Even though Cuba is almost first world, equipment choice for Billy Stelling’s bikepacking trip needed to err on the side of wile, just in case.
My choice of bicycle and equipment was quite personal, but there are many to choose from, even here in South Africa, with a variety of prices, colours, sizes, shapes, uses, and sources. I opted for a titanium hardtail from Dutch boutique brand J.Guillem, with rigid carbon forks, carbon enduro rims and a 1×10 drivetrain. I chose titanium as it is light and strong, but it can be expensive, so steel is probably the best all-round material for a bike. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend carbon for extended travelling.
Sleep and shelter are important, so I used Naturehike Cloud Up2 tent. I tried to find a two-man tent which
was both lightweight (at just 1.5kg, this one more than qualified) and not too costly. I actually broke a tent pole when I was in Cuba and just through a general enquiry about whether or not I could get replacements
anywhere, the guys at Naturehike replaced it free of charge. They have great service and are online, and
deliver to your door.
Carrying stuff sensibly, and keeping it dry, is also key. I got 7 Rivers in Ukraine to make me custom bikepacking bags: a saddle bag, a gas tank and two feed bags. I found them on Instagram and they shipped it all to Spain for me. An awesome company and their bags are high quality. I also had a boltless bike-rack from Thule and two medium panniers, which can work on all bikes, front or rear.
I had been following the Camino Del Cid through Spain for a month prior to heading to Cuba, so I had a
cardboard bike box as opposed to a bike bag, which I normally travel with. I think I took about seven flights in total returning home, via Mexico and Miami, then Qatar. The total cost was in excess of R8 000 just on
bike carrying fees, so check up the carrier you choose prior to booking, to view their bicycle-carry fees, and
the sizes and weights allowed.
Navigation in a foreign country is always a challenge. I like to have some different routes downloaded onto
a device like a Garmin and make sure I have sufficient charging capacity for long days. You can upload from
various websites like Bikemap.net or RidewithGPS. I also had maps on my cell phone, but that got trashed
in a rain deluge, so I was basically left following my nose, mostly. To completely disagree with my previous piece of advice, this ended up being the actual highlight of my whole trip, although it did take a change in mind-set. But having said that, people who venture to do this sort of thing are already halfway there.
After I had spent three days seeing Havana, the morning I was due to depart, I was still unsure whether
I was travelling east or west. It was literally a case of ching-chong-cha with myself to decide. I eventually
headed east, following some unknown person’s random route I had downloaded. It was disorganised and chaotic, but it almost felt that that was how Cuba should be. I just kind of winged it, and I understand it is probably not the way to do a bikepacking trip anywhere, least of all in a country with fairly strict tourist rules, particularly unsympathetic to bikepackers with tents, and where the language is like hieroglyphics. I continued, anyway.
My journey was soulful and remote, mostly. It’s a strange existence; surrounded by people in places, but
never being able to have a conversation, unless out of necessity to procure provisions or get directions. These are always accompanied by some variation of charades to get the point across. My basic greeting of ‘Hola’ was all the Spanish I spoke. In the main, the Cuban people were amazing humans. Impoverished beyond words, but warm and hospitable with little or no ego and no Jones’ to attempt to compete with. I loved seeing that, it made me wish that more of the world I existed in was similarly inclined.
I left Havana, heading east into a land that time has forgotten; scary, yet a delight in so many ways. I explored and followed my nose. Fortunately, I have never been lost due to a keen sense of direction, but
nonetheless, that can be relatively daunting in itself. If I look back on the entire journey in Cuba, I was woefully under-prepared. That made the travelling somewhat stressful to start. Not knowing is always something that does change fast, it has to. I had no idea where I was staying, and as I rode I realised that the camping areas were only for Cuban nationals. Unless it is free camping, like on a beach, there really is no provision for it yet. There are lots of places to stay, on average a room in a house is $25 a night, but generally in towns, and not off the beaten track. I truly was on an adventure of discovery.
I have a general rule, that the harder something is, the more vivid it remains for a longer time. I can do hard. I have never been intimidated by putting myself out there and hurting, suffering or roughing it. I actually welcome it, but more so after it has passed than during the event. Cuba was this on steroids. The memories are clear and concise, like sharing a bottle of rum, one rainy afternoon, huddled in a broken-down storage room with four strange Cubans, who collectively had as many teeth as I did … and I’m missing some.
In two months, I never felt in harm’s way. I was even taken to hospital and put on a drip for an hour after being violently ill all night after eating something dodgy. I wasn’t even charged, the doctor who found me
slumped in a park, took care of everything, found me a guesthouse, where I slept for 18 hours and then the
following day proceeded to ride 80 kilometres to the next town. That was how Cuba was for me. I camped on a beach for a week, where the showers and toilets were the worst I had ever seen. I swam daily to keep myself washed. My tent was pitched under a large tree, I had wine and a restaurant nearby, so was as happy as could be. Those experiences will be with me, clearly, until I depart this planet.
This is the nature of a good bikepacking trip. The Hamster Wheel has left the building.