The holiday was pretty much as described in the Trip Notes - a chance to see beyond the beaches and bodegas and experience, as much as you can as a tourist, a little bit more of real Cubans living their lives, as well as visit some of the different areas of this fascinating country in a period of transition. The cycling was challenging but it certainly did improve my fitness. The food was rather unexciting and the lavatory arrangements unpredictable, but these had been well signalled by the literature. The weather was consistently hot and humid, so the excellent backup from the support team, whether water, fruit, local knowledge or just encouragement on the road, was very much appreciated.
- What was the most inspirational moment of your trip?
A few inspirational moments would include:
- Cycling along the Malecon in Havana - the first day in a city laden with atmosphere.
- Jamming with a Cuban guitarist on the Cuban local instrument, the 'tres' - a humbling experience.
- Seeing firsthand the bullet holes and torture chambers associated with the first, abortive, uprising, reminding us that revolutions are about people, not necessarily ideology.
- Visiting a tobacco famer's tiny plantation, cmplete with hand-cranked water pump and drying shed: micro-agriculture in action.
- Exchanging a very limited Spanish vocabulary with a populace who were almost entirely polite, appreciative and friendly (the exception being staff in the large hotels, for whom tourists have become walking ATMs).
- Being able to explore both Trinidad and, to the East, a sugar plantation, both of which gave a sense of how the country must have been not so long ago.
- An impromptu dancing lesson in the one restaurant where we defied the Leader's choice of eatery and went off on our own. Although Juan Carlos' choices were in fact consistently better.
- The scenery overall, although the view of the mountains on the third day, leaving Cienfuegos, remains memorable.
- The polite, neat, well-dressed school children, who always waved and yelled at us (though, perhaps forutitously, we couldn't understand what they were yelling..)
- What did you think of your group leader?
Juan Carlos could not have been better: experienced, supportive, polite, well-briefed, patient and firm when necessary. He went to bed last, was first up, and despite plainly having to spend half the day organising suitable venues that were prepared to take 18 tourists at a sitting, appeared consistently unruffled. He was also extremely well briefed on the history of all the locales we visited, and all of the local trips maintained their interest, although I did skip the castle in Santiago.
Juan Carlos would also travel at the back of the line of cyclists when he felt it was necessary to give encouragement or help. In short, a real professional.
- Do you have any advice for potential travellers?
Read the Trip Notes - they do explain pretty much everything. Things I found useful: medical kit, clothes washing liquid, toilet roll, indigestion tablets (helpful for another member of the team), headscarf (the sun is very hot), Factor 30 sunscreen, a single room, my own gel saddle, lots of change in Convertible Pesos for tips, anti-insect spray.
Unbelievably, I only got bitten by a mosquito once, which I attribute to my ingestion of 6 yeast pills daily for 2 weeks prior and throughout the trip.
Things I didn't need - jacket, shirts, shoes - all venues were informal. Although the Trip Notes and the guide books advise extreme caution re: pickpockets and camera snatchers, I didn't in fact feel threatened and wished I'd brought my posh camera - although I didn't go out clubbing or stroll the streets late at night.
Things I wished I'd bought - a Cuban tres 6-string guitar, some percussion instruments.
Things to avoid - any CDs on sale by all the musicians who play at every lunch and dinner without exception - unless you particularly like their music, of course.
Things I did buy - cigars. You can get more at the airport, but they are certainly more expensive back home, so worth stocking up on. Similarly, the authentic rums of Santiago de Cuba - Santiago and Caney. You can get them at the airport as well.
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
As others have noted, the first day, at the end of which one is cycling into an East wind in a state of unfitness, was tough. However, the alternative would be to have a much longer coach transfer on the first proper day of the trip and I don't think that would go down well with people who want to get straight on the bike, so on balance I think the routing is good as it is.
If it were possible to study the route on the map the evening beforehand, to prepare for the next day's cycling, I would have been able to pace myself better. Perhaps this is only of relevance to the terminally unfit, but may be worth a thought.
The one thing that would have improved my trip would have been good and consistent air conditioning at the hotels. They mostly wouldn't function till 4 AM, when they would wake us up with a chill, necessitating a change to the dial and a repeat of the cycle. I appreciate the impossibility of changing anything for the sake of effete Europeans, but you did ask.
I think the tip for the support crew at the end (suggested as 50 CUC) should be compulsory. They did such a good job, with consistent good humour and organisation, that to refuse to tip them (as two of our group did) is deeply insulting. I would hate Cubans to think that all cycling Brits are demanding, tightfisted, mean-spirited whingers who don't appreciate other people's efforts.