I’M ON A BAMBOO BIKE, juddering over a packed dirt trail ropy with twisting tree roots, mogulling up and down steep little gulches, just trying to stay on. On both sides of the trail, the trees are draped thick with vines. The air carries a tangy funk from the carcasses of small animals that have been sacrificed and left for the gods. Not exactly an afternoon ride in the park? Oh, but it is, if you happen to be in Havana.
We are in a part of Parque Almendares known as El Bosque, The Grove—a favorite place for devotees of Santeria to come for rituals that need a forest setting. Our guide is a Cuban named Yasser, 31, soft-spoken, bushy-haired, and utterly reliable. Natalie is up ahead, standing on the pedals, mule-kicking her bike over the rugged path as if she isn’t afraid of anything. It’s true; she isn’t afraid of much. Ahead of us, one after the other, our little group is twisting weirdly off the narrow trail, swerving aside onto the grass, then back. When I get there, I swerve into the grass too: It seems like a better choice than riding right over the chalk circle that somebody inscribed across the path.
Off to our right, the Almendares River is seething fast and shallow over rocks. The far bank belongs to vultures. Perched on stones, they’re black and much bigger than you really want a bird to be. They hunch like old men in overcoats, red in the face, twisting their leathery necks. They’re here for the animal carcasses. The ashé of the sacrificed animals—their life force—may go to feed the orishas, the gods of Santeria, but their flesh and feathers go to the vultures.
We drop the bikes in a clearing around a monster tree, a kind I’ve never seen before. “Jagüey,” Yasser says, supplying the name. The trunk is like a thicket of trees fused together, an immense knot of trunks and vines plaited around a warren of hollows. The soil under the trunk is littered with the smashed remnants of plates left here with offerings of food for the orishas.
As we’re about to get back on our bikes, Natalie beckons me over. Down among the tall roots that lean out like buttresses lie two little cloth dolls. They’re not voodoo dolls; vodun is Haitian, Yasser explains, but little figures are sometimes used in Santeria too. Dressed in yellow gingham, a skirt for her, a pair of shorts for him, they represent a real couple walking around out there in Havana. Somebody has been thinking about them intensely, praying over them—and not to wish them any good.
Twenty minutes later, we’re back under the blazing sun, zipping past the white frosted cakes of the Gran Teatro and the Hotel Inglaterra to the Hotel Parque Central, where 1950s Ford Fairlanes and Chevy Bel Airs flaunt voluptuous fins and grilles under the palm trees. Yasser stops the group regularly to explain what we’re seeing or to fill in some historical detail.
Yasser is a success story, Cuban style. The smart, ambitious son of good socialist parents who named him for Yasser Arafat, he moved to Havana from an island off Cuba’s southern coast to go to a special sciences high school and then to the university. Master’s degree in hand, he got a good job as a software developer. “Coding,” he says, in English. He liked it. But he didn’t like spending his days at a desk, so about three years ago, he joined some friends working at a bike-rental shop. Now he’s running this Airbnb Experience, under the title Maverick Biker.