Wednesday, December 23, 2015

CUBA by Bike

HA - I don't have a single photo of myself on a bike in Cuba!  But I saw a lot of Cuba on my bike!

I've never been to Cuba, but was intrigued to go when Gerald and Linda asked me if I was interested. We planned out the trip together and covered a good deal of ground - Havana for 3 days, cycling for 15 days with CanbBiCuba on an eastern loop from Holguin and an all-inclusive beach resort for 5 days in Varadero to finish things off. All that combined with more lunches of rice-beans, pork and banana chips, that then evolved into ham and cheese sandwiches, than anyone could ask for!

When people talk about the food in Cuba it doesn't get stellar reviews, but one thing I will say - you are eating what's fresh, in season and there's minimal processing; mmm bananas. Having stayed in such a variety of places I also thought it would be a good idea to search for the best Mojito - it is a Cuban original.... The winner was the Hotel Sierra Maestra in Bayamo.  We stayed here on 2 different nights and the best mojito was made by the bartender we encountered on the first go around. So it was a very elusive Mojito...

In spite of the general consensus of mediocre food in Cuba, we did have some excellent meals - the Globe and Mail had a travel feature on new restaurants in Havana and we dined at Cafe Laurent, which was on the list. Linda and I ordered the same thing, we both enjoyed it, but I got food poisoning (Linda didn't)....  The restaurant at Peter's apt building was also very good - baguettes and pizzas.  The resort in Varadero had several al a cart restaurants and I think the last meal we had at the Hilltop Restaurant was the best on the trip.

The cycling was brilliant.  We had a variety of terrain/roads, very little traffic for the most part and many estimates of what distances we would be doing for the day!!  My favourite ride was our longest day along the southern coast.  It was a blue sky, 38'C, and gorgeous.  Sometimes right next to the ocean, or above it, over the occasional washed out bridge or section of road, spectacular scenery and very little traffic.  I saw the most enormous cake on the back of a horse drawn cart, held in place by 2 happy kids, on it's way to a wedding or birthday - it was at least 2 ft x 3 ft.  But you know the feeling you get when you get to 100km and expect to see your abode for the evening, but you're just in a little village and it turns out you have another 11 km to go....  the longest ride was not 100km, it was 111km!!  And worth every km.

Watch where you're going!!

Beautiful vistas along the way

The other highlight of the cycling was Peter's sponsorship/support of local cycling teams. The majority of these are high school teams of both males and females.  One of the things that CanBiCuba asks of it's riders is to bring spare bike parts for donation to the various teams. We met up with a female team of 13 - 17 olds.  They were lovely and fast!   They met us about 20 km outside of Las Tunas, rode into town with us and hosted us for a pig roast and salsa dancing that evening at the coaches home.  It was so much fun. I suffer from "white girls rhythm" when it comes to Salsa dancing, but gave it a go.


The cycling was a diverse group of 14 + Peter, the tour owner; Rueben, the bike mechanic; Harley, the "cultural guide"; and Philippe, the bus driver. The nice thing about cycling is that you congregate in the am for breakfast, along the way for lunch and in the evening for a meal, so you don't get tired of each other and you spend a little time with everyone at some point.  

The lunch time meal went something like this.  First - find a town with a restaurant with enough food to feed 18 of us; pay someone a peso or 2 to watch the bikes; one meal for everyone - rice/beans, pork/chicken or fish; banana chips; drinks - they always had enough beer and rum; didn't often have bottled water; or someone would run somewhere else to get pop.  This process took anywhere from 1-3 hours.  Then we started making ham and cheese sandwiches from the buffet breakfast in the mornings or eating whatever we brought with us in regard to protein bars, etc.  Lunch on the road was a double edged sword - you stopped to eat (1-3 hours) and arrived at your destination for the night at check-in time (3 or 4 pm).  You continued and ate your sandwich and arrived at your destination around 1 or 2 pm.  Then you get to hang out in the hotel lobby for a couple of hours b/c the rooms aren't ready.  Michelle and I started putting our bathing suits in the top of our luggage and then we would go for a swim in the pool while waiting for check-in, if there was a pool at the hotel.  Very refreshing after a day on the bike with road grit stuck to you and your sunscreen coated appendages.

Peter definitely has the patience of a saint - running a cycling tour company in Cuba is a challenge. You're dealing with a communist government that dictates how the tour operates. You know which hotels you want to stay in along the tour route, submit your choices to the government - you may or may not get your requested destination; or you arrive at the destination and said hotel and is over booked so you go to plan B; you must have a "cultural guide" with you on all tours, but you won't ever get the same one and they may or may not be a cyclist.  You request the size of bus you want and the government assigns a driver. You run the tour in the same areas from year to year, but things are always changing.

Harley, our cultural guide, got to know the meaning of "herding cats" as he was continually counting us, but then we'd change positions mid-count, totally oblivious to what he was doing.  He used to work for Customs, but changed jobs when the government stopped allowing them to receive "tips" (his words, not mine).  We were his first tour.  He was tested on the first day when some of us decided not to walk up the stairs/viewpoint in Holguin.  He parked us in a cafe and when he returned with the other group and we had wandered away from the cafe, he was beside himself.  He became much more relaxed....

We had an interesting start to the tour and "Cuban" time.  40 seat bus to arrive and depart at 8 am, no make that 9 am.  Oh wait, they'll pick up the bus at 9 am; remove half the seats for the bikes, then pick a driver; bus departs at 1:30 pm - sort of.  We are going down what seem to be very residential streets - we are at Phillipe's (bus driver) house!!  He picks up his suitcase and we are on our way. Interestingly, Phillipe has an Economics degree, but decided to learn English and change jobs to drive tour buses b/c the tips are much better than what an Economist wouldn't make. 

My impressions of Cuba:

  • Seeing Cuba on a bike is so worth it!!
  • The scenery is beautiful and we saw many parts of Cuba that the average tourist wouldn't see
  • Best/most accurate Lonely Planet hotel description: "tropical reincarnation of a Gulag camp" - we stayed here
  • I felt very safe travelling around 
  • Small children can be very sombre
  • The food is mediocre, but fresh
  • I didn't see a single plane fly overhead in the 3.5 weeks we were there and not many boats along the coast
  • Many small town squares are wifi accessible, so you'd see people congregating around computers and phones in the squares
  • The only new structures I saw going up were 2 or 3 new hotels in Varadero.  Many restoration projects in Havana that are partnered with Unesco and private investors (they are signed to reflect this)
  • Are the people poor?  I think it depends on your definition - you have a house/apt to live in, food to eat, excellent medical care, schooling guaranteed to grade 9, university is free, if you qualify
  • Males complete 2 years of mandatory military duty; females voluntarily do military service, but this can improve their chances of getting into a university; Cuba's biggest export - medical doctors
  • Autopista Nacionale = 6 lanes of highway that are almost void of traffic 
  • Traffic =  Soviet era giant truck/buses, horse drawn carriages, bike taxis, motorbikes, cars (1950's American, Ladas, Chinese brands, Kia, Hyundai), people walking, horses, oxen drawn carts, donkey drawn carts, tour/city buses (Chinese made), bicycles
  • Roads - smooth new highway, hard top, potholed, dirt track, washed out, narrow but with courteous drivers - biggest vehicle has the right of way, like most of the world....
  • I enjoyed learning about the history of the Revolution
  • Tourists - Canadians, Europeans, although we had 3 Americans on our tour - they entered Cuba via Mexico and Toronto
  • It will be interesting to see how Cuba evolves once the American trade embargo is lifted. I didn't get the impression all Cubans were eager to welcome Americans with open arms.  Whether the infrastructure to support a big influx of visitors is in place will remain to be seen...

Would I go back to Cuba?  Probably not, because there are too many places in the world to see, but I would recommend it.  

Oh and I bought a new bike - Kona Sutra touring bike, I love it, I want to use it some more... 

From this Dec 3....

to this Dec 12.....