Matanzas to Santa Clara: 230km Vintage Cab Ride

Monday January 9, 2017

TL/DR: Long distance cab is affordable and convenient. Internet is a challenge! Make paper copies of important information. Baseball is a pleasant surprise

We made the decision to start the ride in Santa Clara based on our time frame. As Canadians our cycling season usually ends mid fall, so we weren't sure we wanted to add this extra 230 kilometres to our trip. In retrospect, I'm sorry we didn't ride it, but it was nice to spend a day seeing the countryside from the passenger seat of our 1956 Bel Air.

It's a nice ride with our driver Andres. What we learn is that it's a little busy on the roads coming out of Matanzas, but the traffic tapers off around 30 kilometres out of town. We see a few local cyclists, lots of sugar cane and enjoy the view as we head south east toward central Cuba.

The ride costs us only 100 CUC, which works out to 103 USD or 140 CND. Great value for the money. We discovered it would be very difficult to make the bus connections to get us to Santa Clara, so we have time to enjoy the day.

  Casa Suri in Santa Clara. Lovely spot, highly recommended.

Casa Suri in Santa Clara. Lovely spot, highly recommended.

Our Casa is located in central Santa Clara, an inviting home called Hostal la Casa Suri. We booked it on www.mycasaparticular.com. For anyone travelling to Cuba, it's important that you make paper copies of your bookings along with any maps to get you there. There is virtually no internet. When you arrive in an area, you have to first, purchase a card to give you connectivity for one to three hours. The cards cost 1.50CUC/hour. You have to stand in line at an ETECSA centre to purchase a card. Usually there is someone who might sell you one for 4.00CUC and you can avoid the line up which is usually 15 minutes to an hour.

  Lining up for Internet (Supplied picture)

Lining up for Internet (Supplied picture)

 

But wait! There's more. Once you get the card you will look for a hot spot in the area. Many parks and town squares are hot spots. You will know you've found one when you see dozens of locals and foreigners sitting side by side with their noses in their phones or tablets. You look for the hot spot name on your phone, input the login in and password numbers and you may have internet. I say "may" because there are sometimes up to 100 people using the same wifi portal. It's frustrating that sometimes in that hour you can't even send an email. Photo? Next to impossible. Video? Forget about it!

Costs $1.50CUC for one hour of spotty (at best) internet.

Long story short, make sure you have paper maps, addresses and confirmation receipts if you've pre booked a place, or if you want to get to a certain location.

But here's tip that saved our bacon on many occasions. There is an app for phones and tablets called "maps.me". It is an offline map app that performed beyond our wildest dreams and expectations. Even though I had pre loaded google maps, they were useless for routing. Most often it would say I was off line and wouldn't give me anything. Maps.me was the opposite. Having downloaded the Cuba maps, it gave reliable and accurate route maps - car, bus and most importantly bike" - and had great location mapping of restaurants, museums, some casas, and street names. Best of all, it's free!

After being dropped off, we put our bikes together and do a short (1k) shakedown ride. Marilyn's front derailleur is misbehaving, the tailing edge is hitting the chain ring on the upshift. This is remedied with a little bit of upward pressure with a long screwdriver. Aside form that, both bikes are assembled and roadworthy for tomorrow's start.

We spend the rest of the day walking the town. Our first stop is for lunch on the "boulevard", a lovely pedestrian-only street downtown. We have our first taste of what is a staple for anyone doing these bike rides - Cuban pizza. They're sold on street corners and in many restaurants and give you what you need - low cost carbs and cals. From there we head to the number one destination in most tourist books - the museum that celebrates an event that was a defining moment in the Cuban revolution, the Battle of Santa Clara in 1958. Che Guevara and his group of revolutionaries captured an armoured train and acquired the weapons used to take control of the city. The train is still there along with artifacts and context.

  Che Guevera Train Museum

Che Guevera Train Museum

But you never know what you might find in a new city. As we are walking back we notice that most homes (doors and windows open) are filled with the sound of baseball. There's something important on because we can hear it from nearly every home and there are families sitting around the TVs. But strangely, it starts to sound like the crowds are enveloping us. A quick check of my map reveals there's a baseball stadium in the area. we head over to see a packed ballpark. When we ask a security guard where we buy a ticket, he indicates we can just enter through the back. It turns out it's the Cuban National Baseball playoffs. We hang in the bleachers with the Santa Clara mascot who insists I wear his mask. It was an unexpected treat to see this game and bask in the local pride.

  Santa Rosa Baseball Stadium

Santa Rosa Baseball Stadium

  Santa Rosa Mascot

Santa Rosa Mascot

  Baseball Tradition in Cuba

Baseball Tradition in Cuba

 

Home early and prep for our first ride.

Edmonton, AB to Matanzas Cuba: Bikes and Humans on the Move

 

Having never been to Cuba, we were hoping not to arrive after dark, so we booked a Redye flight to get us in early in the day. This worked well, as we got to see Matanzas in its sunny splendour.

The airport is pretty much in between the city and the resort area of Varadero. Because of the proximity to the resort, it was cheaper for us to fly there than it would have been to Havana.

For those not familiar with Cuba, there are three ways to spend time there: book an all inclusive, book hotels or book what are called a "casa particulare". These are homestays in private houses, bookable online or when you get there. We are booking at the casas, as we want to spend as much time as we can learning about the country and its people, even with our limited Spanish.

Our first booking is at a place we found on line courtesy of another cyclist's blog. Casa Rabelo is right downtown in Matanzas and we're told we can leave our bike cases there while we do our loop.

As arranged by our host Mora, we are met at the airport by driver Andrés in his sparkling 1956 Chev.

 1956 Classic Chevy Bel Air

1956 Classic Chevy Bel Air

He brings us to our casa, situated in a lovely old home downtown. We are about a block from the town central square, in this historic city. Make sure to budget some time to get to know it. It's not a huge tourist destination but offers an unvarnished glimpse of the country.

 Our Casa in Matanzas

Our Casa in Matanzas

Mora was a gracious host and provided us with a large clean room and hearty breakfast. We booked it on cubacasas.net. When searching for a casa, look for the blue anchor. These have been approved by the government as legal b&bs.

We spend the day putting our bikes together and changing our money from Canadian to the CUC Cuban currency. Make sure you read up on currency exchange before you start your trip, as nothing is totally straightforward here. There are two currencies in Cuba, local Pesos and CUCs, which are designed for foreign travellers. 

20170108_163547.jpg

It takes about 30 minutes to get our Bike Friday folding bikes assembled and tuned up. They're great because these suitcases are under the maximum allowable size and weight for checked luggage. No overage charges.  Always remember to deflate tires partially when flying because of air pressure differences.

After getting the bikes together and doing a shakedown ride, we are ready to begin the adventure. We have looked at the logistics of taking a bus to our starting point in Santa Clara and decide to let Andrés drive us there. Many find it is close to the same price and way more convenient to hire drivers for long trips. Andrés is charging us $100 CUC to bring us 220km to our starting point. How can you beat that!

Tomorrow we leave Matanzas to cab 230 km to Santa Clara where we start our bike journey.

Final Prep for Takeoff

We've done many trips on our bikes through Canada and many places in the world. This one feels different.  Preparations for Cuba present a few more challenges. 

First of all, from what I've read, there is virtually no internet. This means no opportunity to go to the trusty phone or tablet to see what's open, what's where, what Casa is in the area.... we have to do all our prep work before taking off this weekend.  We're back to maps, books and using our directional instincts to keep us on the main track.  As a rule, we're not the most planful when we're on the road. We look a day or so ahead so we can take advantage of whatever opportunity presents itself.  We will be doing so here, but here's a few reasons why we're spending a lot more time prepping.  

 It's important every piece fits exactly with our Bike Friday folders.  Care must be taken that nothing gets bent.   Weight is important as well, the bikes and case and extras have to be less than 50 lbs.

It's important every piece fits exactly with our Bike Friday folders.  Care must be taken that nothing gets bent.   Weight is important as well, the bikes and case and extras have to be less than 50 lbs.

  • This is the first time we've packed folding bikes, so it's very important we don't forget a piece or part. When we get there we're not anticipating finding a bike shop if something gets bent, broken or left behind. We have to get it right from the git go.
  • We will carry everything in our panniers, including helmet, shoes and medical supplies. That does not leave a lot of room, so we have to make sure everything is accounted for and necessary to the journey.
  • We don't speak the language. We've been taking online lessons, but I'm not comfortable I can have a nuanced conversation.  We have to be self sufficient.
  • We'll be away from the main tourist destinations and have been told food and liquid could be scarce between towns on some of the roads. We have to make sure we have energy foods and adequate liquids.  We're told there are few stores in between towns. Our daily ride will be anywhere from 80 to 100km.
  • The currency system is challenging with 2 currencies and our inexperience.
 Everything we need must fit into these bags, including medical supplies, clothes, shoes, helmets, video gear and mask and snorkel.

Everything we need must fit into these bags, including medical supplies, clothes, shoes, helmets, video gear and mask and snorkel.

This being said, it's fun, exciting and we can't wait to touch down in Matanzas.  Let the adventure begin!

Touring Cuba on Folding Bikes

My wife Marilyn and I are both avid cyclists, she's retired and I'm freelancing as a content provider, shooting video primarily for bike groups and record companies. Being from Edmonton Alberta, we know how long a winter can be and how nice it is to get away to the warmer climes.

Last year we biked Vietnam, this year we have set our sites on Cuba. We want to see the country as it exists before it's opened up to business with the United States. Changes in relationships with the US will have a profound effect on the Island.  

It's our first opportunity to do a totally unsupported international trip. We've spent a lot of time riding in Southeast Asia but have always employed a person or group to get our stuff to the next town or city. This time we're heading off for ten weeks of travel with our bikes in a suitcase and our possessions in panniers. We will be biking in central Cuba then Mexico.

We bought used Bike Friday New World Tourists and are leaving with a sense of adventure. These bikes fit into standard Samsonite "airport legal" suitcases, so we will avoid overage charges during our travels.

Our plan is to arrive in Matanzas, ride to Varadero, take a bus to Sancti Spriitus then ride back to Varadero through Trinidad, Ceinfuegos, Playa Giron  up then through the centre. From there, we take the Hershey train to Havana where we plan to do some more unassigned riding.  Stay Tuned!

I will be shooting the trip using a DJI OSMO MOBILE stabilizer attached to my bicycle. A nerdy thing to do but I hope it will bring a clarity to the video, as I think it's a golden opportunity to show something most of us would not otherwise witness.

We leave on January 8, 2017.