National Graphic photojournalist Christopher Baker continues his chase of Che through Cuba. Three months, 7,008 miles… Part II.
motorcycle through cuba
Christopher P. Baker and BMW in Vinales, Cuba; copyright Christopher P Baker.

It took me an entire month to motorcycle a figure eight of Western Cuba, counterclockwise through Pinar del Río province, then east via the Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos, the Sierra Escambray, and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Trinidad. I then circled back to Havana (to renew my thirty-day visa and motorcycle Cuba permits) via Sancti Spíritus and the towns beading the Carretera Central.

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

After 3,600 miles, the ride had attained its own modus vivendi, the intensity of motorcycling through an as-yet-untouristed Cuba heightened by the thrill of discovery and the arousal of unknown dangers. Six hours east of Havana, as I passed into Sancti Spíritus province, the freeway came to an abrupt end without warning. One moment I was hauling along the Autopista. The next instant I was hanging on grimly as my front end slewed through concrete rubble. I threaded my way to the Carretera Central. One lane in either direction, Cuba’s main highway runs along the nation’s spine for 750 miles from one end of the isle to the other.

I picked up my route in Ciego de Ávila province (Cuba’s smallest and narrowest province), smothered in sugarcane fields undulating like a great swelling sea. Come Camaguey, the landscape withered to windswept honey-colored grasslands —cattle and vaquero (cowboy) country— studded with royal palms like columns of petrified light. And what a wind! A veritable furnace blast searing across the plains. I banked against it, shouldering my torso half off the bike like a racer.

To catalog major towns, I’d park in the central plaza and then walk the grid of streets: first one way, then returning parallel along the next, popping into hotels and restaurants and noting sites of interest, until I had walked all the streets (fortunately, the orderly Spanish laid out most towns in a rectilinear pattern). Next came the avenidas, running crosswise, in order. Sweaty, wearying work in the tropical heat.

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Camagüey, however, had been laid out in the 16th century to thwart pirates, or so it is claimed. The illogical puzzlement and confusion of the bending, doubling-back, surreal world of the city’s labyrinth seemed a perfect metaphor for the tangled skein of Cubans’ lives. Here I heard acerbic, even vitriolic, harangues on how Fidel Castro had ruined the country. Cuba’s neck-snapping duality was evident. A few days later, in Bayamo, an old mulata told me: “There’s nothing wrong with our system. It’s only the economy that needs fixing,” parroting a phrase I heard often. “Things wouldn’t be so bad if the capitalists weren’t trying to starve us into submission. Your blockade causes much pain… We don’t want your system. We don’t want to return to our bitter past.”  

motorcycle through cuba
Chris Baker’s BMW in Trinidad, Cuba; copyright Christopher P Baker.

 At the sugar-processing town of Yara, in Granma province, I experienced one of those strange coincidences that strike with a momentous gravity that can be judged only later. My front disc brake failed. A Cuban helped me replace the pads. Then I turned south and ran for the Sierra Maestra via a switchback that, beyond a hamlet called Santo Domingo, became a first-gear assault with hairpins that were angled, I swear, at thirty degrees. Thank God the big-bored Beemer was geared low and pumped out the stump-pulling low-rev torque needed to ascend the seemingly impossible incline. Eventually I spilled onto a tiny plateau —Alto de Naranjo— where the narrow road stopped abruptly at the trailhead to La Plata de la Comandancia, Castro’s former guerrilla headquarters, hidden deep amid the serried slopes of Cuba’s highest mountain, Pico Turquino (6,514 feet).

From the ridge crest the road looked like the world’s longest sky jump. With bends! I took a deep breath as I stared down that hellish hill, then put the bike in first and eased out the clutch. Down I went with the throttle shut, using the engine for drag, my right hand and foot tight on the brakes and my ears popping from the loss in altitude. A shiver ran through me. To have tackled this descent with worn brake pads would have been a certain invitation to meet the Grim Reaper. I had been saved by a fortuitous fluke in Yara.  

I rode mile after mile without seeing a soul or a sign of habitation. Just the goats. And the vultures swirling ominously overhead.

My map showed the coastal route along the southern edge of the Sierra Maestra as a dirt track for a distance of almost one hundred miles. The enduro course began east of Marea del Portillo, a pocket-sized resort complex cusping a coffee-brown beach beneath forest-clad mountains escalating to cloud-draped crescendos.

motorcycle through cuba
Road to Alto de Naranjo in the Sierra Maestra, Cuba; copyright Christopher P Baker.

I’d augered down through a narrow ravine that spilled me onto the coastal plain at the very southwest tip of Cuba. Sugarcane fields were being burned for the zafra (harvest), and smoke-smudged fieldhands —macheteros— were slashing at the charred stalks with blunt-nosed machetes. Hot, dirty work under a blazing sun. Black smoke eddied up in twirling tornadoes from the Central Pilar sugarcane mill, tainting the idyll with the sickly-sweet stench of molasses. East of Marea the landscape changed abruptly. I ran at the edge of wild windswept beaches. Goats munched a parched stony landscape studded with cactus and thorny scrub. I hadn’t imagined desert in Cuba. Yet almost the entire 200-mile littoral facing south toward Jamaica and Haiti is fringed by arid sunbaked semi-desert.

Copper-colored cliffs and Cuba’s highest mountains loomed massively out of the teal-blue Caribbean. The blacktop soon petered down to a coastal trail clawing over great headlands before cascading steeply to the next valley. I gave the BMW some gas to power up a steep grade, then backed off the gas near the top to keep the rear tire from spinning loose on the jarring piste of loose rocky scree. As I crested the ridge, my jaw dropped. A five-decades-old Chrysler New Yorker was chugging uphill in the other direction, impervious to the mountain terrain.

Dirt road east of Marea del Portillo, Cuba; copyright Christopher P Baker.

I rode mile after mile without seeing a soul or a sign of habitation. Just the goats. And the vultures swirling ominously overhead. Eventually I picked up the concrete hardtop at the hamlet of Chivírico. On the long straight, I opened the throttle wide and savored a sensuous intertwining of glorious harmonics and warm perfumed air as I ran for Santiago de Cuba.

Billboard in Guantanamo, Cuba; copyright Christopher P Baker.

Hilly Santiago de Cuba had a beguilingly enigmatic appeal wholly unique to the island. I thought it more “Caribbean” than other cities. More African. The faces were mostly Black, and the people seemed more infused with a tropical lassitude. During the course of three centuries, Santiago’s relative isolation from Havana and its proximity to Jamaica and Saint-Domingue (Haiti) had fostered close links with both islands, and thousands of English- and French-speaking Caribbean immigrants had arrived to work the nearby sugarcane fields, establish coffee plantations, and stitch their customs into the cultural quilt of the city. Even the traditional clapboard houses hinted at a Caribbean potpourri, as did the lilting tongue of the Santigueros and their exciting music and dance.

I liked its exoticism.

Guantánamo, only 90 minutes further east, was—is—even more overwhelmingly “Black.” It’s also an army town, notwithstanding its lovely colonial core. I passed a platoon of women in full battle gear marching quick-time down Avenida 5 del Prado. They were toting AK-47s and looked deadly serious but broke into smiles as I cut the motor and watched them file by, reminding me of something my friend Tom Miller had written: “They all wore earrings, flowers in their hair, and wide smiles. Cuba has a lovely army.”

It was hard to keep my mind on the road as I roared up La Farola, the highway snaking sharply up and over the Sierra de Puriscal, extending like a dragon’s spine to the easternmost tip of Cuba. It struck me as a marvelous piece of engineering, with bridges cantilevered magically upon the mountainside. Ascending into pine forest, the noise of the bike seemed like an invasion of the mountain serenity. So I pulled over, cut the engine and savored the sound of the wind in the pines. I put my feet up on the handlebars, leaned back into my luggage, and fell asleep beneath the warm caress of the afternoon sun.

On the far side, I descended to Baracoa through Cuba’s only rainforest (this is the island’s rainy corner, receiving the moisture-laden trade-winds head on). Founded in 1514, Cuba’s oldest city competes with Viñales for most enchanting setting fit for a Hollywood epic. It spread-eagles below a dramatic flat-topped formation —El Yunque (the anvil)— that floats above the wild, rugged mountains forming a great amphitheater encircling the Bahía de Miel (Bay of Honey). Remote and cut off by the rugged mountains, for four centuries Baracoa struggled along on smuggling and a meager coconut, coffee, and cocoa trade. It looks and feels antique, with its little fortresses and streets lined with rickety wooden edifices humbled with age. Best of all, it’s the only place in Cuba acclaimed for a distinct regional cuisine, with chocolate and coconut as staples; and for a visible legacy of Taíno indigenous genes passed down through the centuries.

Chris Baker’s BMW with Sierra Escambray behind; copyright Christopher P Baker.

After researching the town, I aimed east for the tip of the island. But the bridge over the Río Yumurí had collapsed, so I forged a backcountry route through the mountains. I’d spent the last six weeks perfecting my riding technique over terrain that would have challenged a goat. But this was a whole new level! The bike took the trails like an Ibex. Eventually, I looked down upon a vast coastal plain spread out like a Spanish fan.

The light was already fading as I descended a denuded and muddy track that fizzled out beside a lonesome lighthouse at Punta de Maisí, at the easternmost tip of Cuba. I watched the sunset forty minutes before it occurred in Havana.

(Don’t miss Part 1: 7,008 Miles on a Motorcycle Through Cuba.)

BMW and Punta Maisi lighthouse, 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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