As Ivan promised, someone other than him, with a cab to accommodate five bicycles and five passengers (although two had to sit in the front) showed up in front of our casa on April 3rd.
Holguin was the starting point of our bicycle tour. It’s the third largest city in Cuba, it’s centrally located on the eastern part of the island and a large number of bike routes fan out from the city.
It is 735 km from Havana and the trip by car takes about 10 hrs (provided nothing breaks down). To get to Holguin we could’ve taken a bus. Viazul makes two trips per day and costs 44 USD (or 40 CUC if you reserve the ticket in Cuba; however, seats fill up fast, so if you’re considering taking the bus, reserve your ticket online ahead of time. Here’s a link.). It’s the most economical way to go, but we talked about this over email before our trip and decided we should hire a van.
Our reasons? Tickets sell out fast and getting 5 tickets and fitting 5 bikes on one bus could be a challenge. The bus makes stops along the way and takes longer than 10 hrs. There is a day bus which arrives at night and a night bus that arrives mid-morning. Taking the night bus sounded exhausting and coming in to Holguin in the middle of the night sounded like another logistical nightmare concerning a place to stay. Havana is by far the easiest place to find a casa, because there are literally thousands of them in that city, but Holguin, even though it’s the third largest city in Cuba, is considerably smaller and not very touristy. Taking a van and arriving at a decent hour sounded like a safer bet.
The van wasn’t cheap. Ivan quoted us 625 CUC (125 CUC per person) and we had no choice, but to accept. In Cuba everything is done through word of mouth (which is why I decided to brush up on my rudimentary Spanish before going back again!). Ivan is a friend of Nedene’s Cuban friend who lives in Florida. If we wanted to find another van to take us, we’d probably have to walk down the street looking for vans. If we found one, we could then ask people around if they knew who the van belonged to. Once we found the owner we could ask him (it’s always a him. I had not seen one woman behind a wheel in Cuba) if he had 20 consecutive hours to spare and if he could drive us to Holguin. That was an option, but we opted out to pay the 625 CUC instead.
The ten hours spent in the car (we rotated seats at every baño and snack stop) gave us a chance to get to know each other better.
Nedene is an avid biker, world traveler and a lab tech, who lives in Florida. She’s biked in India on her own, Thailand, Italy, Cambodia… She’s also done a solo Cuba bike trip a couple of years ago. She speak excellent Cuban Spanish, understands the culture and what to expect and I learned a ton from her!
Jo is a former teacher from Colorado, enjoying early retirement. She’s been to 33 countries, taught in India and biked across the United States. I felt very inexperienced and unworldly listening to her stories (this happened a lot on this trip. Every time anyone would delve into some story about how they walked the length of the Pyrenees or biked in New Delhi traffic, I felt like I really need to get out more).
Mtn Val is an experienced outdoors-woman from Berkeley, California. She’s lived in France, ran ultra-marathons, traveled all over the world and is a hike leader on California’s trails. She may have been the oldest in our group, but I struggled the entire time to keep up with her!
Stuart is a retired criminal defense attorney from San Francisco. He’s been attending University of Havana’s Spanish language classes and is an experienced cyclist. And he was brave enough to join four other women on a long distance bike tour!
And then there was me. An amateur traveler, novice biker. What I have going for me is the fact that I never get sick from local food and water, no matter where I travel to (watch me get sick on my next trip!) and I don’t mind picking up all kinds of animals I find along the way. One of these days something’s going to bite me!
Our ten van hours were spent in getting to know each other and at some point I started to wonder where we’ll sleep once we got to Holguin. Nedene and Stuart had accommodations arranged, but Jo, Val and I had no reservations anywhere. So I decided to borrow Jo’s phone and look at her Cuba Junky app.
Cuba Junky is an excellent resource for anyone looking for accommodations in Cuba. There are several places where you can find casa particulares info. There’s the Lonely Planet, there’s Trip Advisor, there’s Cuba Junky, and there’s also this:
If you have no place to stay, walk around town looking for the blue double-anchor (at least, that’s what that looks like to me) sign. It will be on the door or on the window or hanging on a plaque outside a house, or it will be painted on the house like this one above.
A blue anchor means that the house takes in foreigners and you can pay for your stay in CUC. A red anchor means that the house takes in Cuban nationals and that they can pay in CUP.
Because internet in Cuba is extremely slow and far between, don’t think you’ll be able to google anything once you’re there. You should have a list of places to contact in every town you’re planning on staying in. Cuba Junky app is great because it can be downloaded beforehand and you won’t need internet access to look up all the listed accommodations.
So, while driving from Havana to Holguin, I decided to call one of the casas listed in Cuba Junky.
The first place I called, a woman answered. I asked her if she spoke English. She said “no.” This complicated things, since my Spanish is far better when I can point to things. But I asked her if she had room for tres personas, esta noche por favor, dos noches. Esta noche y una más. She answered with what sounded like an affirmative, but then she asked me more questions! My knowledge of the Spanish language ended at this point and in a panic I handed over the phone to our driver. He talked to her for a while and then put the phone away and said something equivalent to “no worries.”
We had a place to stay in Holguin!