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 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.

Cycling Cuba day 10. Playa Giron – Cienfuegos

The Cycling to Cienfuegos

Although a steady climb on our cycling, the 80km from Playa Giron to Cienfuegos is an easy non-traffic ride. There are plenty of shade stops for drinks, repairs, lunch, etc. At some point we found a long stretch of the road covered by seeds. We asked one of the workers and came to know that farmers were drying their rice… on the highway! They used the massive flat heat radiation area from the sun and pavement. We waved good bye and played some salsa through our very loved speaker. Cycling Cuba has been full of surprises, particularly when you think you are getting used to it.

For sure the highlight of the ride is a reward you’ll see towards the end of the Playa Giron-Cienfuegos ride. A nice long downhill as you arrive to Cienfuegos, but hold your horses, pavement repairs -or lack of- are not up to your final sprint.

Cienfuegos town

Cienfuegos is mostly known for Benny More birth place and of course they are proud of that. He is deep in the heart of the history of Cha cha cha and Mambo. This was back in the 40s and 50s when Cuban showed the rest of the world how to dance. Donde estabas tu and Yiri Yiri Bom are great examples of both styles.

Food expectations

There are some nice pedestrian areas where the pushy restaurants’ hosts wont leave you alone. As a Mexican and Italian couple, we think the food wasn’t worth the money, even from the pricy restaurants. Take away pizzas are folded in half -quesadilla style- and dropped into a grocery plastic bag, did you order two? Well, they throw one on top of the other.

We took a rest from the monotonous Casas Particulares dinner and treated ourselves into a Melia restaurant right at a terrace looking at the sea. We ordered pizza, pasta, and beers. 10 min later I reminded the waiter about the beers. Then they came immediately. About an hour later I asked about the pizza and he came back with whatever pizza he had ready. Not ours, he apologized saying that this is everything he could do for us, that we could forget our order. He said he was alone super busy, and that there was no gas to cook. If that was true, not sure why he didn’t get rid also of other clients. Once again, the Casa Particular dinner choice was way better than any restaurant we tried while cycling Cuba.

Should I stay or should I go

Our stay in the city was particularly exciting… we were on a mission! A very close friend of my mom left Cienfuegos during the revolution (1960s) when she was on her 20s. If you followed other entries of us, or know some Cuban history, you can safely conclude that her family was very well-off. Before the Cuban government took all their belongings they managed to hide their jewelry in their hair, and took the first flight out of the country. Other Cubans living in Mexico have similar stories. They had successful businesses, then the government took it or offered to buy it at a price they set. Some of them took the money but most thought it was so little that it was offensive to receive.

She has never been back to Cuba afraid that once she is in they will not let her out again. So she wanted a few pictures of her hometown and the house where she grew up. Her street was Arguelles, easy to find, but the number had three digits only. We asked around the Arguelles colonial houses on downtown. They all assured it was a mistake because all houses had 4 digit numbers ever since they were born. All that was true, looking at the house right in front of us had 4 digits. But when we looked at the very top of some especially old street doors, we found a faded old 3 digit number.

Only a few had them. We found no logic sequence and no left and right separation between odd and pair numbers. After walking back and forwards we concluded the house had to be within three blocks from where we were. We asked for assistance to older people, they in turn sent us to a government office, whom in turn sent us to a museum, then to the Archive Office, and finally to the Office of Conservation. In this last one they were extremely friendly. What seemed to be a rapid question with one a researchers that walked at reception to address our request, became a 2 hour conversation.

She explained that after the revolution new numbering changed from 3 to 4 digits as the city grew quickly and government assigned land and properties to everyone in need. We Mexicans are like this: we take any comment concerning our country very seriously. We know what’s wrong but either we make fun about it -letting you know that its ok to criticize it-. Or we defend it and justify it to death. That was her but in steroids. Being friends of high level politicians she mostly defended the system and rejected anyone who didn’t agree with it. As nice as she was, she made her point clear: anyone leaving the country during the revolution was a traitor. 

“Can you imagine, these people left us taking their jewelry and stuff when they flew away!” Well it was their jewelry -I told myself silently-, it was the only thing they could start a new life with. I was not going to argue with her. Clearly they are saved from religion believes compared to many other countries. But everyone is spoon-fed by the idea that everything belongs to the nation. It’s the only marketing we found while cycling Cuba and she was one of the evangelists. For me it was an argument I didn’t have to win so I didn’t ride that road. She also heavily criticized the younger generations that received free education but opted to become taxi drivers or worked in tourism. Nope, the hundredfold salary difference wasn’t a smart detail to bring up in the conversation.

Our Casa Particular charged us 10CUC for a load of laundry. We thought they robbed us. When we received it we both sweared it smelled just like we gave it to them and found the same dirt spots. After confronting them they confirmed they washed it themselves. They asked for a contribution or $5 at the most normally. So because of this we don’t recommend at all the place we stayed at Cienfuegos. 

Last thoughts

Cienfuegos, a place to stop by and visit when you are cycling by, but wont be your trip’s main attraction. It has an amazing place to watch the sunset, this is the terrace at the Palacio de Valle. Go up after 4pm for a free entrance through the narrow spiral stairs and you’ll find a great view, live music, and a bar with tables. We really enjoyed that and walking along the pedestrian-only streets and plazas in Cienfuegos. People was generally very friendly and helpful.

Strava ride

Find our recording of this ride here in Strava.

Cuba day 4. Palma Rubia (Cayo Levisa) – Viñales

Palma Rubia is not only a handy stop to break the road towards Viñales but it is the closest place to sleep around Cayo Levisa. Never mind the 35CUC needed to take you there that includes the boat trip, two drinks, and the rather regular meal. The beach is absolutely amazing, picture Cancun a few decades ago. It’s your choice if you want to see people or be on your own at this paradise.

We were told Cubans are not permitted there, we thought it was something similar to the no lobster or shrimps to locals rule leaving the high price tag items for tourists to bring money into the economy. We later understood they are actually allowed to go there, they just need to open their coffers and give away a month and a half worth of their salary to visit Cayo Levisa, enough reason for not seeing any local enjoying their own beaches sadly.

You have a few choices to take the boat in the morning and a few more to come back right before sunset. Don’t expect super nice meals there and be ready to find the typical all inclusive tourist attitude around you. The place is understaffed and is easy to see that they need to be patient with the lack of resources they have and super demanding tourists. The buffet offers the regular rice, beans, fried fish, chicken, pork, pasta, fruit, etc.

Next day we had an amazing breakfast again at the Casa Particular. We left candies to the worker for her daughter who was super excited and had not seen a lollypop before. Our German cyclist colleagues gave a much wiser gift, notebooks and pencils… how come we didn’t think of that instead of the unneeded sugar!

As we were preparing Spaghetti and were about to leave earlier than the Germans -for first time- we noticed another broken connector. This time the change was much quicker but we left the place last. At this point we only have one spare connector that can break, otherwise we will need to improvise on how to make our gears work. Pretty much like Cubans do everyday with anything.

The road had beautiful views, hilly and full of holes. We met over the road another couple on a Tandem. Their bike doubled Spaghetti’s weight but they had almost no gear in comparison to us with our 4 panniers, handlebar bag (for money, passports, habanero sauce, alcohol gel, mosquito repellent, multitool), and our rear “sausage” center bag (carrying shoes and food).

They had a few decades of experience traveling the world under their belt. “Have you cycled Thailand?” we asked. “Yes, we’ve crossed it five times”. And so was their answer for many other countries. Their attire including shoes had nothing to do with our carefully sourced -purchased, tried, returned, repeat- high tech gear, I guess they were at their home couch comfortably watching TV and suddenly jumped into their tandem to travel the world.

Other cyclist also congregated to our conversation at the side of the highway. The German couple that stayed at the same place in Cabanas and Palma Rubia, and a Canadian couple that travelled with one shirt each, they were going to sell their cheap mountain bikes at the end of their ride. Arriving to Viñales we stopped for lunch and before leaving we had again a flat rear tire. So we were not only the less experienced, but also the most gear loaded cyclist and with the most mechanic problems. Not that anyone cared but at least we were the fastest on the road. Overtaking other cyclist is a breeze on Spaghetti -when everything works that is-.