For the full photo diary of my time in Cuba please click here
The second phase of operation ‘see as much of Cuba as possible in one trip because I doubt I’ll be returning any time soon‘ started at 4:30am in the city of Santa Clara. Positioned in the centre west of the island, the main draws of Santa Clara were Che Guevara’s mausoleum and the prospect of riding over the Sierra de Guamuhaya to Trinidad on the coast. We had by no means either planned of envisaged landing in this dark and deserted city at such an ungodly hour but in a strange way we should be thankful that we did.
There were supposedly no direct buses from Baracoa to Santa Clara, instead passengers are required to change in Santiago. We however appear to be special and thus were able to travel direct on the Havana bus that made an unscheduled stop in Santa Clara just for us. Why? I can’t say but I think it may involve a bit of under the counter profiteering on the part of the bus staff. Despite our protestations in Baracoa the ticket clerk would not sell us a ticket, instead repetitively ushering us to sit down and not fret. Much to the bemusement of the luggage guy, both us and our gear got on the bus without a ticket. Very confused and with limited funds we really didn’t understand what was going on. Then one of the on-board staff asked us for 48 CUC each and that was that, no ticket, nothing. We made a saving, didn’t have to pull the bikes off for a change and were treated to an early morning ride around rainy Santa Clara.
After a solitary early morning visit to the Che memorial we hung around with the winos in the central square of Santa Clara where bizarre and overly loud classical music soothed our wait for a civilized hour. At 6am that hour came and we set about surprising our casa hosts before thankfully settling in to sleep. Too shortly after things were moving again, up and breakfasted we launched ourselves out into the rain, returning to the Che memorial for a more thorough investigation.
It was in this area that Che orchestrated the derailment of a military train back in 1958/59, a heroic action that essentially clinched victory for the Revolutionaries over the Batista regime. Santa Clara is now very much the centre of Che worship. In 1997 Che’s bones and those of 17 revolutionaries that died with him in Bolivia were exhumed and relocated to the mausoleum here. The inside of this mausoleum is surprisingly touching with 38 carved blocks representing those that died in Bolivia. Each mans face is carved into the stone, accompanied by a single flower, surrounded by tasteful stonework and covered by a wood block ceiling reminiscent of acoustic management surfaces. It is all surprisingly sophisticated and atmospheric. Che’s carving stands slightly removed but not so much as to devalue the significance of his comrades.
I have mixed feelings about Che Guevara, sure he was a brave and passionate man, driven by a genuine desire to change the world for good, but there are also less desirable traits. It sickens me to think of him signing away people’s lives and the hypocrisy of his time in the Cuban government hurts. Imagine a fat Guevara swanning around Havana in his chauffeur driven car, sleeping in a grand Miramar house and generally living a life of luxury. This having just taken all private property into the hands of the state and wiped out all ordinary people’s life’s savings. Cuba today is testament to the naivety of a man who thought people could be morally motivated to work, so much so that he was close to abolishing money. The museum next to the mausoleum houses a fantastic picture of the man during this period; clean-shaven, big cigar, sharp suit and fatty jowls… every inch the image of the Yankee capitalists he hated so much.
Above the whole Che complex sits a bronze statue of the man and a landscaped area with a couple of propaganda tinged billboards. Stepping back from the insurmountable negative implications of the Cuban Revolution and Che’s role within it, it was still spine tingling to think that I was standing within a few feet of the bones of a man whose image is perhaps the most iconic in the world. This mans victories and failures stand for so much, particularly in the crumbling country I’ve spent the last month exploring. I want to like Che but after a month in Cuba I find it very hard to. Do the tourists in Che T-shirts know about the La Cabaña executions? Do those with his image on their bedroom walls really understand how one mans bravery and misguided intentions can stunt the freedoms of millions of people for generations to come?
Leaving Santa Clara behind we rode south over Cuba’s second highest mountain range, the Sierra de Guamuhaya. All mountains are beautiful and these are no exception. With layers of thick tropical vegetation, some small villages and good fulfilling climbs, it was a good day on the road. Our biggest day of climbing in Cuba eventually took us down a slick steep descent into the much championed tourist town of Trinidad. To my mind Trinidad is in fact tourist hell. Sure there is some nice colonial architecture and the mountain back drop provides potential for a certain romanticism, but the reality of the Cuban tourist trade kills any joy to obtained from visiting the place. By this point we were well versed in the hassles to be expected on arrival in a new town and thus stopped up just before town to get our bearings and work out a route to our casa before the vultures could descend… too late, we got nabbed by a guy on a bike. His annoying persistence got me so pissed off I actually sank low enough to tell him what I thought in plain English, he didn’t hit me so I don’t think he understood. This was just the start, we got hassled to high hell and I was ready to turn around and leave. That evening as we went for a stroll I was able to put a fair bit of work into honing my evil ‘don’t even bother‘ stare.
The best thing you can do in Trinidad is leave, so after a brief morning walk we got out as quickly as possible. Riding the pleasant but instantly forgettable road west to Cienfuego turned out to be harder work than expected. The hot sun and an energy hangover from the previous 48 hours drained us into being easily convinced to take a day off in the city. Another very influential factor was our second fantastic casa experience of the trip. We had been set up with a lady called Olga who had a lovely house, hilarious dog and a compulsion to feed. Marching in and proclaiming an insatiable cyclists appetite was like a red rag to a bull with Olga, she spent the next two days filling us to a point well beyond comfort with really good food. For us to struggle to eat ice-cream it must be a special situation. And that it was. Fed to bursting at the dinner table we’d waddle outside to take station in the two rocking chairs Olga would positioned on the pavement out front. Much groaning, a little rocking and there you had the picture of two rather uncomfortable but very happy touring money bags. It was in these chairs that Blinio, Olga’s dog, really came into his own. A clever little blighter, he knows how to charm the tourists and locals alike. Blinio bosses the entire block; everyone knows his name, he has a hot girlfriend and more attention than he can deal with… this dog is living the dream.
It was a fortunate coincidence that we were in Cienguego for the 28th of October, a day when every school child in the country is supposed to throw a flower into the sea in memory of Camilo Cienfuego, one of the original big four revolutionaries. We just missed the ceremony but arrived in time to witness some of the flowers still afloat. There were still many youngsters around some who delighted in the apparent resemblance my beard lends me to this legendary revolutionary. A theme that ran through my entire time in Cuba although ordinarily the likeness was drawn with Che. That day it became quite unnerving seeing the small children sporting berets and dressed up as old 1950’s revolutionaries; do these people really still believe in the revolution!?! I’m not so sure from what the people we spoke to said.
I don’t think I’ve ever woken up and not looked forward to breakfast before, Olga fed us up so much this is what happened on our final morning in Cienfuego. If we didn’t leave our health was in serious danger. A bizarre Cuban freak that we both wanted to check out was the unfinished nuclear power station that sits on the coast south-east of the city. Originally planned with the backing of Soviet cash, its great hulking stature clearly belies this influence. Fortunately (for I would seriously doubt Cuba’s ability to maintain the safety standards necessary for nuclear reactors) the Soviets folded before the power station was completed. Castro tried to continue on with the project but the plug was finally pulled in the 1990’s leaving this fascinating lump of Soviet architecture to color an otherwise dull piece of coastline.
Having made our way to the power station and delighted in its unique photographic potential, focus shifted towards locating the coastal track we hoped would take us west along the coast towards Playa Giron. After much toing and froing and a bit of asking, we finally managed to find the sandy little snicket down to the sea. The rewards were instant; two happy cyclists delighting in the gauntlet of the narrow and unpaved. Throwing the bikes around rocks, thorns and large puddles, this primitive road was proving great fun. Then Justin discovered he’d lost his sandals forcing a solo retreat that left me a solitary hour on the beach staring back at the power station, by now an unnatural blip on the horizon. The footwear was sadly never recovered leaving Justin to return tired and crest fallen. Soon the sun was falling and we were setting up the tarp for our second night of Cuban camping.
The only other night spent under the tarp, on the coast west of Chivirico in the Oriente, had been an eventful but certainly not restful experience. We hoped that with the slightly cooler temperatures up here this night would be more comfortable… it wasn’t. This time we used the bikes as the centre support for an A-Frame pitch in the belief it would cope better with the rain… it didn’t. Much of the night was gorgeous; incredibly clear with popping stars and a hint of the Milky Way. If it weren’t for the mosquitoes that were feasting royally, I would have delighted in sleeping beneath the stars. But the airless heat under the tarp was barely tolerable. A splash of early morning rain was all it took to prompt relieved surrender to the new day. Two tired cyclists sat on the sands around a steaming pot of coffee patiently waiting for the sun to rise enough for them to rejoin the track west.
Riding the eastern edge of the Bay of Pigs turned out to me a massive let down. The water was the fresh blue we’d become accustomed to but the road was fat and featureless. Neither was there much to indicate the Revolutions victory here against the supposedly U.S. backed counter-revolutionary forces. We had assumed, the Castro regime being what it is, that they’d have jumped all over the propaganda potential of this victory with billboards and the like. Unfortunately those photo opportunities never materialised. In fact, the highlight of that day into Jaguey Grande turned out to be the discovery of Peanut butter in Playa Giron. Little did we know on leaving Havana that the crunchy gold would become such a holy grail.
Our casa experience in Jaguey Grande was probably our only negative one of the whole Cuba tour. They had shown us one room and given us another, something I complained about and managed to win us a 25% discount. By this time any sympathy I had with the Cuban people for the restrictions placed on them by the Revolution had been completely smothered by the constant hassle and badgering for money. I thoroughly detest the assumption that because we are richer and freer than them we should just give them our money… isn’t that the root of the assumption that has crippled Cuba?!?
A day riding north across country to Mantanzas via the town of Union Reyes was uneventful, characterless, but enjoyable nonetheless. As we desperately searched for a lunch time Cola in Union Reyes our path crossed that of another pair of cycle tourists, a German couple who were only two days in and as confused about Cuba as we had been at that stage. The only other cycle tourist we met on the island was Roger, another German who we bumped into on our way out of Moa down in the Oriente.
Mantanzas is described as ‘the real Cuba‘ in the Lonely Planet we’d been lent. What that actually means is that it is just like the rest of Cuba, those parts that aren’t made unbearable by blind surrender to tourists. From ‘the real Cuba‘ it was a utilitarian push west along the coast to Havana, which I assume is not the real Cuba at all. Riding into the city was really no bother at all, we knew the layout from our previous time there and there is usually good signage entering cities. The ride in was coloured by two young lads who insisted on racing us. They were on one bike and actually incredibly quick for their load. One of them would pedal like hell carrying the other on the rear rack. He’d then dismount as the passenger seamlessly shifted forward into the driving seat, the movement was almost poetic. But these guys didn’t make as bigger impact as a chap who had tried racing us earlier. We were cruising along when half way up a hill a well-built muscular fella pulled up alongside and asked in a somewhat pathetic tone ‘Can I come with you guys?’. Poor bastard could hardly breathe for the effort! I assured him he could if he fancied a workout and powered off over the horizon in a cloud of arrogance. With only two panniers it it amazing how far and fast one can cycle.
We had been in touch with Rosa, the mildly dotty lady whose casa we had stayed in in Havana and who was looking after our bike boxes. She was expecting us but had no space, instead releasing us into the care of her neighbor, Maria Rosa. This is something that happened time and time again as the casa owners all tried to scratch each others backs. The downgrade saved us some cash, an appreciated move as Cuba was bleeding us dry. Maria is an older lady with a heart of gold and a tongue that never stops. The old dear never stops talking a fast and jumbled Cuban Spanish that she must have known we didn’t understand. The less we responded the more excited she became and it all became a little intense. She even managed to poke her head up and speak to me in the shower. I don’t know how Ramon, an English student (originally from Maidenhead just down the road from where I grew up) who lodges with her deals with it. Maria made Rosa look remarkably together, which I suppose she is.
Despite their eccentricities these two ladies are lovely and we really took them to our hearts. I hope that others visiting Havana will look Rosa up as she’s perfectly positioned and has been trying to save up money for a trip to Central America. After a day off in Havana that had us hitting up the tourist sites of the Plaza de la Revolucion and Jose Marti monument, then luxuriating over coffee, we started moving west out towards Vinales. It is a testament to the size of Maria’s heart that she packed us off with a whole pineapple and a litre of juice… no one said angels had to be quiet.
Havana sprawls considerably more to the west than it does the east, so it was a while before we burst out into the countryside. Riding the Malecon and sea front roads out of town we witnessed big and shiny tourist hotels and the grand old houses of Miramar. All a far cry from the part of town and small apartments we’d been staying in. This made me appreciate even more the hospitality we received in Havana; Rosa and Maria sit at a halfway point between abject tourism and gritty Cuban reality. When her rooms are full Maria sleeps on the floor in her kitchen, her efforts and apartment provide a valuable glimpse behind the facade of tourism, allowing an eye to wander into the actual existence of many Cubans.
Released from the urban clutches of Havana, our route took us through Bauta and Guanajay before briefly dumping us onto the autopista. The autopistas are the equivalent of Interstates in the U.S. or Motorways back home; two or three lane highways promising quick and uninterrupted transit. We’d ordinarily avoid them like the plague but riding one short intersection was worth it for the experience. The lack of vehicles in Cuba mean they are deserted, frequented mainly by hitch hikers, tourist traffic and guys who spend their days cutting the grass verges (by hand). Only three cars passed us making the short experience quite surreal. Justin’s description of it as a six lane bike path is quite apt, although I suspect most bike paths are in better condition.
The 4 CUC entrance fee to the Las Terrazaz eco reserve stopped us in our tracks for a while but the contours on our map suggested the road up and around to Soroa would be a beauty. For once the map didn’t disappoint, hills it reported actually existed. The next 15 miles turned out to be some of the most enjoyable in the whole of Cuba. As the sun poked through threatening clouds we snaked, climbed and dove through thick vivid green vegetation cresting a collection of small mountains. Spirits were higher than ever, buoyed by a rest in Havana and overjoyed with the successful balance of effort and reward afforded by this uncharacteristically varied route. Dropping south out of the mountains it was already obvious that the country west of Havana offers the most beautiful landscapes of the entire country.
If you can call a light load of two rear panniers a load at all, the long day from Soroa over the Sierra del Rosario to Vinales, was to be our last loaded day in Cuba. After 20 miles utility riding the route started to climb up over the mountains towards La Palma on the north side. I loved it as the road dipped and swerved through a fairytale range of flora and fauna; everything seemed to be green, different shades giving away the vast varieties of plant life. About 35 miles in and halfway across the mountains we stopped under the shade of a tree for lunch. Whilst cutting up the pineapple Maria had provided, two guys appeared and gifted us both an orange… maybe we had been wrong to bitch and moan so much about the apparently rude and humorless Cuban people.
Soon at the high point of the route the dramatic and otherworldly limestone cliffs and buttresses opened out in front of us and pine trees started to make themselves increasingly known amongst the palms. Negotiating the challenging road conditions down to La Palma our nostrils were filled with the nostalgic and rejuvenating smell of pine. Absorbed amidst a frankly awesome landscape Cuba’s redemption was almost complete. We’d run out of water but even that couldn’t sour the mood after chancing upon a guy filling water butts from a huge fast flowing hose. My request for water was met with the warmest smile imaginable, a soothing expression that he held the entire time it took for him to fill a couple of our bottles. This man uttered not a single word and it was unnerving just how powerful his aura of calm was. He came from nowhere to give us clean water when we needed it and although we were not desperate his whole demeanor made me think of angels.
Rolling into Vinales under cover of darkness meant we were rewarded a pleasant surprise in the morning. Our last port of call, we stayed here a couple of days before bussing back to Havana in order to catch our flight ‘home’ to Mexico. That first morning the mountains of the Vinales National Park were calling us, duly obliging we rejoiced in leaving the bags at the casa and riding unencumbered into their heart. The loose plan was to complete a looped route of tracks around the Vinales mountains. Unfortunately these tracks were so seldom traveled and confusing that our progress was prematurely halted at a dead-end. After settling on the top of a broad ridge for a bite of lunch we beat a retreat. Although we’d have to cycle back to Vinales and had a little ride down to the coast at Puerto Esperanza the next day, this was figuratively the end of the Cuba tour for me, we’d travel no further from Havana. With almost one thousand miles on the odometer and perched above the most stunning landscape I believe Cuba has to offer it seemed worthless to go any further on this island. I felt as if I’d finally got a handle on the natural forces at work and found a place of peace away from the whirlpool of conflicting social, political and economic forces that make this place so unique. The ironic thing is that we broke the law to be at that place, tourists aren’t supposed to be there without spending money on a guide… how typically Cuban.
Cycling Days Summary:
26/10/11 – Santa Clara to Trinidad (60 miles, 5764 feet climbed, 6:28)
27/10/11 – Trinidad to Cienfuego (52 miles, 1824 feet climbed, 3:58)
29/10/11 – Cienfuego to beach camp (50 miles, 1000 feet climbed, 5:00)
30/10/11 – Beach camp to Jaguey Grande, via Bay of Pigs (61 miles, 322 feet climbed, 4:48)
31/10/11 – Jaguey Grande to Mantanzas, via Union de Reyes (61 miles, 938 feet climbed, 4:48)
01/11/11 – Mantanzas to Havana (63 miles, 2093 feet climbed, 4:45)
03/11/11 – Havana to Soroa (66 miles, 3071 feet climbed, 5:29)
04/11/11 – Soroa to Vinales, via La Palma (70 miles, 5167 feet climbed, 7:03)
05/11/11 – Day ride west from Vinales on tracks via Pons (51 miles, 2395 feet climbed, 4:30)
06/11/11 – Vinales to Porto Esperanza and back (31 miles, 1463 miles, 2:21)
Totals: 10 days, 565 miles, 24037 feet climbed, 49:10
Average daily mileage: 56.5
Average daily climb: 2404
Average daily time on the bike: 4:55
Statistics For The Entire 30 Days In Cuba:
Totals: 18 days, 1037 miles, 40267 feet climbed, 89:52
Average daily mileage: 57.6
Average daily climb: 2237
Average daily time on the bike: 5:00
Centre & West Casa Contacts:
Sra. Rosa Villamil Allende
Oquendo 664, apt. 15
e/Estrella y Salvador Allende (Carlos III)
Tel.: (53)(52) 501286
Sra. Maria Rosa Mancriffe
Oquendo 664, apt. 13
e/Estrella y Salvador Allende (Carlos III)
Tel.: (53-7) 8790824
Sra. Olga Lidia Martinez Fdez.
Calle 41, 5012
e/50 y 52, Cienfuegos
Tel.: (53)(43) 550439
Hostal de Gloria
Sra. Gloria Perez Gonzalez
Calle Orlando Nodarse 15