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  • Jamie

This is Cuba: Part 1

I’ve got a suitcase pressing into the back of my head, a brake lever digging into my shoulder, and my arm wrapped around one of our bike wheels. “Este es Cuba!” – This is Cuba! – explains our “collectivo” taxi driver as he shoves and scrapes our bicycles into the back of his beat-up old red Peugeot (in fact it was the second taxi, as the first was most certainly too small, despite the drivers best efforts!). I can barely watch as my derailleur drags over the corrugated metal on the floor of his boot, the chain catching on rusty bolts. Wellington and Murilo, our newly-made Brazilian friends who will be sharing the ride with us look on with bemusement.

We had arrived in Havana two days earlier, on a late flight from Mexico. Breezing through customs, we met our taxi driver Elliot, and chatted about our adventure as we strolled toward his car. He seems to know everyone, greeting friends left right and centre with a handshake or a slap on the back. “Hey, this is my brother – he won the Cuban mountain bike championships – you must meet him!” We find ourselves shaking hands with a beaming Cuban, and within minutes have made plans to join the national Cuban mountain-biking team for a ride near Las Terrazas.

After winding through the narrow night-time streets of Havana, Elliot deposited us at the doorstep to our casa particular (the equivalent of a home-stay in Cuba, and the most popular type of accommodation here). We lugged our bike boxes and bags up two flights of narrow, winding stairs, and finally, exhaustedly, collapsed into bed. The next morning, we woke somewhat refreshed, and set out to explore the Havana. It was in full swing. Little old ladies lowered baskets from second and third floor apartments for street sellers to fill with their fresh fruits or vegetables. Rusty, repaired bicycles navigated around horse-drawn carts, overtaken by motorbikes and scooters. Hot tourists attempted to navigate the melee. Classic American cars were all around, some lovingly restored, others waiting their turn. All around there was music – occasionally strains of salsa, but more often blasts of reggaetón from car stereos and cafes.

After two days in Havana, we crammed our bikes into the taxi and headed for the smaller student town of Santa Clara. We were immediately taken by it – the bustling streets and cafes crammed with school and university students. It seemed quite an affluent town by Cuban standards. There were even some shiny new supermarkets that had opened up – something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Cuba certainly seems to be developing rapidly, with capitalism creeping in quickly. The locals surely deserve it, having endured so many tough years during the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union (whom Cuba relied on for significantly for subsidies and trade).

History aside, we had some serious business to attend to, and the following morning hopped back on our bikes and headed for the hills. Having been off our bikes for almost six weeks while we relaxed in Mexico, we were a little rusty and a little unfit. So, we took it easy on our first day… and cycled 75km up the second highest mountain in Cuba – a ride of 1500m elevation gain in total. Stopping at the dusty cross-roads town of Manicaragua, we set about to find some lunch. At a hole in the wall pizza shop, people thronged outside, waiting to buy their pizzas. There seemed to be no system to the queue, until I heard someone shout out “el ultimo?” – “who’s the last?” and saw someone else put up their hand. Clued on to the Cuban system of queuing, I tacked on to the end and waited to order. Alas, the pizza man soon told us he had sold out, and the crowd dispersed. Across the road, I joined another queue in front of another pizza seller. Terribly, he also sold out, just as I was approaching the front of the line. By this stage we were starting to worry that we might not find any food for lunch and have to face the big climb on empty stomachs!

As we were walking somewhat forlornly along the dusty road, a tall, muscular Cuban wearing a basketball singlet approached us and asked us what we were looking for. Explaining we were hungry and hoping to buy some pizzas, he told us to follow him, and strode off down a side-street. We scurried along beside Gabriel, as we discovered he was named, struggling to keep up with his loping stride as we wheeled our bikes. We chatted as we walked – where we were from, where we were going, why we had such big bikes with such big tires, and laughed about the coincidence of names. Soon enough we popped out on another busy corner in front of another pizza stall. Striding straight through to the front of the queue, Gabriel shouted out to the lady behind the counter and pointed over his shoulder at us. Soon enough, three hot, greasy cheesy pizzas were in our hands, and even sooner in our stomachs. We said goodbye to our pizza-hero and continued on our way.

Rolling through farmland we soon started climbing into the mountains, up increasingly steep grades. By the very top we were both off our bikes pushing on some sections. It seems switchbacks are not a thing in Cuba! Exhausted, we finally arrived in Topes de Collantes, a small village perched on the top of a mountain.

We made our way up a final steep hill to some “rustic cabins”, the description of which in Lonely Planet had seemed quite nice. At the restaurant located in the centre, we asked if they had a cabin available. They informed us that the reception was actually back down the hill and around the corner. So back down and around we cycled, following their directions. It looked increasingly unlikely, the road turning to dirt and becoming narrower. We passed a house and asked the owner where the reception for the cabins was, and he pointed us further down the road. So, we continued on, only to find ourselves back at the same restaurant!

After riding around for another half hour, we still hadn’t managed to find the reception, so instead made our way to the one hotel in town, which Lonely Planet describes as a “clumsy chocolate box building… with an unattractive pool, poky steam baths and a kitsch disco”. At the boom gate to the hotel, the guardsman stopped us, saying that the hotel was quite expensive, and how about we instead have a look at a casa particular owned by his father/brother/mother/uncle/dog. Why not, we thought, and cycled up yet another back-breakingly steep hill, only to find a large group of Spanish cycle tourists had just taken both available rooms there! One of the Spaniards, taking pity on us, showed us the way to the only other casa in Topes. However, it was dark and closed up, and no-one came to the door. The sun had long since set, and we were ready to collapse with hunger, so decided to eat before searching any further for a place to stay.

Dinner was… not a highlight.

However, the owner of the restaurant, taking pity on us, suggested we could sleep in the restaurant, in a room open to the air, full of mosquitoes, in a tiny single bed…. We thanked him, but declined his offer, and instead made our way back to the hotel. Which did have a room, albeit an incredibly expensive one. But at least we got a good night’s sleep (and towel swans!).

The next day was a delightful downhill cruise to Trinidad, the jewel of the Caribbean. The descent was so steep in some sections that I got cramp in my hands from gripping the brakes!

We really enjoyed Trinidad. Colourful, lively, with a glut of recently opened restaurants and bars, and a delicious iced coffee. We stayed at Casa Juan y Fatima, an immaculate casa with a wonderful leafy rooftop terrace looking out over the streets – perfect for long, lazy breakfasts and evening drinks.

The highlight of Trinidad was, of course, this:

We spent a night at La Boca, a sleepy fishing village on the mouth of a river, a mere 5 kilometres from Trinidad. From here we explored the coast road to Playa Ancon. A lovely ride culminating in a rather underwhelming beach, full of plump, hot-lobstered tourists and two lacklustre beach bars, competing in how loudly they could blast the reggaetón.

A local spear-fisherman with his catch – sadly beautiful, this rainbow of reef fish.

Trinidad to Cienfuegos was a hot rolling ride, between ocean and mountains. Our casa in Cienfuegos was… well… rustic. The air-conditioned (a relative luxury I’ll admit), leaked down the wall, through the fuse box attached to the electrified shower head. A set up like this is bound to send shivers down your spine when showering.

We made our excuses and escaped early the next day, in search of slightly more luxurious accommodation. And we certainly swung right to the other end of the spectrum! Luxury! For no more than 10 CUC extra!

We think this was a post-box!

After the bustle and hum and winding cobbled streets of Trinidad, the large French-Colonial architecture and bigger-city feel of Cienfuegos didn’t quite capture our imagination to the same degree, so we were happy to continue our ride along the coast. While our “Bicycling Cuba” guidebook described a ride to our next destination – Playa Giron – along paved roads, I had spotted a faint black line tracing some sort of minor track along the coast. Keen to get off the beaten track again, we decided to give it a go. Knowing that we probably wouldn’t find much in the way of food along the way, we decided to buy some snacks and bananas in the morning before setting off. However, despite the streets being full of fruit sellers the night before, now they were nowhere to be seen. So, we left town with a sum total of three muesli bars between us to fuel us 60km down an unknown track.

Luckily, we came across a shop selling pan con chorizo in a dusty village along the way – just enough fuel for our journey. The track proved to be a delight, winding through coastal scrub, emerging at regular intervals to dazzle us with views of the sea, and our own private beach for an early afternoon dip.

We even managed to test out my Christmas present from Gabi - a bright yellow hammock!

Riding in to Playa Giron, we couldn’t say no to a sunset Mojito on the beach. Dehydrated and wobbly after the glass of rum, we set off to our casa, ready for a shower, a meal and a comfortable bed.

The road to Playa Larga followed shimmering coastline and crystal-clear waters, with some of the best snorkelling and diving in Cuba. We stopped in at Punta Perdiz, where 15 CUC each gets you a beach lounger, open bar and a buffet lunch. The snorkelling was indeed superb. Right from the beach, underwater coral islands teemed with colourful fish and incredible corals. After snorkelling, drinking and gorging ourselves (on a surprisingly good buffet – by Cuban standards), it was hard to drag ourselves back to the bikes for the final 20km to Playa Larga.

Playa Larga dazzled us with a spectacular sunset, and treated us to cheap mojitos in the town square.

Playa Larga marked the natural end of the first section of our Cuba trip, as the next day we loaded our bikes on to the roof of a classic car and cut back across the width of Cuba to Varadero, and a long-awaited rendezvous with my parents.

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