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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.