During almost every group motorcycle tour that I’ve led in Cuba, I’ve encountered solo riders touring the island astride their own motos. Usually, they’re adventure (ADV) riders who booked passage for themselves and their bikes aboard the Stahlratte as part of their longer months-long journeys through Central and South America.

Since 2005, this infamous rust-bucket vessel has been running two to four journeys a year between Cartagena (Colombia), Panama, Isla Mujeres (Mexico), Jamaica, and Cuba. It was the easiest and least costly means for ADV riders to move their motorcycles from Panama to Colombia or vice versa.

Unloading a BMW F700GS from Stahlratte in Santiago de Cuba

For U.S. motorcyclists, the ship was also pretty much the only means of getting their own bike to Cuba without expensive air-shipment from Canada or Mexico.

(As an aside, under U.S. embargo laws against Cuba, it’s illegal for any person under U.S. jurisdiction to transport a vehicle to Cuba without a license from the U.S. Treasury Department under any circumstances. Vehicles—including motorcycles—are considered an export, however temporary the period of intended import to Cuba. Good luck with that! In addition, as such, all aircraft overflying the USA en route to Cuba must disclose their passenger and cargo manifests… meaning that the U.S. Treasury Department can easily identify embargo transgressions. But I digress!)

Alas, the Covid pandemic has put an end to Stahlratte’s 18-year run!

“In 2021, we’ve had to end the project because of the pandemic-related decline in travelers, and general travel restrictions,” says owner Captain Ludwig Hoffmann (or Lulu, to his friends).

Kapitan Ludwig Hoffmann piloting the Stahlratte

Depending on Cuba’s ever-changing entry regulations in response to the Covid pandemic, the final Stahlratte voyage in the America’s will depart Isla Mujeres for Cienfuegos, Cuba, on March 14, 2021. All being well, the vessel will depart Cienfuegos for Isla Mujeres a month later, on April 15. This will give riders more or less three full weeks to ride around the island, taking into considerations Cuba’s own quarantine regulations for arriving travelers, and the recommendation to be back in Cienfuegos two or three days ahead of departure.

After returning from Cuba back to Isla Mujeres, Captain Hoffmann will depart the Americas for the final time on April 28th for an Atlantic Crossing to Spain (via the Azores) for possible sale to Bulgarian investors who will use Stahlratte for a new purpose.

Such a pity!

The venerable vessel was built in the Netherlands in 1903 as a sailing boat, measuring 115 feet (35.1 m), and was used for fishing. The peripatetic boat moved to Bergen, Norway, in 1931, where in 1937 a two-cylinder diesel engine was installed. This was upgraded to a three-cylinder engine in 1937 and, finally, in 1963 to a 280-horsepower four-cylinder motor. In 1984, she was purchased by Germany’s non-profit Association for Advancement of Sailing Navigation and was transformed into the two-masted schooner Stahlratte, based in Bremerhaven for her world voyages… which soon focused on serving the Panama/Colombia route, plus Mexico, Jamaica, and Cuba.

However, here’s the good news…

If you want to ride Cuba, you can still do so… with legendary travel writer, moto-journalist, and Cuba expert Christopher P. Baker, who leads group motorcycle tours in Cuba using BMW F700GSs, 1250GS, and Harley-Davidsons.

Christopher P. Baker with BMW R100GS Paris-Dakar, motorcycling in Vinales, Cuba, 1996

Christopher famously shipped his own BMW R100GS Paris-Daker to Cuba from Key West, Florida, in 1996, and rode 7,000-plus miles while researching his Moon Cuba guidebook… the first of seven travel books he has written on Cuba, most notably Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba (National Geographic Adventure Press, 2001). He has since led group motorcycle tours of Cuba for such entities as the BMW Rider Academy of Turkey, Edelweiss Bike Travel, and MotoDiscovery.

He can arrange custom itineraries for groups as well as individuals riding solo (accompanied by a Cuban motorcycle guide, per Cuban regulations).

Visit www.cubamotorcycletours.com for details.

Christopher P. Baker on a BMW 1200GS at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba

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Christopher P Baker

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Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and successful travel writers and photographers has been named by National Geographic as one of the world's foremost authorities on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions, Edelwiss Bike Travel, and Jim Cline Photo Tours, among other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.