The Good, the Bad and the Truly Awful: Our last weeks in Cuba

Time for an update from Vets without Boundaries, aka Rob and Elaine. We arrived in Grenada to start our next volunteer project with Carriacou Animal Hospital on March 25, 2018. You may be wondering, where the heck is Carriacou and I am still deciding if I want to tell the world about this sweet little spot. It’s kind of like our home in Rossland, BC where our community needs the tourists and jobs but we really don’t want to see things change too much and destroy what makes it so special. Before I tell you more about Carriacou, I need to backtrack and fill you in on what has happened since my last blog.

After volunteering with the Spanky Project in Havana we headed off on our bicycles to see more of Cuba. Our first day back on the road took us approximately 80 km to Los Terrazas, a small community located in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains. After making a wrong turn on the way out of Havana, we eventually got ourselves “un-lost” and then made good time along the Autopista heading West. After traveling this road 5 years ago we were quite surprised by the increased amount of traffic and were happy to turn off the highway towards Los Terrazas. The final 7 km was a mountainous uphill push, but we were rewarded with a beautiful setting for our first night outside of Havana.

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Los Terrazas

The village was designated as a Biosphere Nature Reserve by UNESCO in 1984 and the 5000 hectare nature reserve was replanted using terraces to prevent erosion after deforestation. With a population of approximately 1000 residents, it caters primarily to tourists. There was was a large eco hotel but no licensed casa particulares, at least none that we could find.  After a long, hot day we ended up splurging on the hotel as the thought of another 25 km, uphill to Soroa, was not going to happen for this old lady! The following day we packed our panniers and decided to check out the San Juan Pools, a 6 km detour out of town.  We are so glad we did as it was a beautiful little spot with hiking paths along the river and numerous fresh water swimming holes. 

We discovered little camping cabins, basic but clean, beside the pools, for a reasonable $25 CUC per night. It was such a lovely spot, we wished we had discovered it the night before and avoided the expensive “eco” hotel! After a swim and some relaxation, we decided to delay our departure and stay overnight.

The next morning we enjoyed the second worst breakfast in Cuba (the winner for worst breakfast was the dry ham bun at La Mula Campismo) and headed west towards Soroa. The ride was beautiful with pavement in excellent condition, little traffic and lots of hills to keep things interesting.  The last uphill stretch prior to the Soroa junction was long and relentless.  After walking up the last half km, I was cranky and my attitude was likely not improved but the minimal breakfast provided at the San Jan Pools restaurant. It was obvious Rob wanted to press on towards Vinales and I grumpily agreed! In the end, I was glad we did, as the road was in great condition, the breeze kept me from overheating and the scenery was spectacular. 

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Farmers selling fruit on the route to Vinales – delicious!

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We were a little unsure about the availability of casas along this northern route and watched for a good option as we road through small farming and fishing communities.  We did end up finding a great casa, a warm welcome and delicious food at Villa Jose Otano.

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Elaine “dog tired” and taking a break on arrival at our casa

The next day we pressed on to Vinales, to find the sleepy country village of 5 years ago, completely transformed. Vinales is definitely on the tourist radar these days and the once quiet main street was lined with restaurants, shops and the sidewalks crowded with tourists.  We ended up riding out to a cheesy cave tour the next day and decided to leave early in search of a more authentic Cuban experience. The Viazul bus to Jaguey Grande was full so we were directed to a fellow booking a mini bus for the next morning.  After leaving a $20 CUC deposit advised that we needed to be at the bus station at 8 am. I was assured the mini bus would be a direct route to Cienfuegos and we would be dropped off on the highway at Jaguey Grande with no stops along the way. The next morning we arrived early and were again reminded that in Cuba, it is best to leave your assumptions and expectations at home. When someone says “mini bus” I picture a small, bus or van shaped motor vehicle. I joked with Rob as each old “van like” vehicle passed by us by saying, “there goes our mini bus”. But I was not far off when an old run down car with a large roof rack backed up to us (we had been advised to stand at the top a street which had a slight incline) and started loading our panniers and threw the bikes on top of the load. The driver managed to find some rope, really it was more of a string, to tie on the bikes and then motioned for me to get inside and for Rob to push!  With a bump he popped the car into gear and the engine started. Rob quickly hopped in as we rolled down the hill and off to pick up several more tourists headed the same direction. We noticed at each stop, the driver was careful to either leave the engine running or park on an incline in order to bump start his car again!

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Mini bus number 1

About 2 hours into our journey we arrived at a junction along the highway. Turning in and stopping, the driver motioned for us to get out, removed our bikes and told us to wait there for another car. 90 minutes later another car arrived, reloaded our gear and delivered us to our destination; the side of the highway, outside Jaguey Grande and about 30 km from Playa Larga. 

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Mini bus number 2

If you are looking for a beautiful beach, few tourists and great snorkelling, head to Playa Larga. At the top of the Bahia de Cochinos or Bay of Pigs and just over 30 km from Playa Giron it is an important site in Cuban history. On April 16, 1961 cuban exiles, financed and directed by the US Government assembled in Guatemala and Nicaragua then set out by boat to Cuba, in an attempt to overthrown Fidel’s revolutionary government.  They landed at Playa Giron, on the Bay of Pigs and were defeated by Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces, within 3 days, under the direct command of Fidel Castro. Now the Bay of Pigs is a quiet area, catering to tourists who come for the amazing diving or just to relax. 

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Snorkel spot along the Bay of Pigs
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Who says Cuban food isn’t good? Our picnic lunch from a street cart $2

We found a small, family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.

We found a small family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.

After leaving Playa Larga we spent one night in Playa Giron and then got an early start for the long ride to Cienfuegos. We were up at 6 am and started packing our bikes in the dark.  Expecting the usual sunrise at 6:30 am, we finally figured out daylight savings time was in effect when the sun was not coming up! We decided to leave in the dark, using our headlamps in order to beat the tropical heat. Rob stepped off our deck in the dark and sprained his ankle very badly. After hearing it “crunch”, we delayed long enough to decide it wasn’t broken and Rob decided he could still ride to Cienfuegos. It was a beautiful morning ride, watching the sun come up along an empty road with no traffic. As the day progressed the heat wore us down and on arrival at the outskirts of Cienfuegos, I stopped to wait for Rob and look at our map. My exhaustion was apparent, when in slow, cartoon motion, I tipped over and fell onto the street! Coming up behind me, Rob saw the whole thing and after I stood up, unharmed, we had a good laugh and he admitted to feeling equally exhausted. We headed for the main plaza to find shade and a cold drink. As we rolled our bikes off the street we heard someone call out, “Hey Canadians, bicycles over here”.  We were thrilled to find Frankie and Nick two cyclists from Germany that we visited with while snorkeling outside Playa Larga. They introduced us to Pierre, a cyclist from Quebec, and then directed us to a good casa nearby.  We agreed to meet again that evening and enjoy dinner together.  We had a wonderful evening, sharing stories from the road and getting to know each other. It is always amazing how quickly you make friends and bond with complete strangers when traveling! The following day we said goodbye as they were leaving for Trinidad and we planned to spend 3 nights in Cienfuegos.

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Cienfuegos is a great city, with few tourists, a lovely plaza, great music and friendly locals. There were far fewer jinteros trying to take advantage of us, as compared to places like Vinales, and food, beer and accommodations were reasonably priced. We spent our first day finding a tensor bandage for Rob’s ankle (now officially a “canckle” and triple its normal size), finding internet to FaceTime the kids and eating ice cream. 

The next day, Rob felt his ankle was up for a 20 km ride to Rancho Luna and a quiet day at the beach. We decided to return via the local ferry and enjoyed seeing Cienfuegos from the water. 

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The beach at Rancho Luna and a ghost crab

In 2005, UNESCO placed the urban historic centre of Cienfuegos on the World Heritage list. With six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century, it should come as no surprise that the historic centres sewer system is not up to 21st century expectations. The only downside to our time in this old colonial city was the smell.  Our casa was situated right on the bay and throughout our stay, the sewer gas and septic smells would occasionally waft in. On our second night, a huge rainstorm blew in, filling the storm sewers to capacity and resulting in the most putrid odor.  I really try not to be a “princess” when I travel but it was BAD.  Nauseatingly bad.  Rub tea tree oil soap inside your nose bad. I guess the take home lesson is be grateful we only had one night of rain and remember if you want to travel cheap, there are going to be some uncomfortable experiences!

Following Cienfuegos, we headed back to Havana to meet friends who were coming to Cuba for Spring break.  A trip organized in anticipation of Jackie O’Reilly’s 50th birthday but also coinciding with Mike Kent’s 48th year of being on this earth. Double the fun!  What can I say about the last 2 weeks in Havana Vieja and Varadero. Perhaps it would be better to describe our experience in a series of verbs:  clubbing, laughing, swimming, vomiting, diarrhea-ing, walking (looking for good restaurants), starving (for the vegetarians in the group) and stealing.  I will elaborate as you’re probably wondering what happened BUT I do not want to focus on the negatives, as re-connecting with our Rossland family was really special after being on the road so much this year. We had a blast on Jackie’s birthday and after dinner out and enjoying some local music we ended up at a disco until the wee hours. 

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Reconnecting with some of our “Rossland Family”

The next morning 3 members of the crew were hit with a severe case of travellers gut.  No this was not from all the rum we consumed (although in Mike’s case I am not sure) as one of the ill members of our party was underage and not drinking.  This “bug” ended up taking out 3 more members of the team (myself included) before the week was out. We were passing out our supply of azithromycin like it was candy! Thanks Dr. Andrea for making sure our first aid kit was so well stocked! We enjoyed the beach at Varadero but not the food. After eating delicious meals throughout Cuba, I have to say Varadero SUCKS when it comes to finding tasty, affordable and delicious food.  I finally understand why people complain about the food in Cuba.  My response is simple: avoid Varadero. This is NOT representative of the rest of the country. Step out of the government run restaurants and be a little adventurous and you will be rewarded. We did have 3 amazing meals at Club Waco a small privately run restaurant near our casa, which is really the only restaurant worth mentioning. The icing on the cake for our Varadero experience was the theft of Rob’s bicycle 2 nights prior to our ride back to Havana. We were fortunate to find a room available, right next door to our friends casa, in a nice neighbourhood and close to the public beach. From the start it had a bit of a weird vibe, compared to the many Cuban homes we had stayed in around the country and we dubbed it Casa Peculiar. The yard was fenced and they assured us the bikes were “secure”, as they had a security camera and locked the gates at night.  However, one night someone climbed over the back wall and was caught on camera stealing Rob’s bike.  True, we should have locked it up and we regret that decision. However I still say it is better to be occasionally taken advantage of than to be eternally suspicious. Initially we had thought we might leave our bikes in Cuba, but we had hoped to choose the person we would give them to. We returned our bike gear to Canada with our friends and will continue our journey with our backpacks only. On the plus side, we got to enjoy an extra 3 days with our good friends from Rossland.

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Beautiful public beach at Varadero

So final thoughts on Cuba?  I still love this country, its history, resiliency and the genuine, fun loving and kind people who are the real reason you should visit Cuba. However, in areas touched by tourism (Havana, Vinales, Varadero, Trinidad) things have changed when compared to our visit 5 years ago. Perhaps change is inevitable, but if you are thinking of going to Cuba, do it soon. Avoid the “tourist trail” and head to the East, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Manzanillo. If you are looking for a beach vacation visit the Bay of Pigs and Playa Largo. Eat at your casa or a family run paladar. Sit in the park and talk to people when you have the chance. It is the people of Cuba that make it so special. Have an open mind, open heart and a big smile and chances are you will learn something new or make a new friend.  And as for my friends in Cuba, may you find visionary leaders and new heroes of the people, with the ability to help you navigate the changes ahead. Finding ways for your country to prosper, while still retaining the values that make Cuba and its people so special.

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Saying goodbye to Cuba: waiting for our taxi to the airport outside our casa in Havana

The Spanky Project

Okay, let me start with a disclaimer. No spanking occurred during this volunteer project. Very serious stuff only folks, sorry to disappoint! Founded by the kind and humble Terry Shewchuck and named after his dog, Spanky, the project was started about 15 years ago and has recently become a non-profit charity, growing to involve a chapter in the USA coordinated by the delightful Audrey (sorry Audrey, I never did learn your last name, my bad!). Terry’s love of Cuba, its people and a desire to improve the lives of the furry four legged Cubans was the catalyst for  the Spanky Project. While planning our cycling trip, I stumbled on their Canadian and American Facebook pages while looking for volunteer veterinary projects in Cuba. A few emails later and we were part of the February 2018 campaign.

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We arrived in Havana a few days early in order to change our visas from “tourist” to “working” and discovered Terry had taken care of everything for us. Our new visas allowed us to stay in Cuba until May 1, 2018 which was a huge bonus as a tourist visa is only valid for 30 days and our planned departure in late March meant we would have overstayed our welcome.

Travelling through Cuba 5 years ago, I fell in love with Havana. Sadly, the love affair is over. Perhaps revisiting a place you loved isn’t a good idea. You go with high expectations but it is never the same the second time around.  It leaves you wondering, what changed? Did the city really change that much? Or perhaps it is you who changed? Havana still has the crumbling beauty I found so intriguing, but on this visit the touts seemed more ferocious, people less friendly and old Havana more touristy. However, we found a warm and welcoming home at the lovely Casa Mirador la Colina. We were blown away by the our kind and gracious host, Aymee, who always greeted our return with a genuine “how was your day?” and a warm embrace. When Rob’s bicycle seat was stolen, our first day in Havana, she found us a new seat (not an easy feat in Cuba)! If you are in Havana, I would strongly recommend Case Mirador la Colina as a safe refuge from the city.

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Fishing along the Malecon in the evening light

We were excited to start working with the Spanky Project. Each veterinary project we have volunteered with has its own unique set of challenges and rewards. For our first day, a mass vaccination campaign and parasite treatment regime had been arranged in Old Havana. The project works closely with and has the support of several Cuban animal welfare groups as well as local veterinarians. Approximately 135 animals received rabies vaccinations, topical flea and tick medication and internal parasite treatment. The day proceeded smoothly and we were excited to find Cuban pet owners well educated and knowledgable about their pets health. One pet owner inquired as to what topical external parasite treatment we were using, as her dog had reacted poorly to Fipronil in the past.  Another told us her dog had had a treatment of ivermectin one month ago and wondered if another treatment would be okay.

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We were also excited to be working with veterinarians from the local area. The collaboration and support of the local veterinary community in Cuba is a unique part of the Spanky project and one of the reasons we wanted to work with them. As volunteers, we are always sensitive to the long term impact a project has on both the local pet population, pet owners and also the local veterinary community. Hopefully, a project has both a positive impact to reduce pet overpopulation, improve animal welfare and educate the local community on the benefits of sterilization, vaccination and animal welfare. A good project also considers the impact their actions have on the local veterinary community. For example by offering free sterilization programs are we also taking away the bread and butter of a local veterinarian? A truly great project attempts to engage and train local people who can benefit from these new found skills and sustain the work you started, long after you leave. It is my belief that all volunteer organizations should have a long term view that considers the sustainability question. Kind of like like running a great veterinary practice. Hire quality people, support them, train them and nurture them until you become redundant and can walk away, knowing your legacy will continue without you. Perhaps this is an idealistic view but it was exciting to see the Spanky Project considering the end goal. In addition to practicing veterinarians from Havana, there were also veterinarians from Matanzas, Cardenas and one assistant from as far away as Guantanamo participating on this campaign. Students from the University of Havana rotated through the different areas of our temporary hospital, including admission, pre surgical examination, anesthesia, surgery and recovery. Students were keen to take advantage of the opportunity the Spanky Project offered them and they allows bring a great energy to any project. Many students commented that this was where they would learn how to spay and neuter small animals and that they were learning more here than in the university classroom. Several students who participated in past campaigns, were nurtured by the Spanky volunteers and have now graduated as Doctors and Doctoras were back to volunteer with the 2018 campaign. That, I believe, fulfills the goal of sustainability.

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The University of Havana
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Dr. Micheal from Toronto discussing sterile technique with the students
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Surgical Suite

Despite all of these positives there is still one big elephant in the room. With an educated pet owning population and well trained local veterinarians, open to collaboration why is it so rare to see sterilized dogs and cats on our travels throughout Cuba? Why is overpopulation still a problem? In every town we have visited, in every casa we stay, it is extremely rare to see a sterilized animal. Overpopulation is evident across the country and one casa owner, a biology professor in Holguin, told us she had a very hard time finding a veterinarian who was willing to spay her cat. As in most countries, you need to talk to people and look beneath the surface to find the reasons. Despite an excellent education system, the veterinary training here has a different focus than in countries like Canada. Culturally there is still some resistance and misunderstanding about the benefits of sterilization. Without Bob Barker telling everyone to “remember to spay and neuter your pets”, the message just has not gotten through to the average Cuban pet parent. In addition, a surgery we consider routine, is far from routine if you have never had the opportunity to actually preform a spay before you graduate from veterinary school. This leaves the average Cuban veterinarian somewhat uncomfortable with offering this service. But perhaps the biggest problem is the reliable availability of the anesthetic agents and medications needed to practice veterinary medicine in Cuba. As with everything here, there are two markets, the usual marketplace (whose shelves, while better than several years ago, are still essentially bare) and the black market. Again it isn’t always a matter of being able to afford consumer goods, the goods simply are not available unless you “know a guy”. Talking to a few of the Cuban veterinarians working on the project, they confirmed this and commented that the farmacia shelves for humans are dangerously lacking and for veterinarians it is even more difficult.

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A little street puppy with mange

Obviously the Spanky Project is doing its part to help with exposing students, veterinarians and the pet owning population to anesthesia, surgical technique and postoperative care of veterinary patients. As more veterinarians are able to reliably preform and offer sterilization services pet owners will see the benefits in healthier pets that live longer and suffer less injuries and illnesses, lessening the need for a “Cuban Bob Barker”!  As for the problems with bare pharmacy shelves we can only hope that time will improve the situation.

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Spanky Project – working together for the animals

The best part of working with the Spanky Project, however, was without a doubt the amazing group of passionate and dedicated volunteers from both Canada and the USA.  Terry, Audrey, Micheal, Michelle, Byron, Stephanie, Gordana, Joe and Jamie. As well as all the amazing Cuban volunteers we met Gusto, Claudia and Katcha to name just three (okay, I admit it, I can’t remember the other names!). You took us in, made us feel welcome and at home and even let us do a few surgeries!  Here is hoping we meet again, can share another Mojito and our passion for Cuba, its pets and the people that make it so special!

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Hasta luego Amigos,

Elaine and Rob

Final disclaimer, there may have been several mojitos consumed during the making of this blog…I cannot be held responsible for the opinions held by a slightly inebriated version of myself.

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