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Chasing Che’s Chevy: Bayamo to Santiago de Cuba

Chasing Che’s Chevy: Bayamo to Santiago de Cuba

I liked the panache of touring Cuba by motorcycle. I saw myself as a latter-day Che Guevara, whose own motorcycle journey would have been the adventure of a lifetime had he not met Fidel.

The bike would turn my own travels into an adventure. And nowhere in Cuba serves up adventure as much as the Sierra Maestra, the rugged mountain range in the south of the island from where Che and Fidel launched their Revolution in earnest in 1956. The Circuito Sur highway, which wraps around the Sierra Maestra, delivers adventure in spades—a perfect tropical cocktail of adrenalin charged curves, rugged terrain, and superlative vistas.

The trip begins in earnest west of Bayamo, capital of Cuba’s south-eastern Granma province, where the traffic thins down to a few tractors and wooden carts pulled by sturdy oxen, dropping long stalks of sugarcane as they go. Snowy white egrets lift off from the Day-Glo cane fields studded by royal palms rising like silver-sheathed Corinthian columns. Then I pass a Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe, gleaming as brightly in the sunlight as the day in 1952 when it rolled off the factory floor in Detroit. Time itself seems to have stopped on the carretera midway between Bayamo and Vequita.

At the small town of Yara I detour south and climb into the Sierra Maestra via a switchback so twisty it makes me feel dizzy. The bike and I cant as one, arcing gracefully through the curves of serried ranges and forbidding valleys. Ideal guerrilla territory. Every other turn offers a heart-stopping drop-off, with spectacular vistas over plains resembling a Spanish mantilla. I pause to breathe in the mountain air and listen to the agreeable silence broken only by birdsong and the buzz of myriad insects.

On the coastal plains south of the port city of Manzanillo, the sugarcane fields have been burned for the zafra (the sugar harvest), and field hands—macheteros—in tattered linens and straw sombreros are slashing at the charred stalks with blunt-nosed machetes. Hot, dirty work. They look as if they themselves have been put to the torch. Black smoke rises in twirling tornadoes, eddying up from fires that taint the idyll with the sickly sweet stench of molasses.

South of Manzanillo I feel deliriously light-hearted as I cruise down the empty road with the mountains on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. I’m riding with a heightened sense of awareness, so attuned to the BMW and my surroundings—the smells, the sun’s rays, the warm wind caressing my skin—that I’m not even thinking.

Beyond Sevilla the road wends down through a narrow ravine, spilling me onto the coastal plains that run along the southern base of the Sierra Maestra. On the long straight, I move into top gear and open the throttle wide. I cook down the highway, the bike purring sexily as it eats up the hardtop in a sensuous intertwining of glorious harmonics and warm, perfumed air.

The landscape changes abruptly. I pass goats munching in stony pastures studded with cactus. There’s not a store or cafe for miles and it’s a relief to break for a late lunch at the Marea del Portillo beach resort, where hotels stud a vast bay beneath cloud-draped mountains.

My map shows the route along the coast as a dirt track as far as Chivírico, just east of Santiago de Cuba, a distance of about 80 miles. The enduro course begins a few miles east of Marea del Portillo. I run at the water’s edge lined with wild, windswept beaches. Then the trail claws its way over great headlands and hangs suspended in air before cascading steeply to the next valley. In places the angles seem impossible. But the BMW seems not to notice. Amazingly, I pass a five-decades old Chrysler New Yorker chugging uphill in the other direction, impervious to the mountain terrain.

Beyond the Río Macio, marking the boundary with Santiago de Cuba province, I pick up the hardtop again. Copper-colored cliffs loom massively out of the teal-blue sea. Cuba’s highest peaks lie within fingertip distance. The light is fading as I round a final bend and see the wan lights of Santiago de Cuba in the distance. A rubicund radiance mantles the mountains. Slanting sunlight splashes Santiago’s rooftops with fiery vermilion. Then the sublime conflagration is extinguished, leaving only a memory of the enchantment of the Cuban landscape at sunset. As I pull up to my hotel and haul my motorcycle onto the side stand, I grin broadly and sigh with satisfaction, knowing that I could never have got so close to so much beauty inside a car.

[First published in National Geographic Traveler UK -May 2009]

  Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO?S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
? Christopher P Baker
travel writer ? photographer ? moto-journalist ? cuba expert |

Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year  

  In 1996 Christopher shipped his BMW R100GS motorcycle to Cuba and rode 7,000 miles during a three-month journey to research the Moon handbook to Cuba. His award-winning literary travel book – Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Castro’s Cuba – describing the journey was published by National Geographic Adventure Press.

Travel Book of the Year
Lowell Thomas Awards
“This is a wonderful adventure book… a meditation on philoso-phy, politics, and the possibilities of physical love. It has the depth of a novel and the feeling of a great love story.”
Judges, Lowell Thomas Award
also NATJA Grand Priz  

Rave reviews…
“Mi Moto Fidel is a satisfying and complete portrait of Cuba It’s all here: money, sex, politics, geography, history, cigars, marlin, and, of course, Fidel. Serious travel writing is often intricate and complex. Bikers, it seems, do it better.”
Tim Cahill — Pass the Butterworms and Road Fever

“Baker’s kiss-and-tell account of his romps across Fidel’s island offers a bittersweet glimpse of life inside the last Marxist utopia.”
Jon Lee Anderson — Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

“Chris Baker’s chaotic pilgrimage–by turns sharp-eyed, lustful, poetic, feverish and joyful–brings a tropical nation of 10 million to vivid, pulsating life. The motorcycle proves itself, once again, a brilliant, ice-breaking instrument of true travel.”
Ted Simon — Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph           March 2010

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