Trinidad, Cuba. This year's destination?

24th January to 1st February 2009
1st Cycling Week Havana to Playa Giron

The management snorkelling during a rest break on the ride

Saturday to Monday 24th to 26th January 2009 Havana

First impressions are important and our first impression of Havana is its vibrancy. Every part of it is full of people and life. It is completely unlike any European culture we have experienced. It is a mass of contrasts. The streets are dirty and badly maintained but the people are happy and busy getting on with their lives. The vehicles are mainly old, slow and badly maintained but they go along with panache and the old American cars are still here.

We left the ship at 10am by boat as all disembarkation is via the cruise ship terminal. This can only be reached by boat and the round trip costs $72. This is much to the captain’s annoyance as well as ours. The alternative is just to cycle out of the rather small container port but Castro does not allow this. We don’t doubt our hard working shipmates will put the fare together for their shore leave. It is not, however, how one would like to see a communist country treat fellow very hard workers.

When we arrived at the terminal all the formalities were dealt with appropriately. It seemed to us that those we met found it hard to hide their natural friendly helpfulness while they carried out their bureaucratic duties. These were highly amusing. All our bags had to go through an x-ray machine as did the tandem. We then had to walk through an x-ray which the management set off so he had to be checked with a baton thing. Possibly like every other security measure making life difficult in the world today it can be blamed on 11th September. But it may more accurately be blamed on the intransigence of the Americans and the Bush administration.

We cycled along the harbour edge and though pleasantly warm it was not yet too hot. We had several encouraging and admiring comments. We even had a fanfare played by a three piece brass ensemble.

We reached the sea front road which is very wide indeed. It was here that we first came across the most amazing mix of vehicles. There were the cycles and three wheeled cycle taxis and horse drawn taxis. There were motorbikes with and without side cars and a mass of decrepit vehicles manufactured in the old Soviet block countries. Mixing with the occasional modern vehicle are also many old American cars from the 1950’s, mostly looking as if they are held together with string and chewing gum.

By following our sea front route we had bypassed the tourist area. It was amazing and sad to see lovely old colonial buildings falling down or held up by scaffolding. Some were even being lived in as they crumbled away. Soon we headed inland to find the casa particular where we planned to stay. This presented considerable difficulty for the management. We do not have detailed digital maps of Havana. The paper map has street names but many streets are identified by letters and numbers. We were soon lost in a maze of tumble down streets and a seething mass of humanity and vehicles.

We finally found the road we were looking for but were at the wrong end of it. Because it was one way we walked the length of it as we can be fined for riding against the traffic. It would also be dangerous with the many unroadworthy vehicles swerving to avoid the pot holes.

We then had our first close up of Cuban street life. It feels quite intimidating but is probably less hassle than the touristy areas. It just needs a little getting used to. These are ordinary people going about their business, not touts or beggars. There is hustle and bustle, and like any new country it is hard to judge who can be trusted and who can’t.

We knocked on the door of the casa which had once been a fine house with an impressive stonework façade. Now, like the rest of the street, it was crumbling away and in very poor repair. Miriam came down but did not have anywhere for the tandem and already had people staying. She phoned several of her friends before finding one who could take the tandem.

Senor Luis turned up with a taxi. Miriam gave the stoker a goodbye kiss and we followed the taxi a couple of kms to Luis’s ground floor apartment. Our room was pleasantly comfortable and shady, a necessity in this climate.

After settling in we set off on foot to find the National Hotel. We needed to exchange money and the banks being shut on Saturdays the hotel was our only option. We found the hotel, a rather useful and slightly impressive national monument, and soon had CUCs, i.e. tourist currency, to spend.

As advised by the Rough Guide we also went to the hotel business centre to use the internet. Each computer was allocated a small office. It might have been appropriate to equip them with a bed for resting while the ancient equipment chugged away. We could not logon to the server to update this site so emailed the stuff to Stuart in London. We are not sure whether the problem was censorship or speed. On leaving we asked about wifi. “May be Monday” was the reply. We had been warned that Cubans do not like to say no.

Later in the evening Luis walked us to a café that served vegetarian food. He probably received a small present for the introduction. It was a simple inexpensive place and the food was fine. Returning to the apartment we were very aware of how dimly lit the roads are, we could actually see the sky. Again we did not feel threatened and there were lots of people about. The stoker said she thought it may be the red light district but the management did not notice.

On Sunday we did the touristy thing and trudged the streets of Havana for an exhausting six hours. Before we had gone far we came across an exchange booth. The stoker changed some of our convertible, i.e. tourist, Cuban pesos to the national currency the locals use. With these it is possible to get things in local shops for very little. This has become something of challenge for the stoker, involving using an advanced level of arithmetic.

In our traipsing about as tourists we found that by far the most interesting areas are like those we visited yesterday. The old town to which visitors are directed is just about adequate if you are interested in museums and revolutions. As a visitor attraction it does not rate alongside such places as say Prague. It is certainly, however, different from anything we have seen before and the weather is pleasantly warm. On the downside are touts, crowds, rip off merchants and beggars. There are also armed police on every corner “for our safety”. On the upside we did not hear any North American or indeed much English spoken.

In the evening we got the tandem out to cycle about ten minutes to a nice looking restaurant we had noticed in our travels. Lights don’t seem to be a requirement for bikes but they are essential. Some of the potholes are huge, drain covers may or may not exist, things are left in the road and all that is after steering for the least rutted surface. Oh, and we had to cycle round a group sitting in the street watching television. The two consolations are the cheery waves and shouts from those sitting on their doorsteps and that no Cuban will risk damaging his car and on these roads go about the same speed as us.

The restaurant is in an ethnic area but quite smart looking, not unlike what one would expect in the warmer parts of Europe. We had planned to ask if we could bring the bike in, no one leaves anything stealable outside. The doorman waved us in with the bike without us asking.

This was a private enterprise restaurant which is supposed to be restricted to four tables in this communist regime. What also seems to be permitted are chairs and tables around bars. By making the most of these two rules a reasonable private restaurant is possible.

The menu looked fine but like everywhere else most things are off. They can only cook the ingredients available at the end of today’s queue. However we had a very pleasant meal.

On Monday we thought it was time to get the bike out and did a ride loosely based on the circuit of Havana, click the “route” page below for details. We went westward to the edge of the heavily built up area then crossed a large river by a rickety iron bridge looking for fruit and bread shops in a residential area. Finding shops at all is difficult and any with fresh goods almost impossible. The stoker’s great success was to find freshly made hot buttered rolls in a roadside kiosk. Once found the cost in national currency was tiny.

 There are many birds here - most are new to us

We sat down on a nearby shady seat and the tandem soon attracted half a dozen working men on their lunch break who asked sensible questions about the technology. One was a cycling enthusiast who had spent a great deal on his mountain bike. He was very proud of it and kept a cloth handy to keep it clean. It seems a great shame that this system does not enable a young man to have a decent bike.

After this pleasant exchange which we enjoyed we decided to divert from the route. Following the Lonely Planet advice we went to have a look at the massive cemetery for the whole of Havana. We were surprised and disappointed. We had to pay to go in, to use the toilets and to park the tandem. There are supposed to be some interesting monuments but we could not find them. A map, though advertised, was not available.

This kind of thing is not good for management stoker relations. It was best that we were soon back on the road into town.

As we passed the harbour we were surprised to see the Melfi Iberia anchored off, partly loaded with empty containers for return to Europe. Presumably Castro wants his deposit back. As she is again already running late it looks as if our stay here could be longer than expected.

Our wider circle of the town centre took in the rail station. It is an extremely impressive building hiding behind it a rail system in almost total disarray and collapse. The few trains on view did not look unlike those the management saw in France in the 1970s although the French trains were in a much better state of repair.

One of the ever present gun toting police threw the management off the concourse because he was walking with the tandem. There was no point in saying he was taking it on the train as this was obviously out of the question. It would also have been silly as the tandem would be quicker.

Despite the gun toters the area around the station felt unsafe. We have become used to the vibrancy of street living in the poorer areas but this was different. People were scruffy and unkempt. Some of the children looked like street urchins rather than kids just playing in the streets. And it smelled.

Ten minutes later we were sitting in a seafront bar drinking rum cocktails and reading our emails on the phone.

Tour Day 1 Tuesday 27th January Havana to Guanabo

We are at last off on our cycle tour with Luis waving us goodbye. We left him in charge of a bag of winter things. The management felt like saying sell them if we don’t come back in three weeks but thought better of it.

The bicycle ferry across the harbour mouth is an oblong barge like boat, scruffy and functional. It has a noisy diesel engine and no obvious safety equipment. The management saw one passenger cross herself as we went aboard.

Amusingly, or perhaps sadly, all those boarding this ferry for the ten minute crossing had their bags searched and were checked with a wand thing. We had to unload the tandem for the search.

Loaded up again there was room, with a little help from other passengers, to wheel the loaded bike on and off. The other side is called Casablanca. It is completely different from Havana and its crowds and crumbling buildings. It feels like a quiet run down village and there are few vehicles. For the first 7kms or 8kms we passed low houses barely more than shacks. Chickens were kept and there was the occasional banana plantation.

Just outside Cojimar we were suddenly confronted by a wall of run down looking high rise apartments. They would be at home in and the design may have originated from a poor suburb of Moscow.

Here we joined the busier coastal road and soon after a long climb had a rear wheel puncture. We pulled over in some shade near a crowded bus stop with the usual police presence. No one troubled us at all and the management was able to mend it in peace. Broken down vehicles here are common, it is inevitable when many are over 50 years old and most of the rest were the poorest the Soviet Union could foist off.

We continued on the main road and waved to several groups or perhaps cycle teams training. It would be interesting to know from where in this consumer desert they got their bikes and gear.

We soon left the road and descended to the coast. Our first experience of a Cuban resort was surprising. We found wonderful white sand, bright blue palm fringed sea and crashing waves. The coastal road system was there but on it was the odd bar and very occasional hotel. It seemed to us to be an ideal holiday beach with no one on it. Perhaps they were put off by the strong wind, which though very warm is wearing.

We continued to Guanabo, the last village on this part of the coastal strip. Both hotels said they were full, though we understand that this is the normal excuse for wishing to take only Cubans. We could not find a casa and eventually followed a tout to a pleasant apartment.

Tour Day 2 Wednesday 28th January Guanabo to Playa Jibacoa

We were surprised at breakfast to see a flag waving procession of school kids pass our house, responding to a cheer leader with well known replies. We understand they were marking José Martí day. He helped rid Cuba of the Spanish in the 19th century and then was involved in trying to keep the Americans out. The kids seemed to be enjoying it though we tend not to like this kind of thing, whether promoted by a totalitarian or democratic state or indeed a religion.

We continued on the main coast road and soon came to Cuba’s oil field. We were surprised to see a few nodding donkey oil pumps working. According to Lonely Planet it was hardly viable six years ago. The world may still have some oil left. As our friend Badger says, getting it out is like trying to fill a pint beer glass by wringing out a bar towel at closing time. Perhaps this is what Cuba is doing.

The ride was unfortunately shadeless and as we went along a head wind set in. We were overtaken by a racing cyclist training for the Tour of Cuba which starts in a couple of weeks. He rode with us to the campismo where we were spending the night.

We had a stone cottage in a lovely situation right beside the sea. We had a very nice lunch, something difficult to find in Cuba, and relaxed for the rest of the day.

Tour Day 3 Thursday 29th January Playa Jibacoa to Matanzas

Today’s ride is not very long but involves a climb or two. The Lonely Planet says it is a moderate ride. The management, who is dyslexic, misread it as being an 800 metre climb. It is a tough climb but hardly the equivalent of Snowdon from sea level.

We set off at 7.45am. It would have been earlier but the stoker decreed it was raining, and while happy to go considered that nothing important, apart from ourselves, should get wet. There was indeed a heavy morning mist. It was not until we decided to leave anyway that we found she had been standing under a large tree. It would seem trees here collect the water and drip it on the stoker beneath.

We made good speed before the sun had any real power. We took the back road past the workers’ holiday complexes, no actual visitors but lots of “workers”. Leaving the coast we passed smallholdings and even met a cowboy on a horse driving his herd of half a dozen cattle along the road.

Reluctantly we joined the main road and continued to the view point of Cuba’s longest bridge with a span of 313 metres and a height of 100 metres. It appears to be well made and is not crumbling which is as well as we crossed it anyway.

On the climb we were overtaken by a couple of Dutch men cyclists. We shook hands and exchanged details and route information before they went on ahead. We were then overtaken by yesterday’s Cuban roadie who gave us a push up the hill. Before peeling off he gave us details of a casa in Matanzas.

We then had a long ridge ride before the descent. The management was wilting badly as the sun got hotter and there was little shade. Even though all he has to do is steer and brake, with the stoker providing the motive power, he was very pleased to reach Matanzas.

Approaching Matanzas is not an edifying experience but it belies a pleasant shady town centre. One of the town centre hustlers got us pizza on a plate. No doubt we paid for this service but it was welcome on this occasion.

Our roadie’s casa was lovely but full. We were directed to another which seemed just as nice. We were well fed and the stoker joined the mafia of women who ran it. She received instruction on using a washboard for the washing and the optimum drying technique with the line prop.

Havana is a friendly place and renovation work is taking place but very slowly

Tour Day 4 Friday 30th January Matanzas to Cardenas

The management is at last becoming acclimatised and also beginning to find his cycling legs. Three weeks on the ship had done for them. Maybe some good food at the casa also helped. We left town at 8.30am, rather later than we would have liked but breakfast was too good to miss.

Outing from towns can be tricky but we managed the back way without much problem. After a short stretch of main road we turned off onto the coast. We followed a new minor road which was being used for a time trial. We were cheered through the start, the stoker with both her arms in the air.

This part of the route is through a national park and the sea looks good for snorkelling. The management would have liked to stop but realised it was better to go on now rather than cycle through the heat of the day. He made a note for the return trip.

We were sorry to be back on the main road for the rest of the ride. Interestingly, the last bit is “autopista” and there is a toll gate just before the main foreign tourist area of Varadero. As such a thing should be anathema to a good communist we can only assume it is purely there to keep the ordinary Cubans and the tourists apart. Mind you bikes go free.

We arrived at Cardenas at midday, having for the first time this tour done a reasonable distance before it got very hot. Finding a casa was as usual a bit of a hassle but we were soon settled in.

During the afternoon we had time to explore the town. It is quite large with lines of low shanty type buildings built on a grid. The main street has open ditches or drains but is lively and does not smell. Many of the cross streets are dirt tracks and the shacks look very basic and dirty.

There are few shops here as we know them, i.e. with a window and full of whatever they sell. Most shops are the front room of houses and you can only find out what they have by going in and looking. We found shops selling eggs, meat, cheese and bread. Pulses, rice and grain are also available. However fruit and vegetables seemed in short supply. We did not see any convenience foods, not even the everyday things we take for granted in the UK.

Most of the traffic here is horse drawn, both carts and taxis, and there are many bicycles. Motorised vehicles are mainly ancient lorries and buses. These belch out great amounts of pollution but are not great in number.

Having bought a pizza through a steel grating of a doorway we sat and ate it in an open air bar after buying a beer. We also risked buying a cake from a street vendor. We paid the equivalent of about 12p for two, about twice what he charged the locals but he did take ours from the bottom which was more or less fly free.

Our next job was to buy a phone card and work out how to use it. The stoker worries about having nowhere to sleep. With much help from innocent bystanders we found our way to the state phone company office. About thirty pence bought us a local phone scratch card.

All we had to do was key in the card number followed by hash and the number we wanted followed by hash. The management was then able, in perfect pidgin, he thinks, to book manana’s casa. The cost of the call was less than 2p but we will only know if the pidgin worked when we get there.

It rained very hard this afternoon. We were surprised as this is the dry season when there should be less than 5cm of rain in a month. Despite the pleasant feel of the hard rain we and everybody else took cover. The humidity is so high that clothes drying time can be as long as at home so no one wants to get soaked.

Tour Day 5 Saturday 31st January Cardenas to Jaguey Grande

Today we left behind places tainted by tourism. In their place is rural communism. On the face of it the latter seems preferable though we understand we travelled through an area favoured by the regime.

Last night’s rain had long gone but it left a strong north east wind and large dirty puddles in the streets. As we took a while finding the right road out of town we had plenty of experience of the puddles before we could enjoy the tail wind.

First we cycled by cane fields then bananas and then oranges. The management was able to scrump oranges though it is a moot point whether this is possible in a communist country. It was also very easy because there are no fences. The farms are on a very large scale with a number of modern accommodation blocks along the road. Perhaps these are for Cuban fruit pickers. The Albanians we have seen doing the job in Europe may be a bit thin on the ground here.

We passed through several small towns, all of which were busy. The houses are almost all single storey shacks but they looked better kept than many we had seen nearer the tourist areas. The main streets in the towns seemed to offer more choice of goods than we had seen elsewhere.

Even with agriculture on this scale there was very little farm machinery about. We did however see oxen being used in the fields. By far the most used forms of transport are horse and cart or trap and cycle. The main streets of the towns overflowed with them. We were surprised how fast a single horse and trap can go. We had to do 23kph to pass one on the flat and this was only possible for us because we had the following wind and great stoking effort.

We arrived shortly after midday at Jaguey Grande, near Australia, very pleased with ourselves. This was quite a long ride even though it was on the flat with a following wind. Our fitness is getting better each day but our bums are a bit sore, especially the stoker’s. Australia is the place where Castro masterminded the defeat of the American invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. It is therefore an important though small place in Cuban modern history.

Tour Day 6 Sunday 1st February Jaguey Grande to Playa Giron

Lazaro said down here two blocks, turn left and keep going and we did. Australia was soon passed and next stop was a crocodile reserve. It was beautifully peaceful in the national park. The only sound was the hum of tyres before the heat of the day.

We could see the crocodiles in their pond or at least their noses. These captive ones did not worry us nearly as much as the wild ones. We agreed that if we saw one as we rode through the marsh land we would not stop to take photos.

Mid morning we arrived at the top of the Bay of Pigs, famous for the failed US led invasion of Cuba in 1961. The Americans seem to have learned nothing from Vietnam or the Pigs fiasco before wrecking Iraq. There were memorials to those who died all along the road, shame Bush didn’t see them.

The Bay of Pigs has beautiful clear turquoise water. The management found a secluded spot and went snorkelling. The delay this caused would involve cycling through the midday sun but it also gave the stoker’s bum a rest. We felt confident enough in our acclimatisation to risk doing this.

Underwater the fish were even more lovely than those in tropical fish tanks. The variety and size of some of the invertebrates was amazing. The management only came out because swimming naked as he was he was worried about getting too much sun. As we left a decrepit blue Chevy rolled up. Five friendly Cuban men climbed out and started fishing from our spot.

We cycled on to our casa. Around midday the sun is so high that there is no shade at all on the road and it is a very harsh environment. It is reassuring that we can now manage this if we have to.

To wind up the day and our first week in Cuba we went to the low key resort hotel in Playa Giron and lazed in the shade with some rum mojitos.

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