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Photo by Bettina Hoebenreich, At the foot of the Bear Glaciers, eternal ice, British Columbia, Canada

Adventure is what you make it

Photo by Bettina Hoebenreich, at the foot of the Bear Glaciers, British Columbia, Canada.



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  #151  
Old 20 Apr 2013
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On the second day of travel, most of the passengers emerged from the hold of the ship feeling human again. We were landlubbers no more, and greedily shoveled down the hearty Stahlratte breakfast laid out on the top deck. For some of us, it was the first real meal we ate in over 24 hours!

Our newfound sealegs were not going to be put to use, as the skyline of Cartagena emerged on the horizon in the early afternoon. South America beckoned to us! For most of the passengers it was the first time on this continent. The Stahlratte anchored down a few hundred meters away from the shores of Manga Island, where the Aduana offices were located. Because it was expensive to rent a commercial pier to offload the bikes, we used a small public pier and dinghied the bikes to shore. It was a wild process to get the bikes on land and it's a testament to the crew's experience that we timed the offload to coincide with high tide as you can see in the video below:

[video]http://youtu.be/ga-IQhvz3Zo[/video]
Couldn't believe how they got our bikes onto shore!


My bike needed a few extra pair of hands to haul up

Since we had just unloaded the bikes illegally onto Colombian shores without customs or insurance, we were quickly hurried to the Aduana building a few short blocks away. Ludwig had arranged everything with a local fixer to get us legal, and within a few hours, all 10 bikes had all the papers required to ride in the country. We have been really impressed with how well-oiled and efficient the Stahlratte experience has been, coupling plenty of Darien crossing experience with German efficiency and Caribbean good-humour.


Riding through the old town of Cartagena


Arriving at our neighbourhood for the next few days

We're staying in a part of town called Getsamani, a seedier district of Cartagena that recently has undergone a transformation from a past checkered with drugs and prostitution to a vibrant, hip neighbourhood of cafes, restaurants and nightclubs. We've booked a room with air-conditioning (very important) and we're initially a bit disappointed to learn that there is no hot water in the showers. Until we realize that the average temperature in Cartagena is 31C all year round. No one needs a hot water shower!


Performers at the Convention Centre in Cartagena


Found out later this is the Caribbean Arts Festival

Mornings and evenings are the best time to be out in the city, and our neighbourhood as well as the nearby historic centre is bustling with activity, both tourist and local. We both loved the colonial architecture, pretty balconies with flowers looking over cobblestone streets, and the ever present churches looming above the narrow alleyways.


Sun setting behind San Pedro Claver Church


Balconies everywhere!


The Cafe Del Mar is the best place in the city to watch a sunset

We hung out mostly with the Stahlratte club, meeting in the evenings for drinks and walking around the city. A friend put us in touch with Nick and Clara, who live in Toronto, but spend their winters in Cartagena. We spent a couple of days with them, and they spoiled us silly, ferrying us from swimming at luxury hotels, drinks overlooking the Cartagena shore and delicious seafood dinners.


Mojitos by the poolside! Heaven!


Nick and Clara live across the Sofitel Hotel in the centro and this is how he spends every afternoon!


Follow the nose, it always knows!


The hotel was renovated in an old convent, and the bar is built over a crypt. Spooky!


The party (and mojitos) continue at Nick and Clara's balcony across the street


Horse-drawn nights in the historic centre


Neda celebrates her first birthday on the road

It's still a novelty celebrating anniversaries on the road, different than a trip or a vacation. First Christmas, first birthday, etc., not being tied to any place, knowing that the next anniversary the next year will be somewhere entirely different. We're loving the nomadic experience, I think mainly because there's so many new things to see and we're going at a pretty slow pace to appreciate everything.


Late night coffee in the plaza


Post-hangover lunch in Getsamani

After 3 days of non-stop drinking to celebrate Neda's birthday, we crawled out of our hostel to the heat haze of the Cartegena afternoon. We enjoyed pizza and spaghetti in a great Italian restaurant around the corner called I Balconi, watching the lazy weekend unfold below in the streets of our neighbourhood.


This outfit looks more Cuban than Colombian


Early morning bicycle ride


Cuban women selling fruits on the street


More balconies!


Walkng the streets of Cartagena

After a few days in Cartagena, the Stahlratte Motorcycle Club decided to split ways. One group was heading to the north to the beaches of Santa Marta, while another was headed south to Medellin. We rode with them out of the city, 8 adventure bikes zipping in and out of Colombian traffic, the Caribbean Sea blowing warm air on our already hot and humid group ride.


Typical group ride shots - gas stations and food stops


Charter member of the Stahlratte Motorcycle Club

Neda and I had different plans, so we accompanied them as far as Baranquilla, a couple of hours on the shore north of Cartagena. After a final breakfast together, we said goodbye and went our different ways. Apparently, the first item on our plan was to get rained on on the interior roads back to Cartagena. It was so hot that we didn't bother putting any rainsuits on, and our ride was made a bit more bearable as our mesh gear dried and evaporated our wet clothes underneath on the road back to the city.
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  #152  
Old 20 Apr 2013
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Wow! What a fantastic journey!
Beautiful photos and... I can't stop reading

I'm going to take a cold bear before to continue reading your wonderful adventure: "Skal"

Skotfoss
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  #153  
Old 22 May 2013
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Updated from: Apr 14 2013: Jamaican me crazy!



We didn't stay in South America for very long. After only 9 days in Cartagena, we loaded the bikes back on the Stahlratte and set sail into the heart of the Caribbean sea. First stop: Jamaica, mon!

[video]http://youtu.be/-oT-SRvtkDo[/video]
Flabbergasted by the Stahlratte loading technique


We have a new captain on-board. I asked for a confidence-inspiring look and this was all she could manage...

We're doing this leg of the trip by windpower only, which lends a very different flavour to our journey. Whereas the Panama to Colombia run was a regular commuter run; with the sails up and the engine off, it now felt much more romantic, harkening back to an older method of transportation.


The human effort in sailing a boat is mainly pulling on a bunch of ropes


This is my contribution to the sailing efforts, Alisa serenades the boat with Spanish songs

Coming out of Cartegna we hit some pretty rough waters and most of the passengers got sea-sick. In the middle of the night, I frantically scrambled over a sleeping Neda and barely made it to the deck of the ship where I donated my rented dinner to the Caribbean marine life.

I spent the early hours of the dark morning with Ludwig on the top deck, trying to focus on any kind of fixed horizon as the boat pitched violently side to side. Salt water spray cleaned the contents of my stomach off my face as huge waves monstered the bow of the Stahlratte, drenching our (thankfully) covered motorcycles. Ludwig seemed entirely at home striking a Captain Morgan pose looking out into the black waters of the moonless night. In contrast, I felt like I had 7 limbs wrapped around various railings and holds, desperate to stop myself from falling off this rollercoaster into a watery bed.


The fishing lines behind the boat snag a King Mackerel


Soon to be filets, ceviche and soup!

The second day of our 4-day voyage was a lot calmer, but it was still difficult to do anything but stare out at the horizon. Which meant that all of the hours of TV shows and movies and books that I downloaded went unviewed. Still, we found plenty to pass the time away, playing music, watching dolphins jump playfully in the waters beside us and racing in front of the ship. We caught some fish for dinner and at night, we watched from the balcony as the boat stirred up bio-luminescent plankton in its wake. It all felt very Life-Of-Pi, minus the tiger and the carnivorous island...


Sails unfurled and looking ahead to Jamaica


The nets at the bow of the ship were a great place to watch dolphins racing in front of us


Like church on Sunday, everyone on the ship congregates on the deck of the ship every evening to watch the sun set.

Four days is a long time to spend cooped up on a ship with 21 other people, especially for a bunch of landlubbers like us. As we arrived into Port Antonio, on the north shore of Jamaica, the passengers were itching to get off the boat, pacing the deck and climbing the ropes to get a better of view of where we'd be after we cleared customs.


Samantha climbing the crows nest. 10M above the deck of the boat


Crows nest view of the Errol Flynn marina (yes, *THAT* Errol Flynn)


This is how we treat immigration officers on the pirate ship Stahlratte...

At the marina, the immigration police came on board and upon seeing us swinging out on the ropes and diving into the harbour, one of them takes off his shoes, gun and cellphone and decides to swing out into the waters himself!

BEST IMMIGRATION EXPERIENCE EVER!!!


Our favorite beach, Boston Beach

We're spending 6 days in Jamaica, but unfortunately our bikes can't come with us. There is an engine size restriction for importing motorcycles, and besides, Port Antonio isn't equipped to handle vehicle importations. Most of the passengers rent vehicles or take buses to tour the island. I used to work in Jamaica, so I've already seen most of it. Neda and I spend most of our time in Jamaica touring the different beaches on the north shore near Port Antonio.


Yes, that sign does read, "Do Not Jump"...

I've never been a tourist in Jamaica, and was very surprised when we were assailed by roaming vendors everywhere offering to sell us trinkets and vices (some legal, some not). So that got a bit tiresome, but the scenery and the food made up for it. Ever since leaving Toronto, I've been craving a few comfort dishes, among them - curried goat, meat patties and jerk pork. So every evening, we would go down to the patty shop or the food stands and gorge on Jamaican food! So good!!!


The shape of the bay at Boston Beach makes for a great place to surf in the late afternoons


Swinging out in the sands


This little guy knows how to pass the time away


Ballerina of Boston Beach


Neda goes snorkeling in her hunt to find sea-souvenirs


This horse was taking a bath in the waters when another guy jumped on for a ride


Spent some time watching a crab crawl in and out of its home, waiting for us to leave him alone


Sprinting across the shallow waves at sunset


Our Swedish friends Erik and Ebba back on the Stahlratte with us

Jamaica was a great refreshing stop, but after 6 days of lying on the beach, we were ready for the main course of our Carribean cruise. However before getting back on board, we gorged on last minute Internet access, letting all our friends and family know that we would be off the grid for a while, because where we're headed, they've banned the Internet. No connectivity for a month!
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  #154  
Old 25 May 2013
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We booked the Stahlratte for our Darien Gap crossing around Christmas-time last year after hearing how quickly spots get filled up. However at that time, we also found out that the ship continued on after South America to travel around the Caribbean Sea up to Cuba. So we thought "How cool would it be to ride our motorcycles around CastroLand?". The answer, of course, is "VERY COOL!". So here we are back on the Stahlratte, sailing less than a day away from Jamaica, ready to deposit our bikes on the shores of Cuba.


One of the first things that greeted us in Cuba

We are headed towards Santiago de Cuba, a port town on the southeast corner of the island. We arrived just after sunrise and Ludwig awakened all the passengers so that we could see land approaching.


Cuban cruise ship Shanties lining the shore.


Bikes are unwrapped and anxiously waiting to be off-loaded

We spent most of the morning waiting for the immigration process to unfold, already a familiar procedure with the Cartagena and Jamaica landings. A couple of new wrinkles - a couple of very cute drug-sniffing dogs were brought on board and they went through the entire ship looking for banned substances: cocaine, marijuana, explosives and the highly illegal GPS receivers! Yes, we were told we had to leave our Garmins on board. I think the reasoning is that because the GPS satellites are a US military tool, it could be used to subvert national security? Oh well, Google Maps already did that...

GPS technology was not the only controlled technology, we were told that access to the Internet was also tightly enforced. I guess the Internet did come out of a US DARPA project.


Finally, our bikes get to come out and play

Six motorcycles were let loose onto the pier and we were given instructions on how to make our bikes legal for Cuban roads. First stop: Aduana, to get our import papers sorted out. As we rode from the marina to the city, every single person turned to look at this parade of foreign motorcycles trundling through their town. We felt like celebrities!

We arrived at Aduana late in the afternoon, and although we still had about an hour before the offices closed, we were told to come back in the morning, since they wouldn't have time to process our bikes before closing. Hmrmpf...


Everywhere the bikes went, people instantly appeared

While parking our motorcycles in town to look for a currency exchange, our motorcycles gathered quite a crowd. As soon as they discovered that Neda spoke Spanish, they peppered her with questions: "What brand is it?", "Where was it made?", "How many cylinders?", "How fast does it go?", "How much does it cost?".

Little did we know that this would be the script for most of our conversations with Cubans over the next little while. Even I could memorize the answers in Spanish and answer all their questions perfectly. In the next few days, we were told that bikes like ours never make it onto the island and to see one was like seeing a "lion roaming the streets" or seeing a "spacecraft parked in the town square". Wow!


Streets of Santiago


Dominoes is the national sport of Cuba and is taken very seriously. Raised voices are often heard at a game, for both participants and audience


Streetside game of chess, which although popular, does not elicit as much shouting though...


Hanging out in the Tivoli neighbourhood of Santiago


Swing Batta Batta Swing! Impromptu game at the Escalinata

The Escalinata (steps) at Calle Padre Pico are a well-known feature in Santiago. The street ends abruptly in a set of stairs and then continues in the same direction at the top.


Streets of Santiago at night


A group of bikers come over and check out our rides. One of them asks Neda to rev her engine for them, they are very impressed that she's riding a bike 3 times larger than the usual motorcycle on the island.

We have done a lot of research about Cuba prior to getting here, because 1) limited access to Internet while on the island, so we won't be able to get information on the fly and 2) very little else to do when you're sailing on a boat for 5 days. We learned a lot about the history of the Revolution and the tough economic times Cubans faced because of their isolation from the Western world. Private enterprise was strictly forbidden until very recently when home owners were allowed to rent out their rooms to tourists offering a cheaper alternative to hotels. These are called Casa Particulares, and we made extensive use of them while on the island. You get to see how Cubans live up close, and if you opt for the meal plan, you also get to sample some delicious home-cooked Cuban dishes!


The next morning at Aduana again. Crowd gathers around our bikes and Neda, the fluent Spanish-speaker fields the usual questions

I'm so proud of Neda, she's picked up Spanish very quickly, and of all the travelers we've met on the road, she has really benefited the most by being able to interact with the locals to get a good understanding of what life is like in these countries. And as a resource to help with directions, border crossings, etc, she is the MVP in any traveling group.


Finally, we clear customs and to prove it, we get a nifty sticker to put on our bikes

It takes most of the morning to get our bikes imported. I'm very surprised at all the manual input, and I think it's kind of cool that all the forms are on very old, brittle paper, stained coffee-coloured by decades of communist decay. The dot-matrix printers have long since run out of cartridges, so carbon paper is used instead of ink ribbons! So interesting!

Our next step: Transito. We need to get our bikes licensed to ride Cuban roads. It's in another part of town, so we all ride over and even though we get there at lunchtime, we are told that there isn't enough time to process all our bikes and to come back the first thing next morning. Seriously? Much later, in another part of the country, we are told that the Oriental Region of Cuba (where Santiago is located) is well-known for their lackadaisical attitude.

Neda remarks that all of this is very reminiscent of the socialist system that she grew up in back in Croatia. Even though this is inconvenient for us, it does give us more time to explore Santiago a bit more, and I still think all of this antiquated bureaucracy is kind of cool!


"teehee that tickles" - Washing the salt off from our sail across the Caribbean


Again, a crowd gathers and we field the normal questions.


Viva Fidel! Along with state-sponsored propaganda, there are home-grown efforts as well


There's a lot of hanging out in doorways in the neighbourhoods around Cuba


They teach the values of socialism at a very early age


I was drawn to this Cuban bookstore and how the propaganda here radiated such a different vibe from its Western counterparts

One thing I was really looking forward to experiencing in Cuba was the state-organized propaganda, from hand-painted signs, hand-painted pictures of Fidel and Che, stickers promoting the upcoming Primero de Mayo (May 1st) celebrations, hand-painted dates of important events in the Revolution. It seemed to me that paint and human labour was a lot cheaper than manufacturing signs...


Enjoying a Cuban cigar in the park. Although we don't smoke cigars, we really have to try one to see what all the fuss is about...


These were waiting for us at the Transito office the next morning. Neda is ecstatic!

Throughout our trip on the island, many people would ask if the bikes were ours or if they were rented. We later found out that these red license plates mean the vehicle has been imported. All of the newer cars on the road have red license plates, and almost all of them have been imported by rental car companies, which is why everyone thought our bikes were rented. The first letter also denotes where the vehicle was registered, so people knew we started off in Santiago.


We met Norje, a really nice guy who worked in the inspections lot at Transito

I wasn't expecting a Cuban license plate, so when we got one, Neda and I were both admiring them with pride. We're officially Cuban vehicles and we're ready to roam around the country!
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  #155  
Old 31 May 2013
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After a week and a half off the bikes, it was good to taste the open air again! The temperature here is about 31C every single day, with very little variation. We're headed to the north-east section of the island, circumnavigating the shore on the main highway. The roads are in pretty good shape, better than we thought they would be and we pass vast stretches of scenic farmland along the way.


Almost no commercial advertising, but tons of state propaganda. This is a memorial to Colonel Garzon who fought in 3 Cuban wars in the late 1800s.

Heads continue to turn as we ride through the smaller towns. When we stop to ask for directions, a small crowd quickly gathers to examine our motorcycles, and when entering one town, a traffic cop stops us, shakes my hand and starts a conversation about our bikes and our trip. Very nice guy. And very curious...


We found out later that picture-taking is prohibited here... oops...

We don't get very far from Santiago on our first day, we're too busy lollygagging. Over the communicators, we yell at each other, "Cuba baby!" So excited to be riding here. Our first stop is the city of Guantanamo. Yep, right next to Guantanamo Bay and the infamous US Naval Base. Cuba is such a mess of contradictions, this is just the first: a US naval base in the same country that it has no diplomatic relations with (to put it mildly)


Walking the tourist core in Guantanamo


Castro has put a huge emphasis on education and today, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world


Packing flour probably from Canada

Although the US has a trade embargo with Cuba, there are lots of other countries that still trade with the island: wheat from Canada, butter from New Zealand, rice from Vietnam, gasoline from Venezuela. However, life was pretty hard in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s and the loss of 80% of its imports, however the Cuba that we're riding through today is in a state of transformation. Some for the good and some for the bad.


Selling sunflowers on the street


Cuban flag flies across the street from our Casa Particular

Just in the last few years, Castro's brother, Raul, seems to have relaxed the rules regarding business ownership. Tourism is now the largest form of revenue for the island and the government has allowed select citizens to open their private homes and restaurants to tourists. Not everyone owns a casa or restaurant, so to get in on the action, a network of Jineteros (hustlers) now roam the streets looking to lure tourists into the businesses they represent for commission. And the rates are astounding: For a $20 stay in a casa, a Jinetero will get $5 - for every night the tourist stays. For a $10 meal, again a $5 commission gets paid to the hustler. This is big business considering the average wage for a Cuban is $25 a month from the government!

For us the Jineteros have been the most annoying aspect of Cuban society. Most approach us and initiate what looks to be a friendly conversation, "Where are you from?". How can you not turn down a conversation with a local when they appear to be interested? But it quickly turns to, "I know a good restaurant/place to stay, follow me" and all sorts of trickery to get you to the place they represent. Grrrr...


Neda and Che hanging out on the road to Baracoa

Guantanamo is not the worst place for Jineteros, and we quite liked the quiet streets as a change from the large city of Santiago. The next day we rode further east towards the town of Baracoa, passing through the beautiful coastline and stopping a few times to admire the beaches and the Atlantic Ocean.


We found an old abandoned beach-side resort at Yateritas

Outside of the major towns and tourist centres, things seem to be in a state of disrepair. Some of the hotel chains that were built in the 70s still reflect the Soviet influences, and when the money from USSR ran out, so did the upkeep and maintenance. New investments in tourist properties have been made from countries like Canada, but the government still maintains tight control, allowing foreign development but taking control of the property after the first 5 years of operation.


Huge waves splashing against the rocks on the north shore


Scenic break to admire the Atlantic Ocean


Neda stops to ask Fidel and Che for directions

My favorite part of Cuba is seeing all the slogans of La Revolucion and the pictures of Fidel and Che - and everything hand-painted as well! Che seems to be more loved than Fidel, as often the fight for idealism is much more romantic than the actual implementation of it. I didn't know much about Che Guevara besides the fact that he was some big capitalist pig who licensed his image to tons of T-shirt and poster manufacturers...


The road from the coast runs up and down some amazing mountains and we pass lush rainforests on the way to Baracoa


Twisties! We stop for a snack

Along the way, there are lots of roadside vendors selling fruits and my favorite snack in Cuba: Cucurucho. It's a mixture of coconut, honey and a bit of dried tropical fruits all wrapped up in a cone of palm leaves. Our trip in Cuba so far has been positive, but things were not going to stay that way for long.
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  #156  
Old 5 Jun 2013
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The Jinetero problem came to a head in Baracoa. We were really looking forward to spending a couple of days in the tropical sea-side town, doing some hiking in the area and walking through the city streets. The casa owner in Santiago called ahead and booked us a room with someone she knew in Baracoa, presumably for a commission, we just had to meet them at the main gas station in town.

However, swarms of Jineteros on bicycles crowded around us when we arrived, and when we asked about the casa and showed them the business card, one of them led us to a house in a neighbourhood near the Malecon. We kept asking if this was the right place, as the address didn't match, and the young hustler reassured us it was. The guilty look on the casa owner's face confirmed that we were misled (literally), but rather than search the town again for the right place, we decided to stay because we were just too tired to argue.


Hotel El Castillo is set high atop a hill and offers great views of Baracoa


You can see the casa where we're staying (Casa El Kidnapo) from here. See the orange building in the centre? It's the small white building next to it.

The neighbourhood we're staying in seems quite poor, but the people living there were very friendly and again, very curious about the motorcycles. It was a nice location, one street away from the Malecon, and strolling up and down it offered a nice change from the very touristy centro. Also, very little Jineteros on the boardwalk. We watched as a group of kids played a game of pelota (baseball) with a wooden stick for a bat and a plastic bottle cap for a ball.


Kids hanging out on the Malecon


Watching the waves of the Atlantic Ocean splash on the rocks from the Malecon


Changui originated a hundred years ago in the sugar cane fields, combining Spanish guitar and African rhythms

In the evenings, Changui music, native to Baracoa could be heard streaming from the bars. Entrance was free, but the mojitos were expensive and every three songs a hat was passed around to collect money for the musicians. The locals, not content to just listen, took to the floor and impressed all the turistos with their complex salsa footwork.


These kids were taking part in an art competition at the local arts centre


Mohawks are a popular hairstyle for young Cubans


We watched the local Baracoa baseball team practicing

Rumour has it that Fidel was a pretty good baseball player and national sports was encouraged by the government at all levels that Cuba quickly rose to world prominence at each Olympics after La Revolucion. I don't know anything about baseball, but even I've heard of Jose Canseco.


They let Neda try out for the team. This is her specialty pitch, the CocoNuckleBall


Young komrade at the beach

We decided to do some hiking on the hills south of the city, we were told that there were fabulous views of the city and shoreline at the summit. Normally, you would cross a narrow, rickety bridge across the Rio Miel to gain access, but it had been washed out, so we had to be ferried across for $1 each.


Our ferryman had the bluest eyes ever! Wish I got a picture of it.

From here, we were starting to get hit with unexpected fees, as we were charged $5 each for entrance to the park. The government official told us that it would grant entry to everything. $10 is a bit steep for a hike (not including the $4 for the round-trip ferry), but since we had already come all this way, we decided to pay. We opted not to hire a guide since the trails were well-marked, but one followed us anyway, hoping to guilt us into paying him at the end of the hike. This was getting very annoying as all we wanted to do was spend some time alone and unmolested.


Hike up the trail to get a better view

Upon reaching the summit, we discovered that the mirador (viewpoint) was on private property and that we were required to dish out an additional $5 each to enter. This was unacceptable, since the official at the entrance told us everything was included. Our little day-hike was going to cost us $24! We refused to pay, and started angrily down the hill. The woman that was on the property chased after us and told us that we didn't have to pay, so we relented. The viewpoint was beautiful, but I couldn't shrug off the growing feeling that everywhere we went on the island, we were going to be nickeled and dimed, and that most of the locals just viewed us and all the other tourists as walking wallets.


View from the mirador, Baracoa in the distance and the broken bridge down below. You can see the boat we took.

As we left, the owner, who we had not met before demanded payment for access to the viewpoint. An argument ensued as we told him that the woman (his wife, we found out) had said that we didn't have to pay. Thankfully, the guide that followed us vouched for that, and we left without further incident. There were other things we wanted to see in the park, a beach and an archeological museum inside some caves, but after questioning the guide, we found out that these cost money as well - $3 each for beach access and $3 each for the museum, for a total cost of $36 for the day.

I understand that there are tourists that come to Cuba that don't think twice about dropping $36 for an unguided hike. It's not a lot of money when you have jobs to go back to for the remaining 11.5 months out of the year when you're not on vacation. This is not the case for us, as we are traveling on a budget and to be misled like we had been, added terrible insult to injury. I understand the huge disparity between how much tourists have and make compared to the locals, but I get a sense that most Cubans don't see any gradations between budget travelers and rich vacationers.

We left the park without seeing anything else, feeling more assailed by everyone who approached us demanding money from us.


Close-up of the ferry

This was not the end of it. We had originally been told that the person "guarding" our bikes at our casa wanted $2 per night. When we checked out to leave Baracoa, he demanded an additional $2, because we had left the motorcycles there during the day as well. Another argument ensued over what "$2 a night" meant. To most people, it is assumed that this covers a 24-hour period. But apparently here, you have to draw up a legal document for every transaction stating down to the littlest detail what exactly is covered and what all the hidden costs will be.

For a country that has repressed capitalism and free enterprise for the last 50 years, the rules opening up services to tourists seem to represent a tightly-wound spring finally exploding. Baracoa taught us some frustrating lessons as to how we would be treated in Cuba. It's obvious we have to approach our travels on the island very differently than what we're used to.


Curious kids in the neighbourhood, everyone wanted in on the picture!

I don't like ending things on a negative note, so I wanted to mention how nicely we were treated as we stayed in the barrio as people got to know us as we strolled through the neighbourhood streets every night. Familiar faces would smile and wave to us and say hi - we would talk about where we came from and about our trip, as well as get to know a little bit about their lives. One evening, we hung out on the neighbour's porch listening to his kid practice the violin. His dad seemed very proud of him and glad that the mini-audience spurred his son to give a concerto-level performance. Our standing ovation led to a shy grin on his face.

This feels like the real Cuba, one that we wanted to experience. I think all we have to do is step off the well-trodden tourist path.
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Update from Apr 28 2013: Holed up in Holguin



We left Baracoa feeling a bit disillusioned. Everywhere we went, we felt like we were being hustled. We are also feeling a bit isolated, as Internet access is expensive ($0.10 per minute) and is relegated to a few terminals in special telecom buildings, so no Skype. Add to this, we're suffering from multiple equipment failures: our waterproof point-and-shoot camera turned out to be not so waterproof, and we can't find a suitable replacement on the island, so no riding shots. Also, the keyboards on both of our laptops don't function anymore. No typing, no blogging...


Nickel is one of Cuba's most profitable and environmentally damaging exports

Our first half of our route for the day took us through a very rough gravel road towards Moa. Having to focus on the broken road was a nice distraction from everything else happening and we enjoyed the simple pleasure of riding in beautiful sunny weather. As we approached Moa, the soil turned a beautiful shade of red, as if we were traveling along the surface of Mars. Unfortunately, all of this was marred (pun intended) by the sight of nickel factories, belching thick acrid smoke into the air, and the ground water turned oily-coloured from the all the polluted runoff.


What could have been such a beautiful landscape is spoiled by pollution

On our march westwards, we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant just outside of a tiny village. There seemed to be quite a lot of people there, loud Spanish music playing and we quickly learned that this was a prelude to the Primero de Mayo (International Worker's Day) celebrations that the whole country is ramping up for. Although it seemed to be a private party for the villagers, we were graciously invited in. At first, the crowd viewed us as a bit of an oddity and they kept their distance, eyeing us from afar - I don't think a lot of tourists make it out here. But by the time we polished off a delicious lunch of fried chicken and rice, the folks around us got a bit more comfortable having us around and starting offering us and engaging us in conversation.


Party-time!

This is where we ran into a bit of trouble with the law. I asked permission to take some pictures, and there was something about the camera that loosened people up almost immediately. Suddenly everybody wanted to be in front of and behind the camera. With every picture taken, the crowd seemed to get louder and rowdier (not dangerous mob rowdy, just party rowdy). One of the two policemen who were there keeping a watch pulled me aside and said something in Spanish, which to my ears sounded like, "You're under arrest".

But that was just me inferring what most policemen say to me, because Neda the Espanolophone told me he said, "You don't have to leave, but we have to ask you to stop taking pictures, the people are getting a bit too excited". It was a bit of a damper, but we got a taste of how disciplined the society is and what the boundaries were to cutting loose in a party - which was not very loose at all.


These kids wanted a picture on our bikes, so we obliged. So cute!!!

We actually left the party feeling like we got to know the real Cuba, meeting real people and not hustlers and partying (briefly) with them. They wanted nothing but to talk and be merry with us, and to be in our pictures, it felt pretty good. However, we knew this feeling wouldn't last as we neared our destination - the city of Holguin.


A local Holguin brewery that produced Cuba's most popular , Cristal, put on a fashion show at the hotel.

We made a decision leaving Baracoa to bypass all the Jineteros and their casas, and stay in a hotel instead. Through our research, we found the Islazul chain of hotels, which were funded mostly in part by Soviet money in the 70s (and styled that way as well). They were moderately priced accommodations, about $30/night, merely $6 more than a casa+parking and none of the negotiating hassle. It was a no-brainer considering there was a free swimming pool and breakfast was included!


Definitely not a Chevy big block engine under the hood

We saw plenty of vintage American cars from the 50s rumbling through the streets of Cuba, a remnant of the last time the US had any economic contact with the island. Although their bodies may be well-preserved, their guts have long since rotted and with a dearth of parts from Detroit, most of these cars have had heart transplants instead, running on diesel engines lifted from Eastern Bloc cars like Ladas.


Cuban national colours at dinner

Holguin is known as the city of parks, the fourth-largest city, and not really a stop for most tourists, which is what we liked. We took a stroll through one of the parks with a children's playground and all the mechanical rides, like the merry-go-round and ferris wheel were all non-operational - victim of budget cuts since Soviet funding dried up in the 90s. Kids still clambered along the swings and the slides, and I laughed a bit at the decorations - space ships, rockets and... missiles. Cuban Missiles. Not sure if they were built before or after October 1963...


Most of the old American automobiles were earning their expensive keep as taxis for tourists


We heard music coming from an abandoned building, and when we peered inside, we saw these dancers and musicians rehearsing for a show later on in the week. They gave us a personal invitation to their concert!


465 steps up La Loma de la Cruz

Just outside the city in the north is a large hill where you can experience a panoramic view of Holguin. There's a road that winds up the La Loma de la Cruz in the back, but they also built a large stairway for pedestrians. The first week of every May, there's a huge religious ceremony which involved devotees climbing up the 465 steps to the top.


Neda surveys the city below


A shrine at the summit of the hill


Back in town, more old autos and sunflowers

The beaches of Guardalavaca, which are about 45 minutes away from Holguin, are where most of the tourists end up going. We made a day-trip out of it, visiting some ancient burial grounds just outside the town (not very interesting) and then heading to the beach for some fun in the sun. Expensive resorts line the shore, and as we parked the bikes, we met a custodian who told us that most of the newer resorts were constructed by Canadian companies. After building a property, a foreign investor had 5 years to turn a profit, after that time the property would be handed over to the Cuban government. Interesting!


Family-time at the beach


This was a big advertisement for parasailing. This guy would do amazing tricks up and down the shore and then park his board near tourists and tell them that he could teach them how to do it if they rented the equipment from him!


On the way back from the beach, Neda picks up some fruits from a road-side vendor


A demonstration of Santerian relgious ceremony

One evening, we headed to the town square to see the concert that the musicians and dancers had invited us to. They were actually 1 of 3 acts, the first was a demonstration of Santeria, which is a Cuban religion, mixing African, Haitian voodoo, Catholic and Native American influences. Devotees dress all in white, not all swallow fire though... Throughout Cuba, we have seen many people dressed all in white, like the Santerians, but we found out that some do so just for the fashion, not because they are religious.


Our friends from the warehouse, all decked out in their traditional costumes!


Flamenco dancers, the last act of the night
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  #158  
Old 17 Jun 2013
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G'day guy's great report as usual.

Life has been busy so have not caught up with your travels for a bit,very much enjoyed your update ,your reports mirror the "two moto kiwi's"experience of being walking cash machines to the locals ,I'm glad you also had positive experiences ,great photo's as always.Noel
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Updated from http://www.RideDOT.com/rtw/95.html



We spent a few days travelling inland through Central Cuba, thankful that we were shying away from the popular tourist destinations and the hustlers that swim in those waters. We were pretty happy with being anonymous in the fairly priced Islazul hotels, so we ended up searching for them in the interior of the island. Our journey through the interior revealed a lot about the history of La Revolucion, the players and the events that have happened since.


More state-sponsored propaganda on the Carretera Centrale (main road)


Very cute lizards watch us eat dinner


The town of Moron, our stopover for a couple of nights

We chose to stay awhile in the town of Moron, which is not that touristy, but is used as a base for budget travellers who don't want to pay the exorbitant resort rates on the beaches of Cayo Coco, less than an hour to the north. Yep, that sounds like us!


Fidel the freedom fighter, in the jungles of Cuba


The Cuban 5

Everywhere in our travels we saw these 5 names, with slogans like "Free the Five!" and "They will return!". It's only later that we found out these five were Cuban spies that were sent to the US. In the 90s, they were discovered and convicted of spying against America, although Cuba maintains that they were only there to spy on anti-Cuban organizations launching terrorists attacks on Cuban soil from their base in Miami. Here they're hailed as heroes who gave up their liberty to defend their country.


Seamstresses in Moron


Pastel colours


Singing competition. Neda said that these girls were dressed in the same outfits that she wore when she was a kid in Croatia.


These students were all taking part in a music competition


Most of the buildings in Moron had these Roman columns


Local shoe repair guy - open air shop!


"Here we have to throw rocks without looking forward"

In 1983, construction began on a 27km causeway between Cuba to the island of Cayo Coco, opening up land access to some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. From the mainland, you could not even see the island. Fidel stood on the spot where the causeway was to be constructed and motivated the workers: "Here is where we have to throw stones without looking forward".


Riding to our beach day in Cayo CoCo

We didn't really do any research as to where to go once we hit Cayo Coco, and when we ran into a couple from France driving the same direction, they told us that they were heading to one of the best beaches on the island: Playa Pilar. That sounded good to us. Little did we know that Playa Pilar was on the western-most tip of Cayo Guillermo, the adjoining island to Cayo Coco and a one-way trip from Moron was 100 kms! We had left on half a tank and there were no gas stations along the way - Thankfully we had our spare tanks...


Playa Pilar: White sand as fine as baking powder, and clear turquoise waters as far as the eye can see

The next day we rode only for a couple of hours westwards to Santa Clara. It's an important city in Cuban history because this is basically where La Revolucion against the Batista dictatorship was won in 1958. Fidel sent his most-trusted Lieutenant, Ernesto "Che" Guevara to capture the city, and after his death a few years later, a mausoleum was built just outside of Santa Clara to house his remains and celebrate his life. This was the main reason we stopped in the city.


Taking in some music in Santa Clara


22-foot high bronze Che on top of the mausoleum

I didn't know much about Che Guevara before coming to Cuba, and it was very interesting seeing how the government portrayed this hero of Cuban history. In the museum next to the mausoleum, we learned about the young Argentine doctor, who came from a privileged family, gave up everything and fought in the jungles of Cuba to free the oppressed workers of the country and the corruption of the Batista dictatorship.


Neda reads the epitaph and translates for me

It was only later when we were able to read non-Cuban propaganda, that we learned of the war atrocities that Che had committed. The trip to Santa Clara was a fascinating lesson in one-sided history and education. It made me think that although in the western world, we have access to all sorts of viewpoints and editorials on history and world events, we most often accept a singular reporting that the mainstream media feeds us without bothering to dig deeper. Despite Cuba's stance on silencing all opposing viewpoints (they have one of the world's worst records for jailing journalists), there seems to be a hunger for freedom of press. We heard that blogs and ezines on USB sticks are passed around from people to people on buses, in cafes and wherever Cubans mingle.

We take for granted what we have until we do not have it anymore.


Comrade patrols the mausoleum


Leaving Santa Clara: "Where did everyone go?!?"

We kept our bikes overnight in a garage that only stored 2 wheeled vehicles. Since our bikes were as big as cars, we took up the space of 5 or 6 of their motorcycles! The garage was entirely full the evening before, but they were all gone by the time we left in the late morning!

Next stop: Havana! Very excited!
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  #160  
Old 20 Jun 2013
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What a fabulous adventure, it's raining here in S E England, however, your photos and text have brought a ray of sunshine to my day.

Best wishes for your future travels.

Tom
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  #161  
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Love the images - so vibrant and full of colour, Thanks for the reports
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  #163  
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Updated from May 04 2013: Havana Rough Time...



From Santa Clara, we make amazing time on the only highway in the country. Originally conceived to stretch the entire length of the island, the Autopista is symbolic of the half-realized dream that Cuba has become. After Soviet funding dried up in the 90s, the completed parts of the highway only connect the central part of Cuba to just west of Havana. Traffic is sparse on the road, and we share the ride with a spattering of classic cars, buses and lots of horse-drawn buggies.

Looking at a map, we are just a scant 150 kms away from Key West - our meandering path has taken us to the closest we've been to Toronto in months! Ha!


Beautifully maintained classic cars harken back to a time when Havana was at the peak of its affluence and influence

Reaching the historic centre of old Havana requires riding through kms of urban sprawl, and we peel through the outer layers of dirty factories and railroad tracks, through to the shambles of the outlying neighbourhoods and finally to a seemingly incongruous opulent capital city. From the 1930s up until the Revolution in 1958, Havana was THE centre of tourism in the Caribbean, with casinos, nightclubs and hotels supporting a nightlife that drew celebrities and socialites to the city, out-rivaling Las Vegas. All the revenue and activity attracted gangsters and government corruption. During La Revolucion, Fidel chased out these elements, nationalizing all the businesses, and made enemies of the United States which had their interests and assets in the country seized. The embargo ensued, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the money stopped coming in.


Stone sculptures line the main tourist walkway in Havana


Restoration work being done on the Capitol Building

As the rest of the country fell into decay, there were only funds enough eft to restore 10% of the city, leaving a stark contrast between the magnificence of the historic centre and the crumbling ruins of the surrounding neighbourhoods. Just a few steps from the main tourist areas revealed the impoverished state of the people and their living conditions.


Backstreets of the old city


Impromptu game of football in the streets of Havana


There is no shortage of vintage automobiles in the old city

These old American cars are just one of the examples of the contradictions that we saw in Cuban culture. While the imperialist United States has been demonized by the Cuban government, these classic Fords and Chevies have been declared a National Heritage and are a much heralded symbol of the communist island nation. Same goes for the national sport of the country: Baseball. You can't get any more apple pie than that.

The US is not immune to this contradiction as well - ever since the trade and travel embargo, Americans have been trying to sneak onto Cuban beaches and resorts for years now and the Cuban cigar has obtained mythical status in the States.


Our casa overlooks the shores of Havana

We had heard that Jinetero problem was the worst in Havana, and we were prepared once again to check into a hotel, but we quickly found the prices way out of our reach. Thankfully we ran into a fellow Canadian on the streets who showed us a nice casa particular that he had stayed at before, right on the very scenic Malecon. His local Cuban friends taught us how to negotiate discounts: if you find a casa or restaurant without the help of a Jinetero, you don't have to pay the $5 commission. Useful information!


We get a scenic view of the Malecon from our balcony window

We stayed in Havana for four days, taking plenty of time just to relax and hang out in our casa. Everytime we stepped out to find food or shop for groceries, we mentally put on our armor and steeled ourselves for the onslaught of the hustlers' spiel: "Where are you from?" and "Don't you like Cuban people?!?". I was a bit dismayed to see how adept we were at ignoring people on the street. It went against our nature of being open and friendly with everyone we meet on the road.

Cuba is wearing us thin. I can tell that I've lost my humour and we're spending more time sequestered away in our room than out exploring. I don't think we're normally this sensitive to being hustled, but we've been on the road for almost a year now and travel fatigue is setting in. We really need to hunker down somewhere for a month or two, take a break from the constant motion and regroup.


Tall waves crash over the wall of the Malecon, leaving slick patches of seaweed on the road


Every night, city crews clean the seaweed from the streets


Skyscrapers of modern Havana lurk in the background of the old city

There's a lot of competition for tourist dollars in Havana, old Cuban ladies sit in the town square with cigars hanging out of their mouths, charging tourists to snap their pictures. They're capitalizing on the now-famous picture of the Cuban lady smoking a stogie that adorns many travel brochures and tourist guides. And these ladies' cigars remain unlit the entire day!

I don't shell out for this staged photo-op.


Beautiful architecture in the old city


Old historical centre


With a shortage of parts from the outside world, Cubans have developed some creative fabrication skills


We take a ride in one of the vintage automobiles through the street (not streets) of Chinatown


Chinese food was a welcome change from Latin American fare

Asian tourists are pretty rare in Cuba and like our motorcycles, I was the source of a lot of curiousity about my background. For most Cubans, Asians fall into the category of either Chinese, Japanese or Korean - no other races exist. A typical conversation would go something like this:

Them: Chino?
Me: Soy de Canada.
Them: Chino?
Me: Mi familia es de Malasia.
Them: Chino?
Me: *sigh* Si. Chino.
Them: AH! CHINO!

LOL...


Sunset on the skyline of Havana
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Updated from May 10 2013: Sometimes a cigar is...



Where are there no Jineteros? Let's go there.

Vinales is in small farming community in the eastern province of Pinar Del Rio and we're told that there's very little hustling there. So we jump on our bikes, head to the Autopista and make a beeline to the heart of tobacco country.


Along the way we run into our good buddy, Che


Parking at our casa is a tight fit even with the bags off


This wasn't a tight fit - the helmet could have done an exorcist swivel on his head!

Vinales is quite a sleepy community, in contrast to the busy city of Pinar Del Rio to the south. Lots of people hang out on their porches here in the evening, we felt very comfortable in this bucolic setting, taking strolls up and down the main street every night, unmolested by hustlers.


Walking around the neighbourhood in Vinales

Whenever we travel, I find myself becoming enamoured with the local vehicles. When we were in Baja California, I dreamed of driving around in an old rust-red VW Beetle w/ a dune-buggy kit: exposed chrome engine in the back, big knobby tires, jacked up suspension and loud fog-lights. In Cuba, I think it would the coolest to drive around in a mean black and chrome '56 Chevy Belair!


The triangular-roofed house is a drying shed for tobacco leaves

We booked a tour of one of the tobacco farms one morning and the owner, Juan took us around his fields, showing us how tobacco is farmed and harvested. Due to the soil and the microclimate here, the Vinales Valley is one of the best places to grow tobacco and makes the finest cigars in Cuba. The area is surrounded by limestone mountains which have eroded over time, giving them their steep slopes with flat tops. We've seen much artwork depicting these mountains, which are synonymous with the valley.


Thousands of tobacco leaves hanging in the drying house like bats in a cave


Neda learns everything there is to know about tobacco farming from Juan, then translates it (and dumbs it down) for me

Cuba has a low-input agricultural industry, choosing to use manual labour and ox-driven ploughs instead of costlier gasoline-powered farming equipment - necessary because of their isolation from the outside world. We've seen examples of this all over the country, and we've also seen some artwork that is critical of Fidel's policies for energy-efficiency while ignoring more important issues. We saw a painting of a huge pressure-cooker with a small starving child leaning up against it and later found out that in the 90s, Fidel had given every household these energy-efficient appliances to reduce the usage of inefficient stoves. However, the population had no rice to cook with!


And then Juan Valdez shows up and asks if we want to try the richest coffee in the world?


Soil here is a rich red colour and is perfect for growing the finest tobacco for cigars


Tobacco leaves ready to be made into cigars

Juan passed us over to another farmer (his name was Juan as well!) who had a drying house set up with leaves soaked in a rum, lime, honey and mint - the exact same ingredients that you use to make a mojito. This Juan explained to us the process in how to select leaves for the different types of cigars - the darker leaves are more stronger and are used to make the Montecristos, while the lighter leaves are used to make the milder Romeo y Juliet cigars. Also the tobacco is concentrated in the spines of the leaves.


Rolling a fresh cigar for us

We watched Juan roll a fresh cigar from different types of leaves, sealed it with some honey and offered it to us. We've never smoked a cigar in our lives, so Juan found it quite funny when I coughed up a lung after deeply inhaling some of the thick cigar smoke. So apparently you have to make like Clinton and not inhale, just puff.


Juan is busting a gut laughing at my attempts to puff on a cigar

Neda and just shared one cigar but after a few minutes of trying to perfect my Schwartzenneger Puff, I felt a bit lightheaded and had to take a break. Juan laughed at me a bit more. Meanwhile, Neda was going gangbusters on the rest of the cigar and was already making plans to buy a whole box back in town. Jeez...


Neda has mastered the art of the puff
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  #165  
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Hi guys. What a brilliant journey. I look forward to following your trail. The pics are really good as well. If ever you make it to Windhoek, Namibia please drop in and see us. Enjoy regards Tony
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