Cuba’s Skyline Trail

Cuba's Skyline Trail is a well kept secret within its cycling community and the coast to coast views on a clear day certainly help you to understand why. Follow the Pinar del Rio road west of Havana and you'll find a rollercoaster ridge line ride across the Sierra del Rosario mountains that separates Las Terrazas nature reserve from the tobacco fields of Vinales Valley. But if you go way back to before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors you'll have been lucky to see anything other than trees.

When Christopher Columbus first stepped foot on Cuban soil in 1492, practically the whole island was covered in palm, oak, fig and cedar trees. By the time Castro came to power, at the start of the 1960s, there was a mere 11 percent of native forest cover remaining.

Cuba's indigenous Guanahatabey people lived in the west of the island as hunter gatherers. To the east were the Taino people who were native to the Caribbean, but migrants to Cuba. The Taino were small scale farmers that used the land to cultivate cassava, cotton, tobacco and sweet potatoes.

The arrival of Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors would see sustainable crops replaced by vast cotton, coffee and sugar cane plantations. Huge swathes of forest were also cleared for wood, transport, and cattle rearing. Sugar, especially, would become the island's dominant cash crop.
It wouldn't be until Castro's intervention that Cuba's reforestation revolution would begin to turn the tide and see the island, especially in the west, starting to return to its original state. Locations like Las Terrazas, situated in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains, just 75km west of Havana, would become synonymous with self sufficiency and better living standards for the island's poorest people.
Leaving Las Terrazas, it’s a 20km ride into the mountains and a steep 2km climb onto the skyline ridge road. But once you’ve achieved this challenging ascent – oh boy, what treats await. On a clear day you can see both sides of the island, north and south coasts, and the undulating ridge road leaves little to the imagination. Take your time to take it all in before cycling down the mountain to rejoin the Pinar del Rio road en route to the tobacco farms and karst landscapes of Vinales Valley.
During the 1980s, more than eight million trees – cedar, teak, mahogany and hibiscus – were planted at Las Terrazas and have since attracted hundreds of tropical plants and birds. Orchards of grapefruit, mandarins, avocados and papayas were also planted to provide produce for the self contained communities living within the terraced hillsides and around the shores of San Juan Lake.
Following the crash of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s Las Terrazas – which had become a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1984 – opened its doors as an area for eco-tourism. Log cabins appeared on the banks of the San Juan River to provide visitors with rustic, yet comfortable, lodgings surrounded by tranquil tropical scenery, including cascading waterfalls and wild swim spots.

Lucy Davies set up Cuba cycling tour specialists Cubania in 2003 and has been running Skyline Trail trips on behalf of Responsible Travel since 2009: “As soon as you leave Havana and head west you’re into the Sierra del Rosario mountain range. This route really takes you off the beaten track, as you cycle to Las Terrazas biosphere reserve and onwards to Vinales Valley.”

Sustainable state

Although profits from Las Terrazas go to the state, funding for building repairs and the provision of electricity, drinking water, telephones and domestic fuel have helped to create a much higher standard of living for the 1,000 or so local residents. Artists, musicians and chefs have all grown up or moved to the area to become a Cuban collective searching for a self-sustainable way of life.

Cuba is currently the most sustainably developed country in the world. Cycling as part of a small guided group does little to impact the environment and also provides employment for local people. Cycling guides, guesthouse hosts and bike mechanics all benefit from our eight day Skyline Trail trip, and entrance fees to the biosphere reserve and to the tobacco farms further west, in Vinales Valley, also help to supplement the income of small communities through tourism.
Cycling also helps you connect with local people at ground level. You can stop at roadside fruit stalls or beachside restaurants without feeling like every other tour group to the island has been there before. You’re travelling without windows and physical barriers, which makes it a lot easier to smile and a wave a friendly ‘hola!’, and get an equally cheery response in return. You just can’t replicate this type of experience on a coach or even in a car. You’re just not as free as you are on a bike.
Liesner Crespo has been working as a guide for our Cuba cycling specialists, Cubania, since 2015: “Sometimes we take city tours of Old Havana and cycle to the highlights, other times we go west to Vinales Valley. When I’m cycling with guests I like to tell them about the history of Cuba as well as explain more about the importance of tobacco and sugar cane farming in places like Vinales Valley and Trinidad. Cuba is so different to the rest of the world and a bike holiday is a great way to learn more about the culture of our country.”

The Skyline Trail

Leaving Las Terrazas, it’s a 20km ride into the mountains and a steep 2km climb onto the skyline ridge road. But once you’ve achieved this challenging ascent – oh boy, what treats await. On a clear day you can see both sides of the island, north and south coasts, and the undulating ridge road leaves little to the imagination. Take your time to take it all in before cycling down the mountain to rejoin the Pinar del Rio road en route to the tobacco farms and karst landscapes of Vinales Valley.

“This incredible karst scenery comes from massive Jurassic caves that were once underwater. Over time the cave roofs collapsed and water levels dropped to reveal the tropical green sides rising from the valley floor.” - Lucy Davies

Our top Cuba cycling Holiday

Cycling holiday in Cuba, 7 days

Cycling holiday in Cuba, 7 days

Explore Cuba on two wheels in one week

From £895 to £940 7 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2021: 25 Jan, 15 Feb, 15 Mar, 29 Mar, 26 Apr, 31 May, 5 Jul, 16 Aug, 13 Sep, 11 Oct, 15 Nov, 29 Nov, 13 Dec
2022: 10 Jan, 24 Jan, 31 Jan, 14 Feb, 21 Feb, 28 Feb, 14 Mar, 28 Mar, 25 Apr, 30 May, 4 Jul, 15 Aug, 12 Sep, 10 Oct, 7 Nov, 28 Nov, 12 Dec, 26 Dec
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What to expect

This route is a challenge but you’re not going to be in the saddle all day every day. You get to spend afternoons at beautiful beaches, like Cayo Jutias, and eat out at organic farms and privately owned restaurants, where home cooked Creole cuisine keeps up sustenance levels for the next day’s ride.
Basically, if you can cycle for around 30km for a couple of days in a row, you’ll be fine. Everything is provided for you, including a fully fitted Trek 8.3DS hybrid bike that has built in front suspension for handling the pot holes and rough tarmac. All you have to do is give your bag to the driver and off you go. This trip is for people who like a bit of a challenge on holiday. You get to achieve something special that you didn’t think you could do. You also get to experience agricultural settings and see areas where the natural environment has almost returned to its original state.
“Our Skyline Trail is an epic cycling route. But our holidays aren’t just about the cycling. This tour is ideal for anyone wishing to experience the beautiful west of Cuba, both on and off the saddle. You could spend, for example, a week cycling and then a week doing other things. Not only will you be cycling over the mountain ridges, you’ll also get to see the tiered tobacco fields and spend time at drop dead gorgeous beaches. It’s just a great way to experience the real Cuba.” - Lucy Davies
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Cubania Travel] [All article images: Cubania Travel]
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