Bikes and beaches: exploring Baracoa and playas in Cuba.

6 Jun

All signs were pointing to a good time for us in Baracoa when our bus stopped for a short break not far from town and I found a street vendor selling local Baracoan chocolate. The obligatory taste test over a cup of coffee saw me sneakily stocking up our rations.

Our first afternoon in Baracoa, we decide to visit some local sites and museums. The only one really worth mentioning is the archeological museum housed in small caves in hills, where you can see bones from Cubans indigenous ancestors, the Taino Indians. Can’t say it’s the most amazing archeological site I’ve seen, but the view isn’t bad…

Dinner at our casa was delicious, fresh seafood – octopus and fish – cooked in the house’s specialty coconut sauce.

One thing about Baracoa that we quickly learnt was that the kind of attractions we wanted to visit here (read: beach and National Park) are actually not that close (excellent guide book research once again). Unfortunately for us, our budget won’t stretch far enough for a hire car so we soon find ourselves trading a couple of dollars to borrow the neighbour’s bikes.

Day 2, and our first full day out, we’re aiming to reach Playa Maguana, 23 kms away. A nice bike ride really… if you happen to actually have semi-roadworthy bikes and don’t mind riding up never-ending hills, along rocky dirt tracks, in 35C heat. Nonetheless, an hour and a half or so later, without a map and following the barely existent Cuban signage for the beach, we arrive… But, though we were definitely at a beach, it was definitely not what was described in the LP bible. Whatever. Hot, bothered, and on a deserted, white, sandy beach with crisp, blue water nearby. Life could be worse.

The following day, the legs are needing a bit of a rest but its another scorcher and a surf in the sea seems too tempting. So we hire a scooter, arm ourselves with better directions, and set off in the hope today we might actually find Playa Maguana today. It was indeed much more beautiful, so much so that I forgot to take a pic. Here’s one below, but here’s one courtesy of el internet.

After a quick dip in the beach we head out the national park. It’s mid-afternoon and the sun is slightly milder, so we thought it a much better time for hiking. After a long, bumpy ride out there (don’t think scooters are meant to be off-road vehicles), we are told that the tour guide has already gone home and we’d have to come back another time. Such is how things roll in Cuba. The view of the lake was pretty though…

Day 4. We again admire a little bit of Cuban resourefulness. When you need to take a small child a fair distance, and you don’t have a car, what do you do? Build them a dinky seat for your bike…

We then walk the coast and hike up to a look-out over Baracoa…

With our t-shirts drenched and again no map or reliable directions, we decide to skip trying to find the archaeological caves and coves and head straight to Playa Blanca, a tiny beach cove popular with locals for snorkeling.

Capping off our days in Baracoa, we decide to spend our final full day taking a bike ride out to ‘EL Tunel de los Alemanes’ (The German Tunnel), an overhanging rock formation. We’ve sourced better bikes, ie. mountain bikes that actually have gears, and are looking forward to what the LP describes as “an excellent bike jaunt from Baracoa… a 56km round-trip along smooth, flat roads.” For that piece of writing to get published someone should be fired. Clearly no one at LP has actually ever done that bike trip. Last time I checked a 2km grueling uphill climb does not constitute flat. And this was just the opening credits. The entire trip was hill after hill after hill. If that journey is “flat” or “smooth”, then I’m the Easter bunny. In the sweltering heat it was hell.  Here I am smiling, beneath the sunglasses I’m crying… (well, almost, but I thought that would use too much energy)…

To make matters worse, ‘The German Tunnel’ is so unremarkable, we actually rode through it without knowing…

We end the day with a couple of mojitos with Paula and Amanda, two friends travelling from the UK, before heading to the street to watch salsa dancing, where we see Jeremy (our Welsh friend from Bayamo) for a rum. I think we are asleep before our heads hit the pillow.

The next day we pick up our hire car (no more cycling for us, yippee!). We need to get to Holguin and though it is less than 300kms away, there is no public transport between the places and most tourists have to go all the way back through Santiago de Cuba – a journey that will cost you many more hours on a bus as well as a night’s accommodation. So we decide to drive ourselves, in a tiny Peugeot 206 hatchback along “harsh, unsealed roads”. Surprisingly we’ve even managed to convince Jeremy and Jantob to join us and split the cost. On the way we travel through the National Park and decide to take a trip out on that lake after all…

As we head through Moa, a Cuban mining town, we are equally as shocked as we are impressed at the Cuban resourcefulness. Yes, it is carrying a heavy load and missing a wheel…

But also saddened at the disgraceful degradation of the environment by the nickel mining refinery…

We have the car for another 2 days, so stationing ourselves in Gibara, a small fishing town about 2 hours north of Holguin, we go exploring. And find some beauties, some of the precious few that haven’t yet been taken over by the high-rise, all-inclusive, tourist resorts.  We first visit Playa La Herradura…

We then have a swim at Playa Llanita, a beach where the sand is so white and the water is quite shallow, that the sea looks electric.

We drive through Playa La Boca and stop for a coke, before heading for a beach a little closer to Gibara, Playa Caletones, again deserted (except for one resident hog)…

After a warm evening stroll around quaint Gibara…

We sit back in our rocking chairs…

Before tucking into yet another all-out gourmet lobster dinner, for a mere $10… I don’t want to leave!

Our last day is spent trying to experience the beautiful beaches of the Guardalavaca region, without being guests of the all-inclusives. Turns out for most of the beaches access is not allowed unless you’re wearing one of their special wrist bands. An act I find outrageous when I think of the many Cubans who will never be able to afford to see the most stunning parts of their own backyard.

In the end, we have to head to the main beach, Playa Guardalavaca, which although not as deserted as our previous days, it is truly beautiful…

And we run into our Welsh friends, again… who could probably do with a little more sun!

That evening I take stock of my things currently being held together with masking tape, and I realise just how much I’m looking forward to going back to the UK now.

Til the next leg, chau!

x kel

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