Wednesday, January 31, 2018

1. Holguin - Guardalavaca. March 3, 2018

So, after 48 hours (no kidding) of constant travel we finally reached Holguín. This is our first bus experience on Cuba. The bus company Viazul is supposed to have the least murky buses. Maybe they do. All the Cuba memories from April are coming back to me. The organized chaos. The cafeteria who offers two types of sandwiches (con queso, con jamón), and had run out of one of them (jamón). Had to spend 30 minutes in two different line-ups. Lots of people? No, just a few of us, maybe four or so. Why make things simple when you can make them complicated.
Don't want to go by bus? Take a taxi collectivo! Since Raul Castro (the president) permitted the Cuban people to earn their own money by providing taxi service Everything with wheels or hooves is taxi. Bicycle - sit on the frame, bicycle with side wagon, bicycle luxury model two seaters with music and roof. Horse/donkey/mule with or without carriage (the most common one in the country side). Motor cycle. Oxen with wagon. Lorry (all vehicles are at least sixty years old) with an open platform where easily fifty people crowd. Diverse Soviet cars repaired with scotch to not fall apart. Converted prisoner transports. Tractors. Etc.

We arrive in Holguín at 10 pm, the bus is only two hours late. Nothing if you compare to Air Canada. I picked the Casa Particular on Trip Advisor. Oscar and his wife Paula are the best hosts you can ever imagine and this casa is as good at it gets when it comes to comfort, cleanliness and food!
Oscar is asking about our itinerary. We have done no bookings in advance, what we learned from our bike tour in April is that finding casa particulars is very easy. You come into a town and immediately someone shows up and ask if you need a room for the night. But this is the Oriente. Not so many tourists, not so many casas. So Oscar makes us a list, with casas that he recommend. And then he phone all of them. Saying his friends Lena and Roland are coming. Thank you Oscar!!

Our bikes arrived (on time of course we are dealing with Germans) from the excellent bike provider Bike rental is not on the list of what you are allowed to do in Cuba. This company has bypassed this by just delivering bikes on Cuba, you are actually renting them from Germany. Anyhow, they are great. Specially made for the Cuban market (read bad roads). We pack and get out of town without any problems. A map app is a must, and it is also a must that this map app works without internet. Because internet is not available through mobile phones on Cuba. Beware of GPS devices, heard stories that they are confiscating them at the customs.  The ride to Guardalavaca is very nice. Road acceptable if you remember the three golden rules:
1. Always look at the road in front of you
2. Always look at the road in front of you
3. Always look at the road in front of you
We buy fresh pineapple for lunch. Unbelievable sweet.
Finding our casa is easy, we just ask a friendly policeman hanging out at a crossing, checking cars and drivers. A gravel road full of holes takes us to the tiny house situated very near the ocean. The friendly lady proposes lobster or pork for dinner (same price). And I get the most perfect barbecued lobster, with sauce made of lime, garlic and oil.

Ready stedy Go!

Hanging out - the Cuban way of life.

Luxury bike taxi, with music

Casa Miriam in Guardalavaca - super nice

Nature is amazing

View from casa Miriam

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

2. Guardalavaca - Banes March 4, 2018

When we stop one or several people immediately shows up and ask if we need help. It takes a while before we realize, this is not South Africa where people either want money, or rob you. In Cuba they just want to help out, for the joy of helping. A Cuban family has on average nine visitors per day. Hanging out together, helping each other. I am asking myself what kind of society we in the western world have created. A super nice couple on one (she on the frame) crappy bicycle shows us the way to our casa in Banes. The bike ride to get here is super beautiful and very hilly. But short. Which suits us well, still tired after our marathon journey from Canmore. So we have a lot of time to do just like the locals. Hang out. We install ourselves in a nice and tidy room and the bikes in the back yard. They will be taken inside for the night. Even if this is a super safe country, good bikes are very attractive. Banes is a sleepy little town. People who lives here rarely see tourists.
"Hi, where are you from?"
Now they learn English in school, it used to be Russian.
"You like oysters?"
Roland points at me. "Yes, she does."
So, I am dragged into a little shack where a man stands behind a counter made of old planks. He grabs a glass that maybe was clean twenty customers ago. Then he grabbs a glass jar. In the bottom of the jar there is grey slime. He takes one of his hands that might have had an encounter with a soap once, when he was a kid. He grabs some of the grey slime and put it into the glass. Then he pours dark rum over it and stir. The poor oysters have been taken out of their shells and put into a jar. Transformed from something that usually makes my mouth watering, into something that makes my stomach turn. I have backed off into a corner, shouting "no, no, no!". Holding my stomach. "You see, just arrived from Canada, have to be a little cautious with what I eat. Sorry. Really sorry." I'm lying, I am not sorry at all. Just terrified. I watch the guy who brought me here drink the murky slime. As a shot. I don't want to see the rest so I run out through the door.

It's lunchtime and we walk into Pizzeria Venice. White linen table cloths, wine glasses, wall paintings of Venice. We sit down and are given a very fancy menu each. It consists of maybe twenty pages. Eighteen of them are empty. On the two pages in the middle they have; Pizza, con queso or con jamón. Espaguetti (spagetti), con queso or con jamón. We order one of each pizza. "Cerveza?" No, fridge does not work. "Agua mineral?" No. "Vino?" No. We eat and pay the bill that is 12 CUP. So, we are in a state owned restaurant with prices in Cuban Pesos. 12 CUP is equal to 0,5 CUC which is the Convertible tourist money (1CUC=1US$). This is very interesting. If you want you can survive in Cuba for almost nothing. But you have to bring your own tent. If you want to stay in a B&B (casa particular) or hotel, the prices are in CUC. Typically for casa particular 25 CUC for a room, 7-10 CUC for dinner, 3-5 CUC for breakfast. Eating at the casas, home made, often home grown and organic food is a so much better option than trying to find a decent restaurant. Exception in Havanna and some other cities with tourists.

Beautiful landscape

Rolling hills

Great fun going down, quite good road conditions

So much charm

Hanging out with a Presidente in Banes

Nice balance act - on their way to a birthday party

Monday, January 29, 2018

3 Banes - Mayari. March 5, 2018

Internet and telephone are two different things. We spent an hour or so outside the telephone company yesterday. The Cuban way of line up is very smart. There is not even a line. More an irregular hord of people. Some sitting, some standing in small groups, talking with their loud voices, some doing something completely different some distance away.
"Ultimo?" Is the thing to ask. Meaning. Who is the last one. And then one of them admits it's him/her. The others helping out and pointing. So, the only thing you have to do is keep an eye on your ultimo guy. Because you will be served after him.
An hour outside and maybe twenty minutes inside. Etecsa is the name of the state owned telephone company. We still think it is possible to buy a Cuba sim card to be able to surf. It is not. For 40 CUC you can by a sim card, but only for local phone calls. So, if you want internet, you have to go to a city park where there is Wi-fi. And to be able to connect you need a code. That is provided on a card that cost 1 CUC and gives you access to one hour of wi-fi. I buy five of those cards.

Today is a flat day, with nice breeze coming from behind. The wind is quite cool, we decided to move on instead of having a day on the beach as planned. The sky is overcast with clouds. I am not really in the mood for stopping at Mayari at lunchtime. We can continue, why don't we? But Roland is wise. We are not in a hurry. And - the Casa Yoya just outside of this little town is paradise. The house is so well built we can hardly believe it's Cuba. Our room and bathroom holds a class of it's own. Super nice people and best of all, the roof terrace. Perfect for evening qigong. Perfect for book writing. Surrounded by green. Overlooking the blueish Cristal mountains. The sounds; pigs, hens, roasters, dogs, birds, horses, cows. And people of course, it sounds like they are in a constant word battle when they talk to each other. Shouting out the words. Flowers in blue, purple, orange, red and white. A woman hanging up laundry in many colors on a roof nearby. This is a truly colorful country. Love it.
Cuba - you fill up my senses.

Flat day from Banes to Mayari - Cristal mountains as a back drop

Nice roof terrace at Casa Yoya in Mayari

Cristal mountains

Youngest member of the nice family

Nice dining room at casa Yoya

Colorful countryside

Look at this nice and clean bathroom!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

4. Mayari - Moa. March 6, 2018

Rainy morning. Big puddles of brown water on the mud road leading from the casa to the main road. I have mud from my bare toes all the way up to my helmet after only a couple of k. This is not just a shower, it's something else. Later on we will realize it's the beginning of a "rain storm of the century". We did not put on rain gear. But it's actually quite ok. As long as we are moving. The sun is not burning, the heat does not exhaust you and dry you out. This is supposed to be a hilly day, and hilly it is. Either up or down. Beautiful views. Ok road, so we can just let go on the downhill. After fifty k we approach some kind of town, or village according to the "Biking on Cuba" guide book from 2002. Now it has grown into considerable size. We ask at least ten people where we can buy pizza and they all point in the same direction. A good sign. A bad sign is that the pizza maker shakes his head when we arrive. Out of flour. Not the first time this happens. We are wet, cold and hungry. Rule no 4, if you find food, buy it and eat it. Whenever. We find a place that they call cafeteria. The Cuban cafeteria has nothing to do with what we think is a cafeteria. Except that they serve coffee. This one has home made chicken broth with rice and yuca for 5 pesos. After this strength returns although a bit chilly because of the soaking wet clothes and the wind which is becoming stronger and stronger. A dirt road in incredibly bad shape leads us out of town. We have to ask several times, "is this really the way to Moa"? We can't believe it, Moa is a big industrial city. After a while dirt becomes concrete. Hills are getting higher and steeper, rain is getting heavier, wind stronger and the road in worse and worse condition. These "wanna be" concrete roads, full of pot holes, probably not maintained for half a century. They are even worse than dirt roads.

Today we climb 996 meters. Exhausted we enter the horrible town of Moa. There are more water filled holes than road now. No signs of anything but big nickel factories and ramshackle apartment houses, probably where the factory workers live. We stop at a bus station, ask people wearing yellow helmets. We follow a rickshaw with a man who pretends he knows where we are heading. There are no roads, just orange water (the soil is orange), everywhere. Here and there in the water are half meter deep pot holes. This is Kafka. We are biking back and forth. The rain has developed into a tropical storm. Finally, we reach our casa. Just to find out that they are fully booked (why on earth is anyone else but us actually visiting this ugly place?). We are deported, oh no!!, to some friends. But first we get a shot of dark rum each. And life returns. And we make the last effort. To a casa that is not in the same division as the other. But nothing matters. Just a warm shower, food, and a bed.
It just rains in a bit into our room, not much considering the amount of water coming down from the sky outside.

Cuban guy at the cafeteria - cheering the crazy wet cyklists from Canada

Finding shelter at a cafeteria after five hours of biking in crazy rain. The board behind me shows the available food (3). Today chicken broth, with or without yuca. And plain rice.

Yeah! We survived.

Did I mention the rain?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

5. Moa - Baracoa. March 7, 2018

At breakfast John (cyklist from Ireland, also deported to this casa) suggest that we share a taxi to Baracoa. Cheating say Roland & Lena and start off in a rainstorm that makes yesterday's seem like a little drizzle. Yes, you have to be half mad to go on such an expedition. And we are. Sitting in my bed writing this I tell you - we truly are. Thanks God we did not have to bike all the way to Baracoa. This is the worst road Ever! Hills are steeper, rain is ridiculously hard, head wind so strong so we have to use the lowest gear on flat ground. The "wanna be" road was maybe in good shape in the 50th, nobody has paid attention to it since then. Here and there some asphalt. Mostly holes. Some of them really deep, half a meter or so. Max speed going Down the steep hills is 10 k/h.
Our journey starts with 20 k through Moa's industrial area. The ugliness is not possible to describe. Nickel factories vomit out their toxic yellow smoke, the factories no longer in use stands like concrete corpses towards the black grey skies. Hold on to the handles when the wind guts strikes directly from the upset ocean, or you'll fly away and land in the very deep ditch filled with orange water. Palm trees laying down. Water everywhere, sometimes we have to cross veritable lakes. No cars, no buses. It's a strange feeling. This is supposed to be a main road. We are all by ourselves.
And keep on going. And keep on going.

When we have done two third of the road we meet a jeep. It stops and out jump two young German cyklists. They have some information for us. Thank you so much! The bridge over the river to Baracoa has been wiped away, there is no way to get across. We have to stay on this side. There is a casa, but, there is also a super nice hotel. And they are willing to negotiate the price.
So we are so grateful we don't have to bike all the way to Baracoa. That we can turn left at the sign and go down to the roaring sea where we find the hotel. And we negotiate, and are given a nice, spacious room in one of the buildings made of dark wood. Ah, what a feeling! To get inside (after a dark rum in the bar of course), a long warm shower, dry clothes and a delicious dinner of fresh fish in coconut sauce. We are the only guests. We fall asleep to the sounds of the roaring wind, the pouring rain and the big waves breaking just outside our window.

1 wise Irishman (taking a cab) and 2 not so wise Swedes/Canadians (taking their bikes) 
before hitting the road to Baracoa

Poor horse!

Something has to be ugly in this beautiful country - Moa is


Crappy, crappy road

Nice man selling cookies and the fabulous Baracoa treat cucurucco

Yummie - best food for tired cyclists. Made from coconut, guava, oranges and raw sugar

Looking out from our hotel room window. Nice to be inside.

Arriving in the province of Baracoa, 40 k more to go

Friday, January 26, 2018

6. Baracoa. March 8, 2018

At breakfast we get the news that there are boats that can take us over the river. They don't mention what kind of boat but obviously big enough for both bikes and bikers. So, off we go.
The river is very high, and very fast, and very brown. Roland is looking at it as if he is considering crossing. I am negotiating with a mule-and-wagon owner. 5 CUC for transport to the boat. Not possible to bike. Ok. This is big business for the locals, soon competitors show up. The wagon is made for two people but we manage to squeeze in bikes, packs, driver and us. The mule does a terrific job, dragging us through this 1,5 k of deep mud and big holes. Next negotiation is, how much is it worth to get over the river. There is a wooden rowing boat. "10 CUC." "No, tropo caro. 5 CUC." "No." "10 CUC per tres personas et bicis." "Ok." Deal. Our friend John from Ireland has also turned up at the shore so we are including him in the deal. The loading of the vessel begins. Three bikes. Three bikers, they kindly provide us with floating devices from the seventies or so. Eight luggage. Three big men including the biggest one that place himself at the oars. Bike wheels hanging out on both sides. Roaring river. Ten centimeters of freeboard. Ok, sit still in the middle and don't breath. The rower turns the bow towards the rapids and off we go. He's muscles work hard, like the mule's. And in some mysterious way, we arrive at the other shore, just when we are sure we are going to be washed out into the ocean.

Baracoa is fantastic, just as vivid and colorful and special as the description in Lonely Planet. We have a 5 peso pizza lunch in one of the parks, between two rain showers. They get up to 25000 mm of the wet stuff here every year. That is 25 meter! Big waves crush against the Malécon of Baracoa, but wettest is me who get splashed by a truck passing by. We warm ourselves in Casa de Cocoa, hot chocolate with rum. And eat a bunch of tiny yellow bananas. They are truly addictive. We bought them directly from a guy in the street, who grows them in his garden. They have matured in the sun and never got in contact with pesticides. They are probably related to the bananas we buy at Safeway, but I doubt it.
Roland is reading a book named Sapiens, about human history. The description in the book of life in a town a couple of hundred years ago is what we experience looking out from our balcony at the casa particular where we are staying.

Colorful houses on a grey day

Interesting landscape near Baracoa

Stage one in the project "crossing the river"

Strong mule

Are we all going to fit into that one?

The answer is yes, and off we go!

Cuban bike workshop

Nice pedestrian street in Baracoa 

They need bright colors to light up the grey skies (25000 mm of rain per year!)

Cuba's hope for the future

Someone with a vision is building here

At the Baracoa Malécon

Baracoa is a cocoa region - here they are drying the beans

Thursday, January 25, 2018

7. Baracoa - Tortuguilla. March 9 & 10

We wave goodbye to Leonardo and his wife at the very nice and clean casa. He has some new information for us coming from our friend Oscar. A list with three new recommended casas. So nice of him, he had probably been looking at the map and figured out we could not do some of the very long distances we planned. And he was right. Biking in Cuba is not about maximizing kilometers. Poring rain, of course. It's rush hour and getting out of town is an interesting (read scary) adventure. Old crappy bikes with one person sitting in front of the driver, old crappy buses, old crappy lorries, those ex prison transporters painted in bright colors with dozens of people hanging out from the windows (without windows). Shouting, waving. Horse carriages passing more slow ox carriages in full gallopp. Some turists in rental cars trying to avoid the worst potholes. Smokey, noisy, wet and slippery. Most of these vehicles are from the fifties, and they constantly spill oil.
We survive and bike into lush quietness. That last for about ten k, and then we reach the Mountains.

Signs suggest you check your car before entering the thirty k of mountain road.  Brakes - check, gears - check, strong legs - check, stubborn heads - check. We'll give it a go. Twenty k of quite steep and steep uphill. We are very proud of ourselves and bike all the way up to the top.  Engulfing the sweet cucurucho treat, even better than the Cliff bars we brought from Canada. Then the fun part begins. The ten k of going dooooooown. Road in quite good condition, so we really enjoy it. We stop at some women and children offering us sweet bananas and other goodies.

On the way down to the south cost the weather changes, so does the nature. Sun instead of rain. Cactuses instead of rain forest. The coast road is super pretty and we gladly bike until sunset today. Reaching a little paradise called Casa Fidel. Just by the azur blue sea. With a pool, garden, superb food and clean, spacious room.
The decision to spend two nights here is a very easy one to make.

Here we go - up La Farola

Up, up, up. Beautiful landscape and very few cars. Who could ask for more?

At the top - very content

Women selling super sweet bananas and mangoes

The more south we go, the less thick are the clouds

And finally we reach the south coast. Calm nice ocean, dry landscape, no rain.

And after a long day we reach casa Fidel - a little paradise

Casa Fidel - pool overlooking the ocean

1. Holguin - Guardalavaca. March 3, 2018

So, after 48 hours (no kidding) of constant travel we finally reached Holguín. This is our first bus experience on Cuba. The bus company Via...