Trinidad, Cuba. This year's destination?

2nd to 11th February 2009
2nd Cycling Week Playa Giron to Santa Clara

Stoker enjoying the sunshine

Tour Day 7 Monday 2nd February at Playa Giron

We don’t usually start the week with a rest day. This time we were combining cycle touring with pleasure. The plan for tomorrow’s ride is mainly off road and our landlady said it cannot be done. We wanted to reci the start of the route before giving up. There was also a nice place to swim, eat and drink in that direction.

Leaving Playa Giron on our 11km ride we soon came across charcoal burners. They were almost exactly as Arthur Ransom described in Swallows and Amazons. Without Arthur Ransom the management may well not have done lots of dangerous things.

The charcoal burners lived in a thatched cottage and to one side of it they were building a dome shaped stack of wood for the next burn. On the other side of the cottage a burn was in progress. We watched one of them ensure that the coverings, turfs in Swallows and Amazons, were correctly placed. Smoke was coming out of a series of small holes about waist height. All this to ensure good charcoal.

A Swiss couple came along on their bikes, the third group of cyclists we have seen so far. The subject of the reci came up and they also had been told that the off road route was difficult so had not done it.

We cycled past the swimming place and were stopped by soldiers at a check point. As they took details of our passports we asked about the route. It’s fine they said, all the way. We cycled along a couple of kilometres on the unmade road without any problems.

We returned to the swimming place and for one price had sun beds under shade, lunch, as many drinks as we could manage and swimming and snorkelling in the rock pools and sea.

Predictably the management was convinced that the ride would be ok. The stoker, who was having a down day, was not so convinced. The management had persuaded her to do things like this before and they had not always worked out. She went to bed worried, not helped by an overnight storm complete with thunder and lightning,

Tour Day 8 Tuesday 3rd February Playa Giron to Rancho Luna

We needed the earliest start possible for what the Lonely Planet calls a wilderness adventure. Leaving soon after first light at 7.15am we retraced yesterday’s route to the military control point. Here we were off road for the next 45km and it felt daunting.

The track was not bad and followed near to the sea. For much of the way the only company we had were vultures and the small crabs which kept running across our path.

After almost 20km of rough track we came across quite a large village. On the outskirts were more charcoal burners. Then there were free range pigs and chickens then 30 or 40 rudimentary houses. It seemed a lively community with the usual front room shops and a communal television salon. We have no idea how such an isolated community can survive. We did not notice any motor vehicles so the outside world is presumably reached on foot, bike or horsepower.

As we left the village the track narrowed. A little further on we branched off to the right. The vegetation closed in on us and the path became quite narrow. The surface for much of the way was doable on the tandem. We had to push through a couple of very short sections of soft sand. We rode some very rough rocky parts when perhaps the management should have stopped. We did have concern for the wheels.

The two things which caused us the most difficulty were large puddles and thorns. Last night it rained and puddles occasionally covered the whole track. We dropped the bike a couple of times going through these. This caused the luggage and the stoker to get rather muddy and scratched.

We were really lucky with the many thorns to get only one puncture which we mended beside some tidal pools. Today has been overcast which has made the ride easier. It also discouraged the management from snorkelling.

We emerged from the wilderness very near to a failed project to build a nuclear power station. Strangely, despite the derelict appearance of the plant, there were many people around and several large accommodation blocks.

Wearily we pedalled on to the ferry crossing at the narrow mouth of Cienfuegos estuary. We again took our lives in our hands and went across on a rust bucket with as far as we could see no safety equipment.

Once safely on the other side we had a picnic lunch. This gave us enough energy to cycle a few more kilometres to find a casa beside the beach.

Tour Day 9 Wednesday 4th February Rancho Luna to Villa Yaguanabo

We left the casa for a “moderate” climb, a bit like going over the downs from Weymouth but against a strong wind. To our left was the blue empty water of the harbour around Cienfuegos. It is strange not to see a single sail on what seems to be ideal sailing water.

Having reached the summit we then descended again to the sea. Seeing a couple of cycle tourists coming the other way we stopped to chat. They were Spanish but had good English. Understanding the language gave them a big advantage in understanding Cuban culture so it was interesting to talk. Amusingly we learned that the food is just as bad for meat eaters as it is for veggies. More seriously we learned that the unusually bad hurricanes last season were the reason for the limited fruit available.

As we were chatting a police motor bike came by, loud speaker blaring out an announcement. We moved off the road and about ten riders in a bike race came by. All four of us were interested but just our body language indicated “not European standard”. We then had a chasing group go by followed by the peléton and then those who had fallen off the back. The highest number we saw was 145. It was exciting watching them going full chase on this slight descent. The Spanish guys shouted encouragement. None of the four of us were any longer condescending and we had enjoyed a great free show.

It is possible that one of these riders is a Tour winner of the future. They deserve success. The riders have few of the advantages of European riders or for example the British Olympic team. Team cars are replaced by motor cycles carrying a couple of wheels. The broom wagon was an ambulance and there were no tv cameras or press vehicles.

Having got back to the coast we checked into a beach side motel. We seemed to be the only residents but there were plenty of staff. Apparently a Dutch group had cancelled. The barman, a young and educated man, was interested in the European lifestyle. He was also very proud of Cuba. His knowledge of world affairs was very limited. Unsurprisingly in a country run by horse power he knew nothing about world oil running out. He did however say that the US were closing their torture camp at Guantanamo Bay but staying on the site.

 Picked up a thorn in a wild place

Tour Days 10, 11 and 12 Thursday, Friday and Saturday 5th, 6th and 7th February Villa Yaguanabo to Trinidad

With only 30km to ride we delayed our start to take advantage of the breakfast included in the motel price. This was very useful because Pincho the barman gave us his card for a casa to rent later on the route.

It was sunny with the bright blue sea to our right. It was not as warm as usual making it good for cycling. We cycled over a series of bridges built in the 1950s to open up the route to Trinidad for tourism. They are built right over lovely white sandy beaches. It sounds a dreadful thing to do but there is so little traffic it hardly harms the beach and the curve of the bridges over the beaches looks quite good.

A good 10km before we reached Trinidad, on a slight descent, we overtook a man on his work bike. On the next climb he overtook us. This happened a number of times on the way into Trinidad and developed much amusement and healthy competition between us which only ended at the outskirts of town.

Our friend’s bike looked as if it had once been a post office type bike though it was not of a kind used in the UK. It had very strong wheels and curved frame tubes. There was a huge steel carrier with a stand hinging down from behind the rear wheel to support bike and load upright. Like many bikes here the front forks were strengthened with concrete reinforcing rods from dropouts to stem and on this bike it was nicely done. This may sound like overkill but here solo bikes are beasts of burden. They are used to carry heavy loads over very rough roads. It is also not unusual to see three adults on one bike, one passenger on the cross bar and one riding side saddle on the carrier.

We entered Trinidad and headed for the Hotel Las Cuevas. It is the oldest hotel in town and hopefully for the tourist trade the worst. We were to meet our friends Mick and Sue here and stay for a couple of nights. The stoker managed to establish after much effort that Mick and Sue were still there. She then managed to obtain a rather high price for a room before after much further poking at a computer the three reception staff decided the hotel was full.

They did us a favour. We went down the hill and soon found a casa that suits us better at about half the price. Our next job was to send Stuart our web site update which had already been delayed several days for lack of a connection. It took about 90 minutes of frustration and annoyance to do a job which would take 10 minutes on UK adsl.

We met Mick and Sue who are on a walking holiday organised by the Ramblers Association. It was lovely to chat and interesting to exchange our very different experiences of Cuba. Having three guides they had gleaned much more information about how the systems work. We for our part had seen, lived in and enjoyed the smaller places which with a group they were unable to do. It was a very pleasant evening and strange to meet up 5,000 miles from home.

On Friday we explored Trinidad, the centre of which has UNESCO status as a World Heritage site. Unlike most such places it has not been spoiled by excessive renovation. The streets in the centre are cobbled. Many of the houses, built with the ill gotten gains from the blood and toil of slaves, are opulent with shady courtyards. It is a tourist area but, as with most of these places, ok for a day’s wandering. We did however stray out into the real part of the town to buy street food for lunch and relax with the locals in the shady Parque Céspedes.

On Saturday we caught the delightful little steam train from Trinidad to the Valle de los Ingenios. The locomotive was built in 1911 and looks it. It pulls two open wooden carriages, taking on water and wood for the boiler on the way. It goes so slowly that it could be quicker to cycle but we are always reluctant to miss a steam train ride. The destination is a now defunct sugar plantation deep in the countryside fringed by mountains. We climbed a 45 metre high bell tower on rickety steps for the view.

On our return to Trinidad we went to the Museum Romantico. The exhibits of beautiful and valuable furniture, artefacts, glass and crockery are laid out in fourteen rooms of the nineteenth century house of a wealthy sugar baron.

Today we have experienced part of the appalling history of Cuba. The tower we climbed housed a bell to signal when slaves started and stopped work. Until the 1890’s they were driven with whips and brutal punishment for even minor misdemeanours. They were forced to live in barrack blocks and suicides were common. The slave owners who lived in the house we visited became fabulously rich on the back of the slaves’ misery. They imported luxury items from all over Europe and North America and had an opulent life style.

Tour Day 13 Sunday 8th February Trinidad to Topes de Collantes

We left our lovely casa with Anais and Cayuco bright and early with kisses. Their hostal on Piro Guinart is highly recommended, being better for us than any of the hotels we have seen in Cuba and half the price.

We bumped down the cobbles and had an 8km undulating ride. We knew that then there would be some 800 metres of climb in the next 12km. It is of course almost impossible to ride a loaded bike up that kind of gradient. The management failed to use his head and realise this. His fuzzy logic said that if the decrepit Cuban vehicles could get up so could we.

He had to consider that the Cubans might not bring their old vehicles up. The crafty devils bring most of the tourists up in lorries equipped with lines of plastic chairs. They do look funny but they work grinding up in their crawler gears. Most other vehicles, of which there were few, were modern hire cars and taxis. There was also the odd cowboy, but no other bikes.

After just a couple of kms we realised how impossible getting up would be. We could not ride and it was even too steep for the management to use his normal ploy. On some steep hills he rides alone and pushes up the worst bits. The stoker also has a badly bruised leg from the wilderness ride. We were about to do the unheard of and turn back.

At that moment a hire car passed us some way but then reversed back. They were a European couple who realised our difficulty. They very kindly took our entire luggage to the top together with the stoker. They helped her find the only hotel available which was down in a nasty hole off their route.

Even without the luggage the management still had to push up the short steeper sections and was in bottom gear for much of the rest of the ups. He says he enjoyed the peace and quiet of the mountain and even the steady rhythm of the climb. The stoker, who had by now settled into the hotel and showered, walked out of the hotel hole and met him at the top of the climb. We had taken just less than the minimum cycling time the Lonely Planet suggested.

We came here mainly because it sounded a nice place high in the mountains and we thought we might go walking for a day. The Rough Guide calls it a once popular resort now lacking investment. It has gone seriously downhill since the guide was published and the prices have increased significantly. It can now only be described as a money grabbing tip where many of the facilities not actually shut are falling down. They even want to charge us 13 dollars to walk in their national park.

We have no alternative but to stay tonight but unsurprisingly will leave first thing tomorrow. Amusingly this is where the state sends its exemplary workers and the party faithful for holidays as a reward. Perhaps that is why we seldom see Cubans doing any work, as we know it in Europe, at all.

Well met, Spanish tourists going the other way

Tour Day 14 Monday 9th February Topes de Collantes to Santa Clara

We suspect that the cost of breakfast and indeed dinner last night went straight into the pockets of the staff. We refused to pay for the meat only buffet served up for the German and Canadian groups and ordered what we wanted. This cut the value of the staff scam by half which was still more than they earn in a month. We don’t mind them showing a bit of initiative in the face of the mind numbing bureaucracy which exists here. It is sad that they are not more cheerful about it.

We pushed the tandem up three steep hills to get out of this hole of a hotel onto the road. We then had several more completely unnecessary hills because of the poor design of the road system. This uninspiring complex could only have been designed in a communist system influenced by the Soviet Union.

Once clear of the complex we were cycling through the most wonderful scenery. Most of the time we were completely alone in the silence of the mountain. After several steep descents followed by hard climbs we rode a high ridge road. To the left we had a deep valley and glimpses of the blue water of the lake at the bottom. On our right the mountains and hills rolled away into the distance.

At the end of the ridge we had a long winding descent into the valley. Mainly due to the potholed road it was not an easy descent. The management achieved considerable stoker satisfaction by taking it carefully and slowly and enjoying the view. As we reached the high valley we came across small isolated settlements and then quite large villages. It seemed idyllic but these people are nearly as isolated here as those in the European Alps were a century ago.

As we neared the end of the valley we had a mishap which had the potential to be very serious. We were going downhill quite fast to gain speed to mount the hill on the other side as cyclists do. The road was partially shaded by the trees with the sun shining through. Suddenly we were confronted by the most enormous but camouflaged pothole.

The management, normally quiet on the bike, yelled out a warning at the top of his voice. Nothing could be done to avoid the pothole and the management felt certain we would be thrown off with disastrous consequences. The stoker shut her eyes and braced herself.

Luck and brilliant bike design were on our side. Much to our amazement and subsequent relief the front of the tandem rose out of the pothole as the back wheel crashed into it. There was a huge bang as both rear panniers fell off and together with SmartyPants crashed to the ground. We skidded to a halt and counted our blessings without even considering what damage was done to bike and gear.

Robin Thorn and St John Street Cycles can feel very proud of themselves. Beyond a couple of loose spokes there was no obvious damage at all. The panniers only fell off because being Ortlieb they are really only perfect in the hands of Germans. When the fiddly inserts which would have prevented this were lost in the Canaries a couple of years ago the management improvised and the slightly imperfect improvisations are still in place. Good German cyclists would of course refuse to cycle without the correct parts therefore making the panniers perfect.

We cycled on gingerly at first expecting another pothole around every corner. It was not long before we came to the end of the high valley and between the hills saw the undulating plain below.

We reached the lively and pleasant agricultural town of Manicaragua around midday. Looking for street food we found a café the locals use. For the equivalent of 15p each in national money we each had a good sized plate of spaghetti. Mind you the beer cost 50 pence a can.

The rest of the ride on quite busy roads for Cuba was hard but uneventful. We chatted to two pleasant young German cyclists, we seem to see other tourists every couple of days. They planned to do the reverse of our route today. It would be nice to have the strength of the young. It would take us about two days not one hot sunny afternoon.

Tour Days 15 and 16 Tuesday and Wednesday 10th and 11th February at Santa Clara

A few years ago Stuart stayed in Santa Clara and enjoyed it very much. We tried to check into the casa he stayed in but it was full so we were referred to another in the same street. Very sensibly they work together as a consortium and provide great facilities, much better than the state hotels.

Santa Clara is not only the busiest and most lively place we have stayed but the residents also seem to have more material things. Their bicycles are better and the few cars slightly less decrepit than elsewhere. There are also a few shops. They still of course have few of the material things we take for granted.

Our time here was split between pleasure and chores. Central to Santa Clara from a touristy point of view is Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. Along with many management consultants in the first world he thought people were motivated by work. As anyone, including the accountants who own the management consultants know, it is money which makes the world go round. Had Ché the doctor stuck to his Hippocratic oath instead of taking up arms millions of people might now be much happier. He also might still be alive but perhaps not as famous.

Among the jobs that we needed to do was to check the tandem, update our web site and plan the next few days. In the Telepunto office we found a web connection which was just a little faster than elsewhere. It was still hopeless for most things but it was possible to do simple things slowly without crashing.

All in all the most interesting thing to do in Santa Clara is people watch. Most of the towns here are lively places but Santa Clara is vibrant with life in every aspect. Our stay here has also given the stoker a chance to put her feet up. Unpredictably, because of the slight bump in the wilderness she has developed a very nasty bruise on her good leg and it needs rest.

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