For the full photo diary of my time in Cuba please click here
On touching down in Cuba neither Justin or myself had any real idea of where we’d cycle. Our knowledge of the tourist and cycling attractions of the island were virtually non-existent. We had no guide books, only a map and the self belief that our experience would draw us towards the best cycling. Fortunately Rosa, our enigmatic host in Havana had a Lonely Planet that she insisted on packing off with us. This would prove a particularly valuable resource as miles fell under our wheels and we tried to unpick the islands politics and recent history.
Touring Cuba was markedly different from the main tide of this tour, that which is slowly sweeping me down a huge continental landmass. Here we were not going somewhere trying to see and experience as much good stuff as possible along the way. No, in Cuba we were allotted 30 days, a month that would start and end in Havana. The reasons for the trip were to get a handle on the natural and social forces at work on this famously mixed up island. As we studied the guide and our map in Havana the most obvious way to see as much of the island as possible seemed to involve catching a bus across country to the far south-east of the territory and cycle back to Havana. As mountain lovers we figured this would get us amongst the highest ranges and as independent travelers we hoped it would take us away from the bulk of the other tourists. Here I will recite the story of the first part of this trip, devoting later posts to the complexities of this unique country and my thoughts on it.
I never did the traditional backpacking circuits which rely on busing from one place to another and use trains at home, so save for the drive from Fairbanks up to Prudhoe Bay, I’d never experienced the delights of long bus journeys. Our 13 hour night bus from Havana down to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city wasn’t as big a chore as I’d expected. However, it served to confirm what we pretty much already knew; Cuba is flat and its infrastructure is crumbling.
There were no immediately obvious differences between the Oriente and Havana apart from a few degrees increase in temperature. Cubans are very regionally proud with great competition between the two king cities of Havana and Santiago. After the decaying wide avenues of Havana the tight little streets of Santiago came as a bit of a surprise. The added heat and less regimented town plan means Santiago can be a trying place to wander. The old 1950’s cars for which Cuba is famed look romantic in the pictures but when they burn gas the exhaust fumes are something else, in Santiago these fumes collect in pockets and linger. Never before have my eyes stung so bad from pollution. Needless to say that Justin and I were keen to get on the road and start cycling Cuba.
To the west of Santiago the Sierra Maestra range stretches along most of the remaining southern coastline before the land pulls up and east around the Golf of Guacanayabo. The highest mountains on the island, the Sierra Maestra are where the future of Cuba germinated in the early 1950’s. The Castro brothers, Camilo Cienfuego and Che Guevara hid out here to grow and consolidate their revolutionary forces before their eventual 1956 success. By no means huge, this land can obviously still offer remoteness, a quality that we’d recognize on the extremely quiet road that seals the juncture of the southern slopes and coastline.
Our first day out along the coast road as far as Chivirico offered glimpses of what we’d experience to the west of town. The roads were quiet and the course punctuated by beaches and small bays. The road surface seemed to get rougher the further we traveled from Santiago but never got bad enough to tip the scale of enjoyment towards labor. Not as hilly as the map suggested it still gave us a good indicator of what to expect in Cuba. Despite Chivirico being touted as a tourist town it really possessed no indicators of regular visitation. No tourist cars passed us on the road and we certainly didn’t see any other foreigners around town. There are also no obvious hotels or casa particulares (like a Bed & Breakfast) so a bit of improvisation was called for. We just rode into the center of town where I asked a guy about places to stay, he took us straight to the ‘Vista del Sol’ restaurant on the east side of the bay where we were offered a room and breakfast for 20 CUC (1 CUC is roughly equal to US$1). The room was in fact someone elses bedroom that they would tidy for us to frequent, a bizarre situation but one we were happy with as we enjoyed a beer on the patio outside, watching the sun set over the ocean horizon. Would you let out our room for 20 bucks a night and sleep on the couch? I certainly would if my monthly wage was less than that. These guys were unofficial too so they made a bit of a killing, yet we didn’t feel it was at our expense.
West of Chivirico the traffic died and the state of the road reflected this decreased demand. The continual switch between good and smooth to very broken up hard top continued but now was complemented by stretches of single lane gravel track. The sea had gradually claimed large chunks of the road so progress is to be forged on either the perilously balanced remaining band of road or the replacement track which has been bodged from the embers of the seas attack. We rode through heavy rain and blazing sun, right up against the incredibly blue sea and strayed briefly into the Maestre foothills before settling in for the night on a beach just short of Mares de Portillo.
Camping in Cuba is illegal, hot and difficult to sustain on the limited foods available to purchase. We had only bought my tarp and our bug nets over from Mexico and figured that they would give us the option to camp should we so desire. We had little choice on this night but it would prove a restless experience and we dragged tired bodies into the next day. Having rigged up the tarp and eaten some pasta we retired early to our bug nets where both of us lay sweating uncomfortably under sharp stars and a powerful moon. With clear views out over the Caribbean we were kept on our guard by the poetic rhythms of flashing light that danced across the ocean horizon before straying landwards to our west. As my consciousness sewed a steady thread between the comforts of slumber and oppressive realities of a still humid night in the Caribbean, I was constantly reminded of our fortunate escape from the rain. Yet at 4:30 the inevitable caught us up, the first drops of rain hitting the tarp, prompting a slight rearrangement and return to slumber. Shortly after we were woken again as the electric show over the sea intensified. Then the breeze started, a clear indication of what was in store. As the rain closed in we spontaneously switched from awe struck gawping to frantic packing.
Although saved the full force of the storm we were hit by some pretty serious rain, precipitation that stayed with us for most of the long day into Manzanillo. The early start coupled with a long steady descent after our climb over the far western fingers of the Sierra Maestra had us cruising to an easy 70 miles, way off from our planned destination. Our hope had been to take a very minor road over the mountains to the town of Bartolome Maso, but this plan was thwarted by the extreme weather and discerning looks on the faces of locals we asked for directions. On our actual route, the coast and mountains soon gave way to giant swathes of sugar cane interspersed with the odd banana plantation, a theme that would stay with us on the next couple of days riding through Bayamo and up to Holguin. As the land flattened the riding inevitably became more mundane. Small Cuban towns and villages are much the same as one another and I found the people to lack the sense of humor that colors transition through such settlements in Mexico. That is not to say that those days were completely uneventful.
A large proportion of the Cuban population rely on bicycles as their principle means of transport. You’ll often see two people on a bike and some times even an entire family of three on one simple push bike. Whether weighed down with human cargo or not it seems that whenever people saw us approaching or were passed by us they viewed it as a challenge. Everyday we’d get tailgated numerous times by folk keen to show us we weren’t stronger than they. And we’d get challenged to races constantly. One such came on our way out of Manzanillo by two lads who were peddling like hell to ensure we didn’t catch them. One nearly flew off his bike he was pushing so hard. We followed them a good few miles before deciding to push on the pedals and show them what they’re up against. After 18 months of cycling I’m fit and strong, with my superior bike they really don’t stand a chance, but these ones turned before we reached them, taking with them a good story about beating the rich white tourists on their expensive fancy bikes.
One of the most memorable moments of the entire Cuban tour unfolded as the Maestra petered out on the way towards Manzanillo. With a legally enforced and encouraged culture of hitchhiking we were often passed by cars that we’d in turn retake as they stopped for passengers. This cycle could be repeated any number of times with the same vehicle. In the case of this tale, every time we passed the car the bonnet was up or the occupants were fiddling around with something on the car. Four times we passed each other before they overtook us a final time at the foot of a gentle incline. On this occasion they drew about 25 yards ahead of us before coming to an abrupt halt. Before we knew it people were piling out of the troubled motor as if their lives depended on it… an understandable reaction given the huge flames that were tearing out from under the bonnet. We had stopped at a safe distance to view what I suspected for some seconds might turn into a raging fireball. And it could have done if it weren’t for the heroics of one man. As the other passengers spilled out to mingle uncertainly on the road around the burning vehicle, this one chap sprinted into a copse by the side of the road. Returning with a large leafy branch he launched himself at the flaming time-bomb, spanking the flames in a manner almost exactly like Basil Fawlty did in that most famous of hitting a car with a branch scenes. This guy had clearly done this before but that didn’t dampen the hilarity of the moment, one that Justin and I shared in stunned amusement with the occupants of the surrounding houses. In Cuba we quickly learnt to expect the unexpected.
Bayamo was probably my favorite of all the towns and cities we passed through and stayed in. The whole place has a relaxed and calm feel. Although obviously set up to cater for tourists it lacked the constant hassle that came with being a foreign visitor to many other places. We took a day off here, strolling around the narrow streets with cameras in hand. It was also in Bayamo that we experienced our most positive casa experience of the entire Cuban tour. This came in the home of Jose and his wife Amarillis (which incidentally could have been my name should I have been born a girl). Jose loves to talk and although we spoke to a fair few Cubans about life in this bizarre society, it was through Jose that we learnt most. He told us about how his father was a revolutionary who risked his life to deliver vital supplies under cover of making coffee deliveries, up to the revolutionaries hiding out and organizing in the Sierra Maestra. Jose’s daughter is training as a medical doctor and he explained to us how she will earn only 25 CUC a month after 12 years training and how that is a high salary. He explained the rationing system and how although every Cuban is assured a certain amount of food it is nowhere near enough to survive off and how without the black and grey markets the excess would be unaffordable. From this he enlightened us on the situation with Cuban agriculture and some of the crazy laws that Raul Castro has repealed over the last couple of years. These include that law that prohibited people to buy and sell vehicles that were any newer than 1956. Having spent time outside of the country Jose knows another life and with his frequent casa visitors has the context to understand his country in ways many of his compatriots don’t. And to top all this off, he and his wife are fantastic cooks. We were treated to massive portions of the best food we ate in Cuba, dining experiences that were bought to close with the now immortal words of ‘… and for sweet…’ upon which he’d reveal some kind of cake that our eyes would force our bellies to accept.
Back on the road, we broke up a really enjoyable days riding out of Holguin up and east to Banes with a few hours on the beach at Guardalavaca. We’re all familiar with the archetypal image of a Caribbean beach; turquoise seas and fine white sands. This is an apt description of the beaches along this stretch of coast. I’ve never experienced water like it and I think we both welcomed the refreshing swims as much as we appreciated the stunningly attractive lady who sauntered past to base herself within easy gawping distance. The perils of the undersexed cyclist! She can’t fail to have been impressed with our hard-won cycling tans and withered torsos. Fantasy aside, this was a side of Cuba that was hard to equate with the general decay throughout the rest of the island. Conversations with the lifeguard on duty revealed that we were lucky to have a virtually deserted beach as thousands of Cubans will flock here at weekends and on holidays. The people of Holguin and other surrounding towns and cities deserve this little piece of paradise.
From Banes we would have a couple of long days counting down the miles to Baracoa. The first of these dropped us in the unremarkable town of Sagua de Tanamo. With no hotels or casas and nothing to attract tourists this is precisely the kind of place that reveals the mundane normality of life in Cuba. Cuba is reliant on tourism, a situation that ends up with much of the country being smeared in a slight sheen of bullshit as the masses try to con, hustle or plainly rape us tourists of our supposed riches. It is nice to stay in places like Sagua de Tanamo where they don’t get to rehearse their role and instead are able to be humans communicating with visiting humans instead of have-nots trying to get from the haves. We rolled in as it was getting dark having frustratingly been unable to pick a spot to set the tarp up. I picked a fella to ask about potential accommodation and a ball started rolling that would end up with us in our second unofficial casa. This one was really cheap and the risks the owner was taking in having us highlighted when he asked that we leave and return after dark. We were also shepherded out the back door in the morning. They took our money but did us a favor at the same time.
From Sagua de Tanamo it was one big and excellent days riding into Baracoa, Cuba’s oldest town. The morning treated us to a consistent roll of hills, pleasant and easy riding that ended with the unholy descent into Moa. On the northern edge of the Alejandro de Humbolt National Park, Moa is an industrial blight on a previously diverse and beautiful landscape. Once through Moa we’d ride the coastal hills through the National Park which is certified a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its claim to be possibly the most biologically diverse tropical island site on earth. Moa sets you up perfectly for this natural wonder, treating with its extensive bleak vistas of pollution, environmental degradation, smoke stacks and lifeless earth. The whole place reeks of 20th century ‘progress’ and must surely be one of the worst places to live in Cuba. Ironically it was also one of the places where we took most photographs… the power of juxtaposition.
Much of the road into Baracoa was unpaved, hilly and generally really fun to ride. Weaving in and out of fleeting bays, over unending bumps and hollows and through numerous small tropical villages, the route made us work but fed us for that toil. By the end of the day Justin and I were flying over the uneven terrain. High on the exertions of the day we swerved and jostled our way through a constant pock of potholes, with each other to focus on we felt no tiredness, instead locked into an invigorating friendly dog fight on bicycles. Baracoa arrived at the perfect time and after a bit of negotiation we were soon relaxing in our casa just off the Malecon.
You will have noticed that the route I have just described bares no resemblance to the intended plan of riding back to Havana. Our intentions and plans changed pretty much daily as we rounded the Orient. From the outset one of the places we really wanted to go was Baracoa for it had been described as a special and magical place. Magic my arse! We tried to find the magic but instead found an ordinary little town still blighted by the devastating effects of recent hurricanes. Frustratingly we also found ourselves stranded there having arrived on a Friday night with no money. With no ATMs in town and the two banks where we could have changed currency inexplicably closed that Saturday we were unable to leave as we could not afford to pay for the casa before the banks opened again on the Monday. Thankfully we’d gained a contact through previous casa stays who was willing to give us a loan until then so we could have some ‘fun’. It is a reflection on the place that within 15 minutes of getting our hands on this 40 CUC loan we’d spent 10 of it on a bottle of rum and beers.
That weekend in Baracoa really dragged by, dead time that prompted our final and dramatic route change of the Orient. We had intended to close the loop and cycle back to Santiago with the day out of Baracoa over the Sierra del Purial to Cajobabo via La Maquina threatening to be one of the finest cycling routes in Cuba. Instead we decided to save ourselves four days and bus straight out of Baracoa to Santa Clara up in the centre of the island. This way we’d be able to ride the Sierra de Guamuhaya south of Santa Clara and have enough time to head west of Havana and ride the Sierra del Rosario. So early afternoon on the Monday we wrestled with some bus ticket confusion before boarding the Viazul out of town. Indeed the bus ride over the mountains south of Baracoa was by Cuban standards sensational. I felt sick to my stomach that we’d ridden so many flat dull days only to bus over the terrain that really turns my riding juices loose. If I had my time again I’d have ridden our route backwards out of Bayamo, continued through Santiago taking in Guantanamo and the Sierra del Plurial before dropping down to Baracoa. From there I’d follow the route we took backwards around to Holguin from where I’d bus out of the region. Still, we weren’t to know and I would eventually cash in on our sacrifice.
Cycling Days Summary:
13/10/11 – Santiago de Cuba to Chivirico (55 miles, 1483 feet climbed, 5:05)
14/10/11 – Chivirico to beach camp near Marea de Portillo (56 miles, 2362 feet climbed, 5:00)
15/10/11 – Beach camp to Manzanillo (70 miles, 2146 feet climbed, 6:02)
16/10/11 – Manzanillo to Bayamo (40 miles, 505 feet climbed, 3:15)
18/10/11 – Bayamo to Holguin (47 miles, 846 feet climbed, 3:41)
19/10/11 – Holguin to Banes, via Guardalavaca (60 miles, 2283 feet climbed, 4:41)
20/10/11 – Banes to Sagua de Tanamo (73 miles, 2835 feet climbed, 6:21)
21/10/11 – Sagua de Tanamo to Baracoa (71 miles, 3770 feet climbed, 6:37)
Totals: 8 days, 472 miles, 16230 feet climbed, 40:42
Average daily mileage: 59
Average daily climb: 2029 feet
Average daily time on the bike: 5:05
Oriente Casa Contacts:
Sr. Jose Luis Garcia Bretones & Sra. Amarillis Remon Santisteban
Calla: J.A. Sass No. 275
Entre: Pio Rosado y Capotico
Byamo, Granma, 35198, Cuba
Tel.: (53)(23) 42 6216
Daniel Batista – Hostal La Roca
Calle 26 No.16 Alto,
e/Carretera a Gibara y 5ta.,
Alcides Pino, Holguin
Tel.: (53)(24) 441178
Sr. Ruben Fonseca Rivera – Casa D’Ruben
Calle:- Leon No.256 e/San Salvador y Concordia
Tel.: (53)(23) 575160
Casa Colonial Centro Ciudad
Sra. Idania Labiste Gonzalez
Cornelio Robert (Jaguey) No. 117 (Altos)
e/ Gallo y Escudero, Santiago de Cuba
Tel.: (53)(22) 620550