First out the gate, I personally do not agree with our government policy of imposing sanctions on a foreign land just because that may have been a sound policy decades ago. I think troubled countries should be helped with minimal intervention or just left alone like when you don't have anything good to say just keep it to yourself. The Obama administration seems to be more receptive to change in regards to this policy, more so than the previous administration .
The largest of the Greater Antilles has been subject of a silly US economic blockade for decades, yet it has managed to feed its entire people and provide free health care and education, including University education, to all of its citizens.
On the other hand, individual’s rights and privacy matters are very restricted. Recently there have been some changes that I think will, with time, bring better conditions to its citizens. As of the time of this trip (May 2007) individuals were prohibited from having internet access at home and high restrictions were imposed on email, which had to be read either at work (if you were lucky enough to work at a place that has internet access) or at telephone company offices that charge a hefty amount for timed access. Also, the computers used for accessing the Internet from these locations use a highly limited "secure" Windows OS. The only browser offered is IE and you have no control of what is stored (cookies, history, etc) In other words, big brother is watching literally every word you read and type. This goes even for tourist. I was informed that most US custom domains like this one where you are reading this story for example, are not accessible from there. Gmail, and Yahoo accounts can be accessed. If you are planning on traveling there keep that in mind and be prepared to not have access to your custom domain email.
Being a web developer it is very disturbing to find a government that would place restrictions on its citizens access to the good/evil world of the web; the same can be said about not being allowed to travel anywhere you want...
Why preventing people from visiting this place? Let us make up our mind about the good and bad. Is tourist money going to help a currupt/evil government? That same argument can be used when talking about many other places so I personaly don't buy it. We needed to see, hear and feel first hand, not the filterd version that has been feed using the media. Do your own cultural research if you wish...
This witing contributed by a Colombian who preffers to remain annonimous. Here is a recollection of a trip to that forbidden island:
"Most people you talk with complain of hard economic living conditions and quietly express dissatisfaction with current conditions. However, to have a sincere conversation with people it helps to be fluent in Spanish. People tend to disclose more to other Latin Americans. Keep in mind you and the person you are talking to can easily get into trouble if a third party is listening for tongue slips.
MAY 01 Cancun
The flight left late so not much sleep, we arrived in Cancun at 4PM, reserved a Hotel at the Airport just after picking up the luggage and bought a bus ticket to Downtown Cancun for 35pesos/30 min. The Hotel was OK. After a shower we left for food/beer and ran into Nicole a nice young woman from Portland who we had met on the bus from the airport, so we invited her to join us for dinner.
MAY 02 Cancun
Cancun Woke up at 7:30 walked to Divermex (www.divermex.com) the travel agency where we had quoted tickets to Havana some weeks ago. While we waited for Divermex to open, we ate breakfast at the small plaza inside the mall and went to quote tickets at other travel agencies. We bought the tickets from Divermex as they had the best price. While at the travel agency we saw a mouse inside the office, one of the few guys in the office armed himself with a broom and with a little help from everyone to locate the mouse he was able kill the poor thing.
On the way back to downtown Cancun, we stopped at a grocery store to buy snacks; it was a bit expensive for such a big popular market. Then we went to an internet cafe and then to the pool, nothing extraordinary. Later that day we checked out the Post Office and found a lame place to buy crafts (artesanias), it was a super tourist oriented market. We ran into Nicole after lunch, she had found a good hotel deal at Cancun.com. Later that evening we found out our hotel had a nice quiet bar hidden in a corner next to the lobby, we hung out there listening to music for a little bit.
MAY 03 Cancun/Havana Woke up to no water in the hotel. After breakfast we went to the post office to mail an express package to the US ($160 pesos, 8 days) and then we went back to check email and shower. We checked out of the hotel and took a cab to the airport. The travel agency had told us to look for their representative near the airline counters at a specific time; we waited for a while until he finally showed up, late of course. Once we checked the bikes/luggage we went in through security to find out that the flight was delayed 3 hrs, so with that much free time we roamed the airport shops and tried to find some internet access, which we found, US $5 per 20 min. and Only-one-person-can-use-it kind of deal. The food was awful expensive at the airport. After many false flight updates we finally left at 6:50pm, 4.5 hrs late. Arrived in Havana and had to do the usual long immigration lines, as inefficient as any other place we'd been before, the official at the window was a little rude. We waited for some other passengers to come out of immigration as our ride to the Plaza Hotel was also taking them. We could tell that this hotel used to be nice back in the day but it has not been well maintained, which seemed to be the case at most other hotels in that area. We took a stroll around the Plaza area looking for a bite to eat. Nothing was available at this time of night so we ended up at a hotel across the Plaza from where we were staying. This hotel had a nice outdoor patio, just enough time for a drink before they closed, no food available, and then back to our over-priced room to sleep.
MAY 04 Havana
Early up and breakfast at the buffet, which was included in the price of the room. Changed some US dollars at a bank and found US dollars were penalized 10%, plus given a very low rate making US$1=0.80 CUC, lousy rate. Went to check the web for alternate cheap hotels, there were none. $4 for 20 min of internet access at the hotel lobby resulted in no luck with our hotel search. Booking over the web is cheaper but no US credit cards can be used. In general being a US tourist is very hard here and IMHO you don't get what you pay for, you get a lot less, not a very competitive destination when compared with Asia or even Mexico.
While I assembled our bikes the wife hunted for a hotel. After many frustrating tries she got a reservation at Hotel Vedado. Later we arranged at the front desk of our Hotel Plaza to leave the bicycle suitcases in storage at check out. Loaded the bikes with our gear and rode to the Hotel Vedado via the Malecon, a nice short ride. Cars respect bikes in the slow lane; actually the slow lane is almost used exclusively by bikes and other slow moving traffic. The Hotel Vedado staff was not friendly at all and were very beaurocrat-like, frustrating. They want to show they are in control of the situation at all times, very annoying. While we waited for the room to be cleaned, we went for a walk and found a nice stall to have a beer and plan our first ride. On our way back to the hotel, we checked on our bikes that we had left locked with a cable and padlock at the bike parking next door (US $0.20 first 25hr $0.10 additional hr). Once in our room we washed clothes and then went to the pool. Later that afternoon we walked around exploring the area some more. We ate a very late lunch and then headed to the Malecon. More walking and at the end of the day we brought the bikes to the room for some minor non-mechanical adjustments. I am very disappointed with the cost of tourism here; if price is a consideration I would not recommend this destination for US tourists.
MAY 05 Havana/Mulata
Breakfast at the Vedado Hotel, the exact same buffet as the day before at the Plaza Hotel (a common theme I've seen in other communist countries.) We left by 9AM and rode out of Havana on an easy route. The Hwy was flat and empty to Cabañas. We planned to spend the night at Bahia Honda (at the "Villa Vivi Pandiello") but the owner of the casa particular was not very nice and there was something that just did not feel right so we decided to try a Motel at Baños a few kilometers towards the coast. When we arrived to the Motel they said that they had received a call from the owner at the Casa Particular we had just stopped at "Villa Vivi Pandiello" it was obvious that whatever she had told them made the Motel staff not rent us a room, small town and unfriendly too. We were upset and decided to ride the extra 25 kms to the next town, Mulatas. In Mulatas we found a Casa Particular (Villa Jose Otaño Y Maria, La Mulata, 200 meters right off the main road. phone: 668474). We ate a very nice dinner. The owners and their daughter and son in law, Jesus and Cary were extremely nice people. Two Canadian sisters, Sheila and Theresa were staying there too. We chatted with them and decided that the next morning we all would go to a nearby island and spend the day there. This was great luck finding this Casa particular and good company.
MAY 06 Mulata/Cayo Levisa
Based on Jesus' recommendation we woke up and rode to the small pier (embarcadero) about 14 kms to take a short boat ride to the small Cayo Levisa. We left a little after Sheila and Theresa and caught up with them near the boat ride. $20 Cuc and 40 minutes later we arrived at a nice beach. Lunch, a fruit drink and another drink were included. All of us rented lounge chairs went into the ocean and spend a nice day on the beach. By 4:50 we headed back to the muelle and rode the boat back to the main island. Picked up the bikes from the room where we had left them locked up at the embarcadero and rode back to our wonderful Casa Particular. Once there I helped Sheila with some minor bike repairs. Talked for a while and had another great dinner, but the wife was not feeling well so she went to rest early. What a lovely day. I asked Jesus to get us our bill so tomorrow we would not have to deal with it early in the morning. It was $70 total, $20 room ($10/day) $30 (2 dinners) $15 (2 Breakfasts) and the rest on 2 large water bottles, a soda and 2 beers.
MAY 07 Mulata/Viñales
Woke up at 6:30 packed the clothes we had on the (drying) line, had breakfast and loaded the bikes. The Canadian sisters left 20min before us headed in the same direction.
The clouds kept the temps in a comfortable range. After riding for about 20kms we saw Sheila and Theresa on the side of the road fixing a mechanical, the right SPD pedal tension's spring adjusting screw had come off, not much they could do now. Theresa would have to ride on pure skill from now on, good thing her pedals were flat platform on one side and SPD on the other. We continued riding together. After a while Theresa asked me if I could take a look at the front derailleur, shifting was not working right. I cleaned the cables from a lot of gunk and dirt, which improved shifting a little. We moved on. I rode with Theresa for a while chatting a bit while the wife rode with Sheila following behind. After riding some 10-15 kms I suggested a stop to wait for them. We waited for 5 to 10 minutes before they arrived. They had stopped to fix a broken rear rack. This was their first bicycle tour and they were carrying way more stuff than the rack was designed to carry. I used zip ties to temporarily stabilize it but warned her she needed to have that repaired better. I hoped my repair would last as I thought she would not take the time to find a place where they could do a more elaborate fix. Hope they follow my advice.
From there the road was very scenic, easy kms went by until we saw a nice place to stop for a drink where water was more expensive than rum! While chatting the wind tipped over Theresa's bike, when picking it up she found a nut on the ground, the rack to frame attachment nut, the screw was still in place. After some attempts to tight the nut back onto the "way too short" screw I got tired and decided it was a lot easier to donate one of my extra stainless rack screws I carry for such emergencies, there, fast, easy and way better than the cheap screws she had. She is planning on leaving the bike (minus the pedals) in La Habana when she returns home. The ride in the valley was very easy and scenic. A few kms more and we arrived to Viñales where we went our separate ways to our pre-arranged reserved Casa Particulares.
Our host was a close friend of Jesus, from La Mulata's Casa Particular. Jose was a very friendly host, a Doctor and Director at the regional hospital; he prepared orange juice and had us sit in the terrace where he showed us photos of past guests at his place. (Villa Jose's y Dianelys, Calle Salvador Cisnero #23, Viñales, Pinar Del Rio. phone (53) 48-796026). When he finished cleaning the room we took a shower, washed clothes and went out to check email. At the internet place there where 2 computers with a limited IE version installed. They restrict what you can do (removing cookies, history, etc). Also only some email servers in the US accept connections from Cuban IPS. Gmail was ok but not many other domains, so keep that in mind if you go and want to have email access from there.
Sheila and Theresa came in and also a British guy. We all talked and agreed to meet later at the plaza for a drink. We continued roaming the town and went back to our Casa. I crashed on the bed while the wife read the guides. Dinner was served at 7:00PM, Jose was doing the cooking in shorts, no shirt and an apron, a funny image... he knew it was. While we ate we chatted about life here, in Latin America and the US. He needed to pay a visit to an elderly patient and we needed to go to meet our friends. Good night and on we went.
Found our friends at the town's Plaza; Theresa, Sheila and Shian and Jonny were there already. The first place we tried had a $1 cover. We moved on to another bar with chairs and a veranda and live music inside. Hours went by very fast, 1AM was good enough to call it a night. On the way to our Casa two stray dogs that had been hanging around our veranda table followed us home. When we crossed the portal and closed the rusty metal gate they cried loudly for a while. Dogs are very afraid of humans here, however they seem to know tourist will not harm them. One more little sad reality…
MAY 08 Viñales
Did not do much today. Woke up near 8 and ate breakfast and went back to the room. After taking a lazy nap we got ready to go to the Botanical Gardens, a house with a big backyard. The nice guide walked us through the yard and identified to us all the different species of plants. The tour finished with fruit tasting and a voluntary donation.
Came home get the USB and the card reader to take to the internet provider. No go, they would not let me connect the card reader and USB stick to any computer to clear space on the camera card, in my opinion silly limitations of access to computers to all, not just tourists, does more harm than good. We then walked to a hotel at the top of a nearby hill (1.5kms) the view was ok but not breathtaking. Bought some sunscreen lotion, something very hard to find... just being sold at the expensive government run hotels, and walked back to town to visit a restaurant in a cute house. On the way there we stopped at the bar we had beers at the night before. The Brits where there, we checked the restaurant and went back to the bar. Eventually the Canadian girls came and also 3 guys (Italian, German and another Colombian) from a table next to us joined us. Our friends had been at the nearby Caves earlier today. We went home took a nap, had dinner and went out to say bye to all, they where playing dominos at one of the Casas.
MAY 09 Sta Lucia & Cayo Jutia
79.47 Kms (Santa Lucia 44.23 kms, Cayo Jutia 35.24 kms)
Left at 8am and rode the last part of our previous ride to a little past San Vicente. Soon after there was an intersection, at that point the pavement started to deteriorate rapidly, eventually the holes replaced the pavement but the riding was pretty easy as the terrain was mostly flat. Our bikes equipped with 1.3" tires (realy more like 1.4") coped just fine. The day was not as hot as previous days and the fields were nice.
Santa Lucia was just ahead; we checked the map one more time and found our way to the Casa Particular. We arrived at 10:55. We were not tired at all, the town was unappealing and the day was clearing. We decided to go to the beach.
The road was flat and a soft head wind kept temps decent while riding. We were stopped at the entrance to the toll road, the guards asked our nationality and wrote it on the log. More flat easy kms. Near the end of the road there are small trails that lead into the beach, some car tire tracks made evident people where using them. At the very end of the road a guard demanded $5 to "be here and swim" we paid and then changed into our swimsuits at the temporary restroom; no water ran. Found some chairs and beach hut and soon after a guy came and requested $3 for the two chairs and hut. We spent the afternoon at the beach. We ran into all of our companions from last night. They had hired a taxi and were on the beach a little further down.
Left the beach at 4pm with a tail wind. Near town we bought some water for the next day. When we arrived at the casa the TV was playing loud reggaeton and the daughter of the owner was mopping the living room, while the males did nothing. We waited until it dried and went into the room. Showered in the bathroom that we would be sharing with the house owners. The owner came she seemed a bit distanced from us, unlike previous Casa owners. Care was missing from her attitude. Sometimes loud music came out from the TV, Merengue and ballads played for a while.
MAY 10 Sta Lucia Viñales
Left at 7:30. After the 6:30 (host seemed to be bothered by our early preparation) breakfast we got ready, shot some photos of the husband and wife and left. The road to Pons was pretty, same as the previous day but this one had more rollers and turns. Both days the route remained me of some of Oregon and California's best bicycle routes. There was a short very steep hill (15+%) but the ride in general was very easy.
At the Cueva (Caves) we stopped and did the tour. While we waited for other people to arrive to make it worth it to have a guide, We visited the restroom and chatted with some of the people who worked there; of course they all were professionals like most people we've meet. The tour of the caves was $10 (+$3 tip) and was a nice break on this easy biking day. After riding the 2 kms to the main road we continued our regular ride, we were just 20kms from Viñales. The rest of the ride was equally nice. Arrived in town by 1pm and went directly to Jose's Casa, he knew we were coming back a day earlier, our Canadian friends had called earlier to tell him so.
A great grapefruit juice welcomed us back. After a shower and laundry time we took to the street. Soon after walking a few blocks we ran into Theresa, she was on her way to check email. We told her we would be at the bar where we had spent time before. After we drank a beer and a Mojito she joined us. A band started playing music, we listened for a while and then went our separate ways to our Casas. Later we ran once more into her; she was with her sister and the others we had met before. Rum bottle and coke bottle in hand they were headed to the plaza, we joined them for a little while. After 30-45 minutes we left to have dinner. Another excellent dinner by Jose, we chatted with Jose until it was time to go to sleep.
MAY 11 Trinidad
Woke prepared our bikes to put them in a cab to Trinidad we would be sharing with our Canadian friends. Somebody had booked the cab we wanted but they were traveling in the same direction so we rode in one cab with the other people's luggage while our bikes and bags traveled in another taxi. Due to a misunderstanding we double tipped the two drivers, oh well. When we arrived in Trinidad both our reservations and those of our Canadian friends had been cancelled, ours was originally at hostel La Candelaria. While we waited for a word on our reservation we tried to exchange money but the bank and "Cadeca" (Casa de cambio) were closed. I reassembled our bikes so that we could ride to the new Casa. Julio rode his bicycle a couple of blocks to his casa particular, we followed him on ours. We ended up at "a place of a friend" of the cancelled reservation. In this casa (Julio Valera Alc‡ntara, Calle Frank Pais # 151, Trinidad, phone 01419-2104. email@example.com) our room was in the back of the house on one side of a rectangular patio. A nice old house. Went out for a short stroll around town and went back home to sleep. While I was lying on bed with the room doors open, a big flying roach almost landed on me. End of the excitement for the day.
MAY 12 Playa Ancon
That morning we left by 9:30 towards the beach. Looking for a sunscreen lotion (Hardest thing to find in this not-so-tourist oriented country) we stopped at the gas station's convenience store. Water but no sunscreen. We thought the beach hotels would have to sell it. On the way to the beach a couple of guys passed us on bikes fitted with milk crates and snorkeling gear in them. After 13 kms we arrived at the area where two beach hotels compete for the tourism dollars. The first one looked a lot nicer to us. They did have sunscreen. So the wife bought one while I watched the bikes, it was now beach time. Moving on to the beach the parking lot guy did not want to let us take our bikes to the beach unless we paid him to "watch" them along with the cars, no thanks and we moved along. Further down the road we found a nice quiet spot with beach huts, we claimed one and enjoyed the ocean. The same man came to us and demanded bike parking fee plus the rent for the hut. We gave him $1.50 to get the whole thing out of the way.
An American couple came later and used a hut 20 mts from ours and provided the entertainment for the afternoon. Quite a story...
The snorkel guys that had passed us on bikes earlier sold the guy a snorkeling session, he walked west towards the end of the beach with his rented snorkel gear and a weird look on his face, when he walked in front of our hut he took a quick concerned look back to his poor lonely wife/girlfriend. Not thirty seconds had passed when the other snorkeling guy was in the water with the "bored" wife. Laughter and flirt could be recorded. The snorkeling guy was holding the woman in a "not so snorkeling kind of " way. I was in disbelief; hey check this out! They are having sex over there while the husband's away, unbelievable. After 30-40 min. the husband showed up with a happy face, the wife was also happy.
The rest of the afternoon was a very pleasant beach day. We rode home in the scorching heat, at least 40 deg C.
Arrived by 4:30 and waited until 6:30 to have dinner al fresco in the middle of the patio. After dinner we went to look for the Canadian girls, had a beer or mojito on the deck of their casa and then went to the house of our other new friends, a Spaniard and Italian for more drinks. At 12:30 they wanted to continue the party at a bar. We went home. The wife came looking for something in the bags and a mouse (big by our standard) jumped out from under them. The scream that followed took me out of my sleepy mood. The intruder left the room by sliding under the door and I spent the next 30 min. assuring her we would not be seeing him anymore. After a while sleepiness won over the mouse fear, she closed her eyes.
At 3:30 that morning the wife woke up screaming thinking that there was a mouse crawling up her leg. We checked and everything was fine no mouse could be found. Good night.
MAY 13 Valle de los Ingenios
Woke up at 7am to a light rain. Breakfast was served at the back of the patio where there was a dining table under the roof. Lots of sliced pineapple and mango juice. We hung around enough at the Casa to start seeing blue skies, by 9:45 we were pedaling towards The Valle de los Ingenios. The road was gentle with a nice combination of rollers and hills. Very easy riding and little traffic on this Mother's day. Got to the Manaca Iznaga an old estate that now serves tourist and checked a tower next to the restaurant. A little disappointing, which is a common theme of most tourist attraction points in the Cuba we've seen so far. After a quick visit to the old house we moved on to another anticlimactic point, Casa Guachinango, an old house also turned restaurant. However take my "review" of this last one with a grain of salt, we did not go in, just saw it from the front fence some 30 ft. away from the house.
Returned to Trinidad and did some laundry and souvenir shopping.
Today we had or first experience at "El Rapido" (The Fast One) a fast food joint where the most obnoxious and loud people shop. We had to leave the place with our food to go to the nice plaza across the street to have a quiet dinner. An early bedtime for once.
MAY 14 Topes de Collante
Got up early and ate breakfast. The bill from Julio was, as we suspected a little higher than what we thought was fair. A little negotiation left us both happy. One last photo opportunity and we left. Going out of town we got a little lost, but after a quick question we got back on track.
The first miles were gentle rollers, then the fun started. A steady climb that was some of the steepest paved terrain I have ever ridden, a 18%+ grade for a long time. We did a couple of stops on the way to "El Mirador" where we had a drink. After a steep but very short descent we where climbing again, with little flat terrain the going was slow but the hills were not as steep. We arrived to the hotel complex where a central information office directs people to the different hotels. A centralized information center that in practice does not work well. After a silly back and forth to the place we wanted we convinced the staff to let us stay at the "quiet" hotel Villa Caburni. We paid at the hotel's front desk and waited 30 minutes for the room to be prepared, a common theme of this entire trip. The room was great; for once we felt we had our money's worth. $45 for 2-bedroom one bath house, great water pressure, TV and a small refrigerator (that worked.) Near the central information office there was a small monument erected to commemorate a famous bicycle rider. This location is known for being the end of one of the stages in the national road race. We went to have dinner at 6:30 and came home soon afterwards to finish the day watching some good old propaganda TV.
MAY 15 Cienfuegos
80.03 kms (77 kms, 4:45 to town other distance looking for Casa to stay)
Left at 7, after turning the key in to the security guard as we had arranged the night before, we turned the corner from our hotel room/house and started climbing the steep 100 mts to the hotel parking lot. This would be the first of many steep climbs we'll do today. It seems all roads criss crossing the Escambray Mountains are ridiculously steep; 15%+ grades are the norm.
Today the ride took us through roads that used to be paved but nowadays are dirt roads, from km 5 to km 25 or so pavement was nonexistent. The rain the day before made climbing a little tricky in some spots, our touring tires (City Marathon 1.3") had no trouble dealing with the terrain.
People along the way greeted us and responded nicely to our "buenos dias" greeting. A nice change from people in Trinidad where we rarely felt welcomed by the town's people.
Ultra steep hills lead to equally steep descends, fun but very challenging riding even on our lightly loaded travel touring bicycles.
Finally we made it to the point where the dirt becomes patches of old pavement, eventually the patches became bigger and bigger until they covered the entire road surface. Just in time for the long descent into San Blás, the pavement was smooth. Then it was the larger town of La Sierrita were we stopped to buy liquids, the store in town didn't have water so a soda would do for now.
From La Sierrita it was almost all downhill again to the central road. We were taking a backroad into Cienfuegos, so after getting directions from the butcher stand on the side of the road we continued to the turnoff some kms ahead. This small road had very little traffic and nice rolling hills, after 8 kms we arrived to a gas station where we had a $1 pizza, soda and water. This gas station was at a junction of roads, after our snack we headed towards Cienfuegos. Plantations of mango trees lined the road almost all the way to the city entrance. We rode directly to the bus station and asked for price and schedule of next Viazul bus to Varadero, $16, at 4:30. It was about 1pm so we decided to check the city first to see if we wanted to spend the night here instead of the "more expensive hotel-only beach town" of (no Casas Particulares) Varadero.
The city was nice. A pedestrian-only boulevard made for a nice stroll. We decided to look for a Casa to spend the night. The first place we checked was in a 2-floor house and the room was fine, however it was located behind a large bar, complete with loud music. A little more riding and we saw a few more Official casa signs. People didn't answer the door at the first two, the third one directed us to another Casa a couple blocks away (Yoli and Mei, Calle 37 # 4222 e/ , 42 y 44 Cienfuegos, phone (53) 43-518992). After getting the "wife approved" seal we settled in, washed clothes and went out to explore the town by foot.
A picture here and a picture there until we found a nice cafe/bar. They had the "Bucanero Max" a 6.5% proof beer. While enjoying our beer we met a Canadian and a US woman, we exchanged notes and then went our separate ways. Walked towards the Malecon and sat for a while there.
Back to our Casa for dinner; a tasty squid dish and great mango juice. Too tired to go out we went to bed. We'll be taking the bus to Varadero tomorrow at 4 pm.
MAY 16 Varadero
Last night did not sleep too much, the bumps held together by fabric that was a so-called mattress was quite uncomfortable. The rest of the Casa was fine. No rush to leave the Casa today as the bus to Varadero leaves at 4pm. Breakfast as usual eggs, bread, fruit salad (mango and pineapple this time) juice and coffee all for $2.50/person.
Paid the bill and left the house towards the Malecon. The more we walked the nicer the private houses. Who lives in such houses and what kind of work do they do is a question that I have no answer to but I suspect some policy similar to segregation exists here, "separate but equal" where some (government officials in this case) are more equal than others.
The Malecon offered some nice walking, a little hot today but nice. On the return we stopped at a supermarket (with AC) to get a break from the heat then continued towards the central part of town. At 2pm after exchanging some money we went to the Casa to pick up our things. The room was ready to be rented again but our stuff remained intact in our nicely packed bags. The hosts told us we could take a shower and use the towels we had used in the morning, we did and it was great. We visited with the mother of our hosts for a while and then we left towards the "Estacion del Omnibus" (bus station) a five-minute bike ride.
Got to use the side entrance to the station to place the bicycles near where the buses park. Purchased the $16/person tickets from the "Viazul" office and waited the 45 minutes till' 4pm. The bus was on time. While loading the bikes onto the bus, I saw other bikes in the luggage compartment, I recognized Sheila's and Theresa's panniers. Then I saw the rest of our friends whom we had first meet in Viñales, a very nice surprise.
We caught up on each other’s travels the last two days. They all were going to Santa Clara. A big thunderstorm covered us most of the route to Santa Clara. We took photos of Shian's LP book covering Varadero (map and places to stay) and then they got off the bus in torrential rain. The rest of the way to Varadero was uneventful.
Once in town (8:30) we turned on the taillights, installed the helmet light and ventured onto the streets to find a good value place to spend the night. The fist place we went to was $58, we thought we could do better so a little more riding was needed. The next one, Hotel Villa del Mar was $48, tired, we decided to stay here. After checking in we went out for a bite but the 24hr place across the street was out of food so we asked where to go and were directed to a street bar where they sold burgers. Very good burger and location all for $1. Back to the hotel.
MAY 17 Guanabo
One thing is what we plan and another what can be done. The room price included breakfast, however the restaurant opened at 7:30 and since do not eat another real meal until the evening, fruits, eggs, bread, coffee etc sounded good. We were in front of the restaurant at 7:30 and loading our buffet plates with stuff. After a quick fuel zone we were ready for checkout. Bags in hand we went to the front desk, the only person "working" could not locate the bellboy so we could not get our bicycles out of the locked storage. Finally after waiting for 20min I convinced her to open the storage door for us. We left about 45min later than expected. Now to find the water we could not buy last night. Places were closed and most did not open for another 30min. We just pedaled towards our destination on the road and soon found some open spots.
The road was nice and flat, reminiscent of south Florida (at least to me) the kms were easy, we arrived by noon to Matanzas. Entering town a local recreational road cyclist, the first we've meet here, started a conversation and rode next to us for some blocks. We stopped for water and had a chance to exchange cycling info. Joselo De Leon had been a champion at the Pan American games, He had raced against Latin American Cyclists I had heard of in the 60's and 70's and also just 3 months ago in the master category in a local race; his jersey was the original yellow jersey from one of the many Colombian bicycle races, it was given to him by one of his Colombian professional rider friends. He showed us the way out of town; we wished each other good luck. The wife's plan was to ride to Playa Jibacoa but when we got there we did not find anything good. $30 for a room at Campismo Los Cocos we thought was too much but the location was nice. There was another Campismo but that one was open only for Cubans, no tourist allowed there. This is a common practice all over the island, segregated tourism. We decided to continue 30 more kms. Sometimes finding water in this weather was the most challenging thing, we were riding almost out of it. Eventually we found a road restaurant with food and drinks. The last 30kms the landscape was lined with oil rigs exploring the arid hills.
Got to town at 4:00 but finding a Casa took a long time. At 5:00 we were finally taking a shower (Alberto y Meisa, Calle 500 #5D 08, e/ 5ta. D y 7ma. Guanabo.) After washing clothes we went out to get food. Most stores and supermarkets were closed but we found a place for pasta and pizza, once again back to the Casa. Tomorrow is our last day for riding. We were practically in La Habana.
MAY 18 Havana
Late start. A 9:00 breakfast and a chat with the Casa owner made for a warm start. Weather was not as hot as other days had been at the same hour; today there was a slight breeze. Instead of using the hwy we rode through Guanabo streets and then the next town. Finally when the only apparent way was to use the hwy a bike path came to the rescue. The path followed the hwy for many kms but it was far enough from it to make for pleasant riding.
At Casablanca we rode down to the bay to take the ferry. It was 12:30. The boat had just left so we went to eat a snack at a small store then we came back to the ticket office. While checking my bags the guard asked me if I had any knifes or weapons. I had a pocket tool with a small blade. Usually I would have said I did not have any knifes, after all it is not a weapon but I was tired and ready to go to take a shower just across the bay but a "yes a very small knife" came out of my mouth. "Uh, oh you need to leave it here." I did not think so, my nice Leatherman tool I was not going to give away. We could not board the ferry. Apparently people hijack the ferries and used them to migrate to the US.
Climbing back up from the ferry was not as bad as I thought. We were supposed to take the "Cyclobus" to cross the bay. Easier said than done. Could not find the Cyclobus stop easily so we asked a parked taxi the way to the city, we were riding our bikes of course. He directed us towards the main road. After 2 kms we were stopped by an unfriendly police that informed us we could not ride the bicycles in the tunnel. Back to look for the dammed Cyclobus. After several stops to ask we found it. It was not working today! Great, now we would need to find an alternate route. Lots of book map consulting and asking. Our guidebooks did not contain maps of the areas we needed. A tourist who does not speak fluent Spanish would be in trouble here. We would ride for 5-10 blocks at a time and then ask for directions, I finally figured out the route and it really was somewhat simple to navigate (after getting instructions of course). We finally arrived at our pre-paid hotel, The Plaza at 2:00pm.
Shower and clothes washing and we were out to explore. A pleasant afternoon in Havana, lots of beer and some food. Alex, the Spaniard we had met in Viñales saw us while having beers and joined us for a while. When he left we walked more in the nice part of the old city, then went to have dinner and yet more beer.
Back at the hotel we got the bike suitcases we had left here some 2 weeks before and I packed the bicycles. One more stroll, this time at night, more beer and a goodnight.
MAY 19 Isla Mujeres
After the breakfast buffet we went out to check the place where they sell cheap paintings, the wife had seen something the day before that she didn't buy and now wanted. The market was getting set up and we had just enough time to spare before going to the airport. No luck we couldn't find the same vendor.
Our airport shuttle was 30 min late but at least this time the flight left on time; one hour later we were in Cancun, Mexico. I like Mexico, most people are nice to tourist plus by being Latin American we get decent deals on most stuff. On the other hand Cuba had been a different experience, some people were extremely kind and nice to us, while others very nasty. I think Cuba is a nation in transition that eventually will need more change if it wants to be competitive as a tourist destination. We wanted to see it before the end of the Castro regime but I think we were almost too late. The country has seen huge changes in the last 5 years, most people are having a very hard time adjusting to the new dual economy and segregation policies. A doctor makes less than $15/month yet the prices of most goods are at a level comparable with the US. Also Cubans are not allowed to enter most tourist hotels and tourists are not allowed in Cuban-only hotels. This economy/segregation IMHO creates a very dissatisfied nation, ready for yet a new change. People are very careful what they say to tourist but I think by us being Latin American they felt they could open up a little more with us. Extreme dissatisfaction was the common theme; at least with most people we spoke. I did not feel that they wanted to leave their country but instead want to have more freedom and opportunity in their own land.
Back to Mexico. At the airport we bought the $35 pesos/person bus ticket to downtown Cancun. Then walked with our bicycle suitcases a couple of blocks from the bus terminal and flagged a cab ($30 pesos) to the Puerto Juarez Ferry Terminal where we bought our $35/person one-way ticket to Isla Mujeres. 15 minutes later we were at the island. Back at the airport we had picked up a tourist booklet with a map and some information on the island. We also had some general hotel information so we walked the small town with our suitcases (they have wheels) and found the Roca Mar hotel. A little run-down place but with rooms a few yards from the breaking sea. The owner Vincent came out and offered us a room for $30/night. No AC and a little dirty at first but with a view you could spend days looking at. Sea breeze and breaking waves rocked us to sleep at night. Went out for food and more beer. Came back and crashed.
MAY 20-21 usla Mujeres-Home
Beach bumming, rented a moped and went around the island. Explored the beaches and concluded the best ones where at the northern end near where we were staying, Beer and food and sleep.
Next morning flew back home.
Would I go back to Cuba as a tourist? Probably not. I would not recommend it as a destination. In my opinion you get more for your money in other Latin American/Caribbean locations and also in Asia. Same for the beaches. However if you are interested in the people and their history, that cannot be duplicated or purchased anywhere. We wanted to see Cuba before the end of the Fidel era. That was the only reason we chose Cuba as our destination this time."
(First posted August- 4-2009 at 10:27 am)