Santiago de Cuba (for some reason Cubans always seem to make this distinction. It’s never just “Santiago”. It’s always “Santiago de Cuba”) is very different from Havana. The two are like LA and New York, only I’m not sure which one’s which. Havana is cosmopolitan and very open. Wide boulevards, large plazas and coastal vistas. Santiago de Cuba is loud, chaotic and crowded. One of the oldest cities in the Americas, it has buildings dating back to the 1500’s.
I’m usually pretty good at situating myself in any large city. Give me a day in Taipei or Tokyo and I start to feel like a semi-local by 3 PM, but for some reason Santiago de Cuba has been eluding me. This was my third visit to the city and I was still getting hopelessly lost.
My poor navigational skills shouldn’t mar a city’s reputation though. I just think that I need more visits and a better map next time I’m there.
Nearly all Cuban towns have a central square, so you can get situated (one reason why Niquero felt so off to me. I didn’t see a central square). The central square was nearly always the meeting spot for our group. We’d pick a time to meet up in the evening and most often it would be on the west side of the square. Sometimes it would take a little work to figure out where the west was. When disoriented we’d ask locals. But this often only resulted in a friendly debate over where the west was. One guy would say “it’s definitely here”, but another would chime in and assure us that the guy was wrong and that we were on the north side and the west was over there somewhere. Next time I may bring a backpacking compass with me.
Santiago de Cuba’s main square is Parque Cespedes. That’s the square with the large cathedral (on the south side of the square) and hotel Casa Granda with a spacious veranda bar, where we would meet in lieu of the west side of the square, because it had good mojitos.
We decided to stay in Santiago for two nights. We needed a rest day and I intended to keep that rest day as a rest day. I had no desire to get on my bike! But that did not mean that I didn’t want to walk around and explore. For me resting usually means walking around, with occasional sitting down on a park bench (or in a cafe or a bar).
Our original plan went as follows: we’d stay in Santiago two nights. One day would be to rest and sightsee. The following day we’d bike to Bayamo and then the day after that to Holguin. We were making a loop and at this point would be going back to the places where we started our ride.
But after the exhausting ride from Chivirico to Santiago de Cuba (only 45.6 miles, but it felt like 96), the ride to Bayamo was beginning to look rather menacing. It’s almost 80 miles from Santiago de Cuba to Bayamo and there are plenty of hills. Getting out of Santiago we’d need to cross quite a few of them before reaching the more flat area around Bayamo.
Mtn Val, Jo and I got caught in the rain (it rained every day in Santiago while we were there) and were invited to wait it out at a daycare center (a huge ‘thank you’ to the lovely daycare ladies!). I’m not sure if this is when we started to come up with an alternate plan, but it might have been!
To be fair, it was all Jo’s plan, and it was brilliant! She suggested that we take the bus back to Holguin. The journey that would take us two exhausting days on a bike, on a bus would take half a day at the most. Once we got to Holguin we would then have a day and a half to bike to Gibara, a rather famous little town on the coast (a Cuban Film Festival is held there every year) and beyond. We still had some time left, but not a whole lot of time. Trudging back through one super long day and then another day between Bayamo and Holgin, one we already biked in reverse, seemed like a waste of time.
Energized by the new plan, we were now free to enjoy Santiago de Cuba!
Jo pitched the plan to Nedene and Stuart and both agreed that it was a good one. One problem though: would we be able to get all five of us and five bikes on a bus, on such a short notice?
It turned out that no, that wasn’t actually possible. Buses fill up fast, so if you want to bring a large group plus five bicycles, you need to make your reservations in advance. Luckily, Stuart scored us a van! It would cost 30 CUC per person to haul us and our stuff from Santiago de Cuba back to Holguin, but it wouldn’t take much longer than about 2 hours. We quickly all agreed to the van.
We now had one less thing to worry about and a city to explore (and get lost in!).