Around the world by bike
(1 527km - 29days)
29 October - Montego Bay, Jamaica – Havana, Cuba - By plane
I took a taxi to the airport (which was hardly five kilometres from the hotel) and was surprised to find a wrapping service (which I was happy about). I had the bike box wrapped just in case all the duct type did not hold. Then it was off to Panama where I had a connecting flight to Havana.
Right from the start Cuba was going to be completely different. The first thing I noticed was that the plane was nearly empty, quite a rarity in this day and age!! I spread out and had a little snooze before descending into Cuba. Approaching Cuba, I witnessed the most stunning sunset and below me I could see well-organized farmlands stretching as far as the eye could see (I guess they were tobacco fields).
Clearing customs and immigration was exceptionally easy. I took a taxi to “Hostal Peregrino” which was situated in an old building in Centro Havana. You can imagine my surprise when I rang the bell and a key, tied to a piece of string, was lowered from the window above!! They did not receive my email and all their rooms were full; fortunately, their neighbour still had a room. It was, in fact, more convenient with the bike. It was a lovely family but, unfortunately, they spoke limited English. The room was really comfortable with a fan, air-con, private bathroom and even a little bar fridge!
The most confusing was the Cuban money. Cuba has two currencies; CUC (1 CUC = 1 US$) and pesos (Moneda Nacional MN) (1 CUC = 25 pesos). Both the room price and the taxi fare were quoted in CUC, so I guess tourists will always be quoted in CUC.
30 - 31 October - Havana
After a breakfast of fruit and scrambled eggs I set off to explore Havana, which is not known as Havana in Cuba, but referred to as “La Habana”. As always, I was surprised at what I saw, as not everything the media reports is quite accurate.
The 50-year old American trade embargo is still in place, but that does not mean that Cuba does not trade with other countries. There was a fair amount of new vehicles on the road; in fact, the taxi I took from the airport was a brand new Toyota van. Most of the cars on the road, however, date back to the 1960’s. Or at least that is what it looks like. Not all buildings are old and falling apart either, but they are by far the most photogenic and one, therefore, gets the idea that the whole country looks like that (which it kind of does!!).
I set off by foot to explore the old part and what a glorious area it was. Gracious old buildings, many already restored, lined the streets. I could not resist and had to drive along the Malecon sea drive in an old convertible just for the hell of it!! All that was missing was a bottle of rum!!
The following day I did very much the same, just in a different part. There was so much to see that one can easily spend a good few days in Havana alone. I walked past colourful cigar chewing ladies, past horse carts and bicycle taxis (and they are not only for the tourists). I passed the most realistic human statue I have ever seen; what made it worse was that he was right next to a real statue that looked identical. It was only once someone put money in his collection box that he moved and I realized he was human!!
Along narrow lanes, where front doors lead directly onto the pavement and where salsa music emanates from every doorway. Music, dance, and art are everywhere in Havana and it seems that just about everyone can play an instrument. It is such a voluptuous city.
At sunset I headed for the waterfront, took a few pics and then had a bite to eat. I was keen to get going and planned on returning to Havana a few days before my flight out of Cuba so I could explore more of this fascinating city.
1 November - Havana – Bahia Honda - 132 km
It was not a very exciting day on the road, but it was good to be back on the bike after nearly ten days of doing nothing. I was into the wind, which made the going slow, but it kept me cool at the same time.
Although the map indicated that I was on the “autopista” the road was in poor condition and the going slow. I passed farmlands where farmers were still using the ox to pull the plough, and the horse and cart was still in every day use. The Amish will feel quite at home in Cuba. Along the way I stopped at a “panaderia”, bought a few freshly baked rolls for the road and nibbled on them as I snaked along narrow country roads.
In Bahia Honda I found a “Hospedaje” with Beysi and her family, a real treat. They fed me and in my broken Spanish we communicated - me trying to let them know where I’m from and where I’m going.
2 - 3 November - Bahia Honda – Vinales - 85 km
After a healthy breakfast of fruit juice, fruit, coffee, egg and bread I left my friendly family. I bounced along a back road, together with cigar chewing locals riding their horse carts and ox wagons. Again it was slow going due to the poor conditions and the road slowly led uphill along the Vinales valley. The valley was a fertile one and I cycled past numerous fruit stalls and was offered papaya juice at one and pineapple at another, none of which I refused. I cycled on past tobacco plantations and large limestone karsts until I eventually reached Vinales.
Vinales was rather touristy with literally 100’s of places advertising rooms to let and nearly the same amount of restaurants; quite a feat for such a small settlement. The reason people come to Vinales is to visit the nearby National Park, as well as the valley which has been declared a UNESCO site. It is said that a 100 million years ago, underground rivers ate away at the limestone bedrock, creating vast caverns. Eventually the roof collapsed leaving only the eroded walls we see today.
It was easy to find a room and it was a rather large and comfortable one. The establishment also had a restaurant and that night I had the most delicious plate of vegetable soup (and of course a “Cristal”, the local beer). I soon crawled into my bed knowing that I did not have to get up early as I planned on staying in Vinales the following day. I fell asleep with a salsa beat in the far off distance.
The following day, I visited the nearby cave as well as a tobacco farm where some of Cuba’s finest cigars are still hand rolled. It was an interesting cave, which was apparently an ancient indigenous dwelling. One walked along for a while and then came at an underground river where there were motorboats to take you the rest of the way.
I found an internet café and quickly uploaded a few pics before I fell too far behind. The internet was rather expensive but far worse was the long queue waiting for the only seven machines in town. By the time it was my turn it was already late and before I could finish the lady told me that they were closing and I had to come back in the morning….ahgggg!!
I think the most frustrating thing in Cuba (besides the long queue for the internet) was the hissing sound from the touts! They hiss like snakes when they want your attention and I found it rather annoying.
4 November - Vinales – San Cristobal - 110 km
I left my comfortable abode and headed in an easterly direction, not quite sure where I wanted to go. I followed the road and again it was not terribly interesting. There was no reason to stop so I continued on until I reached San Cristobal. I was into the wind all day and was happy to reach this tiny village. I asked around for a room and, sure enough, there was one to have. It had a mirror on the ceiling so I guessed it was not a room meant for a single person.
It was, however, a typical Cuban family with trinkets displayed in the cabinet, and photos in old frames hanging askew on the wall. The Cubans appear to have the same family values as the South Americans. Family members and friends are constantly popping in for a visit and there seems to be an endless flow of comings and goings. It is also rather rural and there always seems to be a cock crowing and a dog barking in the distance.
5 November - San Christobal – San Antonio de los Banos - 85 km
It is said that 24% of the population is of mixed race, 65% white, 10% black and 1 % Asian. I wonder if that is correct as I did not see that many “white” people in Cuba. I guess one can fill anything in on the census form; no one is going to check it. Many of the so called “white” people are, obviously, from Spanish decent and a large number were French immigrants who came to Cuba in the early part of the 19th century. Even so, I found it surprising to see blond haired women in these tiny villages, they look so out of place. That could also be because I have just come from Jamaica.
I cycled along past small villages where people went about their daily business. In the villages there were numerous hole-in-the-wall type shops selling bread rolls, juice or pizzas, all for just a few pesos.
I was heading for Batabane where one could get a ferry to the nearby Isla de la Juventud. I heard that the diving was very good off the west coast of the island and I was keen to see for myself. Halfway through the day I learned that it could be really difficult to get a ferry ticket in Batabane as they were mostly sold out in Havana (as a bus-and-boat combo ticket).
At Guira de Melena, I changed my mind and headed the 13 kilometres north to San Antonio instead. There were a few interesting things to see in San Antonio but somehow I missed the town and landed up at a hotel which was situated on the highway just outside of town. I did not mind and decided to stay there for the night. I had a lovely meal in their restaurant and, upon returning to my room, I switched on the TV and found the only English channel showing the American election. What a circus!! The Cubans must be watching this and thanking their lucky stars they don’t have to go through something like that……maybe that is exactly the reason why they are showing it… LOL.
6 November - San Antonio de los Banos – Nueva Paz - 90 km app
The days were slowly getting a rhythm of their own as I cycled up and down the hills, through the countryside and past tiny settlements all (seemingly) very identical with horse carts, hole-in-the-wall pastry shops, the odd peso pizza joint and “refrescos” stands where I could fill my bottle with juice for a mere 3 pesos.
Towards the end of the day, I reached Nueva Paz and could not see anything other than tiny Nueva Paz on the map. To the surprise of the locals I cycled into their tiny village looking for a casa. I was more surprised than the locals as I found the town to be in the midst of a local festival. I was not quite sure what it was all about but the only two places that had signs up for rooms to rent were full (due to the festival!!).
A local family offered me one of their rooms and it was quite a novelty staying with them. Most of the other “Casa Particulars” or home-stays I have been staying at were set up for travellers and it was mostly a separate room with en-suite bathroom – all very luxurious when compared to normal family life in Cuba. Staying in a local home was something totally different. Firstly, someone had to give up their bed for me, and there was not much privacy as the room had two entrances. The one was blocked off with a curtain and led to the dining room. The other opening led to the lounge/kitchen area and it had a kind of rickety concertina door. No toilet paper, like when it is set up for travellers, just good ol’ newspaper. The shower was a bucket shower which was all I needed. A meal was prepared for me and it was enough to feed an army! I did my best but still they were surprised that I did not eat more. They first fed me and then they ate. I hoped that that was not the only food they had.
It was an interesting family consisting of a mom, dad, grandmother (which had to be taken care of) and a daughter who was a midget. Now, I mention this as I was surprised to see at least three midgets in Jamaica (which I thought was a lot for such a small island) and I was starting to think that there was a midget gene it that part of the world (if there is such a thing). The family was great and, again, I was sorry that I could not speak Spanish. I could tell them where I was from and what I was doing and took out my map to show them where I have cycled. They were stunned that one could do all that on a bicycle (sometimes I’m equally as stunned!!).
I was obviously given the daughter’s room (by the way, it was a normal size bed (LOL); it was just the mirror that was a bit tricky) as she came to tell me that I could use her soap, powder and other cosmetics - so sweet!!! She looked so proud that she had all those things. Any cosmetic stuff, including soap and creams are very hard to come by in Cuba. Beggars don’t ask for money but for soap and cream.
7-8 November - Nueva Paz – Playa Larga - 100 app km
It was a much easier day on the road as I was on the highway and the road was in a much better state. Again there was not much happening along the way, except for a few restaurants which made a welcome distraction. Eventually, I stuck the iPod on my ears and turned off for Playa Larga.
Larga was one of the two beaches invaded by US-backed exiles in April 1961 and all along the road one could see many monuments and signboards keeping memories of the revolution alive. There were loads of “Casa Particulars” lining the shore and I had no difficulty in finding a room for the night. The casa also provided food and it was not necessary to move one step; all I had to do was sit on the veranda, watching the bay.
The following morning I did a bit of laundry and then set off in search of a shop that would sell hair stuff as I lost my comb!! Instead, I found the diving shop and was just in time to join them on two dives. I teamed up with two very pleasant and experienced divers, so off we went into the crystal clear waters of the “Bay of Pigs”. It was two wonderful dives and I was (as always) very pleased that I went. It was an easy shore entry. About 30 metres off shore was a huge drop-off which I understand goes down to a depth of 300 metres. The visibility was crystal clear and it was exciting to suddenly peer off the edge, into the abyss!! Fantastic stuff………and all that for CUC25!!!
Interestingly enough, the Bay of Pigs (also known as “the Bay of Pigs fiasco”) has an interesting history. It is here that mighty America tried to invade tiny Cuba in 1961. I understand that 1400 strong CIA-trained men, financed by a US$13 million military budget landed in Playa Giron intending to wipe out the Cuban Air Force. Castro had been forewarned and had moved his Air Force the previous week already. To make matters worse, the Cubans sunk the two US supply ships leaving 1400 men stranded on the beach. The US government did not come to rescue the poor stranded soldiers, 114 were killed and the remainder captured and traded for US53$ million worth of food and medicine. A real David and Goliath tale, if you ask me!!
9 November - Playa Larga – Playa Giron - 34 km
At my casa, I met two cyclists who had just come from Cienfuegos. They informed me that they took the coastal road, a much shorter road between Cienfuegos and Playa Larga than the main road, but in the process they had 15 punctures between the two of them!! I, there and then, decided to take the roundabout way (approx. 130 kilometres). I was in no hurry so slowly cycled along the coast to Playa Giron where I booked into an “all inclusive” resort for CUC42. Although that was much more than the CUC20 in “Casa Particular”, it really included everything!! Three meals and all drinks from beer to cocktails!!
It was a real strange place, about the size of a small village, right on the beach but very neglected. Only a few bungalows were occupied, the lawn was knee-high and hardly anything was in working order. The food, however, was great and consisted of a buffet for lunch, dinner and breakfast; the problem being that one can only eat until you had enough!! I did, however, enjoy two very nice cocktails which made up for the lack of other facilities.
10 November - Playa Giron – Cienfuegos - 70 km app.
The signboards indicated that it was 94 kilometres to Cienfuegos. It was a low-lying and swampy area; the road was in reasonable condition and the going, therefore, easy. Every now and again I had to give way to herds of cows or cycle on the opposite side of the road as half the road was used for the drying of rice or wheat. My odometer was not working, but I guess I travelled about 40 kilometres before reaching a new road which indicated that Cienfuegos was only 30 kilometres to go. I’m always happy about a shortcut and I reached Cienfuegos in good time.
As always, there were a good few people trying to get you to stay at their “Casa Particular” and I was happy to give them a bit of business. The prices were all identical and the accommodation very much the same. The lady where I decided to bunk down for the night looked really pleased that she had a guest and she went out of her way to put the bike away and make things as comfortable as possible for me.
I took a walk along the waterfront and around the central plaza which were both hives of activities. On my walk, I met Jenn and Jeff from Canada (who were also traveling by bicycle). They saw me in Vinales and recognized me. I am so impressed with people who can recognize one off the bike without the disguise of a cap and shades!! Very observant of them! We chatted for a while and then continued on our respective ways again.
11 - 12 November - Cienfuegos – Trinidad - 80 km app
I woke to the clip-clop of horses in the street, had a hearty breakfast and then was on the road to Trinidad. At first it was a bit hilly but as soon as I reached the coast it levelled out and it was a nice ride past lovely looking beaches and bays.
Trinidad (now a UNESCO world heritage site) was packed with tourists and tour buses. The narrow cobblestoned streets could hardly accommodate all the busses, bicycle taxis, and horse carts. Again there were hundreds of “Casa Particulars” to choose from and soon I was settled in a nice roomy house with a great veranda leading to an enclosed backyard.
A quick shower and I was strolling, camera in hand, like all the other tourists down the narrow lanes of this 500-year old Spanish colonial settlement.
The next morning I woke early and could hear old men peddle their wares from bicycles in the street outside. In a sing-song way, they announced whatever it was they had for sale.
13 -14 November - Trinidad – Sancti Spiritus - 70 km
The road followed the “Valle de los Ingenios” where sugar was grown in the earlier years. Today one can still see some of the old sugar mills, slave quarters and manor houses of this rather brutal era. I stopped at the “Manaca Iznaga” where there was a 44-metre high tower used to watch the slaves. There were so many tour busses that I did not even climb to the top; I just took a few pics and left again. There were quite a few places of interest but after my first experience I did not stop and kept going.
Sancti Spiritus turned out to be a rather nice place. It was somewhat smaller than Trinidad, but it had many lovely old buildings from the colonial era. As there were less of them than in Trinidad just about all of them were renovated and it was a peaceful little village.
That night I came down with a stomach bug and spent most of the night hanging over the toilet bowl. By the time daylight broke I was weak and very tired. I stayed in bed and slowly felt better. By lunch time I could face a cup of tea and a plate of fruit. Fortunately, Hostal Paraiso, where I stayed, was very comfortable and the owners real nice.
15 November - Sancti Spiritus – Ciego de Avila - 76 km
I felt a whole lot better and although still a bit weak (seeing that all I ate the previous day was a plate of fruit), I packed up and cycled the short distance to Ciego de Avila. I was slightly into the wind but caught the slipstream of a horse cart and slowly we headed towards my destination. I stopped to fill up with water and thought I lost them but soon caught up to them again. They looked happy to see me (laughing and waving) - it was like meeting an old friend!! Ciego de Avila was a tiny little place with a few old historical buildings. I took a room in the hotel which was old and in need of some TLC. Although there was no hot water one could not beat the price.
That evening I took a walk in the cooler night air and I passed the local theatre which was packed; it must have been a really good show. The coolest, however, was that people still took a horse and cart taxi to the theatre and home after the show. How very cool!!!
I was still not feeling a 100% but knew I had to eat something. I got myself a 5 peso pizza, which, as the price can tell you, it was not very much (US$1 – 25 pesos).
16 November - Ciego de Avila – Moron - 40 km
Although I still felt tired, I packed up and cycled north to Moron, a small town en route to Cayo Coco. I had no intentions of going to Cayo Coco as I understand it is packed with all-inclusive resorts. Along the way, it started raining and it did not look like the typical 30-minute storm. By the time I arrived in Moron I was dripping wet and decided to stay there for the night. There were a surprisingly large amount of “Casa Particulars”, all looking very nice.
The town was a typical Cuban town with a main road lined with old colonial buildings, a central plaza, and a few hole-in-the-wall eateries. It had a rather grand looking railway station which was built in 1923, complete with horse carriages waiting outside to pick up passengers; I could have sworn it was still 1923. I walked along the candy-coloured colonnaded pavement, listening to the music coming from the open doorways. Old bicycles were leaning haphazardly against the wall and yes, there were still pay-phones mounted on the wall. It was truly like they were caught in a time warp.
As evening came people put their chairs outside their doorways and watched the kids play in the street while chatting to their neighbours. What a social bunch the Cubans are; I’m sure it is because they don’t have internet. Street venders magically appeared selling cake and popcorn – one can’t fault with a country where cake is considered street food!!
17 November - Moron – San Jose del Largo - 60 km app
I turned my bike in the direction of Havana, and although I still had a good few days left in Cuba it was time to slowly move in the direction of Havana. I read that there was a “spa” at San Jose and went in search of the magic baths.
It was a nice ride with a slight tailwind and soon I arrived at San Jose del Largo. The place was a bit dilapidated as most of these type places appeared to be. I did, however, spend a good hour in the bath which was a large undercover one. The pool appeared to be built right over the eye of the spring and had a sandy bottom where one could see the water bubbling up like a tiny volcano.
I also met two Canadian cyclists cycling around Cuba. We chatted away about our cycling trips. They have been on the road for a year and plan to cycle for at least one more year. We had a meal together and shared a bottle of wine, compliments of my hosts.
18 November - San Jose del Largo – Remedios - 70 km
It was easy riding to Remedios and it seemed as if I was finally better again after my stomach bug. I reached Remedios in good time and, as there were a few things to see, I got myself a room right next to the central plaza. In hindsight it was a mistake, as there was not much to do in this tiny little village, except for the few old buildings around the square.
I had so much time on my hands that I spent some time on the internet before having a bite to eat. After that, there was truly nothing to do but to retire to my room. I did a bit of laundry which also seemed to be a mistake as it started raining in the night and nothing was quite dry in the morning.
19 November - Remedios – Quemado de Guines - 110 km app
I rolled up my half wet laundry and headed south. The intention was to go to Santa Martha, but I could not face another touristy town so turned off the main road and headed along the coast. Halfway I was kind of sorry I did not go to Santa Martha as it started raining, and it rained and it rained! In fact, it rained the entire day! Fortunately, it was not cold but still wet and irritating as the water could not drain fast enough and the road became a mini river. There was no reason or place to stop so I continued on until I reached the only place that looked like it could have a room for rent. People pointed me to the “hotel” but although it was a hotel it had no rooms, just a restaurant.
In the bucketing rain, and sloshing through ankle deep water, I found a room but, as it was rented by the hour, I had to wait for the occupants to finish. In the meantime, I went to the restaurant as I was starving and upon my return the room was available. I hung out my wet clothes and was happy to get into something dry. There was truly nothing to do, the TV only had one channel (and I had no use for the condoms) so it was an early night for me.
20 November - Quemado de Guines – Hotel Elguea and spa - 60 km
As my abode was at an hourly joint, there was no breakfast included but they gave me coffee and a few bananas before I left. Again it rained the entire way and when I reached the turn off for a hot spring, I did not think twice before turning off and headed the eight kilometres down the road.
I arrived soaked to the bone and, as always with the government-run hotels, it was huge but there was hardly anyone there. The goats were roaming around the garden as I pulled in and they looked quite surprised that someone was disturbing their peace.
The room was huge and comfortable so I could not complain. The thermal baths were in a separate building and quite hot (approx. 50°C). I was hungry and the restaurant prices reasonable so I had lunch before going for a bath. I had a short soak as it was a bit too hot for me.
Again there was nothing to do; the TV at least had more than one channel but nothing in English. I repacked my bags, had a beer or two and soon it was time for my evening meal. This time there were a few more people as it seemed that some of the workers from the electrical company were doing work in the area and stayed overnight at the hotel. Although there was a menu I think there was just one choice, which was very similar to lunch, just chicken instead of beef, everything else was identical.
I read that according to local legend, a slave who had contracted a serious skin disease was banished by his owner to what is known as Banos de Elguea. Later the man returned completely cured. His master believed him and a bathhouse was built at the spot.
21 November - Hotel Elguea and spa – Varadero - 110 km
It rained throughout the night but, fortunately, by morning it had cleared. It was easy riding as I had a slight tailwind and although the road was still flooded in places it never rained. I reached touristy Varadero in good time and as there were more than 50 hotels and just as many casa particulars I had no problem in finding a bed for the night.
After a quick shower, I went in search of food. The weather had not quite cleared and on my way back it started raining again. I was only 140 kilometres from Havana and was hoping that the weather would be kind to me for the next day or two.
22 November - Valadero – Playa Hermosa - 120 km
To my dismay I woke, not to the tip-tip of rain drops on the roof, but to the rain streaming down, more like someone left the tap open. I carefully packed everything back into the panniers, making sure that all will make it through yet another rainy day. By the time I cycled to the corner shop for a cup of coffee and the (by now) ever familiar toasted ham and cheese sandwich, the rain had stopped.
I picked up a nice tail wind and it was an easy ride in the direction of Havana. Along the way, I met a local cyclist out for a practice ride and he was quite taken that I was cycling from Valadero to Havana in one day. I also caught up to two cyclists from the Netherlands, who was on holiday in Cuba. It was only their second day and they were taking it easy. We chatted as we cycled along and as they were looking for a casa in Playas del Este, I followed suit. In the dying moments of the day it started spitting again and I was happy to call it a day. I would do the last 20 kilometres the following morning.
Villa Playa Hemosa was not much of a Villa but was cheap at CUC13 per person. My room had no hot water and although there was a TV it did not work. The place was obviously popular with locals from Habana as the music was going ten to a dozen and the other guests were already far into their rum by the time I arrived.
23-25 November - Playa Hermosa – Havana - 25 km
It was a short ride into Havana and fortunately it did not rain. On my arrival at my Casa Particular, I was told that they were full. I think there was a misunderstanding as I booked for the 24th and 25th (I was one day early and could find a room for that night, no problem) but as I understood they were also full for the days I booked on. I was a bit pissed off about that as they pointed me across the road where there was a room available on the 3rd floor (highly inconvenient). I left my bike box with them and that would have meant that I now had to haul bike and box three floors up the stairs.
Then, somehow, things got cleared up when I showed them in their own book that I booked. All’s well that ends well, they say!! I had two days in Havana to repack my bags and bike for the rather long and roundabout flight to Africa.
26 November - Havana, Cuba – Montego Bay, Jamaica - By Plane
There surely cannot be anything more inconvenient than a 5.30am flight!! That normally means getting up at around 2.30am in order to get a taxi to the airport at 3.00am. I like to get there early as I normally still have to have the bike wrapped as well as pay the bike fee, which is generally at an obscure office somewhere.
My casa owner assured me that he had phoned for a taxi-van to take me to the airport. At 2.45am I tiptoed downstairs and as I opened the front door, the taxi was already there. Cuba can be as frustrating as it is fascinating.
Alas, it was not a taxi-van but an old fucked-up Mazda hunchback. I just shook my head and loaded the bicycle in, which was half sticking out the back. I giggled uncontrollably all the way to the airport. The poor old Mazda splattered, hiccupped and farted black fumes as we bounced over potholes in the direction of the airport. I feared that the bike was going to slide right out of its (by now) rather sad-looking box. Not only was the box kind of a homemade one from the start, it was also terribly out of shape by now and hardly looked as if it could hold a bicycle. Fortunately, we arrived in time and in one piece. At the airport I could have the bike wrapped but first had to convince the operator that it could be done!!