Cuba 2003: Holguín – Baracoa – Santiago – Holguín
Cycling in the Oriente, a trip in Eastern Cuba
It's a well-known fact that Cuba is a very peculiar country where travellers are confronted with more than a few problems. But Cuba is also a country that is very dear to many people, despite all ideological drawbacks and troubles. good reasons to take a look over there, of course by bicycle, which is a perfect solution for the never-ending transport problems on this Caribbean island. With some emergency supplies and a water filter in our pannier bags we expect to be well equipped for the hardships of Castro's Cuba.
A dark Holguín welcomes us with horse carts equipped with pots with flickering oil flames serving as backlights. Our taxi driver rushes past at full speed in his heap from the fifties, heading to a casa particular (private accommodation) we reserved on the Internet. In fact he is heading to a similar guesthouse, because the friendly Fernando, who picked us up from the airport and is the owner of the accommodation we planned to stay in, told us his house is full and he will bring us to a friend's house.
That's all right, although he asks for an extra fee of 7 dollars compared to the arrangement we made with him, because of the delivered "service". Well, all together it's a good deal: we didn't have to worry about the bike transport to the city in the dark, found a reasonable address pretty fast and at the same time became initiated in the customs of Cuba.
We leave our hosts in search for a bite. There are hardly any street lights, but we succeed in finding the central square, where we order chicken with chips and cold beer in a sidewalk café with a remarkable clientele of Dutch men with Cuban girlfriends. The sound of melodious son from the adjacent Casa de la Trove accompanies our meal. Cuba doesn't seem that bad at all!
By daylight Holguín turns out to be an agreeable town, confirming our impression of the previous evening to be put back in time fifty years or so. The streets resound with the click-clack of horse's hoofs, there's hardly any advertising and the shops have a pure Eastern bloc character. We change some dollars into pesos to be able to profit from the bargains in the latter currency. In dollar shops and restaurants prizes are as high as in western Europe, but the little food and drink you can buy with pesos, like the unsurpassed sticky Cuban cheese pizza, costs almost nothing.
On the central square we have little chat with a teacher who tells us we should definitively visit the village of Gibara. Following his advice we ride along a quiet road through villages where we can't find any food. A bread factory brings relieve, after some consultations between the employees. We can't pay for the rolls, as this bread is officially only available with bread coupons, which we don't have. At once we feel like beggars. Arriving in Gibara we are assaulted by boys on bicycles trying to bring us to their favourite casa particular. Despite all the warnings in the travel guides, we let ourselves be dragged to the casa of “the brother” of one of them because we can't find the address the teacher in Holguín recommended to us. For 20 dollars we get a nice room looking out on a beautiful courtyard in a colonial house. In the afternoon a stranger stops us in the street. "You spoke to my brother in Holguín and promised him to come to my casa!" Oops, we didn't know we were followed that closely! Apparently the teacher gave a very precise description to his brother, as we aren't the only tourists here.
Gibara lies at the coast but there's no beach at all. We find one 15 km further on, at the end of a dirt road. In the settlement over there we are offered several meals with fish or turtle, but we took our own provisions. The food situation appears to be better than expected, as many people seem to be prepared to cook a meal for the tourists.
We continue to Guardalavaca, a depressing place full of tourist bunkers but with a very nice beach. Unfortunately it's raining so we limit ourselves to a vaguely Italian looking pizza in one of the few restaurants; all tourists here eat and drink in their all-inclusive hotels. Around Guardalavaca many strangely familiar yellow coaches pass us, underway to Barendrecht, Maartensdijk or Buiten Dienst (‘out of service'). All these formerly Dutch buses are used to transport the thousands of workers in the tourist industry from the towns nearby to the hotels of Guardalavaca.
The villages seem to thrive with the employment tourism brings – the houses are surprisingly well built and all have nice flowering gardens. Regular bus transport is a lot more primitive. Once in a while we see open trucks, packed with standing passengers. Behind the wheel are mostly private drivers who have to are compelled to use their car for these "bus services".
On many crossroads a crowd of at least 20 people is waiting for transport. Spotting a motorized vehicle in the distance, they all start to run to it, from small totters to old grannies, and try to climb on the loading platform. It isn't an elevating sight but the situation is already much better than in the 1990's when no vehicle could drive anymore because of a disastrous fuel shortage and millions of Chinese bicycles where imported. Many people are still riding them, and even in hilly areas we are overtaken by sturdy young men, pedalling like mad on their creaking bikes without speeds, carrying heavy loads. We also hear a lot of stories of men crossing half the island by bicycle to visit their friends or family. That's why Cuba is one of the first countries outside Europe where people don't think we're crazy to travel by bicycle instead of by comfortable bus or car.
From Mayarí to Moa
Along a partly unpaved road we reach Mayarí, an insignificant provincial town mentioned in the famous song Chan Chan, including the Buena Vista Social Club: De Alto Cedro voy para Marcané / Luego à Cuelto voy para Mayarí. In a park we spot some peso stalls selling fruit juice, bread rolls and deep-fried stuff, an excellent lunch for just a few cents. We are on our way to the campismo Río Cabonico, a Cuban camp site where you can't pitch your tent but where simple cabins with a bed are rented out. To our alarm the campismo is closed that evening – the staff has a day off. The security guard doesn't show any initiative to open a cabin for us, but we have to stay because it's getting dark and there's no hotel at all in the surroundings. After some begging we succeed in persuading him to find a staff member, who finds a key and accommodates us. The friendly woman managing the restaurant spontaneously offers us a meal of chicken with rice and banana chips, and with some patience, everything has turned out well again.
After a night full of jungle noises we set off for the relatively hard leg to Moa, with a lot of very steep hills. The road is in reasonable shape, with only a few unpaved sections, there's hardly any motorized traffic and the scenery is green and tropical, so it turns out to be an agreeable day under a cloudless blue sky. The end of this leg is less attractive: Moa is a city full of grey apartment blocks, groaning and moaning under the poisonous brown clouds from the Che Guevara nickel smelter. Around the plant an area of many square kilometres is absolutely inhabitable. Taking photographs is not allowed and passing the plant the next morning, we are accompanied by a cyclist who stops as soon as we stop and keeps following us all the time. It's too conspicuous to be just a coincidence.
Our diner in hotel Miraflores in Moa is a memorable experience – it's the only time we are eating in one of the state restaurants we've heard so many horror stories about. The a/c is whining at full speed so it's freezing in the dining room, and the expensive rice with leathery meat and sour vegetables comes in a tiny portion, not enough for hungry cyclists. There's no other choice, as all the other dishes from the menu are sold out or have never been in stock at all. Only the staff is less lethargic than expected and even seems rather cheerful in the harsh fluorescent lighting.
Closer to Baracoa the vegetation gets more lush all the time. This north eastern corner of Cuba is the rainiest of the country, but we are enjoying a few days of nice and sunny weather. We put up at Hotel Porto Santo, a rather luxurious place with a good breakfast buffet en a small beach where Columbus would have set foot. Unfortunately the beach is full of litter and the hotel guests prefer the hotel swimming pool. After two days of relaxing and a lot of expertly prepared mojitos, the national cocktail, we move to a beautiful colonial casa particular, where the owner surprises us with chilled Spanish Rioja, accompanied by his outspoken views of the political situation in Cuba.
Cuba keeps amazing us every day: cycling against the traffic in a one way street we are warned by a whole crowd telling us to stop immediately and to look out for the policia. And when we try to buy some sterile gauze after a fall on slippery freshly tarred asphalt, the assistant starts to dab her stern with the gauze we brought as an example. ‘It's against transpiration?' she asks. No, sterile gauze is unknown in this part of Cuba. On the other hand, it is no problem to write an e-mail, between clerks struggling with a prehistoric Teletype and yelling telegrams through a line with a lot of interference. We are only allowed to send the e-mail after the clerk has noted down sender and recipient in a school notebook.
There are some nice beaches in the surroundings of Baracoa. Of course foreign tourists are spotted immediately by the people living there and it's almost obligatory to order a meal, usually lobster or fish, the ubiquitous banana chips and cucumber salad. The family preparing our lunch is very persistent and keeps asking for attention: maybe we want to give away our clothes or our bicycle tyres? Maybe we have some medicines for them? Mother and daughter suffer from headaches; life is very difficult here. Before we get a severe headache ourselves, we say goodbye, but first we have to take a picture of the daughter who aspires becoming a model.
After Baracoa we have to climb La Farola pass, separating the Atlantic from the Caribbean side of the island. This route is advertised as a gigantic socialistic achievement. The road is excellent and not too steep, except for the first few meters, so we can enjoy the nice views from the pass pretty soon. The scenery at the southern side is much drier and barren, the sudden view of the swirling Caribbean Sea is unforgettable. There's no traffic at all in this region, except for a lonely tourist bus once an hour or so. Again we spend the night in a campismo, this time rather rundown, where a partying Cuban family threatens to deprive from any sleep. We take refuge in the bar, where the peso beer Bucanero tastes excellent, but at 11 o'clock it's closing time and we have to go back to our mouldy cabin. To our surprise they comply with our request to turn down the music a little bit, so our extremely noisy a/c can drown out the music noise. The monotone din of the ubiquitous Russian a/c's is really an effective remedy against nocturnal street sounds and music! No problema and so we can enjoy a good night's rest.
With a strong tailwind we are approaching Guantánamo, famous for the song about one of its inhabitants, la Guantanamera. We stop at a street side bar and ask for a drink. There's only beer, the barman says. We're almost there so we order two beers. The barman climbs on his bicycle and disappears over the hill, riding against the storm. We can't do anything but wait. After half an hour he returns with two bottles of ice cold beer. After thanking him and giving him an adequate reward for this wonderful gesture we continue our ride along the coast and later between banana plantations, now with a tiring headwind. We cycle along extensive military complexes, the Cuban line of defence against the American base in Guantánamo Bay, barely visible in the distance from a hilltop.
In Guantánamo town it's party time. The main street is full of surprisingly professional sounding music groups and that evening we have a great time listening to the whole range of Cuban music, from son to mambo and from Cuban rap to deafening salsa. It's a pity that the procession with the statue of Santa Barbara with accompanying voodoo is taking place in the middle of the night – at eleven o'clock we're just too tired to stay up after a day full of sun and wind and 120 km of cycling. Again the a/c on our room is working overtime to keep out the street noise.
Santiago de Cuba
Next morning we can buy some fresh bread with a street vendor, for the first time this trip. It's a nice change from the pizza out of oil drums we usually buy on the road. The road to Santiago de Cuba is partly a four lane highway, which doesn't make a big difference for our cycling pleasure as again there's no traffic to speak of. Only in the outskirts of Santiago it gets busier. After some searching we find a good casa with a big garden in a quiet villa neighbourhood. It's a real oasis in a busy, polluted city. After a day of snorkelling and diving at a resort on the coast we enjoy a nice meal of fish with rice in our casa, accompanied with a bottle of Spanish wine from the supermarket. It's just too much, so there are some leftovers, to the horror of our hostess. ‘That fish was no good! My fish vendor wasn't there so I had to buy these ugly small fishes!' We assure her that the fish was excellent, but we've put her from her stroke by not finishing all the food. And we didn't even tell her that we planned to eat out the next evening.
Santiago suffers from heavy smog, caused by city buses and trucks belching out thick black clouds. Equally unpleasant are the jiniteros, trying to sell us all kinds of unwanted services. Santiago is a lively city, quite different from sleepy towns like Holguín and Baracoa. On the central square music groups are playing all day long and in the evening we enjoy the melodious trumpet, tres and guitar of the Estudiantina Invasora in the legendary Casa de la Trova, for the ridiculous amount of one dollar. A primitive attempt to pick our pockets in a dark street later that night is thwarted effectively, but we have some concerns about the safety in this city – let's hope they don't learn too much from other Caribbean islands.
Back to Holguín
We cycle back to Holguín airport via Bayamo, along a quiet road between extensive sugarcane plantations. A campesino accompanying us for a while knows a lot about Holanda: cows, milk, mills, tulips, cheese, wealth. He tells at length about his hardships: there is no more fuel for the machines used to irrigate the land so a crop failure is imminent. He really doesn't know how to go on; it's a dead-end situation. Small wonder everybody seeks relieve in the strong rum of the island. Taking a turning, he wishes us a good trip, and we can do nothing but wish him mucho suerte.