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 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 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!

Day 11: Imias to Guantanamo

There’s more to Cuba than meets the eye, and Cuba is complicated. Doing our time in Guantanamo.

Let’s talk economy and perception. We’ve all heard how the average state salary equates to about $40-$80 a month. And, there are silly crazy price tags attached to everything other than food (and much of that too is crazily priced). There’s virtually nothing that’s of better quality or cheaper to buy here). The quality of most things are what one expects at our dollar stores, and in many cases those “economy” items from home are far superior.

Food is rationed here, and it’s not enough to feed a family for a month. And yet there are so many well-fed, well-dressed Cubans. Are they, or are they not, in need? Do they need those items that tourists love to bring or don’t they?

As we rolled in Guantánamo today we were surprised at how progressive and affluent some appear in this urban center. It’s not displayed on the buildings exteriors that are sometimes patched together with a mishmash of wood, metal and anything else that’s available. But go for a walk at night and stand at an intersection. You’ll see sharp dressed Cubans on flashy motorcycles, old rickety bikes, and horse drawn utility carts all at the same stop light. Peek in through some open doorways as you walk by in the street and you’ll see some beautiful homes behind the exteriors.

There is great disparity here. Those who “have” seem to have it. Those who don’t, really don’t.

The Casa we had hoped to occupy tonight was full so the fellow arranged another for us. He accompanied us four blocks down the busy street to our new address and as we approached Randy and I both admit to judging a book by its cover. I went inside to inspect the room while Randy stayed with the bikes outside. Our host showed us the room. I walked past a gorgeous courtyard that was totally unexpected! Tropical plants, an outside terrace in the upper floor, and beautiful furnishings. We are in our happy place!

Despite the affluence that we see, there are still a lot of things that money just can’t buy in Cuba. The host had a young boy following her around and we presented him a Hot Wheel car (they are the best gifts!). Both hers and his eyes lit up and he squealed with delight. Thrilled, he was!

Hardware stores, toy stores, and bicycle stores would most probably rate among those most greatly needed here. You won’t find any.

Today’s ride was hard. I’m talking real hard. We burn through 5L of water on our rides and I’m perpetually dehydrated. The route today was almost desolate, and much of it was brown and arid in appearance. Food challenges remain but as we found a service center just outside of Guantanamo, we hit the mother load of chocolate ice cream! (random observation: sitting on the curb at the gas station we saw several young men lingering. One was carrying around a pigs head by the ear.) Then just down the street from our Casa, hamburgers (chicken, really)!! And ice cream bars!

Cuba didn’t run out of ice cream after all. It had all been diverted to Guantanamo apparently. (Confession: we each ate a tub of chocolate ice cream, a nutty buddy bar, and an ice cream sandwich).

Day 10: Baracoa to Imias (Climbing La Farola)

The HILLS, the changing landscapes, pushy mountain people, and no hay ice cream. Again.

We’d been dreading the La Farola mountain pass. Leaving Baracoa, we have to traverse these mountains to reach the Caribbean and every time we told people we were going through La Farola they delivered us a “crazy tourist” look. So, we made sure we woke up early and hit the road.

La-de-la-la-ing along the 15km leading toward the mountain the greenery, the flowering shrubs & trees were all so gorgeous. Then we were there. At the base of the climb. Nowhere to go but UP for 20 more km. The sun and heat were relentless but there were small patches of shade from time to time for reprieve. We had agreed in advance to take lots of short breaks. The landscape of Cuba that most conjure up in their mind’s eye is that of white sand beaches and palm trees. Cuba is so much more. Majestic mountains & big open raw rock faces. As we neared the highest point the landscape changed And began transitioning into a drier region featuring succulents and cactii. By the time we reached the bottom and the terrain levelled out we were alongside the beautiful blue ocean to the left. To the right it looked like a scene out of the Wild West.

Dotted along the mountain pass were people selling fresh mandarins, bananas, chocolate, and coffee beans. At the summit, the pedlars (there were only about 6) were very persistent, with a capital P. Not taking no for an answer (we really didn’t need 17 more bananas), we had to be very firm with our non gracias. But the moment we agreed to buy some mandarins from one, they all flocked to us in a frenzy to see if we’ve changed our minds about their bananas (or chocolate etc). Past the summit homes were spread far and few between and we saw only two other cyclists on the mountain but somehow someone at every home spots us and the they are convinced we want more bananas.

We found two stores in town at which we could purchase goods. (Well, if they have any). We really wanted ice cream and tried three places that all had freezers but no hay. They were empty. They did however offer their typical selection of about a dozen products. Soap, Electrical switches, beer (always beer), chocolate mousse mix, Pringle’s lookalikes, toilet paper, soda (3 flavours), toothpaste, apple juice, rum, dry pasta, ketchup and mayonnaise. That it.

Chocolate mousse mix! We figure a ship must have run aground somewhere with a shipping container full of it. Every store had it. The laughable part is that the instructions show to use an electric mixer. Really? Everyone has an electric mixer here? Such is the retail system in Cuba.

No hay for ice cream today. Cuba appears to have run out.

Day 8: Playa Maguana to Baracoa

The day started late as Randy discovered that yesterday’s bone-rattling ride shook a screw right off his pannier and he needed to improvise a repair. Randy’s always prepared for every possible mechanical failure so we managed.

Everything great about Cuba seems to be found here in Baracoa, and to top it off we enjoyed some beautiful scenery on our 20km ride to get here. It’s an ocean-front town, with a long and interesting “malecon” (like a promenade along the coastline) to walk along. Thank goodness the ride here was easy. Yesterday took a lot out of us. we will spend three nights here, so cycling for a few days!

“No hay” is a very frequent term used here, and means “not available today”. You hear it everywhere, applied to almost everything. There are a variety of restaurants and we found one with English translations. Awesomeness! There was spaghetti noodles on the menu! You could order it up with cheese, ham & cheese, vegetables & coconut sauce, shrimp, lobster, or fish. Meatballs (permanently no hay) of course were not even an option and the lobster option was no hay.

All the Cuban cities we have seen have a central square where everyone congregates to socialize. We made like Cubans and planted ourselves on a bench to watch the world go by. Soon we recognized Eddie from Belgium, the fellow we encountered on the rough road yesterday.

Belgian Eddie (as we call him) is travelling on his own here in Cuba and has been here for about 30 days already. He has done more than 2000km in that time and will likely complete another 2000 before he goes home in about three weeks. He was showing us his meticulously kept handwritten journal of his travels and I couldn’t help but notice that he frequently does 150-160km a day. He’s travelled the world–Himalayas, Japan, Kazikstan, Indonesia. The important point of note here is that the culture and atmosphere are conducive to making new friends. Belgian Eddie did 150km yesterday over that rough terrain that darn near killed us! Belgian Eddie put our distances to shame. Belgian Eddie is 66 years old.

As we walked along the Malecon earlier we saw a statue of Christopher Columbus who visited Baracoa in 1492. Maybe next year there will be statues of a Randy and Anita who visited in 2019?

We packed very carefully and thoughtfully for this trip, but there’s one thing we should have brought that could have made our lives easier. A thermos. We could have filled it each day at the Casa and made our own coffees.

Day 7: Moa to Playa Maguana

Decay, followed by hell followed by paradise!

Moa is a nickel mining city (not copper as reported yesterday). Little could have prepared us for the sight of the smoggy, dark, rusting, decrepit industrial apocalypse…it could be the setting for a sci fi movie. There were large swaths of land and buildings that need to be seen to be believed but we respected the “no photos” warnings. Dusty and dirty. The apartment buildings that were on the outskirts were grim to say the least. But we came to Cuba to see it all, not just palm trees and ocean.

After leaving behind the mess of Moa began the hell that was today’s ride. More than 1,000m of climbing up mountains where the road doesn’t even qualify to be called “road”. Rocky & pot-holey, and not a spec of smoothness it necessitated us climbing endlessly in 30c and no place for shade breaks. We found a log at the side of the road and busted open a can of peaches for breakfast, then several more hours of demoralizing roads. While bouncing and jerking and holding on for dear life I kept hoping that my bike frame is strong, and feeling particularly happy that my Schwalbe tires held out. Small miracle! The route was desolate and we only encountered one other cyclist–Edward from Belgium, who apparently has cycled this route three years ago (and apparently chose to do it again!). Beautiful mountain scenery if you could take your eyes off the road for a second. I didn’t. I’ll shamelessly admit that it brought me to tears more than once. The pictures don’t even do it justice. Even the downhills were brutal to say the least.

We wanted to reach Playa Maguana as early as possible to try and maximize time on the beach we’d heard about. As we approached the village there was a Cuban on a motorcycle who spotted us. “Randy!” He called out. Indeed it was our Casa host awaiting our arrival and he escorted us to his beautiful Casa. More like a villa. Complete with a hammock, a private covered porch, and surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. Yep. Our day changed dramatically! Settled in, we headed to the ocean which was just a 5 minute walk away. Now we were in paradise again.

PS. In a remote part of today’s route Randy saw a little boy around 5 years old galloping up the side of the road toward home. He was looking back at us curiously. We called to him, and Randy gave out another Hot Wheels. The little boy was so happy he streaked home like lightning, toy car waving. In my rear view mirror I could see him and his older brother excitedly looking it over like it was Christmas. Happiness.

Day 5: Mayari to Sagua de Tanamo (then to Moa)

Day 5: Random farm animals everywhere, Commerce (or lack thereof), and Cuba at night

We broke this ride up into two days instead of one due to The Episode and not wanting to test my body any more than it has been. 58km, all uphill or downhill. 30c but at least it was breezy and partly cloudy.

We spotted a roadside vendor selling pineapples which seems pretty rare here. We see lots of what appears to be fruit & veggie stands but we get told nothing is for sale. We still need to figure that one out. I decided to try my luck with some fresh sliced pineapple, praying it will stay down.

At one point today a Cuban fellow wearing lycra and riding a road bike spotted us taking a shade break and came over. He wanted to take pictures, and asked to have his picture taken with Randy on his camera. Then he rode with us a few kilometres before turning into his home. We had fun all speeding down the hill together. When I was behind him I noticed that he has no shifters whatsoever on his bike yet he has multiple gears. I imagine he manually places the chain on whatever gear he wants and goes from there. Next time we come to Cuba we will bring a stash of bike parts. They need them–old or new.

Our Casa has a great view right from the balcony and there are still cockadoodle-doo’s that are a constant here. But it’s a comfortable place and we negotiated 25CUC (about $30) for the room and $3CUC (about $4) each for breakfast. So far, most rooms have been around the same price.

We have noticed that there are always a collection of farm animals grazing roadside, rather than in designated fields. Some tethered, most not. Speculation leads us to think that perhaps it’s their way of mowing without the benefit of machinery (which is mostly non-existent). The closest thing we’ve seen to machinery are the machetes which are common. Sometimes we slow our bikes down to let the goats and all their babies cross the road. Today we saw a mama pig and dozens of piglets. We frequently see cows though we aren’t sure yet what their uses are since they don’t eat beef. Perhaps butter and milk production? Mystery unsolved. There are a lot of chickens and roosters here. In fact, very beautiful roosters. Very photogenic.

Commerce (or lack thereof), is an experience unto itself. There are few signs, and finding anything is a challenge. Often a restaurant is just two or three tables setup in the front of what appears to be someone’s house. We have noticed that the menus are almost always identical, with about 10 things to choose from but only one or two available on a given day. When lucky enough to find a store there may be only be a dozen products to choose from. Soap, ketchup, olive oil, a few condiments. Several freezers, but most are empty. A guard stands at the door and monitors those coming in and out, and checks every purchase against the receipt. Stores are not at all designed for browsing. It’s all business! We have sometimes seen a list of available items posted on a sign. Yesterday we went to an ice cream shop again only to be informed of no ice cream, but they did have two flavours of soda as they pointed out in a nearby fridge. By the way, we aren’t the only ones who have difficulty finding any products at all. Our Casa has no toilet seat. (Seriously!)

Children here learn English in school and outside of tourist zones they don’t have much opportunity to practice it. A number of times today we had a child or two yell “hellooooo!!” “Good day” “how are youuuuu?” When we turn and respond with “we are fine!!!” They are happy and excited. Tonight as we strolled through town a number of school age children were running up and down the street to get a good look at us. We heard a few “hello”s and giggles. We stopped to indicate that we’d like to take a picture. They all struck up a pose and were absolutely thrilled, and all crowded around to see the picture I took on my iPhone. I so wish we’d brought along some of our Hot Wheels cars tonight to give out.

We had to walk back to our Casa in the dark. But we weren’t alone. The streets are abuzz with activity. People walking, horses still pulling carts and bikes going here and there all in total blackness. No street lights, no flashlights. I have no idea how the horse carts don’t go flying off the road. Perhaps horses have night vision?