Following Chiverico we spent 3 days in Santiago de Cuba, a city we loved, and then made our way back to Holguin. In total we rode 675 km, not bad for two out of shape, middle aged veterinarians who are new to cycle touring!
After days of cycling along the Caribbean Sea and Eastern coast of Cuba, where we would see only a handful of vehicles on the road, we were nervous entering the city of Santiago de Cuba. We had been told people either love Santiago or hate it, with its narrow, motorcycle filled streets and jineteros (touts) with a ferocity unmatched elsewhere in Cuba. We were thrilled to find the traffic less chaotic than we expected and the touts less ferocious than those we have experienced elsewhere. In short, we loved Santiago! The best words to describe Santiago are hot, steamy and colorful. With a climate that leaves you dripping and ready to shed all but the necessary layers of clothing, Santiago forces you to slow down, saunter its streets and spend the afternoon in a shady plaza watching the world go by. The nights heat up and a short walk leads to outdoor cafes, street food carts, dancing and impromptu concerts. While we were approached by some jineteros we also spoke with people in plazas wanting to practice their English, met an elderly professor who made us promise to write to him and had countless people give us directions in rapid fire spanish as we smiled and nodded, with a blank look in our eyes. By watching the direction they pointed, we would ride a short distance, stop and start the process over, eventually finding our way thanks to the kindness of strangers.
Each community we visit has its own distinctive feel and Santiago definitely oozes seduction. From the steamy climate, to the music and most notably the residents. We felt downright frumpy in our baggy cycle shorts and long sleeved jerseys as we enjoyed the fashion and comfortable way people accepted their “shape” in Santiago. Motorcycle taxis are the easiest way to get around the city. We marvelled at women of all ages wearing stylish but tight, short skirts and carrying a cake (people in Santiago seem to love cake?) who would flag down a motorcycle, hop on the back, side saddle fashion and while holding their cake aloft, speed off to their destination!
Climbing out of Santiago we headed back to Bayamo and then onto Holguin completing our bicycle loop in the Oriente. We split the ride from Santiago to Bayamo into two days by staying at a casa in Palma Soriano. With only two casas in town we stopped at the first one we rode by and were warmly welcomed by Ana. An older lady who spoke no english, she was obviously delighted to have guests. She immediately set about preparing us a large lunch of congri, roast chicken and salad followed by ice cream with local honey! She sat with us while we ate, talking to us in spanish and obviously enjoying our company and the gusto to which we consumed her meal. At one point when her elderly husband approached, she spoke to him harshly and then looked at us, pointed at her poor husband and circled her finger by her head, making the universal symbol for “crazy”! Wanting to get an early start we asked for breakfast at 6 am and despite the language barrier it was obvious that 6 am was much too early. We agreed on 7 am and true to her word, Ana was up and cooking for us in her pink baby doll pajamas at 6:30 am. With breakfast on the table by 6:45 am, she smiled proudly and took Rob by the shoulder as she showed him her watch to say, “see señor, 15 minutes ahead of schedule”!
Back in Bayamo the next day, we wandered to the main plaza in the evening and where once again entertained by the festivities. It was Saturday night and families were out in full force. The main plaza, Parque Cespedes, is quite large and surrounded on four sides by streets which have very little if any traffic. There 4 or 5 cute little carts, some decorated like old stage coaches being pulled by goats! Children were riding around the square in the goat carts while their parents visited and chatted along the side lines with their neighbours. What a great way to spend an evening!
The final leg of our cycle tour involved an 80 km ride from Holguin back to Bayamo. Although we had ridden this road previously, on day one, we were not looking forward to repeating it as we knew we would be battling heavy headwinds in this direction. We remembered the terrible state of the road, requiring long periods of riding along the foot path in the ditch which was in better shape than the pavement and the lack of rest and bathroom stops along the route. After an early start we made good time for the first 40 km before the heat and wind really started to pick up. When we stopped for a bathroom break, Rob suggested I sneak into a large concrete culvert as there was a lot of morning commuters and little in the way of trees to hide behind. It seemed like a great idea, so off I went to squat in the dark, damp culvert. Pulling up my cycle shorts, I suddenly felt the most intense stinging and burning sensation over my entire left butt cheek and upper thigh. While whipping down my shorts and underwear, I yelled at Rob to bring down a water bottle and PLEASE start washing off my ass! I picked off what I think were several chiggers biting me and high tailed it out of the culvert. The stinging was intense, feeling like I had sat in a nest of hornets. Unfortunately there was nothing to be done but pull up my “big girl panties” (literally) and get back on the bike. The pain lasted about 6 hours and then 24 hours later the itching started. Slathering my arse with butt butter (the stuff cyclists use to help with chaffing), I hoped to suffocate the little critters. Things have since improved but we are waiting to see what type of creature emerges from my arse once the eggs hatch!
The rest of the ride became a lesson in endurance and perseverance as we struggled against the wind, the heat and the rough road to arrive in Holguin exhausted and happy to find a warm welcome, a meal and a bed at Refugio del Reyes, the casa of David and Sara.
After a 12 hour overnight bus ride from Holguin, we arrived in Havana ready for a break from cycling and keen to start working as veterinarians with the Spanky Project. More to come on the Spanky Project and our time in Havana, but for now…may the wind alway be on your back and the chiggers biting someone else ass,