Having paid my proper respects to the journey that started it all– I now continue this blog with the latest and greatest adventure. Cuba.
Once again I must bow my head in deep gratitude for the honor to be here as an ambassador from Adventure Cycling Association.
Cuba’s rich, colorful culture, gentle weather and landscape, and well-developed infrastructure have long made it a cycling destination for tourists from all over the world. Only recently has it become accessible to citizens of the US, and I am here to scout out the wide world of possibilities for our company to create our special flavor of bike tour here.
I am playing with a different format for this section of Yoga of Bike Tour, more of a proper journal format rather than the delicately edited prose pieces I wrote for the TransAm.
Each day is so vibrant here, with so much occurring– it’s simply best to write things regularly and post when I can. This makes for more intimacy into my thoughts than I had previously revealed during the TransAm so it’s edgy for me, but ultimately good.
Mind you, wifi is available only in public plazas using a scratch-off card for access, so posting will not be frequently!
My zone of genius must lie dangerously close to the zone of insanity. How is it that I have known I am going to Cuba definitively for two months now–I board a plane in six hours– and somehow the “before you go” section of the Lonely Planet guide is startlingly new material? How have I not managed yet to memorize the conjugations of “Estar”? A sense of doom descends over me like a dark, not at all puffy cloud. My elevated heart rate makes rational thought impossible. The only beacon I have to guide me now is the memory of how it FELT to put this trip together, back in November. Consciously, I knew it was a crazy idea, but I kept getting a gentle yet persistent nudge from spirit to keep going. And for better or worse that’s what I’ve done.
At times it’s seemed a worse idea. The essence of this adventure has super-charged certain aspects of myself that wreak havoc on my personal life. And while they are precious, wing-beating golden freedom songs which I cherish as essential to my heart’s continued pulse on this planet; they never lead me in the direction of comfort.
And now I’m here. Sitting on a worn sofa, within the turquoise walls and tiled floors of a hostel in Havana Centro. The wall of atmosphere just off the balcony is intense, even three floors up. Against the backdrop of a megalithic cerulean blue stadium I watch the traffic of 50’s muscle cars, beat up hatch backs and vintage motorcycles with sidecars weave amongst one another, their non-EPA regulated fumes billowing from tailpipes and up to my nose. Reggaeton blares nextdoor, which I happen to like. Even the air here has strong character; thick, full of exhaust, and saturated enough to leave a glistening coat on any exposed skin.
I am here as an explorer. I am here as a traveler. And I am also here as a bike tour leader. I am here on a mission. I have the great honor and privilege to be here researching a bicycle route for Adventure Cycling Association. And it is this final piece which gives me the motivation to press onwards into this tropical density of crumbling architecture and teeming, smiling humanity.
24 hours in a country as vivid as this one is like a month at home. I feel like I’ve been here a year and it’s only been two days. The sights and sounds continue to be delightfully intense; and even though I write now from the countryside that familiar reggaeton marks the beat.
Before I describe my present pastoral situation, let me recap the last day in Havana. After ordering three thimble sized coffees at the cafeteria next door (afterwhich I was cut off; us Amercans and our excesses.) I packed up my two panniers and backpack (which truthfully, felt excessive) and marched outside on good faith I wouldn’t wait long to be asked if I wanted a taxi (or my bags carried, or a guide, or to change money). I was pleasantly surprised that no one asked me anything at all as I trudged down the street weighed down by my bags. After stopping for fortification at a little food window (roughly $1 for a crusty bun with a slice of ham, cheese, and egg plus orange juice. You never know when you’ll find food so I jumped on it.) I happened upon a cab all on my own. I had a spirited reciprocal English-spanish lesson with the driver and his buddy as we drove to the Vedado neighborhood. So named, I learned, because it was once forbidden to live outside Habana’s historic city wall. However the wall is down now and it’s a nice neighborhood on the Malecon—the seawall that lines the north side of Habana over which waves crash their white tendrils at high tide, dangerously close to the ’57 Chevys passing by on the highway. This is the neighborhood where my bike rental would come from.
Canbicuba. Owned and operated by a Canadian married to a Cuban. Purveyors of bikes and tours for foreigners for a decade or more out of Habana. I’d been emailing these guys for weeks, so they were ready for me. I had a really productive afternoon there, sipping ridiculously strong coffees that kept appearing by magic and talking routes and possibilities for the future of an alliance between Adventure Cycling and Canbicuba. I say productive—and mean it—however the owner had recently had a stroke, so I could sense things could have been EVEN MORE productive if I had caught him two months ago, rather than now. All things considered, it was great. He’s an honery old Englishman that seems to hate everything, but I got a sense he was into the plan I had.
That evening I explored the Malecon, gazed at the full moon crashing waves from the steps of a monument. Walked around, bought some groceries for my bike ride the next day, and ultimately found myself at a charming outdoor restaurant where a tight band serenaded me as I ate swordfish and drank mojitos. Expensive? Hell yes. Totally US prices, but really lovely, so it’s ok.
Today: Got on my bike and realized how much better I feel the minute I’m in the saddle. Suddenly I’m in my element. I’m in control. Can’t nothing touch me. I am a hot pink master of my own domain. Dubious though that looks now in print, I can tell you I am being dead serious here.
Leaving Habana was a pleasant surprise. I’m not sure if it’s because it was early Saturday morning and there was no work traffic, but the streets were nearly empty, the navigation refreshingly straightforward, and the scenery delightfully diverse. I cruised through the middle of town, hit the seawall and went west, passing beaches with folks doing calisthenics, fancy hotels where I witnessed how Americans resemble nothing so much as pallid, loose flan when grouped en mass to get on tour busses and what not, as well as an impressive array of State institutions for medicine, mental health, and maternity. I want to say I felt sorry for the Americans waiting for buses. Why doesn’t everyone get a bike??
Then I got on the Autopista, the superhighway of Cuba. Normally as a rider I avoid the highways, but this one came highly recommended. Three lanes, and hardly any traffic, plus the pavement is mostly not chewed up like on the smaller roads. Bonus: you can ride up to and pass horse drawn carriages and donkey carts.
Wanna hear something crazy that happened on the pista? I’m pulled over to check a map and three racers whizz by my in full kits on carbon bikes. But unlike the stuck-up that ride like that in our country (Call me bike-racist or whatever, but I’ve been ignored or treated badly by enough of them to make that statement), these guys slowed down and yelled to come with them. So I pedaled like crazy to catch up. So… turns out they’re like the top racers in the country, and they’re training for a trans-Cuban race in two weeks. And they’re slowing down their ride to talk to me. Holy hell. By the way this is all being conveyed in the best on-bike Spanish-English charades game ever. Wait, it gets better. A slight hill in the distance, and I’m like “ok, you guys go, I’m slow on hills” and they literally take turns pushing me up the hill. We’re all pedaling like crazy, and even with the amazing pushes—hands on my back and on my seat as we ride– I’m red-lined because I’m not used to going that fast when it’s FLAT, let alone up a hill. But I can’t lose face here, I mean they’re the ones using extra energy to push me…. So I keep it up for 7 miles before they turn off to Artemesia. The whole experience was 30 minutes or so and I have to take a rest soon after, but holy hell, what an experience! And I estimated going that speed that long probably saved me close to an hour out there.
And now I’m here. Here is Soroa; A little town in the foothills. I’m in a Casa Particular. It’s pink from head to toe. I asked for juice when I arrived, and freshly squeezed guava juice was delivered to me to while I was in the shower. This place is alright in my book. I’m mustering strength to check out Soroa proper which is 3km and a big hill away. Apparently it’s great. Tomorrow: Viñales, 66 miles with hills at the end. Stay tuned.
Post Script: Soroa is indeed great. Very small, but a beautifully curated waterfall park with pristine swimming pools. A very rewarding end to the first riding day.
Five days and an eternity later. Viñales was indeed a lovely mountain town. The last quarter of riding there entailed a 10+ mile hill climb on a narrow, ungraded, twisting and turning road. Counter my expectation of such a mountain road, traffic regularly whizzed by my ranging from tiny electric mopeds to full size tour buses. In both directions. This seems like it would be a dangerous situation, however the Cubans are used to slow things on the road like horses and ox carts, and their custom is to completely disregard the centerline as anything aside from pavement decoration. The end result turns out to be much more patient drivers giving a much wider berth to my little spandex clad self as they pass than I ever get in the US. I felt safer in this sea of ancient vehicles than I do on many a back road at home. Weird. I would prefer it even, were it not for the extreme exhaust spewed by these unregulated antiques. I nearly threw up a couple times from it.
The reward at the top of the hill is an awesome, almost prehistoric landscape of giant limestone monoliths jutting from a vast valley floor, Yosemite-like, but lined with palm trees instead. The soft green lobes of tobacco fields, worked by teams of fawn colored oxen began to appear along the side of the road. And then as I drew nearer to the town I began to see people who were not Cuban, a sure sign I’d reached a tourist destination.
And it is a lovely destination. There are caves, and climbing (though not “officially”) and tobacco farm tours, and a biological preserve, and all sorts of sweet back country wonders. And to house all the passers-through, it seems every other house on the main streets was a casa particular, probably near 100 of them. Though some have more imaginative names, most are named after their owners. Casa Marta y Juilo, Casa Mayarí. I thought I would have the good sense to reserve a casa beforehand, using an app I’d downloaded. After a couple laps around the streets and a few pointed questions, I hunted down my casa: Maceo y Julia. On the website it said it had a swimming pool and had discounts for parties of 10 or more, so I was excited to see this place. I was met by a very garrulous Julia in her hot pink house. Seated on her porch, and given a glass of mango juice. Perfect. Even better a group of Dutch bikers road in after me and seated themselves on the patio as well. Awesome! Biker company. However no sooner did I finish my juice, but I was escorted out of the house, around the corner, over a bridge and to another house. This one was smaller, and it’s soft spoken owner led me to a tiny little room barely bigger than the bed within it. I was confused, and disappointed—where was the swimming pool? Where were the bikers? Where was I? My visible disappointment seemed to make Alba the owner very sad. After some discussion we came to a lower price point, and I learned that there are no such things as personal pools in Cuba.
That was the last time I used a website to reserve a casa.
Now I simply trust that absolutely anywhere I want to stay there will be more than enough choices available. Cuba is designed for point to point travel, it seems. Hospitality is the lowest and juiciest hanging fruit here. Welcoming proprietors, tidy rooms with air conditioners and nice views, private bathrooms (always), and delicious affordable meals on request. Breakfast here makes me feel like a queen. All the little china plates with tidbits of tropical fruit, crepes, tiny ramequins of jam, eggs, bread, butter, and of course a thermos full of strong coffee and another of heated milk that I might pour into the teensy little cup they’ve given me over and over.
Two days ago I ate such a feast from a rooftop terrace while gazing at the shining sea one block away. Not too shabby.
That sea view was at Playa Larga, a very spontaneous stop on my journey. I was headed to the bustling city of Cienfuegos on a colectivo—a group taxi full of tourists wanting to go to the same place, arranged by men yelling “Taxi!” in the plaza. It seemed impossible that telling my address to a random man in the street would actually yield a real taxi the next morning, but incredibly one appeared nearly perfectly on time. And what a taxi! A real, huge, classic wagon of some sort. Right out of a Normal Rockwell painting. It sat nine people in three bench seats. A beast. But boy did it go! I never once questioned it’s soundness. The thing roared and tore down the road as fast as any modern car. My bicycle clung to the enormous cargo rack on top as we bounced through the cracks, ruts, and giant holes filled with gravel in the asphalt.
Somewhere along the way I looked at a map and consulted my guidebook and also my calendar. Thing one: I was going too fast. At this rate I’d finish my trip with too many days to kill in Habana—my least favorite place so far. Thing two: There were beaches with coral reefs and snorkeling and diving an acceptable riding distance from Cienfuegos at a place called Playa Larga, and also the infamous Bay of Pigs. Thing three: Because I have a bike, I have a lot more flexibility than the average tourist in a situation like this. And since I’d already ditched the reserving casas habit, I was totally free and able to explore another potentially wonderful locale.
So while the other passengers in the colectivo looked on in wonder that I could disembark from our ride at a random intersection of highway in the midday scorching heat, I geared up and happily rode away towards a vision of sweet sea breezes and a sunset swim.
Both of which were actualized. Playa Larga is a place I could have stayed for a very long time. A tiny town at the apex of a bay which carves deeply into the island’s body, its sandy beaches were hardly populated, yet had THREE small bars from which to order mojitos with your toes in the sand. Warm, clear water, which the setting sun turned into impossible iridescent magnificence as I arrived. Heaven. Heaven on earth.
Also good eats. Being Valentines Day and all– a fact I was reminded of over and over by the tourists walking around holding hands and oodling over each other—I decided to take myself out. A sweet spot where I could hear the waves lap on the shore. A menu spoken rather than written (in thankfully slow Spanish). I chose the lobster. I did not regret it. One of the most nourishing, good for the soul meals I’ve had in a while. Delicately spiced, gorgeously served, and accompanied by more tiny plates of goodies. Sitting alone with my three forks and two spoons and seven plates and a single candle on the table; it was good.
Know what else was good? DIVING! I can’t write that without capitals. It just makes me so happy. DIVING! Ok, that’s enough. I called the dive center in Playa Girón (aka the Bay of Pigs), and they said I had to come at 8am, I had missed it. I hung up thinking, “oh well, I guess I’ll have to stay another day then.” But as luck would have it my ride that day took my right to a wonderful dive site. Now, I haven’t dove in 10 years. And I certainly don’t have my certification with me, even if it would be valid now. However this being a country both heavy and light on rules, I took a chance and asked if it were possible. The answer: “This is Cuba. Anything is possible.” Boom.
I got a wee refresher on the basics and hand signals, and twenty minutes and 25CUC later I was in the water. Lo Cuevo de los pesces is “the cove of the fishes”. Aptly named. Not thirty feet from the shore a vibrant coral garden was host to more colorful fish than I’ve ever seen snorkeling in salt water. Happy, healthy ecosystem. Parrot fish nibbling coral, angel fish in myriad colors darting about. Large coral formations of all shapes; tubes, fans, brains…. Giant anenomes. A school of needle-nosed fish the size and shape of flutes swam by. Each crevice had its microcosm of inhabitants. Charming, and somehow so good for my heart to see. 45 minutes of paradise gliding weightless underwater like I do very often in my dreamtime. The best 25 bucks I’ve ever spent.
Bless the freedom of the bike. The world gently opens her hand to the two-wheeled traveler.
And now I come to the present moment. I was a little nervous about leaving Playa Girón for a full day’s ride to Cienfuegos. But as I was leaving my casa at 8 am a herd of French folks in jerseys and one in a bikini top raced past. I yelled “where are you going?!” They called back “Cienguegos!”. Not that they stopped for me, but it was comforting to know I’d find them out there. Which in short order I did (as they weren’t really racing at all but rather Sunday-driving to the extreme) and lumped myselves in with them, and then we came onto a group of bike packing Argentineans, and then we were a proper bike mob. Excellent. A most unexpectedly social day (in a patois of Spanish French and English. Best sentence I used today was “ Je n’sais pas, talvez esta meijor, pero you gotta do what you gotta do, sabes?”) 14 strong we steamrolled through small towns on a nearly perfectly flat well paved road.
And here I am in Cienfuegos. I have a sweet casa in a nice part of town, near a banyon tree and where the cruise ships come in. Dark clouds rolled in and it rained strong for over an hour as I sat here writing this from my little room with big open doors opening onto a tiled balcony. Now the clouds have cleared and I will venture again into town to forage for food and wifi.