Transport in Cuba
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Want to meet Cubans, not tourists? Hop on a bike

Want to meet Cubans, not tourists? Hop on a bike
ANWAR ALI
BARACOA, CUBA — Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Nov. 05, 2015 12:33PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Nov. 05, 2015 2:13PM EST

Firmly entrenched in Cuba’s reputation as a travel destination are cheap
resorts, flee-flowing rum and antique American cars, stubborn holdouts
of an embargo-scarred nation. But in a country of stunted growth and
steadfast determination, Cuba is earning praise as one of the easiest
countries in the world to bike. All that’s needed is a little endurance
and an inclination to climb. As an avid urban cyclist, touring seemed a
way to explore a country at my own pace, allow for chance encounters
with average citizens and avoid the dreadful hop-on, hop-off ritual of
most guided bus trips.

I chose to ride in Cuba at the tail-end of its rainy season, longing for
another view of the country after my first visit six years ago, before
imminent political upheaval takes its course and Americans eagerly put
their stamp on the island country.

Bike touring isn’t for visitors more inclined to sip mojitos at
Varadero’s resorts, or those who hope to brush past Ernest Hemingway’s
spirit in the touristy booze can La Bodeguita del Medio. Instead, biking
to some of Cuba’s relatively obscure beaches would offer me the
opportunity to stretch my legs before stretching out on the sand.

I’d already spent a week biking with a group in a G Adventures tour and
seen the limestone mogotes in the western Vinales Valley. I wanted
another week for a solo adventure in the east. To cover as much ground
as possible in that span, I elected on a couple of day trips that rimmed
the coast.

I planned my jaunt over a distinctly Baracoan lunch: a delightful pulpo
en Bacan (octopus stewed in coconut milk with cilantro and a bija, or
annatto, paste that gives it a reddish hue) and canchachara, a white rum
cocktail with a honey foundation underneath a mound of ice.

I would start here in Baracoa, the country’s most eastern city, and
travel 35 kilometres to Boca de Yumuri, a sleepy fishing village split
by its namesake river and flanked by an imposing, picturesque canyon.

My proposed route is a tranquil contrast to the traffic along one of
Cuba’s busiest streets, Havana’s Paseo de Marti: gone is the incessant
rush of auto rickshaws, three-wheel pedal bike taxis, horse carriages,
pre-revolution Yankee-mobiles, modern import sedans and buses that all
pass within seconds of each other.

At 9 a.m., it’s already hot when I hop on the bike I’ve borrowed by way
of a bici-taxista, one of the city’s bicycle-rickshaw drivers. On this
Sunday, the city is still sleeping off the salsa dancing from the night
before. I ride along the malecon promenade, beyond which the sun rays
tickle the water of the Bahia de Miel. There are few stores en route, so
I’m grateful for the hearty breakfast of tropical fruits, Baracoa’s
famous hot chocolate, coffee and the standard ration of bread and
cheese. I am headed for the first (and only) serious incline, some five
kilometres out of town. A few onlookers mouth a greeting. One girl
yells, “Dale, dale, tu puedes!” C’mon, you can do it!

The first town, Jamal, is at the 12-kilometre mark. I coast into the
main plaza, where local folk gather to share their news. After a brief
pause to survey the scene, I move on to find an unpaved dirt road with
its own miniature mountain range of exposed rock, where farm animals
roam freely. Baby chickens ignore me as they dart across my path. A goat
snorts at some agitated piglets.

About six kilometres along this trail, I arrive at the first beach,
Playa Cajuajo. It’s small, secluded and empty. A young man who lives
nearby, Mitchell, offers to bring me a Cristal beer. I park my bike –
this beach is worth a longer pause than sleepy Jamal. I take my
front-row seat on the sand to watch the courtship in front of me, the
waves a gentleman caller kneeling every few seconds, persistent, but
time after time rebuked by the shore.

The fins of fishermen suddenly slap the water. Two men emerge onto the
shore in snorkelling gear, carrying an assortment of cojinua (scad),
salmon, octopus and pargo (porgy). A seafood lunch is tempting, but I
forge ahead.

Less than a kilometre further along the road, I face my first real
challenge: a puncture from not one, but two nails. I remove the tube to
find a rip nearly an inch long. Determined not to waste time fumbling
with a flat, I ask an elderly man passing by to go for help.

Minutes later a local man arrives accompanied by his family. Together,
Luis Enrique and I try to patch the tube but give up. After deliberating
the options, we finally pump air into my spare tube. “No se como
agredecerle.” I don’t know how to thank you, I say. Luis smiles, and
replies that here I have a friend.

Back on the highway, I divert down a small road again to for fear of
missing a hidden gem. I’m glad I do: the road to Bahia Mata reveals a
vast blue opening to the sea with empty fishing boats waiting to be
taken out for the day.

Four men sit idly nearby, one holding a chicken by its neck. Wary of
their insistence that I drink rum with them, I give one a coin for a
swig and move on.

It’s another 30 kilometres to the next beach – Playa Manglito – but it’s
dishevelled with dead palm leaves scattered about. I don’t linger long,
and opt instead for the black sand of Playa Barigua a short distance
away. Here, regueton tunes (a muddled blend of reggae, hip-hop and
salsa) bounce in the distance. A goat bleats in protest. I dive into the
water.

Soon, I’m pedalling again, passing through a rock canopy called Paso
Aleman, eager to reach Boca de Yumuri, my final destination. In the late
afternoon, it’s too late to take a boat excursion through the canyon and
hike the surrounding cliffs, as some visitors do when they stop here on
a tour out of Baracoa. As a consolation, I climb a steep road to watch
the river caress the Bahia de Matanzas.

I linger at a snack bar, secretly hoping a truck will stop that could
take me back to Baracoa. But after loitering an hour, I realize that
either I’ll be stranded or riding back along a dark highway. With a
renewed sense of urgency, I’m glad to be on my bike, especially when I
see red streaks splash across the sky while the sun sets above the hills.

Two days later, between a brief layover in Guantanamo, I’m on a bus to
Santiago to begin the second part of this journey. Several hills loom in
the distance and to pass the time, I pretend I’m discovering them and
give each one a name: La Conquista for the tallest, La Gran Decepción
for the one next to it.

Bike rental shops aren’t commonplace in Cuba, so I procure my bike by
negotiating with jineteros, or touts, in Santiago’s main square, Parque
Cespedes. It has an upright frame that’s not designed for aggressive
riding, but the functioning brakes and gear shifts meet my modest
requirements.

The goal today is 15 kilometres to another beach, Playa Siboney along
the mostly flat highway, which is in a sharp contrast to the wavy
streets of Santiago.

Pedalling, I see so much more of the countryside. Farmers walk alongside
their cattle. Men transport goods strapped to the racks of their bikes.
A man chops grass with a scythe.

I arrive to see a basketball team doing training drills on the sand. I
dart past them and jump into the water. While I float, I watch fluffs of
cotton conspiring to smother the sun. The clouds win.

I recall something from a conversation with a retired philosophy teacher
in Baracoa. Materialism isn’t the essence of life, she told me. At that
moment, I didn’t dare disagree.

Drying off on the sand, I approach a masseuse attending to a client with
Aloe Vera plants. She slaps oil on my back for little more than $5.
Nearby I find a paladar, a licensed family-run restaurant, and enjoy a
lobster lunch. It’s the fuel I need for a spontaneous 25-kilometre
detour to El Castillo El Morro, a centuries-old castle with dazzling
views of the coast.

I’ve lingered on the coast long enough to soak in its calm, a prelude to
Santiago’s nightlife and jarring bustle. My biking experiment brought me
closer to a more authentic Cuba. I’m glad I had a chance to come back
and see it on two wheels.

———————————-

If you go

Before you go, read Bicycling Cuba by Wally and Barbara Smith, a
kilometre-by-kilometre guide featuring dozens of routes.

The easiest way to get to Santiago or Baracoa is via Holguin. Air
Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Air Transat all offer direct flights,
although seasonal restrictions may be in effect.

From Holguin, an air-conditioned Viazul bus to Santiago is about four
hours, and eight-plus hours to Baracoa. Ask at your guesthouse or hotel
where to rent a bike, as there are no formal shops that supply them.
Each airline has a different cargo policy if you bring your own, so
check before you travel.

If a solo bike adventure isn’t for you, G Adventures offers an eight-day
cycle tour of Cuba’s provinces starting and ending in Havana. Highlights
include eco-village Las Terrazas and Cayo Jutias, a divine beach after a
full 60-kilometre day. There are some challenging hills, but there is
always a bus available to pick up a vanquished cyclist. The tour starts
at $1,649 (airfare not included).

Follow us on Twitter: @tgamtravel

Source: Want to meet Cubans, not tourists? Hop on a bike – The Globe and
Mail –
www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/destinations/want-to-meet-cubans-not-tourists-hop-on-a-bike/article27118346/

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