PART ONE: I WANT TO RIDE MY BICYCLE, I WANT TO RIDE MY BIKE . . .
We have just finished our first organised tour of the trip – a cycling tour of Cuba. The tour ran for seven days in total, and we cycled on five of those days. Altogether we cycled 150km with distances on each day ranging from 15km to 65km. This might not sound like much (people cycle longer in one day doing the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge), but Cuba introduced some other challenges into the mix – roads dominated by horrendous potholes, bikes with no suspension and temperatures that never dipped below 30 degrees. The heat, in particular, was a real battle – I haven’t sweated so much since Helen and I tried hot yoga and I made the disturbing discovery that it is possible to sweat from your ear lobes.
The tour was run by Andry, a charming and slightly mysterious leader with buns of steel. Like most Cuban men, Andry was a bit of a looker. Campbell described him (totally unprompted) as a cross between David Beckham and Christiano Ronaldo. He’s the one in the red top. Andry is fiercely Cuban and shared with us a lot of what he loves about his country and his view on Cuba’s colourful history. My lasting memory of Andry will be his morning briefing sessions where, without fail, he would tell us that the terrain for that day would be flat, while at the same time making a gesture like a rollercoaster, The gesture was always more accurate than his description.
Andry was helped out by Victor, a tour leader in training. Victor was a welcome addition to the group, partly because he looked like a Greek God and partly because of his wicked sense of humour. Victor was often charged with riding with the last cyclist in the pack, which probably didn’t always incentivise the girls to try their hardest.
Lastly, we had our driver, Raoul. Andry warned us on the first day that Cuban drivers are crazy, but that seemed to be mainly a reference to Raoul. Raoul drove the support bus that ferried us from place to place and kept watch on the last cyclist, or anyone who might need a break. Being the last cyclist was an unenviable position, particularly since Raoul had some issues with the concept of personal space and would drive the bus about 5m behind the last cyclist while blasting Cuban pop music from his iPad. Raoul’s driving did a pretty good job of counter-balancing the “Victor effect” and meant that we all worked hard not to end up dawdling behind the pack.
Day 1: Our flight from Orlando made it to Cuba on time, but we encountered all sorts of headaches at Havana Airport. Welcome to Cuban time -it took us one and a half hours to get our bags off the plane and the same again to buy our Cuban currency. You cannot buy Cuban currency outside of Cuba, so practically every tourist that arrives in the country needs to buy currency at the Airport so that they can pay for a taxi into town. The lines are ridiculous, but there really isn’t much choice but to suck it up. On top of this, our bags had received attention by security and the locks had been cut along with some compartments of our luggage.
We missed the welcome meeting for the tour, but thankfully arrived just in time to join everybody for a welcome dinner. We quickly sniffed out “our people” from the group (i.e. those making a beeline for the bar – you know who you are!) and settled into getting to know everybody. Our group had a good range of people – four Canadians, three Brits, four Germans, two Norwegians and one Irish. Amongst that lot we had a poet, a park ranger, a banker, an accountant, a doctor, a photo editor, and a teacher, and an age range of 29 to 60-something.
Our casa (Cuban homestay/BnB) for the evening was very simple (it’s the pink building by the car), but had everything we needed, and introduced us to the world of the delicate Cuban plumbing system. Over here you have to put your loo paper in the rubbish bin instead of flushing it. It’s often BYO paper as well, or you pay a lady sitting at the entrance to the toilet depending on how much paper you think you’ll need (i.e four sheets for a number one and eight sheets for a number two). This is not the place for the urge to take you spontaneously, or to randomly decide to upsize from a number one to a number two.
Day 2: The group came back together in the morning and we boarded our amazing chariot for the trip – a full size bus customised with room for the bikes on one side and room for us on the other. We made our way through Havana to a hotel on the outskirts where our bikes were loaded. The hotel was an unusual place – a little like a resort that time forgot, with mouldy old sun loungers and crumbling buildings. It didn’t have any of the charm of the casas we’d all stayed in the night before. If it weren’t for the tourists milling about you could be forgiven for thinking the place had been abandoned.
We had a long spell in the bus after picking up the bikes, as we made our way into the countryside and the village of Vinales. The Cuban countryside is absolutely stunning – there is the lush green of the plants, the burnt red soil of the tobacco plantations, massive “pregnant” palms, farmers rushing by on horse and cart, children waving out and yelling “hola” and the rainbow of different coloured homes. In the afternoon we rode for 15km, so that Andry could see us in action and get a sense of what he had to work with. It also gave us an opportunity to see what we would be in for – lots of sweating and chafing from what we could tell.
Andry had organised a wonderful lunch for us at a restaurant overlooking the countryside. There is not a great deal of variety in the food here, (chicken, pork, fish, beans, rice, soup) but what we have had has been wholesome, seasonal and really tasty. We wound up the day at a lovely resort, which even had a pool. Despite the colour of the water (which we chose to attribute to anti-aging natural minerals) we took the plunge with Cuba Libre in hand. We finished day two feeling like the tour was going to shape up to be a real highlight of our trip. Already we know that we would not be seeing and experiencing the things we have if we’d been travelling solo.
Day 3: Today we cycled 65km from Vinales to Aguas Clara, a beautiful white sand beach. It was the longest day of the cycle and we all wanted to get it over and done with. We hit the road at 8.30 am and made our way through the countryside, finally arriving at the beach just after 1 pm. It definitely wasn’t fitness that got us through today (although Campbell often led the pack and made it look easy), but sheer stubbornness and a healthy dose of pride. A big shout-out also has to go to Amy Bodden who hooked me up with a pair of padded bike shorts before the trip. Not exactly high on the glamour scale, but they literally saved my arse.
The whole group was on a high when we finally made it to the beach. The picnic lunch we got on arrival was ok, but the standout was the pina coladas from the beach bar made with real coconut cream and loads of rum (the group ranked them in the top three pina coladas drunk during the trip, which is saying something given the number that were consumed!). Three drinks later, the ride was a distant memory and we were all totally blissed out floating around in the shallows. We had the afternoon to enjoy the beach and then we were back on the bus to our hotel for the night. The two hour bus trip was the final nail in the coffin for most of us – we battled through dinner and were all in bed by about 9 pm.
Day 4: We were back on the bikes this morning tackling a moderate 35km. The distance compared to yesterday was a welcome relief, and the cycling was broken up with a few other activities. After our first ten km we stopped to visit a cave and underwater river system, complete with a quick spin on a boat and a sample of sugar cane juice pressed by the locals while we waited.
We cycled the last 25km almost continuously with just a few drink and photo stops on the ways. Andry was great about letting us cycle at our own pace and taking breaks when we needed them, although you’d hear him yelling “Vamos!” if he thought we were dragging the chain. It was an incredibly hot afternoon with a head wind that made it feel like you were in a sauna and some long, grinding, inclines.
The pay-off was the amazing lunch that Andry had organised for us at Luisa’s farm. Andry was very passionate about showing us all aspects of Cuban life and wanted us to see how hard life can be in rural communities. Luisa is a 66-year-old widow, who almost single-handedly runs the farm she inherited from her grandparents – she tends to the animals, grows and roasts the coffee beans and plants and prepares the tobacco leaves that she sells to the Cuban Government. Luisa welcomed us with open arms and big kisses and served us up an amazing traditional lunch, followed by a tour of her farm. Luisa had tons of personality and we had heaps of fun hanging out with her even though she couldn’t speak a word of English. By the end of the day she was trying to marry the single girls off to her son, who took a particular shine to one member of the group and was verging on a formal proposal.
Our visit to the farm gave us a chance to see another side of Cuban life, including Luisa’s very basic toilet facilities. I almost made a fatal mistake when using the long drop when I thought that the bucket of paper in the corner was clean and to be used for wiping, only to discover (about a centimetre before it was too late) that the container actually contained used paper. Gross!
We spent the night at a “resort” in Pinar del Rio and managed to convince Andry and Victor to take us into town to see the nightlife. It turns out that Cubans don’t hit the town till about midnight and none of us really had the stamina to stay up that late, but we got through a few more pina coladas and had a few laughs.
Day 5: Most of us were feeling a bit dusty today after our big night out, so thankfully we weren’t hitting the bikes straight away. First stop was a visit to a tobacco factory where we could see the process of rolling Cuban cigars. Security is really tight at these places and we weren’t able to take any photos, but it was incredible to watch. We were blown away by how simple the process actually is and the fact that there really doesn’t seem to be any secret to protect – the cigars are rolled, pressed, capped, checked and wrapped and that’s it. There is no secret ingredient, or technique The majority of employees in the factory are quite young, which is apparently a key job requirement when you need to make at least 200 cigars a day.
We followed our visit with a trip to a rum distillery and had shots for breakfast (a bit of a struggle for some). We also had the chance to buy some cigars. I bought cigarillos designed for ladies, mainly because I liked the packaging, but also because the woman promised they would make me look sexy. I’ll let you know how that goes (assuming I can get them through US customs).
We hit the bikes in the afternoon and needed to cover 25km. The midday heat was almost unbearable – the tar on the road was melting, so that any time you stopped it would stick to your shoes, which would stick to your pedals and literally leave you stuck on your bike. We knew we were up against it when the locals started coming out of their homes to point and stare at the crazy tourists. Our reward at the end of the day was a nice hotel, with a pool and working showers (yay!). Victor also took us to a waterfall where we could swim in fresh water pools and enjoy a beer.
Day 6: Today was the day we had all been dreading – our last day on the bikes and the day we had to tackle “the hill of death”, a two km uphill stretch. Andry had warned us about the hill from the first day, but it still crept up and kicked our arse. About half the group (ourselves included) had to stop and walk a section of the hill, which just seemed to go on, and on, and on. There were times when I was convinced I could crawl up the hill faster than I could cycle.
We finished the day in Las Terrazas, a fully autonomous and self-sufficient township of approximately 2,000 people. The townspeople receive no assistance from the government and are not required to pay a portion of the proceeds of their farming activities to the government. It is the only community of its type in Cuba. Andry had arranged for us to have a coffee tasting session at a local cafe. We all gorged ourselves working our way through the coffee menu, which was incredible – the best we have had since leaving New Zealand. The coffee shot with rum was a particular hit. After a lunch of Cuban pizzas (basic, but carby and delicious), we opted (the rum obviously having kicked in) to cycle another four km to a swimming hole where we spent the afternoon drinking beers and cooling off. Everybody was on a high from finishing the cycle, and it was the perfect way to wrap up the day.
Our accommodation in the evening was the most luxurious of the trip and everybody was keen to celebrate in the evening with pina coladas, cuba libre and beers. We were treated to live music in the bar and a group of us were dragged up to test our rumba skills. Even Campbell treated the crowd to his lady-killer moves (called this not because the ladies can’t resist, but because if you get in the way he will literally knock your block off).
Day 7: This was the last day of the trip and we spent it in Havana itself. We did a walking tour with Andry during the morning and got to see Revolution Square (home to some of Cuba’s key government departments) and some of Old Havana’s beautiful plazas and landmarks. Old Havana is full of cobbled streets, crumbling buildings and, above all else, atmosphere. There is always people on the street and music in the air, and it is a lovely place to get lost. I was really surprised to see modern art displays in some of the squares, which are part of efforts to rejuvenate Old Havana and promote use of the public spaces.
After an amazing seafood lunch, we had the afternoon to explore by ourselves. We met up in the evening for one last dinner as a group, and to say our final goodbyes. After a week together it was sad to see everyone go, but most had other adventures in Cuba to look forward to. We had an absolute blast on our tour, both because of the people and the authentic experience we got to be a part of. Cuba is a mind-blowingly beautiful country, and the people are a testament to making the best of what you’ve got.
PART TWO: CUBA DUPA
We had four days in Havana by ourselves after the tour. We opted to move out of Old Havana and head to the neighbourhood of Vedado. Vedado is a more residential area that is home to Havana University and extends down to the water and the Malecon (an eight km coastal walkway that joins up with Old Havana). It is a totally different landscape here – wide leafy streets, old mansions and lots of parks and restaurants. We have had a very sedate few days – wandering the streets, eating out and a day poolside at the Hotel Nacional.
The slower pace has also given us a chance to take in a bit more about Cuba and the people:
- Fashion: Cubans are incredibly fashion-conscious and their tastes veer towards the tight, bright, cropped and blingy. A lot of the uniforms (including school uniforms) are pretty risqué – think Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby One More Time”. The women working at Customs also looked like raunchy versions of the Crocodile Hunter’s wife, complete with super tight khaki shirts and fishnet tights.
- Heat: It is bloody hot here, and it is impossible not to look like a sweaty beast all of the time. I have been sporting a permanent sweat mo since we touched down, and salty pirate eyebrows by the end of each day. It is disgusting. Campbell is faring slightly better, but by the end of the day we’re both ready to get back to our casa, crank the AC and swan round in our undies for a bit.
- Food: We had been warned that Cuban food was bland, and not much to get excited about, but that hasn’t really been our experience. That’s probably due in large part to Andry and the effort he went to make sure we got to sample quality local food, but even the food we’ve eaten in the last few days has been good. On Monday we lined up to get into Dona Eutemia, a traditional Cuban Paladar. The food was amazing – shrimp, fish, lamb and chicken skewers, and cheap as chips.
- Hustlers: We have seen very few Cubans begging in the streets, but the people here do know the value of a good-humoured hustle. You need to keep your wits about you
or, before you know it, you’re being man-handled into having a photo with a woman in traditional dress, having a cigar saturated with someone else’s spit shoved into your gob and being asked for five CUCs. Cheese!
- Wifi: There is extremely limited internet access in Cuba. The only spots to find it are at the large hotels, and a few random places around town. You know when you’ve stumbled across a wifi spot by the groups of locals clustered around on their phones. On the whole, it’s been great to have a break from the internet, but it’s also made us realise how dependent we are on it. We’ve had a couple of hairy moments desperately trying to find internet to confirm flights and hotel reservations.
We are both sad to be leaving Cuba. It has been the undeniable rockstar of the trip so far, and we feel like we have only just scratched the service of what it has to offer. Hopefully we will have a chance to come back and see more before Ronald McDonald takes over.