We are continuing to have the most wonderful time in Cuba. For the past few weeks we have been riding in the East, from Holguin to Santiago de Cuba. With spectacular scenery – mountains, deserts, coastal roads and lovely towns, villages and cities – and super warm people this is our favourite part of Cuba.
If you’ve just got a few weeks to visit Cuba and you love hills, aren’t afraid of the heat, have some mountain biking experience for the stretches of rough road and Spanish to make friends in the more remote regions, this is where we’d recommend going.
We’ve been meeting lots of cyclists on the road – along with all the usual people riding. So far none of them are participating in the Tour of Cuba that starts in early February, but they are getting excited about it and are happy to chat about it as we ride along together.
On the road into Guardalavaca, we met Carlos who was coming home from a 100km training ride. When we told him the tandem was down to one gear instead of its usual three (it still had 8 on the other ring), he said we should meet his mechanic – the best in the whole province – in Banes the next day. Carlos said his mechanic worked at the sports school in Banes and he’d introduce us. After we rode into Guardalavaca, Carlos single handedly carried the solid steel tandem to the balcony of the third floor apartment where we were staying – a feat we didn’t think was possible – and told us he would meet us on the road to Banes the next day.
As promised, Carlos caught up to us midway into a thrilling downhill about 10 km from Banes and led us into town and to a beautiful Casa Particular with a front porch looking out into the mountains. I’ve always loved sitting on the front porch and watching the world go by, but there’s so much more to see and so many people to talk to that it’s become a hobby here in Cuba. After we got settled at the casa, Carlos led us through town to the school where his mechanic worked.
It didn’t take long for the assessment – the tandem needed a lot more lubrication. We had been using a racing lube, but with all the heat, humidity and dust, a heavier lube is just what chains and gears need.
Carlos treated us to pizzas at his favourite pizza place and led us back to the casa – introducing us to lots of friends and relatives along the way – for a rest. When he’s not training for Masters bike races, Carlos is a carpenter, carving beautiful wooden bed frames, mirrors and armoires. It was such a pleasure getting to know him and sharing our passion for cycling with him.
Banes ended up being one of our favourite towns. Just 30 km from the touristy town of Guardalavaca, Banes is off the beaten track and full of people going about their business. It’s also home to lots of delicious street food. With our biking appetites, we are always ready to enjoy tasty treats. We had corn fritters smothered in garlic sauce, mango ice cream and pateles (cookies with guyaba jam filling). While I rested in the evening, Derek and Anna Sierra went off to the park to check out some rides and Jasper watched cartoons with the grandma at the casa. Rumour has it they were holding hands.
Carlos was the first of three different cycling escorts we’ve had into various towns. Herbert, a retired Swiss national ironman triathlete met us on the road into Guantanamo. We were on the last 5 km of a long, hot 80km day and really needed a boost for the final stretch. Herbert led us into town and to his wife, Yali’s Casa Particular where we stayed for two days, getting to know the family, including Yali and Herbert’s adorable 8 month old son, Alejandro.
The next day Herbert took us on a ride to see an amazing stone zoo about 25km out of town. He warned us that it was “a bit steep” at the end, but it ended up being so steep that Derek, Jasper and I had to stop half way up when we saw bananas and mandarins for sale. We took so long snacking on fruit and chatting with the lady selling it that Anna and Herbert rode back down the hill to look for us. We were all (including Herbert) blown away by the zoo.
We thought there would be a handful of stone sculptures, but there were over 300 exquisite life-sized sculptures set into the rocks that led up a hill to an incredible view. After over 30 years of sculpting, the founding sculptor died, but his son is continuing his work. While his father favoured animals attacking each other, his son has an eye for contemporary Cuban village life. The scenes of an ox cart driver, a cowboy leading a line of stubborn donkeys and a stone house complete with a grandpa drinking coffee, a mom looking out the window and a mischievous boy peeking out from behind curtains were our favourite works.
Three more cyclists met us on the road into Santiago de Cuba where we finished our “Far East” tour. Although they just finished a Saturday morning race, they were excited to hear about our trip and happy to lead us through town – including past three busy and confusing intersections – to a casa. There we met a kind and wonderful family. Ramon, a retired military helicopter pilot was always making sure that we ate our bananas and loved telling us about the park nearby where little kids could go for a ride in a cart pulled by a goat.
Ramon’s wife Emily, is a doctor in the emergency room of one of at least six hospitals in town (there’s a maternal hospital, two general hospitals, two children’s hospitals, a hospital that specializes in cancer treatment and another specialist hospital) and made a mousaka that melted in our mouths and brought us back to my mom’s kitchen. And their son Ramon is a computer science professor at the university.
In 2012, Santiago de Cuba was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Many of the colonial buildings downtown as well as people’s homes and businesses are under repair. It’s a slow, steady process of recovery and the disaster is still very fresh for the residents. Derek took us to see a maqueta of the city (a scale model of the city complete with all the homes, parks, hills and even the oil refinery) and all around the maqueta were poster boards of Santiago’s emergency measures plans, communication development strategies and smart growth charts.
After two days exploring Santiago de Cuba, especially its lively pedestrian Boulevard, we carried on along the legendary south coast where parts of the road are under repair post Hurricane and stunning views of ocean meeting mountains follow the route.
Sending lots of love and our best wishes!