Friday, 9 March 2018

Cuba Yet Again

We have vacationed at the same all-inclusive resort Club Amigo Marea del Portillo in Cuba for the past two years. We enjoy our time there so much, we decided to stay yet again this year.

We got back from Cuba over two weeks ago. Yet again it has taken ages to sort through our photos and decide what to say. I wrote about our last two trips here and here. Since I have already written about the resort plus hiking and biking in the area, I thought it might be interesting to focus on things we did differently. 

For starters, we did not take our high-end bikes packed in heavy bike cases risking higher fees for exceeding the 44-lb limit. Instead we bought decent older-style mountain bikes found on Kijiji for $125 each - bikes perfect for donating at the end of our stay. My husband replaced the cables, brakes and tires then packed the bikes in cardboard bike boxes. Even with seven extra tires our bike boxes weighed less than 44 lbs. 

To take bikes, we paid the standard over-sized luggage fee of $30 each plus another $15 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) each to transport them by taxi from the airport in Manzanillo to our hotel. Four bikes fit per taxi so the $60 CUC fee can be shared if there are enough bikes. Last year our bike boxes made it on the bus while bikes in cardboard boxes did not. We expect our hard-shell bike boxes were handled like luggage because they could not be strapped to the roof of a taxi. We worried about sending bikes by taxi especially when they arrived later than expected. It was after midnight and we had just gone to bed when our bikes arrived safe and sound. All in all travelling with 'donor' bikes was so much easier, we are planning to do it again next year. 

This photo shows me enjoying one last matcha tea almond milk latte while waiting near the front of the line to check our luggage at Toronto Pearson airport. A forecast snowstorm had arrived on schedule. Luckily we had driven the night before and stayed at a Comfort Inn just 12 km from the airport. We heard another couple from London took 5.5 hrs to drive through the storm almost missing their flight.  
This year we were pleased with our ground floor ocean-view cabana. The air conditioner was newer and quiet ... so quiet we could hardly tell it was running. Last year our air conditioner sounded like a tractor. 
We found a handy spot to hang our clothesline between two trees behind our cabana. We liked to sit in the shade reading and relaxing while our clothes dried, but took the line down between uses as we heard it might disappear if left unattended. 
We thoroughly enjoyed both hiking and biking in Cuba Yet Again. Over our two-week stay we fit in four hikes (~12 hrs) and seven bike rides (264 kms). Plus every morning before breakfast we walked the length of the beach up to the other hotel on the hill and back. We love how easy it is to be active and improve fitness on holiday.

Last year we figured out how to hike around the reservoir. We did the hike three times over three weeks. I wrote a guide describing our route here. This year it is impossible to hike all the way around. All the dry river beds we walked through with ease last year are filled with water. We heard it rained a lot from November through January topping up the reservoir with much needed water. 

Instead of hiking all the way around the reservoir, we split our route into two separate out-and-back hikes. First we headed East to the Look Out behind the reservoir. We love the views on this route.
Our hike to the Look Out takes us over our favourite rickety stick bridge. Last year this river was completely dry making me feel quite brave to walk across a structure so dilapidated and far off the ground. It looks a lot less scary with this much water ... not nearly as exciting.
Stick bridge - last year compared to this year

There was so much water one end of the bridge was wet. We walked along the railing to keep our feet dry. 
From the Look Out behind the reservoir you can see how much more water there is this year. 
Reservoir - last year compared to this year.

There are always interesting things to see and photograph on our hikes ... pretty flowers, chicks, working oxen just to name a few.
This year we met a friendly Canadian named Vijay on our flight who has a one-year old son with Ismarays a young Cuban lady. She and her son live with her parents on this farm not far from the hotel. Vijay kindly invited us to his son's first birthday party - a pig roast at the farm. In the past we have declined such offers of hospitality. This year we made an exception.
The pig roasted for hours over an open pit filled with hot coals with the men taking turns manually rotating the spit. My husband joined them taking a turn at the spit much to their amusement.
The menu included roast pork, yucca, rice and beans, sliced cucumber and tomatoes. All the food was cooked outside over wood burning fires. For dessert there were two fancy birthday cakes. I saw Ismarays and her cousin Juan Carlos arrive with the cakes by horse and buggy ... not an easy task holding two cakes of this size over rough roads. 
Here I am holding Antony the birthday boy with Juan Carlos' daughter by my side. We met a lot of family and friends at the party.
I had fun feeding the farm pigs grass and yucca peelings. They devoured everything I tossed in their pen.
Turkeys and chickens like to roost in trees at night. Ladders make it easy for them to climb up. We have seen many such make-shift ladders propped against trees in Cuba ... now we know why.
Once the pig was cooked it was propped against a tree and left to sit for a bit before being carved onto a big metal platter for serving.
One of the farm dogs stood under the dripping pig licking at dirt saturated in pig fat ... a yummy doggy treat.
Antony with his Tía (Auntie) this time and dressed for his party.
In Cuba, it is customary for guests to eat first, then children followed by everybody else. It feels a bit awkward eating while everybody sits around waiting, but it's expected. Vijay, my husband and I helped ourselves to a delicious meal eating quickly so the others could eat too.

My husband said the pork was cooked to perfection ... much better than at the hotel. Another change I should mention - I stopped eating meat and dairy last summer. Although Cubans are familiar with 'veganos', they don't really understand why anybody would choose to do it. Regardless, I was happy to discover lots of healthy plant based options both at this pig roast and at the hotel buffet and didn't miss meat or dairy at all this year.  
This year we hiked up the crazy-steep Bayamo Road. It took us 2 hrs and 40 mins to hike from the hotel to the top and back. Last year we biked this route, but the last 2 km is really too steep to ride. Either way, this climb is a good sweat-inducing, muscle building workout. 
Last year we biked ... this year we hiked.    

The fields are much greener this year. The cows and all the other animals looked much happier and healthier grazing on so much green grass.
I never tire of seeing 'free range' animals wandering everywhere. These babies looked particularly sweet.
A picture-worthy gate we passed on our hike back to the hotel.
This year we went out for dinner at Danny's - a restaurant in the nearby town of Marea. We took a horse and buggy ride with Juan Carlos who we met at Antony's birthday party. He is Ismaray's cousin. 
Since we knew Juan Carlos from the birthday party, we invited him to join us for dinner. My husband and Juan Carlos shared every meat and seafood option on the menu. It was delicious according to my husband. I had a bit of salad and rice and beans then stopped by the hotel buffet to fill up after dinner. Eating plant based works wonderfully at buffets; not so great at restaurants featuring meat dishes with small non-meat 'sides'.
Every morning we walked the beach before breakfast. Sometimes we walked early enough to watch the sunrise. Sometimes stray dogs joined us on our walk. Morning beach walks ... a great way to start the day.
Last year we thoroughly enjoyed a sunset cruise around the bay in front of our hotel. This year we were disappointed to hear the boat had broken down. For the first week of our stay, the sunset cruise consisted of a 'bus ride' down the coast. Cubans are resourceful. 

The boat was fixed by the second week but the ocean was rough so we did not leave the lagoon at the back of hotel. We were surprised to see hundreds of jelly fish in the lagoon.
The boat traveled to the mouth of the lagoon close to open water where the sunset did not disappoint ... spectacular.
Another day we headed West up the trail past the waterfall to hike the second segment of our hike around the reservoir. 
We passed this turkey looking majestic with his tail feathers on display.
And followed the trail over streams. Last year these streams were dry.
The route looked different in reverse, but we recognized this view.
And this gate assured us we were on the right path.
We found walking sticks along the way making it easier for me to balance on wobbly stones my husband placed across this shallow stream to keep my feet dry.
This stream was chock-full of algae ... so colourful and strangely pretty.
We crossed over four shallow streams, but had to turn back when we reached deep water. This was a challenging four-hour hike with plenty of views, stepping stones and pretty flowers to keep things interesting.
We visited Cayo Blanco only once this year on the first Tuesday for a much appreciated Rest Day. 
I was happy to see the island mamma dog was still there with two full grown female pups. These dogs are very friendly and healthy living here.
Last year the pups were 6 wks old. A year later they are full grown.

We spent most of the day relaxing and reading in the shade. 
After a delicious barbecue lunch, I went for a swim while my husband snorkeled. The water was relatively calm but stirred up from high winds and waves in the surrounding waters. The ocean was rough for the whole two weeks of our vacation. So rough I only ventured in twice - once at the island and once at the resort.
After spending a day at the island most people are dropped off at a nearby dock to take a bus back to the resort. We stayed on board to enjoy the ride. It was rough and oh so fun.
This year we biked West towards Pilon only once. We visited the same places as last year - ostrich farm, a small quiet bay and ranch lands.

Last year compared to this year ... everything is greener.
We packed a few baseballs to hand out to kids on our rides. Baseball is a popular sport in Cuba.
We rode East along the South Coast Road six times. It is still our favourite route. I was pleased to manage the big 2 km climb twice this year. Mountain bike gearing was perfect although lifting this heavier bike was a little more challenging.

For biking this year, we decided to take flat pedals so we wouldn't have to pack special bike shoes. These IMRider pedals worked perfectly as they are lightweight with very good grip.

My husband wore sandals to ride while I wore Fitkicks which are barely more than socks with thin rubber soles. Riding flats worked so well, I am considering transitioning away from clip-less pedals at home too.
FITKICKS® Size Large Active Lifestyle Footwear in Black
There are so many interesting things to see along the rugged coast and back through Mota - makeshift bridges, egrets, royal palm trees.  
This year we met Guy and Sharlene. They live in St. Catherine's but visit family in London so may contact us the next time they're in town.
The snack bar is under construction with a completion date that keeps changing. We hope it will be done before we visit next year.
On the last full day of our trip, we rode out the South Coast road to donate a few spare bike tires. It is difficult to find tires for sale in Cuba so they are very much appreciated.
This nice lady who lives about 18 km down the road from the hotel made us Cuban coffee to show her appreciation. Next year we would like to be able to give her a bike. 
We met Fernando at the pig roast. He cleans the pool at the Farallon - the hotel on the hill. Most mornings we would stop on our morning walk to say 'hi' and bring him a coffee. On departure day, we said our good-byes.
We also donated our bikes on departure day. My bike went to Ismarays. She was very happy with it.
My husband's bike was given to Juan Carlos' younger brother who is the same age as our son and works on his Uncle's farm. Juan Carlos picked up the bike for his brother who had gone to Pilon to renew his ID card.
All too soon it was time to board the bus to the airport. It was so much easier traveling home without big bike cases, we have decided to search for suitable bikes for next year.
Ismarays brought Antony to say good-bye ... such a sweet boy.
We enjoyed a fabulous time in Cuba Yet Again.

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  1. Loved the pictures and reading about your trip. You do a great job of this.

    1. Thanks so much for taking care of Sadie while we were away ... much appreciated.

  2. What a great report about your holiday. You and Lee look very happy and relaxed. Wonderful that you could give bikes to the Cuban community. Terrific that you are visiting the same place for multiple years so you can make friends and find some familiar places. I just wish you'd give us some info about some crafting! ;-)

    1. Funny you mention crafting. I have loaded photos for three posts re. recent projects. As soon as I add words I will be sharing. Watch for them coming soon ...