By Matthew Kadey
Locking into a firm handshake, our host Jorge (again, name changed), a quick to laugh barrel-chested man with a perpetual smile and beard where the pepper is trying to hold off the salt warmly looks me in the eye and declares: “Tonight we are all family.”
It turns out that we have stumbled upon his family’s abode on the right night. For this sultry evening is New Year’s Eve and in Cuba that means pig roast. A rapacious appetite combined with an air redolent of pig fat makes me almost forget that we are all breaking the law here.
You see, in Cuba, tourists are only allowed to stay with locals who are licensed by the government. To get such pieces of paper, Cubans must pay stiff monthly fees and own accommodation deemed foreigner worthy (read: sanitized and with little chance of anti-government verbiage). Likely Jorge can afford neither.
This night under a sky set ablaze by stars we tear into the fire-cooked hog and garden fresh vegetables like wolves at a kill all the while being entertained with stories, song and salsa.
Every few minutes the family seems to increase in size exponentially as young and frail alike gather to ring in the New Year and new hope that those in power on either side of the straights of Florida can finally do what is best for those caught in the middle of a political tug-of-war.
When everyone’s vocabulary finally runs out, we say goodnight. After the lights are retired, the darkness is absolute, and I fall sound asleep. Only to awaken at 5 am to the cacophony of the roosters.
A perfect way to ring in the new year, the Swiss duo, Tabi and I spend the next two days with a little CHA CHA CHA in our pedal stroke continuing to cycle along the coast on a road flanked on one side by dreamy mountains and the other by a jade sea.
In areas, hurricanes have turned the road and bridges into a crumpled mess. But that’s fine with us as it keeps the whizzing tour buses at bay.
I have become smitten with the locals and their neoteny — the retention of juvenile characteristics in adult members of a species. Water is glugged, pictures are snapped and new friends are cemented in this lonely landscape.
So we’re a bit downhearted when we come upon Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, only to find it overrun by culinary malaise, bobbing and weaving motorcycles and persistent jineteros, hustlers looking to lighten your wallet.
After a day to rest our weary muscles, Tabi and I purchase a bunch of roadside oranges and push on east to Guantanamo. Prevented from continuing along the coast by the presence of the eponymous U.S. navel base, we’re forced to move forward inland on the Autopista.
Backed by U.S.S.R money in the 80s and then quickly halted with the fall of Eastern European communism, the Autopista is a segmented, barely used eight-lane highway that sees more hitchhikers, grazing cattle and horse and carts than automobiles.
Pancake flat, we settle into a big chain ring rhythm and breeze into Guantanamo city. Passed by only two zooming vintage American autos in an hour, this just might be the quietest highway on the big, blue marble.
East of Guantanamo lies Cuba’s semidesert region. For cyclists, its coastal road is pleasantly scenic but not too arduous despite the climbing mercury that accompanies the countries driest, hottest location.
Here, prickly cacti cling to cliffs towering over rocky beaches where crashing waves break the silence in this land that exudes loneliness. In the distance, the Sierra del Purial mountains break through the late day haze.
Fuelled by outlandish scenery and soaring blood sugar from cucurucho’s – a ridiculously sweet coconut treat wrapped in banana leaves, we crest the summit of the La Farola road only to come upon Frank Correa, a 38-year old former professional Cuban cyclist on a ride through this tropical paradise to Baracoa to see his son.
Bicycles are ubiquitous in Cuba. When Soviet oil subsidies dried up in the early parts of the 1990s and the country fell deep into a grapefruit-skin-eating hardship fueled by oil shortages called the Special Period, Castro purchased more than a million bicycles from China to give the populace a means of getting around.
Today, many more Cuban’s, young and aged, use two wheels instead of four. Frank’s swanky road bike, far beyond his financial means, was donated by a visiting cyclist after a running of the annual cross-country Vuelta Ciclista a Cuba (Tour of Cuba) that uses the same otherworldly route we are tackling.
He is eager to ride with us down the backside of the mountain into town, and so the next hour or so is spent blazing gung-ho downhill among a swath of pine forest trying to keep up.
Tabi, smitten by Frank’s warmheart and chiseled quads, is using this time wisely to build up her Spanish vocabulary. I’ve long given up hope of mastering Cuban’s twist on this language so I’ve zoned out and turned my focus solely to the big, untamed, flabbergasting wilderness until the road stops its hairpin turns and once again we reach the ocean.
Once in the seaside hamlet of Baracoa, we find a genial casa and go about feasting on fresh lobster and rice.
History says that Columbus landed here in 1492 and praised this land as the most beautiful he had ever set eyes upon. The huge bay hemmed in by cloud-tipped mountains is indeed fetching. Unfortunately, we’ve come here at a time when Cuba’s first colonial settlement is still recovering from a powerful hurricane that damaged many of the city’s buildings and parks but thankfully not its spirit.
After a night of rhythmic, soulful Cuban music and rounds of mojitos, Frank agrees to take us on a day trip to Boca de Yumuri east of Baracoa. For twenty miles the road steeply climbs and equally steeply falls back to earth as we pass several inviting ebony-tinged beaches and jungly terrain. A fresh breeze is blowing.
To quench our thirst, Frank has locals fetch us coconuts which hold a tangy, slightly sweet nectar that we guzzle down. As usual on this trip, there is no sign of tourist-oriented kitsch or anything commercial save for the odd shirtless man trying to fill our tummies with a just-caught fish meal.
After pedaling through the Túnel de los Alemanes, a magnificent natural rock arch that straddles the road, we arrive in Boca de Yumuri with one thing on our minds: a refreshing dip in the bathtub warm ocean.
But I can’t muster much more than a half-hearted breast stroke here and there. I feel deliciously spent – the kind of tired you are when you’ve put a lot of work into something and it rewards you with intoxicating moments like this.
Matthew Kadey is a Canadian-based writer who has cycled in several countries including Ethiopia, Laos, Ireland, Jordan and Belize.