Christopher Baker is a National Geographic photojournalist who has logged over 200 visits to Cuba, and 7,008 miles. On a motorcycle.
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The author’s BMW motorcycle on a private boat from Key West to Havana, Cuba; Copyright Christopher P Baker.

In January 1994, I was hired to write my first guidebook on Cuba. Given three years to complete the project, I immediately became excited about also writing a narrative of my experiences researching the island. Two travelogues on Cuba had recently been published. In each, the authors had traveled by car. I needed something different, something sexy! I liked the panache of exploring Cuba by moto so I took a Cuba motorcycle trip.

My Cuba motorcycle trip would take me places a car couldn’t reach. It would turn my travels into adventure. The more enthused I became, the more I fancied myself as a latter-day Che Guevara, whose own motorcycle journey through South America in 1952 would have been the adventure of a lifetime had he not met Fidel and veered off on an even more fantastic exploit.

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The author’s BMW Motorcycle Cuban license plate; Copyright-Christopher P Baker

As a full-time professional journalist I could travel to Cuba legally without requesting official permission. The motorcycle? Well, that was another matter… Regardless, in October 1995 I bought a used 1,000cc BMW R100GS Paris-Dakar and, in February 1996, after multiple visits to Havana, I shipped it to Cuba and logged 7,008 miles during three months exploring the isle end to end.

As a full-time professional journalist I could travel to Cuba legally without requesting official permission. The bike? Well, that was another matter…

It was a fascinating time to be there. Cuba was just beginning to recover from the worst traumas of the “Special Period” — the draconian conditions imposed when the Cuban economy imploded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Plus, Cuban MiGs had just shot down two U.S. civilian planes operated by a Cuban-American organization —Brothers to the Rescue— over the Straits of Florida. Washington was at the boiling point, and the understandably edgy Cubans had heightened internal security. In the context, my journey added darkly opaque layers to Cuba’s enigmatic complexity. But Cuba also surprised me for its magnificent kaleidoscopic gyrations. 

Ironically, I started out with the most spectacular scenery in all of Cuba. Only two days after leaving Havana I found myself twisting up into the Cordillera de Guaniguanico of Pinar del Río. Valle de Viñales took my breath away. Massive mogotes —jungle-clad, sheer-faced, freestanding limestone formations— soared over great canyons called hoyos. Cuba’s prime tobacco country! Rust-red soils were being tilled by ox-drawn ploughs. I dismounted and strolled into a vega (tobacco field) where a sun-bronzed guajiro in straw hat and worn army fatigues, machete at his side, stood chest high amid the crop he was harvesting. Alejandro gave me a course in Tobacco 101 then invited me into his home — a simple one-story wooden bohio with glassless windows. The cozy and quintessentially Cuban dwelling was spotlessly clean. There were plastic flowers in a bowl on the table; antimacassars were draped over the sofa. A framed photo of Che Guevara stared down from atop a huge Russian refrigerator in the hallway.

Trying to navigate directly east through the region in those pre-Google Map days was akin to threading a maze.

Mogotes rise above tobacco fields in the Valle de Vinales, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba; copyright Christopher P Baker.

I asked how things were — Had the Special Period been hard on them?

“For us, the people of Viñales, things are good,” Alejandro replied. “We grow all the food we need. And we have our health. The Revolution has been kind to us.” “Why does your government not like us?” his wife Amparo asked. “They are too hard on us Cubans.” As I left, she kissed my cheeks and thrust half a dozen tomatoes into my hand. 

The further west I rode, the fewer Afro-Cubans I saw. Unlike far eastern Cuba, with its predominantly Black population and extensive sugarcane fields, Vuelto Abajo —the epicenter of tobacco production— had no need of a large colonial-era slave population. Nor, too, the relatively infertile western extent of the isle, which narrowed down to a craggy limestone finger —the Península de Guanahacabibes— accessed by a jarring track of sand and coral. (Back then it was a limited access military zone, but I obtained a permit.) After 35 miles of tortuous piste it was a relief to arrive at Cabo San Antonio, the westernmost tip of Cuba pinned by a lighthouse and military camp. I fished out my camera. A soldier rushed up sternly. “NO PHOTOS!” My tongue turned the tables. He ended up snapping a shot of me in front of the faro, beaming proudly alongside mi moto fiel.

Whenever I found a hotel or restaurant, I stopped and checked it out for my guidebook. Few passed muster. My map showed a motel called Las Cuevas on the outskirts of Isabel Rubio. The motel was tucked in a bowl surrounded by cliffs pocked with caves. A young receptionist dressed in clinical whites looked surprised at my approach. One of my favorite memories is of the Monty Pythonesque skit that ensued when, not fully explaining my purpose, I asked if she could show me to a room and that I only needed five minutes of her time. It turned out to be a 24-hour “love motel” operated by the state to provide relief for Cubans seeking a place of coital convenience!

Related Post: A National Geographic Photographer’s Tips for Capturing Cuba

The rivers that wash down from the Cordillera de Guaniguanico slow almost to a standstill and meander across the southern plains of Pinar, losing themselves amid swampy marshlands drained by watery sloughs. Brawny humpbacked cattle grazed knee-deep in the flooded meadows. If there was a road in Cuba, I took it. The road south to the Maspotón hunting and fishing reserve was a scrambler trail with deep-gouged ruts brimming over with a bouillabaisse of blood-red mud. The farmland gave way to lagoons and tan carpets of sedge and copses of stunted woodland that floated like rafts in the water. (Except for the white-sand beaches around Trinidad and Playa Girón, almost the entirety of Cuba’s southern shore is marshland.)

Related Post: Part II: 7,008 Miles on a Motorcycle Through Cuba

I then followed the old Carretera Central east through dusty colonial towns that speckle the relatively prosperous farmland south of Havana. (However, all roads led to the capital, like spokes on a wheel. Trying to navigate directly east through the region in those pre-Google Map days was akin to threading a maze.) The area is the breadbasket of the nation, with fertile soils given to producing tomatoes, avocados, and cabbage. Modest mid-century bungalows splashed with fresh paint stood in counterpoint to Pinar’s rustic bohíos. Most had garages, too, from which ’50s yanqui classic cars poked their curvaceous rear ends.

“If you hit a log, just keep going,” said Don Pedro, smirking gleefully. “It could be a crocodile!”

Eventually I connected to the Autopista Nacional, Cuba’s sole freeway. This concrete eight-laner runs from Pinar to Sancti Spíritus for 350 miles. Flat as a carpenter’s level, and with fuel is short supply, it had only the occasional mule-drawn cart or stray cow to contend with.

At Jagüey Grande I overnighted in a rustic farmstead “hotel” called Bohío Don Pedro. Then I turned south for the Zapata Swamp, a 4,230-square-kilometer morass —the largest wetland ecosystem in the Caribbean— that is also Cuba’s largest wildlife reserve.

“If you hit a log, just keep going,” said Don Pedro, smirking gleefully. “It could be a crocodile!”

Ox-drawn cart crossing Carretera Central; copyright Christopher P Baker.

The road ran south like a plumb line past endless miles of dark-green sawgrass and marshy reeds smothering the shoe-shaped Zapata Peninsula. I arrived at Playa Larga, a small fishing village tucked into the head of the twenty-kilometer-long Bay of Pigs (back then the thought that two decades later it would become a hip independent travelers’ hot-spot was laughable). Here, 1,297 heavily armed, CIA-trained Cuban exiles had come ashore in April 1961 to establish a beachhead and (equally laughable) incite a counterrevolution that would topple the Castro regime.
I had my own invasion to contend with.

Farther south came the crabs. The gravel road was strewn with crustaceans squashed flat by vehicles, like giant M&Ms crushed underfoot. Razor-sharp shards and pincers stuck up like broken bottles. The air stank of fetid crabmeat. Then a large black crab with terrifying red pincers ran across my path. Suddenly I was surrounded by a battalion of armored, surly crustaceans that turned to snap at my tires. I slalomed between them as they rose in the road with menacing claws held high. Then I hit one square on. POOF! It sounded like bubble wrap exploding.

Finally, I arrived at the spot where socialism and capitalism had squared off. Cuban families and Canadian package tourists slathered with suntan oil splashed about in the shallows. I gave one of the Cubans my camera and asked him to snap a shot of me and the bike in front of a huge billboard reading “PLAYA GIRÓN—THE FIRST ROUT OF IMPERIALISM IN LATIN AMERICA.” It was difficult with the sun beating down on the white beach to imagine that blood and bullets had mingled with the sand and the surf here thirty-five years before.  (Don’t miss Cuba by Motorcycle, Part II.)

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Autopista with no traffic, Cuba; copyright Christopher P Baker.

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Christopher P. Baker is hailed by National Geographic as “One of the world’s leading authorities on Cuba travel and culture.” He has won numerous awards, including the Lowell Thomas Award in 2008 for Travel Journalist of the Year. Christopher has made Cuba his professional calling for three decades, and has published seven travel books about Cuba including the Moon Cuba and National Geographic Traveler Cuba guidebooks, his award-winning literary travelog “Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba,” plus his coffee-table book Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles. His stories on Cuba have appeared in scores of publications, from BBC Travel and CNN Travel to National Geographic Traveler and even Penthouse. Chris has led more than 120 tours to Cuba for entities from the Children’s Cancer Foundation to National Geographic Expeditions and Santa Fe Photo Workshops, including on-going photography tours for Jim Cline Photo Tours and Lumaria Workshops. He has motorcycled through Cuba numerous times, and leads custom motorcycle tours for individuals and groups using BMWs and Harley-Davidsons. He promotes his work though his website: Fun fact: Christopher trips over himself in his attempts to dance salsa!

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