Our London-dwelling member, Amanda, won an 8-Day Cuba Highlights Cycling Holiday with Exodus in their online-competition & so Fred, Mick, her non-cycling husband Rob, & I, eagerly grabbed the chance to join her. Fred was nervous of the flights involved, I was petrified of the coach travel & Rob had good cause to be worried about the cycling as he was a complete novice plus using the trip to give up smoking.
We all met up at Gatwick for the flight to Madrid, as we had been bumped off the promised direct flight to Havana. Confronted by long delay at Madrid & hundreds  of tired, hot people we tried to find some food. We were all seated together on the Airbus & endured the 10.75hr flight, with mid-Atlantic turbulence, to arrive in Havana at 2 or 5am & eventually reach our hotel in Miramar much later. Once there, I was too het up to sleep but probably did a bit. More queues & waiting around at breakfast as it was huge hotel but lacked plates & cups.
Eventually we met the rest of our group & our guide, Tony, driver, Elise & bike mechanic, Ricardo. The lucky Virgin Direct Group all looked fitter than us, one was even planning to run a marathon in April in Gaza & training for it on the trip, an Australian couple & 3 younger, fitter single men, 1 of whom was Canadian doctor. I asked Fred to try to reserve me a seat at the front of the bus as I feared motion sickness & wanted to look at the horizon.
Mick was last on bus & nearly missed it. As we left the city I asked if I could sit in Ricardo’s place up front & was allowed. It still seemed a long 2 hours along the autopista until we arrived at the restaurant where we were to claim our bikes. All the bikes were the same Trek model but not all the cyclists were as fit as the athletes out in front! There were some long, straight, hot roads ahead before we stopped for a drink of water. Rob, Fred & I made the mistake of stopping for a photo by a revolutionary poster & thus were left even further behind. However, we had Ricardo as backstop & he gave us a welcome push to attempt to get us back up with the pack.
The stop at the crocodile farm was all too brief & we cycled on another 10km before stopping for picnic lunch at a bay for a paddle then a swim among the snorkelers & divers. Back in the coach then for a visit to the near-by Bay of Pigs Museum celebrating the Cuban victory over the invading Americans. We saw humming birds in the gardens & heroes on the walls. Super hotel for 2nd night with huge array of food at buffet, brilliant show in the evening with opera-singers who also performed in the dining room, magnificent swimming pool & beautiful black & white swifts nesting in the eaves of the corridor by our bedrooms. Must have had some sleep that night.
The second day’s cycling started from the hotel & was more undulating & thus more fun. Fred & Rob took to the coach but Mick had been training me on the hills of Woodingdean & I soared along powered by bananas, chocolate halva & peanuts sold by the roadside vendors & given to us along with the water. We had lunch in a roadside inn & children riding bareback on a horse came to see us & show us their birds in a cage, probably hoping for a pen or sweets or cash for a photo opp. Next hotel was by a beautiful bay & we spent the afternoon swimming & relaxing on the beach while pigs, piglets & chickens foraged around us. After a super buffet supper an African/voodoo Show was promised. The witch doctor/santeria walked on glass, ate fire & lifted a petrified little boy on a table up in the air with his teeth. We had cabins in the grounds & were disturbed by mosquitos but otherwise enjoyed a good sleep & then a tasty, fruity, copious breakfast the next morning.
Next day we cycled to Trinidad, UNESCO Heritage Town & billed as a rest day. For us it was not to be though as our casa turned out anything but restful! Having had 2 single beds up till then we now had one small, bouncy double with single bed-linen & pillows that didn’t suit. The bathroom was tiny with toilet in the shower & basin with small dribble from the tap. There was a balcony but no view, only another part of the family; a boy with a howl & disruptive behaviour & then in the night, a grandfather coughing, retching & vomiting beneath us. We didn’t sleep.
Next day there was a boat trip to an island or more cycling. As I was feeling fragile I stuck to dry land but the cycling was tough, due to a strong headwind & I found it hard to keep up with the pack of youngsters. Ricardo had to keep pushing me back into the pack but eventually I had to give up & take the coach. Would have liked to relax in a quiet room in the afternoon, but didn’t fancy the casa so joined the young people & 5 of us squashed into an ancient American car/taxi for the beach & had lunch & super swim in Caribbean. Met Mick from the boat but he was feeling ill too, so we missed the fun in the evening & had a calming vegetable soup & hard boiled eggs in another casa before another, slightly less disturbed night in the casa with granddad below & the young lad seeming to have caught the same bug! I believe the other 3 Clarionettes had one of their best evenings then sampling the music & paladar food of Trinidad.
The following day was billed as the best cycling of the trip as we took the coach up into the Escambray Mountains & disembarked an hour or two later to begin the trip to the next hotel at Lake Hanabilla. Corinne [who’d done the same trip a few years previously] had warned that the last climb was punishing but was glad I gave it a try & would have made it to the top had I not been told that there was another 4kms to go in the hot sun, when, in fact, we were almost there. Amanda was the last to take the coach. We both got on the coach to applause though, as only half of the group had made it to the top. Loved this new hotel. Swam in the pool, then in the lake with young Fran. We were helped into the water by the boat attendant & hauled back out again once we’d had our fill. Watched the TV in our room for the first time on the trip & relaxed. The coach took us to a nearby casa particular for our meal which we enjoyed outside while admiring the white cockerel asleep in the tree above us.
Next day it was off in the coach again to Santa Clara & the Che Mausoleum, which I loved. No time to see Santa Clara itself as we had to return to Havana & our hotel in Miramar. Was dreading the hours on the coach & not feeling like eating lunch at the restaurant in Australia, though the bean stew did make me feel a bit better. Cycling was over now & sight-seeing in Havana ended the trip. Once back at the hotel, was going for a swim but noticed that free salsa lessons were in progress by the pool so Mick & I joined in, unsuccessfully in my case. Had a morning walking tour with our guide in old Havana & left for the airport around 6pm. More delays & chaos till we finally sat on the airbus for the delayed flight to Madrid. We all congratulated ourselves that we made the connection for Gatwick & enjoyed the new Brazilian aircraft for the flight home, though when we arrived at Gatwick our cases were missing & we had to return to Brighton in our Cuba clothes – me in shorts in freezing queue for taxi at Brighton station – from 35C to 0C in 15hrs & same clothes. Was relieved that we had all returned unscathed. Had a lot of fun & enjoyed the Communist Caribbean, a fascinating cultural mix personified in our guide, part Chinese, part African, part Spanish, but brilliant English having never left Cuba & studied Beowolf in Anglo-Saxon at uni, along with Shakespeare etc.
Fred has written an excellent blog on the trip & there are photos on flickr.
I’d worried that we would suffer “left-wing melancholia” when experiencing the disenchantment of some Cubans with the socialist Utopia, as my Canadian friends had warned me from their trip in 2009 on the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. A Canadian cousin told us Cubans felt “caged” & I heard another guide say that they were not allowed to go on boats with their tourist charges, in case they tried to commandeer the boat away from Cuba. We were told not to give to beggars in the tourist spots as everyone was fed & housed, but really only saw one in Cienfuegos & no homeless people living on streets.
On our last night in Havana in a Buena Vista Social Club I loved the audience participation & joy from fellow South American countries – Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia etc Enjoyed an exhibition on Chavez in Havana too & seeing him described as “Our Greatest Friend” at the Che Museum. When I asked our guide about Obama’s handshake with Raoul Castro at Mandela’s funeral & contacts with Africa now he said that thousands of Cubans had died there & he did not want to go there. There was evidence of Chinese investment in Cuba in the road improvements, but China is building those roads in order to take out the Cuban nickel & other minerals. The politics is fascinating, the cycling was gorgeous – quiet, virtually empty roads with only bullock carts, pony traps & the occasional open sided bus or truck bus, the weather sunny 30-35C in Feb – some headwinds sometimes, wondrous beaches, copious food & super hotels. Our group was supportive & fun & the guide, driver & mechanic were all charming, fun & helpful. I know many Clarion members have been to Cuba & loved it & look forward to discussing with them on our local rides. It has been good to hear more of Tessa’s Vietnam cycling trip & Linda’s Moroccan cycling adventure. It just shows what a little gentle trundling round the Sussex countryside can lead to. Thanks to Amanda for the original invitation & support throughout & to Mick, Fred & Rob for enhancing the good bits & support in tricky moments!
[Lots more photos from Anne, Fred and other members of the party on Flickr]