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!

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.