Trinidad, Cuba. This year's destination?

21st to 28th February 2009
4th Cycling Week Cienfuegos to Matanzas

Crab crossing the road

Tour Days 26 and 27 Saturday and Sunday 21st and 22nd February Cienfuegos to Playa Giron

We left this magnificent casa on both business and pleasure. We have decided that our next stop will be back to Playa Giron. This presents us with a problem. We either cycle 65km mainly off road or about 100km on road. There is nowhere to stop midway on either option and both are too far in one day. When we previously did the off road the management was upset by thorn punctures. The stoker was upset by severe bruising from the odd tumble which also distresses the management. That is her bruising not the inevitable tumbles.

We both thought of alternatives as once in Playa Giron cycling back to Havana with places to stay should be fine. We enquired about a one way car hire but despite having unused ranks of cars this “is not possible as it is high season”. Translated from socialism speak this means that the great exemplary party worker in Havana says this is the case. No one is prepared to tell this grandchild of the revolution he is wrong. After all he had the best education which nepotism entitled him to. Rather like our royals he may have acquired a couple of “O” levels and it is unwise to cross him. If crossed he might stop the local Cubans taking the hire cars home, thus making them available for us to hire; and so it goes on when there are the wrong incentives in the system.

Our next idea was a taxi. The stoker enquired of Cuba Travel, the state travel agency monopoly. “No problem, just turn up and we will get you a taxi which will take the tandem.” We didn’t believe her and were also aware that she could be long gone or still in bed when we turned up. Anyway if the management were forced into a taxi he wanted it to be a 1950’s Chevy not some more modern heap of rust.

The stoker was in conversation with the senora who owns the casa. Women together often get impossible things done. It emerged that there is a direct bus to Playa Giron every afternoon which no one had told the travel agent about. If Fidel and his mates got those running the casas and one or two other private enterprises to run the country maybe it could be turned round.

At the bus station the management became initiated into the strange ways of travel in Cuba and the travel system. For short journeys Cubans travel anyway they can. They get lifts, travel on lorries or if they are very lucky get onto one of the ancient overcrowded buses. The few tourists brave enough to attempt this may be allowed on but the driver may be breaking the law.

For longer journeys Cubans travel on Astro buses and tourists are also supposed to be able to but can’t. The only buses we can travel on are Viazul so that is our only option to get to Playa Giron.

As mentioned before the rank of “tourist” here is a very high one, frequently obviating the need to queue. This does not however apply to tourist buses where all tourist passengers have the same rank. Cubans, like all “socialists”, are experts at queuing. Filtering in limited resources is one of the ways the state retains control. If a queue starts to form it is essential to join it. So the management had to join a tourist bus queue.

If this were an Astro bus queue it would present no problem. People would turn up and wait for days if necessary until their turn comes and they get on. Tourists expect to be able to book and ride on a specific bus. The bus station man seems to have reached a kind of compromise. He keeps one list of all those in the “queue”. If you want a specific bus, say three days ahead, your name goes to the bottom of the queue with a note of the bus you want. It stays there until the numbers in the main queue start to fill the bus you want. Your name is then lifted up the queue so that you get on. Microsoft could learn from this man.

Satisfied but exhausted the management enjoyed his pizza and lemonade from the street seller. The stoker considered that waiting for him was almost worse than the queuing she usually does.

Work done we enjoyed exploring Cienfuegos’s grander parts. Most Cuban towns have a Tudor feel about them. They are crowded and it is wise to avoid the open drains above and below the feet. Cienfuegos has more of a Georgian feel about it with some fine buildings and wider streets than we have become used to. It was built by the French, unlike most towns which were Spanish. This makes for a pleasant change and we particularly enjoyed the José Marti park. Unfortunately the town’s construction preceded by more than a hundred years the French’s ability to provide clean water and sewerage. Being Cuba this appears to be still awaited.

On Sunday we were very lazy. We got up late and chatted to a pleasant Belgian couple who were also staying at the casa. We eventually went for a walk and explored a rather bizarre building nearby. Built in the early 1900s it resembled nothing so much as one of the rather grand seaside palaces in Brittany. It is currently a restaurant and bar catering for tour groups. We were able to explore it top to bottom for the price of a lemonade each.

We meandered off to the bus station and bought our ticket an hour before the bus was due to leave. Much to our amazement everything was very easy. The queuing system seemed to have worked. The tandem complete with our five bags was treated as registered baggage and cost $5. The management supervised the loading which was a tight fit under the bus.

Off we went and the stoker was all smiles. For the time being she had nothing to worry about. The bus predictably was tatty though in a different class altogether from that provided for the Cubans. Like many things it needs some simple maintenance.

We had not realised on the tandem just how bumpy the roads are. The jolts and bumps on the bus were verging on the uncomfortable and we were glad to be going only 100km.

About 30km from our destination the bus spluttered to a halt. It did not sound well. The three busmen got out, poked about in the engine and after about ten minutes managed to start it. The stoker got out to stretch her legs and watched them borrow a hose from a nearby house. They then dowsed down the complete engine with cold water. Whatever they did seemed to work. They need to be good at makeshift repairs here. We arrived in Playa Giron 20 minutes later very glad that we were not continuing on the bus to its destination of Havana.

 The management off duty

Tour Days 28 and 29 Monday and Tuesday 23rd and 24th February Playa Giron to Playa Larga

Much going on in the casa this morning. The bus did not turn up to take the 13 year old daughter of the house to school. She is a weekly boarder at a music school about 150km away. Obviously no one in their right mind wants a 13 year old around all week so the parents arranged for a taxi to take her. The daughter, thinking she had the week off, retreated to her room in tears after the inevitable family argument. The noisy argument also involved a goodly number of the extended family who come and go. The 13 year old eventually left in the “taxi particular”.

We cycled off east along the coast to swim and sunbathe in the lovely natural rock pools and limestone foreshore and harbour at Caleta. The management enjoyed the snorkelling which was great but he also got too much sun. The stoker enjoyed lazing on the sunbeds.

It rained, only the third time in four weeks, and for the first time we were out in it without waterproofs. It was quite heavy for a short time and we rode through it. Psychologically this is quite hard to do for us English especially the one from Manchester. We were soaked when we got back but it was so warm we hardly noticed.

On Tuesday we left the casa as clean as we have ever been in Cuba. It is certainly high on our list and is among the best we have stayed in. Without a doubt they have the best and perhaps the only good warm shower in Cuba. They also make the best mojitos.

Tuesday was another easy day but we moved on down the coast to Playa Larga. This section of the coast has the reputation for being among the best for diving in Cuba. The wall of the coral reef drops away only a short distance off shore.

After we had cycled about 20km, and just a few metres from the road, we came across the ideal place for snorkelling. There was a shelter from the sun and it was possible to jump off the rocks into the sea and climb out by ladder. The stoker was worried that the management might drown and was pleased that an old US car with three divers in it turned up.

It turned out that the divers were a Cuban dive master, his assistant and their Canadian customer. We enjoyed chatting to all three as they got ready for their day of two dives.

The Cubans, who had obviously been in and out of the sea all their lives, jumped off the rocks into the sea without a second thought. The management followed their lead. It was a leap of faith. With the crystal clear water it is impossible to see how far it is from the rocks to the surface of the sea or to guess how deep it is. It turned out to be a couple of metres to the surface. It was further to the sea bed than the management could swim.

The divers went off to the coral wall and the management was happy to explore the rocky shoreline. The corals were the best he had seen and there were many types. Sea fans grew on the ocean floor together with others which looked like trees in the desert. On the rocky edge were many large brightly coloured corals and anemones. The fish were many and varied and the management regretted his partial colour blindness.

We eventually cycled on to Playa Larga. Not altogether to our surprise we found that the casa we thought had been booked for us was not available. As there is a hotel here we saw little point in getting cross with the man, appropriately called Fidel. We checked in and were pleasantly surprised, most things worked and we even had hot water.

Tour Day 30 Wednesday 25th February Playa Larga to Jaguey Grande

Last night in the bar we met a couple of Scotsmen here on a specialised fishing trip. They were fly fishing in the extensive shallow water of the innermost part of the Bay of Pigs. Each morning very early they were taken out by boats which were punted along. We felt sorry for them being stuck with the very poor quality of food in the hotel. No one had even shown them how to get street food from the vendors. We hope that the fishing made up for the very bad state tourism here. It sounds as if they may be shadows of their former selves when they go home.

We had a pleasant ride through the National Park. It is surprising how beautiful this bog land can be at cycling speeds. We passed the crocodile farm and this time spent a while photographing them. It was not until we had looked at the lake for some time that we realised how many there were. Out of the water these huge animals looked like tree roots. In the water they looked like logs. In or out of the water they were very well camouflaged. During the remainder of the ride it was hard to look into the bog without wondering whether one lay in wait.

Never smile at a crocodile

Tour Day 31 Thursday 26th February Jaguey Grande to Cardenas

The management had been dreading this day ever since we decided to return to Havana this way. The route is more or less flat and no more than a good day’s ride for us. The main problem is the expected head wind and an almost total lack of shade. It is a racing certainty that whenever anyone waxes lyrical over a pint about the flat cycling in Holland they have never done it. Give us a nice rolling terrain any day over pedalling into even a moderate breeze. And we have done both.

We arranged breakfast at 6.30am and were on the road by 7am. It felt quite cool and some of the Cubans even had an extra jacket on. The wind is always from the northeast and that is the way we were going. It does not however set in until about 9.30am and does not always blow very hard. Every kilometre after 9.30am could take three times the effort of the early kilometres.

We really got our heads down and for the first three hours averaged about 15kph. The management was very pleased with this and declared a proper break in a square in Jovellanos. This is a pleasant agricultural town but has no casa particulars for us to stay in. We did not want to stay but rather hoped one of the hustlers would try to sell us a casa but it did not happen.

The rest of the ride was something of a journey of attrition. The head wind set in with a vengeance but on the good side the sky was more cloudy than usual. With frequent short stops we arrived in good spirits about 1pm.

Cardenas is a large working town. Its most unusual and unique feature on this tour is its horse drawn taxis. We followed one into town, slip streaming it. They are carriages drawn by a single horse and look like hansom cabs. They are used by everybody including kids going to school and shoppers. Other towns have bike taxis and the horse bus and Havana has a few carriages for the tourists.

The road outside our casa rings with the clip clop of horses. Every now and then there is a shout as a callous cabby whips his horse into a gallop. This scene would of course not be complete in Cuba without the occasional cab blaring out bongo drum music. We can only assume that the sound systems are powered by recycled horse manure. Every horse in any kind of cart in Cuba has a device to catch the pooh. Without these the mess in the streets would be horrible.

Tour Day 32 Friday 27th February Cardenas to Matanzas

It was a strategically planned start today. The first part of the ride is against the wind. Then following a right angled turn the wind is behind us. We needed to get to the turn by around 10am so a latish start was in order.

On the way to Varadero we stopped to help a man with a broken bike. It is a tribute to basic bike design that we seldom see breakdowns. Most bikes are single speed workhorses designed before mountain bikes and are all the better because of it. This was a bottom of the market mountain bike about fifteen years old with a bent rear axle. The local Ponchera will be able to replace this in no time. If we were to break any of our modern gear on the tandem we are on the bus. There are no modern spares here, not even so much as a good quality mountain bike tyre.

The next thing we came across was a dead horse. It looked rather like the statue of a horse which had been pushed over onto its side. Knowing how dependent people are on their horses we hope this death does not lead to any Tess of the D’Urbervilles connotations.

Varadero is an incongruous place after what we have seen in Cuba. It does actually feel like a modern holiday resort and as such we passed it by. It has a nice beach, apparently, which was admired by Fidel and before him the Mafia. That said if we wanted a beach holiday we would go somewhere else where first world facilities and standards of service are guaranteed.

Near to Matanzas we stopped at the security gate of a very pleasantly situated holiday camp. There was a nice looking bar in the shade by the lovely blue sea. A drink and a bite seemed in order. That we were let in at all was a surprise. This camp was for Cubans only.

The Cubans are happy to see us in their camps and we to be with them. This is however impossible because of the dual currency arrangements. If we were to be allowed to stay Fidel would only be able to charge about a tenth of what he would charge elsewhere in Cuban dollars. It is therefore not permitted for us to stay. Of course this system is doomed to failure like so much else.

Tour Day 33 Saturday 28th February at Matanzas

These four days of continuous cycling call for a rest day. This is also a pleasant town centre place to take a short break.

We were surprised to find that there is a book fair on. Book shops in Spain are so few that we have wondered whether the Spanish read books at all. The Spanish speaking Cubans were very enthusiastic but handicapped by an impossible system for buying. In a similar way to other shops queuing is essential. There was no opportunity to browse and the idea of settling down as in Waterstones with coffee is at least one world away.

This town has three things worth seeing plus an electric railway to Casablanca. The first was “unmissable” limestone caves which we agreed to leave to the tourists from Varadero. Nothing we have seen is a patch on Cheddar. The second is a lovely old theatre which is dark due to criminal neglect. That left the third which really is unmissable.

A museum of pharmacy is hardly something which would normally grab the attention. To miss this one would have been to miss one of the most interesting things left to see here. In 1964 a huge pharmacy which had been in existence for about 80 years was closed but left intact. It almost looks as if it could open again tomorrow. Perhaps it should in a country where you can’t even get aspirin or paracetamol. Front of house are lines of jars floor to ceiling with weighing scales and ancient tills. At the rear are cases full of recipe books, the ingredients and equipment used to make hundreds of different remedies.

The pharmacy brings home the difficult choices our GPs have to make when prescribing for us. In the UK in 1964 we were at least 30 years beyond this era of medicine. It is possible that in Cuba in 2009 these things are worse now than when the pharmacy closed.

After the pharmacy we went to look at the electric train. We missed seeing it because it was running at least 30 minutes late with no indication of if or when it would arrive. In the fly blown smelly station bored and resigned looking passengers were waiting. The booking office was closed but the signs said don’t on any account disturb the staff by asking questions. In common with some of the UK rail network bicycles are not carried. Neither are live animals, we did not dare to ask whether they took dead horses.

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