Cyclists for Cultural Exchange
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Read this insider's view
by Chad Williams
Warm, wet, enticing, very friendly, beautiful, poor and raw.
After all-nighter flights, we caught the morning connection in Miami to Holguin. Upon waiting the typical two hours for baggage and clearing customs, we were welcomed by Ana, Craig and crew in Holguin. We then climbed aboard an old jeep with bench seats in the truck bed and, thankfully, a tarp roof overhead. As soon as we took off, it started raining like mad –– and then it hailed! At temperatures in the 90s! On to our lodging in Holguin. Rest, good dining, music and beer. Ahhh, Cuban nights!
Day 2 began with fitting the bamboo bikes, touring the botanical gardens and climbing the La Loma de la Cruz peak for a panoramic view of the whole area. On the way back, we fixed a flat tire in a drenching thunderstorm.
Our mentor Craig Calfee had arrived a week earlier with another non-profit called Worldbike with which he is involved. They were evaluating the bikes we were riding to develop a new cargo bike design. Craig is doing a fantastic service to people of emerging countries by bringing sustainable bike design and technology. We bade Craig a fond farewell as he returned on the next flight home.
The next day, we rode to the coast at Gibara though beautiful rolling countryside. The few cars we encountered wait patiently until it was safe to pass, albeit occasionally leaving behind a cloud of diesel exhaust. We reached Ana’s Luz del Norte, a very special Casa Particulaire or private home that is set up to accommodate visitors. We felt truly home in Cuba.
Day 4, we set off on the now traditional ride to Caletones, a seaside fishing village, where we enjoyed a very good meal and a swim in two cenotes, natural pools connected to volcanic caves.
The next day, we cycled out to Ana’s family farm run by her brother Cesar and his family. This is where the bamboo bikes are built and where we were treated to a fantastic pig roast. A neighbor climbed a coconut tree to deliver an endless supply of coconut milk. Back in town, nights in Gibara meant walks to the ice cream shop and checking out the enchanting local outdoor music scene.
Another CCE tradition is riding inland to Cerro de Yabazon, a limestone mountain that was once a Russian quarry. We stopped at a river, where we can usually lounge and swim, but this year it was nearly dry due to the ongoing drought. Cesar and family brought us a cauldron of delicious traditional Cuban soup of pork and vegetables. On the return route, we stayed on back roads, riding through the countryside of farmland and stopping at a local cantina. This ride was my most enjoyable of the trip. More back roads please!
Then we were off to Guardalavaca, a beach town down the coast. As we crowded into a little boat to be ferried across the bay, we felt like having left a home away from home with Ana in Gibara. With the heat (96F!) and on mountain bikes for thirty miles, even our group of experienced riders found it challenging. To avoid a long, hot ride on pavement back to Holguin, we decided to stay by the ocean for the rest of the trip, where we enjoyed riding local back country routes. Naively, I had booked us into a big, cheap, all-inclusive resort. The ocean is fantastic. We had kayaks, snorkel gear, Hobie cats and free pina coladas. I even went scuba diving! However, there were drunken tourists everywhere, and did I mention the pounding music? Next time we'll stay at the local Casas Particulaire as we have done on previous tours. Making the best of it, the group rode some lovely tours on back roads to a village, where we put our handful of Spanish words to good use, having a great time of wonderful conversations with the locals.
On our last day, we see each other off to a Havana-bound bus and US-bound flights. After a 12+ hour flight home –– some 20 hours overall that day –– I came home to my own bed. Yes, that journey is a dream I will always remember fondly.