We visited Cuba for a cycle tour in February/March 2017. In this diary entry we cycle to Chivirico and then on to a slightly different experience.
Saturday 4th March – Santiago de Cuba to Chivirico (47.2miles/76km)
We know today will be a shorter ride than we have been doing but leave early anyway; avoiding the heat of the day. Last nights average pizza is taking its revenge and I feel a little out of sorts but this improves throughout the day.
For the first few kilometres we are in an industrial area but this gives way to countryside once more. Before long we hit a tough climb which gets us dripping with sweat whilst grinding our granny gears. I’m convinced that this will set the tone for the rest of the day but I am wrong! A cross wind on the fantastic, fast descent threatens to blast our pannier laden bikes to one side. Then the road flattens! The wind is at our backs and the sea is at our sides. We whizz along, devouring the kilometres.
At a road side kiosk we stop for drinks and I guzzle a malt drink. The fizzy malt drinks are surprisingly tasty, mainly due to their high sugar content. Made by the Bucaneer beer company, they are basically unfermented malt and sugar; another great energy boost. Jamie chooses the fermented variety as we are going so well.
Sian and Em have recommended we stay at the Motel Guama tonight. The motel is a few kilometres before Chivirico and sits atop a sharp peak, with views over the mangroves and the ocean. The sharp peak really is sharp and we both have to put our all into keeping the bikes moving upwards. At the top we find there is no room at the inn and are directed to a Casa a little further along, on the other side of Chivirico.
Chivirico does not look a particularly appealing town. There are two all inclusive hotels here and the beaches are pretty but apart from that there is no real attraction. Our Casa however is in a good position at Playa Cupet. A new house with good, quiet air con.
Also staying at the house is Richard, a Canadian cyclist who has just started his tour from Santiago. Richard is turfed out of his larger room to make way for us and we buy him a beer in compensation. He is an extremely interesting and well travelled person and we spend a pleasant evening chatting about everything from maps and mapping to government planning policies and renewable energy. We realise we will be travelling along the same route for the next few days and hope to meet again.
Although the Casa is pleasant there is an unpleasant edge to it. An older Western guy is staying there with a very young Cuban lady. Something I have seen in cities around the world, it always seems seedy. We also get stung the next morning for more money for food which we had believed was included in the price of the room. It is our fault that we have not learnt the language well but this time I feel our landlady is being disingenuous as Richard, who speaks good Spanish, is also surprised at the extra costs.
Sunday 5th March 2017 – To Marea del Portillo (61.5miles/99km)
We are glad to get away from the Casa and decide not to take the landladies recommendation that we stay with her friend in our next town.
The slightly bitter taste from the Casa is soon forgotten as we enter a fantastic battle of a ride to Marea del Portillo.
We had considered the option of a shorter day, ending at La Mula campsite, which would only have been around 45kms. Along the way however we have heard from many other cyclists that La Mula is no better than the campismo at Yacabo Abajo, so we decide to make a long day of it and push on to Marea. At Marea we know there are a few hotels and we’re considering booking ourselves a couple of nights in more up-market accommodation.
It is Sunday and this route is the quietest and most remote yet. Villages are widely spread out along this area of coast and there are no shops or roadside stalls along the 99km route. We only see a car around every 20-30 minutes and far less people than we have been seeing.
As we leave Chivirico and head up the first leg buster of the day the early morning sun glitters across the ocean. Sun on water is one of the most relaxing sights ever.
The lack of traffic gives livestock an easier right to roam. Where in other parts of the country animals are tethered here pigs, goats, horses, donkeys and cows wander freely along the verges, scoffing up the meagre vegetation. Large iguanas also scurry from their sunbathing spots as we pass, some half a metre long.
The vultures, which we had been fascinated to see when we first arrived in Cuba, seem to be the most common animal country wide. Along here their main diet is crab meat. Thousands of large crabs attempt to cross this road each day and, despite the scarcity of vehicles, many of them don’t make it. Their dinner plate sized remains are quickly cleared away by the waiting birds.
Most of the animals stay off the road but herds of goat are always a worry. They are the pheasants of the Cuban road; waiting until you are hurtling towards them before deciding to cross and then stopping in a frightened stare as you get closer frantically ringing your bike bell. We fear we may have to put one goat out of his misery as he writhes on the road in front of us before discovering he is just enjoying the warm tarmac!
Really I think they know there’s very little danger. Cubans respect the livestock because it all belongs to someone. It’s natural for them to try to avoid it. The only animals we’ve seen dead on the road have been two sad little dogs. Richard told us of an incident he witnessed where five chickens had been hit by a truck. One driver tried to take a carcass, only to be remonstrated with by another driver; these were not his chickens to take, dead or alive, and must be left for the rightful owner.
Road, What Road?
Up until El Mula the ride seems easy again. I start to think that almost 100 km will be a cinch but I am soon to be proved wrong. Some German cyclists had warned us the road was very bad but we had not taken on board how bad. Much of the surface was similar to that between Moa and Baracoa – non-existent! Here the foothills of the Sierra Maestra range, which has gloriously surrounded us for days, come right down to the sea. The road builders have had to choose between crossing the hills or laying their Tarmac inches from the waves. They went for a combination, so gruelling climbs gave way to stunning descents, always stopped short at the bottom by the road descending into a chaos of gravel and holes. You certainly have to keep your wits about you!
We round one bend to find the road is nothing more than stones and rocks. Here it has been laid right by the sea and the sea has duly reclaimed the land. Waves crash onto the ‘road’ and this is the only time we get off to push. As with every day the rewards far outweigh the penalties. My shoulders and hands ache from the constant juddering, my legs scream and my back disagrees with the strain of hauling weight up the climbs. I am aware that most people would think this anything but a holiday – we are in our element.
At the top of one climb we munch on peanut brittle bars purchased in Santiago. On another we grab an energy gel. I find I need far less nutrition when on the road in the heat than I do in the cold. We both guzzle a couple of litres of water each.
A Little Cuban History
The foothills in which we are riding are hugely important in modern Cuban history. It is along this coast that the ship, the Granma, landed in November 1956, bringing Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 other revolutionaries ashore. Their landing was disastrous and only a handful of men survived to flee into the foothills. There they hid out, strengthening their ranks for the many battles which would finally see Castro and his revolutionary army overthrow President Fulgencio Batista.
Throughout Cuba there are signs and roadside tributes to Castro, Che and the other revolutionaries but here they are more prominent. A commonly seen sign is ‘Yo Soy Fidel’ – ‘I Am Fidel’. The strength of feeling is that of we are all one country and one entity. I regret that my inability to speak Spanish means I can’t find out if this is the real feeling countrywide or just the accepted line to take.
One other couple mentioned that we would see many drunken people along this coast line. We are both surprised by just how drunk one Cuban guy is as he staggers, dangerously close to the sea, clutching his almost empty bottle of locally brew rum. It’s 11am and he’s clearly had a good morning on the drink as he weaves and sings his way along.
Arriving at Marea Del Portillo
I’ve tried to get out of the habit of looking at the GPS too often and just enjoy the ride. We hit the road at 7am today and the first time I glance at it I find it’s 11am and we have covered 56km. I had thought it was around 1pm and we had covered 70km! Despite this the final 40km go to by faster than expected and we roll into Marea Del Portillo around 1.30pm.
We head to one of the large hotels and discover that, as it’s all inclusive, it’s not an extortionate amount of money per night. In no time our bikes are stored and we are down by the pool, indulging at the swim up bar.
Our evening is spent puzzling at our bizarre new, all inclusive, world.
Monday 6th March 2017 – Stay Marea del Portilla
Having skipped a night at La Mula we have a free day. I decide to go for a horse ride, as advertised in the hotel lobby. The poster says to ask for Elena; I did so, repeatedly, the night before, always being told she would back later then, eventually, tomorrow.
Told she would be in from 7.30am, I duly trot down, to be told she will be in a little later. Two hours later I’m told she’s not coming and we have to go down the road to the sister hotel to book. We do. I am booked for 3pm and really quite excited. Horse riding is my biggest passion in life and I miss being around horses. 3pm comes; no horses, no guide. Eventually we traipse back to reception to be told the guides mother has been taken sick. I am not convinced but there is nothing we can do. Horse riding will have to be left undone.
To make up for it I take a hot and sweaty run along the beach. Other holiday makers openly gape at this level of activity – very few people here do anything all day.
I’m Not Sure I’m An All Inclusive Gal
The hotel routine for most seems to be; breakfast, post-breakfast drinks, post breakfast breakfast, pre lunch drinks, lunch, post lunch drinks, afternoon snack, pre-dinner drinks, dinner, drinks. The wily, experienced guests clutch their own, super-sized drinking vessels, the better to get a larger drink from the free bar. They also bring their own condiments to meals – although they have a point here, the food was pretty awful!
A holiday like this is perfect for some people and I can see why, particularly if you have young children. It was clear that the guests were not getting to see the real Cuba but a bland, sanitized version. Of course if we all liked the same kind of holiday then the world would be no fun. If every single person wanted to cycle around Cuba Jamie and I wouldn’t get the experience we have had.
We are both going stir crazy within hours and are desperate to get back to our own normality; on the bikes. Luckily a few cocktails blot out the cabaret performance outside our window.
We stayed in Chivirico at: Casa Exonia
We stayed in Marea Del Portillo at: Hotel Club Amigo
Never Miss An Adventure!