rental agency, US dollars only. Foreign issued credit cards were acceptable.
The motorcycle on the left is what you can rent in Cuba. The one on the right, an MZ, is far superior and worthy of a ride around Cuba.
While the Transtur said the 50-cc bikes would improve "options for visitors to see the beaches, cities and rural areas, and get to know the history, culture, hospitality and friendly people who will make their stay more enjoyable," I chose not to pay $20.00 to $25.00 to ride a 50-cc scooter the several thousand miles I wanted to cover while in Cuba. I was reminded of a biker saying about how "riding a 50-cc motorcycle and a fat woman can both be a lot of fun, until someone you know sees you on them." I already knew several people in Cuba. I also remembered how a certain German who touts himself as the expert world traveler was joked about for having to stoop to one of the 50-cc rentals when no one would rent him a big bike to use while in Cuba. The price gouging also bothered me. I had paid US$12.00 to rent a TransAlp in Thailand, which was a motorcycle, not a step-through scooter, so found it hard to stomach paying twice as much for 1/12th the motorcycle in Cuba. For US$25.00 per day, if you find the right person, you can work a deal to borrow his bike, and he will come along with you, serve as your translator and you can both have a good time. The average monthly salary of a Cuban is less than $20.00. Take him and his motorcycle for a two-week tour and he will have made more than he would make in a year, and everyone will be happy.
I used this 1980, Soviet Union made, 350-cc Jupiter motorcycle and sidecar. The owner had paid $2,500.00 for this motorcycle. Today parts are almost impossible for him to get, and expensive. It was fine for the roads of Cuba and would reach 60 miles per hour, but the front end wobble at that speed told me it liked 35 miles per hour much better.
Cuba probably has the highest ratio of sidecars to people in the world. Sidecars were everywhere, being used for everything from taxis to farm vehicles. Most were Urals or Jupiters, with a sprinkling of JAWAs.
A new JAWA with sidecar, like the black one pictured here, was used as the family car. Downhill, with a tailwind, it would do 60 miles per hour, with two on the seat, a child on the gas tank, and 2-3 persons in or on the sidecar.
Traveling by motorcycle around Cuba was a slow ride. The roads are often potholed, but no worse than Zimbabwe or Mexico. Riding was cautious. I saw four foreigners on "big bikes," but only one who was "traveling." I chased him down to find out how he got his TransAlp into Cuba. He worked with the Austrian Embassy, so was able to get it in through diplomatic channels, thus avoiding paying the tax to Customs.
Stefan Schattovich, with his Honda TransAlp, from Austria. Before coming to Cuba he had been in India, where he purchased an Indian Enfield similar to the one I used on my third ride around the world. We shared stories about how horrible the motorcycling was in India. Notice the scarf on his head? That was his "helmet" in Cuba.
Another biker I met was on a 650-cc Suzuki LS. He was French, worked for a French firm in Havana, and had shipped his bike in from France for $1,000.00. Once there, he paid an import tax of $1,100.00, which was based on 100% of the value of the motorcycle (he had paid $2,200.00 for the motorcycle in France). However, he could sell it to anybody in Cuba, tourist or Cuban.
David Chapet, from France, said one of the advantages of bringing a new motorcycle to Cuba was that Customs had no record of its value. This new a motorcycle, in Cuba, probably had a much higher value than it did in France where he bought it.
Many motorcycles arrive in Cuba through Marina Hemingway, strapped to the front of a private boat. Once off-loaded, for a few dollars and a little running around, tourists can get a Cuban document and license plate allowing them 30 days of travel in Cuba. I was told this could be extended for an additional 30 days. No bond or Carnet was required.
In and outside towns the police often stopped the motorcyclists to check papers. Sometimes it was out of curiosity by the police about the motorcycle. The Cuban motorcycle police use mostly Moto Guzzis, which can outrun any of the local bikes, and these police are very interested in foreign motorcycles, especially big ones.
About the only motorcyclists in Cuba who wear a motorcycle helmet are the police. I saw several motorcycle crashes, most often caused by motorcycles making contact with cars. The car drivers claimed they did not see the motorcyclist, which seems to be a universal cause. In Cuba, none of the motorcycles operate with a headlight on, if they even had a headlight.
Forget about finding parts or tires while in Cuba, unless you are looking for a used URAL, Jupiter or pre-1959 Harley part, and at great expense for the later. A motorcycle battery or inner tube might be possible, at a reasonable price (the government sets all prices), but a clutch lever or electrical part like a black box will have to be flown in. DHL had a presence in Havana, but I was told to forget overnight service and to plan on 3 to 5 days, at least. If you need a clutch or brake lever, there is a pretty good chance you can find somebody to fashion one out of something else, like an URAL lever. Clutch/gas/brake cables are never thrown away in Cuba, they are repaired. It is a credit to the Cuban motorcycle mechanics that they are able to keep so many old motorcycles on the road and running, albeit slowly.
A Soviet Union made Ural. I was told a new one in l989 (when Russia pulled out) cost about $6,000.00 USD. Parts are still available, but getting harder to find.
Need a spare tire? If it is a 19-inch size, there are still some Russian and CZ made tires available, but nothing you would want to use at speed over 60 miles per hour, and always a tube type.
People were friendly everywhere, and especially interested in me, being an American, traveling alone in their country. Even more interesting to them were my travels by motorcycle around the world, and my different choices of motorcycles. For most Cubans it is a dream to own a motorcycle, and nearly unbelievable that one would be ridden around the world.
My "run around" Ural, a 650-cc, 1972 model. This motorcycle had more modifications than a BIKE SHOW winner at Sturgis, and sounded very much like a Harley chopper. It was an "eye catcher" wherever it went, often catching the eyes of the traffic police, who wanted to see the ownership papers.
Elio Gabriel Rodriquez Fernandez served as my "guide" for a day. A member of LAMA, he arranged for the bike, which belonged to his brother. The brother had crashed it, breaking his leg, so attached a sidecar, without the "chair" so he could ride. Elio and I had great fun together, although he spoke no English. His regular motorcycle is a 1951 Harley-Davidson flathead, very similar to my 1947 Indian Chief, so we could share "motorcycle language" about how our bikes broke, how we repaired them and where we would purchase or how we made replacement parts. There is a universal language amongst motorcyclists, more so with the older motorcycles, because of the commitment needed to keep them running.
Below are some photographs of motorcycles I saw in Cuba.
There was no shortage of motorcycles, however, very few are used for "adventure travel," a foreign concept to Cubans. In my travels from one end of Cuba to the other, I met only one Cuban who had traveled at length by motorcycle. He had ridden a mid-40's Harley-Davidson 45 cubic inch flathead wide and far. He was also a shade tree expert on how to keep one running. For instance, when he needed a tire, and none were to be had, he found a way to fit a car tire to his 16" Harley rim. He said it was fine on the straight roads, but a bit squirmy on the curves. Fortunately there are few "twisty roads" in Cuba. He was pleased that he got about five times the mileage out of the car tire than he did the motorcycle tire.
I looked high and low for anything that resembled a motorcycle accessory shop. Nada, nothing. If you are planning on making a motorcycle ride in Cuba, bring everything you think you will need, from chain lube to spare tubes. There are no gloves, face shields, jackets or oil filters. Oil was easy to find, and I managed to find four liters of Castrol in one gas station, for about $14.00. That is $10.00 more than I would pay in the USA, but $6.00 less than what I would pay in Germany.
At one time Indian Motocycles were common in Cuba. Several years ago I met a man from Potsdam, Germany, who had a thriving business of flying into Cuba and buying the Indians, then shipping them back to Germany, where he sold them for a good profit.
Now few Indians are left, and new laws have been enacted making it against the law to ship a motorcycle out of Cuba (or old car). The government discovered a container filled with Harley-Davidsons on a boat headed out of Cuba a year ago. The result was the Harleys were confiscated, taken apart, and sold as parts, and sold very quickly. The government kept the money, the smugglers lost. I had great luck when Cuban motorcyclists found out I owned an Indian. They remember them, and respected that I would still ride one. I wish the government had put their new law in place before the Europeans sucked all the Indians out of Cuba. While the Indians would have stayed in Cuba, they would have been only 90 miles away from their home in America.
I got gassed in Cuba. Not on rum, but by some machine mounted on the back of a pick-up truck going through the streets spewing smoke out the back. When I first saw the truck coming down the narrow street, I thought it had a set of broken oil rings. So much smoke was coming out the back, the white cloud was filling the street. Dumbstruck at the pollution, I could only imagine my Green German friends screeching in horror. Then I started to screech, and run. I realized the white cloud was probably something imported from a third world country and was being put into the air to kill mosquitoes. DDT, Agent Orange, atomized battery acid, I do not know what it was, but it smelled like what comes out of an electrical transformer when it explodes. I started to run, cameras banging my chest like a boxer using me for a workout bag.
Some years ago I ran with the bulls through the streets of Pamplona. It was nearly the same in Havana. All the stores closed their doors and the street offered no escape. The runner was in a chute. One thing I learned from the bulls that made Hemingway famous was not to worry about running over the person in front of you. If he falls down, it was his bad day. The 3,000 runners and 20 bulls behind him were going to run over him. I applied that lesson to my run through the streets of Havana. A friend of mine who had watched me run into the stadium each morning in Pamplona says I was always easy to spot because my hair is longer than any other runner, and flies straight out behind me. In Havana, had she been there, she would have spotted me again. I ran over a couple of downed bodies, bumped into numerous others, then broke free and quickly took the photograph below.
I have been tear-gassed, beer-gassed and out of gas on my previous rides around the world. This photo shows me after having been fly-gassed.
It was time for me to leave urban life in Havana. I made a 1,200-mile journey around Cuba. Most roads were timid, some hard from lack of maintenance. Several scored high points of my global scale of perfect riding roads, other were like those on an Indian reservation in America, going somewhere, but the hard way.
200 kilometers (120 miles) of no gas, twists and curves, and empty beaches. Start in Marea del Portillo (go back 15 kilometers first for a full tank of gas) and ride to Santiago de Cuba. This section of road on the globe takes a little work, money and ingenuity to get to, but is worth the effort. I saw only 4 cars, one truck and 2 motorcycles along this stretch of ocean road.
Not all in Cuba is cement Soviet style housing. Here I found people living pretty much the same as I had seen in Africa, Asia and Central America.
The interesting aspect of this area is Fidel Castro and his small group of Freedom Fighters hid out near here for nearly two years, recruiting mountain people from homes like this to build his army. They fought, he won, and they went back home. I was reminded how similar the people from this area are to my people on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana. When General Custer went looking for the Sioux, he recruited Crow scouts to help him. The Crows lead him to the Sioux. A difference is Custer lost. What is similar is the recruits in both instances ended up having been forgotten by the government.
I stopped at this small school in the mountains of the National Park Turquino.
To the students I am sure I looked like a spaceman. I walked up, smiling, making my broken Spanish talk ("My Spanish is very small"), and gave each child a ballpoint pen wrapped in plastic. I had been carrying them for weeks, planning to give them to friends. I had carried them long enough; it was time for them to find a home. It was like Christmas for them, and I felt like Santa. We laughed at how I looked and my Spanish, me at feeling light. It was such a small thing, but a memory I will keep for the rest of my life. I had seen similar schools in Africa and had nothing to contribute. In Cuba maybe I helped an aspiring writer.
Words. With words, writers paint pictures in the mind of the reader. Words also bring out feelings, focus thoughts, express emotions. I like words, play with words, sell words and read 1,000's of words each day. Below is a picture of a machine that transferred some of the best words ever imagined from a writer's brain to paper. My adventure in Cuba incorporated music, motorcycles, people and risk. One of the highlights was to see this small mechanical device. Ernest Hemingway pecked here.
Hemingway loved Cuba. He resided in Cuba, wrote about life in Cuba, and lived Cuban life. He typed standing up, pecking out words on this machine, that 70 years later, can still move readers to tears. For a motorcyclist, to look at this machine, can be likened to looking at the drawings made by Gottlieb Daimler in 1885, unless the biker does not know who Daimler was or what he was thinking about as he drew.
Hemingway's desk as he left it. The glass jar against the wall had a frog in it. Above his desk was a buffalo. This place was home, although he owned several others. I was happy to see a drawing of the Big Horn Mountains of Montana in his house. He had some quality time in Cuba, but the mountains of Montana were special to him.
Politics I try to avoid. When I am crossing a border, in any country of the world, and one of the border / Customs / Immigration officials asks, "What do you think of Blank (whoever is the USA President at the time)," I beg off an answer. While I respect the Commander In Chief of the USA, whoever he/she is, as an American Indian/Quaker/Agnostic/ Believer in Buddha/ Burningman-Woodstock Veteran/ Capitalist / Chuck Berry fan / Indian - BMW - Kawasaki - Honda - Harley - Suzuki - Henderson - Yamaku - NSU - AMAZONAS - HPN - Ural - Jupiter - Hartford - Enfield - Ecomobile - rider / Ford - Dodge - Hudson - Pontiac - Cadillac - Studebaker - Cobra car guy, with a slant towards Big Bertha 1 woods, I know to discuss politics is a fast path into a room I do not want to see.
This treatment is about Cuba. I went there to find Indians, not looking for motorcycles, but Natives. The Spanish, in the 1400-1500's, eliminated most of the Indians. The Germans seemed to have shipped most of the other Indians (motorcycles) to the confines of Europe.
As an economist, I found Cuba a wonder, similar to some Indian reservations in America. Red Cloud, a Sioux Chief in the 1860's, learned quickly how good the promises of the United States government were when the first USA check for rental of land in Indian Country failed to appear. Fidel Castro (who has a law degree) may qualify for an honorary degree from the Harvard Business School in Economics. He has, bleedingly, steered his country economically through waters filled with sharks.
He, brother Raul, and a committed group of followers, stuffed themselves like sardines into a boat and made a failed attempt to overthrow the leadership of Cuba, a failed coup. Fidel, Raul and the remaining rebels were thrown in prison... a prison copied from the USA Jolliet model. Hard time, but not so hard. Still, a prison. I went there and looked around. Not a nice place. So for two years Fidel, brother Raul, and their buddies were in the slam.
I can imagine, every morning, after Fidel woke up, his dilemma. He, his brother, and their friends were, in the joint. He must have thought, "What did we do wrong?" He figured it out.
Here sat Fidel, a lawyer, doing ablutions and thinking. 50 years later he has to be given credit for thinking some things right.
Cuba by motorcycle was interesting. The country is rapidly changing and I suspect within a short time some motorcycle tour company will be offering "canned adventures." Until then, there remains the possibility of real adventure, riding into the unknown without the benefit of an ATM on every corner, an Internet connect point each night, or a MacDonalds/ Marriott Hotel/BP gas station for food rest or gas. If you thrive on the unplanned motorcycle ride, get to Cuba soon, before the capitalists globalize it.
Gregory, on the road, April, 2002
July 27, 2000, Going Out Again - 'Round The World
October 4, 2000, Why Another Long Ride, The Plan, and Mr. Fish
October 10, 2000, the beginning, in America on an Indian
November 6, 2000, AMAZONAS-Tamed By Beasts in Brazil
November 22, 2000, Monster Cow, Wolpertinger and Autobahn Crawling Across Europe
December 22, 2000, Enfield 500 Bullet, India Motorcycle Dementia, Ozoned Harley-Davidsons and Gold Wings
December 25, 2000, Yeti on a Harley-Davidson, Nepal By Enfield, No Carnet Sexpedition
January 1, 2001, Haunting Yeti
January 25, 2001, Monkey Soccer, Asian Feet, Air 'em Up: Bhutan and Sikkim
February 12, 2001, Midgets, Carnetless, Steve McQueen on Enfield, Bangladesh
February 20, 2001, Higgledypiggledy, Salacity, and Zymurgy - India
March 20, 2001, Road warriors, sand, oil leaks - meditating out of India
April 8, 2001, Bike Cops, Elephants, and Same-Same - Thailand
May 1, 2001, Little Bikes, Millions of Bikes, Island Riding - Taiwan
May 15, 2001, Harley-Davidson, Mother Road and Super Slabs - America
June 8 , 2001, Crossing The Crazy Woman With A Harley-Davidson, Indian, BMW, Amazonas, Enfield, Hartford, SYM, Honda
January 1, 2002, Donged, Bonged, and Gonged - Burma
January 20, 2002, Secrets of The Golden Triangle - Thailand
March 31, 2002, Bear Wakes, Aims Green Machine Around The World
April 10, 2002, Moto Cuba - Crashes, Customs and El Jefe (Fidel)
May 20, 2002, Europe and The Roads South to Africa
June 10, 2002, Morocco Motorcycling, Thieves and Good Roads
July 30, 2002, Russia – Hard and Soft, By Motorcycle
August 30, 2002, USA – American Roadkill, Shipping Bikes and BIG DOGS
September 30, 2002, Good Times Roll Home, Riding With Clothes On, Team Green - USA
November, 2002, Mexico By Motorcycle - Gringos, Little Norman Bad Cock, and Bandits
March 2003, Laos by motorcycle - Guerrillas, Mekong Beering, and Plain of Coffins
July, 2003, Alaska by motorcycle – Deadhorse, Fish Story and Alaskan Bush
January 2004, Angkor, Bombed Out Roads and Dog Eaters - Cambodia
April, 2004, Minsking, Uncle Ho and Snake Wine
August 2004, Around The World Again, 1st Tag Deadhorse
February 2005, Colombia To The End Of The Earth - South America
January 2006, My Marriage, Long Strange Ride, Montana Nights
May 2006, Cherry Girls, Rebels, Crash and Volcano - Philippines
September 2006, Break Bike Mountain Ride – United States
March 2007, Kawasaki Cult Bike “No Stranger To Danger Expedition” - Thailand and Cambodia
November 2007, Lone Wolf Wanders: Bears, Moose, Buffalo, Fish
April 2009, Global Adventure Roaming: Burma through the USA to headhunters on Borneo
February 2010, Adventure Motorcycle Travel: Expedition to Alaska, then Java
Copyright © Dr. Gregory W. Frazier. 1999- All Rights Reserved.
Thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author,
and not necessarily Horizons Unlimited