We left Baracoa feeling a bit disillusioned. Everywhere we went, we felt like we were being hustled. We are also feeling a bit isolated, as Internet access is expensive ($0.10 per minute) and is relegated to a few terminals in special telecom buildings, so no Skype. Add to this, we're suffering from multiple equipment failures: our waterproof point-and-shoot camera turned out to be not so waterproof, and we can't find a suitable replacement on the island, so no riding shots. Also, the keyboards on both of our laptops don't function anymore. No typing, no blogging...
Nickel is one of Cuba's most profitable and environmentally damaging exports
Our first half of our route for the day took us through a very rough gravel road towards Moa. Having to focus on the broken road was a nice distraction from everything else happening and we enjoyed the simple pleasure of riding in beautiful sunny weather. As we approached Moa, the soil turned a beautiful shade of red, as if we were traveling along the surface of Mars. Unfortunately, all of this was marred (pun intended) by the sight of nickel factories, belching thick acrid smoke into the air, and the ground water turned oily-coloured from the all the polluted runoff.
What could have been such a beautiful landscape is spoiled by pollution
On our march westwards, we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant just outside of a tiny village. There seemed to be quite a lot of people there, loud Spanish music playing and we quickly learned that this was a prelude to the Primero de Mayo (International Worker's Day) celebrations that the whole country is ramping up for. Although it seemed to be a private party for the villagers, we were graciously invited in. At first, the crowd viewed us as a bit of an oddity and they kept their distance, eyeing us from afar - I don't think a lot of tourists make it out here. But by the time we polished off a delicious lunch of fried chicken and rice, the folks around us got a bit more comfortable having us around and starting offering us beer and engaging us in conversation.
This is where we ran into a bit of trouble with the law. I asked permission to take some pictures, and there was something about the camera that loosened people up almost immediately. Suddenly everybody wanted to be in front of and behind the camera. With every picture taken, the crowd seemed to get louder and rowdier (not dangerous mob rowdy, just party rowdy). One of the two policemen who were there keeping a watch pulled me aside and said something in Spanish, which to my ears sounded like, "You're under arrest".
But that was just me inferring what most policemen say to me, because Neda the Espanolophone told me he said, "You don't have to leave, but we have to ask you to stop taking pictures, the people are getting a bit too excited". It was a bit of a damper, but we got a taste of how disciplined the society is and what the boundaries were to cutting loose in a party - which was not very loose at all.
These kids wanted a picture on our bikes, so we obliged. So cute!!!
We actually left the party feeling like we got to know the real Cuba, meeting real people and not hustlers and partying (briefly) with them. They wanted nothing but to talk and be merry with us, and to be in our pictures, it felt pretty good. However, we knew this feeling wouldn't last as we neared our destination - the city of Holguin.
A local Holguin brewery that produced Cuba's most popular beer, Cristal, put on a fashion show at the hotel.
We made a decision leaving Baracoa to bypass all the Jineteros and their casas, and stay in a hotel instead. Through our research, we found the Islazul chain of hotels, which were funded mostly in part by Soviet money in the 70s (and styled that way as well). They were moderately priced accommodations, about $30/night, merely $6 more than a casa+parking and none of the negotiating hassle. It was a no-brainer considering there was a free swimming pool and breakfast was included!
Definitely not a Chevy big block engine under the hood
We saw plenty of vintage American cars from the 50s rumbling through the streets of Cuba, a remnant of the last time the US had any economic contact with the island. Although their bodies may be well-preserved, their guts have long since rotted and with a dearth of parts from Detroit, most of these cars have had heart transplants instead, running on diesel engines lifted from Eastern Bloc cars like Ladas.
Cuban national colours at dinner
Holguin is known as the city of parks, the fourth-largest city, and not really a stop for most tourists, which is what we liked. We took a stroll through one of the parks with a children's playground and all the mechanical rides, like the merry-go-round and ferris wheel were all non-operational - victim of budget cuts since Soviet funding dried up in the 90s. Kids still clambered along the swings and the slides, and I laughed a bit at the decorations - space ships, rockets and... missiles. Cuban Missiles. Not sure if they were built before or after October 1963...
Most of the old American automobiles were earning their expensive keep as taxis for tourists
We heard music coming from an abandoned building, and when we peered inside, we saw these dancers and musicians
rehearsing for a show later on in the week. They gave us a personal invitation to their concert!
465 steps up La Loma de la Cruz
Just outside the city in the north is a large hill where you can experience a panoramic view of Holguin. There's a road that winds up the La Loma de la Cruz in the back, but they also built a large stairway for pedestrians. The first week of every May, there's a huge religious ceremony which involved devotees climbing up the 465 steps to the top.
Neda surveys the city below
A shrine at the summit of the hill
Back in town, more old autos and sunflowers
The beaches of Guardalavaca, which are about 45 minutes away from Holguin, are where most of the tourists end up going. We made a day-trip out of it, visiting some ancient burial grounds just outside the town (not very interesting) and then heading to the beach for some fun in the sun. Expensive resorts line the shore, and as we parked the bikes, we met a custodian who told us that most of the newer resorts were constructed by Canadian companies. After building a property, a foreign investor had 5 years to turn a profit, after that time the property would be handed over to the Cuban government. Interesting!
Family-time at the beach
This was a big advertisement for parasailing. This guy would do amazing tricks up and down the shore and then park
his board near tourists and tell them that he could teach them how to do it if they rented the equipment from him!
On the way back from the beach, Neda picks up some fruits from a road-side vendor
A demonstration of Santerian religious ceremony
One evening, we headed to the town square to see the concert that the musicians and dancers had invited us to. They were actually 1 of 3 acts, the first was a demonstration of Santeria, which is a Cuban religion, mixing African, Haitian voodoo, Catholic and Native American influences. Devotees dress all in white, not all swallow fire though... Throughout Cuba, we have seen many people dressed all in white, like the Santerians, but we found out that some do so just for the fashion, not because they are religious.
Our friends from the warehouse, all decked out in their traditional costumes!
Flamenco dancers, the last act of the night