We arrive to Santiago de Cuba. The surroundings look as if destroyed by a hurricane. Actually (and sadly) this is the case. Uprooted trees and broken rooftops form the suburb landscape of this second largest city on the island. To prevent cholera outbreak, there is triple chlorine disinfection carried out in front of each premises. Also refresco (drinks from carbonator) and ice cream are not sold anymore.
However, everyone is guaranteed to have a job on Cuba! So what is going on with all the ice cream sellers? Well, they are at work selling “nothing”. They simply stand in front of empty freezers, in scorching sun and patiently wait until someone comes to buy nothing. It’s a paradox of centrally controlled economy – you have to be at work, no matter the circumstances.
El Caney is a nearby town where Pedro has family (actually, with no blood relationship, but on Cuba it counts as family). We are going to stop here for several days and El Caney place will become our base to explore eastern, far less explored part of the island.
Speaking of cycling again, as we are pedaling along the coast in the direction of the National Park Baconao, a small ring in my rear derailleur breaks apart. The remaining seven kilometers I have to run pulling my fully-loaded bike on the side.
In Baconao we get hold of state-owned privately-run shop. To make it fully private, would be necessary to complete lots of official paperwork, and you need to invest in the bathroom and kitchen to meet sanitary standards. Then it is just to raise prices and change the currency to convertible peso.
A young neighbor and a few other people from the neighborhood come by. We spend an evening playing dominoes according to local rules. A real Cuban would never throw a domino brick onto tabletop with force of less than 50 Newtons.
At the same household I manage to straighten out my rear derailleur and stiffen it with a steel wire taken from a garden fence. Pedro’s bike is also not running strong. The subsequent repairs take longer and the intervals between them are getting shorter. We are lucky because accidental people are always there to help us.
We pitch a tent on a sandy beach with trees wrenched by hurricane Sandy. This has been the strongest hurricane in local history. People lived through this natural disaster hiding in shelters and some stronger houses. Locals refer to it as the most stressful minutes in their lives.
Before going to sleep I visit Baconao Lagoon. It is a reserve inhabited by dolphins, flamingos and crocodiles. Until now I thought that people do not eat crocodiles, but park ranger proved I was wrong. I take a young crocodile in my hands, but a 29-year-old one I observe from a distance. Crocodiles are one of few animals which cannot be tamed by people (apparently).
During the night on the beach my tent does not stand up to the hurricane test and breaks up in half, perhaps taking a more aerodynamic design.
We’re leaving, but after a few kilometers drive the bike is falling apart and the only way to continue is to completely remove derailleurs. The chain breaks again and further modifications are made with a hammer and a nail. One of the friendly Cubans is a young guy who has a chicken on a string attached to his toe, so that chicken has a bit of freedom to walk, but would not run away.
The only remedy is to sell the bike in “as it is” condition with an option to expand it into fixed gear.
Summit of Cuba
A collective camion, or truck-bus takes us to the village of Chivirico, and there we find a similar vehicle that takes us further to Las Cuevas. Along the way, we pass a two-meter hole in the road, broken bridge and river detour, this is total Cuban off-road. I am impressed by skills of Kamaz driver who maneuvers his truck with a passenger container of unlimited capacity. For the last Las Cuevas – Ocujal stage we get a lift from vegetable merchants with their your pick-up truck.
It’s a short, but beautiful and starry night. We sleep in a tent on the beach accompanied by the sound of waves and get up at 5:15. There is a red blinking spot on the sky. Maybe it is Mars?
We’re walking 5km to the village and start hike to the two highest peaks of Cuba: Pico Cuba and Pico Turquino. We are accompanied by a guide named Octavio.
We ascend the height from sea level to almost 2000 meters above it in less than four hours, including breaks, but at quite an intense pace. Most of the time, Octavio brings up some interesting historical topics, sometimes even referring to the first-hand facts and information. Worth to mention, his grandfather has been to Pico Turquino hundreds of times!
At first I thought Octavio gives us a little more time, but it turns out that he got absolutely short of breath on the way up. No matter how you look at it, it is always some (weird?) sort of satisfaction to make a local mountain guide ask you to slow down.
At the top I do not see very much because the trees are obscuring the view – yes, it sounds funny, but sometimes it is true too! Fortunately, along the way there are several vantage points from which you clearly see the terrain and the silhouette of the coastline, homeland to the mighty Sierra Maestra range. It stimulates all senses and makes much easier to imagine how this place looked like when the national army clashed with Granma’s fighters at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.
Our original plan was to return to our family in El Caney (yes, by now it is also my family!) the same evening. However, when we got to Chivirico, overwhelmed by friendly aura of local people and the town itself, we decided to stop here for a day or two. Then we go back to the grandmother, uncle, Junior and Jorgito and the rest of the family to become a part of their everyday life.