Wind in my face, Chiggers biting my butt!

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.

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Streets of Santiago de Cuba

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!

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Beautiful Santiago de Cuba

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!

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Goat carts and kids, the cutest combination ever!

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,

Elaine

The Little Street Dog that Could

This morning we were up early to beat the heat and make our way out of Santiago de Cuba and cycle on towards Bayamo.  We pushed our bikes up calle Jose Seco, a pedestrian only street and across the busy intersection towards Plaza de Marte.  I noticed a young dog trotting ahead of us as we walked along, with a lolling tongue and happy grin on his face.  He was in good shape, muscular and fit and, compared to many of the dogs we had encountered in the Santiago, appeared to be in excellent health. Traffic was already heavy and as a result we decided to walk the bikes to the next major intersection before starting to ride.  As we crossed streets and weaved between pedestrians and people pushing bicycles, I would see the little street dog pop up between us, ducking and weaving along the sidewalk and street, keeping time with the two of us. Each time he trotted beside me, I picked up a foul odor and noticed his neck and backed were streaked with something rotten he had obviously rolled in earlier that morning. I said to him “hey stinky dog, where are you headed” and he looked at me with a goofy grin as if to say “you tell me?”

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I figured he’d abandon us once we started to ride.  When we reached the Avenida de los Libertadores, it was time to get riding. Rob hopped on his bike and started off in the lead.  I laughed as stinky dog jumped down from the sidewalk with a spring in his step, let out 3 happy yelps and sprinted off behind Rob. The traffic for Cuba was heavy with taxis, motorcycles and buses taking people to work.  Our route out of the city towards the carretera central (highway) that would take us over the Sierra Maestra mountains and towards Bayamo, took as through a traffic circle, stop signs, left turns and across major intersections.  I watched and held my breath repeatedly, as Stinky Dog navigated traffic like a seasoned pro, keeping pace with our bicycles and showing no signs of fatigue.   

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Finally, stopping to check our map we decided we needed to end this game.  We yelled at him “go home Stinky Dog!” And waved our arms. “vamos amigo”.  He would turn, walk a few steps the other direction and then as we rode off quickly, we would find him back with us again, happily following along, within a few hundred meters.  Finally, giving up, we decided to ignore him, hoping he would tire of the chase.  We wound our way out of the hilly city of Santiago, up and down hills before finally leaving the city and traffic behind. Stinky dog stuck to us like glue.  He stayed behind Rob but every now and then, if I fell too far behind, he would turn and look for me to make sure I was still riding.  As we stopped for a rest, I told Rob that it looked like he had found himself a great mountain biking dog.  Rob just laughed and said, “I’ve already told him the first thing I’m going to do to him is to cut off those balls!” I laughed and replied that he didn’t seem to concerned about Rob’s threat.

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By now we were about 12 km outside of Santiago and unsure what to do with Stinky Dog.  He seemed quite happy and showed no signs of tiring, despite the increasing heat and our faster pace. As we cycled along and puzzled over our dilemma we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a cycle race.  Police sirens blared and pointed for us to pull off the road while groups of cyclists, clad in colourful spandex, blasted past us.  During a lull in the chaos we made our move and were back on the road, quickly making a left turn off the highway to make our way to the village of El Cobre and the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre. Apparently the multiple bikes confused Stinky Dog and as we looked back, he was no longer with us. I suspect he continued on, happily racing after the road riders, enjoying the freedom of the open road and the joy of just running for the fun of it!

The 4 km detour was well worth it.  As we weaved along a hilly road, lush with tropical vegetation, we would catch glimpses of the beautiful Basilica high on the hill ahead of us. I stopped to pull out my iPhone to take a photo and suddenly my heart stopped.  My phone (camera) was gone.  Having had it to take a photo of Stinky Dog at our last stop, I knew I had lost it somewhere in the last 8km. 8km of mostly rough downhill riding, which meant 8kms of uphill riding in the heat. We turned around and started retracing our steps, in the hopes it was still lying along the road and not in someones pocket. We started back and lady luck or perhaps it was La Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity) whose shrine is housed in the Basilica, blessed us.  Regardless, there on the side of the road, 200m back was my perfectly intact phone.  Rob let out a cheer and after tucking it safely inside my pack, we started back towards the Basilica.

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As we road towards the Virgen’s shrine, Rob suddenly stopped at a rode side stand and bought a $2 CUC bouquet of flowers.  I gave him a quizzical look. “I know I am a scientist and also an atheist, but I somehow feel we need to make an offering to Our Lady of Charity” he said.  “It’s a lot cheaper than a new phone!”  I laughed, tucked the flowers along side my panniers and decided I would not only give thanks but also ask for the Lady’s blessing.

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Rob watched the bikes as I went into the cathedral, truly remarkable and one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites and shrines in Cuba.  Sweaty and likely quite smelly, I walked in with other pilgrims, there to make an offering to La Virgen or Cachita, as she is also known.  I placed my flowers at the shrine along with a favourite photo of James, Hannah and our dog Maisy, which I carry in my wallet and taken when they were all quiet young.  I asked the virgin to protect our kids, to keep them safe and then, under my breath I also asked her to watch over Stinky Dog, the little street dog from Santiago.

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La Virgen de la Caridad, Cachita as she is known locally or Our Lady of Charity is a religious icon to almost all Cuban women.  In Santeria, the virgin is syncretized with the beautiful orisha, Ochun Yoruba, goddess of love and dancing. Legend dictates that the virgin was discovered during a violent storm, by 3 fisherman floating on a board in the Bay of Nipe in 1612. Fearing their lives would end, they pulled out the board and found inscribed on it the words “I am the Virgin of Charity”. As the storm subsided and their lives were spared, they assumed a miracle had been granted and a legend was born.

Over the years, many have offered gifts to the Virgin. Ernest Hemingway decided to leave the 23 karat gold medal he won for the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1954 “to the Cuban People” and rather than hand it over the the Batista regime, left it to the Catholic Church where it was temporarily held in the Basilica.

In 1957 Lina Ruz left a small guerrilla figurine at the feet of the virgin to pray for the safety of her two sons, Fidal and Raul Castro Ruz, then fighting in the Sierra Maestra.  Was it fate that saw the two Castro brothers living into their senior years or was it the spirit of El Cobre?

Two wheels good: Cuba by bicycle

Before visiting Cuba I had an idea in my mind of what it would be like. Surf, sun and the typical beach scene with all inclusive resorts dotting the shores. Not being a “beach girl” I was not that interested in the whole Cuba scene. Then about 5 years ago we picked Cuba for a family vacation and all the expectations I had were turned upside down. Cuba became one of our favourite family trips and for good reason. It is a country with a fascinating history and it is a mix of contradictions. Spectacular beauty coupled with crumbling decay. A communist regime characterized by restrictions, shortages and struggle coupled with a culture characterized by music, art and generosity. But the real allure of Cuba, for me, is the people. Despite its troubled history, the Cuban people are survivors and improvisers who remain exuberant, open and above all else authentic.

Vets without Boundaries arrived in Holguin Cuba on February 3 and we are thrilled to discover very little has changed as compared to 5 years ago, at least in this less travelled area of Cuba. We will be spending the first 2.5 weeks in Cuba bicycle touring in the eastern region and will travel in a loop from Holguin , Bayamo, Manzanillo and along the Caribbean Sea to Santiago del Cuba and then back to Holguin.

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Area of Cuba for the first cycle tour
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The first 6 days of our journey

To experience the real people and culture of Cuba we recommend forgoing the all inclusive resorts and hotels dotting the beaches of Varadero and Cayo Coco and staying with Cuban families in casa particulares, eating in paladars (family run restaurants often in someones dining room or back porch) and travelling off the beaten path to watch the evening fade to darkness in the local town square while samba music pumps out a beat in the background and horse drawn carts transport families home at days end. While at first glance Cuba seems to be characterized by rough edges and crumbling decay, when you look beyond this you’ll find a simple beauty with a magical allure, that is difficult to describe. 

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View from our casa in Bayamo

Perhaps you will disagree, but if you give Cuba a chance, I suspect it will captivate you as it has us. Ignore what you hear on the news or read on the United States travel advisory website. We have experienced nothing but helpful people, unexpected kindness and good humour as we travel through a less visited region of this amazing country.

After an amazing Cuba breakfast at Casa Refugio del Reyes in Holguin consisting of fresh fruit, fresh squeezed juice (more of a guava smoothy than juice) toast, bacon, eggs, ham, cheese and tomatoes, we waddled to our bikes and started on our way to Bayamo, 80km away. The left over cheese, ham and buns were made into tasty sandwiches and stowed in our bags for a picnic lunch en route. After winding our way out of Hoguin we made it to a two lane highway winding through fields of sugar cane, bananas and small villages. The pavement was in great shape for the first 8 km to the airport and then we hit a region of heavily patched and rutted asphalt lasting about 25 km. Traffic, while heavier than I expected, consisted mostly of farm vehicles, trucks transporting workers to the fields and local people going about their day by bicycle or horse and cart. Bicycles are everywhere in Cuba, as until recently owning a car was out of reach for most people. As a result, drivers are used to giving right of way to cyclists and are very courteous. Most will give us a quick honk as they approach to warn us of their presence and all but the big Transtour buses, transporting tourists to the all inclusive resorts, give cyclists wide berth. We arrived in Bayamo by early afternoon and found a room for the night. After settling in, we set out to explore the city square and search for bottled water to restock for the next days ride. Finding water turned into all afternoon activity as we went from tienda to tienda to receive the same response. No water available. About to give up and return to our casa and prepare water using our filter, a helpful gentleman directed us to a gas station several kms from the town square. When they too were out of water, he walked us to a small shop another 15 minutes away and to our surprise, the elusive bottled water was available!  The experience did give us a glimpse into everyday life in Cuba. Finding what you need is not always a matter of having money or having a store in which to spend it, it is more important to know the right people and ask the right questions. The item you need may not be on the shelf, but it is very likely available under the counter, if you know who to ask! Exploring the tiendas and seeing what was available to buy, was also interesting. We would find a mix of items that did not always make sense and it seemed somewhat random what each shop carried. However, there was always beer (Cristal for sure but our preferred brand, Bucaneero was harder to find), rum and canned tomatoes!

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Dinner in Bayamo at La Bodega Restaurant

The next morning we were off to Manzanillo, a shorter 68 km ride through rolling farm land and small towns. This was a prettier ride and along the way we found famers selling fresh vegetables, bananas and my favourite, coconuts! A great treat to rehydrate!

After checking out the beautiful town square we started climbing towards the casa that had been recommended. While cranking up the hills in Manzanillo Rob’s chain broke. While he did a roadside repair I cycled on to find that the casa we were looking for was full. The owners directed me to another across the street, a great find! We ended up staying at the lovely Casa La Roca with Marcel a helpful man, who upon hearing of the broken chain, called a bicycle mechanic to come and check out our repair and Mercy who cooked us a delicious meal of fresh shrimp, rice and beans, salad and fried bananas topped off with a great $5 bottle of wine!

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From the roof top deck at Marcel and Mercy’s Casa

After a recommendation and phone call from Marcel and Mercy, we had a casa lined up for the next night in Media Luna and headed out early to beat the heat.  Media Luna is a small farming town and riding along we passed local traffic, horse carts and children cycling to school.  A quick wave and smile from us was always met with an “Hola” or “Buenos Dias” as we cycled along.  We passed a number of large tour buses along this section of the ride and wondered where they were headed, as this part of Cuba seemed decidedly off the tourist trail. We later discovered that there are daily flights from Montreal to Manzanillo bringing in tourists to the 2 or 3 all inclusive resorts along the Caribbean coast. A short 45 km ride, with glimpses of the Caribbean Sea en route, and we arrived in Media Luna where we found a relaxed and friendly welcome at Tamara’s casa.

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Tamara poses for a photo with us before our morning departure

After a home cooked meal served in the family kitchen, our hosts directed us to the town square where the local youth would be dancing in preparation for a big dance competition they would be attending. We wandered down to the square and marvelled how in every city or town, regardless of the size, the city parks or squares would be filled with people of all ages in the evenings. Children playing, adults visiting, seniors playing dominos or chess. On our last visit to Cuba, I recall one of our hosts saying “In Cuba, people are of the street”, meaning people are out, talking to their neighbours, sharing what they grew in their garden, gossiping or just making connections. Yet another thing to love about this country and a lesson to take home.

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Sign post en route. Should really be a picture of a goat or pig as they popped up everywhere!

From Media Luna to Marea del Portillo, a more challenging 56km ride as there were some real hills on this stretch but also the reward of a 3 km thrilling downhill towards the Caribbean and the South coast of Cuba’s Orient. It was a great ride with a wonderful casa awaiting us at Osvaldo and Lisandra’s home in Marea del Portillo. Upon arrival we walked to the beach and finally got to swim in the Caribbean. We decided to take a rest day in this lovely town and spent the next day cycling back to a beach we had passed along the way, swimming and relaxing.

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We were on the road early the next day, for the most stunning ride of our trip so far.  As the sun came up we rode along highway 20 towards our destination,  a campismo in La Mula, approximately 60 km away. Using the term highway is generous, the road has been badly damaged by hurricanes and would be challenging by car. On bicycles it was easier to navigate the numerous patches, potholes, and gravel stretches we encountered and as a result, we were rewarded with no vehicle traffic and the most spectacular views. We were met with several big climbs over the headwalls and some fun downhill runs but soon discovered a we would be fighting strong headwinds along this entire section of the coast.

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We met two groups of cyclists completing the same journey, but in the opposite direction and realized our mistake.  As they day wore on and the heat increased, I started to feel a bit off and by the time we arrived at La Mula I flopped into bed with a raging fever and case of heat exhaustion.  Thankfully I did not completely cook my brain and after a surly breakfast server and chasing cockroaches out of our cabin, convinced Rob I was okay to ride on to Chiverico. This was the first campisimo we have stayed at in Cuba. Campismos are similar to a KOA in North America.  They are campgrounds with small cabins, basic facilities and usually there is a restaurant and bar on site. Government run, they cater mostly to Cuban families on vacation but some do allow tourists to stay there as well. The setting was lovely but there was a less than friendly vibe and the food was not as good as what we enjoyed staying at casas. It was however, a deal financially as our nights stay, Rob’s supper, beer, breakfast and 5 litres of water was under $35 CUC (about $40 CDN).

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Road to La Mula

Chiverico is a lovely coastal town approximately half way between La Mula and Santiago de Cuba and the ride from La Mula is amazing, some good climbs but not as many or as steep as the previous day. I must admit, still recovering from heat stroke, I struggled during this ride. For me it was like cycling in a 35 degree sauna while battling a unrelenting head wind. At one point I asked Rob if it was normal to have to peddle while going downhill!  It was a slow ride for Rob as I slogged along but he enjoyed it immensely. We kept watching for a beach to cool off but the high winds made for big surf and huge waves, unsafe for swimming. There are several casa’s in Chiverico however each one we checked out was full. One casa owner led us to a friend who had  small room behind what appeared to  be the happening bar in town (the kind where some good brawls may break out by last call). It was obviously unlicensed and being old and needing our sleep we decided to keep looking. Finally just as we thought we’d have to get a room at one of the two resort hotels in the area, a local tout took Rob on the “Casa Tour of Chiverico” and found us a great room with a balcony, laundry service and amazing meals. Aunt Edna, as Rob has dubbed our new host, made the most delicious chicken soup (just what my sick body needed), grilled lobster, rice, salad and a tasty stew of unknown ingredients. Rob’s favourite meal so far!

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If you have made it this far, I commend you!  I hope the photos have made it more interesting and given you a glimpse into this region of Cuba.  You really should visit, it is such an amazing country. From Chiverico we will be heading on tomorrow, towards Santiago de Cuba.  We will make our way back to Holguin and from there head by bus to Havana.  We will spend just over a week in Havana working with a group of veterinarians from Canada, the United States and Mexico known as the Spanky Project, we are looking forward to it!

May the trade winds be at your back, may your casa be filled with friends and your heart set for adventure, until we meet again.

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Elaine