Trinidad, Cuba. This year's destination?

12th to 20th February 2009
3rd Cycling Week Santa Clara to Cienfuegos via the Northern Cays

The finish of Santa Clara stage of the tour of Cuba

Tour Day 17 Thursday12th February Santa Clara to Remedios

We left the comfortable casa near the town square, waved off by the young man who had looked after us. We were immediately plunged into a seething mass of humanity. The bikes, including us, dodged the walkers and the odd car dodged everyone. It is amazing that the UK bans bikes in so many places. Here they are everywhere and no one has been “nearly killed” or even had a conflict with a bike anywhere we have seen in Cuba.

The weather is close today, overcast with little wind, and a temperature of 25 degrees. The motor vehicles cause a totally disproportionate amount of pollution to their number. The lorries, buses and old US cars which make up most of them belch out great black clouds of exhaust and smell strongly of petrol. None would pass the pollution controls in the UK. With little wind to move the fumes on Santa Clara was under a cloud.

The management is more affected by the pollution than the stoker. He reckons it reduced his efficiency to 93% of normal though it is possible he was just being lazy.

It was about 10km before we were out of town. It was both interesting and fun making our way through the crowds going about their business. The bus stops were each crowded with 30 or more people supervised by a person with a clipboard. Some were put on buses but many onto lorries and some into cars which were waved down.

Once clear of town we were in rolling agricultural land. Most of the farms we saw were large collectives but there also seemed to be private enterprise. Many of the tiny, mostly wood and thatch dwellings had vegetable gardens and chickens and some had pigs.

Just before midday we arrived at Remedios. Our casa was kindly reserved for us by last night’s casa. One of the nice things about casas is that each is different. This one is three or four hundred metres from the town centre. The modern single storey house is quite small. Our ensuite room overlooks the patio with rocking chairs and plants. The women of the house were busy in the kitchen and we relaxed in the shade

 Dinner in the casa is normally served in the enclosed courtyards

Tour Days 18 and 19 Friday and Saturday 13th and 14th February in Remedios

We were woken by the sound of cocks crowing and the trip trap of the occasional horse in the street. On Friday we spent a very pleasant day in this very low key rural town, barely more than a large village. After late breakfast the management lounged around while the stoker did washing chores. This house is run by women and the stoker soon had a good relationship going. They commented that she couldn’t be used to washing by hand. She made them realise that she did similar chores to their’s at home.

Our position here as tourists is very different from that in Europe or anywhere we have been before. Even without the tandem we are immediately spotted as tourists by everyone. Whatever we do our status is impossible to hide. We suppose it must be our clothing or the way we behave, there are plenty of Cubans who don’t look very different from us. In almost every way we are favoured over local people. In some queues we are either pushed to the front or moved to the correct queue for us.

The interesting and indeed nice thing about the way we are treated is that it is done without servility or in the main avarice. Fidel can be proud of them. For example if we buy street food and, like the locals, pay in pesos we queue as they do. It is when we use Cuban “tourist” dollars we get the dubious “advantages”. We are also subject to the attention of touts and hustlers. We try to treat them politely and they go away often with a mutual smile when they realise there are no dollars to be had.

The tourist attractions of Remedios are theoretically limited to its church and some minority interest museums. We did look at these, no doubt most people stay on the bus.

The real interest is in the street life. The town has a large central plaza with a pleasant bar in a shady corner. People meet, chat, do business and live in the street and plaza. There is a constant human pageant going on free to the idle management and stoker. None of this is spoilt by motor vehicles, not because it is a pedestrian area, but because there are so few.

Returning to the casa we heard the sound of live music in the distance. Cubans are a noisy lot to conservative Northern European ears and there is often a cacophony of recorded sound, but this was different. We came across what looked like a garment factory where a loud Cuban band was playing local music for the workers.

Here was the stoker’s downfall. She took herself away from the door to get a better look through an open window. Stepping back off the high pavement and probably not helped by her wobbly left leg she fell into the road. A kindly woman from a house opposite took her and the management in. Nothing seemed to be broken. Once her dizziness had gone we gave our thanks and went slowly back the couple of blocks to the casa. Once there cold compresses were applied to her hand and we hope rest and good food will provide the cure.

On Saturday, as we had hoped, the stoker’s bruised hand seemed to be getting better. We made a late start with a view to cycling up the road a few kms to visit a sugar factory museum. We could not find the museum but a little further on from where it should have been we reached the coast at a town called Caibarién.

Caibarién is a working town rather like Remedios but not as nice. It is at the foot of a deep bay but though the sea is blue there is no beach. A new promenade has been built but neither this nor the blue sea was very inviting. Unsurprisingly we saw no tourists or any one swimming. In view of the raw sewage in all Cuban towns it would be sheer foolishness to swim near one. We would also not swim in a “fresh” water pool here.

At lunch time we made for the large town square for the street food. That is pizzas and ice cream eaten in the shade of the plaza and costing a few pence. It does involve much friendly interchange with the locals but that is no hardship.

Going back we wandered off the main road in search of the lost sugar factory museum. The wooden shacks and tumble down communist built tenements all show signs of “bad lands”. It may once have been different before sugar production stopped. In most countries we would keep well clear. Here we felt no danger and gave and received friendly greetings as we went along our way.

We found the museum closed even though it should be open and we don’t think we missed much. The most interesting thing was the four or five steam trains which we looked at in the yard. We continued along the backroads and out into the countryside. There are no maps here and all we could do was follow our noses. As we got further off the direction south to Remedios we saw a woman on a bike go left.

Two pony carts came by and we asked directions. The general consensus of the two elderly and apparently partially sighted drivers was that we should retrace. Before the management could ignore such philosophically inappropriate directions a younger man on a cart came the other way. He decreed that no harm would be done to go the same way as the woman on the bike. The stoker, well aware of the trouble the management had got into in the past, was unsure. Should we take the advice of two almost blind old men or a younger man who looked too fat to have ever been on the route he suggested?

As usual the management went on and was lucky enough to find the way back to the casa. A word needs to be said about the man who comes to this house each day at tea time. The two lovely women who run it so well should ditch him. Tomorrow we are going to the off shore islands for a couple of days. We had arranged to leave some bags here and return on the way back. We had also arranged early breakfast as we do on cycling days. The silly man decided to upset the management by hustling him to take a taxi. Bearing in mind he will get the equivalent of about twenty months’ state earnings from our four day stay he should learn to stop while he is ahead. To be fair he is charging the going rate for the casa which we are happy to pay, and also many of the people in this area are the descendants of pirates.

Tour Days 20, 21 and 22 Sunday, Monday and Tuesday 15th, 16th and 17th February Remedios to Las Brujas and back to Remedios

Elisabeth, the management’s daughter, had managed to get a booking for us at a hotel at Las Brujas via the internet in the UK. We had been unable to do this in Cuba. This will enable us to enjoy a very unusual experience.

Last night our Cuban neighbours, always noisy, partied all night. The management slept through it but not the stoker. We also needed to be away early to get going before the sun got very hot and the head wind set in. Still, once we were on the quiet cool early morning roads everything was fine.

Las Brujas is one of the small islands off the north coast of Cuba connected to the mainland by an amazing causeway 50km long. It was built in the late 1990s, together with some huge hotels. Fidel, 30 years too late, wanted to attract foreign tourists. The regime also probably liked the idea of keeping the tourists 50km from influencing the workers with our wicked capitalist ways.

We had to show and have our passports noted at the start of the causeway. The official seemed amazed that we were cycling its length despite the fact that every one here uses a bike. Unlike in the UK this distance should not seem daunting to them.

Cycling the causeway is the main reason for us coming. The experience at cycling speed is almost surreal. The road is smooth, wide and flat and soon sets out to cross the deep blue ocean. We had a slight headwind but the sea breeze had not yet set in and the warm sunshine was pleasant.

There was only a very occasional vehicle and, as the mainland slipped away behind us, it was like taking a sea voyage. After 10 or 12 km we approached our first sign of land, a small island densely covered in low vegetation. The road hardly more than touched the end of the island before going along beside it leaving a broad blue canal between us and it.

Soon we passed Fidel's monument to the brave vigilantes and party activists who had built the causeway for the economic benefit of all Cubans. One assumes that Charles Windsor was not invited to the opening which has to be a good thing. If he got the idea of a 50km causeway on the Western Isles of Scotland he could do even more damage then he has already done there.

From here on the sea becomes shallower and the causeway passes through mangrove swamps, clear water and tiny islands. The sea, always crystal clear, sometimes looks lighter blue or even milky blue. Except for the very occasional vehicle it was silent.

During the crossing there was a variety of bird life, some we recognised including many herons. Others, some looking like pelicans, we did not. We did not see flamingos though it is their habitat and much to the management’s disappointment there were no iguanas basking in the sun.

The Las Brujas hotel is in a lovely place. The wooden cabins are perched on a rocky headland. There is a palm fringed beach on one side and a small marina for trip yachts and dive boats on the other. We spent our time here swimming in the clear water and watching the sea birds from our balcony above the rocky edge of the sea.

Based on a pinnacle of rock were four large sea birds which we named pterodactyls. Despite their prehistoric looks and large bills they were very impressive fliers. They circled on the wind within a few metres of our balcony looking for fish in the sea below. Seeing a fish they plunged straight down, catching it near the surface with a great splash and taking off again. It was a performance we did not tire of watching.

In many ways this development is reminiscent of a high altitude ski resort. It can only be sustained by an infrastructure on the mainland. All the services including water have to be brought across the causeway. The islands were previously uninhabited.

We had a very unpleasant experience here, a plague of flies. It culminated in us going to the dining room for buffet breakfast and finding the food laid out and covered with flies. Amazingly people were actually taking the food and eating it. We left and complained and the area was fumigated and cleaned but it hardly made us feel much better.

We were told that the fly problem was happening on all these islands. It resulted from the waste from the tourist industry not being properly dealt with in this second world country. Closing it down seems the only safe option.

Our trip back to the mainland was quicker than the way out but just as beautiful. This time we had a strong following wind. We were glad to be back in the spotlessly clean casa with lots of properly cooked safe food.

Birthday cake being delivered by bike. This is a common sight as the state provides a cake for each child's birthday

Tour Day 23 Wednesday 18th February Remedios to Santa Clara

The ride today is again a retrace, this time of the ride out from Santa Clara on Thursday. Last night we were given a nice welcome back to the casa with enquiries about the stoker’s hand. This morning we had kisses goodbye and more importantly an excellent breakfast.

As those of us who live on the coast know a ride inland is always uphill. Just like at home we also needed to cross the downs. The hard ride was made easier by a following wind and pleasant countryside. Our good weather is part of a weather system causing terrible weather in the US. They are feeling the effect, well deserved for them, of global warming with mud slides, heavy rain and snow. They still plan to bail out their gas guzzling SUV producing motor industry.

Arriving in Santa Clara our old room was ready for us. The stoker immediately went off to the banks to buy $50 worth of special stamps so that we could renew our one month visas. This took two hours of queuing, bureaucracy and misdirection in five different banks. In the end she got very strict with the manager of the International Bank which achieved the right result as, unusually for a Cuban official, he took on personal responsibility and escorted her around town until the mission was accomplished. The management, who had been relaxing in the casa, felt rather sorry for him.

While all this was going on the management discovered that the tour of Cuba, the national cycling road race, was to pass within 50 metres of our door. First it was at 2pm then 3pm then 4pm. We suppose it would have been rude to have said “manana”.

The stoker returned with the visa stamps soon after 3pm and the visa office, strategically located in the suburbs, closes at 5pm. At 3.30pm when the race had not arrived we set off through the crowded streets to the visa office.

For northern Europeans it is difficult to comprehend the level of manana here. At the visa office there were half a dozen bored looking officials hanging around doing nothing. Can we renew our visas? When they had found the best English speaker and we had shaken hands, “could we come back on Friday?”. “No, we are leaving town tomorrow at 7am”, which was only marginally untrue. Much to our surprise a uniformed boy was called and we were ushered into an office and forms completed.

We were then returned to the outside porch which was the waiting room. At this stage we were optimistic about getting the visas. We were not allowed to be in Cuba without them and the office shut at 5pm. As most Cubans have nothing at all to do all day it seemed very unlikely that the fat visa controller would work overtime. As we expected, after only ten minutes delay our visas were passed to us through the steel grill in the gate. We didn’t even need to give anyone a “present”.

We jumped on the tandem and went back at top speed into town. Maybe the cycle race had still not gone through. We were delighted to see the police were still blocking traffic which unfortunately included us. We used the usual ploy of getting off the bike, passing the officer, going round the corner and getting on again.

By now the main street was packed with people. We found a space and within ten minutes the flashing blue lights of the lead vehicles were coming through. The atmosphere was charged but, strange to us, no one had flags as there were no street traders of any kind, that’s communism for you. As the lead riders came through the crowd cheered and whistles were blown, it was exciting.

As usual with road racing it was all over in a few minutes. Unlike the Tour de France there was no caravan and the support vehicles were few with limited equipment.

For us it was interesting to see the back of the peleton, seldom shown on television. One competitor cycled over the line with a completely deflated front tyre. Another very ill looking competitor was being pushed by two team mates. A couple of people had holes in their clothing from crashes and one came through at high speed at the last minute. As with all stage racing, tomorrow is another day and to continue competitors need to finish within the time limit. This is important because the suffering competitor may be a potential future stage winner, climber or even tour winner. A depleted team usually has no chance in the overall classification.

Tour Day 24 Thursday 19th February Santa Clara to Cumanayagua

Today is hilly and though we were not aware at the roll out it was the hottest day so far. We also opted to start a little later than usual which was not wise.

Once we had left the town behind us we were in cowboy country. Many of the cattle here have humps rather like buffalo. Cowboys on horses are common and look just like those in the films though perhaps slightly more Mexican than John Wayne. Also, although they have lassos and all the gear including big hats they do not carry guns.

After the halfway mark at Manicaragua we turned west into a wide and mainly flat valley. By now we were beginning to feel the heat and although the cycling was easy our pace slowed and we stopped quite often.

This area seems to be fertile and we passed several of the dreadful and incongruous blocks Fidel has thrown up for farm workers. Fortunately for us many of these seemed half empty with the workers preferring to live in the villages beside the road. We were able to top up our essential water bottles and even managed to get pizzas cooked in an oven beside the road.

Cumanayagua is a working town near a huge reservoir and waterfall. We were lucky to discover a registered casa particular not listed in the guides. It had been recommended to us by Pincho the barmen in a motel we stayed at near Trinidad. Without this casa we would never have been able to do the extra 30km into Cienfuegos in this heat.

Tour Day 25 Friday 20th February Cumanayagua to Cienfuegos

Only 30 or so kms to do today so we did not need to make a very early start. Unlike many of the roads we had travelled on in Cuba this one was obviously very old. It meandered slightly but had many large mature trees shading it. It also avoided steep gradients. Prior to the advent of mindless stupidity there had also been a parallel train line.

From conversations with other travellers we had expectations that Cienfuegos might be different and rather more grand than most Cuban towns. As we rolled in this expectation was not met. We had the same press of humanity and crumbling infrastructure as elsewhere.

We had booked the best casa we could find. It is on a slender peninsular stretching into the harbour on the southernmost edge of town. The harbour is a vast area of blue water with a narrow entrance. It feels more like a huge lake than a branch of the Caribbean Sea. It is as big as Poole Harbour but it does not dry.

The casa is indeed special. Our room has a colonial style balcony, fringed with luxuriant tropical plants. We have our own hammock and rocking chairs and plan to spend the next couple of days relaxing.

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