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One Month Bike Tour Of Cuba (Part IV)

Posted March 25th, 2013

After two weeks of very slow cycling (thanks to our wobbly start and the antibiotics that followed), we’re about halfway through our bike tour of Cuba and the towns of Santa Clara and Remedios are next on our agenda.

First up is Santa Clara, a city made famous by the fact that the last battle of the Cuban Revolution took place here in 1958. This momentous occasion is marked by a huge monument to Che Guevara.

Che monument in Santa Clara

Santa Clara is about 80km from Cienfuegos so we pack up early. We’re not sure if we can make the distance. There might be a headwind and we’re not always very quick with a baby on board. As we load up the bikes, the friendly B&B owner comes out to entertain Luke. Cubans simply love kids.

Leaving Cienfuegos

The road is fairly flat and – to be frank – a bit boring. We try (and fail) to figure out the many revolutionary slogans, and we gaze at the endless fields of sugar care alongside the road.

Cycling towards Santa Clara

There are no real tourist attractions but we make our own fun at roadside drinks stalls. Keys always put a smile on Luke’s face, and almost everyone is willing to lend him a set when we stop.

Andrew & Luke at a roadside cafe

To our amazement, we make Santa Clara by the end of the afternoon without feeling rushed. We strike a ridiculous pose in front of the famous monument (actually, it’s just Friedel looking ridiculous in this photo – why didn’t anyone tell her??) and head into town.

In front of the Che Monument, Santa Clara

Santa Clara, as we soon find out, is a bike photographer’s dream! Here’s just one of the cool bicycles we spotted. This one is a moveable market stall.

Vegetable seller

And the local people are displaying some bike skills that make us quite nostalgic for home in the Netherlands!

Cyclists in Santa Clara, Cuba

Another day, and a few more kilometers down the road, Friedel gets the chance to try a Cuban bike. The back-pedal brakes barely work and the chain is rusty but it puts a smile on her face!

Friedel on Jose's bike (in Remedios)

Luke, meanwhile, is more interested in the retro 1950s playgrounds and their squeaking swings.

Luke at a Cuban playground

Next up for us will be the city of Sancti Spiritus, and a ride that’s reputed to be the most beautiful in Cuba!

*This is the fourth in a series of journal entries about our one-month, 750km tour of Cuba. See the first entry, the second and the third. More coming soon!

A One Month Bike Tour Of Cuba (Part III)

Posted March 9th, 2013

After an all-day bus journey, we turn up in the central Cuban city of Cienfuegos around sunset.

We’re happy to be here at all because the bus was overbooked and about 10 people were left behind in Viñales. This is a side-effect of travelling in the high season in Cuba: very busy public transport.

Thankfully, it’s no problem to find a room for the night so we quickly park our luggage and go exploring. Within a few minutes we end up at the pier, where a group of men are fishing for their dinner.

Fishing off the pier in Cienfugos

We’re not here for the fishing opportunities, however. We’re here to go cycling in the surrounding area. There are numerous day trips outlined in the Bicycling Cuba book and the next morning we tackle one of them: out to a nearby penninsula and back by ferry.

The road out of the town has plenty of traffic, but it’s all relatively slow-moving. We don’t mind sharing our road-space with this kind of traffic!

Public Transport In Cuba

Before long, the sun is rising and we’re drinking heaps of water to cope with the heat. We’re so glad we brought our water filter. At the rate we go through water (several litres a day), it would cost a small fortune to buy it all, not to mention the environmental cost of continuously throwing out plastic bottles.

Hot and thirsty cycling near Cienfuegos

There are also hills. Okay, it’s not quite the Himalayas but with temperatures over 30°C it doesn’t take much to wear us out.

Hills in Cuba

Eventually we get to the beach, where we take a short break before hopping the ferry back into Cienfuegos. The locals pay 1 peso for the ride and bikes go free. We each pay $1 American dollar and another $1 U.S. for our bikes. There’s no way around the tourist charge: they know we don’t have any option, aside from backtracking 30km.

Bikes on the ferry

And then, just as we’ve paid up (all the while muttering under our breath about the inflated cost), this boat rolls up.

The real ferry boat

We ask the captain where it’s going. He mumbles something about Cienfuegos. We become confused. There’s more questioning (from us) and mumbling (from the captain) and then we realise…. we’ve just paid $2 U.S. each for a ride on the wrong boat. Damn!

Off one boat, on to the other, another $4 U.S. paid, 20 minutes below deck with 100 other sweating people and …. finally … Cienfuegos. That was an expensive and exhausting ferry ride!

On the ferry back to Cienfuegos

Back in Cienfuegos, we’re on the final days of Luke’s course of antibiotics so we do some general lounging. This includes a bit of bike-gazing …

Bikes In Cuba

… boat watching …. (this is a fishing boat, made out of styrofoam)

styrofoam boat

… and sunsets on the pier. Next stop, Santa Clara!

Cienfuegos Pier

*This is the third in a series of journal entries about our one-month, 750km tour of Cuba. Click here for the first entry and here for the second. More coming soon!

A One Month Bike Tour Of Cuba (Part II)

Posted February 10th, 2013

After a rocky start to our Cuban bike tour, we’re finally starting to enjoy ourselves. The cycling around the Viñales area is beautiful and it’s not hard to see why this is one of Cuba’s most popular tourist regions.

Touring near Vinales

The towering cliffs remind us a little of the limestone mountains in Laos. Thankfully the road condition is much better than the mud we had to plough through in 2008!

Mountains & Roads in Laos

Since we’re still waiting for Luke to complete his course of antibiotics, we decide to follow a few of the day trips from the Bicycling Cuba book. We load Luke in the trailer, play a bit of peek-a-boo with the sun shade and off we go.

Luke in the trailer

First we head for a local swimming hole. It’s Christmas Day and yet we have the whole place to ourselves.

Swimming Hole

On our way back, we cross paths with this cyclist. He’s taking a bicycle-load full of cabbage and spring onions to a local market and when we meet he’s actually pushing the bike up a steep hill. For Cubans this is fairly typical. They transport all kinds of things on bikes that seem terribly awkward and heavy to us.

Bok Choy seller and his delivery bicycle

The next day we ride 30km to the waterfront town of Puerto Esperanza. The name sounds lovely but in truth the town is a bit rough around the edges. We try to walk out on the pier but after just a few meters we’re stopped because the boards are literally falling apart around our feet. At least the view is nice!

Puerto Esperanza

Despite a lack of general charm, we do manage to find one very good thing in Puerto Esperanza: the Villa Dora guesthouse where we order lunch. Within half an hour a lobster dinner is laid out in front of us, complete with a salad and two beers on the side.

One of the best lobster dinners we had at Villa Dora in Puerto Esperanza

This turns out to be one of the best meals in all of Cuba. Instead of the tough meat or overcooked fish that we’re normally served, this lobster is tender and delicious. It even comes with a sauce! Sauces of any kind are a novelty in Cuba and we even though our meal turns out to be fairly expensive (24 CUC or  €17) we decide it’s worth every penny.

We complement the chef on her cooking skills and she bluntly declares:

It’s good because I know how to cook, and most people in Cuba don’t. They overcook everything.

We would have to agree. Time and time again during our month in Cuba, we were disappointed by the food. Aside from the breakfasts, which are overflowing with fresh fruit, eggs and bread, we soon tire of rice, beans, more rice, more beans and mountains of tough, dry meat.

Ugh.

Thankfully we manage to find relief from the Cuban street restaurants. They’re rarely open in the evenings (except in the biggest cities) but during the day we can feast on things like street pizza, available everywhere and freshly cooked for just pennies.

Street Pizza (we consumed hundreds of these in Cuba)

We also stop frequently at small fruit and vegetable stands by the side of the road, where we can buy cucumbers, tomatoes, pineapples and bananas. They’re grown in organic gardens all over Cuba. Our Swiss army knife comes in very handy to carve up all our market purchases.

Vegetable seller (pineapples cost about 10 cents)

For snacks while cycling, we can find a good selection of cookies in the small corner shops.

cookies

And finally, we occasionally stumble across a tasty plate of spaghetti.

Cuban spaghetti

It’s food like this that will keep us going as we throw our bikes on a bus to the city of Cienfuegos, where we’ll cycle 500km around Central Cuba.

*This is the second in a series of journal entries about our one-month, 750km tour of Cuba. Click here for the first entry. More coming soon!

A One Month Bike Tour Of Cuba (Part I)

Posted February 6th, 2013

Aaaaaaaahchooo!

It’s December 17th. We’re on a plane to Cuba and excited to cycle for a month around the island but there’s a problem: in addition to our bikes and bags, we’ve also managed to pack a winter flu bug from Europe. Friedel is sneezing and feeling sorry for herself. By the time we get settled in our Havana hotel, she’s lost her appetite and spends the next two days in a hazy, feverish sleep.

Luke thankfully takes little notice of germs or jetlag and instead focuses on countering the 30°C heat by splashing around in his personal, portable bathtub: an Ortlieb bicycle pannier.

Luke in the "bath"

By day three, Friedel has mostly recovered and declares that it’s time to escape the city so we load up our bikes, turn west and cycle out of Havana. The first few kilometers are chaotic: blaring horns, clouds of black smoke from the cars and potholes all distract our attention. We never feel unsafe or threatened by the traffic but it’s also not what we would call pleasant cycling.

Once beyond the city limits, it’s a different story. The roads are nearly empty and there’s plenty of time to admire the stunningly blue water.

First day leaving Havana

It’s not just the colour of the water that’s intense in Cuba. The sun is also a force to be reckoned with. It’s been a long time since we were cycling in such a warm climate but we recover our old habits quickly enough.

The routine goes like this: Up at 6am to pack bags and shower. Breakfast at 7am. On the road before 8am. Cycle like mad until about 11am, by which point it’s time for a break in the shade. We stop frequently in the afternoon and this means that our progress is very slow but this isn’t a concern for us. We’re in no hurry and roadside rest stops are also a chance to play with Luke.

Just outside of Mariel

As usual, we’re amazed by this little boy of ours. The common ‘wisdom’ seems to be that travel and kids are incompatible but our experience has been just the opposite. Is everyone else misguided? Are we just lucky? We’ll probably never know but we can genuinely say that travelling with Luke is no harder than staying at home.

In fact, travelling with Luke is even better than being home because we can both focus on his needs. We are not distracted by work, household chores or the internet. For his part, Luke shows his natural travelling genes by adjusting remarkably well to every new situation, food and experience that we throw at him.

Everything, that is, except the germs. A mere 100km out of Havana and it becomes clear that Friedel passed her illness to Luke. He starts crying for no apparent reason. We feed him, change him and play with him but to no avail. We know something is wrong so we make a beeline for the nearest B&B. That’s how we end up at Villa Juanita, just outside the tiny tourist village of Las Terrazas. It’s on the main road but there’s little around for entertainment aside from the ‘farmer’s market’ that rolls in by horse and cart once every couple of days.

Farmer's Market

We end up spending three days at Villa Juanita, nursing Luke back to health. While we’re there, we play countless games of Scrabble and test out the famous Cuban medical system. The doctor doesn’t speak much English but does give us medication to bring down Luke’s fever and enough antibiotics, painkillers and vitamins to fill an entire pannier. The cost? Free. Even the taxi driver didn’t want to charge us for the journey into town and back.

Finally, we’re ready to move on but Luke has a course of antibiotics to take and they have to be kept refrigerated. This means we can’t cycle from town to town – at least not for a few days. Instead we take a taxi to the provincial city of Pinar del Rio, get a room in a casa particular (a type of Cuban B&B) and go exploring.

We end up at a baseball game: Pinar del Rio versus Matanzas. The tickets to a national league match are 4 cents each (1 Cuban peso). Without a zoom lens, our camera doesn’t do a good job of capturing the game but we do grab this shot of kids in the stands.

Baseball Game

Note the tobacco leaf in the logo of the baseball team. Tobacco is an important crop in this area, as we see the next day when we cycle the 30km or so to Viñales. The broad leaves of tobacco plants are sticking up everywhere from the bright red soil.

Tobacco

The other thing we soon notice are revolutionary billboards, often with images of Che Guevara. We stop to pose by the first one, but soon become immune to them as there’s literally one (and often several) in every town.

Eight days, one taxi ride, 130km of cycling and several vials of antibiotics later we arrive in Viñales. The views are inspiring. It seems the perfect place to park ourselves for another few days to celebrate Christmas, allow Luke to finish taking his medicine and try to get our bike tour back on track.

*This is the first in a series of journal entries about our one-month, 750km tour of Cuba. Click here for Part II. More coming soon!

Three Great Bike Touring Routes In Europe

Posted February 4th, 2013

Every February, thousands of cyclists come to Amsterdam for the Fietsenwandelbeurs. It’s a gigantic fair centred on everything of interest for bike tourists, hikers, campers and anyone who enjoys the outdoors.

As part of the event, 3 bike routes are nominated for ‘best bike route of the year’. Here are the 2013 selections.

1. Velodyssey – The Atlantic Cycling Route
The top choice of this year’s judges is Velodyssey: a 1,200km bike route that starts in Britain and runs all the way down the western coast of France to the Spanish border. It’s France’s longest waymarked bike path and connects up neatly with the Eurovelo 6 and Eurovelo 4 routes.

2. Burgundy By Bike (Tour De Bourgogne)
The Tour De Bourgogne sounds like a food-loving cyclists’ dream. It’s a 580km bike route (soon to be expanded to 800km) that passes through the gastronomic capital of Dijon and famous wine regions around Mâcon. The route is set partly along voie vertes, canals and disused railway lines, where no motorised traffic is allowed. Detailed route descriptions and a GPS track are available from the website.

Tour De Bourgogne

#3. The Vennbahn
At just 125km in length, the Vennbahn is the shortest of the three nominated routes. Unless you live nearby, it’s not likely to be a destination in its own right but could make a nice addition to a longer tour. It traces the path of an old railway line through Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. The website has some good information about the route and the area, including intriguing stories about the coffee smugglers that roamed the border areas of Germany and Belgium after World War II.