HAVANA, April 30th It’s so quiet in Havana that I’m the only guest at Gran Hotel Bristol, in the clammy heart of the city. “Do you need a taxi?” the concierge asks with a hopeful smile as I pass through reception. The reply comes as a roar from the shiny black Harley-Davidson that has just pulled up outside.
The rider, dressed in black with thick-framed sunglasses and a facemask, tosses a helmet in my direction. It’s Ernesto Guevara (Ponderosa tours), the youngest son of Che, and he’s come to take me on a tour of his city.
Following in the tracks of his father’s epic ride across South America 70 years ago, Ernesto started La Poderosa Tours in 2014 — named in homage to his father’s motorbike, translating as “the mighty one”.
Taking advantage of the thaw in US relations during President Obama’s tenure, Ernesto had 14 Harleys shipped to Cuba and began giving guided tours, along with his childhood friend Camilo.
The itineraries take in locations including the tobacco fields of Vinales, the serrated peaks of the Sierra Maestra mountain range, a Havana Club rum distillery, the powdery sands of Varadero, cobblestoned Trinidad and, poignantly, Santa Clara, where the Cuban Revolution’s final battle took place and Che’s remains are interred.
Ever since I learned that Ernesto was hosting tours of his country, I’ve dreamt of seeing Havana on two wheels. Unfortunately, my romantic vision is promptly shattered as I try to get on the Harley — I’ve never ridden a motorbike and I misjudge the width of the rear seat, embarrassing myself with an inelegant lurch. Ernesto courteously suppresses his smile.
We begin at Kempinski’s rooftop, which has sweeping views over the old town. Ernesto points out the key sights — El Capitolio, its dome slightly taller than its twin in Washington; the National Theatre; and the Vedado neighborhood where he was brought up.
The next stop is Chacon 162, Ernesto’s favorite bar. It’s a little early in the morning for drinks, I think, but I tell him I’m in. We zigzag easily through Havana’s labyrinth of potholed streets. Motorists toot and passersby stop and gawk — some because they recognize Ernesto; others in admiration of the thundering machine we’re riding.
We breeze through Old Havana, a mishmash of colonial, brutalist and art deco styles. Pastel-hued buildings blur in my peripheral vision, including the dusky-pink El Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s bar of choice.
We arrive at Chacon 162 and Ernesto slides onto his preferred stool, warmly acknowledging the staff. He directs my gaze towards the red 1950 Harley Flathead mounted behind the bar. When his friend was opening Chacon 162 he was asked for help, and “my help was lending him my favorite bike”, he tells me.
We move outside for a lunch of citrusy ceviche, and Ernesto lights a cigar. I search his face for echoes of Che, but none are obvious — although I notice that, like his father, he shuts down any questions he doesn’t want to answer with a quip and a hollow laugh.
Every so often someone walks past in a T-shirt emblazoned with Alberto Korda’s image of Che — the tousled guerrilla fighter with the determined, faraway stare. As yet another looms into sight I ask Ernesto if it’s difficult to encounter this version of his father daily. He shrugs, saying: “I was born and raised this way, so it’s normal.”
Does he have any strong memories of his dad? “Nothing,” he says stoically. Ernesto was two when his father was killed, and most of his family pictures featuring Che — including one in which Ernesto is being cradled — are in the public domain. With one last puff, he agrees to meet me again in a couple of days.
Ernesto seems relaxed at our next encounter, and we circle the city on his Harley, passing streets lined with queues — because of Covid, food shops in Havana are restricted to five customers at a time; case numbers remain low, but with a countrywide lack of medical supplies, no one wants to get sick.
We reach Plaza de la Revolucion, where more than a million Cubans gathered to mourn Che’s death. Ernesto points out a memorial to the poet and hero Jose Marti.
We park and walk through the square, and I notice that Ernesto is distracted — his eyes are fixed on the giant steel rendering of his father’s face on the Interior Ministry building opposite. Does he feel anything? “Nah,” is the response. But he still stares.
We talk about the next tour he is arranging, which will take him to Santa Clara. Visiting the site of his father’s mausoleum “can be complicated”, he says. “I try not to mix my emotions with the riders, so I get them there and let them see it for themselves, and I’ll then sometimes have a private moment to myself.”
After a drive through El Bosque, a forest known as the “lungs of Havana”, we finish up at another of Ernesto’s favorite haunts, La Casa del Habano, a cigar club where he is welcomed with bear hugs.
Easing into a brown leather armchair he puffs on another cigar, and between sips of rum tells me about the time he dined with Naomi Campbell and Paris Hilton at the city’s annual cigar festival in 2015. He laughs — the pair had no idea who he was and never asked why he was sitting with them.
We take our final ride together and I dismount like a pro. As the roar of Ernesto’s Harley fades into the distance, peace descends once more on the streets of Havana.