Happy as a Cow in Cuba

Day 1

We spent the night in the Miami airport hotel, so we dragged ourselves out of bed around 3:45 a.m., grabbed a cup of coffee and were soon through the security lines and sitting comfortably in our upgraded seats on our way to Cuba.

The arrival and getting through Cuban customs was uneventful. We had 2 hours to waste until our tour guides showed up, so we exchanged our euros for the convertible pesos (CUC) and browsed the few airport shops, ordered coffee and settled in to watch the families laughing and crying as they greeted each other at the customs exit.

It took quite a while to get everyone gathered, their luggage out of the airport and onto the bus.  We slowly met the 8 other people we will be biking with in addition to our guides Chris, Jorge and our bus driver, Pancho. Once we were all aboard, we headed to a restaurant for a late lunch.

After lunch, Jorge gave us a brief history lesson and pointed out prominent buildings as we made our way to downtown Havana, where we then continued with a walking tour of the old town.

After our heads were filled to the brim with more than 500 years of Cuban history, our ears had heard the famous Cuban song, Guantanamera, on every corner and from every restaurant and our feet worn from walking around the Spanish Colonial plazas and churches, we made our way to our hotel for the night, the Memories Hotel Miramar.

We were pleasantly surprised at how nice our hotel and Havana in general was. We have heard conflicting things about the area and weren’t sure what to expect.  But the people and the charm of the area are everything we hoped for and more.

Back at the hotel, we relaxed to a band playing Cuban renditions of classic American songs and turned in early.

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Day 2:

We started off the day with a bike fitting and meeting our new guide Danny, who will be replacing Chris.  As with most things in Cuba, options are limited; so they only have a handful of bikes available. Apparently the guides bring over a few bikes at a time, so “fitting” is really just choosing one that is best and adjusting it enough to fit.  There aren’t a lot of people over 5’7″ that ride bikes in Cuba; but luckily they had another tall rider for whom they had brought a bike over for their last tour, so Todd was lucky enough to get an easy fit and Kelly was done with a quick seat adjustment.

We rode the bus to San Antonio de Los Baños from Havana to start our ride.  On the way we peppered our guide Jorge with questions about Cuba and general political and socioeconomic topics. It’s very interesting to hear their side of the history we have learned about Cuba over the years.  It has become obvious that the “People to people” tours are set up to give Americans access to Cubans to hear their stories.  It’s very subtle but a very smart tactic for whoever came up with the idea and I have to say we are really enjoying learning a local’s version of Cuban/American history and hearing about their perceptions of Americans in general.

We arrived in San Antonio de Los Baños and the amazing bus driver navigated the narrow streets to find a spot where we could unload and begin our ride.  Our ride today is a 32-mile ride to Las Terrazas or a 46-mile ride that goes over the mountains and continues on to Soroa, where we will be spending the night.

We had a beautiful sunny day and after a mile we left the narrow city streets and were enjoying the countryside.  We passed scenic mango trees, sugar cane and banana farms.  We notice that several farmers tied their livestock along the roadside to graze; a very natural way to trim the lawn!

About half way into our ride we started getting some rolling hills and some beautiful views of the surrounding valleys.  Everyone we passed smiled and greeted us with a wave or an “hola”.  While Todd was in heaven with the cycling, Kelly was struggling a bit with the steep hills. So by the time we got to the scenic mountain town of Las Terrazas; Todd decided that he would continue on with the remaining 14 mile ride (with a 600 foot climb in the middle) and Kelly decided to enjoy the beautiful Las Terrazas a little more and take the bus into Soroa.

The remaining ride for Todd was filled with winding mountain roads with a killer finish that was as steep as any Colorado mountain road! Straight up for about mile!

Once we both got to the hotel for the night, the pool was our first destination.  The cold water was a perfect reprieve from the hot bike ride.

While the pool was rather chilly, we were surrounded by the cute little cabanas of the hotel in a very scenic valley, making it an ideal spot for a swim. Later, after dinner with our fellow riders, we came out hoping for some stargazing and a refreshing cerveza and were not disappointed.

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Day 3

To begin our bike ride this morning, we were shuttled to the top of one of the mountains that Todd rode up yesterday during the optional additional mileage. It was a morning full of rolling hills with beautiful vistas. As would be the routine for the entire trip, Danny led the pack and Jorge brought up the rear with the bus crawling along behind.

After about 10 miles we stopped for a “people-to-people” experience with a coffee farmer/charcoal maker. We spent about 30 minutes chatting with a 70 plus year old farmer who was spending the non-coffee harvesting season making charcoal. Through our interpreter, he explained the charcoal making process and re-forestation process that he was required to implement when he cleared the timber.

Next up was Bahia Hondo where we got to wander about the town with a few local pesos graciously given by our guides (in the smaller towns they do not accept the CUC for which we had exchanged our money in the airport). We enjoyed some delicious chocolate ice cream (about 60 cents) and ambled along the bustling main street and the town squares.

Before we got back on our bikes, our guide, Danny sang out his now familiar “We Ride Guajiros”! Guajiros is a Spanish term meaning “country peasant” and is a part of the song Guantanemera. The famous lyrics are about a Guajira Guantanemera or country girl from Guantanamo.

As a group, we had decided to make a brief detour to see the harbor. When we arrived at the water’s edge, we discovered a small inlet full of fishing   boats – the perfect opportunity for another “people-to-people” event. We saw pictures of the gigantic marlin and sharks that the fishermen caught on the tiny dinghies and listened to their tales of how they caught the big beasts from the ocean – it’s amazing how fishermen tell the same tales around the world!

The remainder of the ride was a little bumpy but much flatter.  We enjoyed the ride and chatted with our fellow cyclist.  There always seems to be interesting life stories shared among our fellow travelers.

We stopped for lunch at a bus stop with good shade to give us some protection from the hot and humid day. In addition to the cool covering we had a splendid view looking out across hilly pastures; watching cows graze with palm trees and sugar cane swaying in the breeze and with the mountains we were approaching looming in the background.

As we enjoyed our lunch, we learned about Cuban livestock.  Apparently, pigs are the most common animals and almost every family has one. Cows, on the other hand, are in short supply and are almost exclusively used for dairy products.  There is such a shortage and premium on milk that the government strictly regulates the cow population and every farmer must obtain permission before slaughtering a cow, which means most beef for eating is imported and expensive.  As we finished our lunch and watched the cows under the palm trees, we couldn’t help but think that the cows had it pretty good in Cuba. We then mounted our bicycles and rode on, telling each other that with the perfect weather and beautiful scenery, we were as happy as a cow in Cuba!

The rest of the bike ride passed pretty quickly as we entered flatter terrain. We finished the bike ride at a tiny village, Tres Palmas, and were bused to our hotel near Vinales.

The area of Vinales is a designated Unesco World Heritage Site due to the “migotes”, which were towering limestone mountains riddled with caves and the quaint Spanish colonial town of Vinales itself.

We dropped off our luggage, jumped into the pool for a quick refresh, enjoyed a dip in the “Medicinal Baths” offered at our resort and then boarded the bus for a quick trip into town. We wandered around Vinales, enjoying the bustling plaza and shops. After checking out the local baseball field where we watched a little league game, we found a nice patio and sipped a mojito and watched the sun set over the migotes.

We then bussed back to the hotel where we got a break from the traditional chicken, pork, and fish options we have had at each meal and enjoyed a delicious local specialty for dinner of shredded beef called “ropas viejas” (literally translated as “old clothes”) along with the standard rice and beans that we have received at every meal in Cuba. It was a delicious meal followed by a cold cerveza fuerte called  “Bucanero” while watching the stars from the hotel pool area.

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Day 4:

We woke up to no running water and were about to give up on having a shower when we noticed the water had started dripping.  Determined, Kelly washed her hair in the cold drips and Todd decided he could live without a shower until we got to the next hotel.

Our ride today started off at the hotel and took us through the national park area of Vinales. The scenery was stupendous and the ride was extra slow, allowing for us to stop regularly and take pictures of the limestone cliffs towering above us.  After each stop, Danny prodded us into motion again with his customary “We Ride Guajiros!”

As we rode, we passed another charcoal production site and stopped halfway through the ride for a lesson from Jorge on the national park system in Cuba and the Vinales area in particular. The Cuban system allows people to live and farm in the area; but there are more restrictions on what they can do with the land and they have a reforestation process that is followed if anyone cuts down trees.  For every one tree that is cut down, they must replace it with 25 saplings.

Our ride was a short 22 miles today through tobacco and yuca fields and ended in Bahia Esperanza, a small town on the water.  We had some time to wander around the town before lunch and enjoyed watching the locals playing a very competitive game of dominos.

We have noticed Cubans are always more than willing to talk and share their stories.  They seem very excited just to be asked about their daily lives.  They are very friendly and while it was suggested to avoid politics, they seem to be willing to answer any questions we have about their day-to-day life and country.

We have also noticed that a lot of Cubans (including our tour guide) have American branded clothes; some even have the American flag as shorts and shirts.  We have been told that most of this comes from relatives in the US and that almost every Cuban has a relative in the US.  There isn’t a hatred for the US that we were expecting; but rather a strong desire for the embargoes to be lifted so the country can prosper and with it, the people.

Next up was the most amazing lunch we have had so far in Cuba and definitely the most food.  We ate at a small local paladar, Troncos Viejos. It was owned by a lovely lady named Rosa and she served us more food than a group three times our size could have eaten.  All of it was amazing, we had mamey shakes (mamey is a fruit), fried malanga fritters (similar to a potato), paella as an appetizer, a giant filet of fresh red snapper for the main entree and of course all the sides and fixings that we have come to expect in Cuba (rice and beans, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, and yuca).  After we had all eaten as much as we possible could, Rosa announced that for dessert we would be served her world famous flan!  No one wanted to disappoint her by not accepting the flan, so we all ate it (it was wonderful) and rolled ourselves out of the paladar and onto the bus.

We all fell into a deep food coma on the ride to the next hotel in Pinar Del Rio, the Hotel Vueltabajo. We will be here two nights; so with our two hours of free time, we strung up our camping clothesline and did laundry in the sink of our hotel room.  Hopefully it will be dry when we leave.

Later we met up for a brief walking tour.  We were taken to a state run store to buy cigars and rum.  Everyone stocked up on gifts to bring home and we grabbed a few cigars ourselves.  We also got to wander through a local distillery and learn about the process of making one of the local liquors.

As a group we opted for a late dinner, since we had such a large lunch.  So we had some time to relax, smoke one of our cigars and enjoy a drink of the local rum.

Most of us opted to walk to dinner, trying to work off as much of the lunch as we could before we sat down to dinner.  Dinner proved equally filling, the portions here are enormous and we have decided that after today we will start sharing our meals or, even with all the biking, we are going to come back 20lbs heavier that we left.

After dinner we were offered the opportunity to take salsa lessons. For Christmas, Todd gave Kelly a gift certificate good for dance lessons of her choosing, so she redeemed it for the salsa lessons.  A few others from the group joined us and we had fun laughing at ourselves as we attempted to salsa with the locals.  All in all we did pretty good, but we definitely didn’t get the hip action going that the locals were showing off.

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Day 5

It was hard to get out of bed after the late night of salsa dancing. We dragged ourselves through the motions of getting ready – showering and eating breakfast – and enjoyed several cups of coffee  to get us up and going.

This morning we were shuttled to the beginning of our ride, which was to be a 32-mile ride through a picturesque farming valley.

The ride wound around limestone mogotes, over ancient rusty steel bridges and through tobacco fields. The scenery was stunning and Kelly practiced her balancing and riding by capturing it all on camera while riding – and perhaps using it as an excuse for why she was hanging at the back of the group for today’s ride.

As we rode along we noticed the labor-intensive farming. They were hand planting tobacco and plowing the fields with oxen and water buffalo. It was like we were riding back in time.

Thankfully the ride was flat and we covered the route quickly as much of the group was definitely dragging a bit. Every time we stopped, Jorge attempted to encourage us by telling us that we only had 5-8 more miles to go. We are pretty certain that we covered Jorge’s 5-8 miles at least 3 times!

After the ride we visited a tobacco farm. The famous Robaina farm – apparently Alejandro Robaina is the only tobacco grower to have the honor of having a cigar named after him during his lifetime.

We learned the process of planting, growing, harvesting, curing and rolling the tobacco leaves into cigars. We then loaded back on the bus, headed back to the hotel, showered and took a well-deserved nap. We then found a nice patio spot to sip our Cubra Libres, watch the traffic rumble by and try not to asphyxiate on the diesel fumes and the thick cloud of smoke from the mosquito fumigation truck that passed. Dinner was at a nice restaurant with the traditional Cuban choices of chicken, pork or fish served with rice, black beans and yuca.

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Day 6:

After a really good night’s sleep we woke up ready for another day of bicycling.  We had another hearty breakfast and then hopped on our bikes and road outside of Pinar Del Rio and jumped on the “Carretera Central”, the highway that serves this area.

The Cuban definition of highway is a two way street that is slightly better maintained. It did have a bit more traffic; however, we saw just as many horses and bicycles on it as we did trucks and cars.  The condition of the road made for much faster bicycling and the first half of the trip flew by.

It also meant we rode through several towns, so navigating local traffic proved tricky, but we all made it through without any incidents.  We took a break in one of the towns, bought a snow cone and found a shady park for a bit of relaxation.

As we gathered to start our ride again (and after Danny’s customary “We Ride Guajiros!” and Jorge’s “Only 5-8 More Miles!”) one of our tour members informed us that they had talked with a local who had beehives and was willing to give us a tour of their hives and talk us through the honey making process. While most of the group wanted to see that, because Todd had a childhood allergy to bees and we didn’t want to push our luck, we decided to skip the bees and instead ride on with a few others to the next town.

Since we were going to have to wait for the others anyway, we took our time and stopped for some pictures and discussed Cuban history, politics and all the things we have heard so far while in Cuba with our American tour guide, Danny.

When we arrived in San Diego de Los Baños, we went in search of a local park and a cerveza, knowing we had at least an hour until the others arrived.  As we were asking around, we ran into a Cuban with a really nice road bike (not common at all in Cuba) and he spoke English!  He told us that he was an English teacher in the town for the grade school and in Pinar Del Rio at the university.   He told us about his extensive library of books he had managed to collect over the years and we asked if we could see them.  We figured we had missed out on the bees, so we would have our own people to people experience.

His library was only a block away and he gladly showed it to us.  He had about 4 bookcases of books that had collected for the school. The collection contained books in several languages and covered a variety of topics, including topics such as “Canadian History for Dummies”.  He proudly showed us the shelf full of US books that he used for his advanced students – The Kite Runner, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and many more. The sad thing was that the library was infested with termites and several of his books had severe damage. He also showed us the government issued soccer balls they received for PE at the school. They were flat and falling apart.

After our tour of the single room library, he pointed out a restaurant and joined us for a cerveza and some fried banana chips. He talked about the education system in Cuba and how it is mandatory for everyone to go to school until they have completed 9th grade.  He also discussed how he tries to use literature to convince the kids that it’s not all roses and happy times in the US.  There is apparently a lot of desire amongst the current generation to immigrate to the US.

He can’t buy books to use at school very easily, so he requested a donation for soccer balls and if any of us had books that we finished reading that we would be willing to leave behind.  We obliged on both and left him with a book and a donation for 4 new soccer balls.

By the time we were done with our discussion with the English teacher, the rest of the tour group had arrived and we joined them at the park for lunch. We ate while Jorge explained how the Cuban government gets elected in more detail.

After lunch we got back on the bus and headed back to Soroa and the same hotel we stayed in on the second night.  Right next to the hotel was an orchid garden and we decided to do a tour.  It turned out to be more of a botanic garden with several varieties of orchids and local plants and trees.  The Cuban orchid guide amazed us with not only his knowledge of the orchids, plants and trees around us, but also with the fact that he could explain it all to us in perfect English and another group with us in perfect German.

After we had our fill of orchids, we wandered back to the hotel for a dip in the pool and some relaxation time.

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Day 7

It was a day of wind, a bit of rain and bike falls. It was another fast ride for about 30 miles along the main highway. The countryside transitioned from the mountainous tobacco and coffee fields to rows and rows of flat fields planted with sugar cane.

We stopped in each of the main towns along the route to learn a bit about Cuban history. In each town square or plaza there were statutes of celebrated Cubans who were either heroes from the Spanish American War or the Cuban Revolution and at each stop, our Jorge related the history to us from a Cuban perspective.

In the second town, Jorge was upstaged during his lecture when a group of children drove by in motorized toy cars. Leading the pack was a little girl with a tiara who was driving the large black truck with the little boys chasing after her in their smaller pink cars. We laughed as they scooted about the plaza all the boys trying to catch the princess driver.

The best part of the morning occurred when Todd received a text message from his work letting him know that they had won the arbitration for which we had spent 9 months in Houston.

A few of miles into the ride, we had our first major bike fall – Kelly swerved to miss a Cuban woman walking along the road and lost control.  We all took a brief break, Kelly cleaned up her road rash and we mounted up to finish the ride.

After the last major town, the wind picked up considerably and we rode right into a blustery headwind with the first rain of the trip.  We made it without any further incidents until we were within a mile of our destination when another bike swerved on some muddy pavement, and he too lost control on the wet road and went down. Thankfully he suffered only a few minor scrapes as well.  It was our last day in the Cuban countryside, as we will spend the next two days in Havana. Even with the few scrapes, the wind and the brief rain, it was a good ride.

Once the bikes were loaded on the bus and we arrived in Havana, we headed to lunch at a very nice restaurant called La Fontana. We made quite the entrance wearing bike shorts, jerseys and looking ragged from the windy ride. We enjoyed our mojitos and delicious lunch as the relaxing fountains filled with koi fish splashed and gurgled around us.

After lunch we hopped back on the bus for the short trip to see the house and neighborhood of the artist Jose Fuster.   He is a Cuban artist who is internationally known for his work in ceramics and tile. His entire house and the surrounding neighborhood was covered in colorful tile mosaics. There were tiled terraces, fences, statutes, chairs, tables, walls, fences – every inch was covered in brightly colored mosaics showing everything from people and historic events to Picasso-esque shapes winding up and around the house.

We spent about 30 minutes wandering around the masterpieces and then headed to our hotel for the next two evenings, the Memories Miramar. We had stayed here our first night and had been looking forward to returning to relax by the huge pool and soaking up the sun on one of the numerous decks.

We enjoyed a quick plunge in the pool and then walked to a very nice restaurant called Santana. At the restaurant we shared stories with the other riders, ate delicious Cuban food (chicken, pork or fish!) and shared a bottle of Chilean wine with some of the riders in celebration of Todd’s victory in the arbitration. After desert and coffee we walked back to the hotel and strolled around the pool deck watching the stars.

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Day 8:

This morning started with a decision.  Today’s ride involved riding through the city of Havana.  Kelly is not comfortable riding in the city and after yesterday’s spill she really was not looking forward to the ride with the busy Havana traffic.  After talking it through with the guides, she jumped into the car with the photographer, Jonah, to follow the bicyclists.

By the end of the ride, Todd decided that after riding close to 20 miles dodging buses and potholes big enough to swallow the buses and inhaling a lifetime of diesel fumes – Kelly made the wise choice by skipping the ride.

The tour of Cuba ended at Earnest Hemingway’s Cuban farm, where we wandered around the grounds with hundreds of other tourist.  This day was by far the most tourists we have seen in one place so far in Cuba!

For lunch we went to the town of Cojimar,  where Hemingway did his fishing and was the inspiration for his book, The Old Man and the Sea.   We wandered around the little town as we waited for our reservations at Bodegas Las Brisas.  Once again many other tourist surrounded us and the kids in the city were running around asking us for candy or money.

After lunch we were taken to a market in Havana for our last minute souvenir shopping.  Since neither of us enjoy shopping, we found the area of the market that had a view of the water and relaxed and waited while everyone did their shopping.

We were given 1 hour back at the hotel to get ready for dinner.  When we came out to our designated meeting spot, the tour guides informed us that they were having problems with our reservation and to hold tight as there would be delays.  When they came back they told us they had bad news, the bus was having problems and wouldn’t be able to transport us to dinner and they weren’t sure how we were going to get there.  Right as they gave us the “bad news” three classic convertibles pulled up and the guides surprised us with a fun ride for our last evening together.

We all piled into the cars, ours was a red 1946 Plymouth.  We enjoyed the wind blowing through our hair as we rode through the city in a driving tour on the way to our dinner spot.  We had so much fun and we thanked the guides for the wonderful surprise!

We had dinner at the beautiful el Jardin Del Milagros restaurant (the Garden of Miracles). The restaurant was also a garden that the owners used to supply a lot of its own vegetables. The main garden was on a rooftop deck, which they allowed us to tour as we finished up our meal.  They also had a line of hives on the roof that contained what they assured us were non-stinging bees to provide honey.

The couple that owned the restaurant used to be an electrical engineer and a civil engineer, but opened the restaurant to make more money since Cubans were now permitted (since 2011) to have private businesses.  We have heard similar tales from many Cubans; there is so much more money in the tourist industry that many Cubans were leaving their traditional jobs to work with the recent influx of tourists. Our tour guide Jorge brought his girlfriend to dinner for us all to meet and they informed us that they had both been in the IT industry and are now both tour guides.

After dinner the mood started to get sad as we all realized we were getting close to the end of our time together.  They were several speeches and thanks given all around and Danny had a notebook that he asked us all to write something in.  Several people had purchased maps and Danny marked up the route we rode over the past week.

We finished up around 10:30pm and we headed to the bar to watch the New Years Eve festivities in the hotel pool area. Danny and one of our fellow tour members, Judy, joined us and we spent the last bit of 2016 sharing stories about our lives and watching salsa dancers and fireworks as we welcomed 2017 with a toast of Cuban rum and well-wishes for a good year.

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