A Ghost Story (and a celebrity appearance): Riding the Old Ghost Road

Imagine 3 brand new back country huts connecting 85 km of sweet single track in remote New Zealand bush and you are visualizing the Old Ghost Road . A long forgotten gold miners road that was revived by a group of dedicated volunteers and is truly a mountain bikers dream. Listed as a Grade 4 (advanced) MTB trail, the Old Ghost Road first opened December 2015. We heard about it while researching our trip to New Zealand but were not sure if we would have time to ride it, and if I am honest, I was not sure if I would be up for the challenge. Riding over 3300 km to Bluff with over 30,000 meters of climbing (along with Rob’s reassurances that I could do it) gave me the confidence to go for it. While we were in the area we decided we should ride the Heaphy Track as well, giving us 7 more days in the saddle and the opportunity to ride some of the best back country trails and single track New Zealand has to offer. Am I glad we added these trails? Hell yes, what an epic way to end our time in this amazing country and fate also provided a pretty cool story that I am excited to share with you as well. Read on….

Step one involved an email to Roy, our kayak guide in Abel Tasman who had mentioned he wanted to ride the Heaphy and Old Ghost when the kayak season ended. He enthusiastically responded that he was “in” and over the next week our plans slowly came together. While Roy’s enthusiasm was contagious we struggled with logistics while communicating via Whats App and travelling north in our big purple and green caravan. In the end it all came together. Like an exuberant pup, Roy’s energy and constant positive outlook (even when his makeshift kit and bike were a source of daily frustration) made for an entertaining and fun travel companion.

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We met Roy and camped at the Seddonville Holiday Park, an old school turned campground with a large field to park our van. The next morning we drove to Lyell to start our journey.  Originally we planned to ride the 85 km over 4 days but changed our plans to be out in 3 days in order to beat the bad weather that was predicted. This was a fortuitous decision which led to a chance meeting we would otherwise have missed had we stuck to our original plan.

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Day one was a steady but manageable climb of 875m and 18km to the Lyell Saddle Hut. A big meal of canyon crostini (Thanks Aaron Cosbey) and salmon chowder helped lighted our load for the big ride ahead. See Trail and elevation map here .

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After a beautiful sunrise and muesli breakfast we tried to get an early start on Day 2.

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Today would take us over challenging terrain to the Stern Valley Hut 25km away. A 400m climb started our day with a short downhill section leading to the Ghost Lake Hut.  A stunning location perched at the highest (almost) point of the ride.

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We stopped for lunch and watched in awe as a helicopter zoomed in and landed next to us! Picking up the gear and food for a group ahead of us, he loaded 2 cases of empty beer bottles along with 4 big packs into the back of his little chopper and was off. No one told us we could fly in our food and supplies? 

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The elevation map looked promising from Ghost Lake hut to Stern Valley Hut but the terrain proved extremely challenging. Listed as a grade 5 trail in parts of this section and often unrideable for me but thankfully the epic views made up for any frustration.

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We finally reached Skyline ridge followed by the Skyline Steps, a series of narrow and winding steps going down 60m. It is recommended you carry your bike down the steep stairs but I slowly “bumped” my bike down this section while griping my brakes and praying my back tire didn’t flip over the handle bars and take me down with it!

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Following the Skyline steps the rest of the ride was ample reward for any previous challenges. Fun flowing single track all the way to Stern Hut and onward to Specimen Hut the next day made for an epic 2 days of flowy fun! 

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At the end of day 2 we arrived at Stern Hut at twilight and the candle light flickering through the cabin windows guided us into the little hut. The cabin was small and crowded with 2 groups of hikers. I plunked myself down on the bench between a family of 4 and a group of 3 older gentlemen and a man about our age. I was pretty exhausted. Rob poured me a glass of wine and we contemplated finding the energy to make supper. Around us the conversation flowed and out of the voices Rob heard one of the older gents mention he was a greeter on the Amazing Race. It took a few minutes to register and when it did Rob responded. 

Rob: “What? Did you just say you were on the Amazing Race.”

John: “Yes I was but only on one episode.  Phil here has been on every episode.”

In the dim light, we looked across the table and and realized we were sitting across from Phil Keoghan, host of the Amazing Race! 

Elaine: “WTF?”

I have often joked to Rob about how we would totally “ROCK” the Amazing Race (well other than the fact that I cannot run. Seriously, ask my kids. I kinda make the motions of running but even at a stretch it is definitely NOT running). After spending 2 nights hanging out in back country cabins with Phil, his dad and 2 family friends we were told we were far to “boring” to be contestants. In hindsight, we should have staged some dramatic fights, temper tantrums and turned on the “crazy”.  Damn, another missed opportunity! 

I have no pictures to prove this actually happened so you will just have to take my word for it. And no, we did not talk ourselves onto a spot as contestants on my favourite reality TV show but then again we’ve kinda been having our own Amazing Race the last two years. Life is Good. Who needs a million dollars anyway? Right?

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Our Tour Aotearoa: The Final Chapter

All good things must come to an end or so the saying goes and I have to admit it was with a heavy heart that I rode into Bluff on April 23.  When we started our ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff, I truly wondered what I was thinking. Was my fitness level up to it? What if I couldn’t complete the ride? But as I rode on, it started to get easier, I slowly became stronger and as we peddled the last 30 km towards Bluff, I really wanted to keep riding. During the last week of our TA ride, we started adding new detours, ultimately delaying our arrival at Bluff. Subconsciously I think we both wanted to extend the journey.

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Thinking back over the 10 weeks we spent travelling the TA (revised route) it was an incredible way to experience New Zealand and has left me dreaming about more cycling adventures in the years ahead. New Zealand really is all about the outdoors with absolutely stunning vistas around every corner and a huge amount of “goodness” packed into a small country. While travelling last year we met a young backpacker from the USA at a hostel in Bosnia. He had recently been to New Zealand and we excitedly asked about his experience. His response was pretty “meh” and something like “Well sure it has some amazing scenery but compared to the Rockies and what we have in North America, it’s not really that impressive”. Say what? I think you missed the point or perhaps riding a bicycle across this beautiful country leaves you with a different impression. Beauty aside, what really makes New Zealand a unique and special place is the people. Humble, kind, polite, down to earth and fun loving are adjectives that describe the many Kiwis we met during our journey. The people of New Zealand along with the many adventurous cyclists we befriended on our trip has made this trip unforgettable and filled with so many great memories. New Zealand hospitality has truly blown us away and we are flattered when our thanks is met with comments like “It was nothing. You Canadians are just like us. I am sure you’d do the same”.  Would we? Would we take in a stranded stranger and give them a bed for the night? Would we say hello to a tourist at the local restaurant and invite them to eat with us? Would we offer to pick up and store a parcel for someone while they travelled through our province? I would like to think the answer is yes but if I am honest I am not so sure. Certainly my time in New Zealand has made me want to pay it forward and be more “Kiwi” when I return home.

Obviously a lot happened after the last blog.  Our bedbug bites eventually healed (scratching lasted a week and scars are just now fading), we had to re-route and skip the West Coast Wilderness Trail, Franz Joseph/Fox Glacier and Haas when a huge storm hit the West Coast and we added in a few extra trails including the Alps to Ocean, Otago Rail and Lake to Lake trails. Blah, blah, blah.  Rather than bore you with long winded details of our journey, lets try something different. Here is a map of our route and a photo blog of the last few weeks of our revised TA ride. We are currently heading north to ride the Old Ghost Road starting tomorrow and I have become a lazy blogger! So, enjoy the photos, then get off your butt and onto your bike.  It’s always a great day for a ride and who knows what adventure is waiting around the next corner!

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Map of our South Island Journey
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Short section of the West Coast Wilderness Trail. After a huge storm on the West Coast we were forced to re-route our TA journey and headed over Arthurs Pass towards Christchurch.
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Climbing over Arthurs Pass.  Not our favourite kind of touring! Check out the tunnel, traffic and those small shoulders to ride on.
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Lyndon Lake Road. After climbing over Arthurs Pass we headed south east towards Methven on this beautiful back road.  So nice to be off the highway and away from traffic!
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I wasn’t feeling so great by the time we hit Methven. Splurged on a cute cabin and headed to the doctor. Turned out I was fighting a bladder infection. Felt much better after a few days on antibiotics.
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Lake Tekapo – on the way to stay with new friends in Twizel and ride the Alps to Oceans Trail.
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Hydroelectric dams along the start of the Alps to Oceans Trail. Beautiful fall weather and stunning views (not just this hunk of man but also the vistas!)
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Elephant Rocks – side trip enroute to Oamaru.
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Oamaru on the East Coast and end of Alps To Oceans trail.

 

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Otago Central Rail Trail.
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Our back road route over the Thomson Gorge Road and Thomson Saddle towards Wanaka. We only passed 3 cars on this road!
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Thomson Gorge Road
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Beautiful Clutha River Trails on the way into Wanaka
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The historic Cardrona Hotel on the way to Queenstown. Stopped for a coffee to fuel us up the Crown range!
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Top of the Crown Range and highest point on the TA route
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Rode through Queenstown early in the morning to catch a ride across the lake on the TSS Earnslaw Steamship.
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Feeling “fierce” after peddling to the top of the Von Hill without stopping or walking!
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Spent a beautiful but cold night in our tent at Mavora Lakes on the way to Te Anau
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Spent a couple days sitting out nasty weather in Te Anau.  Made a side trip to Milford sound and discovered my rain coat is really just a coat!
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Rode the Lakes to Lakes trail to Manapouri and then headed along the south coast on the Scenic Southern Route.  Arrived in Invercargill on April 23 in the late afternoon and decided to push on to Bluff that night, officially finishing our TA ride.

 

 

 

Bicycles, Beers and Bedbugs

A lot has happened since my last blog. We finished riding the North Island, visited our niece, who lives in New Zealand, spent an amazing 3 days kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park, survived a West Coast epic storm and experienced bedbugs… Yep, that happened! I know you’re dying to hear about bedbugs but let me back track a little to where the last blog left off.

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I think we had just ridden the Timber Trail and continuing down the center of the North Island. Following the Timber Trail we decided to treat ourselves to a room and found the perfect “splurge” at the Inn at the Convent in Tamaranui. Once a nunnery, our hosts June and Jeff turned this historic building into a lovely bed and breakfast. After spending most nights camping, we really enjoyed the luxurious bed and cosy room with our own bathroom! The next day we did some bike maintenance and enjoyed a great home cooked meal and great conversation. June entertained us with stories of her former life as a women’s high fashion shoe designer and Jeff kept us in stitches with his frank and unfiltered comments. After a rest, it looked like the weather would cooperate and we headed off to ride to Whakahoro station and a remote Kaiwhakauka and Mangapurua tracks to the Bridge to Nowhere along the Whanganui river. Camping in the Department of Conservation sites at both Whakahoro and Hellawells, we split the ride into 2 days, ending with a jet boat ride down the river to Pipiriki. A bit of hike and bike on some sketchy sections but a great ride where we saw only a few folks over our two days in the forest and had the campgrounds pretty much to ourselves (oh and the wasps)!

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Mangapurua track
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Bridge to nowhere
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Loading bikes on jet boat – Whanganui river

From Pipiriki the next day we had a fun ride through rolling countryside with one big climb before riding Whanganui to meet our niece Roseanne who lives in New Plymouth.

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Big climb from river valley but an amazing view and zippy downhill as our reward

Had a great time catching up with her and exploring Whanganui. After leaving Whanganui we were on the homestretch, headed to Wellington. Highlights included arriving at Apiti soaked and cold from the rain to find a warm fire blazing in the Apiti Tavern as well as free camping on the lawn behind the Tavern, nice cycle trails into North Palmerston, arriving early and chilling on the pub patio in lovely Martinborough while waiting for our Warm Showers host and finally the epic ride over the Rimutaka Pass into Wellington.

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Start of the Remutaka trail
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More tunnels

We spent two days in Wellington enjoying the Te Papa museum, cable car and botanical gardens as well as 2 days of great food and craft beer. On our way back from dinner we passed through City Park and walked by a small flying fox (zip line) in the children’s playground. I convinced Rob to join me for a zip and after climbing the wooden ramp, I sat down, pushed off and hooked my foot on the ramp, wrenching my right knee badly. Safe for 5 year olds but not 50 year olds apparently! I managed the morning ride to the ferry and we crossed Cook Straight to Picton, officially ending our time on the North Island.

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We decided to bus to Nelson give my knee a rest and book a kayak trip into Abel Tasman National Park. Our 3 day trip with Abel Tasman Kayaks was truly special. Group tours are always a gamble but occasionally you get a winner. We had a blast with the other guests, Megan and Lee (a vet from Colorado – go figure), Alessandra from Italy, Pete and Amy from Toronto and Christine from Atlanta. Our guides were fun and relaxed and we were sad to say goodbye after 2 fun days.

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Beautiful Abel Tasman Park

Nelson is a great little city to hang out and we decided to treat ourselves to some craft beer (who am I kidding, we’ve been drinking beer since stepping off the plane, no wait, since getting on the plane!) and a real bed.

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Enjoying the finer things in life in Nelson NZ

Leaving Nelson we headed south towards Tapawera and Murchison. It was about this time… 24 hours later, that we started to itch. Que the creepy music.. our one night at the hostel left us covered in bites! I reacted dramatically with easily 100 bites covering upper back arms, belly and legs. Given we had not stayed anywhere except our tent we were pretty sure where we got them, the appropriately named Bug backpackers! A day out from riding ensued to run everything we owned including tent, panniers and dry bags through the dryer! Big creepy YUCK!

Not everyday is a good day but everyday is an adventure. More to come on wet West Coast weather disasters and our new EA route (thanks two kiwi cyclists, Eileen and Andy, who gave us a new “blue line” to follow in Pocket Earth). Til then drink beer and peddle on!

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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