Late last summer, we attended an intimate roundtable that included a number of individuals within the travel industry on the topic of Cuba. At that time, we all discussed the ability to travel to Cuba without the restrictions that have existed for the past few decades. There was so much excitement and buzz in the room and we remember thinking about all the possibilities that would emerge by having this access as a traveler, for commerce and more.
Last month, as our President, delegates and businessmen entered the country, the reality of the having an open exchange became an even bigger possibility.
Since the President's visit, we're pleased to share two stories in this month's issue that focuses on Cuba. Above the Handlebars, Cuba - highlights the journey that Ben and Brian, of Sole Bicycles, took days before President Obama's entry into the country as they experience Cuba from 12 - 15 hour rides on each day of their trip. They rode through the pulse and culture of this country that has been self-contained.
Next, we are pleased to share Havana Motor Club, a movie that debuted at last year's Tribeca Film Festival and is available nationwide in theaters. The film looks at racing and how a dedicated group of local enthusiasts worked to bring this national sport back after it had been banned in the 50's.
Sole Bicycles was founded by a group of friends who loved playing an array of sports. They believed in creating a great bike that had an accessible price point and was supported by a company whose brand was built on an active lifestyle. In addition to creating a great product that served a needed function, it was essential to reflect a culture around it.
This created a school of thought where people could purchase a bike and visit the website. This serves as a hub of content and community, which is not only about being active but giving back. They have built their following by organic growth, bootstrapped and no outside help! Yet in the midst of building this brand over the past few years, they truly
believe in a "work hard, play hard" system. Those who work within the company have enjoyed participating in group retreats that serve as inspiration for new models and styles. This could include spending a month in Bali or a week in Mexico.
This wanderlust mindset mixed in with the need to give back creates a backdrop of organic serendipity which would bring members of Sole Bicycles team to an iconic visit to Cuba.
A friend that SB works with had been quite successful creating international bike tours which allow riders to enjoy destinations by peddling through them. Due to the success
of these groups, he wanted to do the same monthly in Cuba and needed a fleet of bikes that could host 10 people. He asked SB to supply the bikes.
In addition to providing their bikes, the team at SB decided that it would be a great idea for them to come along (a team of 9) to experience it for themselves.
SB is based in Venice, CA and the team flew from there to Miami to connect to their flight to land into Havana which is 45 miles from Miami. To arrive into the city, they checked in 2 hours prior to the flight and flew into Havana and upon arrival, it took them 3 hours to get through customs in order to finally reach their destination. Interestingly enough, for the total travel time to get to Havana, they could have flown into Tokyo or a number of other destinations.
This trip was not only about seeing Cuba, but to experience it first hand. The SB team decided that they would find a place to stay via Casa Particular (like Air BNB) with a Cuban family. This way they could enjoy traditional meals and have an experience that was akin to those who were locals.
During their trip, they had a schedule that was intense; however, gave the best chance to cover the area as they immersed themselves into the trip. The team woke up at 9:30am to enjoy a traditional breakfast cooked by their host family and hopped on their bikes to move from neighborhood to neighborhood where they rode 30 - 40 miles a day. They would have dinner later in the evening, and then at 8-9pm they would get back to the tour and finish their day at 3-4am - to do it all again the next day.
These 12-15 tours on wheels allowed them to see people going about their day and the shifts from one community to the next. Ultimately, they covered a total of 100 miles and most of Havana. For some, touring the city by bike was a first; however, everyone experienced a significant difference in this city.
The SB team found that they were able to focus on their experiences even more due to the lack of being connected to the internet and the phone. Less than 3% have the internet and those who may be visiting would need to go to a WiFi park for outside access or to purchase a card/phone. It was the longest that many have been disconnected. But at the same time, it allowed them to bond even more to one another as well as their guide without the distraction of making sure to update friends, followers, fans and more in real time.
As a country that has been self contained, it has been untouched by a number of popular and consumer culture aesthetics from style of dress, cars etc that point to the 50's. As the team was out and about, they felt safe as the crime rates are low and carrying guns are illegal.
In general, as they rode through the community, they realized that it was busy, but not too crowded. From an economic standpoint, many are employed by the government sector and additional jobs are trade oriented Currently, there are a not a lot of private businesses.
As a matter of fact, as the team biked throughout the city, they were surprised that it was difficult to obtain a bottle of water from corner stores, carts - something that is readily available here in a number of cities whether you live in large cities or go to small towns. The ability to stop and get something when you wanted it really made the guys realize the cultural difference between where they were and how they grew up.
This trip took place as they traveled under a "People for People" status with missionary purposes for a church group. At the conclusion of the trip, they gave their bikes to a church which would allow their missionaries to pick flowers to sell to raise funds.
During this trip, as they rode through Cuba, they had the benefit of seeing the government getting ready for Obama's visit as workers paved miles of streets in Old Town Ha
vana, painting fences and fixing other elements in a mad dash as this was a few days prior to the official visit.
In the beginning, members of the group looked at this trip as one that would be a fun vacation that would include partying, taking pictures and more. But the impact of seeing one of the few nations that have not had open access for 60-70 years was eye opening! One noted that everywhere they went, people loved seeing their bikes that were new (as opposed to the Schwin models they noticed from the 50's). At one point in the trip, they happened to go to a cigar factory which sold Cohebas. They traded one of their bikes for a box of the luxury cigars (yet the value of the box of cigars was much higher than the bike). The universal need of having something modern and new was not lost on the team. They experienced this upgraded area as well as a number of authentic places that residents have enjoyed.
Cuba is going through a change and it is not one that will be overnight. A lot of questions remain: What do open policies mean for those that are Cuban residents? How will corporations begin to be introduced into the ecosystem (a number of properties such as Starwood Hotels has begun to create a strategy for expansion in the area)? How will Cuba balance between maintaining their heritage while integrating into a modern culture? More importantly for those who live in Cuba, what opportunities will they have to start their own businesses?
The idea that there is a "magic switch" where overnight there is an idealized setting where people will people will be able to come to Cuba, enjoy a daquiri as they sit in an outdoor cafe Instagramming their current status, is one that will take time with a lot of growing pains as they get to where they want to be as a nation, but the world will be watching.
Read more from Apr 2016