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June 20, 2013 No comments

Exploring Cuba's Oriente.

Correspondence Travel & Adventure Cycling Stories
Exploring Cuba's Oriente.
Achim and Aline got in touch earlier this year. Resident in the German capital, the two were keen to take an edge off the traditionally long Berlin winter by spending a chunk of it touring Cuba. A fine idea, we thought, and as riders of two already well broken-in Brooks saddles, they seemed to require little from us but our best wishes. Until, of course, it hit us that they'd need portable storage space for all their clothes, equipment and sundries. Achim from Berlin takes over the story. "Nadir, how much would it cost and how long would it take to ship a 26" 32 hole rim to Santiago de Cuba?"– "About 5 days and around 250 Canadian" – Other friends from Mexico and Germany only have similarly discouraging answers for us. Cuba never lets you down Gear that breaks usually leads to interesting stories, and this time it's no different: Aline's rear rim batters up in a really bad way, on the 4th day of what is planned to be a 12 day cruise around the southeastern tip of Cuba, divided in two legs: Bayamo – Santiago and Guantanamo – Baracoa – Moa. But for now it seems that we are stuck in Chivirico, one day away from Santiago de Cuba, the second biggest city on the island. After calling all friends with bike shops and growing more and more desperate we decide to settle down for the night – next to the road, on a small hill, overlooking the Caribbean sea. After dinner, which consists as usual of pasta, salsa and some herbs we've brought with us from home, we reach consensus that we'll take a bus or truck or something else with an internal combustion engine to Santiago, where we'll try to find a new rim. But, this being Cuba, advanced planning is being rendered obsolete from one second to another: this kid from town climbs our small hill, chats with us in Spanish and we manage to tell him the story of what happened to Aline's rim. Turns out the the kid's friend is a skilled bike mechanic and he has a used rim which fits Aline's hub/spoke setup perfectly. Our trip is salvaged! We celebrate with a bit more rum than usual. Besides the strained situation concerning spare parts for bicycles, Cuba is the perfect place for cycling. Most of the streets we travel on during our journey are well paved – for cyclists at least. Cyclists don't have to share the roads too often with cars, trucks or buses. Every once in a while there's not much tarmac left, or there's never been any at all, or a bridge has collapsed (especially on the south coast there's still aftermath of Hurricane Sandy). Leg 1: Bayamao – Santiago de Cuba We sleep next to road when we are underway and wake up early every morning, usually not from the sun but from the crowing of roosters. Coffee, breakfeast and off we go: Some of the roads we ride are flat, between Pilon and Santiago between 4-5 hills per day over the Sierra Maestra foothills that drops from 1500 metres straight down to the sea. In the town of Santiago  we look for "Casa Particulares" – rooms rented out by families – which are easy to find and also provide a safe space for our bikes while we are away to experience Cuban city life: scavenging for food, drinks, cigars, entertainment – and also looking out for a bike rim, just to see if we were really as lucky as we think we were. Except for the rim we find everything we wished for. Leg 2: Santiago de Cuba – Moa On the next leg we pass by Guantanamo, and because we are not in our best shape due to the Santiago amusements, we decide to set up camp some 15kms east of Guantanamo Bay. Which seems to be a good idea, because the spot on the beach is beautiful and quiet, results in 5 men in uniforms who demand to see our passports, radio our information to their headquarters and ask us a lot of questions. As it turns out, it is prohibited to mooch on the beaches close to Guantanamo after 6 pm, because the Cuban coast guard requires a clear "field of fire" for their sonar devices which they use to check for any US American activities during the nights. So we move 100 meters inland and get out passports back without further trouble. The next day brings steeper and longer hills, as we move towards the town of Baracoa. The vegetation slowly shifts to a beautiful rainforesty-like appearance. From Baracoa we head west, after a rest day with only 45kms of cycling (without panniers, just a quick trip to the beach…). We reach the visitors center of "Alejandre de Humboldt" national park at midday and decide to spend a night there, because on the next morning we can go for a hike with a local who explains flora and fauna in every detail. We leave paradise and enter hell, as just 39 kms later we enter the vicinity of Moa. We prefer to call the place Moador, because it would have been the perfect location to shoot the mordor-scenes from Lord of the Rings: dead land, giant old machines, steel, chuffing and screaming pipes, red sea; this is what the „Planta de Niquel Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara“, Cubas biggest plant for nickel and cobalt mining feels and looks like. If Moador is on your travel route, enjoy the splendid road along the coast, but dont even think about staying a night at that place. We do same and with the friendly help of magician from Moa and his buddies we quickly find a driver who puts the bikes on the roof of his Toyota jeep and then that's it with Moa and us. Moa also marks the end of our tour, the next days we travel by bus, taxi and minibus via Holguin, Las Tunas, Playa Santa Lucia to La Habana for some diving and sightseeing. Food, water and the money If you want bottled water in remote places, bottle up when there's a chance. The same goes for certain foodstuffs: even though pasta and salsa is available for "Pesos Convertibles" (CUC) at TRD or Panamericana tiendas almost everywhere, if you like oats and you see a tienda that stocks some – go for it! The main to-go food is pizza; bananas, pineapples, carrots, cucumber, onions and garlic are being sold in every small town on the street. These goods are being paid for with the local money "Moneda Nacional" – look out for "Cadeca"-signs, they change EUR, USD, CAN etc. into CUC and CUC into Moneda National. To see more of Cuba, have a look at the photoset on the Brooks Facebook Page