Section 4: The Eastern Tip
September 6: The Day of Revenge
Tortugilla to Baracoa
It was difficult to leave such a pretty place in the morning, but that's the nature of this kind of travel. The day's plan involved riding to Baracoa, where I had planned my next rest day. In between lay a mountain crossing along a road known as La Farola ("The Beacon".) During my research for this trip, I found an account by a chap from the U.K. who had ridden this road and described it as crossing "some bastard mountains." Well, I'm the type that is generally not frightened off by big mountains, spending most of my time riding through the western U.S. Nevertheless, I was about 50 km ahead of where I had planned to be at this point and, as it turned out, was quite fortunate to have a shorter day on deck for this day. Not because of the hills, or the heat, but rather due to The Revenge which I'll explain in a moment.
The day started out well enough, continuing along the desert-like southeastern coast. The first town along the way was San Antonio del Sur. By the time I arrived, the townsfolk were busy with their daily activities, and as I neared town I rode along behind a man riding a three-wheeled cargo bike. On the back was a tray holding a freshly roasted pig. His ghostly gaze looked back at me for a while, until decided I pass on by. I stopped for a couple of minutes here and had a few refrescos before continuing toward the next town of Imias.
In Imias, I stopped for break, and as I drank the drinks I picked up at a food kiosk, it was here that I began to feel Hatuey's Revenge take hold. Hatuey was an indigenous chieftain from the island of Hispaniola who was captured by the Spanish and brought to the fledgling colony of Cuba as a prisoner. Eventually, Hatuey escaped and led an unsuccessful rebellion against the Spanish, thereby becoming the Western Hemisphere's first colonial rebel. Since this happened years before Cortez wet to Mexico, what Americans glibly call Montezuma's Revenge should more properly be called Hatuey's revenge. At least when you're on Cuba.
While sitting in the little plaza in Imias, listening to unfamiliar bacteria churn through my digestive tract, I met Josue Gainza Matos, Presidente of the Club de Cicloturismo. We chatted for a while and he told me he was a teacher, as well as leading cycling groups though the area. I'm afraid that since I was starting to feel kind of lousy, I might not have made a very good conversation. So, if anyone passes though Imias in the future, please give my regards to Josue.
After a little while I began to feel that I would soon need a baņo and there was no sign of one in the immediate vicinity. So, I decided that it would be better to move on, where at least I might have a chance of finding a private bush, if needed (by no means an easy task in Cuba.) Of course, I needed one shortly after I left town, and fortunately found one, as the route to, and over, La Farola was not as crowded with people as some other roads. For a while I poked slowly along, stopping a few times to water the bushes, as the road gently rolled towards the mountains. As the day began to heat up, I reached the base of the La Farola climb. In actuality, this was not that severe of a mountain climb, starting from sea level, and reaching only just over 500 meters. Back home I wouldn't even think much about a bump in the road like this one.
However, as these things often do, my little health issue chose the most inopportune time to assert itself. As the climb started, which contained some pretty steep grades near the base, I began to feel severely dehydrated from the heat and, more importantly, from all the fluids that I was losing. Fortunately, I knew that I had essentially all day to reach Baracoa, or at very worst, could turn around and coast back to Imias. So, I did what seemed appropriate for these circumstances; I rode within my limits, stopping to rest every few hundred meters. Also, I knew better than to gulp down all the water that I had in my bottle at once, and instead sipped it slowly at reasonable intervals. This went on for what seemed like a very long time, but I continued to make slow progress up the climb.
As the elevation increased, the grades eased up a bit and the forest became much greener and thicker. The additional shade this created helped a lot, but I was still feeling hot and generally lousy when I reached one of those beautiful mountain sights, cool water squirting out of the ground. In this case, the scene was a bit more unusual, though. As I happily pulled up to drink and cool off, I encountered a local man who was busy using the water source for some mysterious task. He was wearing only a raggedy pair of pants and a straw hat, and he had transported himself to this spot by riding on a set of wooden skids that were being pulled along by a huge Brahman cow. Also on the skids was a huge barrel that he was filling with long, green, sword-shaped leaves that he had apparently just harvested in the forest. He had been using the little waterfall to wash off his leaves with the help of a contraption that could have been made by The Professor on Gilligan's Island. The water was funneled into a wooden pipe, then through a couple more pipes and into a wooden trough. In the trough were three holes, each filled with one of the sword-shaped leaves. The water ran down the leaves and flowed off their tips in a nice thin stream like a typical water fountain. As I was reaching into my bags to get my filter out, the man pushed his last batch of leaves into his barrel, jumped up onto the wooden skids, and with a great amount of "encouragement" convinced his cow to pull him UP the mountain. And I thought I had it bad.
Now that the beautiful fountain was all mine, I wasted no time, and simply stood under the jets, letting the cool fluid run over my head, and down my body. The effect was instantaneous and amazing. It was like coming back from the dead. After a few minutes of this, and after drinking a good bit of the water directly (and refilling my bottle,) I began to feel more like myself again. There was still a ways to go to get to the summit, but my soaking wet clothes were keeping me cool and I didn't have to stop as often as before. Eventually, I reached the summit, and I don't think I've ever been happier to finish a 500-meter climb! At the top there is a little bar, and the fellow at the counter, of course, was curious about who I was and where I was from. When I told him, he said that he thought G.W. Bush was an idiot. I told him that I agreed, and bought a couple of sodas before starting the descent.
The descent was fairly fast at first, with several switchbacks. After a while there was a little bit of climbing to do again, about which I was definitely not pleased. But it was only a short climb and then the road began to gently fall again. At this point there were lots of folks on the roadside selling various fruits. Normally, I would have gladly stopped to get some, but on this occasion, I wasn't interested in anything that would delay my arrival in Baracoa. At the base of the mountain, the road flattens out for the rest of the way to Baracoa and passes by some very lush, green farms for the remaining 17 kilometers, or so.
I pulled into town just as a little shower was beginning, and rolled up to the Hotel La Rusa, where I took a room for the rate of $32 for two nights. The room was basic, but perfect for my needs, and on the wall was a small plaque that announced that Che Guevara had once slept there. I suppose there are almost as many of those signs in Cuba as there are "G. Washington slept here" signs in New England. I was feeling a bit better by then, but still, all I felt like doing was taking a quick walk around the town, and washing out some of my clothes in the sink, which never fully dried due to the high humidity, before turning in early.
Distance: 108 km
Max temperature: 33 °C; Skies: Sunny, evening shower
Cacti grow on the southeastern tip of the island
Mountains along the climb up La Farola
A cyclist (me) who is happy to have survived the climb
September 7: Rest Day in Baracoa
The rest day I had planned in Baracoa couldn't have come at a better time. It had been eight hot days since my last full day off in Trinidad. Even better, Baracoa turned out to be among my favorite places in all of Cuba. The town was the very first colonial city in all of the Americas, founded not long after Columbus's arrival. For most of its history, at least until the La Farola road was built in the 1960's, Baracoa was largely isolated from the rest of Cuba. Even today, there is not much traffic over the mountain, and the town retains much of its unique character. There are many weatherworn wooden facades on its buildings, and its citizens seemed to exhibit a strong sense of community and pride in their town. It is not a large place, and so it's quite easy to walk around the entire town.
In the morning, I had my appetite back after losing it the previous day. So, the first thing I did was visit the Farmer's market, which was among the nicest I saw in Cuba, partly because of its prime location along the town's Malecon. I bought a small watermelon, the only one I saw in Cuba, and a bunch of what turned out to be my very favorite tropical fruit, Mamoncillo.
Mamoncillo grows as a tall, broadleaf tree, with its fruit in bunches that look like giant green grapes. It is eaten by biting open the thin green skin, which easily splits in two and pops open, revealing the fruit inside. The fruit is an orange-pink-colored pulp that surrounds, and is stuck to, a large white seed. You pop the whole thing in you mouth and suck off the pulp, which tastes like a tart combination of apple and grape. I took my bounty back to the hotel and ate the watermelon, and half of the mamoncillos.
For desert, I stopped by the Casa de Chocolat, and ordered the local specialty, Cucurucho. This is a culinary creation unique to Baracoa, and is made from shredded coconut, sugar, fruit juices, and I'm sure a few other ingredients, and is served in a cone made from a folded, dried palm leaf. I found it to be quite tasty and, believe me, it packs a carbohydrate punch!
The rest of the day I simply walked around and explored the town. There is a nice little museum where I was especially impressed by a display that shows a small polished piece of wood from something like 80 different species of trees that grow in the vicinity. At the center of town is the old church. Inside, is a unique artifact, the Cruz del la Parra, which is a wooden cross, about a meter tall that is supposedly left in the area by Columbus himself. Of course, no one can prove that definitively, but the wood is from a local species and was radiocarbon dated to about 500 years ago. So, who knows, the old man himself may have touched it. Later on, I took a nice stroll along the short beach, and visited an art gallery, which displayed the most beautiful woodcarvings I saw on the entire island. For dinner, I visited the larger hotel on the bluff overlooking the town, which was once a Spanish fort, and had a nice meal. After dark, I took another short stroll around, and thought about going to hear some Salsa music at the Casa de la Trova, but I wasn't really up for all the excitement, and went back to the hotel to give my gear a quick once-over, and get some sleep.
Max temperature: 32 °C; Skies: cloudy
Statue of Columbus in Baracoa
Interior of the church in Baracoa, the Cruz de la Parra is to the left of the Altar
September 8: The Unlucky Day
Baracoa to Playa Corinthia
Every trip has a certain amount of bad luck, and on this trip, most of it occurred on this one day. Maybe that was not a bad thing, I don't know. Everything started out all right, after checking out of the hotel, and making a couple of wrong turns in town, I found myself on the road heading west, the first time I'd gone in that direction since Guane on the third day of the tour. Now I was on the final leg of the trip heading generally straight back to La Habana.
At first the ride was quite nice. It was cloudy in the morning, which was unusual for this tour so far, but apparently not uncommon in Baracoa. The road rolled along through lush green forests and countryside with many pretty Royal Palms. After a while, the once nice road turned poor. I don't consider this to be bad luck, since I knew in advance that there would be a rough stretch here. But there are only two roads in or out of Baracoa, La Farola and this bumpy, narrow one heading toward Moa. Not wanting to go back the way I came, I planned on taking the bumpy road out of town. Actually it wasn't too bad for the most part. At the start of the rough section the large potholes were spaced far enough apart that I could easily weave through them. Of course, it helped that there wasn't any other traffic to worry about. There were a few short sections where there were more holes than road, and these holes were usually surrounded by large rocks. Although it was slow going, it didn't seem as bad as the rough road through the Sierra Escambray.
Bad Luck No.1: Just shortly after reaching the return of the good pavement, yet still several kilometers from Moa, I heard the dreaded sound of a quick tire deflation, and discovered that I was the victim of the infamous early sidewall-blowout phenomenon on my rear Conti TT2K tire. At least it waited until the good road returned. The tire looked shot, and what was worse, it also trashed my last good tube. I took out the folding spare I had with me, but decided to try and patch the tube anyway.
Bad Luck No.2: As I was starting to get out the patch, it started to rain. Hard. I think that this was the first time in my life that I have ever tried to patch a tire in the pouring rain. Eventually, I got everything back together and started out again, now in only light drizzle. Of course, as I expected, the patch gave out after about ten minutes. So, the only thing left to do was put on the last tube I had left, the one with the slow leak from the beginning of the tour. I could make it 45 minutes to an hour before having to stop and pump it up again. I suppose I could have kept going like this the rest of the way, but that wouldn't have been much fun, so I'd have to work out something when I got the chance.
Just east of Moa, I passed the giant Che Guevara Nickel Mine and Smelter. All of the guidebooks describe this plant as a blight on the landscape, and they are not far off. Though, I have probably seen factories just about as bad back home. It was built by the Soviets, but is now run by the Canadians, who don't appear to have cleaned the operation up much at all. After you pass the plant you arrive in Moa, which is not that much of an improvement. The whole town was built as housing for the plant workers and their families, and consists entirely of several depressing-looking, Soviet-built, high-rise apartment blocks. You see this style of housing scattered around the country, but this was the only town I saw where 100% of the place was built this way.
Bad Luck No.3: Because of the delays I incurred changing tires I didn't get to Moa until 12:30 PM. Since it was a Sunday all the stores, or in this case Kiosks, had closed at 12:00. So there was not much in the way of food available. There were some food stalls, but they hadn't anything ready yet, and they were all surrounded by big crowds. So, I picked up a couple of mangos from a fruit stand, a surprisingly rare find, and bought a couple of sodas at an outdoor bar. I downed the mangos, which were delicious, while I sat under the bar's umbrella waiting out another rain shower. After the rain stopped, I really didn't have much desire to remain in Moa, so I set out, hoping to find some more food later.
There was not much along the road heading west until I reached Sagua de Tanamo after about 40 km. This was a fair-sized town, but for some reason, I couldn't seem to find any of the usual sources for food, There was not a street vendor to be seen. After riding around for a while, I stumbled across a bar that served food, and ordered yet another meal of fried chicken. Actually, this was, I think, the tastiest meal of chicken I had on the island. Very hot, meaty, and juicy, served with a nice side of fried bananas.
Bad Luck No.4: Somewhere in town, as I was riding around looking for food, I lost my riding gloves. I never realized just how much I would miss them until the forthcoming days when my palms would get quite irritated by the heat and dampness.
Feeling better after a meal, and having given up on finding the gloves, I set out again. My goal for the evening was a little beach called Playa Corinthia about another 38 kilometers away. The guidebook I used back home said that this was an undeveloped beach with "ample opportunities for free camping." Sounded perfect to me. The rest of the way to the Playa, was pretty easy riding, and the sun had come out. But it was a long day with everything that had gone on, and I was ready for a rest.
Bad Luck No.5: As I neared the Playa, I noticed that my water bottle had sprung a leak, and was now almost empty. Now that I think about it, it probably happened back in Moa, but I wasn't paying close enough attention. To make matters worse, there was plenty of water around, but this close to the coast it was all brackish, so I couldn't even filter any of it. A thirsty night would then be in store.
About the only thing that went right this day way that Playa Corinthia really was a beautiful little beach, with nobody around but me. I hit the shore, and walked along the beach for maybe 40 meters, before heading back through the row of bushes at the edge of the sand to set up the tent. It was quite pleasant there, and I took a couple of pleasant, cool nighttime swims and this time the sea bottom was nice and sandy. Back in the tent, I ate the remaining mamoncillo from Baracoa, and discovered that they make the perfect evening touring snack. Not only are they juicy and tasty, but they keep you occupied with all the work that you have to go through to eat them.
Even with all that had gone wrong since morning, I had a strange feeling of satisfaction. This was the point when I realized that the hardest part of the tour was now behind me. Of course, there is always a bit of disappointment when you realize that as well.
Distance: 145 km
Max temperature: 34 °C; Skies: Clouds, rain, afternoon sun
The Che Guevara Nickel Plant, Moa
Sunrise at Playa Corinthia
September 9: The Day of "The Discovery"
Playa Corinthia to NW of Holguin
My goals for this day were twofold; to cover the distance I had originally planned, and, more importantly, to find a replacement tube. With as many folks on bike as there are in Cuba, I figured I'd be able to find one somewhere, but exactly where, I wasn't sure. It seemed like my best bet would be in Holguin, which is a fairly large city. After, pumping up the rear tire, I set out, turning west again when I joined the main road, 8 km from the Playa.
The riding was pleasant here, with a little bit of roll to the road as it slid by the edge of a small range that hugged up against the coast. Early on, I had the good fortune to pass by a small quarry, or perhaps it was just a place where something large had once been dug up. There I noticed a large puddle of rainwater that had settled out and was clean enough to be filtered. So that took care of my parched feeling quite nicely. I took it as a sign that the bad luck of the day before was now gone for good when, just then, another flock of Cuban Parrots flew directly overhead, circling around once more, as if to give me a better look. After another 20 kilometers, or so, I stopped for a quick break in Mayari, the first little town I passed on the day. There was quite a bit of activity on the streets here, but I just sat down for a quick rest, and bought another bottle of water to replace the leaky one.
Continuing on, there was relatively easy riding to next town Cueto. In the famous song Chan Chan by the Buena Vista Social Club there is a line about travelling from "Ceuto to Mayari." Since I can't understand the rest of the lyrics to the song, I don't know exactly what is said about this little trip, and, quite honestly, I didn't see anything especially distinctive about this particular road. It was a nice ride, though. Cueto is a dusty little crossroads town. It was close to the midway point of the day's ride, so I had planned a break there. There wasn't too much in the way of food except for a fairly decent store, and a bunch of street vendors. I visited the two selling ice cream cones more than once each. The only item of note I saw in Cueto was one of the very few billboards I saw that made a direct reference to the current U.S. policies towards Cuba. This one made a defiant statement against both the Torricelli law and the Helms-Burton law. Just why it was located here in the middle of nowhere is still a mystery to me. Since I knew I might have to spend a bit of time hunting a tube in Holguin, I decided to cut the break short and continue on.
Between Cueto and Holguin, there is a gentle, but surprisingly long climb, that had not been readily apparent from the contours on my map. It was getting hot, and it had been a fairly long morning already, but I pushed on and over nonetheless. Arriving in Holguin in the early afternoon, I immediately set out to obtain a new tube. Actually, I had two problems to contend with. Before I left home I had made a long list of things to do before the tour. Well, one item that I meant to put on that list, but forgot to add, was to drill out my Presta-holed rims to accept Schrader valves. There was probably not a single Presta-valved tube on the entire island, with the exception of the ones that I had brought with me. So, not only did I have to find a new tube, I needed get something to use to enlarge the rim hole. First things first, though, and I started asking people where I might be able to buy a tube. This didn't work out too well. Either people didn't know, couldn't understand my question, or I couldn't understand, or follow, the directions that they gave me.
Eventually, I found myself back at the central plaza, scratching my head about what to do next. At that moment, I looked up and saw a fellow walking along with a bike tire hung over one shoulder, and a box containing a tube in his other hand. Surely he could tell me where to go. He ended up pointing me to a store two doors down from where I had been standing, and I thanked him with a sort of "I'm an idiot" smile on my face. The store didn't look too promising at first. It reminded me of an old-time five-and-dime, with wide wooden shelves behind the counters holding all the merchandise which clerk would get for you as required. I walked around and saw mainly things like shoes and other household goods. Then, off in one corner, I noticed a stack of bike tires, and next to them was a pile of boxes containing, direct from China, genuine Wang Chung brand bike tubes. They were size 28" x 1.5", a perfect fit. I bought one for 30 Pesos (about $US1.50) and was all set. Everybody Wang Chung tonight!
Given the amount of time I had to spend locating a tube, I decided to forgo the search for something to drill out the rim. I had seen what appeared to be hardware stores in other towns, but they were not well stocked, so I wasn't too optimistic about my chances for success in any case. Instead, since I had a rest day planned after one more night, I thought it would be simpler to ask the maintenance staff at he hotel where I would stay if they had anything that I could borrow to make the repair. That would mean one more day of stopping every hour to pump up the rear tire. A major inconvenience, to be sure, but one that was tolerable.
Now all that was left for today was to put some distance between Holguin and myself, and find a spot to sleep for the night. Unfortunately, just as I was at the edge of town a thundershower struck. I sat this one out for a while at a bus stop, but evening was quickly approaching, and as the storm changed to a light rain, I continued on. After a little while the rain stopped completely, but I had not gotten as far as I had hoped and there didn't appear to be many good options around for a spot to sleep.
As the sun set I made a mistake that I normally would not have done, I relaxed my normally tight procedure I use to locate a spot to sleep and took one that I knew was not ideal. I had ridden about a kilometer down a dirt road, but there was not a reachable spot off the road where I could get some cover. So instead, since it was practically dark, I got lazy and I set up the tent in a grassy spot several meters off the road by a hedgerow where a footpath seemed to curve off to somewhere else. In doing so, I set myself up to be "discovered" for only the second time in over 100 nights of camping this way. The story goes like this:
It was now completely dark, and as I lay there munching on some imitation pork-skin snack product, I assumed that nobody would come by at this late hour. What could I have been thinking? This was Cuba and people walk along the roads at all hours of the night. As such, it wasn't too long before a lone fellow did happen along. I actually think that he would have passed right on by, except he had one of those scruffy little dogs with him and the sinister pooch started sniffing around the door to my tent. The man sort of stood there for a while, and I cold tell that he wasn't sure what he was looking at. After a couple of minutes he left, and I incorrectly assumed that was the end of the issue.
Several minutes later he returned, this time with a couple of his buddies. They, once again, just stood there on the road looking at my tent, and whispering to themselves. I decided that I would just "play dead" and see if they would go on about their way. I thought that this might have worked when they took off down the footpath after a few minutes, though one of them did tap on the tent as they went by. But, no, after another ten minutes, or so, they were back with reinforcements.
This time, after a few minutes of whispering to themselves, the original fellow who found me stepped forward and shouted "Hola!". He was lighting matches so he and his friends could see better. I pretended that I had been awakened from a sound sleep and tried to answer their questions, though, of course, I really couldn't understand what they were saying. Eventually, I went outside to try and communicate a little bit more effectively. There were four young men and one smaller man, who I named "Companero Official-looking Guy," with gray hair and wearing what looked to be some sort of uniform. The ensuing conversation must a have looked absolutely hilarious had there been anyone else there to witness it. They were asking me all sorts of questions that I couldnt understand, and I was making a feeble effort to tell them what I was doing there, pointing at the bike, and saying that I would be happy to leave if that was what they wanted.
At some point one of them finally asked something that I understood-- "I.D?" Pulling out my passport and my flashlight to illuminate it, I then realized that I could count on the clout that a lone Yanqui could expect in this situation. This smoothed things out a bit, and though not one of them spoke English the original fellow managed to get the idea across that "We can't give you any protection if you stay here." I tried to convey to them that I have never felt safer than I did in Cuba and they didnt need to worry about me, and also that I'd be gone at sunrise. One of the other fellows began shaking my hand, saying "Amigo, Amigo!," and then made a subtle suggestion that I could come and stay in his Casa. Actually, I might have taken him up on it if I hadn't already gotten everything all set up.
After a few more minutes I could tell that, though they were still perplexed by this strange Yanqui sleeping in their midst, everything was basically fine. Companero Official-looking Guy did his job by taking a quick look inside the tent and since I didn't have any weapons or anything else to indicate that I was the vanguard of an invasion force, that was the end of that. I thanked them for their concern and got back inside the tent. One by one my new friends drifted off into the night. The last to go was Companero Official-looking Guy and before he left he looked up into the sky and recited some sort of short speech that I, of course, could not understand. As he walked away, he sang a folksy tune to himself and the cows in the field.
So, that was my experience with being discovered, and, all in all, it was more funny than tense. Nevertheless, I promised myself that I'd be more careful in choosing places to sleep on the rest of the tour.
Distance: 162 km
Max temperature: 35 °C; Skies: Sunny, evening thunderstorm
Terrain: Flat, One moderate climb, Rolling
Sugarcane field near Cueto
Reservoir near Holguin at dusk
September 10: The Day to Push On
NW of Holguin to Playa Santa Lucia
This turned out to be a fairly uneventful day, which was fine with me. My plan was to reach the beach resort of Playa Santa Lucia where I had planned a rest day on the following day. I packed up before dawn, just to be sure that I didn't wear out my welcome from the previous night. Even so, as I pulled out, there were many other folks already up and about and traveling along the little dirt road where I had camped. Since there were not many places that looked like they might be good places to stop along the day's route, I decided to make best speed for the Playa to start my resting as early as possible. I still had the leaky rear tire to contend with, though, and that slowed things down a little.
The first 40 or 50 kilometers of the morning were easy riding with not much but small farms and a couple of larger collectives along the way. Still fairly early in the morning, I rolled into the rather nice little bayside town of Puerto Padre. This would have been a nice place for a longer break if had it not been so early in the day. There were a couple of places to get food, including and El Rapido with a much-needed bathroom. I took my snacks to the town park where I was able to catch a few songs as the local band held practice in the amphitheater.
Leaving Puerto Padre I took the turn-off just outside of town signed for my next destination, Manati. I was glad to see the sign, as my map was not very detailed in this area. The road to Manati started out smooth and flat across a long stretch of coastal plain, there was a wonderful tailwind and for a while I was cruising along at 35 kph. I was beginning to think that I'd arrive earlier than I had planned, but as the road approached a swampier section of the plain, its condition began to deteriorate rapidly. Eventually it turned to dirt completely, with many sections that were full of nice, sticky mud. This, of course, slowed my progress down tremendously, and I wasn't even sure that I'd be able to get through at all until I met a lone cyclist going the other way. He was the only other traffic I saw on this section and since he was there, I assumed that at some point the road would improve. It did seen to take forever, but eventually the road joined up with the north-south route that connects Manati with the Carretera Central. There the pavement began again, and it was only a few more kilometers to Manati, though by now, I was quite anxious to get there.
Manati didn't have too much to offer other than few street stalls and a kiosk where I was able to get a few drinks, snacks and, of course, an ice cream cone. There was a large train depot along the route that connects Las Tunas to the coast, but I wasn't sure whether it was still being used or not. There was, however, what seemed like hundreds of schoolkids, far more than this small town seemed it should have, resplendent in their cool uniforms, out and about on the streets of the town. I have no idea why there were so many, perhaps there is a boarding school in Manati. After a short break here, I continued on.
The road west from Manati was also flat and smooth and there was, once again, a nice tailwind. So I began to make good progress once more, however, I was beginning to feel the effects of riding without much rest during the day. With about 20-km to go to the Playa, the road hit a larger, busier road that turned northward toward the coast. The turn north was just enough to turn what had been a nice tailwind into an annoying crosswind. Add to that the fact that the vegetation was so thick on either side of the road, and it felt like I was riding uphill though a long boring tunnel. Those twenty kilometers almost seemed longer than the entire rest of the day.
Nevertheless, with persistence, I eventually hit the seacoast. Playa Santa Lucia is kind of a low-key resort, which is why I selected it for a relaxing rest day in the first place. There are something like half a dozen hotels spaced out widely along the beach, and I had selected the smallest, the Hotel Escuela, which was several more kilometers up the coast. The room was simple, but nice, for a rate of $US 30 per night.
After checking in, my chore for the evening was to get my rear wheel fixed up. As I was riding along that morning, I had a "Eureka! Moment", and came up with a way to enlarge the valve hole on my rim without having to scrounge around for a tool to borrow. I remembered that the steel handle of my LiFu chain tool had a serrated surface at its end to act as a grip. As it turns out, the diameter of the handle was almost exactly the same a Schrader valve stem. So, I carfeully began to enlarge the hole by twisting the handle of the chain tool back and forth as if it were a round file. I went slowly, to not risk screwing anything else up, and after about half an hour I popped the Wang Chung tube on, reinstalled the tire and once again had a wheel that I could ride on without having to stop every hour. How about that for a dual-use tool!
Distance: 127 km
Max temperature: 34 °C; Skies: Sunny, moderate tailwind
Terrain: Mostly flat.
The coastal plane near Manati
September 11: Rest Day at Playa Santa Lucia
I had nothing at all planned for this day other than being a complete beach bum. And this was a nice location for it. The beach was wide with sparkling white sand, and the water was perfect for swimming. Even better, the whole area was almost deserted. As I mentioned above, Playa Santa Lucia is a low-key resort compared to some of the others on the north coast. However, the others didn't seem too appealing to me. There are several "luxury" hotels on the series of Cayos strung along the north shore. However, there is a strange situation in that they are off-limits to Cubans other than those who work there. Initially, I was perplexed as to why this rule should be in place. One thought was that the Cuban government wanted to minimize contact between the Cuban people and westerners. However, I don't think that this is the case at all, as no one ever gave me the slightest indication that I was not welcome to talk to whomever I pleased. Now I believe that this rule is in place for simple economic concerns. The Cubans have spent a lot of cash building up their tourist infrastructure to western expectations (for the normal tourist, that is) and they obviously would prefer that all of these hotel rooms be filled by outsiders brining in hard cash as opposed to folks from home. In any case, I felt more satisfied with the less luxurious and uncrowded Hotel Escuela at Santa Lucia.
At midday, I did decide to hop aboard the local catamaran that took folks out to the barrier reef for a little snorkeling. It was a blast, and since I hadn't had a chance to do anything like that in years, I really had a nice time. The reef was beautiful, and I was the last one to get back on the boat after cruising around among the schools of tropical fish. The blubbery fellow from Uruguay, who was also on the boat, didn't seem to think that there was enough fish or coral, but to me it was beautiful nonetheless. This little excursion made a nice diversion from several days of hot riding. In the evening, I just kicked back and relaxed, taking in the beautiful surroundings.
Max temperature: 33 °C; Skies: Sunny.
Morning at Playa Santa Lucia
Next: The Northern Coast back to La Habana