Here’s a nice story about our cycling / easy mountain bike holiday in Cuba by Gill Charlton of the Daily Telegraph
Skedaddle – Cuba on Two Wheels – by Gill Charlton
It doesn’t take long to realise that Cuba and Communism are bedfellows in name only. A porter pockets a dollar bill for finding a luggage trolley, our coach is an air-conditioned Volvo, and on Havana’s oceanfront drive, among the expected 1950s Buicks and Chevvies, there is a steady stream of Mercedes and VWs. The Deauville Hotel is reassuringly dingy, though even here young women pout at potential sugar daddies. Cuba is desperate for dollars and it no longer cares how it gets them.With no Soviet subsidies and no decent market for his country’s sugar, Fidel Castro has reluctantly conceded that his only answer is to woo the tourists. Last year there were two million, a figure that is expected to treble over the next five years. Most are whisked off to Varadero, an all-inclusive clubland on a remote sandy key where Spanish and Canadian companies are building hotels are fast as the sand and cement arrive.Corralling tourists in this way makes Castro feel better. He worries about foreigners polluting his socialist revolution, turning the heads of his people. But satellite television, the internet and visits from relatives in Miami have already created a Vesuvius of frustration among younger Cubans. “The freedom to do what you want, read what you want, go where you want is everything,” a teacher in Havana tells me. “I’d clean public toilets in Mexico for the chance to be free.”
And I’d get on a bicycle to escape those all-inclusive compounds and mariachi bands belting out Guantanamera. I join a small group leaving Santiago in eastern Cuba on a journey that will take us through the countryside to places that played key roles in Castro’s guerrilla war in the late 1950s.
Revolutionary politics, and its fall-out, is a big part of Cuba’s fascination. Castro and his band of Marxists (beard and army fatigues essential) have held power for more than 40 years, pursuing the belief that people should work for the common good rather than for personal gain – and never complain. So has it worked? The chance to answer that question is part of the attraction of a holiday here.
The coast road rises and falls between the blue Caribbean sea and the crinkled foothills of the Sierra Maestra, where Castro’s rebels spent 18 months playing hide-and-seek with government forces, all the while building up support among landless peasants and left-wing intellectuals.
There is little traffic, just the odd open truck packed with people rather than goods, a few horsemen and cyclists on Chinese “Flying Pigeon” models that have to be pushed uphill. Which is why riding a 24-speed bike, with a support coach bringing up the rear, is more than a little embarrassing.
A farmer gives us a welcome shower from his irrigation hose before the final climb to a remote all-inclusive hotel on a lovely sandy beach favoured by retired Canadians.
It was near here, on December 2, 1956, that Fidel and his band of 82 men (including his brother, Raul, and the Argentinian, Che Guevara) arrived from Mexico to liberate Cuba, which had become a virtual colony of the US.
The voyage had been a disaster. They were all seasick, the navigator fell overboard, and the 60ft cabin cruiser ended up stuck in a swamp. They had to leave most of their food and ammunition behind and wade to land.
Not an auspicious start, and things did not improve. We cycle along rust-red tracks through sugarcane fields to a grove of spindly mahogany and pepper trees. Here, three days later, government troops ambushed the exhausted revolutionaries. Only 22 escaped, including Fidel (who hid under cane straw) and Che (who stumbled on a deep limestone cave nearby). Surveying this flat, deforested landscape, you conclude that their survival was a miracle.
Today, Granma province (named after the cruiser) is the heartland of Fidel’s support. “Vive Castro” is picked out in shells at the entrance to villages and writ large on hillside boulders.
It is in rural areas like these that the revolution’s successes are seen. Each family has a decent log cabin, often shaded by a mango tree, in a yard full of chickens, pigs and canna lilies; children go to school in smart uniforms and proper shoes; there are rural clinics and big hospitals in small towns. It is also evident that tractors and farm machinery rust in compounds for want of diesel and parts. The ploughing is once again done by oxen, and horse-drawn surreys and carts use the bays in bus stations. All very quaint to us, but hardly easy for the locals.
As we cycle on towards Bayamo, the provincial capital, a concrete monolith stands in a sea of sugarcane. It is miles from anywhere and on the horizon there are several more. “A high school,” says our guide. It looks in a sad state of repair, with a vast empty swimming pool and playing fields that have been turned into vegetable allotments.
An old yellow school bus full of adults pulls out in front of us. “Their parents, come to visit them.” I learn later that Castro doesn’t like young people congregating in towns; they can be troublesome. He should know: their grandfathers joined his revolutionary army as teenagers. The answer is to pack them off to rural boarding schools in the vain hope of turning out a new generation of model socialists.
Bayamo is surreal and I love it. It is as if a chic Spanish town has been transplanted into egalitarian Cuba. Everyone is in their Sunday best. Small girls, all ribbons, frills and ringlets, ride around the main square in carts pulled by goats while suckling pigs are roasted on spits and served as delicious hamburgers by chefs in white hats and aprons.
Life becomes more bizarre by the hour. A man strolls into the hotel bar wearing a white fedora, a white suit and carrying a silver-tipped cane. Local families sit down to three-course dinners at tables dragged into the streets and dressed in lace. Even the street sweepers appear to be well-to-do housewives.
What is going on? This is so bourgeois; it is all that Castro finds utterly contemptible. Apparently not. “Bayamo is the city of heroes,” someone later tells me. “We think that Castro gives them extra money so they can live like this.”
It takes us a whole day to drive from here to the Sierra del Escambray, a journey that took Che Guevara and his men six weeks on foot (the army had captured all his petrol). A “truly horrible” trek, he notes in his diary, through swamps and dodging aerial attacks. Cycling through these mountains is one of the highlights of our trip. Tall royal palms and spreading fig trees rich in orchids and epiphytes give way to pines and coffee plantations as we slowly climb to the roof of Cuba. Way below us, beyond a sea of sugarcane, lies the town of Trinidad, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Trinidad is a stunner. Former convents, churches and the mansions of rich Spanish planters have been meticulously restored. Smaller houses have been repaired and painted in knock-out colour combinations. But the historic centre lacks the people, and the life, of a typical Cuban town. The cobbled streets have a ghostly air – until the daytrippers arrive.
Private enterprise flourishes in Trinidad as nowhere else in Cuba. Che T-shirts, lacework and bad abstract art lurk behind nearly every ornate window grille. Even in the museums, custodians point slyly to lace hankies draped over chairs. There are comfortable b & bs in private homes in the historic quarter, identified by discreet blue triangles. They are not supposed to serve food (to protect the state restaurants) but advance warning secures a feast of lobster and prawns, a welcome change from the standard diet of pork and beans.
It is in Trinidad that I realise the cult of Che Guevara is not just for tourists. His portrait has pride of place in nearly every home. Many Cubans believe that he was their “natural leader” and that had he lived (he was killed trying to bring revolution to Bolivia in 1968), he would have rescued Cuba from the isolated, penurious state it finds itself in today.
Cuban frustration is most evident in Havana. Housing may be rent-free but parts of the city resemble war-torn Beirut, ravaged by the damp, salty air. There are ration books for staple foods, but “you would starve if you had to survive on them”, a mother tells me.
For all that, Havana is a rich seam for the cultural tourist. The Spanish colonial quarter and the Italianate villas of Miramar have scrubbed up beautifully. The Fine Arts museum is world-class. The music scene is rich in new Latin sounds, and nobody likes to dance more, or does it better, than a Cuban. It is one of their few freedoms.
Copyright : Gill Charlton “ Daily Telegraph –
Gill was a guest on the Skedaddle Holiday – Cuban Revolutions