I arrived in Toronto with a 19 hour lay over, which meant I would had to pick up my bike and recheck it again. The bike arrived with a huge hole in the box. I took It to the airport baggage storage and asked if they had tape. They declined, but when I showed her my polish passport she greeted me in polish and gave me some tape. While in Toronto I stayed with an old friend from high school and she showed me around, meaning mainly dinner and drinks. Toronto is going the way of the hipster with Beauty parlours being transformed into watering holes at night. I enjoyed the range of drinks and Canadian whiskeys but I could not over extend myself as tomorrow I had an 8am flight which meant getting up at 4.30. Keeping in mind I hadn’t slept the night before and as a result was in weak form.
I made it to airport 30 minutes before my check in closed but with all the hassle of my bike I made it one minute before the deadline. The bike still had to be checked, meaning I would have to open the box for the airport authorities to check for traces of explosives. I pleaded with the lady to use the already giant hole on the box as opening it again would mean it would probably not stay intact through the next flight. She swiped the insides and gave me some tape to fix it and I was off. As I entered the scan area I heard the PA announce last call for boarding as I peered at the snake of line that switch backed 6 times before reaching the next room. My stress began to peak, but when I heard my name being called as a last warning that my flight was leaving my heart jumped up my throat. I did what any good Polack would, and slipped my way under the rope to the fast track line. I was scanned just as my name was called once again. Through the scanner I ran through a wing of the airport that must have been 3km avoiding the automated walkway as to not have to dodge through retirees and their luggage. With ten minutes to spare before the plane left the tarmac I was putting my pannier in the over head compartment with sweat dripping down on to the passenger underneath.
Next stop Cuba.
Day 1 Havana
An Air canada three hour flight meant i would arrive hungry. I waited 20 minutes by the oversized baggage chute in the Havana airport. In the meantime the lights in the main hall went out so I waited in the dark and watched everyone scramble for their bags whilst using their cell phone lights. Most of the oversized boxes coming out were appliances that people were bringing to their Cuban relatives. The next line would be to exchange dinero. 30 minutes of waiting and I had some Cuban convertible pesos in order to catch a cab with. The taxis hostess arranged a cab for me when I asked how much it would be she told me 45 as I had a large box with me. I told her that was too much and another host called out how much I was willing to pay I told him 25 and with a two finger whistle I was off towards old Havana. I found my hostel on an old part of town next to a butcher and hair dresser. After ringing the doorbell it unlocked and a woman stood at the top of a flight of stairs pulling on a cord which opened the door for me; Cuban intercom. I was greeted by Irma the house duena she gave me the load down on the area and gave some simple tips for all of Cuba such as in Cuba we don’t talk politics nor religion as those are the causes of any and all wars. I assembled my bike in her apartment fearing that I had lost some parts due to the giant hole in the box, but it was all there. After a quick shower I was off to explore the town.
Immediately I was approached by a street hustler. I was well aware of their workings as I as was warned about them in all the guide books. Cuba is very safe but people like to befriend you by coming off really friendly in order to rip you off. Nonetheless I wanted to see the man in action for myself approaching the situation quite cautiously. He invited me to a bar where they do salsa lessons and convinced me I needed some Cuban drinks; Castros favourite, Cuba libre, and Cubas favourite mojito. Double fisting it was, he then asked if I would invite him for a drink and I accepted not knowing the prices. Then his cousin joined us and she got two drinks, next I was introduced to dance school teacher, and she got some drinks. Once his cousin started stroking my arm while asking if I have ever been with a dark skin I knew it was time to leave, I paid for the drinks and was out of there. After this experience any hustler that approaches me I tell that I am not the regular type of tourist as I am here for a few months on a bike so I don’t have a budget surplous to enjoy such ammenities as excursions, antique car cab rides, or massages.
When comes to Internet access Cuba has improved greatly in the last few years. It is still rare for anyone to have private internet access. The majority including myself have to purchase a scratch card with a number code that grants me access in public areas with a wi if signal; either public parks or fancy hotels. After purchasing a five hour card I got my bearings and followed the malecon sea wall to New Havana. Along the way I passed the American embassy right on the malecon that was at the end of large open Boulevard that closed off with a numerous flag poles. I later found out that any national manifestations would take place on the boulevard and that is when the embassy is camouflaged by national and socialist flags, and the embassy is buraged with communist hymns coming out of amplified speakers. I was surprised to see that the embassy was guarded by Cuban guards. From the embassy it was not far to Havana’s national hotel where Castro hosted over 100 national leaders and also was the target of numerous failed assasination attempts, one of 105. Fidel once had an American lover that was eventually persuaded by the CIA to poison Castro’s food at this hotel. The CIA waited in the hotel lobby while she ascended to Castro’s room. When she returned to the lobby she was in tears and the CIA escorted her out thinking that the job was done. But alas she could not bring herself to do it and ended up flushing the poison down the toilet.
Began with an early morning bike tour with Rita bikes. The office was far from my hotel so I grabbed a cab. After telling the driver my destination he asked if it was alright if we picked up his wife on route as we are heading to the same area. She got in a block later and a little later I got to the office just as the tour was about to begin. The bike tour was not the safest stopping alongside busy roads that made it difficult to hear the guide. But we did get a chance to see a lot of Havana, new and old. On our city bikes we traversed the park along the river. We were accompanied by many turkey Voltures that flock to this area due the fact that many Santoria sacrifices take place here and their corpses are left for the Voltures to devour. During our snack brake the heavens began to pour to an extent that was not seen since hurricane Irma. Eventually the aggressive rain died out and we were left with a drizzle so we headed back along the malecon. That night I treated myself to a beer or two and listened to come Cuban music. You don’t necessary need to pay cover for a jazz club as many of the restaurants and bars have live music and I found the talent that played to be more than satisfacory. One of my favourite moments was at the Cuban brewery on Plaza Vieja where a Cuban banned payed outdoors, and the at the immediate table there were a couple of Russian tourists that gave the band a 10 CUC tip in order to pay the communist Cuban number about Che Guavera.
First day on the bike. I first rode out to the harbour to catch a ferry across the inlet towards the fortress that guards Havana. There a giant Rio style statue of Jesus overlooks the harbour. My ride went along the coastal highway and after 20 km I rode off to the beach of Santa Maria del Mar. It was there in 1994 that I was in Cuba last with my father at a 2 star resort by the name of Tropicoco. We were there for two weeks and my father was quite dissapointed. I remember going to the airport and waiting standby for the next fly home. There wasn’t one. In the end they bumped us up to honeymoon suite. The hotel was just as I remembered, maybe even worse. Clearly no renovations were done sine then. I continued along the beach through a forest till the road ended at a a gated resort. I asked the guard if there was wifi he replied that it was for guests only, after some discussion he called the reception and they let me through. At the reception desk I noticed they had a Tuesday through Thursday deal 70% off. An offer I could not refuse for an all inclusive 4 star resort. I finally got my fill of food as so far it’s been lacking on the island.
I rode from Santa Maria Del Mar to Varadero. Half way up the peninsula was the hotel I would be staying at with my parents. It passed with flying colours and I looked forward to getting rewarded with a relaxing stay there when i return 2 months later. From there it was the highway to Cardenas; the city of bikes and horse drawn carriages. The first hostel I found was run by a Canadian Cuban but he just rented his last room out, but he was nice enough to escort me on bike to another hostel. I am well impressed with the standards of the rooms in the Casas Particulares, as most come with air conditioning and a private bathroom. That evening I dinned in the square. It was while dining I met a fellow Canadian from New Brunswick who has been coming here for 20 years. Still without a word of Spanish. As has become custom I followed dinner up with a stop in the square for some internet access. It was on one of the benches that I had a long chat with a Cuban by the name of Pecha, he gave me some ideas for my route and told me his mother works in one of the hotels along my way. I took his picture and got him to hand write a message to his mother that I would later deliver. He invited to come to the bar in the square later that evening to meet some of his friends. Once I got back to my hostel I crashed before 8 and would not leave the room till the next morning.
After my usual search for breakfast from street stalls I packed up and set out. The ride was mostly flat but as I was heading west and had to fight with a strong headwind which handicapped me to a megre 16 km/h. Passing me were 2 groups of guided tourists on road bikes. I stopped in the next town over for some typcal Weiner bun, but in this case the Weiner was served cold. Unsatisfied I continued to the edge of town where i found a much cleaner looking place that specialized in milk shakes. I asked for one called Manti, no knowing what i was I asked the lady and she showed my a plastic box of brown cubes that did not answer my question all I know that was sweet. Turns out that it was a Milk shake of Halva, the sesame desert. I was energized and off once again. The road took a turn for the worse as it was lined with cracks for about 10 km so I hugged the side as it was smoother on the dirt than on the road. Along the way I bumped into another fellow bike tourist from Eastern Europe. An elder Czech has been biking on the island for a month now and seemed to be quite content. He had a tent with him and told me of some nice places along the beach. Once I got just to Corralillo a young Man rode up to me on his bike and gave me some guava fruit without wanting anything in return. Minutes after a truck passed me full of workers packed in the flat Bed And one of the youths showed me the Finger. I saw no sign of Pecho’s Mom’s hotel so I rode into the square to use the wifi. I found a couple of campgrounds nearby that the Czech mentioned. But some gentleman in the square recomended the hotel which was back 6 km And another 12 km off route. I did it anyway and was not dissapointed. For 20 CUC i got 3 star Services, clean room, clean póol, dinner, breakfast and a lobby bar. I was the only Guest there it seemed until about 7 in the evening when 3 bus loads of Cubans showed up. It seemed to be a work function as they all had name tags. After dinner and a drink i was off the my room while the Cubans were clearly not ready to retire. I was awoken by loud singing in front of my room at one am. The next morning after breakfast just as fast as they arrived one hundred and fifty or so Cubans dissapeared And i was again alone with my bike.