Remedios by Bicitaxi
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
Juan’s bicitaxi is adorned with a scorpion. He wears dark glasses and a black Hugo Boss T-shirt. He looks close to sixty—could be mid-forties. It’s difficult to tell. He is missing a finger on his right hand. The one next to it is disabled. He is slim but wiry. Tough.
I ask him how long he has been driving bicitaxi. He tells me eight years.
He pilots the modified tricycle through traffic, which includes random tour buses, classic American cars chuffing modified diesel engines, Soviet throwbacks, zippy mopeds, and slow-moving horse carts. He is at ease, pointing out the places important to him: the bakery, the ration store, the bus station.
Bicitaxis are a cheap method of transport for locals. Here in Remedios they have now taken on a hint of the cachet for tourists. For only 6CUCs two people can have a personalized city tour. Juan was born in nearby Santa Clara, spent his whole life in the same central-Cuban province. Now he pedals far-away visitors around a city where he cannot avoid a conversation or a salutation down any street he turns.
Other bicis try to race us or hitch a ride by piggy-backing on Juan’s pedal power by grabbing hold of the bike and coasting. It’s all a big joke. All done in fun.
Juan’s tour takes us around the Plaza Central, formerly known as Plaza Isabel II—the renovated jewel of Remedios with its two Catholic Churches. In the Iglesia Mayor de San Bautista there are thirteen gold altars and one of only six sculptures of the pregnant Virgin Mary in the world. Locally it is known as Cuba’s Sistine Chapel because of its uniquely painted wooden ceiling.
But in Remedios the real Cuba is never far away, and we sneak through back streets past the local flea market (feria), soviet era apartment blocks, and cinder slab homes with wash blowing in the wind. On one side street we pull up next to a cigar factory and descend for a look through the wooden shutters. More than sixty young women roll habanos in a way that has remained largely unchanged in the last 100 years. The space is cramped, the air close. But the ceilings are high and the room is well lit. It has the feel of instrument maker’s shop.
“Habla espanol?” one asks me subversively eyeing her supervisor.
After brief introductions, Marta asks me if I want to buy a cigar. I understand immediately that this is to be conducted quickly and quietly. I reach through the window and set 2CUCs on a manual cigar press. A minute later, another employee passes by and slips me two Robusto Maduro cigars wrapped in white paper through the same window.
That’s business in Cuba.
Back at the Plaza Central we say goodbye to Juan with much back-slapping and hand-shaking. Our first bicitaxi experience has been a riotous success. We finish the afternoon at a much slower pace with a glass of parrandero (rum, honey, and lime juice) at Taberna de los 7 Juanes on the corner of the city’s main square. Later that night, I smoke one of my purchases. A perfect way to end the day.