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.

Hola, Cuba! We are in our Happy Place

Stepped off the plane and were thrilled to bits to see that our bikes arrived intact. Nevermind that in Toronto they made us unpack the boxes and take everything (everything!!) out of the box for inspection. That’s why they say to be at the airport three hours early. Our pre-arranged taxi driver found us and delivered us to our Casa Particular in Holguin where Oscar our host made us feel very welcome. Oscar we learned, had been working as an accomplished lawyer but now chooses to spend his time operating his Casa.

Randy re-assembled the bikes on a lovely outdoor balcony overlooking what appears to be a park where we saw happy Cuban kids skateboarding (sans cellphones) and hanging out just having fun. Overlooking the balcony we see the road users, and it’s definitely not all cars: an equal mix of bicycles, horses pulling buggies, rickety buses, motorcycles, pedestrians, and some cars.

The Myth of Cuban Food: Busted!!

Yep, The bland food myth–busted! It may be too soon to call it, but based on our first (and only meal today) in an authentic Cuban restaurant we are smiling ear to ear having each ordered up some mystery chicken and a side of rice. (Chicken = $4 and rice = $1). Lesson learned here: Cuban portions are huge. Chicken arrived all sizzly and inviting, and the rice….they know how to make rice! Happy, happy, Randy and Anita.

Cuban culture, sans-cellphone style

The bad news is that cell service is far too expensive for Cuban citizens to be addicted to their cell phones. The good news is that in the town square on Saturday night you see families socializing! Kids roller skating, people talking, sitting on benches everywhere just being happy and enjoying life. Absent are cell phones. There is a carnival type atmosphere.

Conclusion: We Love Cuba!

(Apparently, the internet here is very very slow. Until we get a faster connection, photos are darn near impossible to upload!)

Aviles restaurant in Holguin (recommended by Oscar)

Our taxi that met us at the airport.

Randy gets busy re-assembling the bicycles for the journey.

Across the street there appears to be a celebration happening.

People still use pay phones in Cuba.

The interior of Aviles restaurant.

The exterior of Casa Oscar, a 1930s style architectural style.

Packing the Bicycles (Totally Randy’s domain!)

Time to actually get those bicycles disassembled and squeezed into boxes for the flight. Randy’s bike is big, and it takes some engineering ingenuity to make it fit. We’re attempting to travel with no checked baggage other than bicycles so we’ll be squishing helmets, water bottles and everything else we can into that box. There’s a weird & scary feeling, hoping the bikes make it all the way to Cuba intact.

Bubble wrap, pipe insulation, or cardboard—many parts have been disassembled, wrapped and protected. Tires are deflated and handlebars & pedals removed. It’s a tight squeeze! And we’ll have to remember to throw in an extra roll of packing tape in order to bring those babies home again!

Squishing the bike into a box

While bikes are being packed, I focus on my own gear. I’ve sorted, made choices and took a way all the “extras” in order to shrink it all down to the bare essentials. With whatever space remains we’ll be loading up with little gifts for Cubans, things we read about that might be well-appreciated (other than beef jerky!). Everything needs to fit into two panniers each on the bike rather than the usual 4 simply due to the fact that we have no camping gear.

Anita’s gear

 

Packing like a Minimalist!

Minimalism is key when travelling with all of our gear loaded on our bicycles. Randy is the resident bike mechanic, so he’s prepared for just about anything! Spare spokes, 4 tubes each, spare tires, tools and little pieces of hardware that only he knows how to work with. As far as clothing, we will take just three changes of clothes for off-bicycle activity and two complete sets of cycling wear. Laundry soap will be our friend at the end of each day.

One of our goals is to try and make sure that everything serves double duty if it’s to occupy valuable space in our panniers. CampSuds soap is a wonderful one-ingredient-does-all solution; laundry, body wash, shampoo and dishes. One tech towel will serve for showering as well as days at the beach too.

Let’s talk food. I’m a picky eater and we’re headed to Cuba. We’ll be needing some emergency food for when all else fails so we are lugging a Costco sized bag of dried mango slices and another big bag of trail mix. We have beef jerky to gnaw on when we feel the need for some salty-ness. Which brings us to a very interesting but true fact: Cubans are banned from eating beef, making it one of the hottest underground commodities around. They are not allowed to either buy, sell or eat it. In fact, we hear that it’s more dangerous for Cubans to be caught in possession of beef than cocaine. A little more research is needed on our part to determine if we are even legally allowed to bring it into the country.

Let’s talk water: When we’re cycling we need water. LOTS of water. And we aren’t entirely convinced it’s safe from taps everywhere so we’ll be taking water purification tablets and also a SteriPen (still awaiting delivery). The SteriPen will use a UV light to kill 99.9% of the evils in our water. And if something still manages to squeeze on through the pharmacist here in town has loaded us up with electrolytes, antibiotics, immunizations, Pepto-Bismol and Immodium.  We are ready for the traveller’s apocalypse.

Preparing: Maps, Guidebooks, Planes & Bicycles

A good tour always starts with a good map. Fortunately for us, Randy loves maps so he’s naturally the one to take the lead on that. We started out with a nice big National Geographic Adventure Travel Map (water resistant too!) and Randy got to work researching and plotting.

Much decision making about our route came from reading tips and tales from various guidebooks and online blogs by those who have gone before us. While having a paper copy of a guidebook in-hand is nice, we realized afterward that we could have saved valuable space and weight by purchasing e-book formats instead.

Flying with Bicycles

There are logistical concerns. Packaging materials such as our cardboard boxes, packaging tape etc. need to be either stored somewhere near the airport for our return or strapped on our bikes and transported with us for the entire journey.  We opted to fly into and out of the same airport, affording us the opportunity to find storage nearby. Our solution was to pre-book our first night accommodation at a Casa Oscar Holguín in Holguin where our host, Oscar, has arranged for taxi pickup at the airport upon our arrival. With no availability for our final night stay in Cuba, Oscar has also made arrangements for nearby storage of our bicycle boxes until our return voyage home.

Cardboard boxes are our friend. Randy scooted down to the local bike shop and brought home two cardboard bicycle boxes that they happily parted with for free. Every airline’s policies varies, but research tells us that WestJet seems to have the best policies where bicycles are concerned. ($30 per bike, per flight direction = $120 for two bicycles, return).

Preparing Bicycles for Cuba

Nothing will be left to chance. While we will be prepared for just about any type of repair on the road, prevention is our preferred modus operandi. Therefore, a set of new tires were in order for my bike— Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires. There are reportedly a lot of possibilities for punctured holes in bicycle tires. Additionally, the terrain is expected to be somewhat….how shall we say? Rough! Randy also spent a lot of time cleaning every detail, affording the opportunity to identify any potential issues before they arise on the road. Finding bicycle parts in Cuba will be a challenge to say the least.