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Chasing Che: Motorcycling through Cuba

Chasing Che: Motorcycling through Cuba

By Christopher Baker

Twenty years have passed since I first rode my R100GS to the Bay of Pigs during a three-month-long, 7,000-mile exploration of Cuba as a professional journalist. Eighteen years spent dreaming of leading the first U.S. group motorcycle tours of the island.

Finally… I’m so stoked, I can’t suppress my glee any longer


As the group files in one by one, I direct the participants to park their Beemers and Harleys outside the Bay of Pigs Museum and line up beneath the wings of a British-made Sea Fury that saw action defending Cuba against the CIA-sponsored invasion, in April 1961, by a Cuban-American exile army. Then I ride my F800GS into the midst of the group and have a museum guide shoot a photo for posterity beside a giant billboard that reads: “PLAYA GIRÓN [Cuba’s term for the Bay of Pigs]. THE FIRST ROUT OF U.S. IMPERIALISM IN LATIN AMERICA.”

“Congratulations!” I exclaim. “You’ve just made history. You’re the first yanqui motorcycle group to explore Cuba end-to-end since the U.S. embargo was enacted in 1960.”

CU SX2A5377 Christopher P Baker on a BMW F800 at Museo Playa Giron copyright Christopher P Baker

Only 90 miles separate Key West from Havana, yet in many ways the Florida Straits is the widest moat in the world. Not least, Uncle Sam bars U.S. citizens from solo travel to Cuba (exemptions exist for Cuban-Americans, journalists, and humanitarian and religious travel, etc.). Fortunately, in January 2011, President Obama inched the door open by creating a new license category permitting any U.S. citizen to legally travel to Cuba for educational cultural exchanges run by companies and institutions that could now apply for such a mandate.

In 1995, I contacted Skip Mascorro, founder of Texas-based tour company MotoDiscovery, for advice on planning my journey. We stayed in touch. Last year he asked me to draft a license application and sample itinerary. Bingo! In January 2013, 14 eager motorcyclists flew south from Miami to participate in a 14-day all-Cuba program under a special license issued in April 2012 by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which oversees all regulations related to travel and trade with Cuba.

Since the P2P (“people-to-people”) license prohibits recreation and “tourism,” our motorcycles were used for the purpose of transportation between our requisite P2P exchanges. Those slice-of-life engagements with Cubans—from tobacco farmers to harlistas, owners of pre-revolutionary Harleys—guaranteed a richly rewarding immersion with Cuba’s profound history and culture as we rode a 2,000-mile counter-clockwise circuit from Havana to Baracoa, at the eastern tip of the island.

Time-worn Baracoa was founded in 1511 as Cuba’s first city. Cusped within a bay spreadeagled beneath a huge flat-topped formation surrounded by rainforest, it resembled a mini Macondo, the surreal setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Socialism and sensuality. Secret police and sexy showgirls. Cuba is nothing if not surreal.)

Arriving at Baracoa was its own adventure as we roared up La Farola, the steep mountain highway (completed since the Revolution) with nerve-wracking bends that switchback up and over the Sierra Cristal via the valley of the Río Yumurí. With its bridges cantilevered magically from the mountainside, La Farola struck me as a marvelous piece of engineering. Beyond the summit the world fell away as the road spiraled down to Baracoa, hovering on the distant horizon beneath a brooding twilit fusion of valley and molten sky.

Cuba is the flattest isle of the Greater Antilles. Our route was mostly level; the roads well-paved. West from Baracoa, however, the shoreline highway whittled down to an unpaved scrambler trail—a real roller-coaster—pitted with potholes brimming with a bouillabaisse of blood-red mud accumulated after recent rains. This 40-km-long enduro section added a welcome and adventurous challenge sandwiched between two full weeks of non-technical riding. I rode the trail standing up as I hauled along in third gear. I’m normally a 1200GSA rider. By comparison, the F800 seemed so incredibly light and responsive—a bike tailored for touring Cuba.

Since shipping a motorcycle across the Florida Straits is virtually impossible, our bikes—a combination of BMW F650s and F800s, plus four Harley-Davidsons—were supplied by a Danish company, Motorcycle Tours Cuba, that has been offering two-wheel tours for Europeans since 2009 (U.S. citizens are barred from participating). The company also supplied a support van to carry our gear.

Wherever we stopped, Cuban males coalesced to give us high fives and marvel at the exotic Beemers. “Phew!… hombre!” they exclaimed. “What marque is this? How big is the engine?” And, inevitably, “How fast does it go?” You’d have thought we’d landed in flying saucers.

Prior to the Revolution, Harleys were standard issue for Cuba’s police and the military. Then Cuba spun off into Soviet orbit. No more Harleys were imported, thanks to the U.S. embargo (Cubans call it el bloqueo, the blockade) that still hangs like an axe over Cuba. Thereafter, Soviet bloc Urals, MZs and Jawas flooded Cuba during four decades. Keeping them going is a testament to Cuban resourcefulness, ingenuity, and indefatigable optimism in the face of shortages and other difficulties we can barely imagine.


“El cubano inventa,” said Luís Enrique Gonzáles Saenz, President of Cuba’s harlista club, explaining how Havana’s proudly fanatical owners of antique Harleys go to extreme (even absurd) lengths to keep their hogs running. We began our tour at Luis’ workshop adjoining his home in Havana’s once tony Vedado neighborhood. “What we can’t fix or cannibalize from other motos or cars we make ourselves,” explained Luis, who co-guided with me throughout the tour. “We tailor pistons and virtually any other part you can think of right here. Hecho en Cuba, chico!”

The visitor’s first reaction is of being caught in a 1950s time warp. Cars from the Eisenhower era are everywhere: Chrome-laden DeSotos. Corpulent Buicks. Stylish Plymouth Furies. And other relics of Mafia-era ostentation putter along beside modern Japanese taxis, sober Russian-made Ladas, and dour 650cc Urals with sidecars. It’s hard to stay focused on the road as we head out of town along the Malecón boulevard sinuously fronting Havana’s shoreline.

I ride sweep at the rear. Luis Enrique rides lead. The Doobie Brothers’ ‘Taking it to the Streets’ surges from the speakers of his blood-red Street Glide as we hit the Autopista Nacional, Cuba’s only freeway, and crank up to 120 kph, heading east. The concrete eight-laner runs through open countryside flat as a carpenter’s level. We have it virtually to ourselves save for the occasional yanqui jalopy, Soviet tractors, and creaky wooden carts pulled by oxen, dropping long stalks of cane as they go. I’m thrilled to be back in the saddle, retracing my journey through a country I’ve grown to know well and love dearly. Enraptured, I cook down the highway, the F800 purring sexily as it eats up the hardtop in a sensuous intertwining of glorious harmonics and warm, perfumed air.

CU SX2A5368 MotoDiscovery group at Bay of Pigs Museum, Cuba copyright Christopher P Baker

After 142 km we turn south for the Bay of Pigs and arrive at the climactic spot where socialism and capitalism squared off in 1961. Cuban families and Canadian package tourists slathered with suntan oil splash about in the shallows. It’s difficult with the sun beating down on a beach as silvery as mountain snow to imagine that blood and bullets had mingled with the sand and the surf here five decades before.

Further east we stop to get ‘Sugar 101’ from macheteros—sugarcane harvesters—in coarse work clothes and straw hats, slashing at the tall cane with short blunt-nosed machetes. Hard, dirty work. We pass thatched homesteads—bohios—and ox-drawn ploughs tilling the palm-studded land. Then Trinidad comes into view. Founded by conquistador Diego Velázques in 1514, this cobbled colonial town—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—has sidestepped the currents of time. We slip uphill through maze-like cobbled streets that echo to the clip-clop of hooves. ‘Horse-whisperer’ Julio Muñoz even brings his horse inside his 18th-century colonial home to demonstrate ‘New Age’ equine techniques with which he hopes to change Cuba’s macho cowboy culture.

Our route is a magical mystery tour of such fascinating people-to-people encounters: A visit to a rural clinic to learn about Cuba’s community health system… a santería religious ceremony… a family-run marble-sculpting cooperative. In Guantánamo, we even pick up a tránsito (motorcycle cop) escort through the Cuban military zone and over La Farola to Baracoa. The taciturn Policia Nacional Revolucionario trio on their undersized Yamaha Viragos eventually thaw as Luis and I coax them to spill the beans about tránsito training.

“The enemy shall not pass our frontier!” screams a billboard outside Guantánamo. (Others reading “Patriotism or Death!” and “Long live socialism!”  leave us no doubt that we’re in a Communist nation. Che Guevara’s visage is everywhere, too, alongside that of Fidel.) Yet everywhere we go, we’re feted. It seems a strange juxtaposition. Rousing anti-imperialist murals offset by three generations of Cubans—most well-nourished, well-shod and clothed, and beaming benignly—sending reassuring waves to us Yanks. It seems so innately Cuban: The considerate expression of a people uncommonly gracious and generous to a fault.

And sensual too.

Music is the pulsing undercurrent of Cuban life. Troubadors serenade us at every meal stop, causing ‘Junior’ (our support van driver) and Enedys (our local guide assigned to us by Cuba’s Havanatur tour agency) to get up and dance, a little closer than groin to groin. I’m amazed the birth rate isn’t higher. We can learn from the Cuban instinct for gaiety; the fun-loving way they turn adversity on its ear.

Arriving for a final night in Havana, Luis and I surprise the group by arranging for a ride to dinner at Le Chansonnier—a superb paladar (private restaurant)—in a fleet of ’50s classic convertibles. Then on to the Tropicana, the world-famous cabaret now in its eighth decade of Vegas-style stiletto-heeled paganism.

Sure, as far as adventure motorcycling goes this was tame. But just 90 miles from the malls and McDonalds of Florida, we’d journeyed to the soul of a haunting realm full of eccentricity, eroticism, and enigma. Socialism and sensuality.  Twenty years after I first attended, the open-air extravaganza had lost none of its erotic.

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