We visited Cuba for a cycle tour in February/March 2017. This is one section of a series of diary entries I made during our trip. I will also be publishing a section on this site with further information on our trip, including a gear list, route plan and general Cuba information and opinions.
Thursday February 23rd 2017 – Stay in Nicaro – Visit Cayo Saetia
I wake up excited at 5.30am and force myself to stay in bed until six. Today we have a day off the bikes to visit Cayo Saetia. This island was once the holiday resort of Fidel Castro and a private game reserve for government party officials and is accessed by a draw bridge. It is now a tourist destination with beautiful beaches and a variety of exotic animals still roaming freely.
I apply lashings of sunscreen and choose a top that will cover the odd burnt patch of skin from the previous day before opening the door…to rain!
Undeterred we clamber into the ancient, small yellow (Lada style) taxi with our driver Michael. Tatico, the Casa chef has insisted that food is too expensive at Caya Saetia and packed us a huge lunch.
Omar and his wife Xeomara are the couple from next door, who have arranged the taxi. Omar jumps in too as he is heading to another town down the road. In Cuba everyone shares vehicles. During the 1990’s Cuba went through the Special Period; a time of huge economic depression. In that time many people travelled by bicycle as the transportation system collapsed. It became a legal requirement for those travelling in a motor vehicle to give others a lift, if they had spaces.
Michael stops to refuel, leaving the engine running. I am guessing the engine may be difficult to restart, judging by the number of coins which are being used in place of fuses. Omar spots his friend Pepe in another car. Hailing Pepe he jumps out and hops into his vehicle to continue his journey.
A Stupid Mistake…
It is a 24km drive to Cayo Saetia and the road is very bad, a wide rocky track would be a better description. As we arrive at the draw bridge we are asked for our passports. They are locked in our room at the Casa. Michael looks disappointed in us. We are disappointed in ourselves. As we resign ourselves to being taken back to sit in our room and think about what we have done, Michael hails one of the local fishermen whose houses line the track.
Negotiations are entered and completed before we are told the plan. The fisherman will row Jamie and Michael across the bay, back to Nicaro, much quicker than going by road. I am to wait on the shore with another fisherman.
…Turns Into A Mini Adventure
The next hour and a half turn a bad experience into an adventure as my new friend decides to educate me about his life. He shows me hermit crabs and explains how they scoop them out of their temporary homes and use them fishing bait. We gather nuts from under a tree and break their shells open with stones, revealing something akin to an almond; these are shared between us. He points to another tree, “Mango?” I ask. “No, maracas!” He laughs. A third tree is guava but although he climbs it to gain the fruit it is unripe and bitter so we discard it.
My new friend, Santiago, asks if I like bananas and says we will go to his home to fetch some. Of course there is some hesitation in my mind but I feel it would be rude not to trust him. The homes along the track are all just one to three rooms in size. They are generally wooden, with palm leaf roofs. There is electricity but living is clearly basic. A shout at one house brings an older lady to her doorway holding a small bucket. Santiago grabs a piece of coconut ice for me and him and we carry on down the track. This coconut ice is not bright pink and white like the stuff you get in seaside towns in England. It is literally pounded coconut mixed with sugar; delicious!
Santiago’s home is one room; a bed on one side and cooking equipment on the other. Clean and neat; he has few possessions and takes care of what he has. In his garden is a wooden work table with spiny lobster legs scattered across it. This is where he prepares his days catch for sale.
The Sea Farers Return
We head back to the sea to watch for the return of the little boat and Santiago tells me about the animals on Cayo Saetia. He jokes that there are lions but is serious when he tells me about the ‘tree rats’, I am puzzled by these.
All of this conversation takes place in stilted English and Spanish we guess at words and translations and occasionally give up. Once or twice we use sticks to write words in the dirt.
Finally the little boat appears in the distance, holey sail unfurled in the breeze. Jamie has had his own ‘Three Men In A Boat’ adventure.
Back to the drawbridge, this time we gain admittance to the island and Michael drives us to the beach. The rain clouds seem to miraculously disappear and blue skies light white sands. The sea is the colour dreams are made of and best of all only one other couple are there! The morning rain has put off the tourist catamarans which usually arrive from Guardalavaca.
You have to pay to use the beach but the welcome rum and coke softens the blow, as does popping on goggles and heading into the water for some fish watching.
A pelican joins us on the sea. He has spotted a shoal of fish and puts on a wonderful display, taking off, circling and then dive bombing into the water again and again as he feasts. We swim among the shoal; thousands of mullet in a confused silvery mass.
An hours jeep Safari is cheap and it seems a good way to top off the day. Yes, I have seen all the animals before but this is different. The open jeep ride alone is thrilling, our driver is not afraid of the terrain and throws the vehicle around well. He is also not afraid of chatting up the visitors. Asking if Jamie and I are related, he is visibly disappointed when I tell him Jamie is my partner.
All around us antelope, gazelles and other deer burst out, skitting and bounding. We see zebra, and buffalo and pull over to stroke the head of the friendly ostrich. These animals all roam completely freely on the island along with a herd of the healthiest looking horses I have seen since we got to Cuba.
As Michael drives us home I am sleepy and satisfied. I clutch an origami flower made from banana leaf, given to me by the guard as we left the island, rest my head on Jamie’s shoulder and smile.
Friday February 24th 2017 – To Moa (51.4miles/82.7km)
This morning the sun is shining again. We pack our bags and eat another of Tatico’s huge breakfasts before getting back on the bikes. Before we leave we also swap contact details with Paul and Lone, a Danish couple who arrived in the Casa last night. Paul and Lone are travelling Cuba by bus. They love the country and are a fun couple to chat to. They extend an invitation for us to stay with them in Aarhus if we visit Denmark again.
Today we are heading to Moa. The guide book suggests we stay there as a means to an end. We are booked into a state run hotel there as there is little other accommodation. Moa is not a tourist destination, it is a heavily industrial town, surrounded by nickel smelters. Much of the land and sea surrounding the town is heavily contaminated from the contaminants produced from nickel mining.
We are not thinking too much about the destination, as we head through more stunning Cuban countryside.
Back On The Road
The guide book also tells us that the route is pretty much all hills. If you aren’t going up you are coming down! The only flat part of the day is for a few miles around the town of Sagua de Tanamo. Sagua itself is a lively surprise in a day of sleepy villages. We suddenly find ourselves pedalling through a busy main street. Hundreds of people throng the streets in the middle of their working day. We wind our way through the traffic and pop back out into peace.
Occasionally I hear Jamie pipe up behind me “Car back”. An important shout when out cycling with a group on busy roads but not really necessary here in Cuba. The thought crosses my mind that you can take the boy out of the peloton but you can’t take the peloton out of the boy!
We pass three men repairing a classic car in a river. I have no idea why it needs to be in the river to be fixed but they seem happy and wave to us.
The bananas Tatico has packed us for the journey come in handy as the hills begin to take their toll but we both climb well, despite the weight on the back of our bikes.
Amazingly Jamie’s front tyre holds out almost all day and we roll into Moa, accompanied by a Cuban road cyclist on his vintage Bianchi, in surprisingly good time. The hills have been tough but the scenery is so wonderful that the distance just seems to have flown past.
We Make It To Moa
Our hotel has seen better days. The swimming pool is a pile of rubble and I have to find the fuse box to get the air con working but it is fine. It’s clearly mainly used by workers from the nickel industry. At dinner we go to the hotel restaurant and I explain my usual “Soy vegetariana” (“I am a vegetarian”). “No”, the waitress replies. I’m glad that she didn’t sugar coat it! In the end I manage to order egg, chips, bread and mayonnaise; just what I need after a hard ride.
It would be easy to dismiss Moa at first sight. Run down blocks of flats surround the hotel and a stroll into the centre reveals a dilapidated fairground with one child going round and round on a faded carousel. But, once in the centre, we find a small market; the stalls display an interesting array of household items and parts. Although many bike bits are evident there are no inner tubes, so we buy strong tape at a highly inflated price.
As we stroll and chat with market vendors we both decide we like Moa. Well educated locals are eager to chat and practice their English. I guess that the schools are good here, perhaps due to the nickel industries presence. We are told that the English is wasted as there are no tourists here, Moa is certainly not listed in our Rough Guide book!
Sometimes where there is no beauty there is still charm.
In Nicaro we stayed and ate at: Casa Buenavista, Nicaro (booked through Air BnB). A lovely place to stay. All food is extra.
In Moa we stayed and ate at: Hotel Islazul Miraflores. Basic and a little run down but ok and little other choice.