Havana, lots of red dirt and life in prison

48 hours in Havana…

it’s more of visual than anything, if I was solo I wouldn’t have come back, it just one of those places to me once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. But once you are there you just cannot stop taking photos.

We walked 25km in one day!!!!

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We stayed a little out of town so we could have secure parking, every American car here is a taxi so no problem getting a ride the 4km into town…except, first car we stopped wanted $10 per person, next one $12 pp and the next $22 per person, for 4km or 2 1/2 miles. We laughed at him, his response “you’re from a first world country, you can afford it, that’s nothing to you.”

This will be the downfall of Cuban tourism if it continues, locals in some areas actually have no perception of the amount of money tourists have to spend or what the average person can afford, rich Russians and Germans just pay so they can say they’ve had the experience.

A local standing close by told us to catch the bus, “its better, it costs 5 CUP (20 cents US) and it has air conditioning, those cars don’t.” We followed the advice and were in central Havana a few minutes later

The city…

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the main thing you’d notice if you’d never been to Havana before is how much of the city is dilapidated and how you find yourself saying “how do people live here?” Short answer, they have no choice, you feel like you are walking thru a war zone in some areas away from the main tourist sections.

It is a very safe place though, a local sitting in his doorway talks to us as we walk by, “you are safe here, very safe. 2 million live here and 1 million are police, go anywhere you want, don’t worry!”

What he means is everybody is watching everybody, the police/ government are firmly in control and penalties are harsh for locals who cross the line, if you see something and don’t report it then you are in serious trouble too. Cuba could be one of the safest places you could ever travel too.

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The city has a certain beauty in its run-down state, the lack of vehicles and the pure volume of people in the streets trying to catch a cool breeze or just sitting talking.

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looking up at a building that in the western world you expect to be boarded up waiting for the demolition team to arrive, someone has built a home in the rubble and made a small place for themselves to live

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Banksy also came here a few years ago and his art style created a certain alternative influence and if you look closely you may find some examples in the most unusual places and a thing I never saw last time graffiti, nothing major but its creeping in, subtly and slowly for sure

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1984 anyone?

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Cars and people…

This is the place where you will see the most of both

There’s been some progress in expanding access to personal transportation in Cuba, but it has been halting. In 2014 the government abolished a system that required citizens to attain a permit to buy a car and loosened restrictions on new car imports. The new system fell flat when markups equating to four to five times the base price left supposedly cheap cars, like a Peugeot hatchback, with an astronomical price of $85,000 U.S. In a country where a good state job pays $20 a month, a new car would not be a realistic goal within 100 lifetimes of saving for most Cubans.

This will give you a lot more detail…a report from the BBC

So the classics still abound

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but they are not what they seem, you can pay upwards of $30 per hour to be driven around in one on a private tour of the city. On the outside its an American car, but ask the owner to lift up the hood and most of the time not one American part to be seen.

I asked a guy how parts were to find for his motor and he lifted the hood, “easy, Toyota Hilux motor, Russian radiator, Chinese electrics, euro plumbing and a few odd parts from Venezuela and Brazil, because I want it to sound right.” He continued…”some people have the more beat up cars, the ones you see in the suburbs and smaller towns, they run diesel motors, usually Perkins or old Russian diesel because they are cheap and fuel instead of $1.20 a liter its 80cents.”

Lines of convertibles sit and wait for customers but tourism is down this year and the use of rental cars is up, and new taxi’s with airconditioning are nowhere, look behind those ragtops and you can see yellow, lots of yellow – they are all Ladas from Russia.

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Convertibles are the car to have though, an unknowing eye would be happy to see so many but if you know what to look for most of these cars started life as hardtops

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Every single car you see in Cuba is a taxi, maybe not by personal business but stand at the side of the road and hold out some cash and someone will stop and take your money for a ride, otherwise how can you afford to drive a car with fuel at around $3.50 a gallon and the average monthly salary at $20…the numbers don’t work

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This is all most Americans regardless how rich they are could afford for an American car here, a remade license plate…why? These ars are basically fakes if the Cuban/ US market suddenly opened and an American could come and buy a car here they wouldn’t. Go back up and click that link to the BBC, ten-year-old Peugeots go for $85k and up, a 1991 Lada will costs $20k and up for a car in most countries where it would have crushed years back or if it was still on the road in Europe it would be worth 500 euros if the owner was lucky.

So what does that put the value of a 50’s American car at, realistically guessing because the owners won’t tell you somewhere in excess of $150,000? Would you now go and want to buy one knowing it had a Toyota motor and Chinese running gear when you could go to Barratt Jackson and get a numbers matching low mileage car for a third of the price…probably not!

The people…

Havana is full, packed, splitting at the seams, people are everywhere but there is a lot of sitting around. There is minimal work and lots of free time, as most basics that you might take for granted are available for people here…like air conditioning. So sitting in your doorway is a thing here, just watching the world go by

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People are friendly, very friendly and want to talk, they have nothing but time so if you do get into a conversation expect to be there for a while. When you do get deeper into a conversation you’ll find most Cubans have a dark sense of humor.

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When you look at the old people here you wonder how they feel, they lived thru the whole regime and now struggle to survive making a few pennies where they can, fat people just don’t exist in Cuba to be fat you have to be rich one guy said, “I’m not rich enough to be fat!”

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but back to the sitting in doorways, its a way to make money for some, the Cubans have an iconic look and know it so some will ask you for a little money for taking that shot

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This lady was asking for $20 for a photo with her and the young guys paid to get that shot, I said no and she smiled and said how about a $1…I moved on.

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Police are few and far between in Havana but as I said before you are safe very safe

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Fidel was alive last time I was here and I doubt this guy would not have dared to do what he is doing and asking for money just a few years back, getting money from tourists and telling them he was Fidels long lost brother and then selling Rd Star Communists hats to the young people who think communism is cool but have zero idea what communism really is they just hate capitalism to be edgy.

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The most amazing person we met was Haydee

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Egle wanted a coffee so we stopped in this ladies doorway she sold coffee for 1 peso/ 4 cents, and we started talking, she asked why did we come and Egle was telling her she’s a writer, she said so am I, she asked where we were from Egle told her Lithuania and almost everyone we meet has no clue where Lithuania is she did, she started talking Russian. “I lived in Bulgaria for seven years when Lithuania was part of Russia”, then she broke into Bulgarian and started singing.

We talked about Fidel and Che, she told us they were great and then asked us inside…

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Once inside the tone changed she told us she had to say that, who knows who was listening, Fidel and Che were bad people and bad for the country. “I grew up in a rich family, my parents had a big house and I was taken to school in a chauffeur driven car, they took our house our cars and murdered my parents. We asked her why she came back…” have you been to Bulgaria? They don’t have sun!”

We never found out how she got the McDonalds apron….

 

 

and a little movie with a story riding out of Viñales on a dirt road 1km from the town

 

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you know when you have one of those crazy days riding when at the end of it you wish you had a full on film crew and drones following you ’cause when you finally stopped it seemed like it couldn’t be real and of course you forgot to take photos at the most opportune times…well the next two days were kind of like this!

We stop for one last look at Havana at the Mirador, and of course, are besieged by local taxi drivers, they are funny, make remarks like; “I start my world travels next years, just need to find my passport!”

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to start the day a little urban enduro at the Pan American Stadium, the track last time I was here was literally falling apart, but still being used. The main building makes it look derelict, kind of like a Cuban version of Buzludzha, Bulgaria (back on page 72, in case you missed it)

This was a quick snap with the p&s as they were running towards us to tell us to get out

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Back outside no one is around and we ride the grounds, past the fountains with all the statues of things Cubans are good at, volleyball, boxing, sprinting etc.

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The is a raised section where you can get another shot of Che at the end of the stadium, but you have to ride up some steps, I don’t think about it but hear Egle over the intercom with a little doubt in her voice.

I tell her blip the throttle as she approaches to loft the front wheel and to keep a steady handful of throttle with her weight slightly forward until the back wheel is over the top step, so not to wheelie too much. She does it and as I see her reach the top I pull away and she vanishes, I look back and she going back down and then is going up and down the steps like a little kid…” this is fun!”

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Pulling out we head towards Varadero for the night, this is the main tourist area but still, along the way, there are reminders of exactly where you are

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The rest of the day is nothing special, its just a stop over for the crazy day we have planned tomorrow but in Varadero, one conversation did really surprise us.

We went looking for a Casa (place to stay) and were being told prices around $40, $50 and $60 per night, we excused ourselves as this is too much and there are hundreds, $30 is the max. At one house a lady tells us $30 we smile and say ok, she then tells us two-night minimum, we only want one night. its late in the afternoon and the whole peninsula is dead, almost every Casa is empty, we tell her this. “2 nights minimum”, she barks. We turn and leave and literally walk next door and get a place for $25.

This was the first and only time I have had a Cuban refuse money, she watched us hand over money to her neighbor, times are changing her. We went to grab some food and then sat outside for the rest of the night until it was time to go to bed, no one else knocked on her door.

To put this in perspective the $30 she turned down was a month or more wages for her less than a decade ago, now it’s not enough…think about that.

Somewhere near a little town called surprisingly George Washington

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We hit dirt our plan is to be in Trinidad early afternoon it’s around 300km from Varadero but the first 150km was mostly pavement and done in a couple of hours, so 150km left with around 6 hours to spare…ever had that thought?

It starts with mild stuff, really hard packed so you can keep a good speed

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The hard pack turns to soft pack and then to mud, the kind that you think is a couple of inches deep but when you go in you are up to your axles, that kind of shit, we pick our way around the outside and ride thru kilometer after kilometer of this stuff

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Eventually finding higher ground we come out to a clearing, and multiple tracks, we try them all, they all lead to dead ends, one ends up in a river, I wade the river and take what looks like a track a ways down, it just peters out to nothing and bush that I’d need a very sharp machete to get thru

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Eventually finding a track that seems well used we ride it for about an hour and end up at a bridge that’s collapsed and the concrete has split into sharp rocks but in a way that I don’t think I could get over on a trials bike, everywhere else we can see has banks that are over 10 feet high. Its late in the day, around 40c/ 104f and maybe 90% humidity and we’re almost out of water, this could be our camp spot for the night.

Right until a guy on a horse appears out of nowhere, his horse really struggles to cross the river confirming what I thought, he directs us up a track and tells us there is another bridge a few kilometers downstream, and then takes off.

We go looking…

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the track leads us into a field, with produce everywhere as far as the eye can see, the river is to our right and we can see for a good distance and no bridge in sight, then we hear a voice its the horse guy and another man. He shouts, “my dads coming!”

This is good as we have got as far as we can go and now are not looking forward to an at least a 50km backtrack.

Then a man on a white horse appears, “don’t ride over my pumpkins, follow me.” (no montes sobre mis calabazas, sígueme)

We do as we’re told, when he raises his hand for us to so we stop, he walks the horse up and down between the crops until he’s happy. “This one”/ éste

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He leads us along even when we find a track he won’t let us ride on until we are off his land. Eventually we find ‘the bridge’ and ride over and meet his son.

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They are happy to see us but somewhat confused why we are there, and how we got there, I explain then he explains the best way to ‘here’ but it’s from the opposite direction! Then he asks again why we are here, we explain we are just having fun and exploring and looking to find places in the middle of nowhere…they smile and laugh
“encontraste”/ you found it

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We take his advice on how to get out of where we are and we are on our way, we find our way to a track that a few vehicles have used

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Then back to red dirt

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Eventually hitting pavement again as we enter Parque Natural Topes de Collantes and the ride down to Trinidad, we stop to take in the view

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eventually making it and stopping at a place I knew, I rang the bell and the door opened, the owner Amardo, looked at me, surprised but the all he could get out was “amigo” and hugged me and kept saying “amigo, amigo, amigo”

Trinidad is a great place to photograph in some areas it screams for black and white which in the past some of you said you didn’t like…well tough.you’re getting some.

It’s as close as you can get to the original look of how Cuba used to be, beautiful cobbled streets, picturesque houses and characters everywhere.

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Ok, back in the world of technicolor…

Trinidad was founded on December 23, 1514, it is one of the best-preserved cities in the Caribbean from the time when the sugar trade was the main industry in the region, its streets are very colorful

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today its main industry is tourism and tobacco farming, but it is a great place to just sit and watch the world go by

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There are some great artists in this town, two of my favorites by the detail and use of color, not necessarily by subject

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Che is somewhat of a touchy subject, yes his image is everywhere and one of the most recognized in the world after the Mona Lisa. He is certainly not the cool guy the hipsters think he was, yes he was a doctor but also a mass murdering POS, so again I only like this image for its use of color NOT subject matter

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We kind of invited ourselves to dinner, this guy looked like he invited this bird who didn’t want to come

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We wanted something very simple very traditional, Ropa Vieja. This dish is everywhere but it has so many forms so Egle asked if she could help make it and write a story about it and the process. Our guide for this culinary delight was 87-year-old Josiphina, Amado’s mother. She was nice enough to write down ‘her recipe’ and a slight variation on the classic.

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She even signed it for us, what amazing hand writing from an amazing lady, and no you can’t have a copy!

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…but you can see it and almost smell and taste it…yum

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Out of Trinidad, we get back to the dirt, there’s plenty of it around

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Some areas with better traction than others

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We are off an on dirt for most of the morning, some roads that on google earth view were dirt have now been paved since 2009 when some imagery was taken

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The at lunchtime I’m overtaking a slow-moving truck on a fast paved section going up a hill, Egle follows me and all of a sudden her bike revs but won’t accelerate as normal, my quick diagnosis over the intercom…” your clutch ifs fučt!”

We pull over and I take it for a short ride and yep its done but not completely…I think I can save it :hmmmmmbut we decide to ride to Camaguey to a guy I know where I can do the work in his hotel.

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We arrive in Camaguey and go straight to Nelson’s place…this is where it gets a little weird. We pull up outside and the place is closed up, police stickers on the doors and a guy sitting outside across the street is watching us. We ask him what’s happened? He just looks down at the ground shaking his head.

As we are looking at him a guy on a bicycle stops next to us and tells us he has a friend who has a place like Nelsons if we are interested to follow him, so we do. When we get to the ‘new place’ before we go inside we ask what happened to Nelson? “He’s gone, my English bad, my friends explain.”

The door opens and a couple welcomes us but before we look at the room we want to know what happened to Nelson? “A few months ago the police raided his hotel, he was selling drugs and running hookers from there. He was arrested, had a trial and sentenced to 30 years in jail. Everybody knows about Nelson, it was national news, they took everything from him and all the stuff inside the hotel…he’ll die in prison!”

I must have looked more concerned than normal, she noticed this, I told her last time I stayed there I had a photo taken with him and he had it hanging on the wall. “Yes, they showed some photos of his customers on TV”. She looked up and down the street…”come inside!”

It did all seem a little strange when I stayed there, he seemed way too rich, way to connected and everybody that saw him treated him like a Godfather…which I guess he was.

Before you all jump to conclusions, I just rented a room from him, nothing more.

We wandered into town to let the bike cool off, and I really noticed a difference in the town, last time it seemed thriving, this time it seemed to be dying, did Nelson do this, did he kill Camaguey?

We wandered back in the dark and got a little-lost walking in circles for a while and found this place a few times

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Eventually finding our Casa I set to work on the bike, taking off all the parts that are in the way and getting to look at the clutch plates, they are fried and we still have about 10 days left.

I do the old drag racing trick of scuffing them up for that final burn out and run and put it all together and hope for the best for the next day, we are 350km away from the Stahlratte but that’s no help, I don’t have spares and have zero chance of finding them here….fingers crossed everybody!

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Here’s a video a little behind, this is two days riding from Havana to Trinidad, it’s a long one, go grab a brew

 

The clutch came apart the friction discs were all glazed over, I found some sandpaper and scuff them up a little so they could absorb some oil and expand a little, the morning came around and everything was good again…for now.

It was time for a little downtime at the beach, hit a little dirt but struggled to find anything too interesting

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this was us for a few days staying with a family, the grandmother owned the house and the family and their family lived in smaller houses on the same plot about 10 yards from the beach…this is what we had to struggle thru!

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It was nice just to relax and wander down the beach for a day instead of riding, there was a small town a few km’s away but not much going on

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Our host asked us if we had any preference for fruit with our breakfast the following morning, we asked if we could have apples instead of mango? She stood there amazed and apologized, “it’s almost impossible to get exotic fruits in Cuba and apples when they were available were way out of my reach as they are so expensive.”

“Do you get them where you are from for a good price?” she asked

“Yes, they are everywhere very common, actually so common we feed them to horses!”

She looked at us horrified that animals in Europe get exotic fruits while Cubans get virtually no choice, “there’s a little fruit market up the road today, why don’t you go and see what they have, sometimes there are surprises.”

We headed off a little embarrassed and sad at the same time, we found the ‘fruit market’. It was only four small stalls, with a very sad collection of fruit and veg, we thought maybe we had missed the good stuff, but one of the vendors said this was basically it.

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This was in the same area as the market…but no one there spoke a word of English, why have the writing in English, we never found out why?

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I was taking this photo and the taxi owner of that 55 Belair walked over and said, “you see how its wrong?” We looked and didn’t spot the mistake…do you see it?

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He explained, “this was a gift from a country, don’t remember who, they gave it to us after a hurricane a few years back hit here as a sign of good will…look at Cuba! It’s wrong, Cuba goes from northwest pointing to the southeast, they have it wrong! After the ceremony and everyone left a few days later it was rolled over here and its been here ever since.”

He walked off, not saying who the ‘who’ that gave it was, we stood there staring trying to remember how Cuba looked on a map…and this guy was looking at us wondering why we were invading his space

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The following morning we said our goodbyes and headed further down the coast to Baracoa, around 50km out of town we find a fruit and veg stall that had ten times that the selection that the ‘market’ did the day before, in a town. Cuba is a land of extremes for the people

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Hee’s the video to go with that

 

Out of Guardalvaca you can pretty much huge the coast as you head to Baracoa, along the way is Moa, a small town and the start of some major oil refineries and what has been considered Cubas worse road. Well with that in mind and knowing that the last 75km could be actual hell if we catch a rain storm we ride pavement beforehand. We get to Moa quickly in less than 3 hours and pass the town.

Thru the intercom I’m warning Egle that anytime now the road is going to get bad, really bad, potholes deeper than the bikes, slick mud, loose rock, deep sand etc. nothing, none of it, they’d worked on the road in the last two years, nothing that great just some grading so it was an easy ride.

We stopped in at one of the refineries thinking it was closed down, but it wasn’t, we found this out as we’re taking a photo armed guards are running out shouting, “no photos!” It only a statue of Che, we weren’t stealing state secrets, at least I don’t think we were

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In the background you can see whats left of an apartment block, that’s what made us think it was abandoned

heading to Baracoa you go thru one of the last remaining areas of Taíno people who were one of the indigenous tribes who originally lived on the island before the Spanish came. If you think Cubans are poor then seeing how Taino’s live is a lot worse. A sad area to ride thru for sure with less farming and industry the closer you get to Baracoa.

A Taino cemetery

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Strange rock formations coming to a small town that looks like the sea carved the curve in the rocks but the sea was hundreds of meters to the left

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The road stays close to the water the whole way and a man was walking his horse down to let it cool off after a hot day working in the sun

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A lot of the land here just isn’t workable unless you are a coconut farmer

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Egle stopped to talk to a farmer about his ox and why they are used, his answer – “they are smart and easy to train and can live and work for a long, long time.”

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Baracoa is a municipality and city in Guantánamo Province near the eastern tip of Cuba. It was visited by Admiral Christopher Columbus on November 27, 1492 so you would think, great lots to see and do…yeah, nah, it has almost nothing to see and do so we moved on.

Our plan was to get back on more dirt, before coming here I’d found a track that looked like it would go to the very eastern point of the island, not far out of Baracoa you hit the dirt

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this was the planned route



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Somewhere around the 25/50km mark, it was getting redder, and bone dry, loads of grip and loads of fun

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We made this hill climb that is way steeper than it looks, the locals watched amazed that we would attempt it and then informed us there’s an easier road off to the right as this has only been used for foot traffic for years, haha!

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Houses became less and less frequent and the looks we got, they seemed more confused than intrigued. Stopping for a break…

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A guy on a bicycle stops next to us and asks where we’re going, we tell him Faro Punta de Maisí and he says, “no!” and starts waving his finger at us and tells us to go all the way around…you can see him here at 0.14 seconds




We explain we can ride virtually anywhere, he still says no, so we ask why…”there’s a landslide, boulders from football size to car size for over 50 meters, you have to go round, so sorry.”

So we double back on the red dirt and eventually come out on a paved road with no traffic, its a road barely used anymore as a newer shorter more direct one has been built, coming round a corner this is our view

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if you zoom into the above picture (by clicking it), you can see there is a track along the coast, an old coast road…that’s what I was trying to get to, we would have been riding towards us, but…denied!

We get down to the water and the track is there but has a gate leading out to the large antenna you see, and no go around, we would have been screwed

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A little riding near the beach leads us thru a few tiny settlements and we had had a suggestion for what we were told was a small town called Tortuguilla

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Well, Tortuguilla didn’t turn out to be a town just a few houses near the beach, we stopped at one, a brand new place with a casa sign and asked how much?

“$25.”

“For a room?” We asked…

“No, for the whole house.” Was the reply.

“We’ll take it, where can we get food?”

“I’m a chef, I can cook for you $7 each, would you like fish, chicken, steak or pork?”

We ended up staying two days and had our own beach shared with the family next door

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