Cuba:

 

Traveling in Cuba is much like approaching a pinata; you are blindfolded and disorientated, expecting magic to pour from within. The stick is precarious to grasp for the sweat on your hands, but you begin swatting hopelessly at the air. This pinata sees your futile efforts, for you are constantly monitored, and laughs with each missed stroke, knowing you have been successfully duped once more. At each strike, with your arms ringing, a teasing morsel may fall to the ground – a brief encounter or remarkable view. Relentlessly you continue, convinced that with enough effort all the magic will burst out in one glorious moment. Tired and upset, defeated, you begin to understand the pinata never had much to give, and it did so one small drop at a time. Confused and frustrated, you turn your back on the pinata and walk away.

They would like you to follow a plan with a prescribed result; go to resorts, drink, eat and dance, visit museums with a rosy image of a revolutionary past and socialist present, and photograph beaches and fields of tobacco. This presents a package that highlights their unique history, makes notice of cultural nuances, and relishes in a Caribbean island landscape. Straying from this itinerary by traveling on a bike puts you in plain view of the stark reality that is modern Cuba; a failing economy, a failed political system, and a population that has lost hope in any change.

Bikes striking a pose on our first riding day in Cuba - leaving Santiago.

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Bikes striking a pose on our first riding day in Cuba – leaving Santiago.

 

Nathan and I put 30 days and over a thousand miles into Cuba to shed more light on a nation shaded in mystery, and to see something other than old cars and pictures of Che Guevara. Of course, being out on the roads allowed us to also see old cars and great big billboards of Che Guevara. Cuba, to lots of foreigners, is simply another island paradise in the Caribbean with good music, rum and cigars, where a few roughneck fellas overthrew a regime cozy to the imperialist western nations. So, you sit on a beach with a Cuba Libre in your hand, a Che Guevara t-shirt thrown over the back of your chair and a beret on the ground, smoking a fat cigar thinking how wonderful Cuba is with its dramatic history. We arrived on this island in an old smoking Russian plane with our bikes crammed into a couple of boxes to try and see what else we could uncover.

Havana's layers with the capitol building in the background.

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Havana's layers with the capitol building in the background.

 

Our first introduction to Cuba was on a late Sunday afternoon as we took the taxi into central Havana. As expected, the roads were empty and the buildings slowly giving way to time. We were warmly welcomed into Rosa’s casa in central Havana and fed some remaining rice and beans from her dinner. More than a little bewildered, we ventured out for an evening stroll. What we experienced left us speechless. Grand buildings dissolving, and iconic architecture more than a little rough around the edges. We walked nearly the length of Ave. Bolivar to the grand capitol building and surrounding square. Much of the promenade along Bolivar is sheltered from the traffic by grand columns supporting the elaborate balconies and stories above. We were enticed by open doors, as is human nature, and found either families sitting about the stark grand spaces watching TV, or dark passages and stairways leading to the next great horror movie sequence. A few hours later, when the dramatic trance we were under lifted, we could only agree in describing the night scene as something out of Gotham or the remnants of a recent war. The following day our impression was shifted a bit as we uncovered the wide Prado Avenue resembling Las Ramblas in Barcelona, rode along the Malecon, and found a picturesque Old Town Havana. It was a holiday and left us a bit perplexed about the working nature of Cuba, but that was something that would ring true throughout most of our trip.

Havana, Cuba

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Havana, Cuba

 

To divorce ourselves from the shock we received on our first few days in Cuba, we jumped on a bus and traveled 16 hrs to the far eastern end of the island and Santiago de Cuba. We chose Santiago as our starting point on bikes because it gave us immediate access to the remote southern coast allowing us to escape the intensity of urban Cuba, and potentially ride across most of the country back to Havana. Santiago de Cuba is the largest city in the Oriente, which is dominated by the rugged Sierra Maestra Mountains. It is a place famous for seeing some of the first shots of the revolution, as well as for having some of the countries worst pollution. If the buildings in Cuba are in disrepair after 50 yrs of neglect, then so are the behemoth American cars from the 50’s that still ply the streets. Only now those cars are primarily held together with Bondo and paint, powered by aging engines, and spend their time infusing the air with black smoke worse than that produced by a proud Texan in their big diesel truck. A month of biking in Cuba may have shortened my life by a few years. Aside from the air pollution and crowded narrow streets, Santiago served as little more than a stepping stone to begin our journey, and thus holds about as much space in my memories.

Luci enjoying our second day of riding the coast west out of Santiago.Luci enjoying our second day of riding the coast west out of Santiago.

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Luci enjoying our second day of riding the coast west out of Santiago.

 

Getting out of the city was easy, fortunately, because so was the 5 mile return trip to get some fuel for cooking. Once we were finally making some steady progress, it felt great relying only on yourself for the days action. The sun and humidity were reliably strong, and shade a bit of a challenge to find – sometimes under a tree or in a covered bus stop, other times tucked up under a bridge (with little to no traffic it was relatively peaceful). After our first successful day of riding along a calm section of the southern coast with just an occasional taxi or lumbering passenger truck, we had made it to the small fishing village of Chivirico. Having managed to leave Santiago without a fully planned itinerary, we rolled up to a man as we entered the center of town and inquired about a place to stay. He quickly set his bike aside, walked across the street and grabbed another bike facing the other direction, and proceeded to lead us around the small bay to a restaurant where the owner was known to rent a room for visitors. We enjoyed a beer overlooking the tranquil bay, complete with men fishing, while the owner prepared the room. Dinner was a simple pasta and red sauce affair cooked up in the town’s main park. It wasn’t until the meal was nearly finished when some inquiring youths stopped by to play let’s talk as fast as possible in spanish and then laugh at the confused expression on the gringos faces. Soon after, we retired to a precarious arrangement of bug-nets in the restaurant owner’s room for a nights rewarding sleep.

Enjoying a beer next to the Caribbean, Chivirico.Enjoying a beer next to the Caribbean, Chivirico.

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Enjoying a beer next to the Caribbean, Chivirico.

 

It was a pleasant morning waking up next to the Caribbean Sea and taking coffee watching a morning storm move in. These Caribbean storms dance out in the ocean making music and a riveting light show. Just as we departed town the heavens opened up as this storm made landfall. It was nothing short of a magical experience to just “get wet”, not something I had been able to do for the entirety of my journey up to that point. The rain did not last long, but put me in a good mood for the days cycle. After briefly pausing for photos at a revolution battle site in El Uvero, we eventually rode our 50 miles and began a search for suitable campsites. Just before arriving in Marea de Portillo we found what we were hoping for in a sandy section of beach out of site from the road. We spent some time arranging our tarp setup because we opted to go light and fast in Cuba without tents. It was a hot and buggy night, interrupted once by a barking dog discouraged by our presence, and again by rain. At first we happily watched the storm produce an impressive light show out over the sea, but once it proved it wouldn’t let up we were forced to pack up camp early and watch the weather from under our dripping tarp. We brewed up some coffee and felt good about our rogue camping experience on the shores of the Caribbean. I quickly filled our water bottles from rain water running off the tarp before we broke camp and were off for a days ride in the rain; a cool relief from the torturous heat and humidity of the region.

Iconicly Cuban - Che and a ball-diamond.Iconicly Cuban – Che and a ball-diamond.

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Iconicly Cuban – Che and a ball-diamond.

 

Wet and happy, we stopped in Pilon for our first introduction to the ubiquitous micro-wave gas station pizzas that subsist as food in Cuba. The pizza is rubbery and greasy and not particularly good, unless of course you are a starving cyclist who would do about anything for calories. Cuba’s food is bound to raise a bit of a sore spot for traveling cyclists. It, by and large, seems not to exist or be accessible outside of expensive tourist restaurants or casa particulars. Markets are described in the Lonely Planet as resembling World War 2 style rationing. I wasn’t shopping for food then, but now in Cuba there is often just a dozen or so items you can purchase. In one market in Havana we bought peanut butter, pasta, boxes of red sauce, and a kilogram of saltine crackers. Turns out the peanut butter was a huge anomaly, only seen in one other place in Cuba, and the pasta was so bad that even starving I could hardly choke it down. So, what it leaves a roving cyclist to do is subsist on convenience store food, like micro-wave pizza, cookies, and a fair dose of Tu-Kola (their closest imitation to Coca-Cola). Initially it wasn’t so much a problem, more a fun challenge, but weeks into the trip and it started to feel debilitating and frustrating. It was also part of the reason we constantly ended up staying in casa particulars. At a cost, they usually could provide us with enough dinner and breakfast to get us to our next destination. The casas frequently became saviors as much for the prospect of food as the relief from the heat.

ManzanillaManzanilla

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Manzanilla

 

The wet day’s cycle following our night camping on the coast took us over the western flank of the Sierra Miestra to the cities of Media Luna, Campechuela and eventually Manzanilla. On our way we flew down roads with the winds at our backs, and had a memorable experience watching an old jeep catch fire on the road right in front of us. A moment of panic from the passengers, but it soon seemed like they had been through the exercise before. We struggled to find a cup of coffee in Media Luna, and eventually had to give up, as the local population all seemed insistent on pushing us away and refusing service. It was our third day on the road, and quickly tallied up to 70 miles. Not bad for just getting back on the bike. My confidence was busted the next day on our short and flat ride to Bayamo when my body just didn’t have the fight in it. I would find myself teetering back and forth for the duration of this trip between feeling strong and then consequently feeling weak the next day or two. Such is the result of spending so much time doing things that don’t involve biking – like most of my life over the last 8 months.

Horse cart, Bayamo.Horse cart, Bayamo.

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Horse cart, Bayamo.

 

Bayamo became my favorite city in Cuba with its quiet, unassuming nature and eclectic artiness. Its pedestrian street had concrete power-pole bases that where redecorated as trees or as tubes of paint. We nuzzled our way into the lives of Jose and Amarillas, and had perhaps our most comprehensive Cuban history lesson of the tour. Jose’s father used to run supplies up to the encamped revolutionaries in the Sierra Maestra under the guise of working with the regions coffee farmers. Nothing made Jose happier than a good discussion with inquiring tourists, except putting heaps of exceptionally good food in front of them and watching their eyes light up. Every night this was topped by the exuberant clapping of his hands and declaring, “and for SWEET”, which would be followed by the presentation of a delicious desert. We quickly realized the diamond in the rough with this family, and did everything we could to steer people in their direction. We discovered a unique method for serving coffee in a small place near the church, and filled most of our time wandering all the random roads we could find (knowing full well that whatever appetite we could work up would make Jose happy).

Best Casa Particular in Cuba - Jose and Amarillis in Bayamo.Best Casa Particular in Cuba – Jose and Amarillis in Bayamo.

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Best Casa Particular in Cuba – Jose and Amarillis in Bayamo.

 

The highway between Bayamo and Holguin was across the flat mid-section of the Oriente leaving only the cracked pavement for excitement. Because of the boring monotony of the road, we made better time than expected and were in Holguin ahead of our set time to meet our host and get a guide through town. We waited in the baking sun next to a gas station as the outdoor cafeteria next door belted music. For most tourists, even us on this occasion, Holguin is a gateway to the coastal resorts of Guardalavaca. A quick night in Holguin was spent around the outdoor table doing our best Spanglish telling the tale of our journey. Riding Cuba is an enormous undertaking in their eyes, and so the description of our bigger goals left them speechless (or maybe it was the language barrier, usually they just called us “loco”).

All work and no play at Playa Guardalavaca.All work and no play at Playa Guardalavaca.

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All work and no play at Playa Guardalavaca.

 

Since everyone heads north to the beaches of Guardalavaca, and not south to Bayamo, then the roads are well paved for our swift enjoyment. Fast and smooth riding along gently rolling hills led us quickly to Playa Guardalavaca for a few afternoon hours of beach lounging. The bikes were wheeled directly onto the beach and we took comfort in the cool turquoise water of the Caribbean. Looking to cover a few more miles before finishing the day, and because we were booked in a casa in Banes, we meandered the additional 20 miles through some quiet villages and over some gentle mountains. Once one of the primary port towns for southern Cuba’s sugarcane and banana trade it was an impressive colonial city; however, Banes is now slightly more run-down than comes standard with 50 years of neglect. This is due to a double onslaught of hurricanes in 2008 leaving the city looking sad and abused.

Dirt roads, green surroundings and a big blue sky on the road to Baracoa.Dirt roads, green surroundings and a big blue sky on the road to Baracoa.

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Dirt roads, green surroundings and a big blue sky on the road to Baracoa.

 

Perhaps more than at any other time on our trip, with the exception of the initial 3 day ride along the south coast, our 2 long days from Banes to Baracoa were as distant from the tourist circuit as we would get. As a result, the people and places along the route had an uncompromised authenticity. We stacked two 70+ mile days back to back with a night in Sagua de Tanamo, a nondescript town with no services for foreigners. Having unsuccessfully searched for camping before entering town, and hoping for another kind local to put us up illegally, we asked about a place to stay. After some debating amongst a few men a decision was made, a local youth tasked with guiding us to the house, and an arrangement made for the nights accommodation. Since it is illegal to rent rooms or put foreigners up in your house without the governments consent, we were kindly asked to leave and return after dark. Plus, we were quietly and quickly ushered out the back door the following morning. For all the secrecy and illegality of the nights place, the homeowners went above and beyond, trying to make us happy and comfortable. At 5 dollars it was a bargain compared to sanctioned casas, and even though it was a bit cramped for space (Nathan was put on the floor), we were happy to have a cold shower and sleep in front of fans in a bug infested concrete room. It may sound dreary, but with the prospect of camping in the hot, motionless night tucked into a bug net sweating away the hours, our host had provided us with a room in the Hilton.

Can you find the item with the lowest impact (hint, it is orange but doesn't leave a trail of waste in its wake)?

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Can you find the item with the lowest impact (hint, it is orange but doesn't leave a trail of waste in its wake)?

 

The second of our two day push to Baracoa stands out as one of my most memorable days on the bike in Cuba. It was a long day at 71 miles and 3700 ft of climbing, but it had a bit of everything packed in. We started with a quick and smooth ride out of town to Moa, where we filled up on some micro-wave pizza and some noxious fumes from the nickel mine. Moa is a prime example of what lax regulation and some money hungry miners can do to a landscape. The area has been striped bare to suck out precious nickel, resulting in a moonscape of red sand and poisoned rivers. Black smoke is coughed from the proud processing plant while old cars and ancient dump-trucks haul weary workers to and from the plant. Why this was a remarkable place to see is somewhat of a mystery. I think because of its remote location and its obvious contrast from Cuba’s presented image of itself, it represents a very real slice of modern Cuba and its struggling economy. The billboards surrounding the city used pictures of Che (who has been dead since 1967) to proudly proclaim a tie between industry and socialism, like this mine is a culmination of a dream they started with the revolution.

Roadside beauty.Roadside beauty.

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Roadside beauty.

 

Leaving Moa was an obvious relief; although fascinated and picture happy, both of us were feeling a bit woozy (we blame it on the fumes, but it could have been the sun). It wasn’t long before the road began to wind its way through the pine forests of Humboldt National Park. Humboldt runs from the coast up into the surrounding mountains and harbors diversity rarely seen on other islands. This change in landscape, from flat to mountainous, was a welcome bit of riding. The road deteriorated as we made our way along the coast, going from pavement to gravel and eventually to dirt. The long stretch of remote dirt road would lead us all the way into Baracoa and had us playing games dodging rocks and potholes. Traveling light allowed the bikes to feel extremely maneuverable and agile.

A rousing night game of dominos, Baracoa.A rousing night game of dominos, Baracoa.

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A rousing night game of dominos, Baracoa.

 

We had set a lot of hopes on Baracoa, described as a little slice of quiet and remote village life, and consequently planned a Cuba route around this destination. Arriving on a Friday, and being forced to stay till Monday when the banks would open, allowed us a heap of time to experience this cities charm. I never found it. Nathan never found it. It must have been packed up for the season and sold to the highest bidder. There was nothing directly at fault with the place. Just another simple Cuban town. In Baracoa we had a nice little casa with a balcony overlooking the Malecon (seaside drive) and spent time watching life on the streets. Kids frequently played an odd game in the park that involved throwing sticks and stones up into a tree. Nothing ever seemed to result from this effort, but they all valiantly kept at it. Dogs, horses, pigs, chickens and people would all laze about and banter with one another. In the evenings a sidewalk game of dominoes would occasionally break-out into a rousing affair. For the most part, time ticked bye and the waves continued to crash ashore.

We were feeling a bit burnt-out on our Cuba journey at this point, and were desperately in need of a change of scene. So, on Monday, as soon as we swapped some money over and payed our debts, we spent a rough few hours in limbo at the bus stations trying to board a bus that would take us to Santa Clara. We were the first there, knowing that bikes often cause concern, and the last to board the bus. Tickets were never issued us, like they were to every other tourist in sight, and we spent a few hours on the bus unsure of what had taken place. We eventually paid the bus driver to get us to Santa Clara, and we think what went down was actually a bit of back door dealing to help us out (of course we don’t speak Spanish and therefor had no idea this was happening). There is no direct bus from Baracoa to Santa Clara, and we would have originally had to change in Santiago. The bus we boarded in Baracoa made a quick detour to the outskirts of Santa Clara and dropped us off at 4 am. We surmise it was to ease the hassle of a bus and bike transfer in Santiago. Their efforts were appreciated even though it left us by the side of the road in Santa Clara at 4 am after just driving through a torrential rain. No matter, we were happy to have left the Oriente behind and actually make it to our desired destination.

As is the habit, we made our way for the center of town and would work out a game plan from there. In the dark of night, we inadvertently rode right to the Che Guevara Monument. Such a huge historical figure and important monument and here we were gawking at the space at 5 in the morning. I stumbled through some strange Spanish explanation to a security guard, and then we moved on (Nathan looks a bit like a revolutionary with his long beard). A block away from the central square, Parque Vidal, we started to here classical music. The park was basked in a soothing morning light, and a gentle radio station wafted classical music through the park. There was some activity with people passing through on there way to and from work. We sought out a cup of local brew, soured with sugar, and killed some time dazed in the park. The decision was finally made to go awake our Casa owners and get ourselves a few hrs of sleep before embarking on the tourist circuit of Santa Clara.

Che Guevara Monument and Memorial, Santa ClaraChe Guevara Monument and Memorial, Santa Clara

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Che Guevara Monument and Memorial, Santa Clara

 

After a day of wandering the streets and sights of Santa Clara, we came to quite like the place. Ernesto Che Guevara led an attack on a convey of trains in Santa Clara, and the city forever immortalized the Argentinian as their own. The large plaza and monument in his honor had a mausoleum dedicated to the 38 other guerillas killed in Che’s attempted Bolivian revolution in 1967 where he was captured and killed. Che has inspired people across the globe for his Marxist/Socialist ideology played out through the Cuban Revolution and a few failed attempts in other countries afterwards. When he was arrested and killed in Bolivia it cemented him as a martyr standing up against governments controlled by capitalist western nations. His image has been picked up by today’s counter-culture, full of many angsty youth and frustrated souls the world over, as a symbol of rebellion and standing up to the powers that be. However, after 50 years of experimentation, it is nothing short of astonishing to try and pick out the benefits of what the Guevara and Castro reforms have accomplished. There is a tremendous medical system, along with a great education program and high literacy rate, but the Cuba today is strikingly stuck in stagnation and many of the people we spoke to are frustrated. When you recognize the effort and importance they are placing on tourism, it would seem as though things have come full circle. Trying to overthrow a puppet government used by the western powers to facilitate access to the cash crops of sugar and bananas and the lucid white beaches and tasty cigars, they put themselves in power and over time have turned back to the western people with money to pump tourism dollars into the country and keep the economy afloat, barely.

Onward to VictoryOnward to Victory

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Onward to Victory

 

After trying to digest the mega-man Che at his monument, we wandered our way back into town and sat down for a cup of coffee and some further contemplation. The coffee was fueling our Che discussion when the sky turned to water, and the roads to rivers. It rained through another cup of coffee as the town tried to huddle under the awnings, usually in an unsuccessful attempt to stay dry. The city was purged clean and we also felt a fresh since of perspective on this strange Cuban pinata. We were stuffed with food that evening at our casa in much needed preparation for the crossing of the Escambray Mountains the next day.

Celebrating what we though was to top of our climb over the Escambray Mountains to Trinidad.Celebrating what we though was to top of our climb over the Escambray Mountains to Trinidad.

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Celebrating what we though was to top of our climb over the Escambray Mountains to Trinidad.

 

It started with gently rolling hills and good roads all the way south to Manicuragua when the roads tipped upwards. A short climb soon led to a gentle four mile sweeping uphill. At the top we felt good for the upward motion and celebrated with a photo. Soon enough the roads dipped and then climbed again. We stopped at the base of an intimidating rise to scarf down some crackers and cookies. It was a desperate pitch up and down as we passed through the hot springs resort of Topes de Collantes, and then began a big drop all the way down to Trinidad, sitting just above sea level. It was a great day’s test on the legs and lungs with over 5000 ft of climbing, and had us both a little shattered as we rode into Trinidad.

Trinidad street scene.Trinidad street scene.

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Trinidad street scene.

 

Trinidad stands out as little more than a few nicely painted buildings and cobblestone roads mixed into a tourist soup that brings out the hounds. As we navigated to our casa we were stopped repeatedly and pushed to change casas. If they were not attacking us for a casa it was for food, or cigars, or pictures with men smoking fat cigars. All a bit overwhelming and remarkably fake, showing the reality of what tourism brings to a perfectly beautiful town. After some jostling around we landed in a really peaceful casa. A few walks about town let us leave a bit more warmed to the charm, but still happy to escape.

Children toss flowers in the bay in memorium to Camillo Cienfuegos, a vital part of the revolution.Children toss flowers in the bay in memorium to Camillo Cienfuegos, a vital part of the revolution.

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Children toss flowers in the bay in memorium to Camillo Cienfuegos, a vital part of the revolution.

 

The easy road to Cienfuegos was a bit deceptive because of our tired legs and sun-burnt bodies, which allowed the pleasures of this french influenced city to sweep us up. After our short day in the sun, the great hospitality and cooking of Olga was like a dream. Following an immense feast the night of our arrival, we were ushered to the stoop to sit in rocking chairs and watch her dog, Blinio, rule the street. Cienfuegos had wide open boulevards and a huge main square to idly pass some time. We made an attempt to see the school children throw flowers in the bay in honor of Camilo Cienfuegos, the fourth man of the revolution alongside Che and the Castros, but were held up by breakfast at the casa. The hordes of children returning from their efforts and the flowers floating in the bay told the story.

This story has become long because I have wanted to avoid reaching the fateful day out of Cienfuegos when one of the worst possible thing could happen to me. I was not robbed. I did not crash and get injured. Instead, my steadfast Chaco sandals managed to bounce free from my rear rack and are now either on the side of the road or in the hands of a lucky Cuban. I did not to cry over the affair because I was too tired from the time I spent racing back and forth looking for them. I feel terrible for being attached so deeply to something, but when you find something that works, they begin to stand in for so much more than their name implies. To me, and many other Chaco lovers the world over, they represent a steady comfort on the forever changing roads; something to turn to that will reliably, and without fail, do their job.

A failed attempt for Nuclear power, accros the bay from Cienfuegos.A failed attempt for Nuclear power, accros the bay from Cienfuegos.

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A failed attempt for Nuclear power, accros the bay from Cienfuegos.

 

Never the less, it was an interesting day of cycling even with the few hrs invested in searching for lost treasure. We rode north out of Cienfuegos to wrap around the top end of the bay. This made access to a coastal road a bit easier without having to deal with the issue of bikes on a small ferry. Sitting between the bay and the ocean on a desolate patch of land is a relic of what Cuba hoped to become. Desperately rising to culminate in a grand dome is the remnant of an attempt for nuclear power. Funded in the 80’s from Soviet investment, the project ground to a halt when the Soviet block fell. Countless additional attempts have been made to finish the project, but lack of funding and fierce opposition from certain powers have kept it from being completed. In 1997 they finally admitted their losses and gave up. The concrete mass now sits, casually guarded by a few bored men, slowly fading away with each abusive day in the sun or tropical storm, much like the rest of Cuba.

Trying to find a small dirt track that would lead us along the coast and to the Bay of Pigs was like tracking a needle in a haystack. We had the compass out on multiple occasions, backtracked a few times before being turned back around by the locals, and eventually were steered off onto a path between to fenced fields. With curious eyes watching us pedal down the path I confidently rode into the first of many puddles and was soon sinking my feet into the water with each pedal stroke, desperate to reach the other side and not humiliate myself by falling into the dirty brown water. I made it, and from this point forward we would walk around the big ones. The small dirt track, wide enough for a car or horse cart, was withing earshot of the ocean and covered in packed sand. The riding was easy, we just had to beware of the thorny shrubs and trees looming over the path on all sides. The next morning one of those thorns led to my first, and our only, puncture of Cuba.

The dreary day that I lost my sandals ended with our second camping attempt in Cuba. As the narrow road met up with a slightly larger one that would follow the coast the rest of the way to Playa Giron, we pulled aside and pitched our tarp. We opted for an A-frame approach with the bikes in the middle. It was another hot and humid night and sleep was not coming easily, so when the rain began to fall early the next morning we were perhaps over-eager to get up. Tormented by bugs, we packed up, and by the time I struggled out from under the tarp the rain had all but stopped. It was 5 am. We made coffee and looked at the immense star filled sky; not as vivid as in Alaska, or high up in the Rockies where I am used to looking at it, but the Caribbean sky was packed with stars and nearly made up for a sleepless night.

Aside from a bit of time patching my tube, the wide dirt road was a quick and painless early morning ride. The thrill of the cooler morning air and the fast road was soon lost as the temperatures climbed and the fatigue set in. We sugared ourselves up in Playa Giron and pedaled off north along the Bay of Pigs eager to pose and play with all the propaganda. Twenty miles later, without stopping or seeing anything aside from the typically azul waters, we rode into Playa Large at the northern end of the Bay of Pigs. All the effort to reach this historic bay and we had nothing to remark on, just some lost sandals, a lost night’s sleep, and a new covering of bug bites. Tired and eager for a bit of reprieve from the sun we sugared up once more and took off across the flat Llanura de Zapata for Australia and Jaguey Grande. We found a casa that had a small pool to cool off in, and while they were preparing a room we took a dip. It took me nearly an hour to fully submerge, as each touch of cold water sent chills and goose bumps throughout my body. We think I was at the beginning stages of heat exhaustion, probably compounded by the lack of sleep the night before. I did manage to get in the cool pool and bring my body back to a normal operating temperature. The casa owners pulled a bit of a bait and switch with us and left us very frustrated. It wasn’t common for us to feel used at these casas, but with the guaranteed money coming in it isn’t unusual that a few crafty folks would work in ways to pinch out a few more dimes, or give you less than the standard may dictate.

Central CubaCentral Cuba

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Central Cuba

 

We were dreading the day’s ride to get across the flat mid-section of the country, but it turned out to be a fun and easy little ride along verdant green fields. We made good time all the way to Mantanzas, the “real” Cuban city stuck directly between the capital and the mega Caribbean resort destination of Varadero. Mantanzas was no more real than any other city in Cuba, aside from the fact that they can parade tourist around and make them see and feel the grit of Cuban life in a neglected city.

Rio San Juan, MantazasRio San Juan, Mantazas

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Rio San Juan, Mantazas

 

We left Mantanzas nearly as quickly as we arrived and began the arduous day of riding to Havana. In the interest of saving some distance and just getting the job done, we stuck to the coastal highway where all the truck and bus traffic whisks along. The 3 weeks of travel and cycling had caught up to me and made for a grueling slog along a wide and uninteresting road packed with smokestacks and cement plants. Our ride into the city was dramatized when we were pulled into a race with a few local kids wanting to show the foreigners their bike riding strength. It was a frequent occurrence throughout the country involving people of all ages on all types of bikes. Within first sight of us, or when we would ride past, they would pick up the pace and try and stay ahead of us, or sit on our wheel. It often turned into a fun game and would lead to loud laughs and big smiles. No matter the load we carry, it was always an unfair game because our bikes have a huge range of gears.

Havana street scene.Havana street scene.

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Havana street scene.

 

Riding into and out of a city is a real good way to get a perspective on its size, density and demographic. And so it was with Havana as we returned to old stomping grounds with a new awareness of Cuba. The city no longer felt as stark and empty. People seemed to be hustling about, and on occasion you may even see someone doing some work. We were not sure what we were looking for, but we new that at a cost it might be possible to find some good food in the tourist district of Old Town Havana. Soon we were swept up in the Cuban rhythms of live music at a restaurant and enjoying some delicious food and a few beers. For all our angst against this type of catered establishment, we enjoyed our evening.

Plaza de la Revolucion, HavanaPlaza de la Revolucion, Havana

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Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana

 

We took a day off in Havana and used it to see a few more sites and run a few errands. First, I had to replace my sandals. Knowing an adequate replacement would not be found, I am now flopping around in flip-flops. A short walk from our casa, Casa Maria Rosa (Rosa’s neighbor of no relation), we gawked at the Plaza de la Revolucion and the Monument to Jose Marti. Feeling less intimidated by the city and our gawky camera wielding tourist selves, we spent an afternoon wandering the streets and shooting the next great Cuban postcard, or at least a shot or two to put on the website. We again made our way back to Old Town Havana for the countries best coffee at Cafe Escoral on Plaza Vieja.

View from Cafe Escoral (Cuba's best coffee) in Plaza Vieja, Havana.View from Cafe Escoral (Cuba’s best coffee) in Plaza Vieja, Havana.

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View from Cafe Escoral (Cuba's best coffee) in Plaza Vieja, Havana.

 

Nathan and I were eager to close out our trip in Cuba with some good riding and were hoping that a zigzag route through the Sierra del Rosario to Vinales would work. Leaving Havana along the coast was a quick endeavor followed by a bit of flat mid-country highway that lead us to a fun bit of meandering mountain road to the Las Terrezas Eco-park and sustainable community. Established to help with the devastating effects of the coffee plantations, they created a terraced system to rehabilitate the failing ecosystem. What it represented for us was a quiet and well maintained mountain road through lush hills. It did not disappoint. We stopped at the entranced and debated saving the fee and going around to our casa near the adjoining highway. Just a few sweeping turns and fun hills into the road and we were laughing at ourselves for even considering the deviation. Late in the afternoon the road was all but deserted except for a few tourist cars, and the pavement sublimely smooth. The hills began short and mellow and slowly worked up to a varying degree of intense steepness, a perfect build up for the legs and mind. We were exhilarated at the top, and fed off the adrenaline on our fast decent down through Soroa and to our country casa. We made nice with a German and Bulgarian couple also staying at the casa over dinner, and would eventually run into them again in Vinales over a people watching beer in the main square.

Smooth mountain riding, Pinar del Rio Province.Smooth mountain riding, Pinar del Rio Province.

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Smooth mountain riding, Pinar del Rio Province.

 

The route we had chosen the next day took us across the Sierra del Rosario from south to north and then back down the valley into Vinales. It was a long and potentially challenging route, but was also possibly our last chance at bike exploring in Cuba. We rode down through San Cristobal before struggling to find our road through the mountains. The 30 mile traverse of the mountains was a thrilling look at rural mountain living where most of the people wore huge smiles and seemed as happy to be there as we were to have the chance to ride through. The road was in good condition but constantly pitched up and down. In the world of biking, these hilly roads are a treat because they continually hold and release new views and vistas with every rise and fall. As we snacked on crackers under a tree by the side of the road, a few men trudged up the hill from the house hidden down the small path and soon returned to give us a few oranges from the large bags they were hauling. Nothing more that a smile and an offering.

Exciting landscapes approaching Vinales.Exciting landscapes approaching Vinales.

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Exciting landscapes approaching Vinales.

 

When we began our descent down the north side of the range the asphalt began to heave and give way to the dirt underneath. We were riding closer and closer to the limestone hills that make the Vinales region so beautiful. At times the lush tropical growth would give way to pine forest and I had the distinct feeling of being back on the Great Divide Route in the Rockies. Our tough but rewarding day was beginning to catch up to us, as I was losing energy and we were losing daylight. La Palma was supposed to offer us a chance for a Kola fill up to sugar us the remaining miles to Vinales, but we found ourselves at the junction without both Kola or water. We had little option but to push on before we were wrapped up in darkness. No sooner had we accepted the challenge and followed the mantra to just “get on the bike and ride it” than we came upon a gentleman filling water barrels on a horse cart. We passed him by before realizing what he was doing, and quickly spun around to see if he would offer us some water. I don’t think we would have needed to be tired and wearisome foreign bikers to receive his easy and smiling offer to fill our bottles. It was a moment that takes little explanation. Very few words were exchanged as he filled our bottles with cold clear water with a smile emblazoned across his face. As we stopped a short distance later to drink in this treat, we laughed at how much the simple gesture changed our remaining miles; from grueling and worrisome, to an enjoyable evening spin.

We were playing with darkness and eating a fair share of bugs that come out at dusk as we zipped towards Vinales. A sunset ride through the dramatic karst cliffs of the valley had us pumped with a bit of adrenaline and we rode aggressively into the outskirts of town. We were a bit taken back, and snapped of our trance, when a lady ran out to us yelling the name of our casa. She knew where we were staying and just wanted to give us some directions (clad in spandex, I don’t think we are hard to pick out from either the local bike entourage or the tourist gang). A bit farther on and I was spun around by someone yelling my name (justin is unusual in spanish and so gets pronounced like whostin). It was a pair of men from the casa who had come to the edge of town on their motor bike to give us an escort back to the casa in the fading evening light. Before we even arrived at Casa Glorias, she was a winner in our book. We were not let down over the ensuing days as we made Vinales a base camp to go for some unloaded rides about the area.

Vinales ValleyVinales Valley

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Vinales Valley

 

Day one of the unloaded Vinales adventure series started with a planned loop route that would go west and then on a clockwise loop to the southwest. At El Moncada, where we intended to catch the remote road over the mountains, we were stumped with the roads whereabouts and chose an alternate route that would go north and around a karst formation and back to Vinales. We found our new little dirt track through the pine forest, but were soon just guessing at the correct path to follow. A few miles later we were at a dead end and had to admit a bit of route negotiating defeat. We lunched with a good hilltop view, and made the safe decision to backtrack and not get ourselves into trouble. As we ventured out we met a man on a horse, with a dog trotting alongside, who stopped us and sternly but friendly warned us we were not allowed to be venturing there unguided. His shirt bore the patch, Ministry of the Interior, and so we had little room to doubt him. A lot of this area around Vinales is protected, and so most backcountry travel does require guides. We misjudged that a path on bikes is more like a road (we found it with the use of a map) and not a path in the wild. No harm done as we expressed our apologies and intent to return back to Vinales via the way we had come.

Our original plan, after the one that involved a ride back to Havana from Santiago, was to do a loop to Vinales. As we rode there we took every opportunity to twist our way through the mountains and quickly realized a return journey on different roads would be nothing short of long and monotonous. This allowed us a few relaxing days around Vinales to unwind our Cuba trip and get set for a return to Mexico. We had two days of pleasant unloaded riding to keep the legs in motion, and were in a idyllic landscape to appreciate Cuba. It is hard to fully imagine what my final impression of Cuba would be had we not ventured west of Havana to the quiet mountains and valleys of the Pinar del Rio province with its towering rock formations, pine forests, and gentle Cubans. I am now able to look back fondly on our month long bike trip in Cuba because of the route we chose to finish it out. And while I stand wholly unconvinced of the experiment of Socialism the Castros have dealt on the island, I also can appreciate that my view could only be formed with the time and places we visited.

Loyalists are welcomed graffiti artists.Loyalists are welcomed graffiti artists.

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Loyalists are welcomed graffiti artists.

 

Cuba is a mixed pinata with a country full of kind-hearted people and a unique history. We visit to look at the aging cars and architecture, to feel a bit sorry at what looks like a society stuck in time, and also to revel at a revolution 50+ years old. Much of what we view, study, and are shown is all something distant and in the past, very little about what Cuba is today and where it is interested in going. As a populace, they all just want a chance to leave (which is either impossible or incredibly wrought in never-ending bureaucracy) and perhaps best expresses the direction the country is heading, nowhere. A changing of the guards has taken place as Raul has taken over power from his ailing brother Fidel. They were both on the Granma that brought 82 revolutionaries to Cuba from Mexico in 1956, and have since stood side by side in the government of Cuba. Raul has initiated some changes, which represent a great hope for many Cubans, but nothing to drastically change the dire economic circumstances and poor international relations they face.

HavanaHavana

 

I may put some vehement words into the actions of many tourists who use Cuba as a means to a beach, some rum, and a quirky and misunderstood past. However, my attitudes stem from the month we spent negotiating the awkward line between being roving bikers, and being tourists. At times this allowed us access to a different view of Cuba than the one expressed on postcards or in guidebooks (although, in a guidebook this part of Cuba would be called “authentic”). Yet, tourism is just as much a representation of modern Cuba as Las Vegas is a representation of what it means to be an American. Perhaps what gets at this point as much as any other is the successful impact of an international marketing and propaganda campaign regarding the Revolution and its primary founders: Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Just as its supposed successes are trumpeted across billboards nation-wide, the misguided understanding of that ideology are making Che t-shirts and barrets the fashion statement of a Bob Marley generation. I have always looked at Che with a bit of zealous admiration, tried to read through a biography to understand him and his ideology, but really just felt a need to believe what he stood for: A bit of equality for all, and better support and representation for the little man. Never fully invested enough in the matter for some serious “soul-searching” I have now witnessed enough to change my loosely held opinions. First, Che and the Castros were brutal people in their revolutionary rise to the top, executing multitudes of people and using a very inhuman approach to instigating their proud new ideology. Second, for the Castros, and briefly for Che, the new sweeping reform of socialism in Cuba just allowed them to happily climb to the top and sit in elite comfort. In my opinion, this seems to have hardly changed the caste structure in the country with the possible exception of getting rid of some wealthy land owners and eliminating the number of elites that could sit at the top with them. I am fully aware that a month of wandering by no means gives me the authority to flippantly make grand claims of understanding, but the claims are coming from a certain bit of unexpected shock on my part from seeing a different side of a country and philosophy I had formed thoughts and beliefs about.

Parque Marti, CienfuegosParque Marti, Cienfuegos

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Parque Marti, Cienfuegos

 

One month of roving on a bike, swinging at the pinata that is Cuba, was a little much. We often wished the trip were only two weeks. Just enough to get a sense of the place, and get comfortable and uncomfortable with travel there, and then move on. Part of this resulted from the high cost of travel, mainly due to the hot weather and lack of access to food that led us into casas. Yet, as with most challenging travel experiences, I feel better for having spent a month there and seeing as much of the country as my legs could handle, all in order to feel more resolute and confident in my new opinions and perspectives on the place. At the time, less than a week ago, it was like turning my back on the frustrating pinata and catching a plane back to Mexico, but I think there are many people in Cuba who have the same desire.

To see the rest of the photos from cuba go to my trip photos page, or my Picasa Album.

One Response to “Cuba:”

  1. Caitlyn says:

    Whostin! Thanks for the update; we were all dying to know what you had been up to in Cuba. I appreciate your thoughts on Cuba, its history, and (if I may make this leap) Latin America. I look forward to viewing more of your beautiful photos and reading more abnout your ponderings as your exciting adventure continues! Take care, you hear?

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