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 9: Non-cycling day in Baracoa

Rum, bloodsports, bikes, homes vs houses, and a birthday dinner with friends. The sights and sounds of our non-cycling rest day in Baracoa were colourful.

We started our rest day by heading to the center of town for a coffee to see what we see and people-watch. We sat beside a table of exuberant young well-dressed men happily drinking rum from a bottle at their outside patio table as we sipped coffee just trying to fully wake up. Full on Salsa music blasted from the establishment behind us. It’s not a subdued atmosphere here. By the way, we made the curious observation that you can purchase rum in tetra packs, the size of single serving juice packs. Not quite sure how they’d re-seal in the event that one doesn’t wish to drink 5 oz of rum. Nevermind. We aren’t Cuban so it’s not for us to know.

Later we meandered along the towns edge admiring the architecture, the sights and sounds. Into my peripheral awareness came the sound of squawking chickens. I glanced over and my immediate assessment was that two chickens were “having an argument of sorts”. Randy, being much more astute than I am in the early morning hours, quickly informed me of a far more barbarous reality. They were cockfighting. Cringing and wanting to unsee it, I wished I could somehow run over and set those chickens free.

The bicycles we see everyday would be worthy of their own photo essay. By necessity, people creatively repurpose bicycle parts to make them function. Just stop and look closely at any bicycle and you’ll appreciate their resourcefulness. There are little shops scattered around with the odd bicycle part for sale, but it’s clear that the bicycles are much like the cars. Ancient, well-loved and utilitarian.

We’ve noticed that during the day almost every house opens its front door and it remains open all day. We hear laughter and chatter both inside and out, grandma’s and grandpa’s are rocking grand babies on their laps, kids are playing ball, and neighbours are talking. Frequently buildings appear dilapidated and one is left to wonder about building code requirements. But no matter….these Cubans make real homes out of these houses.

Tonight, in honour of Randy’s Birthday we had dinner with what now feels like old friends Warren and Sarah and their two beautiful daughters Sophia and Charlotte. We laughed, talked and I commiserated with Charlotte about how each of us has a mental block around eating Cuban pizza now after our own independently experienced Episodes. The crust however, was good. they shared their story about how they’d been newly arrived in Havana during the recent tornado that struck so they’d experienced it and witnessed the damage firsthand. We had to say goodbye to our new friends tonight as we are rolling out tomorrow and they will stay a few more days. We’re hoping they’ll come visit us in Cobourg some day so we can hear about their upcoming adventures in Equador.

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 6: Sagua de Tanamo to Moa

Today is the second half of the distance we had planned to complete yesterday. We are glad to have split the distance up because the hills today were quite long and laborious.

The beautiful vista that we woke up to this morning changed as the day progressed. As we approached Moa the landscape changed from lush greenery to brown and rust-coloured hillsides. Moa is a copper mining city and we have heard about it being an unrewarding experience. Not so! Despite the fact that as we entered the region we could see the big black plumes of smoke in the distance.

Prior to reaching the city the new friends we made the other night in Myari passed us with their four bikes all piled on top of and inside the trunk of their 1950’s taxicab. On their way to Moa. We stopped roadside and talked in the shade and we’ve been staying in touch via email. We’ll meet up with them again in a few days in Baracoa.

As we reached the city’s edge we came across a gas station complete with ice cream! One flavour of course. Today was caramel. Oh, how lovely that tasted!!

In central Moa we were happily surprised to see a Commercial Center. Tomorrow we want to get to our destination as fast as possible because we hear there is a beautiful beach so we bought a few items that will be our breakfast. Two cans of fruit cocktail, a pack of 4 cookies (first time we’ve seen those!), 5L of water, one Cerveza (beer) and one Refresco (soda). Felt like we struck a goldmine! Here’s how it works; you pay the lady, she gives you a receipt and you show it to the guard at the front door who closely compares the items to those on your receipt before letting you exit. Standard procedure.

The children are precious here! Randy spotted a little boy in our street tonight trying to fix a home-made kite that had broken. He gave the boy a Hot Wheels car and the boy was very emotionally moved by the gift. So little but it means so much. These are the moments we love most. Earlier in the day I saw two young boys playing catch on the side of the street. One had a baseball glove that was far too big for his hand, and the other was throwing him rocks to catch. Next time, we bring baseballs! Tonight as we walked the streets we discovered a small group of young children following us, laughing and giggling, running ahead from time to time to get a good look at us, then quickly retreating back.

Here’s how we found a Casa tonight: our host last night made arrangements then told us to “go into the city, and at the rotunda (roundabout), ask someone to show you where Jessica’s Casa is”. (In Spanish of course) Ok, a little vague (Moa’s population is 80,000), but it worked out. Things always have a way of working out.

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?

Days 3 and 4: Banes to Mayari

Day 3: Internet Lineups, $.12 coffee, Street Pizza, and the Magical Casa Network

We take the Internet for granted. Most Cubans do not have wifi in their homes. They wait in line at the Telecommunicacion Center in town to buy an internet card (about $1 for an hour). Then they login with a whole series of numbers and a password. I bought an internet card, which entailed me handing them a passport and they documented it very carefully. I also discovered that the wifi zone operates during business hours. When it’s closed, so is the wifi. Using cell data here is totally unreliable.

Randy wandered into an establishment to buy coffee. No cream. No options. Just coffee. (No biscotti, no cookies.) Okay. We hand over pesos. We do the math and it works out to $.12 for the coffee. Not bad!

Cuban fast-food = street pizza. And it’s cheap!! We each ate one, and had two glasses of fresh squeezed papaya juice. Total: $.70 cents. (Yes, for both of us).

There is a well-connected network of Casa operators here. They all know someone in the next town and are more than happy to call ahead to arrange our next destination. We rolled into Mayari and found no street names, despite having an address. We roll up and down some streets looking for anywhere to stay cuz it was hot and we are tired. Suddenly we hear, “Anita! Anita!” our host Marcia from the previous evening had arranged a Casa for us. Sonya was magically calling out to us on the street like a little angel! We have a beautiful Casa for two days. Within minutes we had fresh papaya juice in hand and I downed two BIG glasses.

We happened across two Canadians who we had spotted the day before in Banes and they’d spotted us too. They are cycle touring around Cuba for more than 6 weeks with their two children (I think 14 and 10), homeschooling along the way. We met for dinner in Cuban restaurant and exchange travel stories. They had also noticed the restaurants with no food yesterday. I, unable to summon up an appetite had to depart dinner, feeling very much “off”. Randy stayed for dinner with our new friends.

P.S. the wonderful adventurous relationship I was having with food came to a screeching halt in the evening. Let’s just say that I am feeling violently dehydrated. ‘Nuff said! From here on, we’ll refer to it as The Episode.

Day 4: “The Episode”

Today was a scheduled non-cycling day, and for that I am happy. And for our host Sonja I am grateful. Apparently she is a doctor and upon learning I was not well she gave me some elixir and some easy to digest food then later checked on me. After some conversation we came to a conclusion. She said never Ever EVER drink the juice they make at those roadside pizza stands. Don’t I know it!

Day 2: Guardalavaca to Banes

The Rich lives of Cubans, Big Hills, Restaurants with No Food

That is what characterized our day. It was a fairly short cycling day, just 36km, 480m of climbing. But the heat just made it tougher than one would think.

There was just so much to look at along the way. Tropical trees in bloom, lush landscapes, and trying to guess what fruits were growing on the trees. It left a lot of time for conversation and we are both in agreement–Cubans lead rich lives. Not materially of course, but everywhere we look there are happy people making the most of what they have. Imagine the richness of community when there is no internet. It appears that what people do creates happiness, not what people have.

We stopped to admire a home with beautiful gardens and a spotted a very young girl looking at us curiously. We reached into our bag and gave her a Barbie doll. She ran like lightning toward her family, waving it high in the air back and forth. She was thrilled and so was her whole family who waved to us from afar.

How did we find our Casa today? Well, we rolled into town, cruised up and down a few streets looking for a Casa symbol (blue ones are meant for Tourists, red ones for Cubans only). A kind young man showed up on an old Cannondale bicycle and said we could stay at his aunt’s Casa. So here we are!

Speaking of Cuban cyclists, we have made friends with Alex who is a bike mechanic in Holguin and is training a racing team. We met up with him on the road again today. He’s training for a competition in June and was putting in 160km today.

Food talk again (cuz it’s fascinating!): population 80,000 here. One would expect to find a variety of food opportunities. We wander about looking for food but everything is different here in Cuba. There are, believe it or not, establishments that are open, have tables & chairs and menus but no food. Not quite sure why there are even any workers on duty, but we just accept it and move on. There is an endless supply however, of places to drink rum and beer.

Day 1: Holguin to Guardalavaca

Best parts of the day: Sunshine, salt water, dinner for $4 and our Casa that came complete with pet turtles, baby chickens, a crocodile, a parrot, ducks, cats and dogs.

Lots of rolling but gentle hills. Riding out of town we noticed a lot of people staring at us, mostly out of curiosity. The roads are well used here, but for sure the right hand lane might be more accurately described as an Active Transportation Lane as there are horses pulling buggies (otherwise known as taxis), pedestrians, bikes and all sorts of creative methods of moving people. Not uncommon to see three people riding a bike; Mom, Dad, and Baby sandwiched in between.

Our water bottles ran dry but we finally passed a gas station that had a few things and we can tell you this: Cuban ice cream is the bomb! For $1.45 we sat outside slurping up strawberry ice cream thinking we had died and gone to heaven.

An interesting observation was made. There were a lot of Canadians all decked out in spandex on flashy carbon fibre bikes riding between Holguin and Guardalavaca. Very very few even acknowledged our presence as they whizzed on by. Some passed us so fast and so close it caught us by surprise. Weird.

We headed toward Guardalavaca without a plan of where we would stay that night but it all worked out. Down a rocky bumpy road that was impossible to cycle on, we arrived at our accommodation. Not quite sure if it was the right place, Randy stood outside the wall yelling “Victor? Victor!” until our host appeared. Apparently all the male members of the family are named Victor.

We walked down to the ocean and plunged into the glorious salt water and floated until we turned into prunes.

Let’s talk food again! We searched out a food joint where locals eat. We each ordered a plate of rice, one with chicken one with fish. Two others we met and dined with had shrimp. That would have been probably another $.50. Together with one beer the bill was $4. Another interesting observation: wherever food is being eaten there seem to be a collection of dogs and cats hovering nearby waiting for leftovers.

We walked back to our Casa in the dark after dinner. I mean absolute blackness,! Tired, we fell asleep listening to cows moo-ing, roosters cockadoodledoo-ing (which one hears everywhere here!)

Anita and our host Oscar, from Holguin.

Anita, Alexei and Randy. Alex works in a local bike shop in Holguin.