[simage=3014,200,n,left,]The snow and ice in Vancouver the week before Christmas meant we couldn’t properly test our new Bike Friday folding bikes. But it also meant we were even more pleased to be heading to Cuba.
We flew via Calgary (-21 degrees) to Varadero (+21 degrees). But instead of following the hoards to all-inclusive resorts, we took a cab to the old port town of Matanzas. We stayed in Hostel Azul, a lovely old building next to Plaza Libertad.
Stage 1 – Matanzas to Playa Jibacoa (40 km)
A relatively easy first stage to test the bikes and the riders. A key challenge was following our cycle guidebook’s instructions backwards, but we made it out of Matanzas’ lovely old streets and were quickly riding through rolling hills, past others on bikes, horses, motorbikes, as well as the occasional car and truck. It very quiet on these country roads. The road was a bit bumpy and potholed in places, but the route via the Yumuri Valley was lovely. In the valley and all along the coast there were fantastic groups of turkey vultures.
We finally climbed up onto the Via Blanca – the four lane coastal road to Havana. It was Sunday, and nice and quiet – we were often the only thing on the road. Eventually we emerged into the Puente de Bacunayagua – the highest bridge in Cuba. Immediately after we stopped at the Mirador de Bacunayagua – a viewpoint restaurant. The tour bus folks looked enviously at our bikes while we looked enviously at them drinking piña coladas at lunchtime. It was a bit of a zoo, and we were happy to hit the road again.
Soon after, the first stage 1 incident. Minor problem with Andy’s front brake pads. Quick repair and we were good to go. As we turned off the Via Blanca towards the coast, incident two – Andy’s clip shoe/sandal got stuck in the pedal. Eventually determined a screw had sheared and so continued with the clip stuck in the pedal for now. Finally, Gill’s rear gear shifter packed up and she was riding with only the front three gears working. We limped down into Playa Jibacoa wondering if there would be a ponchera (bike repair) but no luck – only several small beachfront cabin resorts (campisimo). We checked out one but it was pricey for a two bedroom cabin. The reception recommended a Casa Particular nearby and it was piece of good luck. Casa Frank’s garage was the equivalent of a Tour workshop. We also had the help of Juan, a Mexican guy travelling with his family, who spoke great English and was handy with the tools.
We enjoyed great food (swordfish steaks, rice, garlic yuca (cassava), fried plantain, and salad) as well as some cold beers. We enjoyed an early night after practicing our Spanish in the rocking chairs on the front porch.
Stage 2 – Playa Jibacoa to Havana (55 km).
We had arranged an early breakfast at 7am so we could get an early start to Havana. We heard our hosts and Juan stumble to bed at 3am. At 8.15 we gave up hanging round quietly and rang the doorbell to wake up the house. They emerged bleary-eyed and food was forthcoming and we were away by 9.30. The going was easy on the highway, and Gill occasionally had more than 3 gears. We turned off the Via Blanca into Guanabo to look for a Cadecas (currency exchange where you can get local “pesos Cuba” instead if the “convertible pesos” that most tourists use). The convertibles are worth more and used for more expensive items. We wanted the pesos for small purchases, like fruit and snacks when on the road. We used some pesos to get a nice ice cream at a local helados.
We rejoined the Via Blanca and it was easy riding. We reached the turning we thought was the right one for Havana and headed off into the city. Our directions got messed up due to a closed road but we found our way to the ferry that runs from Casablanca across the bay, with a lot of pointing and badly pronounced place names. On arriving at the ferry we were surprised to find that all our bags were searched. We were informed that taking a penknife on the ferry was not allowed, and there was no room for negotiation. We retreated back outside and thought about cycling over to the tunnel across the bay where apparently there is a bus that carries bikes through – you are not allowed to ride. Then we decided to hide the offending articles about our person (i.e. underwear) and try again, saying we had thrown them away. After another search of all our stuff, and Andy’s razor being confiscated, we were on our way! A short walk to the Casa Particular and we were safe, with the bikes carried up a steep flight of stairs to a lovely old apartment in Havana Vieja. We looked around the old town on the afternoon, with its amazing buildings and wonderful old cars. Had a couple of drinks in various bars, then finished with a delicious dinner in El Templete restaurant.
Rest day, Christmas Day – around Havana on foot.
We left the bikes at our casa and headed off to explore Havana on foot. We started out in the central core with Chinatown and the cigar factory, wandered through ramshackle Habana Centro to the University, and along to the Plaza de la Revolucion with its giant wrought iron portraits of Che and Fidel on the buildings. We hopped into a “bajaja” to head over to the Hotel Nacional, getting our “heads shaved” over the “meter” fare. We bought cigars at La Casa del Habana in the hotel then decided it was time for a lunchtime Christmas Day mojito in the garden overlooking the Malecon waterfront. We checked out a paladar (private house licensed to serve meals) for a lunch of rice ‘n’ beans, fish and yuca then whiled away the afternoon listening to live Son music in a street-side bar. We walked the Malecon seawall at sunset then headed over to the jazz cafe, rather randomly set above a small ’50/60s shopping mall. We arrived too early but the security guard pointed us toward another paladar in an amazing old villa building. Back at the Jazz Cafe we suffered 2 hours of Michael Buble on the TV before the band came on, numbing the pain with excellent Piña Coladas. The jazz was excellent with Emillio Morales on keys. We were disappointed that the music only lasted an hour so we decided to head home when the disco started!
Stage 3 – Havana to Mariel (42 km)
After a late start we set off on the Malecon towards the embassy and posh hotel suburb of Miramar. We made it about 1km before Andy got a flat, conveniently outside a ponchera (tire repair shop). An hour later and a few dollars lighter we were off in the road again. We decided to head past Miramar and out onto the Autopista Mariel – a four lane highway that is almost deserted save for a few old cars, buses, trucks and herds of cows. We past one notable landmark, the Latin American School of Medical Sciences – a campus established in 1999 to provide free medical training for young people from around Latin America and Africa and Asia as a precursor to full medical school training. Apparently there is a place to stop 30km from Havana but we didn’t see it and carried on almost to Mariel, a town notable for having the largest cement factory in Cuba. It is also famous as the port that was opened by Castro in 1980 following an incident at the Peruvian Embassy – the ‘Mariel Boatlift’ saw 125,000 Cubans flee to the US over six months. At a nice looking restaurant we asked about rooms in Mariel and were informed that they had a room there, which turned out to be the master bedroom of the house, hastily cleared for us, with ocean views and all mod cons. Ate a good dinner and had several beers in the restaurant!
Stage 4 – Mariel to La Mulata (85 km)
We left our hosts after a fairly sorry breakfast (no eggs!) but were very happy with our choice to stop before the town as we cycled through Mariel past the giant cement works. After a few kilometres with lots of trucks, tractors and buses, we turned onto the road to Cabanas and the countryside improved and the ride became increasingly bucolic. The main forms of transport we saw were horse and cart, horse, and bicycle plus a few tractors and trucks. A really nice ride through gentle hills of farmland, including many cooperatives growing various crops, including sugarcane and beef, plus picking up some bananas from a roadside stall on the way.
We stopped in Cabanas for a peso pizza and then later for a refresco (can of pop) in Bahia Honda, which is a small bustling town with lots for sale along the main street. We decided to keep going for another 25 km to La Mulata because it was still fairly early. Our 10 year old guidebook said that there were unofficial casa there. But we arrived to find a great official casa – Villa Jose Otano Pimentel. This small house is set a nice garden with an orange tree and fabulous orchids. And they have a washing machine, useful as Gill’s “drying laundry in a net bag on the bike” ended up in very muddy underwear! We had another excellent dinner of fish, rice, beans and beer.
Stage 5 – La Mulata to Vinales (55 km)
After a great breakfast with home-bottled mango juice and bread with local honey – and adjustment of Andy’s gears – we set off for Vinales. The rough road at the start meant slow going, but there were glimpses of the sea and white sand beaches, plus a stop to realign Andy’s brakes again. Gill fell off during a perfect storm of being chased by a dog, oncoming ox cart, stuck cleat, and a bridge with gaping holes in the surface (skinned knee, ox cart driver stopped to pick her up). We were chased by other dogs, which we didn’t think *really* wanted to bite us but were quite loud and territorial. We stopped for lunch in La Palma, but the restaurant had run out of most food items so we had local ice cream and wafer biscuits and peanuts on the street with a friendly dog for company. After that we headed into Vinales, with the valley surrounded by increasingly sheer and eroded karst outcrops with lush crops in the valley. Vinales is quite touristy but we found a great casa on a quiet side street with delicious Cuban food, and enjoyed a beer in the town square overlooking a beautiful old Spanish colonial church dating from near 1875 when the town was founded.
Stage 6 – Vinales to San Diego de los Banos (59 km)
A delicious breakfast including mango juice and bread with homemade guava jam fortified us for a tough and less-travelled route. Before leaving we booked some bus tickets and changed money, so it was not an early start. It was also boiling hot as soon as the morning fog in the valley cleared.
We set off and soon turned off onto a fabulous side road that leads to La Resbalosa, a well-known swimming hole. From there we left behind a couple of day tripping cycle tourists and cycled along a valley with fields of tobacco, sugar cane and scattered houses. The karst outcrops to our right were fantastic. We met a few people on horses and bicycles, but it was so quiet. Our guide book warned us that there was no food on this trip, which proved true. We did manage to buy a refresco in CPA Abel Santamaria at a small cafe stall. At the end of the glorious valley we turned in towards the Guera mountains and the first tough climbs began. We had to push our bikes up a few hills. A quick break for a Clif bar (our emergency food) and we turned along a flat valley towards Parc Nacional La Guira – the mountain area is famous for its karst cave where Che Guevara was based during the Cuban Missile crisis. The road was great and we could relax and enjoy the countryside, although we were now feeling the effects of a particularly hot and sunny day. We decided to miss the detour to the caves and instead started the big climb up to the pass over to San Diego de los Banos. It was a bit of a killer and the road is too rough to ride in places. The reward is some great views, followed by a welcome smooth decent to the town. We passed a nice looking restaurant and pool that is exclusive for vacationing military families. As we left the national park, we saw a guarapo stand – a place selling glasses of freshly pressed sugarcane juice. We sculled a glass each for the bargain price of 1 peso (4 cents) each.
San Diego de los Banos is a faded former spa bath town. There is a smell of sulphur in the air, but most of the original 1920s buildings on the main street are in rather sad condition. We checked out one which is now the state store where Cubans can use ration books to get basic foodstuffs. The baths look almost derelict and most people go to the river to swim. A well earned cerveza and another good dinner of fish, rice and beans. Finally, as we were relaxing at our casa, we realized this was a big night in town when’s blaring loud Latino-dance disco started with the local youth dressed up and dancing in the streets around the open air restaurant/bar venue.
Stage 7 – San Diego de Los Banos to Soroa (56 km)
Started the day with local cheese omelets and the best mango juice to date. We chose the easy route to Soroa, along main roads and the autopista (motorway), which was easy riding apart from the constant gale force head wind. We passed the Yuri Gagarin Geese Farm (yes, really!), and stopped for peso pizza and ice cream in the park in Santa Cruz de los Pinos. We bought a cold pop at a tiny stand at the side of the autopista, the owner wanted to buy Andy’s sunglasses. Then we climbed up to Soroa and chose Casa La Curva that advertised vegetarian food, which turned out to be a giant meal but with the meatiest *fish* we’ve ever eaten!
We took a taxi, an amazing 1950s Ford, to Las Terrazas for a look round this “eco resort” and had a couple of sunset mojitos. Over dinner in the casa we met a nice Cuban-Italian family and chatted about changes in Cuba. The guy was a puppeteer, but they recently chose to quit Italy because of lack of work and stay in Cuba permanently. They purchased property to rent based on recent changes in the law under Raul Castro.
Stage 8, New Year’s Eve – Saroa to San Diego de los Banos (74 km)
We took a great breakfast in the casa and then climbed up past Villa Soroa to the pass over the Sierra del Rosario mountains. Here we turned left to follow a rarely travelled route along the mountain road heading west. The road is remote and windswept but in great condition and gives amazing views north towards the Gulf of Mexico and south to the plains. In 33 km along the high, undulating route we saw one vehicle (of any kind!), a few villages and a couple of people chasing a goat – that was about it. It was tough, but the second part was great fun with not-so-tough climbs and long free-wheeling descents where brakes are not needed. We were glad to reach Nicete Perez and turn south back down to the Careterra Central along a bumpy road. At Fierro we stopped for a refresco at a small cafe doing a roaring trade in rather fancy cakes for New Year’s Eve. The route along back to SDLB was mercifully easy compare to the mountains and the headwind experience the previous day. We we absolutely delighted to arrive back in SDlB and shower and enjoy a piña colada and ice cream at the Hotel Mirador. We stayed at the casa again and sat on the patio drinking rum and pineapple to anesthetise our aching legs. After a while the street disco up the road started to get going and we decided to join the party. We sampled the peso rum and had a great time, even if the Latin dance pop is not our kind of thing. We left just after midnight to get some sleep for the final day on the bike.
Stage 9 – New Year’s Day SDLB to Pinar del Rio (53 km)
We got off to a late start and almost got off to a bad start. Our fuzzy rum-heads meant we set off to the Careterra Central again, but not following a smart route. Luckily, as we left town, a Cuban cyclist who leads tours asked Gill about her Bike Friday and where we were going. We quickly got on the correct route and it was a fairly easy ride into Pinar. The main highlight was discovering a new flavour of pop (pineapple). On arrival, the guide book warnings about touts were correct and we were accosted every time we stopped to try and get our bearings in the crazy one way road system. We stayed in a casa in a fabulous old colonial building and had a good look around Pinar city.
Post tour – Trinidad and back to Matanzas
We almost enjoyed the 9 hour Viazul bus ride from Pinar to Trinidad via Havana. The roads are very quiet but the buses take their time, stopping for no apparent reason and doing nice maneuvers like u-turns and reversing down the autopista. We fended off the touts in Trinidad – not too bad, but in doing so we also probably ignored genuine casa owners looking for business with photos of their homes and felt a bit bad about that.
Trinidad is an amazing small city – almost the entire centre remains exactly as it was as a Spanish settlement in 1750s. The main square, former convent de San Francisco de Asis, cathedral, and cobbled streets are fabulous. The open doorways and shutters give great glimpses into fabulous tiled floors and people’s historic homes. As usual in Cuba, it is the people going about their daily business that is an important part of the city, including horses and carts and bikes as well as cars. Tourism is important to Trinidad but its not hard to escape the visitors. We wanted an ice cream but most places were selling imported Nestle. So we went to the local state-run ice cream parlour, Coppelia, and were impressed by the levels of lethargy and incompetence – queues of people outside the empty restaurant and the slowest service ever seen, the irony is that ordering and serving shouldn’t be that difficult since there is only one flavour available each day! It was insanely cheap at 30 cents for 10 scoops and the quality was pretty good.
We enjoyed siting on the steps in the open air outside Casa de Musica listing to Cuban Son, Salsa and traditional Spanish music. The local Cubans dancing salsa were quite amazing. Our favorite venue was an afternoon in the courtyard at Casa de la Trova where we saw great bands playing son and salsa. We were a bit disappointed in the Lonely Planet-feted Palenque de los Congos Reales. The African-Cuban drumming and dance was constructed as a story about the slave trade and exploitation of the African population, but was too contrived and we’d prefer to see more of the musicians and dancing.
Back in Matanzas following another mammoth Viazul bus journey we enjoyed a proper walk around this great small old city (the original capital city). Gill tried the popular Malta drink, made by the brewing company, which turned out to be basically unfermented beer. Some great buildings and views from walking over the bridges. We were hoping to catch some live music on out last night since Matanzas in the birthplace of rumba. Unfortunately, the great Ruinas de Matasiete venue didn’t have anything on. The old Teatro Sauto is still under renovation and other venues were also closed on Friday. We consoled ourselves with a couple of last cocktails in the fabulous lobby bar of the Hotel Velazco on Plaza Libertad. The renovation (which took 10 years) is superb, as were the cocktails. We hope Teatro Sauto receives the same outcome.
On our last morning we gave away some things we didn’t need such as the inner tubes we brought (hard to buy in Cuba) and some medication to the pharmacy, then it was off to the airport with our luggage tied to the roof of an old Lada. Adios Cuba!