After a week and a half off the bikes, it was good to taste the open air again! The temperature here is about 31C every single day, with very little variation. We're headed to the north-east section of the island, circumnavigating the shore on the main highway. The roads are in pretty good shape, better than we thought they would be and we pass vast stretches of scenic farmland along the way.
Almost no commercial advertising, but tons of state propaganda.
This is a memorial to Colonel Garzon who fought in 3 Cuban wars in the late 1800s.
Heads continue to turn as we ride through the smaller towns. When we stop to ask for directions, a small crowd quickly gathers to examine our motorcycles, and when entering one town, a traffic cop stops us, shakes my hand and starts a conversation about our bikes and our trip: "Where are the bikes made? How fast does it go? etc". Fortunately, I have practiced the answers en espanol and he nodded his head with satisfaction, bidding us a good journey. Very nice guy. And very curious...
We found out later that picture-taking is prohibited here... oops...
We don't get very far from Santiago on our first day, we're too busy lollygagging. Over the communicators, we yell at each other, "Cuba baby!" So excited to be riding here. Our first stop is the city of Guantanamo. Yep, right next to Guantanamo Bay and the infamous US Naval Base. Cuba is such a mess of contradictions, this is just the first: a US naval base in the same country that it has no diplomatic relations with (to put it mildly)
Access to the Gitmo US Naval base is strictly prohibited and all activity in the surrounding area is monitored. We found out later that we could have gotten in trouble if they found us stopped at the side of the road taking pictures of the sign above!
Walking the tourist core in Guantanamo
Castro has put a huge emphasis on education and today, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world
Packing flour probably from Canada
Although the US has a trade embargo with Cuba, there are lots of other countries that still trade with the island: wheat from Canada, butter from New Zealand, rice from Vietnam, gasoline from Venezuela. Life was pretty hard in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, which resulted in the loss of 80% of its imports. However, the Cuba that we're riding through today is in a state of transformation. Some for the good and some for the bad.
Selling sunflowers on the street
Cuban flag flies across the street from our Casa Particular
Just in the last few years, Castro's brother, Raul, seems to have relaxed the rules regarding business ownership. Tourism is now the largest form of revenue for the island and the government has allowed select citizens to open their private homes and restaurants to tourists. Not everyone owns a casa or restaurant, so to get in on the action, a network of Jineteros (hustlers) now roam the streets looking to lure tourists into the businesses they represent for commission. And the rates are astounding: For a $20 stay in a casa, a Jinetero will get $5 - for every night the tourist stays. For a $10 meal, again a $5 commission gets paid to the hustler. This is big business considering the average wage for a Cuban is $25 a month from the government!
For us the Jineteros have been the most annoying aspect of Cuban culture. Most approach us and initiate what looks to be a friendly conversation, "Where are you from?". How can you not turn down a conversation with a local when they appear to be interested? But it quickly turns to, "I know a good restaurant/place to stay, follow me" and all sorts of trickery to get you to the place they represent. Grrrr...
Neda and Che hanging out on the road to Baracoa
Guantanamo is not the worst place for Jineteros, and we quite liked the quiet streets as a change from the large city of Santiago. The next day we rode further east towards the town of Baracoa, passing through the beautiful coastline and stopping a few times to admire the beaches and the view of the Atlantic Ocean.
We found an old abandoned beach-side resort at Yateritas
Outside of the major towns and tourist centres, things seem to be in a state of decay and disrepair. Some of the hotel chains that were built in the 70s still reflect the Soviet influences in the architecture of their slate-grey buildings. Unfortunately, when the money from the USSR ran out, so did the upkeep and maintenance. Today, new investments in beachfront tourist properties have been made by countries like Canada, but the Cuban government still maintains tight control, allowing foreign development but seizing the property after the first 5 years of operation.
Huge waves splashing against the rocks on the north shore
Scenic break to admire the Atlantic Ocean
Neda stops to ask Fidel and Che for directions
My favorite part of Cuba is seeing all the slogans of La Revolucion and the pictures of Fidel and Che - and everything hand-painted as well! Che seems to be more loved than Fidel, as often the fight for idealism is much more romantic than the actual implementation of it. Prior to this trip, I didn't know much about Che Guevara besides the fact that he was some big capitalist pig who licensed his image to tons of T-shirt and poster manufacturers...
The road from the coast runs up and down some amazing mountains and we pass lush rainforests on the way to Baracoa
Twisties! We stop for a snack
Along the way, there are lots of roadside vendors selling fruits and my favorite snack in Cuba: Cucurucho. It's a mixture of coconut, honey and a bit of dried tropical fruits all wrapped up in a cone of palm leaves. Our trip through Cuba so far has been positive, but things were not going to stay that way for long.