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Friday, 08 July 2016

Cycling in a Land that Time Forgot: Cuba - Page 2

Written by Dale Fehringer and Patty McCrary
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We started in Havana, not at the stately hotel in old town described in the tour package, but at a “modern” place 20 miles away in the outskirts of town.  It turns out the local tour agency had been forced to switch hotels at the last minute, and our “modern” hotel was anything but. There was water on our bathroom floor, no hot water until 6:00 PM, no TP, no bottled water (Americans shouldn’t drink the water in Cuba), and furniture and furnishings from the 1960’s.  That turned out to be our worst room, but none of the hotels we stayed at were up to U.S. standards.  The next morning, we rode by bus to the Zapata Peninsula, south and east of Havana, where we cycled along the Caribbean coast to the Bay of Pigs.  Along the way, we were treated to views of turquoise waters, nearly-deserted beaches, and thousands of migrating crabs making their way to the forest to mate and lay their eggs.  We also cycled past billboards and monuments dedicated to the battles of the Cuban Revolution and the glory of Cuba when it defeated the “Yanqui imperalists” in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.  At the end of our ride, Lismar led us to a cove where we swam in the temperate waters of this beautiful bay.  


There are few cars on the roads in Cuba and many of them are from the 1950’s and 1960’s. It's a jolt to cycle down a road and be passed by a 1952 Chevy, or a motorcycle from the 1950’s with a side car, or a farm truck from the 1960’s. We eventually got used to the old vehicles, but we never really adjusted to seeing farmers driving to town in horse-drawn wagons, or working their fields with oxen.


We spent the night in Yaguanabo, near the colonial city of Cienfuegos, in south-central Cuba.  Cienfuegos is a beautiful city on a natural harbor with a central park where locals sit, talk, and enjoy the evening while their houses cool.  This colonial city was founded by French immigrants, and the buildings around the central square have French influence.  In the middle of the plaza stands a prominent statue of Cuban hero, Jose Marti.


We toured the Palacio de Valle, a bizarre Moroccan-style mansion, built in 1890 by a wealthy businessman, with lavish decorations, gothic pillars, a tower with battlements, and stained-glass windows.


Our dinner was typical of our meals throughout the tour – a self-serve buffet with rice, beans, pork, seafood, or chicken, and a choice of desserts.  All of our meals were well-prepared, flavorful, plentiful, and reasonably-priced. Local musicians often entertained us at meals (for tips) with salsa tunes.  



Quest for Cash

Prior to leaving the US, we checked U.S. regulations on credit card use in Cuba and called our credit and debit card issuers.  Although we were told that few merchants in Cuba accept cards, we were led to believe that we would be able to get cash in Cuba, and our banks assured us they would approve ATM transactions. So we arrived in Cuba with enough cash for 3-4 days, and we planned to use ATMs to supplement that. After landing in Havana, we tried to get local currency (pesos) from the ATM at the airport.  We were turned down.  “No aceptar” was a term we would come to know too well.


Because Cuban merchants do not accept cards, virtually all transactions are cash-based.  While things are generally less expensive in Cuba, two meals and miscellaneous expenses cost us around US$50 per person per day.  We were able to exchange our U.S. dollars for pesos (Cuban pesos are worth a little more than the U.S. dollar), but we were running out of cash.  


ATMs are scarce, but on our third day our guide found one, which we tried to use with our debit and credit cards.  Again “No aceptar.” So we went into a bank, where we were told our U.S.-issued credit and debit cards were not valid in Cuba. Our only recourse, we were told, was to go to Western Union, which we did. “Not today” we were told … come back tomorrow morning at 8:30. 

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