As 2015 came to a close, I took my bikepacking journal to Cuba and cycled the eastern provinces before economic changes transform this unique Caribbean island forever. This is a story about Cycling Cuba.
I wasn’t feeling particularly perky when we arrived in Holguín but I pretended to be. The overnight bus ride from Havana had been my choice. Dan had asked if we should take the 8am or 8pm journey. ‘Let’s go for the night ride,’ I said. ‘We’ll save the price of a night’s accommodation.’ A thrifty idea it may have been but twelve hours seated upright in an icy cool coach didn’t really lend itself to me getting much sleep. Dan on the other hand slept most of the way. I didn’t dare moan.
As the bus pulled off and the passengers filed away to board bici-taxis and horse drawn carriages, we began putting our bikes back together. Viazul Bus rules stipulate that front wheels and seats have to be removed for transport. A young man in a bright red vest held my loaded bike while I replaced the wheel. He shook my hand and winked before picking up his old Chinese bicycle and riding off.
Dan and I sat on a step and took seconds to drink a carton of pineapple juice. We sat for a while to catch our breath. Our water supplies were long gone and indeed one of my water bottles had gone walkabout on the coach. That was the first casualty of the trip.
Pinned to an open door, next to us, was a faded poster depicting a smiling Pope Francis, with the word Bienvenido above it. Standing in the same doorway, an old man looked at us and asked if we wanted water. He filled two of our bottles with cool water, poured from a well-worn 5l container.
You’ll have figured that it was morning and morning of course means breakfast, so we headed towards the city centre in search of a meal to set us going.
Holguín is Cuba’s fourth largest city and was visited by Pope Francis in September 2015 where he celebrated mass to 100,000 people in the Revolutionary Square. An astounding number considering enforced atheism was part of Fidel Castro communist control and the thirty year ban on Christmas has only been lifted since 1998.
I was reminded of Pope John Paul II visit to Ireland back in 1979, when my mum, my aunty Claire and me, drove through the night to Galway to be in the Pontiff’s presence. Aunty Claire drove us in her Mini and that was where we slept. Dad was using the Rolls and mum’s TR7 was only a two seater, totally unsuitable for the three of us. I was slightly overcome as I remembered what the Pope had said: ‘Young people of Ireland, I love you.’ And I wondered if that type of hysteria had happened on this island too. Maybe I was a touch delirious from the lack of sleep, or the hunger. Who knows?
As we rode through the dusty streets I felt as if we’d trespassed onto a Hollywood movie set where a Wild West film was being shot. Cowboys on horseback, horses and carriages and clunky bicycles moving slowly through town stirring up clouds of powdered dirt. Pigs snaffled beneath the shade of trees and hens pecked at invisible insects.
We found the centre and a café with outside seating looked promising. Alas, the best they could offer was café con leche. They had nothing available to eat. So we wheeled our bikes the wrong way along one-way streets to where we’d been advised we might find a meal. Nowhere was open. So back we went to the first place and ordered coffee. Inside, the only goods on sale were rum, beer and cigarettes.
As we neared the end of the first cup, I ordered another round of milky coffee. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some men loading stacks of filled bread rolls onto a truck. ‘Dan, I see food. Buy some.’
Dan brought two cellophane wrapped rolls to the table. Mine looked like burger meat and Dan’s was filled with a bright pink sliver of something that was supposed to be ham. He removed the meat, him being a vegetarian and wrapped it in the plastic so that we couldn’t see it. He ate the dry bread and I ate the burger as fast as I could so I couldn’t taste it. I ordered a third coffee while Dan went to find water so we could be on our way.
All he could find were shops that sold rum, beer and cigarettes. Those we could see that clearly stocked more luxurious items such as food, had long lines of people outside and signs that read Cerrado. I knew that cerrado meant closed, from my first Spanish class – Sesame Street.
A street vendor selling peanut brittle and jam-filled pasties supplied us with some much needed snacks for our journey and we wandered to a seat shaded by trees, in a nearby square to eat the sweet pies.
Gibara was only 30km away and beside the sea. It wasn’t so faraway that I would starve, but I was tired. As soon as I reached the countryside, my fatigue faded and I was buzzing with the excitement that the start of any trip brings. Plantains grew along the roadside and I swerved to avoid a few large potholes and piles of horse manure. People waved and shouted, ‘Hola.’ We waved and answered, ‘Hola.’
Men in long sleeved shirts and pale coloured trousers, carrying machetes, made kissing sounds, as they ambled along the verge. Others cutting the grass with scythes, stopped working for a few moments to gaze. I thought about Poldark. The heat built up under my helmet and sweat dripped into my eyes. I could bear it no longer. I stopped, clipped my helmet to the Wildcat lioness attached to my handlebars, then put on my floppy floral cotton hat.
Stopping for a toilet break and to flap my sweat sodden t-shirt, I looked up to see a natural beehive that resembled a pod from Aliens, hanging from a tree. Turkey Vultures circled overhead. I took a drink, just like Barbara in the book, Bicycling Cuba.
A couple of miles from Gibara, we were having another shady break when I caught sight of two cyclists. They didn’t look like locals, even from afar. They were going too fast and wearing the wrong clothes to be Cuban. There was a lot of clutter on their handlebars and their seats were in a sensible position.
‘Hola,’ Dan and I said in unison.
‘Hola,’ they answered in an unconvincing accent. Cubans put the emphasis on the first syllable and say, ‘Ooh-la’ rather than ‘O-laah’. Subtle, but when you’ve heard it said over one hundred times an hour, you notice.
‘Hiya,’ I said as they rode by. They stopped. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never actually met and spoken to a bikepacker, not in the flesh. I’ve met some long distance tourers who were using racks and panniers, but never anyone using lightweight kit. And now we had two English speaking bikepackers, from Guernsey cycling our way.
Tim and Paula were at the end of a two-week tour of Cuba and about to jet off to Costa Rica for six more weeks of touring. It was our first day. We talked about our routes and kit. ‘I see you’re fully kitted out in Alpkit and Wildcat Gear,’ Tim said, and then we got talking about the difficulties finding food and water.
‘We were so desperate for water, we bought some of those powder-mix drinks from the street vendors,’ said Paula. ‘The glow-in-the-dark ones?’ I said, recoiling in horror.
I hoped to high heaven that we wouldn’t have to stoop so low after hearing about ‘tummy upsets’.
We rode off together towards Gibara, Tim and Dan in front, us girls following. I slipped to the back of the pack as a truck tooted its presence behind us.
‘Paula, I can see the crack of your arse through your shorts.’
‘I know,’ she yelled, over the noise of the truck’s spluttering engine. ‘I’m dumping them tomorrow. I’ve a lovely new pair for Costa Rica.’ One of the men in the back of the people carrying truck called out. The only word I caught was ‘chicas’ before turning my head to escape the black smoke that belched from the vehicle’s exhaust.
As sunlight glistened on Paula’s tanned and toned body, I pedalled my pale sweaty legs faster to catch up so we could talk. It turns out that Paula is no stranger to adventure, having rowed across the Atlantic, with three other women in 2006. On reaching the town’s fringe, we went our separate ways and made loose plans to hook up for a few beers later that evening.
Dan and I cycled around town, checking for somewhere to eat. There was a bar by the sea wall but it only sold the usual – beer, rum and cigarettes. We rode on. An open half-door with a tray of semi-ripe tomatoes and four pineapples grabbed my attention.
We bought the biggest pineapple for a few local pesos and I stuck it inside my helmet, which was no longer on my head. Then we sat in another restaurant where food was off the menu because there was nothing available. We ordered two cans of cold Tu Kola, the Cuban equivalent of Coca-Cola. I’m guessing that the Cubans use ‘K’ rather than ‘C’ for their cola considering the word Cola means ‘tail’, and Tu Cola would mean ‘your tail’, which would more or less mean ‘your ass’ or perhaps that’s a play on words that gives two fingers to the US trade embargo that has been blamed by Castro for crippling Cuba’s economy.
I popped to the loo, and when I came back Dan had been joined by a ginormous black woman who appeared to be in her sixties. She also seemed a little bit mad as she kept repeating the same question, ‘Where you from?’ despite giving her the answer. She had the unusual habit of reaching down inside the neck of her low-cut, super tight, yellow t-shirt and grabbing her left breast. She squeezed and wobbled it repeatedly.
Eventually, we dragged ourselves away from the breezy spot and found Hostel Villa Caney, a Casa Particular, which is the Cuban version of a B&B, a system that allows owners of private houses to rent out rooms. Our casa was an old colonial building, painted blue and white and full of wooden knick-knaks. This casa also operated as a Paladar, a private restaurant where we ate lunch. Shrimps and fried sweet potatoes for me, rice and vegetables for Dan, though I did share a few of my sweet potatoes. We drank cold beers to celebrate our arrival at the Atlantic.
Nightlife in Gibara
It so happened that we’d arrived on the night of the monthly street party, held on the third Saturday of the month. I envisaged a night of rum and rumba, and an abundance of street food that we could nibble on and save for the next day. I even changed into a dress, a slinky one that was a tiny bit see-through. By Cuban standards, I was probably a bit too covered up and my dress should have been at least six sizes smaller. Thankfully, I had a bit of spare fat, so didn’t look too out-of-place. Cuban women are curvy, they even walk curvy.
So there we were, wandering up and down empty streets, looking for a party. We were too early. There was no sign of Tim or Paula so we perched at a bar and sipped Mojitos alone. Then we walked to a castle type building on the water’s edge. Speakers were being set up and we were told that live music would begin at midnight and the street party would start at 9 maybe 9.30pm.
‘Midnight!’ I said. ‘I think we’ll be asleep before then. And we should eat now.’
La Perla de la Norte was the name of the fish restaurant where we chose to dine. After ordering two more Mojitos, the waiter began to ream off the selection of food available – fried fish, shrimp, lobster, turtle and rice.
‘Turtle,’ I repeated, as I raised both hands to my face and gawped.
‘No, no, not a big turtle,’ said the waiter, bringing his hands to within a foot of each other.
‘A baby turtle?’ I hung my head and made melodramatic crying sounds.
‘Not turtle for comb,’ he said, fiddling with his hair.
Perhaps it’s a translation error, I thought as he went away to confer with a colleague.
‘Haw beel,’ he said enthusiastically on his return. I looked at Dan waiting for a translation. He shrugged his shoulders and wrinkled his forehead. Seconds later, the realisation came.
‘Hawksbill,’ I said.
‘Si, haw beel.’
I ordered the fish special without, ‘haw beel’ and hoped for the best. I’d read that this Caribbean island was notorious for serving overcooked seafood but I’d hoped things would have changed. The fish arrived so overcooked, I could have bounced the prawns all the way to England. Cuba is Cuba and nothing changes quickly.
It was almost 10pm when we stepped outside. We wandered towards the street that had been closed off for the festivities. There before me was a scene from a dreadfully dull 1950’s wedding. Old people sitting and nodding, in chairs laid out in rows, a couple of teenage girls dancing to Reggaeton playing so loudly the distortion was unbearable. A few leering lads, holding bottles of Cristal leaned against a wall, their hips shifting to the beat.
‘Sweet lord,’ I muttered. ‘I think we’ll give this a miss.’ We strolled home, under a waxing crescent moon to gather up the washing and entertain ourselves.
We filled our water bottles with tap water, added some sterilising tablets and put them in the fridge for the next day. Tomorrow we would hit the dirt, now it was time to hit the sack.