We visited Cuba for a cycle tour in February/March 2017. In this diary entry we cycle to Santiago de Cuba, where we stay for two nights. 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 2nd March – To Santiago de Cuba (51.7miles/83.3km)
I hope that Jamie will be feeling better this morning. I start to suspect he still isn’t 100% when he flings open the bathroom door and weakly announces “It’s not good”. Sadly for Jamie this does not bring forth the gushing sympathy he hopes for. Once I stop laughing at his rather dramatic declaration I make sure he is topped up with rehydration salts before we hit the road.
Today we are heading for Santiago de Cuba, where we will be staying for two nights. We find the first half of todays ride plain sailing. Heading out of Guantanamo on a huge four lane autopista, with barely a vehicle on it, we meet two cyclists coming the other way. They are from France and Australia and we are first tourers they have seen in two weeks.
This couple are on a world cycling tour and marvel at the fact we have managed to get our Garmin’s into Cuba. This is the first time I remember that you are not allowed to bring GPS devices into the country! I had been told but forgot, so we didn’t declare them on our customs forms when entering the country. I am glad we forgot now. This couple tell us they did declare theirs and promptly had it confiscated. They will have to pay 75 CUC (£60) to get it back when they leave Cuba and it is quicker to get them renewed in small towns.
We also encounter a Cuban peloton who give us lots of smiles and waves as they pass from the other direction.
Guarapo = Cycling Fuel!
We reach the lively town of La Maya and get our, long awaited, first taste of guarapo. Guarapo is a lurid green drink of freshly pressed sugar cane juice. The sugar cane is passed through a press in small roadside stalls, mixed with ice and served fresh. Delicious and just what we need. It costs the equivalent of a few pence per glass. I am glad I didn’t read the health warnings in its Wikipedia entry before drinking though!
As we drink the French couple pull up alongside us and we swap a few tales of Guantanamo. None of us were very impressed. They are heading to Songo to get their visas renewed. They are travelling Cuba for 12 weeks. Cuban tourist visas only run for one month at a time.
As we approach a short tunnel a sign tells us bicycles are not allowed through. We greatly amuse the locals by trying to find an alternative route before one of them takes pity and leads us through on his bike. The sign is clearly not to be adhered to. This is no ordinary tunnel…it is a tunnel of love…halfway through two farmers have bought their goats together to mate. Perhaps the goats like the shady seclusion.
The views today, across the foothills of the Sierra de la Gran Piedra, are different again. We feel as if we are looking out across the set of Jurassic Park.
Arriving in Santiago de Cuba
I am tetchy today, the heat and hours in the saddle are getting to me. We all have bad days and sometimes you just have to accept it for what it is. It doesn’t stop me enjoying the ride but maybe makes Jamie’s day a little tougher! We are both also suffering from stomach cramps but luckily mine come to nothing.
The last part of the ride is back on the autopista and it is a lot busier into Santiago. As we join it we also join our French companions once more and we all ride in together. We are all as confused as each other about where we are going! Finally we reach the centre of Santiago de Cuba and separate to find casa’s. Despite cycling together on and off for three days we have never asked each other’s names or any other details. Santiago is a big city and we do not see the couple again.
Santiago de Cuba is extremely lively. Lots of hawkers, known as jineteros, try to direct us to a casa, offer to exchange money or try to direct us to a taxi. Jineteros are found throughout Cuba and well known for selling other things also.
We dodge much of their attention by telling them we have already booked a casa. In fact we had been thinking of ourselves to a couple of nights in the Casa Granda Hotel. When we pull upon our bikes the security guard looks down his nose at us and tells us we can’t stand there. I explain we were looking for a room and he grudgingly allows me to cross the threshold. I take a couple of steps and turn around. If this is the attitude here, it’s not the right place for us to stay.
Exploring the City
That afternoon we explore Santiago de Cuba and really love it. We roam the streets, stopping at a couple of bars. Santiago is a great place to people watch. We browse the colourful shops and stop outside the famous Casa de la Trova to watch musicians playing to the crowd.
A longer walk sees us head down to Santiago bay before heading back up to town for street pizza; four slices cost around 40p. The plan is to now pop back to our casa for a nap before going out for the evening. En route we accidentally slip into Rumba cocktail bar and consume some rather potent drinks. Jamie is already drained form his stomach upset and this finishes him off. He sleeps for twelve hours. I drink rum and coke and read.
Friday 3rd March – A Day in Santiago de Cuba
A day of sightseeing in Santiago is probably just what Jamie needs to complete his recovery. Having stayed up late reading and sipping rum the night before, I don’t wait until 7am.
We have a filling breakfast before heading out to see the sights of the city. Santiago is far more packed with tourists than any of the other towns and cities we have visited. I had been warned that the air pollution is fairly high (in comparison to other places in Cuba) and that is certainly the case. The city is surrounded by the Sierra Maestra mountain range which holds the pollution in like a bowl. By the end of a day walking around my feet are blackened. It is not a dirty town though, the streets have very little litter and the buildings are wonderful to gaze at.
I find that I’m struggling with the heat and noise. I love to visit cities and get a feel for them but nowadays I like to see them and move on. A small, bustling town is a bit more up my street.
Sightseeing in Santiago
We are both keen to visit the Museo Ambiente Historico Cubano. It houses a large collection of Cuban furniture, curios and other exhibits. However a very grumpy guard points out that, despite the open door, the museum does not open until 1.30pm.
Luckily we find the Rum Museum is open. We spend a short amount of time strolling around and sampling its wares before visiting the Museum of the Bacardi Family.
Most people are friendly but, for the first time, we get the impression that some people do not want to serve you because you are a tourist. I begin to look forward to being on the road again the next day.
We buy cheap pizza slices again for lunch and I secretly stash a small piece to give to one of the street dogs who wearily roam the streets. I don’t tell Jamie I am doing this in case he rolls his eyes at me. A few minutes later I notice a small piece of pizza concealed in his hand – he is just as soft as me; the Lamberts have taught him well!
A Happy Evening
The evening brings out the best in Santiago. Sian and Emily have told us about the fantastic views form the rooftop bar of the Casa Grande hotel. They are not wrong and we are treated to a glorious sunset and views across the port and city. It’s time to sip mojitos and watch life go by in the square below before heading back to the streets to find dinner. At night there is a less frenetic pace of life to the city. It’s still busy and loud but the air is slightly cooler and you are able to stroll the streets at ease.
We find an average (at best) pizzeria for a dinner made more interesting by bumping in to a Finnish guy, Ilk, we had seen earlier in the day. When we saw him in the morning we were all being amused and charmed by a street magician. Our entertainer was performing non-too-slick magic tricks at the tables of a bar we were visiting. Despite his performances being unlikely to gain him access to the Magic Circle any time soon, his quirky character still earned him a good audience.
We laughed with Ilk about our magical friend before having an interesting chat with him about Cuba. He had done far more reading than we had before coming to the country and was able to explain much about the economy here. The longer we spend in Cuba the more we want to know. It is at times like this that we miss the ease of connecting to the Internet. In the UK every time I have a question or want to know more about something it is at my fingertips.
Ready To Move On
My feelings about Santiago de Cuba are mixed. At times I have loved it and at times it has made me feel worn down. There is such magic in a holiday on two wheels. We get to spend time in many different places but can move on at ease to more adventures whenever we want.
We stayed: Casa El Amanecer, San Felix e/ Trinidad y San Germain, No. 356. Tel. 658976 Email: email@example.com
We ate: Pizza!!!