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Cuba: in the search for motorbikes

by ADV Hoppers
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Christmas present

We were still living the memories of our trip to Iceland and Faroe Islands when Christmas of 2019 came. Among other presents, Agata got an ordinary envelope, with her name handwritten by Joris. It contained a plane ticket for a round trip to Cuba for February 2020. Wow! We were about to make another of our dreams come true: explore Cuba on motorbikes. Great! As we did not want to ship our bikes overseas (and it was a bit late anyway) we started looking for options of renting the bike there. We immediately found it was going to be a challenge. Only big bikes could be found for rent, only for an organised trip and for heaps of money. Alternatively we could rent  three-wheeled scooters, also extremely expensive. We contacted all possible friends and friends of friends to have something organised for us. No chance.

At the same time we were consulting things with another friend, an expert on Cuban (and generally Central and South American) trips: Adventure Tess.

As February approached quickly, we decided to pack (light, just a hand luggage) and go and figure everything out when we are there.

First Mojito

We had a very convenient flight: Krakow-Amsterdam-Havana and all went smoothly (except some additional “random” controls, that for us, and especially Agata, seem to happen every time). When we landed, we were about to experience some famous Cuba bureaucracy and national sport: queuing. It took us several hours to get through immigration, as everything was just disorganised.  As check booths got closed just in front of us and as a result we were sent back to the queue to another one (twice) we were one of the lasts to exit the arrivals hall. Even Joris started swearing aloud in Flemish 😉 We exchanged some money (not without trouble – the automatic exchange machines swallowed some banknotes and we needed to find someone who can give them back to us) and took the taxi to downtown, where Tess arranged us a room with one of her local friends. It took the taxi driver a while to find the correct address and then us to find the correct door in the building but after some time we were all set and could have a walk to the oldest part of town and have a dinner and something to drink. We found a cosy moderate priced restaurant with a nice roof terrace and started to enjoy the evening.  Mojito that we got was excellent (and actually turned out to be the best of the whole trip). We also made a small tour and found a biker’s café in one of the streets, so we of course stayed there for a couple of beers. On the way back to our room we enjoyed the city life, contrasts and secret love for the USA, that could not be official. We checked with our host, Rainer, if he knows if and where we can rent the motorbikes, but we were just told it is not possible. OK. We need to use public transport then. For now.

Trip to the West

In the morning Rainer showed us where to eat breakfast and then walked us to the main street and caught us a local taxi -just a car full of people that were sharing the same route. He told the passengers and driver where to drop us off and this is how we enjoyed our first real “local” ride. Few kilometres after we were told this is our stop, we paid some small money and were shown where to go next. The bus station was a few hundred meters away. Buying a bus ticket, without a prior reservation, is a challenging task. First we queued to the desk where we were told that there are no tickets available but maybe half an hour later, when all passengers for this bus check in, we can be lucky if there are seats left. Of course half an hour before the departure the check-in was not even close to be finished, so we were told that yes, we can buy our tickets like two minutes before the departure. Then check in and then rush somewhere where the Viazul buses depart. What is worth noting, is that Viazul is a bus company for tourists. Cubans use the national carrier, of course few times cheaper than Viazul. Anyway, we were finally on the bus, where we spent next five or six hours.

Upon arrival to Viñales the owners of the “casas particulares” stormed the bus entrance to offer their accommodation. Agata is allergic to shouting crowd, so she rushed out as quickly as she could. Outside it was not much better, but one of the guys was more polite and patient than others. He also offered a good price for the stay per night so when Joris finally got out of the bus the accommodation seemed to be arranged. And it turned out to be a good choice in a nice, a bit remote area of the village, yet close to the “centre”. After refreshing we headed off to the recommended restaurant (mistake!). The food was great and excessive, but the price was also high. Each time the local person recommends / brings you to a restaurant they are paid by the owner… obviously the cost it passed on to the client so the bill is obviously inflated. We then went “downtown” and found a scooter/motorbike rental, but it was closed. We promised ourselves to check it out the next day. We spent the evening in a nice bar with a happy hour for Mojitos (2 for price of one) and internet access.

Internet

Accessing the network is another challenge. We are so used to the fact that internet is everywhere, that Cuba gives as a hard reality check. First of all, Internet is only available in some places. Secondly, to access it you need to have a “scratch card” with a username and pass code. The cards can be bought at various places (best to ask locals, as it may not be too obvious where you can get them) and they grant access for a certain amount of time like 1 hour. They are relatively expensive and the connections are not great.

Jurrasic Park

In the morning we visited a local tobacco field and cigar factory, producing cheap local non-branded cigars. We listened to a story about the whole production process and smoked some cigars dipped in honey.

Then went to have some lunch and we first experienced the money problem. As a result we overpaid our lunch like 25 times… Not a disaster, but still we could have avoided it. We thought we knew the system, but apparently we needed a lesson.

Money

So, there are two official currencies in Cuba: Cuban peso (CUP) used mostly by the locals and sometimes referred to as MN, moneda nacional, and Convertible peso (CUC) which is mostly used by foreigners. 1 CUC approximately equals 1 USD and 25 CUP. If you don’t get the CUP vs CUC right, you can overpay things by 25 times. The problem is, the prices never (or rarely) mention the currency CUC or CUP/MN. They always show the dollar sign $. The food in the booths in the street is extremely cheap and it is possible that it costs a few CUP.  Not CUC. Sometimes you need to learn it the hard way. If you pay with 1 CUC when something is worth 1 CUP, you will not get your change back. Watch out for 3 CUP coin – looks similar to 1 CUC and is worth  7 times less – we bet you find it among your CUC change.

We checked the scooter rental but no machines were available, so we rented the bikes from our hosts (another mistake – we did not agree on the price upfront) and went few kilometres outside of the town to see the Mural of Prehistory. With the jungle surrounding it you could have the feeling you are in a Jurassic Park. As the entrance ticket contained a coupon for a beverage, we chose a beer (Bucanero, in our opinion the best on Cuba) and enjoyed it at this site. On the way back we stopped at a bar that caught our attention earlier, woke up the owner 😉 and asked for canchànchara  as we were told we must try it. And it was great! Then we ended up at a local bar sipping good priced mojito for a very decent price and integrating with the locals. And after that we had a great dinner at our place made by the hosts, discussing the options of travelling the next day to Trinidad.

Nice meeting

Lured by the shorter travel time, later departure and promised comfort, we chose the “taxi” option to get us to Trinidad.  So… the taxi that arrived (1 hour late) was juts an old military truck with seats installed. Was noisy, and shaking, and vibrating so much, that the legs went numb quickly. We were happy to get out of it as soon as we reached Trinidad, not even asking we are dropped off in the “centre”. Actually we did not even had an address of our stay, that was arranged by Tess, with whom we planned to meet there. After having a short walk, arranging the internet and this way contacting our friend, we were able to check in and meet briefly to discuss plans for the evening. We took some time to refresh and enjoy the happy hours in the nearest bar and in the evening we met with Tess and the group she was taking care of and soaked in the cheerful crowd in the central part of the town. We did not stay as long as the others, as we are not much into dancing, which is what Cuba is all about, so we enjoyed the rest of the evening at the roof of our “casa”.

Following day we again joined Tess and the group and rented out horses to have a tour around hills and forests surrounding Trinidad. We even were promised a refreshing swim under the waterfalls. The ride was nice, so was the walk up to the “natural swimming pool” but the place itself was somewhat disappointing, but still we enjoyed it.

We returned to the city in the afternoon and went for a walk, visiting shops and pubs but mainly just walking around discussing the strategy on how to travel further. Actually Tess’s group had some problems with buying bus tickets to Havana, as there was a fule shortage and buses were not operating on that route. We wanted to go in the opposite direction but were told that there are no more seats available. There were some other tourists at the station that were in real despair, as they paid for they tickets and were cheated on as the taxi never arrived to pick them up. Anyway, we decided not to worry now and enjoy the good priced mojitos and in the morning go to the bus station on time to catch the bus to Holguin we wanted to take and just see what happens.

Chill out

In the morning we had no issue whatsoever to buy the tickets and the bus was half empty, so the story about tickets being sold out was nothing more but a lie. The trip was long, again and we ended up in Holguin when it was already dark. We were tired and nobody wanted to take us to Gibara, where we initially wanted to go. We were tired (or rather Agata was tired and getting grumpy) so we agreed to be taken to Guardalavaca, and we were assured it will not be a crowded touristic resort. We really wanted a day off by the sea, but we did not want to end up in a Varadero-type place. The taxi driver took us and one more couple to Guardalavaca and arranged a place to stay. At the first sight it was a bit strange as we were dropped of in the middle of the block of flats complex, resembling the ones built in Poland in the 70’s. The place actually tuned out to be very nice and authentic. The only thing that could have gone better that evening is eating – we were advised on a restaurant (it was late and we had not much choice) and the food was good, but a bit overpriced.

Morning was lazy and we enjoyed it. We had a mission to find a bank and generally “see what we can do”. We also tried to find us some motorbikes, but, as always, with no joy. We had a long walks along the sea, and the maps said there would be a bar “at the end”, but as we reached that place there was nothing, so we decided to go back to civilisation, taking notes of the paces where we could go later in the day to have a swim in the sea. On the way we met a Canadian guy selling beer, rum and cigars on a small stall and this is where we spend next few hours, talking, drinking and enjoying the company of him and his friend, who was spending his holidays there (whereas his Cuban wife was in Canada). As it was still relatively early in the day and as we were feeling a bit too infused with alcohol, we decided to eat something and we chose a local restaurant, or rather food booth next to our “casa”. And it was a perfect choice. The food was delicious, portions were enormous and the price was as local as it could be. In the late afternoon we went again to the seaside, took a swim and enjoyed the sunset.

Early in the morning the same taxi that brought us here was waiting to take us back to Holguin so we could continue our trip. Again, no problem with bus tickets and few hours later we were in Santiago de Cuba. We gave a chance to one of the local guys to get us accommodation and again we seemed to be lucky, as the casa was very nice and conveniently located. We also arranged for the next morning to be picked up and transported to the bus station.

Barbecue Festival

It turned out that there was a barbecue festival in the city that evening, so everyone was preparing for it – huge barbecues for whole pigs were installed and started. We decided to return to that market in the evening for dinner. Meanwhile we just got “lost” in the streets and alleys of the town. In the evening it turned out that it is extremely crowded and people are queuing to get a portion of meat and as we do not fancy standing in lines we decided that a pizza is an equally good choice – and it was! To add to that, in a well supplied shop we were able to find some ingredients we needed to prepare own mojitos and we were all set – we ended the evening in the patio of our “casa” sipping the refreshing drinks and talking. Sad thing was – we still have not found “our” motorbikes.

Few days of doing nothing

We hit the road again, going to the most eastern part of Cuba. By the way, we learned that it is already 2090…
The weather worsened a bit and Baracoa welcomed us with rain and wind. We found the recommended “casa” and also toured around the town to see what is where. Looks like we finally adjusted to the Cuban rhythm of life, not pressing ourselves to do anything. We spent a few days on walking around, sipping drinks, exploring small local bars. Joris even went to the local barber. We were still trying to find the motorbikes we could use. We event went for scooters, but the petrol became the problem – the supplies to the local petrol station were short and getting it as a foreigner was totally out of the question. One day we decided to go to the beach, that was more than 20 km away from the city. We managed to organise the transport, but as soon as we got out of Baracoa the car broke down and a couple of hours of fixing it at the side of the road did not bring any results. So we caught a lift back to town. As we were determined to go to that beach, we rented out the bicycles and restarted our quest. The car was still at the side of the road when we passed it. Soon after that, the patchy asphalt ended and the road became an up-and-down dirt road and given the temperature and sun, the journey became a small struggle. Anyway, we managed to get to the beach we wanted to get to and had a swim and some more lazy time. On the way back we stopped at a small bar to top up the minerals we lost sweating to get there and pedaled back to Baracoa that we reached after the sunset (by the way, the car was no longer at the side of the road, so either was fixed or got towed away). The achievements of the last day were buying the bus tickets for the next day (or rather making a reservation for them), drinking some chocolate from the famous local chocolate factory and writing and sending postcards.

Back to Havana

The trip back to Havana was long and exhausting, so when we arrived there, we decided to stretch our legs and walk few kilometres downtown, as we again booked the stay at Rainer’s place. We spent the afternoon and evening exploring Havana and sometimes returning to “well known” places from our first day here. Following day we met with Tess and her new group and had more guided tour of the city, and the stories we heard made a nice background to the places we visited. And then, just to the La Floridita bar (where tourists are squeezed like sardines, so we did not even bother to try it) we saw it. A sidecar taxi. And we booked a 1-hour tour around Havana for the afternoon. Finally a motorbike accent on our trip! We were not successful in the search for motorbikes that we could travel the whole Cuba on, so at least we could see its capital from the bike seat. Or side car. We ate lunch with the group in a very local restaurant and then rushed for our ride. And it was awesome. We saw all the paces we wanted and most importantly – felt the wind on our faces again.

Just made it

Our last day on Cuba was filled with waiting. We went on our final stroll in the city and our last mojito, that we waited for for a long time. We were calculating our budget and as much as we wanted to have a classic Cadillac ride to the airport, the common sense said it is not worth paying a double price of a normal taxi. At the airport we were a bit early, managed to exchange the money and lined up for check-in. The desks were not opening – the airport computer system was down so no check-ins were made for any of the flights. The tension was increasing with the number of people arriving at the airport. With one hour to the planned departure, the manual check-in started. And during that hour no more than 5 passengers were checked in, as the process was faulty, lengthy and required all luggage and boarding cards to be filled in by hand. Also, the seats assigned were not matching the prior bookings, so someone who had a business class ticket, could end up in the economy class, so the discussions at the desks were endless. As our term came, the computer system came back to life so we were probably the first ones with their boarding passes in our hands. And as most of the people were still queuing for check-in, we could smoothly pass the security and have a beer in the departure hall. Of course the delay was a bit stressful, as we needed to catch a connecting flight in Paris, but surprisingly all went well and we departed with just a 2-hr delay. In Paris we just managed for our next flight, and with a one more stopover in Amsterdam we were back in Krakow. Right on time, as soon all travels were banned due to the COVID-19 outbreak…

Hints & tips:

  • Do your homework with CUC and CUP.  Even if you are prepared and do the math, you can be surprised. Observe and know the value of the things you buy. Have the correct amount ready, pay and leave. If you don’t have the correct amount – check the change you receive.
  • Viazul is way better than “taxis” going between big cities – same time, better price (though still expensive in our opinion), more comfortable.
  • Be persistent when buying tickets – if you are t0old there are none available, this is most of the time not the case (and the main reason is to have you choose the taxi
  • Do not invest in buying postcards and stamps. They never reach the recipient.

 

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