Walking through the relaxed streets of Viñales, on my way to the Cubanacán travel office to rent a bike, a Cuban rides up flashing me his yellow bike and asks, “You want to rent my bike? Best bike in all of Cuba. Try it out if you don’t believe me.”
I give his bike a spin around the block. The gears change, the brakes squeak to an eventual halt. It seems as good a bike as I will find anywhere else and the fake shocks give the impression that the rider means serious bike riding business. I give him 5 pesos to use it for the day and he tells me to look for him around town when I come back to return the bike. “If you can’t find me just ask anyone where José is.”
With José’s mountain bike cruising underneath me, I set out from Viñales to the seaport of Puerta Esperanza (Port of Hope) on Cuba’s Northern coast—a nice 50km bike ride through the oft photographed Valle de Viñales. In 1999 the valley was declared a Unesco World Heritage site, according to my Lonely Planet.
The ride meanders through a curvy country road between limestone cliffs looming across the green landscape. A backdrop of beauty geology has spent 100 million years sculpting, prehistoric rivers slowly carving underground caverns that collapsed to form the valley, their former walls the cliffs.
Puerta Esperanza itself is a dwindling seaside village whose port has been out of operation since 1951. A place whose present is best understood by romanticizing its past. Its rusty pier stretches out to the sea longingly, reaching out to beckon boats that stopped coming long ago. Unhurried streets are flanked by fishermen’s shanties and ancient Mango trees that still bear fruit, which create a tribute to the 19th century slaves who planted them.
I eat my sack lunch on the waterfront and send away a disappointed kid who is sure I wanted to buy shells, special shells that only he knows how to find.
Sated from lunch and relaxed from the languorous ambience, I walk from the retired pier over to a building with Che’s face on the side. Before getting close enough to snap a picture, a shirtless teenager emerges from it puffing a cigar. He tells me that I need to walk back the other way since this is a military zone. I turn around content that if I am ever asked in any of my frequently absurd bar conversations a good place to invade Cuba by sea, I can deviously drum my fingers together and say, “I know just the place...”