Two Canadians Rolling Through Cuba

Cuba is a fascinating island nation whose beautiful beaches, diverse geography, tropical climate, relative safety, and less-traveled roads have made it an excellent bicycle touring destination. Canadians Jim and Susan Allman have been exploring Cuba by bicycle for the past 20 years. They share incredible stories about finding accommodations, navigating the currency and the black market, dealing with the police, and interacting with locals who remain friendly and welcoming despite constantly struggling to make a basic living. Clearly, everything works a little differently in Cuba, which remains a single party Marxist–Leninist socialist republic despite decades of economic and political pressure from the nearby United States.

Episode Transcript

Gabriel: In today’s episode of the Accidental Bicycle Tourist, we are going to Cuba! Our guides will be my longtime friends Jim and Susan Allman, whom I met in 1997, while cycling the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Jim and Susan are Canadian citizens who have extensively explored Cuba by bicycle, and boy do they have some incredible stories to share about this unique Caribbean island nation.  

Sandra: You’re listening to The Accidental Bicycle Tourist. In this podcast, you’ll meet people from all walks of life and learn about their most memorable bike touring experiences. This is your host, Gabriel Aldaz.

Gabriel: Hello cycletouring enthusiasts! Although it is located less than 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, from the southern tip of Florida, Cuba remains a mystery to most Americans. This is largely due to the travel ban that the United States government instituted in 1962 and maintained for decades. Although restrictions have eased in recent years, travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited. In contrast, according to Radio Canada, about 1.3 million Canadians visited Cuba annually prior to the pandemic. Though tourism has not fully rebounded, Canadian citizens accounted for more than half of all tourists entering Cuba in 2023, among them Jim and Susan Allman. Jim and Susan, thank you both for being guests on the Accidental Bicycle Tourist.

Jim: We are so happy to be here, and we are really pleased to talk to you. So, thank you very much as well.

Gabriel: My first question is, why in the world is Cuba so popular with Canadians?

Jim: I think, probably a number of Canadians go from Montreal.

Susan: And Toronto.

Jim: And Toronto. And so it’s a very cheap flight. It’s a direct flight. There’s no time difference. And it probably costs half as much as Mexico.

Susan: And the beaches are spectacular: clean sand, turquoise waters. And it’s very unusual, different culture.

Jim: And the people are very, very friendly and welcoming. There’s no… there’s absolutely no pushback by anybody. Plus, most people, I think, go to resorts, in particular Varadero. And Varadero, although it is a part of Cuba, geographically, it has many differences from the rest of Cuba. So when Cuba right now is suffering through power outages, there are no power outages in Varadero. When Cuba is suffering with water problems, there’s no problem with drinking the water from a tap in Varadero.

Susan: It’s very safe, very safe for tourists in Varadero, in the resort areas. But I think it’s becoming less safe in other areas because they’re experiencing incredible shortages right now. Food, electricity, gasoline. The price has just gone up by 500 percent. It’s become really difficult, especially for the Cuban people.

Jim: So that means that there’s probably more minor crime. I don’t think that there’s any serious crime, but there’s probably some minor crime going on. So I think that’s why it’s popular. It’s close and it’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s beautiful.

Gabriel: Sounds like, Cuba has a lot going for it.

Susan: The thing you don’t go is for the food…

Gabriel: Really?

Susan: Because that’s the biggest complaint. Yes, and so the food in some resorts can be absolutely terrible. But we’ve always said we don’t go to Cuba for the food.

Gabriel: I’ve never been to Cuba, so I’d like to understand a little bit more about the geography. Many islands, the main cities are along the coast and then inland, it’s a bit more, maybe mountainous. Is Cuba like that?

Jim: There’s a mountainous ridge that basically goes the length of Cuba. Cuba is situated east-west. On the north coast, Havana is about three quarters of the way to the west, I would say. And so, if you leave Havana and you head east, you can continue along what’s called the White Road to Varadero, it’s… would you say 100 kilometers?

Susan: Yeah.

Jim: Yeah, probably 100 kilometers to Varadero. Varadero is a peninsula, and so all of the hotels and everything else are situated there, and there’s actually a place where they stop and check all the Cubans’ papers before they let them into Varadero. So the only people that you’ll meet in Varadero are tourists and Cubans who work and live there. If you’re trying to come into Varadero as just a visitor, a Cuban visitor, it’s gonna be very difficult for you. For instance, there might be a guy coming along that’s a traveling troubadour, like, a guy with a guitar, right? Well, he’s obviously working in one of the hotels, but he’s trying to make extra money by playing on the street. But if he’s not working in the hotel, he’s not in Varadero, that’s all there is to it.

Gabriel: It’s almost like the equivalent of a gated community, just extended to a whole city.

Jim: Yes, that’s it, exactly. Because it’s a peninsula, it’s really easy. There’s only one way in and one way out over a bridge. We once caught the wrong taxi. The guy didn’t have a license to pick people up at the hotel, and we were going to Matanzas, and when we got to the where they pay the toll to go across – it’s, you know, peanuts – but they pay a toll to go across the bridge, the guy got stopped by the police and he had to follow the police back into Varadero to the police station and disappeared inside.

Susan: For a long time. Our bags were locked in the trunk, and you gotta realize you can’t just open the trunk, like, these cars are haywired together. So we were stuck there, and the guy came out halfway through and said… he only spoke Spanish, but he was trying to tell us to lie. So anyway, I found a wire under the dash, I pulled it, we opened the trunk, and we ran away with our bags before the police got to interview us.

Jim: So it’s like that. As I was saying, so you go to Varadero, and then you can continue all the way to the east, which is Santiago de Cuba. It’s right at the tip. People love it because of the music. You can hear music in any of the restaurants or hotels, that sort of thing.

Susan: But that’s the thing about Cuba too. You hear music everywhere, all the time.

Jim: Yeah, loud music all the time.

Susan: All the time, they love music.

Jim: Roughly speaking, the farther east you go, the poorer the people are. And the people in Matanzas, for instance, talk about the people in Santiago as if they’re hillbillies. So there is a prejudice. It’s quite interesting, ‘cause it’s not based on color, it’s based on where you live. But they, like everybody else, they’ve got prejudices. So that’s Santiago, and then you can go, if you’re in Varadero, you can go over the mountains to the south coast, up over the colinas and down the other side, and then you get to Cienfuegos.

Susan: And Trinidad.

Jim: Trinidad is very famous because it used to be a pirate hangout.

Susan: It’s a UNESCO site.

Gabriel: Oh, okay.

Jim: Yeah, and the streets are designed almost as a maze, so that if people are being chased, they’ll end up in blind alleys, and that sort of thing. And that was part of the way that they built the town, in case they were attacked.

Susan: It’s a wonderful place to visit, and it’s all cobblestone, and they also have wonderful mountains and hiking places around there. Unusual habitat, like orchids hanging from the walls. It’s a different ecosystem from the rest of Cuba.

Jim: Yeah, it’s beautiful.

Susan: And then you could ride to Cienfuegos, which is really quite a big city and it used to be quite thriving. It was…

Jim:  It’s got the biggest port in Cuba. The port is huge. Apparently, like, the whole Spanish Armada could fit in this harbor. Subsequently. If you go from Havana to the west, you end up in…

Susan: Pinar del Río.

Jim: Pinar del Río province, and that’s where the most famous tobacco is grown, and the most famous cigars are made in Viñales, no?

Susan: Yeah.

Jim: Yeah. And Viñales is a nice little town. It’s an interesting town in that there are no jineteros in Viñales at all, like, so you can sit out in an open plaza having a beer, and you won’t be approached by anybody.

Gabriel: While most Cubans are very honest and friendly people who are happy to help foreigners, the current financial crisis is pushing more locals into becoming jineteros and jineteras. These are basically hustlers, out to make a quick buck at the expense of tourists. Usually, jineteros approach travelers in a friendly manner, then try to offer services such as excursions, restaurant recommendations, and cheap accommodations. Of course, they get commissions from the referrals, and can get quite pushy and annoyingly persistent when the travelers decline their offers.   

Jim: The background in Viñales is like that. They’ve got caves. You can go in and do a day trip through the caves with a guide, and it’s just fun. And they’ve got these things called migotes, which are large basalt columns, where the land has settled around them, and so they’re just sticking up. It’s a very exotic-looking area.

Gabriel: When did you first go to Cuba, and what made you go to Cuba? You’ve been going there for years and years, as far as I can remember.

Susan: So we went in 2004, and we talked another couple into coming with us, and we had only done one tour before that, and that was the Camino in 1997.

Gabriel: Aha, the Camino in 1997! That’s when we met, of course. So then, let’s shift gears from Santiago de Cuba to Santiago de Compostela. Can you talk a little bit more about that first tour?

Susan: In January 1997, we both quit our jobs. It just seemed like the right thing to do at that time. We were 50. We were turning 50, and we needed a change. Jim got a couple of books out of the library and he got a map of the Loire Valley, and we decided, okay, we’ve never been to Europe, we’ll go to Europe. But it was still cold, so we bought an old station wagon and a tent trailer, and we drove down to the Baja, Mexico. And there we met these cyclists. Six weeks later, on our way back home, these same cyclists pulled into this campground at dusk. And I said, “Those are the same people that we met.” Anyway, I bought a bottle of wine, and we sat down together, and we said, “Well, we’re going home now and then we’re going to go to Europe.” And they said, “You have to take bikes.” These guys had ridden across the States, they’d ridden all over the place, So, “You have to take bikes.” We said, “Okay,” so we bought a bike in Oregon on the way home. I think you were gonna borrow Zack’s bike.

Jim: Right.

Susan: We didn’t know what we were gonna do. We really had no plans other than we’re gonna land in Paris. So we took backpacks. We borrowed backpacks and we took our bikes and we went to Paris and we couldn’t get a map when we were there.

Jim: Yeah, this was in the days before, you know, cell phones and GPS and all of that.

Susan: And we didn’t… no cell phones.

Jim: And it turned out that the road around the airport was just a big circle, and so we kept going…

Susan: Round and round after not sleeping. And there was a hotel, and I stopped. I went in to find out, and it was like the equivalent of 400 Canadian for one night. And we had a budget for six months, we had 50 dollars Canadian a day. That was our total budget, so we had to camp. We had our camping gear.

Jim: Of course, we had these backpacks, and as we found out, like, it’s very difficult to ride a bicycle with a backpack. Like, almost impossible. We turned the backpacks upside down and put the belly strap around and had the backpack sitting on the rear rack. We knew that that wasn’t sustainable, but fortunately we were staying at this campsite, and the guy said, “Well, there’s a hardware store up the street. I think you can buy a garden cart.”

Susan: Yeah, these little garden carts. They were steel, they had bicycle wheels and a plywood bottom. And both of our backpacks would fit in this little cart, and it attached to the bicycle, and then Jim could pack all the weight.

Jim: And so off we went. And we weren’t in very good shape, either. That was the other thing.

Susan: No, we’d never done any bicycle touring. We hadn’t really been bike riding either, for years, so it took a while to get in shape.

Jim: We met people that were saying, “Oh, are you going to Santiago?” And I was like, “In Chile? What? What are you talking about?”

Gabriel: Too many Santiagos!

Jim: I had no idea what they were saying, right? It just didn’t make any sense. But then we met these people, they were going to Santiago de Compostela as pilgrims.

Susan: Pilgrims.

Jim: These were the first people that we met that were actually pilgrims. So that’s when we found out, ah, Santiago de Compostela is actually something that we could do.

Susan: And then we started on the pilgrim trail.

Jim: Right. And the way that you become pilgrims is that people treat you like pilgrims. That’s why we called ourselves accidental pilgrims, because it was not our plan to be pilgrims. Fortunately, the trailer was quite easy to pull, and so we would just ride all day and stay at refugios and…

Susan: And meet interesting people. And, Gabriel, you were one of the interesting people we met.

Gabriel: I remember, we talked about that in 1997, and we had this big laugh about being, all three of us, accidental pilgrims. And that’s one of the inspirations for the Accidental Bicycle Tourist podcast name. It implies an openness to having plans change and having things happen to you that you could never imagine. So yeah, the first time we met was in a small town called Carrión de los Condes.

Susan: We were sitting having lunch one day, and you were there and talking away, and It was really neat, ’cause you’re about the same age as our son, and it was like having a visit with our son. And you spoke Spanish, and…

Jim: That was very helpful.

Susan: It was very helpful. Yeah. You bought us empanadas, ’cause we never had empanadas.

Gabriel: Yes, empanadas in Ponferrada. Delicious.

Susan: Yeah. And then we met you again when we got to Santiago de Compostela.

Gabriel: Yeah, exactly.

Jim: Yeah. We were there for the…

Susan: The feast day.

Jim: The feast day.

Susan: The thing is that, at the end of that trip we came home, and we started a business together. We started working together, instead of working separate, in different careers. And that was probably the miracle that we got. We started our business and we’re still working together. Still married, all these years later. It changed our lives for the better.

Jim: Yeah.

Gabriel: For me, it was also a life-changing experience to do the Camino at that time. So it was something special we got to share.

Jim: Yes, I agree absolutely. Yeah.

Gabriel: Okay, let’s get back to Cuba, 2004.

Jim: We had been to Cuba before 2004, but not on bicycles. We visited there once in…

Susan: ‘94.

Jim: Yeah, 1994, on a whim. Let’s go to Cuba! At that time, that was during what they called their “Special Period.” You couldn’t get a taxi. It was just very, very difficult.

Susan: There were no cars on the road. The people were starving. They were all really, really thin. You could only go and stay in a tourist hotel.

Jim: Cubans were not allowed into hotels. Only tourists were allowed in the hotels, so there was all sorts of restrictions. I think it was originally as a plan to prevent prostitution, but it simply became a source of repression. You could meet with Cubans, but they couldn’t visit you in your hotel. But then, in 2004, we went there with a with another couple on a cycle tour. We were not yet expert cyclists by any stretch, but we went to Havana, and landed in the airport in Havana and took our bikes and actually rode from the airport to the – I guess you would call it the old part of Havana, old town Havana – which is a little bit seedy actually, but we had no idea where we were going. But we knew this hotel. So we got to the hotel, and we were like, right in downtown old Havana. On the streets there you would see women in costume, posing with outsized cigars for pictures and that sort of thing, like, really tacky tourist town stuff. We were then planning to travel, I think, to the east, right? We were going to travel to Varadero.

Susan: Yeah, yeah.

Jim: But what happened was, we got one of our bikes stolen on the first day.

Gabriel: Oh no!

Susan: We took them out of the hotel, and we lined all four bikes up against the hotel. And then, at the last minute, the boys went back into the hotel to get water bottles or something, and when they came back, Jerry’s bike was missing, so there was only three bikes. And Marcy and I had been there the whole time…

Gabriel: Yeah!

Susan: But some guys had come by, and they were pointing down at the gears, and what a beautiful bike, and I’m looking down and meanwhile they take off with the bike.

Gabriel: Ugh!

Jim: It was very professionally done. There was lots of witnesses, but nobody saw anything. The police showed up because the bike that was stolen had 500 dollars in it.

Susan: No, more than that more than.

Jim: Oh, more than that?

Susan: Jerry and Marcy had… Jerry had put his money in the back of the bike and his passport.

Gabriel: Oh, that’s terrible.

Susan: So there was 1,000 dollars U.S. cash, and our first aid kit, and all our bike tools, and all of that was gone.

Gabriel: On the first day.

Jim: On the first day. So that was interesting. There’s three different levels of police in Cuba, and they all showed up, all wanting a piece of the 1,000 dollars, obviously. We did get the passport back. It was dropped off at a different hotel, because for a Cuban to steal a tourist’s passport, probably he’s gonna go to jail. So, they immediately dropped the passport off, and so we got a phone call from another hotel that we’d gotten the passport.

Susan: But the thing is… so they spent all day writing reports and drawing pictures and interviewing everybody, and then, when we got back at the end of the month, went to the police station to get the report, it said the bike was stolen. There was no mention of the cash.

Jim: So somebody got the cash, that’s for sure. But it did not end our trip, because, fortunately, at that time, there was a bike rental place in Havana. And so we went and talked to the rental guy. At that time, I had very little Spanish, but he got an interpreter. And what we said was, “Okay, look, here’s the deal. You rent us a bike, off the books, and when we get back, we’ll give you a bike. And so then you’ll have an extra bike, but it won’t be a government bike, so when you rent that bike, you can put the money into your pocket.” And he thought that was a wonderful idea, so he rented us a bike for free.

Susan: He took your driver’s license.

Jim: He took my driver’s license, so that we would come back. It was quite a nice bike, and so we were able to spend – I guess we spent a month, eh?

Susan: A month.

Jim: We spent a month cycling around Cuba with our friends.

Gabriel: I guess somebody didn’t have their clothing either, or… It sounds like it was fully loaded when it was taken.

Jim: No, it wasn’t fully loaded yet.

Gabriel: Oh.

Jim: This was the first day, and we were going to go for a little tour around Havana, just to test out the bikes and… ‘cause we’d simply ridden from the airport to the hotel, and so we wanted to, you know, get more comfortable, which we still did, but with a different bike. And then, after that, we were much more aware.

Gabriel: Yeah.

Susan: Obsessed. And you have to… we’ve had a couple of things stolen, like you gotta be really careful of petty theft. If you leave something out and turn your back, it’s gone.

Jim: Not in Varadero, but in old Havana, there’s, yeah, I’m sure that there’s pickpockets, and, like any other large foreign country. Anyway, we never got anything else stolen, although we had a couple of really interesting times, where, like we had the bikes up against the building, and they had louvered windows, and we saw a hand come through the louvers. We were sitting outside, having lunch. We saw this hand come through the louvers and try and get into the front bag of the bike.

Gabriel: That’s sneaky.

Jim: So we thought that was sort of funny. But yeah, but nothing serious. And we traveled, I guess, much of Cuba, actually, during that month. We rode to Varadero.

Susan: We rode east. Somewhere, I’ve got it all written down.

Jim: Right.

Gabriel: And in that tour in 2004, how did you plan your accommodations?

Jim: We didn’t.

Susan: We didn’t.

Gabriel: Okay, that’s fair.

Jim: It was a…

Susan: Did we have a Lonely Planet guide?

Jim: Yeah, we did have a Lonely Planet guide.

Susan: Which helped up a couple of times.

Jim: Right.

Susan: We went through a lot of towns.

Jim: Many people have casas particulares.

Susan: So, knock on the door, and if you can’t get there, they would always refer you to a friend, somebody else, down the street. But then we went through towns, small towns where you couldn’t get water, which is a problem, and there were no legal casas. And so, we just go and sit in the square in the town, looking very forlorn, because we were too hot and tired to go anywhere else, and somebody would come by. You know, they’d watch you, and then they’d come by and, you know, “Is there anything…? What would you like?” We’d say, “We need a place to stay,” and then so they’d be looking furtively, and then they’d say, “Follow me.” They get on their bike, and you’d get on your bike, and you ride behind them up and down a few roads in order, and they take you to a house that was an illegal casa. So then you had to kind of lay low because you didn’t want the neighbors to know. It’s very illegal for them to have non-Cubans in their houses. We had some wonderful adventures in those places.

Gabriel: I’d like to hear more about that, but let’s just quickly talk about, yeah, the legal casas and the illegal ones. So a lot of things in Cuba are controlled, I guess.

Jim: Everything.

Gabriel: Everything is controlled, and this is no different. So can you shed some light on this?

Jim: Sure. So, if you want to have a casa particular, you have to get a permit from the from the government, and then you pay a tax. It’s not based on a percentage of income from tourism. It’s a flat rate, so if you don’t get guests… That’s why, right now, there’s no casas particulares. If there’s not enough tourists, like during the pandemic, these people all gave up their licenses because they couldn’t afford them. So, if you have one of those permits, then you are allowed to put on your house this – what looks like a blue upside-down anchor, sort of – on the door. There will be a sign, “se renta room.” So you could just knock on the door and, like Susan says, if they’re full, they’ll call a friend. In places where, like in these small pueblos, where there’s no hotel, they don’t get tourists, and so nobody can afford to have a casa.

Gabriel: Right, right. This is the problem with the flat rate model, rather than getting a percentage of the income.

Jim: Everybody knows that they could get 25 dollars to keep you overnight, and that’s a month’s wages.

Susan: And ten dollars a day: three dollars they charge for breakfast, seven for dinner, so ten dollars would you get you all your meals for a day, and then that goes strictly into their pocket. They don’t have to pay a percentage of that. So that’s a lot of money. This one casa that we stay with regularly, she’s a neurologist in a children’s hospital, but if she had guests and we were there, she made us breakfast and dinner, and she didn’t go to work. She didn’t go to work that day.

Gabriel: So, just that statement is very unusual. In most parts of the world, if somebody is a neurologist, they’re not going to be renting out some room on the side. This shows how extreme a place Cuba is.

Jim: We were in Havana one time, and we stayed in this old, old house. It was just amazing. And two old doctors.

Susan: Really old doctors.

Jim: Really old doctors.

Susan: And they weren’t really wanting to rent rooms anymore, but they were in the Lonely Planet guide, and we found them. Beautiful old mansion in Havana.

Jim: With 20-foot ceilings and just these huge doors, and literally like a suit of armor in the hallway, you know. It was just bizarre, and the bed was 150 years old as well.

Susan: Yeah, it sagged like a, like a hammock. What a place, oh.

Jim: And they just said, as soon as we came in, “Look, we’re not going to feed you.”

Gabriel: And this is one of the legal places.

Jim: Yeah, this was one of the legal places.

Gabriel: ’Cause it was in Lonely Planet. Okay. I hate to see then what happens in the illegal places, if that’s the legal one.

Susan: Well, we have stayed in brothels.

Gabriel: Ah. See, there you go.

Susan: We were… a long, hot day riding… found this place. They said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we can get you a room. Come on in.” You know, it was a gated… they had a big fence around it. So we went in and people were eating lunch, and they had cases and cases of beer stocked up, but it didn’t have labels or anything, so this is illegal beer. But we had to wait for our rooms, because other couples were coming in, and they were renting by the hour.

Jim: But it wasn’t really a brothel. Like, they say that there’s nobody homeless in Cuba, but some of the houses are very crowded, and so a young married couple will be living in the house with their parents.

Susan: And their grandparents.

Jim: And their grandparents. And so they will go into one of these love hotels, I guess you’d call them.

Susan: And have a nice lunch and have a beer and have a bedroom for an hour.

Jim: You get a room, and they’ve got a fountain outside so that that covers the noise. And we get the room and there’s a, you know, there’s a mirror on the ceiling above the bed.

Gabriel: That way, they can make sure that their hair and make-up are perfect when they return home.

Jim: So that was fun. Another time they invited us into their house and, it was quite obvious that the grandmother, I don’t know where she ended up, but we got her room.

Susan: She looked like George Burns. She had these giant glasses. She was 98 years old, but they turfed granny out of her bed, and we got her bed.

Gabriel: Poor abuelita had to sleep in the chicken coop!

Susan: And the toilet didn’t work. It was all plugged up, so you couldn’t use the toilet. Oh dear! And we drank lots of rum and more and more of their family came, and we had a big party. The next day, they wanted us to stay, but we were supposed to just stay there, quiet, and not let anybody know we were there. Anyway, the police came.

Jim: The police came.

Susan: And everybody was in tears because they could lose their house and it was horrible. A good lesson learned. If you’re in an illegal casa, you get up early and you leave, and you don’t come back. But then we got poisoned, because they had a well, and water really is a problem in a lot of these places. And we had a water filter. I don’t know why we didn’t use it.

Jim: We didn’t use it because it’s the end of a hot day, we go into this guy’s kitchen, he opens his fridge and brings out this big jug, frosted jug of ice-cold water, right? And so we all drank the water, and then afterwards I said, “Oh, where do you get your water?” And he pointed to the roof where his cistern is. “And where does it come from to the cistern?” He takes me to the backyard, kicks a couple of chickens out of the way, and lifts up a piece of plywood, and it’s just a hole in the ground. That’s where the water came from.

Susan: And we all got sick. We were sick for weeks. Even after we got home, we tried to clear ourselves out with yogurt and stuff and finally we had to go to the doctor. It was a bad bug.

Jim: But anyway, valuable lesson. You have to take a water filter ‘cause water is a problem, and you have to use it all the time. That’s just all there is to it.

Gabriel: Well, you know what? That is music to the ears of Michelle Savacool, who was the guest on the episode “Chile, Top to Bottom, Upside Down.” We had this discussion about water filters, and she will be very glad to hear your words. Use that water filter, all the time.

Susan: Yes.

Jim: All the time, yeah. It’s very difficult to have a serious stomach upset and be riding bicycles.

Gabriel: Oh, yeah, that doesn’t go well together. And to be sick for weeks sounds terrible.

Susan: And dehydrated. Yeah, it’s dangerous.

Jim: So we were sick for, I guess, the last week in Cuba.

Susan: Yeah, and then sick when we were home.

Jim: And then sick when we got home. We didn’t get better when we got home.

Gabriel: All you could do was get out of bed and give that bicycle shop owner that bike that you promised him at the beginning, and then somehow fly back and go back to bed. That sounds very unpleasant.

Jim: Yeah, the end was unpleasant.

Susan: Well, he gave away a bike to one of our guides in Matanzas, a man that we still are in touch with, and we see him all the time, him and his family.

Gabriel: Wait, this is on the same trip? You guys are losing bikes left and right.

Susan: Well, we’d give them away.

Jim: The idea is, if you take bikes to Cuba, is to leave them there. So, on other trips to Cuba, what I would do is either go to the police auction or Auction BC, and there’s stolen bikes that that been turned in. The bikes are not particularly expensive. And then you have to take parts, because there’s no bike parts in Cuba. It’s a problem, right? So you have to take, like, an extra brake cable and an extra derailleur cable, and an extra set of brake pads, and maybe three or four spokes, and an extra tube, like that, and then at the end of the trip, we would give them away.

Gabriel: Did you have problems with customs at the airport when you were leaving?

Susan: They never say, how come you brought a bike down and you’re going home without bikes?

Jim: Instead of bags you got panniers, but you got no bike.

Susan: But they don’t ask those questions.

Jim: They don’t ask those. One time we took a cast iron frying pan for this lady, because they’ve got these…

Susan: Crappy stuff from China. Really, really…

Jim: Horrible. Just like, really tinny, tinny frying pans, right? But anyway, so I get to the airport and, of course, they see it in the customs. “So what’s this for?”  And I said, “Oh, that’s, you know, special for cooking, because I’m anemic.” And they said, “But you’re going to an all-inclusive,” and I said, “I know, but I give it to the cook. And so the cook cooks my meat in this cast iron frying pan. And that way, I don’t have anemia.” And the guy just rolls his eyes, just zips up the suitcase, and says, “Get out of here.”

Gabriel: Oh, I love it.

Susan: Mostly, we’d give the bikes away every time. A couple of times he sold them for cigars.

Jim: It’s a lot of fun to buy illegal cigars. It’s one of the things that everybody should do in Cuba. It’s just so much fun, ‘cause there’s a whole underground industry with illegal cigars, right? They’re seconds from the factory. I believe it’s because the Cubans are allowed to smoke one cigar a day, if they work in the factory. Of course, they don’t smoke them, they take them home, and then they avail themselves of the boxes, so they’ve got the boxes and all the proper documentation for these cigars. As long as you take one cigar out of the box, the Cubans don’t care, ‘cause then they know you’re not going to sell them. ‘Cause that’s the concern, it’s that these seconds would get sold as Cuban cigars, right? It’s a big industry there, so they don’t want to screw around with it. That being said, you can buy cigars all over the place, you know. Some are more expensive than others. None of them are the cigars that you pay, you know, 17 dollars each for here.

Gabriel: And so, when you say all over the place, how do you make contact with the cigar seller?

Jim: Ah, okay. So the lifeguards on the beach. “Hi, how are you doing?”

Susan: They’re the biggest jineteros of all. They’re the guys to change your money as well.

Jim: Yeah, so they are money changers and cigar sellers.

Susan: And waiters with drink trays.

Jim: They’ll run up to a restaurant and get you a margarita and come back to the beach with it.

Gabriel: It sounds like the last thing they have time for is actually watching for somebody drowning on the beach.

Jim: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s a bit, I think it’s a bit dangerous.

Gabriel: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be on that beach. Okay, wow! That’s… so, so far… okay, this is going in so many directions, I can’t even keep track of it. So first, let’s go back to the chronology here. The first trip, 2004, went with the friends.

Jim: Right.

Gabriel: Four weeks, got ill, went back ill. When did you return after that?

Jim: Ah, when was our next trip to Cuba?

Susan: 2009, you and Colin, our nephew, rode to Santiago de Cuba.

Jim: Right from Varadero to Santiago de Cuba. We left Susan in Varadero.

Susan: I stayed at the hotel because our daughter-in-law was dying of cancer, and I was not feeling like going riding. So, anyway, our nephew decided to go with Jim on this adventure to Santiago.

Jim: Right, and so that was lots of fun, because he was, I don’t know, eighteen or nineteen?

Susan: Yeah, yeah.

Jim: Something like that, and you know, and a very handsome young man, a hockey player, very strong. He’s good rider. And we took off, and same thing. We had the Lonely Planet guide. They have these campismos, it’s like a campground for Cubans. Theoretically, it’s only for Cubans, and they’ve got these little concrete bungalows. But, you know, for 20 bucks, you can obviously slide in there, so we stayed there. A couple of different hotels. What was interesting was that, as we went east, I said that the people are more poor. There was more prostitution.

Gabriel: Can you give an example?

Jim: Well, to give you an example, we stopped at this hotel for lunch, and we wanted to just sit on the porch, and I think we had cheese sandwiches or something, that’s sort of all they had, and a beer. And all of a sudden, four girls come to the table and sit down with us, and then this guy shows up and tossed a condom to Colin, and said, “Oh, you’re gonna need this.” I thought Colin was gonna hit him, and I really didn’t want to get, like, into some kind of charges with, like, all of that stuff, right, in Cuba. So I just said, “Look, that’s not what we’re here for. See you later. Like, take your girls and go,” right? But that was not unusual, and we would see in that part of Cuba, quite often, at the hotels, elderly men with young Cuban girls, staying at the hotel, right? So sexual tourism, which you don’t see in Varadero. I’m sure it goes on, but it’s not obvious. But as we went farther east, it became more obvious. I was approached several times by young girls, out of the blue, who didn’t speak English, and were just like, “Fucky fucky?” It was really tragic. But, other than that, it was a good ride. We went all the way to Santiago, and then and then along the south coast. And they’d had a hurricane, so there’s lots of damage, so parts of the road were not usable, but they were usable for bikes. Like, one bridge was out, but we just walked our bikes across a very shallow river. We were able to ride in an area where there was no cars at all, ‘cause the cars couldn’t use the road, and there was a couple of hotels, and they couldn’t have guests. We would be the only people in the hotel. And then we were able to swing north and head back up into Varadero.

Gabriel: What were your options if at some point you decided you didn’t want to ride anymore?

Jim: If you didn’t want to ride, you could just stand by side of the road with a dollar bill and wait for a truck – you know, like a gravel truck – to come by, and you just wave the dollar bill. He’d stop, and you’d hop in the back of the truck and they’d hand up your bikes and you could get a ride as far as you wanted. They knew where the police were, so that wasn’t a problem. I imagine you could still do that, actually, because in the absence of taxis, you see lots of trucks going by with lots of people in the back. The first time that we went to Cuba, they had police at the corners in Havana, and if a car came by with only one guy they would stop him, and they had people just standing there waiting as if it was a bus stop, and they would fill the car with people, and he would continue on his way. We rented a car once, only once, never do that again. Yeah, I should just mention that. People rent cars. It’s not a good idea, because they have Napoleonic law. And so, if you get into an accident, they take your passport.

Gabriel: Oh, okay.

Jim: So, way better to get a car and driver, way better. Same price.

Susan: Yeah. Get somebody else to drive you, ‘cause you’re guilty until proven innocent.

Jim: Yeah, the opposite to here. People can get in just serious difficulties. You can’t leave. They’ve got your passport until it gets resolved, and the courts aren’t in a hurry.

Gabriel: What about taxis?

Jim: Like Susan said, some of them are really well kept, and some of them are just haywired. We traveled in a taxi, where the back door had, like, a little bolt, like you would have on a bathroom door. That’s what was holding the door closed.

Gabriel: Sounds sketchy, alright.

Jim: This one guy we drove…

Susan: All the way from Viñales to Havana, he had no brakes.

Jim: He had one brake. We think he had one brake.

Susan: One brake, on the front. The whole ride he was, you know, making sure that he wasn’t gonna have to stop, but he did have to stop.

Jim: And we went right, like, across the road, like, it just pulled the car sideways into the other lane when he had the brake. That’s why, like, I would never rent a scooter. Like, they’ve got scooters for rent in Varadero, but you see lots of tourists with casts on their arms.

Susan: Yeah.

Jim: And it turned out that the accelerator stuck or the brakes didn’t work.

Gabriel: What about bicycles? How many other cyclists did you see?

Jim: Well, you see, lots and lots of Cubans on bikes, for sure. And now lots and lots of electric bikes, especially in Varadero.

Susan: This is the first time, yeah, we’ve seen lots of electric bikes.

Jim: Yeah, lots of people on electric bikes in Varadero.

Susan: And there are some tour groups doing tours of Cuba.

Jim: Right.

Susan: And that’s what we would recommend at this time, right now in Cuba. We would recommend people do a tour, because they would know where they can get water. Even we had trouble getting water. Water, accommodation, food, it’s a real problem right now.

Jim: But the tour guides obviously have that all handled. We rode with a tour once. The Lonely Planet was not clear, and it was a complicated series of roads, and we thought we’d get lost. And so we saw a tour bus, and what they do is, part of the bus has got the bikes and part of the bus has got the people, and we just slipped a few bucks to the driver, and he took us, and like he would stop from time to time and cyclists would ride by, and we’d all get out and wave at them.

Susan: We were the only people riding in the bus, we were really tired, and we just thought we’d ride that day. It was great.

Jim: It was great.

Gabriel: This was your sag wagon. You had a personal sag wagon.

Jim: Yeah, we’ve done that a couple of times. Once, the people were really upset. As far as they were concerned, it was their bus, right? And we’re riding for free.

Gabriel: Oh, you mean the cyclists who had paid for the tour were upset.

Susan: They weren’t cyclists.

Jim: Oh no. That was a hiking…

Susan: It was a tour up a mountain out in Trinidad.

Jim: Right. We wanted to go up this mountain, this very famous mountain. We were staying in a casa particular and the landlady phoned around, and the tour bus stopped in front of the casa and picked us up, right? And 20 bucks to the driver, and away we went. And the other people in the van were, like, really upset.

Gabriel: Where were these people from?

Susan: France. Yeah, they were French, and they were really upset.

Gabriel: You know, I don’t think those hikers should have been upset. I mean, nobody had to give up their place. The driver didn’t tell two of the French hikers, “Okay, now you stay behind. We have these Canadians who are going with us.” Everybody got to go.

Jim: That’s right. We’ve done the other thing, in the airport. When you first get there, like your bikes are, as you know, you have to turn the handlebar sideways and do all that stuff. So, we didn’t want to fix all that stuff in the airport. So we went over and talked to one of the bus drivers. They stop at all of the hotels. And we said, “Look, can you just give us a ride into Varadero?” And, you know, slipped him 20 bucks, and he said, “Sure,” and put the bikes underneath. We go, and there’s these two people standing, looking for their bus. 

Susan: We were in their seats.

Gabriel: Okay, so you did rob some people of their seats, after all.

Jim: We didn’t know we were robbing people until we went to take off, and these two poor people had been standing there, and the bus driver says, “No, no, there’s another bus coming.”

Gabriel: “There’s another one coming!” Yes, I’ve heard that before.

Jim: Yeah.

Gabriel: Oh, that’s good. Okay, so that’s 2009. And then what’s the next one?

Susan: 2011, we went to Holguín.

Jim: Ah, right.

Susan: Which is in the east, so we rode from Holguín west back towards Matanzas. We always wind up in Matanzas, because that was where we first met our guide on that very first trip. And then you get to know people, and then you come back every year and you bring them presents and things, so Matanzas has been a hub for us for many years.

Gabriel: In 2011, that was just the two of you?

Susan: Yeah.

Jim: All of our rides then were just the two of us.

Gabriel: You couldn’t convince your friends to come back, ever again?

Jim: Ever again.

Susan: No.

Jim: No. It’s wonderful to ride east to west because of the Tradewinds, and so you have this wind at your back. It makes it wonderful if you’re riding, like, ‘cause they’re consistent. I mean, they’re the Tradewinds, right?

Susan: And you could be rolling along at 40 kilometers an hour, and you’re not even pedaling. That is wonderful.

Gabriel: Okay, it’s good to know that it’s from east to west and not the other way around.

Jim: No. Catch a cab, catch a bus, do whatever you have to do. Don’t ride into the wind. ‘Cause Cuba, it’s quite flat. You tend to ride all day long on the flat, either on the carretera or a side road. The side roads are quite interesting. There’s oxen and ox carts and that sort of thing, you know, and so you get to see some different stuff. And then, at the end of the day, you always have to go uphill to the town.

Gabriel: Oh!

Jim: And you get into the town and then sit in the plaza and, you know, get yourself a casa. Yeah.

Gabriel: Oh, that’s surprising. In my mind, I always pictured that the towns would be on the coast, maybe around a harbor or something. That often happens on islands, but not here, you say.

Jim: No, and you gotta remember that, like, at one time sugar cane was the number one crop, right? So these towns were formed around sugar plantations. Probably everybody knows this, but the Americans as part of their embargo against Cuba, heavily subsidized Florida sugar growers and drove down the price of sugar as part of their plan to damage the Cuban economy. You know, the unintended consequence is American obesity because of sugar, because sugar is so cheap now, right? But I guess they didn’t think it all the way through. So a lot of these places like, the amount of sugar that’s produced in Cuba now is less than a tenth of what it was. I think they probably import sugar now. Yeah, but so these towns, you know, they might have grown up around a sugar plantation, right?

Gabriel: That’s really interesting.

Jim: We should mention, you can’t camp in Cuba. People would freak about you putting up a tent in their yard. It would make them very nervous, like it’s just not allowed. They don’t know that it’s not allowed, but it probably isn’t allowed. The military has a very big presence. They’re big in the economy, and they’re big generally, right? So they’re big landowners. So you can be riding along on your bike and unbeknownst to you for the last five K, that’s all been military land. And all that means is, it’s no trespassing. It might have been a sugar plantation, and now it’s not, so there’s old sugar cane, and then it’s just gone to rack and ruin, but the military owns it.

Gabriel: Right.

Jim: You can’t camp there. You’re not allowed to trespass. So that’s actually a systemic problem in Cuba is how deeply entrenched the military is in the economy. So, like, the hotels in Varadero that are joint ventures with France or Spain or different countries, the Cuban partner is the military.

Gabriel: Interesting. We’ve talked a lot about Varadero, but what about the capital, Havana? The classic pictures you see of Havana are these old, colorful colonial-style buildings and these 1950s or 1960s vintage cars that seem to be kept going somehow.

Jim: A visit to Havana is a visit to old architecture, ‘cause they don’t really have a beach. If you go into Havana, there’s a problem, because it’s a tunnel access to Havana, so if you’re going from Varadero west, and you have to go past Havana, unless you take this huge detour around Havana, you have to go through a tunnel, and there’s no bikes allowed in the tunnel. They have a bike bus that parks in a park outside of Havana, and it’s got a ramp up and you just roll up, and you just stand on the bus with your bike, and you get through the tunnel that way. Or you can take a boat. There’s a little ferry that goes across, but the problem with that is, it was hijacked by some people that wanted to go to Florida once, and so they treat it like getting onto an…

Susan: An airplane.

Jim: An airplane.

Susan: High security.

Gabriel: Oh, I see.

Susan: They took our rum, and they missed your knife.

Jim: Yeah. We were camping, right?  So I had a diving knife, which would have been absolutely illegal to take on this.

Gabriel: But I thought you couldn’t camp in Cuba.

Jim: No, but, like, we were prepared for any eventuality. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. But they didn’t spot it. It was in my bag on the back of the bike. They went through everything, but they just missed it. Had they found it, we would have done this big detour. We wouldn’t have been allowed on the boat. Yeah, I made it with the knife, but they got the rum.

Gabriel: They got the rum. But rum? Why would you not be able to take rum?

Jim: Ah, ‘cause they said you could smash the bottle and use the broken glass as a weapon.

Susan: Well, they just wanted to keep the rum.

Gabriel: I mean, if you’re going to say that, anything can be a weapon at that point.

Jim: We said that we would pour it out on the ground for them, and they said, “No, no. That’s not necessary.”

Gabriel: “No, no, no. Don’t pour it out!”

Jim: Yeah, exactly. So we’ve done both the ferry and we’ve done the bus bike on different trips. So that gets you into Havana, and then you can continue on your way to the west. The city of Havana is in Havana province, the city of Matanzas is in Matanzas province, so there’s different provinces, and there’s those kinds of setups at each provincial border, where they’ll stop cars and look into trunks and check papers, and do all of that as well.

Gabriel: Right.

Jim: It’s to stop movement of goods, because they know about the black market. But on bicycles they don’t bother you. You can just ride right through, give them a wave, they’re happy to see you. It’s not a problem.

Gabriel: Regarding the black market, I wanted to delve a little bit more into that. So far, we’ve talked about illegal accommodations, illegal cigars, illegal beer, prostitution, which is illegal. What else?

Jim: So if you go to an all-inclusive, you know, they have smorgasbords, and so it’s very difficult for the management to tell how much food is actually being eaten, and so that’s a perfect scenario where that food can go into a bag, and go off-site, right? And so, like, it’s possible, for instance, to be eating Scottish smoked salmon in a casa particular.

Susan: Or we are walking down the street in Matanzas and some guy shuffles up to you, and he opens this shopping bag and you look inside, and it’s this great, outrageous sausage from Europe. You know, the real heavy duty, and it’s like a foot long and thick, you know. “Do you wanna buy it?” It’s like, “Well, how much?” “Five dollars.”

Jim: Right.

Susan: It’s like, “Yeah, we’ll buy it.”

Jim: And then you just take it back to your casa and share it with everyone.

Susan: And cut it up.

Jim: And cut it up and give it to everybody.

Susan: And give it to the neighbors. But the people are just walking down the streets with this food.

Jim: If they get caught, of course, they get fired.

Susan: They get sent to jail.

Gabriel: What about fishing in Cuba? I assume that’s also controlled?

Jim: Oh, not just controlled. There’s a couple of issues going on. One, you can’t own a boat, ’cause you’re gonna go to Florida, right? So that’s one thing. It’s… only certain people are allowed to have boats.

Gabriel: So how can you fish?

Jim: Well, you can’t. So they have what they call neumáticos in Havana, and these are guys that fish at night on inner tubes. So they go out on an inner tube at night and jig for fish, right? And they’ve got a net. Hopefully, they don’t get eaten by a shark. We saw these two guys off of Matanzas in a 4 foot by 6 foot chunk of Styrofoam that they’re both sitting on and paddling out to go fishing. And they’re not allowed to sell the fish, because that’s illegal.

Susan: But they do.

Jim: But they do, of course.

Susan: Black market.

Jim: Right. So they sell them on the black market. So you can tell your casa particular person, “Jeez, I really like fish.”

Gabriel: It sounds like the typical owner of a casa is basically willing to fence anything.

Jim: Yes.

Susan: Yes.

Gabriel: If you say, “Gosh, I wish I could smoke a cigar tonight.” Then, boom! There’s a cigar. Or, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great with some lobster?” Bam! There’s lobster.

Jim: Yeah.

Gabriel: What a system.

Jim: Yeah, we met a guy on this last trip who spends six months of the year in Cuba and six months of the year in Montreal. He is a Canadian. And he had absolute understanding of the whole system. He had a wine cellar in his casa. He knew where you could get lobster wholesale.

Susan: He knew where you could get everything.

Jim: Obviously, the casa owners are all connected to each other. People would ride down the alleyway beside the casa just yelling out, “Pollo, pollo.” Okay. And you could just wave them down and they would have chicken. Who knows where it came from?

Susan: So the casa owner said, “You guys want chicken?” We said, “Yeah, okay, how much?” “Five bucks,” or something. And we’ve got this big block of five pounds of chicken breasts, frozen, like a big block. “You want cheese?” Got this giant…

Susan: Yeah.

Jim: One kilo of gouda.

Susan: A beautiful gouda.

Gabriel: Okay, did this come from the all-inclusive, that somebody had taken?

Jim: But I think everybody in Cuba has to have some kind of a thing going on, because if you don’t…

Susan: We think they did. I don’t know. It came from a guy on the street, selling to our landlady.

Gabriel: Amazing!

Jim: But I think everybody in Cuba has to have some kind of a thing going on, because if you don’t…

Susan: They haven’t got enough money to live.

Jim: Yeah, they’re onto rice and beans. And that’s it, you know.

Gabriel: It’s almost out of necessity.

Jim: That’s what’s happened, you know. The system has created it.

Gabriel: You were just in Cuba again at the end of 2023, not on your bikes, and you noticed that, sadly, conditions continue to deteriorate. Did you go just to see your old friends?

Jim: Primarily to see our friends. I also wanted to speak Spanish. We didn’t stay at an all-inclusive. We stayed at, not a casa particular. An apartment, actually.

Susan:  It was through Airbnb, which is fairly recent. Now you can go through Airbnb and rent places. And so that’s a really good way to do it.

Jim: Because in the past, that would be illegal in Cuba. You couldn’t stay in the house without the people there.

Gabriel: Right.

Jim: And in a casa particular, the people had to be in the house with you. And so the Airbnb concept is new, and it’s different regulations, right? So we were able to stay in this apartment for a month.

Susan: I love the beach. Varadero is just a spectacular… miles and miles and miles of white sand and turquoise water. It is beautiful, beautiful beach, that’s what I love.

Jim: Susan did lots of swimming. We walked all over Varadero every day. You have these stores that you need a credit card to shop at. Ordinary Cubans, they have to get remittances from outside Cuba, which they can then put in American dollars onto this credit card, which they can use then in these shops. So if you’re a Cuban that doesn’t have American money or Canadian money to put onto this credit card, then you can’t shop in these stores. The Cuban Government says that these stores are for luxuries, and that’s why they do it. But in actual fact…

Susan: Luxuries like cooking oil, spaghetti sauce, cheese. Oh, terrible! But we could buy anything, but we had use our credit card. If you’re going to Cuba, take US dollars or Canadian dollars or Euros, and then trade them when you get there for Cuban pesos. They used to have a system where they had two kinds of Cuban pesos, those for the regular Cubans, and then the tourist dollars. And then they, just a couple of years ago, canceled…

Jim: Canceled all that. Look, it used to be 25 pesos to a dollar.

Susan: Cuban pesos.

Jim: Cuban pesos to the dollar. CUPs, they called them.

Susan: Then we went in 2022, I think, and we could get 50 Cuban pesos for a Canadian dollar. And then this time we could get 160 Cuban pesos for a Canadian dollar, and the inflation right now is completely bizarre. It’s going through the roof.

Jim: 30 percent, it’s at 30 percent.

Gabriel: That’s unsustainable.

Jim: The problem is that, if you want to catch a plane to Nicaragua and have a coyote take you to the United States, you have to pay for that in dollars. Your pesos are useless outside of Cuba, so there’s a tremendous demand for dollars, and so the price of dollars goes up.

Gabriel: I have read that there are only a few select countries that allow Cuban citizens to enter without a visa, due to the high risk of them not returning,

Jim: Right.

Gabriel: And one of those is the one you mentioned: Nicaragua. Cubans fly to Nicaragua, and then try to get to the United States.

Jim: That’s right. They arrange before they go to Nicaragua with a coyote that they’re going to arrive in Nicaragua. They get picked up and then transported up into Mexico and sometimes they’re left in Mexico to make their own way, other times they’re taken, you know, very close to the border and then dropped off.

Gabriel: Okay.

Jim: The American Government has tried to put actions against the airlines, actually, for transporting these people, ’cause obviously they can’t do anything about the fact that Nicaragua doesn’t require a visa. But what you need is a visa and a plane, right? Although there are still many people on rafts and boats and that sort of thing. And when we were there – oh, I can’t remember now, but before 2020 – there were cigarette boats that were charging, you know, like a thousand dollars to take you across to Florida.

Gabriel: Wow.

Jim: We knew about that only because we’re going to a beach, and we got stopped by border guards, because we had a Cuban guy with us, and they wanted to see his papers, to make sure that he wasn’t one of these guys who was trying to flee the country on these cigarette boats.

Gabriel: Okay. And I guess you said “action against the airlines” because they’ve decided they can just raise the price and earn a lot of money?

Jim: You bet, that’s exactly what’s happening. The price of traveling to Nicaragua keeps going up and going up. It’s a very short flight, right?

Gabriel: The other countries that you can enter without a visa are, I think, Russia and Serbia. There, the ticket prices might not be so high.

Jim: The reason that Cubans go to Serbia: There are jobs for them in Serbia.

Gabriel: Oh.

Jim: We met this young guy, he just graduated, and so he’s working, you know, somewhere in Cuba, but he has an opportunity to travel to Serbia and work for a Serbian company that has Cuban people there so that he doesn’t have to learn Serbian. So he can do his computer stuff in Spanish, I guess.

Gabriel: A Cuban person speaking Serbian would just be some kind of cognitive dissonance, I think, but I’m sure there’s someone who does.

Jim: That’s right. Of course, ’cause every young Cuban wants to leave Cuba right now. That’s their only goal. There’s no work, and if you get work…

Susan: And there’s no opportunity.

Jim: Their wages haven’t gone up, but the peso is worth less and less and less. It’s not worthwhile working, so the people that you talk to, if they are of traveling age, they want to leave Cuba, you know, and if they have to leave their family behind, it’s okay, because they can send remittances. If you can send a Cuban family 100 dollars a month, they’re doing fine.

Gabriel: Right. But then you’re back to a situation where you almost have two currencies again, in a way, isn’t it?

Jim: Yes.

Gabriel: Don’t you have the official exchange rate, and then you have the, sort of, street exchange rate?

Jim: Yes, absolutely. We didn’t exchange ours on the street. We could have. We just got our landlady to change them for us, and that’s why we got the rate that we got, which probably wasn’t the highest rate, because, you know, she was making some money, but really we didn’t care. So, to give you an example of why this is weird. If you’re a tourist, always pay in pesos, because the prices are always lower in pesos. So we took these friends of ours, Cubans, to a restaurant for lunch. Looked like a nice restaurant. We sit down. They hand us these menus, and like a hamburger is 19 dollars.

Susan: U.S.

Jim: And so our Cuban friends were like, “What’s going on?” They said, “If you have one person in your group is not Cuban, you get the tourist menu.”

Gabriel: Oh!

Susan: But if we went to any other restaurants, most of the other restaurants we paid in Cuban pesos. A hamburger would be four dollars, or at a kiosk near our place, two dollars.

Gabriel: The equivalent in pesos, yeah.

Susan: But you could pay in the Cuban pesos.

Jim: The reason that they can do it is that if you’re staying at an all-inclusive in Varadero, and you go for a walk, and you decide to go for lunch, you’re at an all-inclusive. You have no idea how much things cost, so they can say, “Oh, a beer is seven dollars.”

Gabriel:  Yeah. And you say, “Well, that’s not that different from home.”

Susan: Right.

Jim: Whereas, if you’re paying in Cuban pesos, it’s 80 cents.

Susan: Yeah, it’s Cuba!

Jim: What we say is, “Money talks, but in Cuba it sings like Pavarotti.”

Gabriel: I promised incredible stories, and I hope you will agree that Jim and Susan definitely delivered. Special thanks to MokkaMusic for the Cuban vibes. This episode is dedicated to my oldest son, whose name is Santiago.

Gabriel: The transcript for this episode is available on the Accidental Bicycle Tourist website. I welcome feedback and suggestions for this and other episodes. You’ll find a link to all contact information in the show notes.  If you would like to rate or review the show, you can do that on your favorite podcast platform. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram. Thank you to Anna Lindenmeier for the cover artwork and to Timothy Shortell for the original music. This podcast would not be possible without continuous support from my wife Sandra. And thank you so much for listening. I hope the episode will inspire you to get out and see where the road leads you.   

Jim: And they were riding to Santiago de Cuba.

Susan: From…

Jim: From Germany.

Gabriel: Wait… you mean to Santiago de Compostela.

Jim: Sorry, yeah.  

Gabriel: Too many Santiagos!