Section 5: The Northern Coast back to La Habana
September 12: The Day of the Nice Tailwind
Playa Santa Lucia to Esmeralda
I must admit, I had a hard time dragging myself up and out on this day. The thought of lounging around on the beach for a while longer was quite appealing. But, I knew that time was beginning to run out and my flight home was less than a week away. Up it was then, nice and early. However, before I set out there was one last thing that I wanted to see. Apparently, the saline lagoons in the vicinity were a favorite feeding spot for a large flock of flamingos. They are the sort of bird that we just don't see on the U.S. West Coast, so I thought I'd make a shot at seeing them. The nice fellow at the hotel desk gave me general directions to where they often could be found and I set out. The road wound around to the inland side of the lagoons and was actually a pretty nice ride at first, but there was no sight of the birds. After a while I reached the little settlement of La Boca, which was probably as authentic an example of a Cuban seaside village as one was likely to find. La Boca would have been a fun place to visit I had known about it sooner. It was also at the end of the lagoon, and my choices were to turn around back the way I came, or take the sandy road that went along the beachside back to Santa Lucia. I generally dislike retracing a route, so I took the sandy road. It was slow going, but at one point I glanced back across the lagoon and caught a glimpse of the flock that I had been looking for. They weren't cooperating and stayed over on the far side, where they appeared as an almost artificial-looking bright pink band along the water. A few more kilometers and I was back where I started, all in all adding an additional 20-km to the day's total because of my little ornithological excursion. That's just the way things go sometimes.
I did have to retrace part of my route, specifically the flat, boring road from Santa Lucia back to the main road. This time, however, the wind was almost at my back and it seemed to go by much more quickly. In fact I was fortunate to have a beneficial wind for most of the day, and I was now very glad that I had chosen a counterclockwise route around the island. There was not much in the way of towns or villages along the morning portion of the ride. A few collectives, with their ugly Russian-designed apartments were about all the broke up the mix of scrubland and sugar fields. There was an occasional vendor selling refrescos, which helped my thirst considerably.
At midday, I stopped in Minas, which is surrounded by some small hills, but aside from that is was such an ordinary small Cuban town that I'm having trouble remembering much about it. There was someplace to get basic food, and I did rest there for a while. I began feeling a little bored before too long, so I decided to continue riding, which I often found to be more relaxing than actual rest.
The rest of the day's ride was nice, if mostly uneventful. A small range of hills paralleled the road for a while and made the scenery a bit more interesting. At one point while cruising through an area of thick bush, I was staring down at the road as time seemed to be passing rather slowly. At this point I nearly ran over a strange-looking coiled black object. My curiosity was piqued, so I stopped to take a look. It turned out to be, as I now know, a mancaperro, or a Giant Cuban Millipede. The word "giant" hardly describes this creature. It was as thick as my rather large thumb, and, if I had straightened it out from its defensively coiled pose, it would have stretched to at least 8 inches long. I also now know that the name mancaperro roughly translates into English as "dog maimer." This is because when a dog steps on a mancaperro, it squirts out a caustic fluid that irritates the dog's paws, and, if there are many of these creatures in an area, the dog may indeed become crippled. Continuing on, I passed though a few smaller villages, namely Noel Fernandez, Sola, Cubitas, and Brasil before bedding down next to some unused railroad tracks just east of Esmeralda, right where I had planned to be on this evening.
Distance: 178 km
Max temperature: 36 °C; Skies: Sunny.
Terrain: Mostly flat, then rolling.
Share the road!
Apartments out in the countryside
A coiled Mancaperro on the road
September 13: The Normal Day
Esmeralda to Yaguajay
This was a day that followed my "normal" touring routine; specifically, starting the ride as early as possible, do about half the day's distance in the morning, take long break at midday including the main meal of the day, and then ride the second half of route in the evening, stopping as close to sunset as practicable. It was one of the only days on the whole trip that I was able to stick to this plan and it made me realize just how well this approach works for me. It was basically just a coincidence that there was a nice town square in the middle of the day's route, but that made all the difference.
After pulling into the village of Esmeralda to have a quick breakfast, I set out along the road that continued across the coastal plain. There were no towns or villages marked on my map until my midday goal, Moron, 84 kilometers away. However, the tradewinds picked up early, which helped considerably. That was fortunate, because this was one of the places on the island where the terrain was flat and featureless enough to play physiological games with one's mind. In only two or three places the road curved northward enough to change the tailwind into a tiring crosswind. For a good portion of the morning ride, I was travelling across the lands of the Bolivia Agro-Industrial Complex. Basically, this was just a very large farm, the kind that would remind one of those in Iowa or Kansas. Except that the crop here was sugar instead of corn. The history of this place was not apparent as I rode through, but the Bolivia Complex was once part of the neo-colonial empire of the United Fruit Company of the U.S., and, as such, contributed to the underlying stresses that lead to the People's Revolution.
At midday, after crossing some rather attractive wetlands, I arrived in Moron. This was a quite nice small city where I visited the only "Supermarket" I saw on the whole trip. It was not quite the same as your local Safeway, but there was more to choose from compared to a typical Cuban store. In fact, I found an item that I had been craving for weeks, a bag of nice, salty corn chips that I saved for my evening snack. It was easy enough to get a day's worth of food here that I had plenty of time later to hang out and relax. After running a couple more errands, I pulled up to a verdant city park where I plopped myself down under a shady tree and took it easy for a few hours. This was a wonderful spot for a snooze, as no one interrupted my repose and the only sounds were the clip-clops of the fancily decorated horse carriages that used the park as their staging area before transporting local folks around town.
This nice, long rest left me feeling recharged when the time came to begin the evening section of the ride. There was much more scenic interest and more small communities along this route compared to the morning section. Once again, a low, pretty range of hills ran parallel to the roadway for most of the evening. However, the road did not do more than lick the edge of these hills, adding just enough roll to the route to keep things interesting. I passed thought the small villages of Adeuguida y Falla, Chambas, and Mayajigua before finishing the day just past Yaguajay. There were a few too many homes all along the main road for me to easily locate a good place to sleep. So I had to turn onto a side road and climb up into the little range of hills, where I eventually found a pleasant spot, put up the tent and enjoyed my much-anticipated snack of corn chips.
Distance: 164 km
Max temperature: 36 °C; Skies: Sunny, nice tailwind
Terrain: Mostly flat, then Rolling
A country house near Moron
Heroes of the Revolution
A cow gaurds its territory
September 14: The Day to Gain Ground
Yaguajay to Quemado de Guines
I had only three days left to reach La Habana if I didn't want to lose the day of sightseeing that I had planned there, and the remaining distance was considerable. I knew that the last few days would be long ones when I first plotted out my stops on this tour. Since I had made it a bit farther than I had planned on the previous day, and the weather and my spirits were both good, I decided to try and gain a little more distance on this day. The morning section of the ride consisted of an easy 44 kilometers to Remedios.
Remedios is a very interesting little town, with a rich history similar to Trinidad's, but without the effects of being on the main tourist circuit. As I arrived, I followed my usual plan of heading straight for the central plaza to get my bearings. I rolled up just in time to catch the last two songs of a concert by the town's band. A few moments later, as I was powering down a bottle of soda and a liter of ice cream I had picked up at the Dollar store, I had a nice conversation with one of the clarinet players, Argelio. He had noticed me taking a picture of the band and correctly inferred that I was once a musician (although long ago.) I learned about some of the local sights and history from him, such as the fact that Remedios was originally right on the seacoast when it was founded in 1514. However, the town had to be moved to its present location eight kilometers inland because was frequently sacked by pirates at its first site.
It was still early in the day, so I had plenty of time to check out some of the local sights, including the highly decorated Basilica, a small art gallery, and a museum dedicated to the fireworks festival held every year at Christmastime. Apparently there has been a sizeable Chinese influence in Remedios for a very long time. The costumes and other items on display in the museum gave a good feel for the atmosphere of the festival, which looked like a cross between Chinese New Year and Carnival. After another dose of food, I set out again, still heading due west.
The rest of the day would be fairly steady riding through lightly rolling terrain filled with farms, which was very similar to that I had experienced so often on this tour. At one point I caught myself thinking that there was nothing unique left to see on this trip, and that I should simply make best speed to La Habana. Moments later I gave myself a mental slap on the face for thinking such a heretical thought. Here I was, on a beautiful sunny day, riding on a great road through pretty countryside, and getting nothing but smiles and waves from the families that were also out cycling, walking or riding along on their horse cart. Compare that to a few days into the future, when I would be home again, and have to be on high alert at every moment to keep from being flattened by Ms. Smith in her GMC Yukon, who won't stand for anyone slowing her down in the slightest on her epic journey to the K-mart. Right then and there I promised myself that I would do my very best to enjoy every moment of the last two and a half days of this great tour. Along this section of the ride, I passed though the small villages of San Antonio de las Vueltas, Encrucijada, and Calabazaar de Sagua.
I was beginning to feel a little tired when I reached Sagua la Grande at about five o'clock. I was already about 25 kilometers past were I had planned to stop on my original tour plan, and I still had enough daylight to gain a little more ground. Though Sagua looked like it might have been a decent town for a long break at midday, I only stayed for a little while since it was already well into evening. I had another quick meal at an El Rapido, and then set out again with a little over an hour of daylight left.
This last bit went through some really pretty countryside with homes lining the roadway almost non-stop. As with most Cuban homes in the countryside (and many in the cities as well) the families living there let the animals that they kept for food wander about on the roadside. Pigs, chickens, goats, turkeys and the occasional cow gave me their animal-speak greetings as I slid by their stations. As a approached the dot on the map labeled Quemado de Guines, which didn't appear to be a village very distinct from the surrounding rural homes, I lost the last rays of daylight, and began the difficult search for a place to sleep. Areas like this one, with rural homes spread out all along the countryside, are among the places that I have hardest time finding a good sleeping spot. In this case the only potential spot I had seen for some distance was nestled within a thick, tall, and thorny hedgerow that paralleled a side road. It wasn't the type of place that I would normally choose, but I ever so carefully eased the bike, and myself, though the narrow gaps between the branches, trying to avoid the 3-cm long thorns. That was futile, however, and though I eventually got myself set up in the thicket, which provided ample cover to shield me from the view of the many passersby, I wondered whether I had be careful enough in protecting my tires.
Distance: 148 km
Max temperature: 36 °C; Skies: Sunny
Terrain: Gently Rolling
The band plays in Remedios
An old Church in Remedios
September 15: The Penultimate Day
Quemado de Guines to Camarioca
As I feared, when I awoke at dawn I discovered that indeed one of the viscous thorns surrounding me had punctured my front tire. I laughed as I thought that fate would not let me leave the island without being the victim of a Cuban thorn one last time. After I delicately extracted myself from my spiny shelter, I quickly patched the leak and set out. There was nothing on the map that would indicate either a town that would be suitable for a long break, or an especially interesting site to visit. So I decided to cover most of the day's distance in the morning section of the ride, sopping as needed for short breaks along the way. There were only a couple of small towns with services on this section, Corralillio and Marti. Corralillo had a small grocery where I picked up a snack, while in Marti I only saw street vendors and sampled a couple of tasty ice cream cones. The terrain was fairly flat and there was a slight tailwind.
By mid-afternoon, I reached the only town of any size on the day's route, Cardenas. This city was best known recently as being the home of one Elian Gonzales, the little boy who was unwittingly caught up in a game of global political posturing a few years ago. I wondered if there would be any propaganda or other visible sign of this event in the town. But I was pleased to see that there was not one indication that anything had happened, and Elian has been allowed to be a normal kid again instead of a posterboy for the government (either one). There were a few choices of places to eat, but I settled for the old stand-bys, pizza and chicken, followed by as many cool drinks as I could put down. This hit the spot, as the long distance that I covered in the morning, about 116 km, had sapped a good bit of my strength.
With a couple of hours to go before nightfall, I set out again with my only goal being to find a nice spot for the evening after getting myself a reasonable distance from town. The main road out of Cardenas heads toward the ultra-touristy destination of Veradero beach, an area that I had no desire to visit. So, after a few kilometers, I turned of onto a little backroad that wound around through a pretty area of low hills between Cardenas and Matanzas. After passing the village of Camarioca, which was too small to be marked on my map, I stopped for the night and set the tent up at the edge of a field of yucca. It was the last camping night of the trip, and I had mixed emotions, as usual. Satisfaction, and a little sadness, mostly, but also a little bit of a desire to have a home-cooked meal again. As a little send-off the skies put out a little rain shower just after I had shut my eyes, which kept me up for a while, but also nicely cooled the air down.
Distance: 145 km
Max temperature: 37 °C; Skies: Sunny
Terrain: Mostly flat
A man on horseback near Corralillio
September 16: The Final Day
Camarioca to La Habana
It always seems that fate sets me up for a really hard day on the last day of a successful tour. This trip would be no exception, though this day turned out to be a little harder than it needed to be. The morning started out smoothly enough, as I set out just as the sun was rising. My map was not too precise in the particular area, and I was a little surprised when the road out of Camarioca, after only a couple of kilometers, dumped me out on the Autopista, the four-lane highway that ran between Matanzas and Veradero. I figured that there wouldn't be much traffic at this time of the day, so I decided to just stay on it for the 30 kilometers to Matanzas. This would be only the second time on this trip that I rode on a four-lane road outside of a big city. There wasn't much traffic, as I expected, and the riding was flat and easy into the busy city of Matanzas.
Matanzas, being the closest large city to La Habana shared may of its attributes, specifically a very hectic, urban feel. It was still early in the morning when I arrived, but I picked up some food anyway and hung around for only a couple of hours, as there was still a good bit of territory to cover before the conclusion of the trip. After a while, I set out again, as I wanted to reach La Habana as early in the day as I could without killing myself. The only question was which route to take to the big city. There were three options; the Autopista along the coast, which would be the shortest, flattest, and most heavily trafficked, the Carretera central, which was the longest and most southerly route, or a series of backroads that wound around between the two. I opted for the latter choice, assuming that it would be the quietest and most scenic.
It was probably good that I left fairly early because I wasted a bit of time and energy getting out of town. At first I had no trouble following the many signs that pointed the way to the capitol. Then, at the edge of town, I came across a sight I hadn't seen before on this trip, a junction with a series of exits ramps and overpasses. However, there was not one sign indicating where any of these choices went. Naturally, I assumed that the road to the Capitol would be the larger of the options, so I headed in that direction. After a while I began to feel unsure of this choice as I was riding into the wind which made me think that I was heading east. Perhaps, I thought, this was only temporary and the road would soon curve back in the right direction. There were no signs or other indication as to where I was, so I was about 10 kilometers along before I convinced myself that I was indeed going in the wrong direction. It wasn't until I was back in Matanzas that I found someone who could give me directions. As it turned out at the big junction, I should have chosen the tiny, unmarked off-ramp to get to La Habana.
Now finally heading in the right direction, I found the proper turn off, after 20 kilometers, for the quiet backroad that I thought would lead me into the city. At first this section of the ride was quite beautiful. After a little while, the road began a moderate climb, which I wasn't expecting. The quiet, narrow road up the climb took me through a series of thickly forested hills with some impressive limestone outcroppings. I would have enjoyed these more had I passed this way on another day, and also if I had a better idea of where I was actually going. For this whole area was practically deserted, and there wasn't a road sign to be found at any of the several junctions I passed. Apparently, this close to the capitol it is assumed that everyone knows where they are, so signs are unnecessary. After a while longer, I found myself back on the Carretera Central, my wanderings though the backcountry adding about 15 kilometers to the day's distance, this in addition to the extra twenty from my mistake in leaving Matanzas. At this point I chose to just stay on the Carretera, which was well described on my map. I did appreciate the one last scenic tour due to my little detour, though.
Fortunately there was a nice tailwind that helped me cruise along at a brisk pace when heading west, as I was beginning to get very tired. In fact I took every opportunity to stop for drinks and snacks, which were not very frequent. I found some of each and took a few minutes to rest in the little towns of Madruga and Catarina de Guines. A few kilometers later the road took a more northerly course, and so I lost the effect of the tailwind. Now I was really starting to feel worn out, and there were still 45 kilometers to go to the finish line. I simply stuck with it, and plugged along slowly. Though as I got closer the ever increasing bustle of the local population gave me the feeling that the end was near. Eventually, I was right back into the craziness of La Habana with people everywhere and all of them zipping around on one form of conveyance or another. The route into the town from the south was just as confusing as the one that I had used to leave the city one month earlier. But, I had fairly good map of the city, and after some careful navigating, I found my way back to Habana Vieja at 6:00PM. Not wasting any time, I checked back in to the Hotel Florida, where my empty bike case was still waiting for me, and immediately hit the shower, which, believe me, was a more welcome feeling than I could possibly describe.
Distance: 174 km
Max temperature: 37 °C; Skies: Sunny
Terrain: Mostly flat, some moderate hills, then Rolling
Total Distance: 3380 km (2095 mi)
Over 23 riding days: 147 km/day
Enjoyment Level: Off the scale!
A man moves a refrigerator on his cargo bike
The final set of hills east of La Habana
September 17 & 18 La Habana
My second visit to the Capitol City proved to be much more enjoyable than the first. After one month in the country, I had now become acclimated and much more able to deal with its intense personality. The cacophony caused by people moving every which way seemed old hat now and I also now knew how to deal with any hustlers that may have approached me. I had all of Tuesday and most of Wednesday available to explore the area, and even though there was plenty of time available, I chose to limit myself to the areas in the immediate vicinity of the Hotel Florida. Not a problem, as it was located right in the middle of the most interesting part of the city.
On Tuesday my plan was to tour the historic sites in the neighborhood of the hotel, and look around for some art or crafts to bring home. I started by visiting a few of the interesting museums in the area, my favorite of which were the Museum of Ceramics, which was located in an old fortress, and the Museum of Colonial Art, which displayed many fine pieces of furniture. Later on, I took a cool stroll through the impressive Cathedral with its archetypal vaulted ceilings and altars.
After lunch, I went out to look for some crafts. I had to be a little careful, of course, to avoid anything that said, or even implied, "Cuba" on it, so as to avoid any potential problems with U.S. customs. So, paintings of Che, cigars, or bottles of Rum were definitely out of the question. That was fine with me since those items did not interest me very much in the first place. I ended up going for woodcarvings, which were widely available at ridiculously low prices. I bought four carvings for less than $US 50, one of which must have taken several days to create.
In the afternoon, I simply sat back and enjoyed a nice bit of live music, and reflected on this very successful tour. After dinner, I had planned to attend a performance at the giant fortress across the harbor, where ceremonial canons were fired by guards dressed in colonial-period costumes. However, I missed the last ferry boat that would have gotten me there on time, so I decided to put of that visit to the next day.
My flight for home did not leave until 6:00 PM on Wednesday, so I had plenty of time in the morning for some more sightseeing. I caught the ferry bright and early and was dropped off just across the harbor form Habana Vieja. From there it is a half-hour walk up a small hill past a large statue of Jesus, similar to the one that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, towards the massive fortress, the Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana. When I arrived it was only 9:30, but they let me in, even though I think that they didn't officially open until ten o'clock. This was a neat place to visit, very peaceful compared to the bustle of the city across the water. There were so many large canons pointing out at the waterway that I think anyone would have to have been a complete fool to try to attack the city in the 17th century. I spent quite a bit of time walking around and admiring the views from the various parapets.
From there I walked down towards the entrance to the harbor, and visited the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro. This castle was less fortified that the first but was perched at a rocky promontory that afforded even more spectacular views. A few moments later, as I was just milling about, a man called for me to come over to where he was working at the base of the lighthouse. It turned out that he was one of the two Harbormasters who worked in the control tower that was actually part of the old castle. He invited me to come up to the tower and I gladly accepted. I think that he and his colleague up in the tower were lonely most of the time, and were happy to have tourists come up for visits. Both gentlemen spoke excellent English, as they had to speak that language to communicate with international ships. The head master showed me around the tower, tuning in his radio to the weather report from Key West, Florida, 90 miles away, and showing me the sights of La Habana though his pair of gigantic binoculars. I told him that I had enjoyed my visit to Cuba very much. As I was preparing to leave, I noticed a set of wooden compartments on the wall that contained dozens of flags. He told me that they have one for each nation, and when a boat arrives from a particular country, they hoist the flag of that nation to welcome it to Cuba. He pointed to a neatly folded Stars and Stripes and said "There is your flag, but we never get to use that one." I responded that I hoped that I would have another chance to visit Cuba in the future, and that next time I'd prefer to come by boat. And, hopefully he could finally raise that flag when I returned.
Poseidon guards the harbor at La Habana
Myself, feeling satisfied, at the canons of the Castillo San Carlos
Thanks for reading! I hope all of your tours are as enlightening as this one was for me!