With winds being from the east and only having a month in the country, I was either going to have to just tour around Havana, or take some sort of transport. I went with the easy option of taking a Viazul bus from Havana to Holguin in the east. They are buses aimed at tourists and the one to Holguin cost about 45 CUC for the 750km. I could have tried my luck hitching a lift, or bargaining, but it was much easier just going to the bus terminal, and going with the luxury option.
We pulled in to Holguin at about 7am and, within 5 minutes of getting my bike off the bus, 4 people offered to buy my bike from me. Apparently it’s because a lot of cyclists come to Cuba and then leave their bikes there. I guess it makes sense, but I wouldn’t be leaving mine!
I looked around for food, figuring that a bus terminal would be a great place to find it, as they had been in Mexico. There was one place, but the only things they had on their menu were cigarettes and rum, a common sight. Alexei, a Russian backpacker, was also looking for food, and we set off walking together. He works as a translator and has been travelling for the previous year, but being a translator has managed to keep earning on his way. All he needs is an internet connection, and he was disheartened when I told him about how terrible the internet is in Cuba. 6 CUC an hour to get dialup speeds on 10+ year old computers. When you’re unlucky, you can wait for 15-20 minutes for a page to fail to load, when you’re lucky it’s just 2-3.
We found a CUC cafe in the centre of town that opened at 8, and were told nothing else would be open until 9 at the earliest. Food places either charge in CUC or CUP, and I made it my mission to only pay for stuff in CUP if at all possible. I sat around while Alexei had a coffee and sandwich. He was happy to pay the 2.50 CUC, but I was patiently waiting.
While we were in the cafe, a guy in his 60s kept trying to walk inside to ask people for money. Every time he did, the men behind the counter shouted at him and tried shepherding him out again. We were there for about an hour and this little game kept going on. He seemed to try to time it so that when the waiters took an order, he would come in, giving him the most time to be annoying. One family gave him something, but even though he came up to us on three separate occasions, we gave him nothing.
After 9, we wandered around the streets and found a small restaurant upstairs. We got a good sized omelette, bread and a hot chocolate for 15 CUP. Alexei couldn’t believe how cheap it was, and it turned out that 8 CUP of that was the hot chocolate.
We parted ways with Alexei heading to find a bus to go to the beach and me heading out on my bike. There was barely any traffic, but there was the luxury of a separated bike lane to get me out of town. Leaving town I saw more bikes than I did cars and while the number of bikes fell as I left, the number of cars stayed low. I rode through the countryside, past lots of sugar cane and started to get hungry. Thankfully, at that moment a man appeared on the right hand side of the road selling biscuits and shortly after there was a little stand where farmers were selling fresh cheese.
I had been intending to camp, but having been told about the need to be very stealthy when picking a place hadn’t found one yet. I had stopped in the town of Levisa to get some food and found a pizza stand and was delighted to find they only cost 5 CUP outside of Havana. While I was wolfing the pizzas down, the owner of the stand asked me where I was staying. I was a little cagey, having been warned about wild camping before getting to Cuba, and told him I didn’t know. He mentioned that there was a lady in town who offered her room out and that’s where lots of cyclists stayed. When he told me it was only 100 CUP (4 CUC), as opposed to the normal 15-20 CUC that I’d heard about, I decided to follow the owner’s friend.
We knocked on the door, and after the lady inside looked around she quickly whisked me inside and showed me to a bedroom before vanishing again. I got comfortable and when she appeared a few minutes later I tried to confirm the price while I still had time to go, but when I asked she said we could talk about that later because she was busy. Poor idea. I tried sleeping on the bed, but it was really rather uncomfortable so got my sleeping pad out.
The next morning, as I was trying to leave, the owner told me that I owed her 20 CUC. I quite clearly explained that I’d tried to work it out with her the night before, and that I’d been told it was 100 CUP (4 CUC). I gave her the CUP that I’d agreed the night before and left.
After the slightly awkward departure I decided to find food at the next place. That came about 10km down the road with a little shack. There was definitely a confused look about what I was doing there, and that was only exacerbated when I ordered 12 of the only food on the menu, guava jam sandwiches, for 12 CUP. That might sound a lot of food, but they were just small rolls and 8 of them got put in my Ziploc bags to eat later.
A couple of hours later I got to a small town and stopped for lunch. I still had sandwiches left, but there was a town square and I got my first 1 CUP ice-cream cone – definitely up there as one of my favourite things about Cuba! It was also there that I realised that the 5 CUP pizzas from the night before were the norm and I realised just how cheap eating in Cuba was going to be.
My Bicycling Cuba book and a few Cubans I spoke to had warned of hills and there definitely were some, but after the fairly recent horror of climbing in Guatemala, they felt thoroughly pleasant. I realised then that this would be the situation for the rest of the rides in the route descriptions, which makes sense. It’s aimed at people who, while travelling lighter than I do, obviously haven’t spent so long recently sat on a bike.
Near the end of the day I saw my first spandexed Cuban. We were just approaching the nickel mining town of Moa and spoke for a while. I was still nervous about telling people that I was planning on camping, so just said I wasn’t sure where I was staying. He offered to meet up the next morning to ride together, but with my plans to wild camp I made excuses and went to find food. Thinking back, and with my knowledge that camping either in the middle of a forest, or on someone’s porch, is fine in Cuba, it would have been a blast to ride with him the next day. As it was, I filled my 2 Ziploc bags up with cheese sandwiches and headed out.
Leaving Moa, you spend about 20km riding through large potholes and the effects of the local nickel industry, with not only the tops of hills having been stripped, but a couple of large ugly smelters. One has a sign that let me know that taking photos was prohibited, as they don’t want others to know that they have an area that ugly, pumping pollution out and a leaking pipeline with a rather sulphurous smell. There were plenty of places that I could have hidden my tent, but I knew that I could get out of that before it got too dark to ride.
I made it through the most scarred area, although the potholes continued to be sizable enough that you could lose a pet in one pretty easily – still better than the ones later, which seemed big enough to set up a tent in! Even though I’ve used my tent a lot over the past two years, and since leaving the US in particular, it’s mainly been after knocking on someone’s door or asking at a restaurant, so looking for a good place to camp was making me a little nervous. Luck was on my side however, as the lack of any traffic made investigating possible places easy and the second place I considered ended up looking good. I pulled my bike up the hill and down the other side to the edge of a wooded area and set up tent, trying to be as stealthy as possible, going to the extent that the couple of times I saw headlights passing I maintained complete silence with the strange idea that the drivers would hear me opening my bags over their engines.
With the tent up, I dined on cheese sandwiches and after spending a little concern my talent came in and I passed out for the night. Being able to sleep so easily is such an advantage when travelling this way. It was one of the reasons why Peter would always want to get up later than me. Even if we got in our tents at the same time, he generally took an hour or so to doze off, compared with my 5-10 minutes.
Having gone to sleep fairly early, I was up with the sun and after my cheese sandwich breakfast was off on the road to Baracoa. The road condition varied enormously, with some short stretches of near-perfect paving, lots of parts which aren’t too bad if you’re attentive, a few where you’re basically doing uphill moguls trying to find the best line, and then one part where the road kicked uphill and was made up of rocks varying from gravel to football-sized.
I’d stopped just before the hill at the first place to eat that I’d seen all day and had been told that I would most definitely be walking up. I’ve been described as competitive and stubborn before, so having heard that I wouldn’t be able to get up, there was only one possibility – I was getting up without walking. It wasn’t actually that steep, but the rocks meant that it was challenging to find a line. The edges of the road seemed to have the fewest large rocks, but that led to being forced to go off-road to keep going. I could probably work on that part of my mind-set, as it could lead to problems when the off-road climbing gets more ridiculous, as I can only imagine it will if I go over less-travelled mountain passes in the Andes.
Not long after the hill, the road finally started being next to the Caribbean and had some well-hidden beaches that looked like they were only ever stopped at by locals and cyclists. One of them provided the perfect place to pull over and have a couple of hour break to read, during which not one other person came to my private beach.
I had a contact in Baracoa called Osmel from Couchsurfing, so went to visit him at his house when I got into town. There are not too many people on Couchsurfing in Cuba for several reasons. The lack of internet access is obviously one of them, but there is also the problem with the regulations. I’m not sure I completely understand them, but basically… if you want to run a casa particular (private house, very similar to a bed & breakfast) you have to have a licence. There are two types, one that lets you host Cubans and one to host foreigners. The one for Cubans costs a minimal amount, but the other one is a lot. I was told prices range between 100 and 200 CUC a month per room. Given the average salary of 20 CUC, it’s obviously nigh-on impossible to save that much without having family overseas to help you out. As tourism is the largest source of income in the Cuban economy, and these people have paid so much for their licences, the government try to protect it. They believe that if you’re staying with someone, it’s got to be because you’re paying for it and so things like Couchsurfing aren’t really allowed. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s definitely under the table – hence why I’d been rushed into the house in Levisa.
Anyway, I wasn’t staying with Osmel; although his family ran a casa it was for Cubans. We sat round talking and watching the football (the frustrating second leg of Manchester United v Real Madrid was on TV), before he helped me find a place to stay. The casa I stayed in was owned by a lady whose daughter was living in Germany, having got married to a German she met in Baracoa a few years ago. They lived in a lovely house, and for anyone travelling to Cuba that’s probably surprising. My parents came to Cuba, but stayed in hotels as part of their package tour. On the whole, the casas for foreigners are nearly all incredibly nice and with a standard rate of 20-25 CUC per room are completely affordable.
On my 2nd day in Baracoa I was going to ride along the coast towards the eastern tip of Cuba. The actual tip is in a military zone and so only accessible to Cubans or tourists in a tour group, but there are apparently some pretty beaches along the way. Before doing so I had a lazy morning looking around town, and was just about to leave when I saw two cycle tourists on the side of the road. I was excited to see them, and incredibly surprised when I realised that one of them was Nick, who had been my Warmshowers host on my first night in Mexico almost a year earlier. He recognised me and we were both gobsmacked. He’d been on the road for a couple of months since leaving San Diego with his friend Martin. They were planning on heading out that day and were leaving around noon, having been out drinking till sunrise the night before. I had an instant choice and easily decided to skip hanging out for another day in Baracoa so I could ride with them.
Sat round in town
First night camping
Road to Baracoa