Final Days, final thoughts

When the cycling portion of our trip ended on Thursday we packed a few items and headed to the white sandy beaches of Guardalavaca and loafed on the beach, floated in the water, and got our fill of pizza and ice cream. A perfect way to finish our Cuban Adventure.

We lingered with local people and struck up some good substantive conversations with a few locals about all things Cuba. We talked politics, food shortages, disparity, and the constitutional referendum that happened yesterday. Talk to a Cuban journalist and you are in for some great insights into life on the island!

Last night we hung around the town square in Holguin. There were people in the street everywhere and it felt like a festive atmosphere likely due to Referendum Day. The referendum is a big deal here, and people & conversation filled the air.

As we wait for our big blue taxi to come a take us to the airport we are hoping he will bring ropes this time to secure the bike boxes on top of the car. For the transfer from one Casa to another the other day he just threw them on top, sans ropes, and insisted all was ok, he’ll drive carefully. Speaking of taxis, while we were taking our taxi back to Holguin yesterday the driver slowed to a stop at a punto control (check point). At first we were a little concerned that maybe we would be required to produce passports to the armed guard. But the guard proceeded to hop into the car, hitching a ride to Holguin. “hola”s were exchanged and Randy and I both silently reflected. Yep, things operate differently in Cuba. Vacancies in moving automobiles are inherently expected to be offered up to others. And we are ok with it.

At the beach yesterday we were situated beside a Cuban man and his son, loafing in the sun just like we were. His son had been quietly asking his Dad if he knew where we were from. That was our conversation starter. We talked a lot, exchanged philosophical views, and it felt like we’d made new friends by the end of the afternoon. Dad worked at a cafe called Begonia near the town square so this morning we choose to sip cappuccino at Begonia. He spotted us there and big giant smiles ensued. We were all happy.

We have learned to accept all that Cuba is. Much of it is broken or dysfunctional, mysteries still remain unsolved, and it’s a fascinating study of humanity, resilience of people, resourcefulness, and living in a society where everything has its surface appearance but is multi-layered. When you have the privilege of seeing under a few of those layers you become drawn in. And the more drawn in, the more you want to see. Next stop: Toronto. Ciao, amigos!

Day 20: Floating in the Ocean Day!

Floating in the ocean, shopping for groceries, and we found water!

The cycling is all done, boxes are packed and ready to ship home on Monday. We took a 1959 Chevy station wagon taxi to Guardalavaca to spend two nights. We plan to do not much more than float in the ocean and show off our weird tan lines. Our Casa tonight is a cute little place on a secluded road facing the beach. 10 seconds to walk from door to water! We decided to have dinner at the Casa tonight and enjoyed a gigantic lobster, with some delicate rice and tomato salad.

The Guardalavaca beach is located directly in front of two all inclusive resorts (Club Amigo and Brisas), and it’s also the public beach that Cubans can enjoy. We have been to a number of all inclusives here in Cuba and the public beach at Guardalavaca is just a nice as any.

We aren’t sure we’ll ever quite understand the ins and outs of some of the service industry here. We saw a little food hut supposedly selling hamburgers and there was a group of people (I think Cubans) who appeared to be eating French fries! Oh yeaaaahh! No more rice & beans for us! So we order a hamburguesa con queso (cheeseburger) and point out fries in the picture, indicating we want them too. “No hay.” “Really?” “No hay” (we point to the table of people eating fries) “no hay”. Ok. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon and fries are no hay? We accept the the only thing we are getting is a hamburguesa.

Speaking of food (as I so often do), we found a pizza joint in Holguin. Dino’s pizza. Of course nobody was eating pizza when we went in, just drinking rum and beer. We noticed that the place closes at 5. Re-opens at 6. This seems odd to us….wouldn’t you want to have the pizza joint open during prime dinner hour? We’re not sure why they regularly close for an hour but we did notice they seemed to be counting and re-counting money. We’ve seen this often. Store clerks are very concerned with making sure every itty bitty peso is accounted for. Sometimes we’ve had to wait in a grocery lineup for 15 minutes while clerks count every coin in the till.

Shopping in stores is all business. You get in, you get your stuff, you get out. At the exit door sits a security person who looks at your bill and counts the items in your bag. Every item. 6 bottles of water…they count em. “One, two, three, four, five, six”. Glancing and assessing that it looks like six is not an option. There are not many choices or options of what to buy in grocery stores. There may be meat: 3 freezers full of individually frozen hamburger patties and 3 freezers full of chicken weiners. That’s it. There is a whole aisle full of sweetened condensed milk. And there is always an aisle full of tomato paste. You likely need to hunt all over town to find all the products you need.

We found lots of bottled water in Holguin!

We have baking aisles at home. In Cuba you may find a sweetened condensed milk aisle.

Curiously, the taxi from Holguin cost us the same (25CUC) to bring us 60km to Guardalavaca as it will cost us to go 9km from Holguin to the airport on Monday. Some things make more sense than others. But it’s Cuba. And we love Cuba, even if we don’t understand all of Cuba.

Tonight we walked down to covertly investigate the entertainment at the Brisas all inclusive…..pitch black road but we had a flashlight. Good thing we did! We narrowly missed stepping on a snake followed by a scorpion.

Day 19: Bayamo to Holguin

Our final cycling day! We’ve returned to where we started in Holguin after a long day of heat, a headwind, and trucks on the road. About 70km (Strava and Ride with GPS both failed to add the distance correctly). The road was lined with sugar cane fields much of the way. The road surface was heavy with potholes and bumps making it feel harsh We often felt like it was just “work” but we wanted to get to the beach for a few days of floating on the warm ocean water, and loafing in the sunshine with nowhere to go. So tomorrow we head to Guardalavaca for a few nights where the beach is all powdery white sand like you see in travel brochures! It’s about 50km from Holguin.

We are so grateful for our Casa owner Oscar, who has arranged transportation to the beach for us and will also reserve a taxi for the airport on Monday. Today when we arrived here we were greeted with big smiles followed by a bowl of fresh cut fruit!

So, no real scenery to speak of today. Just long open road and fields of sugarcane. Therefore, when we headed downtown to eat dinner we snapped a few old car pics. The project this evening is to disassemble and re-pack the bikes into their shipping boxes!

Day 18: Manzanillo to Bayamo

Chicken lineups, the old dancing Cuban, the crazy roads between cities, Randy eats beef, and prosperity in Bayamo.

Today it was not about the scenery. In fact, it was rather unremarkable but the road from Manzanillo to Bayamo is a means to an end. We’ve been trying to fast-track it back to Holguin to buy ourselves a few days off the bike and showing off our super weird bike tans at the beach.

While leaving Manzanillo this morning Randy struck up a conversation with a fellow who told us that there’s a food shortage going on around these parts. We noticed a crowd congregating outside of a store that appeared to be opening soon and we asked someone what it was all about and we were told they are waiting for pollo (chicken). There are designated depots where Cubans can collect their rationed out food. From all indications around us those rations are not what sustains these people, by far. Nobody appears hungry to us, that’s for sure!

An old man approached us and wanted to hear about our journey and wanted to share how he’s been dancing all his life. He proceeded to do a little dance for us there in the street! After Randy took his picture he asked us to take a picture of all three of us, and then one with Randy and him. We heard a little about how life has changed for him over the years, how he used to rent out a room to travellers from time to time but now with the new Casa system he can no longer do that. After we snapped a few pictures he wanted to see them on the camera and he looked so darn pleased with himself, I think it made his day to be starring in a tourists’ photo memory. He is 70 years old and has no family, and is all alone in the world, but seems quite happy.

Let’s talk beef again. Although we understood it’s not consumed here in Cuba, it has appeared on very few menus including one tonight at a great restaurant in Bayamo. So, Randy ate beef. If I return to Canada and he’s not with me you’ll know why. Actually, for a country that doesn’t officially eat beef, we’ve been surprised at the number of cows that are farmed here. Cows everywhere, though not dairy cows. Very little milk and dairy products available and the Nestle ice cream we keep searching for is likely imported. Unsolved mystery, this business of cows.

As we’ve mentioned, there aren’t that many cars on the road. Probably more horses and bicycles within city limits than cars. In the cities the motorists are quite considerate of us cyclists, pedestrians, and horse carts. It’s been our observation that the vehicular traffic between cities is low in volume but very high in aggressive driving habits. We could be on a bare 2km stretch of road with no shoulder and a truck approaches from behind and also in front. They have zero hesitation whatsoever to pass each other right beside us on the road, each going 100km+. This isn’t an occasional thing, it’s always. We have had a number of trucks overtake a car right at the magic moment we are all side by side on the road. Buses, trucks, cars….none of them slows even a hair. Several times we’ve felt the suction of air as a big truck passes within inches of us. Very scary to say the least. We attribute it to being commercial traffic between cities and the only thing on their mind is to get from A to B as fast as possible.

Prosperity in Bayamo! Not everywhere of course but in the downtown area here you would really have to stretch your imagination to make the image fit the message we’ve always heard about Cuban people having so little.

Day 17: Pilon to Manzanillo

Dear Cuba:

We need to talk. We have travelled here from very far away and it’s 33C today. We’d really like to hydrate with something other than beer or rum, but every single establishment in the 94km between Pilon and Manzanillo has only beer and rum available. There must be some misunderstanding. Cuba, can you understand our concern? We found 4L of apple juice hidden in a small store and tried that but after while our lips were just dry and sticky and honestly our tummies hurt a little. When you deliver those beer, rum and cigars to those roadside huts out in the middle of nowhere, if you just throw a few bottles of water on the delivery truck we would happily pay twice the regular price. You could make money from us! Our ride included a 1,000m climb over one of your mountains. It was really hot and sweaty and we hoped to find water in the next town. Instead I think we found The Cola Store because it had three shelves and a large cooler all full of Fiesta brand cola. Cola is similar to water, but not quite the same. The Cola Store worker understood our concerns, as we hope you too Cuba, will understand. After purchasing two carefully selected colas she filled our bottles from the tap and we were able to use our SteriPen to help out. We really appreciate all that you’ve done for us, Cuba, but we’d like to gently suggest that you make water portable for us. We’d feel a whole lot better about things. We still love you, Cuba. Let’s work things out.

Love, Randy and Anita

PS. Sorry we took so few photos of your beautiful country today. We were too busy searching for water.

PPS. We found a most excellent Casa in Manzanillo. The owner prepared us an authentic spaghetti dinner that was perfecto. We also found water after about 92km of cycling. There’s hope for us yet.

Day 16: La Mula to Pilon

A most excellent day! Worth every bump, pothole, hill (mountain), and buckets of sweat.

Thankfully the Campismo experience is over! Honestly the campismo itself was quite all right. It was the very loud partying people next door to us who let us sleep for a few hours then whammo! On goes the music, full blast just a few feet from out hut. Frantic, repetitive “undelay undelay yeehaw!” All. night. long. It made riding in the heat today that much harder but we did it, 75km. Right around Marea de Portillo we were about to capitulate and check ourselves into the all inclusive 2 star Club Amigo resort…oh, the lure of the beach, and the idea of a smorgasbord of bread and butter to nibble on (cuz usually the food is pretty bad in those places)… we rolled in and learned it was full. No space for us. We did however enjoy ice cream and cold drinks in the shaded lobby while we probed the front desk lady for intel on a Casa in the next town of Pilon. Everybody here knows someone who owns a Casa. Casa all arranged, we headed out another 13km to Pilon where the Casa owner met us at the edge of town on his fancy electric modern racing motorcycle and escorted us to his Casa. Things always work out here. 😃

The scenery today! OMG! For the first three hours of the ride we saw three vehicles, a man on horseback and three fellow cycle tourists from France. So many times we had to just stop and look behind us to actually believe the scenery that we are beholding. The camera can’t even capture it. You need to see it with bare eyes. The only way to get there however (realistically), is by bicycle, mule, or foot. We skirted the seaside much of the time while waves crashed right next to us, always threatening to erode the road even more. There were plenty of places where the pavement just drops off due to previous erosion so we are careful not to ride on that edge.

This southern coast is exceptional, breathtaking and not to be missed! We’d say it’s best travelling it on a mountain bike. A touring bike with fairly good sized tires works too. Road bike…Ha! forget about it!

Day 15: Chivirico to La Mula

Our map shows us going further, but given the heat and the impending poor road conditions we are breaking the trip up and staying in La Mula.

Fantastic, awesome route today and the Campismo experience.

Wild, rugged, & beautiful. There are no more words for the stretch of the route we covered today. Stunning! We were mostly alone for hours on end. We saw probably five cars and a few horses. Occasionally a pedestrian out in the middle of nowhere. Curiously, despite the remoteness of the region there was brand new asphalt much of the way! However, we had heard there was a bridge out, and that’s an understatement. A big giant chunk of road absolutely missing. Fortunately there was an established detour. Big imposing rock faces, shockingly expansive mountains, crashing waves and goats galore. You’ll get your baby goat fix! They are everywhere. There were times we just stopped and stared at the turquoise water and said “Yes!!! That is definitely why we came!”

The Campismo experience: Camping Cuban style! Here’s a primer: no tents or sleeping bags required. There are little huts of varying quality and design to sleep in. Sheets and towels provided. (We scored the least desirable of the choices, unfortunately). There are chickens and baby chicks on the loose and once when we stepped out the door there were a few baby piglets foraging around for goodies. Dinner is by reservation only and served on tables with table cloths and cutlery. Our hut didn’t have a private bathroom like the others so we have to use the shared facilities. Showers have no shower heads but full bore water pressure. Our particular hut has three bunk beds and could sleep 6. Others have two beds, a small bar fridge, and private attached washroom. Ours is made of stone and is eerily remiscent of an army barrack. One plug, and the fixture is so badly worn & loose that plugs won’t even stay in. However, it’s a place to sleep and for that we are grateful. We would have been even more grateful if the pizzeria shack had remained open long enough for us to get pizza. There is however the ever present beer and wine available. Randy tried to order just a glass of wine and after a degree of struggling with translation we determined that a glass is not an option. Only the whole bottle. Ok. $2.30. We can spring for that.

The poor, poor dogs of Cuba. We have seen so many mangy, needy, skinny pooches. Tonight there was a forlorn little guy in the campsite. (Randy wants to bring him home) Half bald from some skin affliction and an ear with bleeding sores. We decided to sacrifice our can of tuna to give him what looks like could be his last meal. Opened it up and placed it on the ground. The little guy ran away, probably afraid of humans who keep shooing him off to the side.

Day 14: Santiago de Cuba to Chivirico

Plan B and A, Economic prosperity, goats everywhere and scenery waaaaayyy beyond the resorts. The road to Chivirico is beautiful!

Last night we contemplated a Plan B, considered bailing out of the ride to Chivirico and beyond due to relentless dehydrating heat, and the remote terrain that will become increasingly so for the next two days. But we determined that this is what we came for and we don’t want to miss the unspoiled spectacular scenery that supposedly awaits us along the southern most coastline of Cuba. There are fewer Casa’s to stay in so we will take our chances. Things always work out.

An English speaking friend of our Casa owner last night gave us some advice about a possible Plan B (basically, no plan B. He said we’d be missing the best part!). So back to plan A. He told us about a Casa in one of our places of interest, complete with instructions about reserving that Casa on an island he knew of. Apparently we show up, stand on the shore and yell “Carlos! Carlos!” toward the island and Carlos should hear us.

We woke up super early to leave. As we left behind the big puffy black fumes of Santiago de Cuba and headed down to the coast we were rewarded with amazing views of mountains to the right and the Caribbean to the left. We passed dozens of small unspoiled beaches. Beaches in the south shore are rocky while those along the northern coast are white powdery sand.

We noticed more economic prosperity as we moved along the coast. More houses being fixed up or newly built, and some lovely beachside communities. It was great to see beaches with Cubans swimming in the ocean rather than tourists. Very few tourists in these parts.

We found the best open air seaside restaurant that had only opened a few days ago. It was a Restaurant/Farm and about 50 ft from our table were pens with hogs in them (great big snorting ones), alongside an enclosure for ducks, chickens, turkeys and other birds. Lots to look at while we waited for Shrimp Alfredo (😃) to be served. The server so wanted us to enjoy our experience there. Randy and I wandered down to the shoreline to take a look and the server showed up there with an unexpected big plate of delicious fruit to enjoy before our meal.

Goats and sheep are a constant and regular thing on the roads. There are always a collection of them grazing, little ones baaa-ing and always more lazily crossing the roadway with a sense of entitlement. At one point a great big hog sauntered across followed by one little piglet.

So here we are in Chivirico. Chivirico we hear, is the end of the line for buses and taxis and most cars since the road beyond is supposedly unpassable in places. Yep! That’s where Randy and Anita shall venture tomorrow!

Day 13: rest day in Santiago de Cuba

The heat that threatens to defeat us, the final resting spots of Fidel, and Compay Segundo (Cuban guitarist) and the hustle and bustle of a big city. It was a well needed rest day so we spent it on foot in the city.

The day heats up past 30 and with the sunshine and humidity it becomes our greatest challenge. Staying hydrated is a constant effort and I in particular, never seem to stay ahead of the game. The route, the terrain and the hills are all secondary.

We hired a human powered bicycle cart (we felt just a little wrong having someone pedal us around in the heat, but he was quite insistent) to take us on a small tour up to the Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia to view the massive important cemetery and it’s most revered occupants. Fidel Castro lays in rest next to the mausoleum of national hero José Martí. Fidel is reported to have requested no monuments or statues in his honour, and thus a very big boulder marks his place with just “Fidel” inscribed on a plaque.

There is so much busyness in the city and so much “urban” atmosphere one feels far away from the banana groves of rural Cuba. Loud music blasting from every direction and ice cream parlours everywhere! Sidewalks are narrow, full of potholes & broken cement and all kinds of hazards (as everywhere in Cuba it seems). If you walk without looking down at all times you do so at your own peril. Shoe stores, tailor shops and other stores lined the streets in the tourist area. We saw perfumes, people lined up to buy cakes, and barbecues we’re fired up everywhere. We bought Churro’s. They are deep fried dough with what tastes like cream cheese filling. Really greasy but it went down fine. (Well, not really, but we aren’t talking about that).

Our Casa owner/operator is named Manuel. Randy tells me he is a cardiologist who has practised in other countries but has returned to Cuba to help his parents with the Casa.

We are now in the second half of our adventure and really dreaming ahead to a few planned beach days at the end.

Day 12: Guantanamo to Santiago de Cuba

Big puffy black smoke & trucks, highways with few cars, and a hidden gem of a Casa. We have arrived in Santiago de Cuba! Population of 431,500. 100km ride to get here today.

We left Guantánamo early this morning because it gets so stinkin warm with the sun! After leaving our Casa (that we loved!) we stopped in the central square to source out a little food (it’s always a perpetual hunt for food here). Randy excitedly spotted someone selling what appeared to be Nutella squeezed inside a bun. Our Casa last night was situated beside a bakery which smelled wonderful all night long and we were dreaming….but they wouldn’t sell us anything. Government issue bread we suppose. Randy ran and paid the guy 4 national pesos (not the CUCs) which adds up to a whopping $.08 each. Buns in hand, we devour the delicious thingys but they were some sort of ground meat. No Nutella.

Lots of school children continued to stare at us. They do that pretty much everywhere we go. We haven’t figured out why we are such an attraction. It could be our bikes because everyone studies them closely. We’ve noticed that we have seen some male Cuban road cyclists from time to time but have yet to see a single female in Lycra. Perhaps that’s the curiosity.

There are so few motorized vehicles here, and the ones that are emit brutally big puffy clouds of black sooty exhaust on us when they pass on the road. The drivers seem oblivious (ok, insensitive) to enveloping us in the Black Cloud. Frequently we have buses (big buses) pass us on road right at the same moment there is an oncoming vehicle, despite there not being any other car in sight as far as the eye can see. They lay on the accelerator and Poof. Black Cloud.

Speaking of cars, we had a little concern about entering Santiago de Cuba via the A-1 Autopiste. It’s their national highway and Santiago de Cuba is a big city. With no alternative routes, we braved ourselves. We reminded each other “stay close! If we have to bail, we’ll reassess”. So….we enter the A-1 (looks like the 401 on the map). It’s a divided highway with 2 – 4 lanes each direction. It’s only 12 km into the city Randy reassures. We head into the route. For the next half hour we had probably less than a dozen cars & trucks pass us, a single speed bicycle, and a motorcycle. We passed a few horse drawn carts, two bulls grazing at the side, a few chickens and a dog lingering on the pavement. That’s it. Under the Big Overpass I saw one single horsecart meandering. This was rush hour on the A-1. 15km of long downhill into the city! The only thing to really watch out for were horse turds.

It was overcast all day and sprinkled a few times but it made for easier riding. We arrived in downtown (which was frantic with traffic) then started looking for a Casa. We had a potential one lined up and navigated to where it was. Again, not terribly impressed from the outside. But inside, a there is a beautiful rooftop terrace that looks like a greenhouse full of tropical plants growing everywhere. Another gorgeous room behind the exterior facade. We just settled in and then began a torrential downpour that lasted more than an hour

Tomorrow is a rest day for us, reserved for hunting down awesome food and people watching!