There is a very famous quote from Che Guevara “¡Hasta la Victoria Siempre!” (“Until Victory, Always!”) And as I approached the final hill on day 5 of my cycling tour, this quote took on a whole new meaning. It wasn’t the biggest hill ever, but it was 38 degrees C and 90% humidity, I shouldn’t really have been that tired but I hadn’t been on a bike for 10 years. As I slowly worked my way through the gears, lower and lower, the end seemed to get further and further away, but the thought of that cool crisp Crystal lager and an expertly mixed mojito spurred me on, onwards and upwards until there it was, the hotel for the night, never has a Soviet Era Square built hotel looked so appealing!
I had arrived in Cuba a week earlier, eager to reacquaint myself with Havana after a 12 year gap. It was much as I remembered it, little seemed to have changed but Havana was abuzz with anticipation and I think a little nervousness due to the opening the following day of the US Embassy.
I had booked into the iconic National hotel for a couple of nights and the first thing I did was check out its wonderful beer garden once more then down to Churchill Bar, just to make sure things were how I remembered them.
The following morning I set off for the old town to see what had changed and en route I called into Plaza Revolution; preparations for the arrival of Pope Francis were well under way. Next stop was the Capitolo building, where after a little bit of haggling, I set off on a 2 hour sightseeing tour in an open top 1956 Chevy, great fun and a must do Cuba experience.
I spent the rest of the day strolling round the old town, shopping and people watching, the place was much busier than last time but still retained all its faded glory.
After all this time in the city it was time to head for the countryside and this was what the cycling trip promised to deliver
Day 1 of the trip consisted of a short 15km ride to a lunch stop by the beach allowing for a lovely swim in the Caribbean Sea. After Lunch it was on to the Bay of Pigs and the museum commemorating the famous victory of the Cuban forces against the CIA backed Mercenaries. The Cubans are a fiercely proud people and this is reinforced by the stirring rhetoric used alongside the displays in this small but important museum.
From here it was into the bus for the short drive to Cienfuegos, bus isn’t really a fair description, what we had was a coach with the seats taken out of one side of it giving plenty of room for everybody and all the bikes. An ingenious way to transport us and the bikes in air conditioned comfort.
Cienfuegos was the only major town settled by the French and is another exquisite UNESCO world heritage site. Our hotel for the night was a great 1950’s US style hotel that once belonged to deposed President Baptiste’s brother. Next door to the hotel was a wonderful Moorish palace built in the 1920’s as a wedding present and now in use as the hotel dining room, there is a lot to be said for nationalization!
Day 2 was serious, 60kms of hills in 35 degree heat and 90% humidity. I was beginning to realise that some training would probably have been handy. I learned a couple of new words that day, “updulating” and “downdulating”, and there was far too little downdulating for my liking. At least the torture was over by lunchtime and our accommodation for the night was beachside, a lovely setting and great place to recover from the days exertions. I was surprised by the number of locals that were at our bar that night and then realised that it was Saturday night. Much drinking and dancing followed, not ideal preparation for the following days ride.
Day 3 – Sunday, day of rest, well not really but at least it was just a short 20kms to Trinidad. Trinidad is the second most visited place in Cuba but still pretty quiet when we arrived on a sleepy Sunday lunchtime. The historical centre of Trinidad is another Unesco World Heritage site as is relatively unchanged from the 1700’s. We had time for a look around the centre before heading off to our Casa Particulars – homestays, for the next two nights. A few enterprising homeowners have built extra rooms and roof terraces to cash in on the increasing demand from tourists for homestays and mine was fine; ensuite, breakfast served on the roof and air conditioned plus fan. That evening we were whisked away in 50’s cars to a nearby fishing village for dinner and then it was back into town for more dancing, this time under the stars by the town’s main square. Alas the weather gods had a different plan and the heavens opened, it was definitely a case of rain stopped play.
Day 4- Free day. There were a few options for people today; day at leisure, a catamaran trip to a nearby island or an optional cycle ride, most people opted for the boat trip except for one other hardened cyclist and me who opted for the 18km cycle ride. We rode out to a local estancia for Lunch and it was a very pleasant downhill ride. This of course meant one thing, a very unpleasant uphill ride back, however, now that I was a top cyclist this was nothing and we were soon back enjoy cold Crystals in the town square. That night was another group meal at the HQ of the casa particulars and this was probably the best meal we had, albeit with the same menu as every other meal we had; pork or chicken or beef or fish.
Day 5 – As mentioned above this was the last day of cycling and after arriving at the hotel it was time for a well-earned swim before heading out to a house in the nearby village for dinner. The standard of the meals at the Paladares was excellent and prices very reasonable, what was lacking in choice was more than made up for with enthusiasm and great hospitality.
Day 6 – Santa Clara. Today we were proper tourists, on the bus to the Che Guevara shrine. Although Che was shot by the CIA in Bolivia in 1967 his remains were repatriated to Cuba in 1997 and the shrine that has been built has been very tastefully done and incorporates a great museum of Che’s life. From here it was onto the near deserted freeway back to Havana for a quick tour of Havana new town before heading into the old town for a final meal. Our guide wasn’t able to join us for the farewell meal as he was heading out with another group the next day so it was down to yours truly to become tour guide, and I hope I didn’t disappoint. Dinner was followed by a tour of some of Havana’s most famous bars including La Bodeguita and El Floridita before ending up at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Inglaterre for a last glimpse of Havana today, what it might look like on my next visit, who knows.
I had been in Cuba at a special time, the raising of the American flag over the new US Embassy heralded a new era, the Pope’s visit has promised more change and the people can sense change in the air. Raul Castro is to resign in a couple of years and his deputy is to rule until 2023 before the first free elections are held. Although that is still another 8 years away it feels about right. Cuba has been in the slow lane for nearly 60 years and for it to start overtaking some of its Caribbean neighbours may take more time than we think.