November 26, 2014 by Rob Gardiner
Havana is well-designed for relaxation, but not for rest. A number of lazy days and late nights followed my return from Viñales. These gave me a taste of the city’s vibrant nightlife, which ranged from sipping 35-pence mojitos in a dusty colonial mansion, to tripping over Cuban hipsters in a trendy art-museum-cum-nightclub.
After these few days of bourgeois excess, I set off east. Leaving behind the smoke-belching taxis of central Havana, I followed the coast east, towards the city of Matanzas. Unfortunately, a furious headwind battered my mojito-softened resolve, as I struggled to make a decent speed. Such was the ferocity of this onslaught that stinging sea spray whipped my face for much of the journey.
From Matanzas, I headed south towards Playa Larga, a small village that looks out over the Bay of Pigs. Although the wind direction may have influenced this choice of destination, I was also curious to see the site of the ill-fated 1961 invasion by anti-Castro fighters. A day of flat cycling followed. As I passed through an area of featureless marshland, a sign announced my arrival at the point where the CIA-backed mercenaries had been defeated.
Cycling into Playa Larga, I contemplated the grim march that had faced the invaders. For the last 40 kilometres, I had passed through a mixture of dense woods and expansive swampland. To choose this treacherous terrain as the launch pad for an unpopular guerrilla war seemed like madness to my untrained mind.
With the perfect white beaches failing to lure me away from my bike, I left Playa Larga the next day. Making for the French-influenced city of Cienfuegos, I choose to ignore the main roads and gamble on a tiny road that a pair of passing cyclists had recommended to me. This rough track lay slightly inland, cutting through the dense vegetation that began where the beach ended.
For several hours, I skidded and churned my way through along this sandy trail, which narrowed to little more than a bridleway in places. Of course, true to form, I found this off-the-beaten track adventure perfectly exhilarating. It wasn’t until a puncture forced me to stop and incur the wrath of the local mosquitoes that the novelty began to wear off.
Fortunately, I was soon back on asphalt. And after passing the hulking skeleton of an unfinished nuclear power station, I began to make my way towards the outskirts of Cienfuegos. It was here that I made an unlikely new friend. Sadly, or perhaps luckily, I don’t remember his name.
He was 64 years old and riding an electric moped. Originally Iranian, he explained that his life was now split between Canada and Cuba. But something was not quite right, the perma-tan and flashy earrings did not seem to fit with the image of a guy settling down for retirement. Neither did the odd confession that he spoke no Spanish.
Then, as he told me of his simple life – an existence that consisted of merely eating, drinking and copulating, the picture became clear. Aided by some indiscreet mentions of payments to local girls, I realised that I had just met my first sex tourist.
Disturbingly, he seemed oblivious to his own seediness. He even forced a couple of bananas upon me, to help fuel my aching legs. This was an act of genuine kindness, at odds with his aura of unfettered sleaze. Luckily, I dislike bananas. So maintaining my disdain for him was all too easy.
Cienfuegos was a quiet place with a charming central plaza, but little else. One day was more than enough time to see the city and before long I was making the short trip along the coast to Trinidad. Not to be confused with the Caribbean island, this quaint town is a tourist Mecca for foreign travellers. Colourful colonial houses line the cobbled streets, which stretch up towards the idyllic central park. Museums fill the larger buildings, whilst crowds of naive westerners try to pick which ridiculously over-priced restaurant they wish to patronise.
In truth, Trinidad didn’t quite win me over in the way it seemed to seduce every other tourist. It was expensive, artificial and lacking any signs of real life. It felt like a polished jewel, cleaned of the natural imperfections that give a place character. But it was still a beautiful jewel; a great spot to spend a couple of supremely relaxing days.
However, my legs were soon itching to tackle the inclines of the Sierra del Escambray. Therefore, I said goodbye to Trinidad’s carefully sculpted beauty and sweated my way up and over the steep hills of the sierra. On the other side, the landscape quickly flattened out and I headed north, towards Santa Clara. Home to the mausoleum of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, this busy city is also famed as the site of one of Che’s most famous victories. It was here that he derailed an armoured train and secured a great victory over the forces of General Batista.
From Santa Clara, I raced back towards Havana, using Cuba’s only motorway. This may sound hairy, but much of the road’s traffic consisted of creaking single-speed bicycles or rickety horse-drawn carts. Emptier than the smaller roads, this vast expanse of asphalt made for easy, if illegal, cycling.
Once back in Havana, I returned to a blissfully lazy existence. By this point, I was at home in the hostel and had come to know everyone. One of the long-term residents was Aino, a Finnish girl who was midway through a semester abroad. She and I had struck up a firm friendship, based upon a mutual love of travel and mojitos. Thanks to her, my penultimate evening ended up being a rum-laden affair that began at a salsa performance and ended in a hazy fashion.
But before I knew it, the day of my departure arrived and my time in Cuba was over. Jet-lagged and befuddled, I found myself at Heathrow, being greeted by wet, cold, wintry weather. Suddenly, my cycling had come to an end.
In six and a half months, I covered 14,010 kilometres and visited five different countries. The people, places and stories are already melting away into the recesses of my mind, but I know they will never be forgotten. It was an amazing journey. Perhaps a little tame this time, but it was immensely enjoyable.
What is next? That is the question that everyone wants answered. In truth, I do not know. But I do know that I’m not done. For the moment, I need to imitate conformity and try to obtain a job. However, inside I still have the burning desire to explore, to push myself harder and further. One way or another, Tourient Express will ride again.
Finally, I would like to say thank you. To everyone who hosted me, helped me or rode with me: I am and always will be grateful for your hospitality, assistance or company. And to those who are still reading: Thank you for making it this far.