Cycling Cuba: Coast Headwind Hell

April 28th, 2013

STATS – Matanzas to Guanabo

Distance: 78 km Average Speed: 21 km/hr
Time Cycling: 3 hrs 47 mins Top Speed: 56 km/hr

We left our casa at 9:45am armed with a general map of Cuba, but no detailed map of Matanzas. The day before, the Via Blanca dropped us in downtown Matanzas at the only stoplight in the city, so we went back there and headed in the opposite direction, hoping that road was indeed the Via Blanca to Havana. Only two routes head north out of Matanzas – the Via Blanca, and an unnamed road following the coast that later joins the Via Blanca. Either would do.

Note: In Bicycling Cuba the Smiths detail a more serene route from Havana to Matanzas that goes through the Valle de Yumuri and enters Matanzas from the west, but reversing the directions with no road names (typical for Cuba) would be difficult if not impossible and we didn’t have time to get lost, so we stuck to the Via Blanca.

Within minutes of cycling, my throat had that acrid lead gas burn. Gross. I wanted to zoom out of Matanzas to get away from it, but it’s ALL UPHILL. For miles. Add burning lungs to burning throat.

We weren’t the only ones cycling out of the city. Some Cubans played bike leapfrog with us – we’d pass them, they’d pass us, back and forth – as we all trudged up the endless hill. I don’t know how long we went up. It felt like an hour. It might have been. But finally we got to where the northbound Via Blanca curves west and…

Slammed into a headwind. Glen and Carol, the fellow Canadians and cycle tourists we’d met the night before, had warned us about this. They encountered it on their ride too. It sucked, but we pressed on, up and down and always more up, until we arrived at the highest and longest bridge in Cuba, the Puente de Bacunayagua.

Puente de Bacunayagua

Puente de Bacunayagua

011 Bacunayagua BridgeFrom the left photo, the railing doesn’t look alarmingly low. But picture us on the bikes, our bodies higher than this puny railing, every gust of wind threatening to blow us right over the side! Halfway across we got off and just walked. Safer that way.

014 Me drinking famous Bacunayagua Lookout pina coladaEveryone from Glen and Carol to the Bicycling Cuba book told us that the best pina coladas in Cuba were at the Bacunayagua Lookout. I’m no pina colada connoisseur, but it was yummy. However, the one I had at Los Nardos in Havana a couple days later beat it. That’s right, Los Nardos! The line is insane, but the pina coladas are delicious!

From the lookout we continued along the Via Blanca to our halfway point of the day, Playa Jibacoa, where we planned to get lunch. Playa Jibacoa is just off the Via Blanca, on it’s own little side road. I was watching the odometer and knew we were close when we came to a road that forked right. This looked like it. Maybe. Of course there’s no sign. So Pier asked a woman standing on the side of the road hitchhiking (everybody hitchhikes in Cuba). We couldn’t pronounce “Jibacoa” so Pier just pointed to the map. She nodded and pointed down the road. Off we went.

We were starving (we’d passed some people selling bananas a while back and I regretted not buying some – cyclists, always stop for bananas!), and the road into Jibacoa was again uphill. So hungry. So exhausted. Need food. Where was that damn beach town? And then a blessed downhill started and suddenly, on our left, I saw a cute little house with four pretty red-clothed tables out front. A local restaurant! I slammed on the brakes. We’d found food!

Or thought we had. The boy out front didn’t speak English. Pier said the only word we were sure was the same in Cuba as Canada: “Pizza?” The boy shook his head and pointed us further down the hill. But the thing is, we didn’t really want pizza, we just wanted food, and I was sure this was a restaurant. Then we noticed a young woman walking towards us with pizza in her hand. His sister (we think). She spoke some English and said yes, this was her family’s restaurant, but they didn’t serve pizza. That was fine. We’d eat whatever they brought us!

016 Us at Mario's

The food was plentiful and delicious! Only the daughter spoke a bit of English; the son, father and grandmother, not a word. But the father, Senor Mario, really wanted to talk to us, so we had a conversation through miming and pointing that led to us discovering he had a crocodile! We got a tour of the whole farm – the crocodile, peacock, puppy, and goats. Well, the goats toured themselves right through the front yard / bike parking lot.

22b Mario's Collage

Fed and happy, we waved goodbye and headed into the town of Jibacoa and discovered… not much there. Another home restaurant and an exclusive resort that we couldn’t go into. The guard implied it was way too windy to enjoy the beach anyway. Biking out, we passed some campismos (local campgrounds), took a shot of me at least near a beach (note the long-sleeved shirt that I am so glad I packed at the last minute), and headed back to the Via Blanca.

24b Jibacoa collage

From here to Havana the highway follows the coast. On a nicer day, maybe this would have been a pretty, scenic ride, but the day we were there – HEADWIND! Naturally, the wind was worse closer to the ocean, so for the last half of the trip we just leaned into it and took turns drafting. Almost two hours later, around 3:30pm, we arrived in Guanabo.

026 Guanabo sign with cows

Note the cows, just staked on the lawn heading into Guanabo. There were cows tied randomly all over our route from Mantanzas to Havana. Not in fields. Just along the road. And sometimes, like this pic, in town. We did find out that all the cows are owned by the government. And they were dairy cows. Perhaps people can just come milk them when they need to? If only we spoke Spanish we could have found out!

And check out that palm tree – WINDY! That wind was in our faces. Argh. But we made it. Cuban Coast Headwind didn’t stop us!

Next up… how to find a casa without a reservation or speaking Spanish. Yikes.

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