Cycling Cuba day 17. Sancti Spiritus – Trinidad.

Similar to our last ride, we did the steepest hill on the first 15km as we arrived to El Pinto. You can stretch your legs after you pass La Ermita with a nice 13km downhill. After that we found the way to Trinidad -our final cycling destination- comfortable to ride with a total of 71km and 916m of elevation. 

Again, as earlier described, we were very impressed by how clean is the town of Sancti Spiritus and how friendly the people is. So far we had experience technology from the 50s in cars and other machinery. This town showed the kindness and innocence from the ages ago where everyone is friendly, trust each other, and has no rush whatsoever.

We made a lunch stop at a bus / chariot station, a lonely but convenient place for shade and sitting area. Little we knew that we had a primary school right behind us. Kids came out and stopped staring at Spaghetti as something out of this world to them. 

“Is el Brujo gone already?” the kids asked us. 
“Yes”. I replied. “Just 5 minutes ago.” 
Before them other kids jumped at the highway yelling “Brujo, give us a ride home!” at a chariot driver pulled by a horse.
“Oh no”, said the later kids with disappointment, “now we will have to walk home with this heat”. 
We offered them a sandwich we made with the breakfast leftovers. They gladly accepted it and we witnessed the shift of emotions only kids have. From deep sadness to total happiness in a moment.

Trinidad is by far the best town in Cuba for us. It offers many choices bigger cities have. Yes, it does have a lot of tourism, but it’s local colonial charm is very vivid. Surprisingly there are good options for dining. Amazing places for salsa dancing with live music. People is very friendly and they help you with anything. There are no airports here, but if we could choose one city to come back to in Cuba, it would be Trinidad. 

We did a tour around the pristine local beaches with Spaghetti. It was impressive to see the huge projects going on from the big hotel chains. Last time I saw such large cranes felt like a million years ago. We were happy for the money coming into the island but couldn’t stop thinking of the massive amount of waste and resources needed to run those things. Needless to say recycling and ecological impact is not high up in the government’s agenda. Feeding their people is kind of their priority. 

As of now here in Trinidad the tourism here is not the common all inclusive hotel zombi type. -Coming soon though-. The visitors we talked to had a really close impression of the real Cuba. Although some were idealizing the little they saw. Socialism in appearance is attractive and abundant for everyone, when it works.

The reality we found while cycling Cuba with all it’s amazing people, is that the system is far from providing the bare necessities. Their development is on hold for over half a century -for good or bad-. It would be common sense to say that they are lucky to not pay a mortgage, have -more or less- food, and somehow free education and health care. But at a deeper level we found that this created a strong level of conformism. Under penalty of not obeying they are encouraged to not make an impact. The impact was already done for them by the heroes of the nation and their job was now to keep celebrating the 60sh year old victory.

Trinidad is our final destination, thank you for following our blog! We loved our trip in Cuba and we highly recommend it as a cycling destination!

Cycling Cuba day 16. Remedios – Sancti Spiritus

We were eager to get back on Spaghetti, get to Sancti Spiritus, and tomorrow to our final destination Trinidad. For a change, we started with a 200m climb on the first 18km. But once we reached Zulueta, most of the road was downhill all the way down to Sancti Spiritus. Weather was great, roads in rather good condition, and traffic absent. 

We didn’t have high expectations at all on Sancti Spiritus. In fact we were afraid this would be a second experience of a Palacios visit. But we were up to a nice surprise. Indeed the town did not have international tourism but has nice areas of interest and we were spoiled by where-to-sleep choices. We tried our recommendation of Casa Particular which we did not like and instead we went to Anay’s Palace (aka Hostal Palace). We had great experience with her and the place was in great condition. 

There are some interesting things here. Hernan Cortes recruited a couple of guys from this town on his way to conquering Mexico over 500 years ago. It’s got a theater, Cuba’s oldest church called Parroquial Mayor, and the Casa de la Guayabera. Some of us grooms were married wearing a guayabera in Mexico, and is also worn by politicians and many other people in Latin America. The word is that guayaba workers’ wives of this region sewed pockets into their working clothes so that they could store all tools and food. They claim it they invented it and then taken to Mexico and latinamerica.

What we loved the most about this place is how clean and chill out everything is. The main plaza in the center has little or no traffic at all. As other places in Cuba it felt very safe but here we found a more family oriented plaza and streets. While almost everyone carries a mobile phone we found them all talking in groups of friends or family. It’s a feeling I had in Mexico decades ago but haven’t feel so much freedom and safety ever since.

Our casa particular did not offer dinner but recommended a good restaurant across the street. Again, expensive for what it was and the food was not at all our taste. They strongly recommended to have a papaya with cheese desert but actually couldn’t finish it. Needless to say we wont have it again.

Ready for next day to cycle to Trinidad!

Cycling Cuba day 13-15. Cayo Santa Maria

Mojitos are really good in Cuba, specially at the beach. Loaded with sugar, plus sugar, and more sugar.

This time we did not had high expectations from a Melia hotel given our previous experience in Cienfuegos. We took a taxi from our Casa Particular in Remedios to the hotel lobby and we felt like kings. A piña colada made our way quickly right after checking in. We were in the familiar all-inclusive mood that we know from the Riviera Maya in Mexico. Unfortunately, when your brain matches reality with previous experiences you create expectations. Once you find a similitude you try to predict the rest. What a mistake!

Melia, a rather high end hotel chain from Spain, built some hotels around Cuba some years ago. The government allowed them to invest in building their hotels with some restrictions. They can appoint their own manager but the rest of the staff -including another manager that has the same level as theirs- should be local. The result is an interesting mix of a local Cuban restaurant with some airs of a “typical” all-inclusive hotel.

The bellboy took us to our room, and on the way there we could notice that they invested in building the hotel 20 or so years earlier and then never sent another euro for maintenance. Our shower curtain fell because the rod bent and broke. I called asking for repair. After dinner we came back and their creative mind and lack of resources -a common combination in Cuba- made them hang the curtain on the retractable string meant to be used for wet clothes. The food was also what you would expect from a government operated restaurant.

Basically the salary difference across the staff is minimum. That on itself is not bad but they are not shareholders nor have any incentive to improve the service or compete among themselves. They will always have a job no mater what they do. This means they can do minimum or no effort with no rush and their compensation will be the same. We could see all of that reflected on every aspect of the hotel.

That said, the beach was really nice, and there were not many tourists around. We could drink piñas coladas all day long and relax the legs and shoulders from cycling. We received a massage from a therapist who was interested in how Spaghetti was built because he wanted to replicate it to use with his handicapped son. He said he would stop by in our Casa Particular in Remedios once we got there to see it.

The way back to Remedios

We found a much cheaper way to go back to Remedios. Taking a bus. Unfortunately shortly after we left the hotel the engine overheated and we had to stop at a service station. The radiator cap disappeared, or at least that’s what we were told.

The guy in blue said he has done many caps himself and that he just needed to sand down the wood piece to make it fit tight. I asked if that would hold the pressure built by the hot water inside.  “Yep”, he answered.

One km later we stopped again. This time we did not have a mechanic and there were no signs for a new cap nor any other bus take us. The driver said we simply had to wait. The worst part was that we saw cyclists with so much tail wind that they barely had to pedal. There was not a good plan ahead of us unless we did something. So we did hitchhiking instead.

This driver saw the opportunity and took us there for $5 each. The new diesel engine did not have any mounts to absorb vibrations. It was mounted directly on the chassis of the 1954 Plymouth, and we could feel all vibrations and noise from inside the cabin. We nevertheless made it safe to our Casa Particular. As promised the massage therapist came with his son, took measurements and pictures of Spaghetti. He said he would built a tandem bike on his own. We did not keep his contact details to follow up on him but he seemed very sure about it.

We were happy to be at a nice place again staying at Villa Colonial Frank and Arelys. Spaghetti was still there waiting for us and ready to ride to Sancti Spiritus.

Cycling Cuba day 12. Santa Clara – Remedios

We opted for a two-day break on our trip at a Melia Hotel in Cayo Santa Maria. For this we had to ride from Santa Clara to Remedios. Will leave Spaghetti there and take a taxi or bus to the hotel. We thought about cycling there but it is super windy, hot and boring. We would then come back to Remedios and ride to Sancti Spiritus and Trinidad.

Before leaving Santa Clara we had an amazing breakfast. The owner himself baked the pastries and we had the chance to take a generous appetizer for our lunch.

Santa Clara has a beautiful clean plaza with some tourism but not overwhelming. Exiting Santa Clara towards Remedios we passed through the Train explosion monument / museum. Visiting this place brought us weird feelings. I remembered the little models we made at school with plasticine on how someone won or lost a war. This is when during the Cuban revolution they were able to blow a train. They grabbed the arms and munitions inside the cars that otherwise would be used against them. This marked the revolutionaries -led by el Che on this area- victory over Santa Clara. We respected their victory but did not participate in the explosion celebration. So for this time we passed entering into the museum.

Valentina had frequent breakdowns on the first days while trying to reduce the misery of cycling pain. Once she found the right position of handlebar position and seat angle, height, and horizontal placement we were gold. The best move was to give her her own multi-tool and have her adjust everything at her leisure. Now it was my turn. The road to exit Santa Clara is through a very narrow road with traffic. That meant two things, sharing the space managing to not fall into the road shoulder. But not too much towards the lane center so that vehicles could pass. The second one and way worse was the smog coming out of all vehicles. On top of that, we might have started cycling late that day because it was already hot and dusty. Finally, the shoulder was full of random trash, plastic bags, bottles, paper, etc. 

I developed a sharp pain on my trapeze muscles because I transferred my upper body weight all the way there. I kept my arms loose and not locked on the elbows but that wasn’t enough. My homoplate bones were sticking out all the time making the muscles around carry all the weight. Later on I remembered the corrections during yoga to puff-up the muscles around the spine hiding the homoplate bones. This way I distributed the load more evenly along the back muscles and core, sending more force to the legs. If you are wondering “your arms should carry no weight at all”. Well, on a tandem bike loaded with panniers there is continuous steering and equilibrium keeping.

So, dusty, hot, in pain, thoroughly polluted up a hill, and feeling all cars passing next to us ever so close, we decided to stop for a break next to the trash around. I yelled Valentina loudly and miserably I hated absolutely everything of what we were doing. Not only that, I hated the place, the food, the pollution. The fact the Spaghetti’s well-being was hanging from a shoestring now that we finished some of the spare parts. I was angry at myself for spending so much money on a place that in my eyes could be just like any poor town in Mexico. Except that there, we could actually find anything we needed at our leisure, not like here. I finished firmly, “I would not recommend anyone closely or publicly doing this horrible nightmare of trip!”

She bursted out laughing. “I thought you would never come to this point in your life.” She replied as happy as ever. True, this was probably the first time I expressed so much hate openly. Her green-brownish eyes shine like someone who had just received a declaration of sincere love and kept staring at me with immense joy. Her natural posture wearing a sleeveless jersey made her look elegant and very attractive. Surrounded by houses falling apart, trash, dust and smog we laughed and hugged. There was nothing to say, the explosion had to come and go as an event in itself and not as a problem to overcome with a logic solution. We had some pastry from the amazing breakfast leftovers and got back in the road.

We arrived to Remedios and realized that the route was way shorter than what we wanted. Our legs were used to the 70-80sh km per day and we kind of wanted to keep going. Then it started to rain so it wasn’t that bad to have arrived already. Remedios is very straight forward and we had no problems to find the Villa Colonial Frank and Arelys. We strongly recommend this place, they have very reasonable prices and the place is in great condition. Frank is very friendly and willing to help.

Remedios is one of the oldest cities in Cuba, from 1511? Its original date of settlement is unknown because they hid it from the Spanish crown in order to avoid paying taxes. The settlement grew and eventually they found them. On around 1682 Father Gonzalez de la Cruz claimed that satanic forces took over the place. Two years later the Spanish Crown sent a Royal Decree transferring 18 families. The new settlement was free of demons and they called it Santa Clara.

We found interesting that not many central plazas in Cuba have a church. This one does. The Iglesia mayor of San Juan Bautista suffered many pirate attacks over the centuries. For this reason, it is said, they covered the gold with white paint on the walls. They re-discovered it right before the revolution while doing some restoration.

Cycling Cuba day 11. Cienfuegos – Santa Clara

Still hilly 70sh km road but never like Terrazas or Viñales area. Valentina and I got good momentum going and none mechanic problems with Spaghetti. The thing about riding on a tandem is that Stocker and Captain have to adjust to each other’s performance. Just like two different kind of cars, they have their own torque and speed curves. Valentinas favored pushing the pedals harder at low rpms, whereas I preferred less force at my constant rather faster rpms. I found my running and cycling optimum cadence to be about 80sh. I liked to stay there, hers was very variable.

How does this translate into cycling? A desperate Stocker will ask you -Captain- to change gears right at your comfortable spot. But anticipating some of these reasons for divorce, we opted for an independent coasting system. DaVinci tandems offer that. We both still need to be at the same cadence, each pushing at whatever force we want to contribute. But the beauty is that each can stop pedaling while the other keeps going. If we brought two single bikes, our group speed would be the slowest of the two. Instead with this kind of tandem our speed was the fastest of the two.

Like any other trip leg, we passed horses, horse carts, and other cyclists going uphill at a considerable faster speed. When we stopped it was common for people to come nearby and ask us to buy Spaghetti. Often cyclists get a cheap bike to Cuba, at the end of their tour sell it or donate it. Sadly this was not our case. 

For some reason breakfast on Casas Particulares are pretty much the same all over Cuba. You can argue, “Well, those are the only ingredients they have”. Papaya (fruta bomba), banana, guayaba, guayaba juice and bread for a start. Eggs, tomato, cucumber, cheese, and ham, for Secondo. And guayaba jam, pastry with tea, and coffee to finish. Those who serve breakfast witness that cyclists are the only ones who almost get to finish all that. We didn’t actually eat everything but we did put away eggs and bread for lunch later and some fruit. This on its own was way better than stopping at a restaurant.

We stopped for lunch at the road side under a tree shade. Prepared our breakfast sandwich with the delicatessen Habanero Tuna bag that we brought from Merida’s Walmart. Two guys on their bikes came to talk to us. “We thought we wouldn’t see you again, you overtook us two hills ago. You know she is slowing you down? You are very aerodynamic down on your handlebar and she is completely straight”. One of them said. He was touching a sensitive spot. Valentina did not want to go that fast on downhills so she did not agree on speeding even more. At least on the early days. Secondly, she felt it wasn’t fair for me to get all the view and she just watching my back. So when I came down on the bars she could enjoy the view at her eye level.

The two guys were mechanics and they were fascinated with Spaghetti’s independent coasting system. Their job was drilling for water wells. Not a difficult one if you have the right equipment. They instead had to built it from all scrap parts they could find from tractors and any other abandoned machinery. Like anything else in Cuba, creativity was the main resource they had to make things happen.

We finished our talk and continue the narrow road. Luckily drivers were used to non-engine slow traffic like us. All was good except the pollution from the trucks and cars. Most trucks came on the 70s from Russia and all older cars have “new” engines. The government buys them from China or Korea. These engines come from used smaller trucks that needed a new engine or were totaled. You can find local workshops that will take your ’56 Buick and install the 2nd (or more) hand diesel Hyundai truck engine with all adaptations needed.

Listening to the Chan-chan in La Habana malecon, drinking a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio or Floridita, or dancing salsa to live music is cool. But you can’t have a better welcoming to Cuba than cycling a long hill followed by a wide clean downhill and find the Che Guevara impressive mausoleum. You might have thought that the Capitolio in La Habina is way oversized to fit the city. A few cm taller than D.C.’s, built with unlimited sugar money. But wait til you see Che’s mausoleum proportion to Santa Clara. Here are Che’s remainings -brought from Bolivia where he was killed-, and is open for anyone to admire. He proudly wrote to Fidel he left nothing to his wife and daughter. But would leave in peace knowing that the State would take care of all their needs.

We normally shy away from the Lonely Planet (LP) and other guides recommended lodging in support of those with less or no publicity. This time however, we came to town with no water, dusty, under the sun for long hours, and really tired. So we went for the best LP recommendation and found Alba Hostal who ended up being a really good option. Strangely enough, that Casa Particular with so many good reviews did not offer dinner. Instead the owner was the chef at a restaurant close by and that’s where he diverted his clients. We had mixed feelings, so far we only had good food at Casas Particulares and not at restaurants in Cuba.

That night Valentina had the best Ropa Vieja and I had the best lobster in Cuba by far. The ambiance was a jungle style garden sitting with warm light lighting around and live music. This wasn’t the typical complete band. Just a guy with his guitar and occasionally a lady joined him singing tunes of Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez. This Troba Cubana gave already a more original and relaxed ambiance as opposed to the always welcome and easy to find salsa.

We liked the feeling of Santa Clara since we could feel the regular local life as opposed to the touristic areas.