We visited Cuba for a cycle tour in February/March 2017. In this diary entry we leave the alternative reality of the all-inclusive resort and cycle to Niquero for two nights and then Manzanilo.
Tuesday 7th March – To Niquero (35miles/56.3km)
Last night we received an email from Richard, the Canadian cyclist we met in Chivirico. We are all heading to the town of Niquero tonight and hope to meet up once more.
Today’s is a short ride but we know not to underestimate the difficulty due to poor roads and hearty climbs. We do decide to start a little later though, not hitting the road until 8.15am.
We set out alongside mangrove swamps, the sea rolling into them in the distance. My legs feel slightly leaden today and Jamie asks if I am ok as he finds me quiet. I wonder if yesterday’s short run has taken more out of me than I realised.
We soon hit the one big climb of the day. The guidebook mentions a steady 3km climb followed by a fast 1km descent but we are going in the reverse direction from the guidebook!
As we climb the road just keeps on ramping up. Sweat runs down my arms and off my fingertips on the drop of the handlebar. A voice in my head starts to say ‘I can’t make it to the top. I am going to have to stop.’ But I replace it with the mantra ‘I can and I will, I can and I will.’ My legs keep turning but Jamie is obviously stronger than me and I feel disheartened.
A long swooping descent dashes us through many villages. The houses are basic, often wooden huts with palm leaf roofs, but the schools always look in very smart condition.
Although the road is paved it is incredibly bumpy and one pot hole produces a crashing sound from Jamie’s bike. We both watch his tyre anxiously for the next kilometre but it holds. The bumpy roads also bring to a head the reason I have been feeling weak as I hastily hand my bike to Jamie and head into a sugar cane field for an emergency visit. Something at the hotel has not agreed with me and I am glad we only have 15km left to ride.
Arriving In Niquero
The wind is at our back for the final section and we glide into Niquero around 11.30am, just in time to see Richard emerging from the Hotel Niquero. Rooms here cost little more than a Casa and breakfast is included. We join Richard in taking up residence and the three of us head out in search of beer and lunch.
An afternoon wander brings Jamie and I to the conclusion that we like Niquero; especially as we find a guarapa stall and street pizza. It is a medium sized town with some stunning old wooden, colonial buildings.
In the evening we meet with Richard once more and head to a paladar we have seen around the corner from the hotel. Paladar’s are small restaurants, often set in someone’s house, serving traditional Criollo food. They are usually very cheap and deal in the local, rather than tourist, currency, We are greeted by a charming young man who had spent some time living in Norway and spoke good English. He explained the set menu of fried chicken or pork steak with sides of rice, salad and fried plantain chips. He offered me the alternative of a omelette with sides. It took some time to arrive but that is because we were the only customers at the time and everything is cooked from scratch. When the food did come it was hearty and delicious, not to mention reasonably priced. We all went to bed well fed and satisfied.
Wednesday 8th March – Stay in Niquero, visit National Park. (38miles/62km)
Richard is heading on to Manzanillo this morning (our destination for tomorrow) so we say our farewells. He has been an interesting and entertaining travel companion and we are sure we will stay in touch.
We choose to spend our day off the bikes by getting on the bikes and riding out to Desembarco del Granma National Park. Today we are unencumbered by our panniers and the ride out feels so much easier. I find the bike feels as wobbly without panniers now as it did with them when we first put them on!
This area of the country seems to have the same easy friendliness we experienced at the beginning of our trip. I would say that Cuba is an inquisitive country. People watch what you are doing intently, in a way that we wouldn’t in Britain. The looks and stares are usually perfectly friendly however and as soon as you offer a greeting it is returned.
It’s All About The Bike
There is always concern from the Cubans about keeping our bikes safe. As soon as we stop we are told the safest place to put them and advised that we must be wary. However, I feel the bikes are far safer here than if we left them for ten minutes in the UK. So many Cubans travel by bike that there is a natural curiosity about our steeds. This curiosity is returned by ourselves and we both admire the various makes and models along the journey; growing especially excited if we spot a Raleigh. In Niquero we both comment on the BTwin racer with Bianchi forks being proudly ridden by one young man.
As we head into the national park I notice lots of people heading to one destination leading horses. There is clearly going to be a horse market today and some very fine looking animals are heading for sale.
If You Go Down To The Woods Today
At the edge of the National Park we are greeted by a female park ranger who explains a little about the park to us. She also wishes me ‘Happy International Women’s Day’. Until Richard mentioned this to me this morning I had no idea this was happening but it is a lovely greeting, repeated by a lady in a shop later that afternoon. I don’t think anyone in England would have greeted me in this way and find it very heartening.
A guide takes us through the woods to an site aboriginal dwelling site from the 1500’s. Our guide speaks no English and we only a little Spanish but we still understand much of his enthusiastic explanation. He is passionate about his subject and skilled at pointing out the flora and fauna of the forest. I feel it has been worth the ride out and, to be honest, it is good to hear about a part Cuban history which isn’t related to the revolution.
Our guide also demonstrates one of our favourite Cuban quirks so far; something we have titled the Belly Cooler. Cuba is a hot country and, in an attempt to cool off, some of the men like to pull their t-shirts up, tucking them under their arms, exposing their bellies to the air. The Belly Cooler is one of our favourite Cuban observations.
After our walk we head on to the small fishing village of Cabo Cruz, at the Western extremity of the Granma province, before retracing our tracks back to Niquero.
An Evening In Niquero
The centre of Niquero is easily identified by the chimney of a large sugar factory which clearly provides much employment in the town. An old steam train is on display in one square. Modern trains now bring the sugar cane in and transport its processed goods back out. The factory is large but doesn’t dominate the town, despite emitting loud noises at various times throughout the evening and night.
We’re not sure if this factory is the reason behind the apparent prosperity of the area. Large houses are being built in the town and surrounding villages. There is an air of wealth and pet dogs and cats are more apparent here than any other place on our trip.
The evening brings more street pizza and the chance to sit at the outside bar of our hotel, drinking cold, cheap beer from plastic cups.
Thursday 9th March – To Manzanillo (45.2miles/72.7km)
An email from Richard the previous night has bought us good news; he has enjoyed his Casa in Manzanillo but it is full tonight so his host has booked us into another. It’s like having our own travel agent on the road just ahead of us! Richard has also sent excellent directions so we set off confidently without having to ask ’Is this the way to Manzanillo?’ (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).
We are now heading north/northeast and feel the change in wind direction. It is dead against us or a vicious crosswind all day today. For the first time we need to draft each other, taking it in turns to be at the front and allowing the other one to take a rest.
To our right the shadowy outline of the Sierra Maestra mountain range looms in the distance. To our left we catch glimpses of the sea. Tonight will be our last night on the coast and the realisation that the end of our trip is coming starts to hit home.
The Road To Manzanillo
This part of Cuba is very much sugar cane territory. Fields upon fields of it are being harvested and re-sown. Machinery is scarce and the fields which have been harvested are being ploughed by pairs of oxen. Much like the UK, the larger pieces of machinery travel from area to area to help with the harvest. We overtake a vast convoy of sugar cane combines making their steady way to their next job.
The wind, combined with another terrible road surface starts to drain us but luckily there are a few lively towns along the route and we are able to refuel. We try the refresco gaseado for the first time and find it is a cheap soda pop which, like the guarapa, costs only a few pence per cup.
Again, we encounter plenty of drunken, older men along the route. They do not bother us and although it is sad to see, this is evident in every society around the world.
An Afternoon In Manzanillo
The great thing about leaving early in the morning is the opportunity to explore towns, even when only staying for one night. We arrive at our, very pleasant, Casa in the middle of the day and head out to look around Manzanillo. It doesn’t take long for us to decide we like it here also. A sleepy square is surrounded by interesting buildings and we hit gold with a delicious (if limited for me) paladar for lunch.
Being a vegetarian in Cuba means a very narrow menu; rice with beans or vegetables, egg, cheese, mixed salad (often not mixed) and fried plantain is the general limit. It is filling but very uninteresting. Aside from Baracoa, where I ate extremely well, my diet has been boring.
Jamie stows a fair amount of his fried chicken in my bag ready to treat a street dog. This means we now spend an hour exploring Manzanillo whilst looking for the most deserving (for deserving read starving) dog in town. I’m nervous as a few of the non-chosen ones get a whiff of the chicken in my bag and tag along. Finally a suitably poorly looking creature appears and is treated to his best mea in a long while. His stringy tail wagging feebly as he eats. Two local men watch our odd antics and thank us as we walk away.
On the route today we have mainly been passed by Ladas, driven at speeds I didn’t imagine a Lada could reach. In Manzanillo the beautiful old American cars reappear and make their slow, majestic way around thee town.
Our Casa has a rooftop terrace, perfect for sunset pictures across the town and here I encounter another British cycle tourer! Rosalind is doing a similar route to us before heading to Havana to meet with her twin sister and continue cycling there. We are blessed, once again, to meet a fascinating person to spend the evening with. Jamie brings out our rum and coke and we are soon getting on like a house on fire. At seventy-four years old (I hope you don’t mind me revealing that!) Rosalind has spent much of her life travelling the world, working as a cook on yachts, for consulates and for families. Her stories about travel put all of mine to shame but also give me something to aspire to. I want to be the person that other people meet and are inspired by!
An Interesting Meal
Rumours of a vegetarian restaurant in Manzanillo prove unfounded (it is just a restaurant with no food) and the three of us are reluctantly admitted to an Italian which is clearly only used by Cubans. I am not a big risotto fan but the promise of Risotto Parmegianna is too much for any of us to resist. What is delivered to the table gives me a whole new appreciation for risotto; a small pile of plain rice with a minuscule amount of what looks like Dairylea on top.
Rosalind wins because she finds a piece of something green in her rice which means she got vegetables. We have all forgotten the unwritten rule of eating out here; lower your expectations because when something good is served you will be very happy. I must add, the total bill, with soft drinks came to 27.25 pesos – just over £1 for all of us. We leave with half empty bellies and a good anecdote.
We stayed in Niquero: Hotel Niquero – a clean and comfortable state run hotel
We stayed in Manzanillo: Casa de Jose, No. 1 Marchen- A very lovely new Casa with a wonderful rooftop terrace
We ate in Niquero: La Mina Paladar – wonderful food at good prices.
We ate in Manzanillo – At lunchtime; Rancho Luna Paladar. Good hearty food