Cuba 5: Havana to Cancún

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive race, one team of two raced to the town of Viñales. There they were unlucky enough to get not one but three flat tires whilst attempting to push their bikes through the jungle to reach the nearby village.  Overcoming this obstacle, through torrential rain and thunder the team visit the remaining local attractions and sample a variety of Cuban fare, before leaving the town to head back east to Havana.

A moment of calm before racing resumes

In order to get back to Havana quickly to enjoy their last day in Cuba, the team travelled by taxi back to the city early the next morning. There they walked around the unique streets, visited the Museum of the Revolucion, saw Fidel’s motor yacht, the Granma, went inside but did not drink a mojito at La Bodeguita Del Medio, had a meal at their favourite Chinese Cuban place and walked along the Malecón.

Havana square Coco taxis
Coco taxi pilots waiting for fares LAZZER… need more be said?
Roof of the muesum of the Revolucion One of the saloons in the museum
Cuban anti-imperialistic satire Inside the original La Bodeguita Del Medio
Simon completes the “find a statue with your name on it” challenge Ang completes the “find a school that has been named after you” challenge
Cuban street Cuban street complete with bridge
Cuban building
Another Cuban classic Note the modified fuel tank
The chinese restaurant all to themselves Moonrise over a Malecón building
Dusk, Malecón Sunset, Malecón

Waking at a reasonable hour for once, the team headed back to José Martí Airport where they spent the very last of their Cuban currency and waited for their Yak flight.  Soon they were winging their way to Cancun and after a very long landing approach, which annoyed Ang greatly, they landed.

Mystery black jet (not a Yak) Waiting for our flight
Yak getting ready for take-off Simon about to enter the Yak
Terror as only a Yak can provide Normal cabin smoke
All it is missing are some strobes and a disco ball Fully reclined chairs in the extreme forward position
A marvel of aviation technology, the Yak-42D

Whilst waiting for the bus they met a Silvia and Tom, who had come north from South America.  The teams traded stories about Cuba and gave tips about the other countries that they each had visited.  Soon they were on the bus back to Playa Del Carmen.  Having failed to complete the salsa lesson challenge (as set by Callan), the team incurred a 30 minute time penalty.  They waited out this penalty then were checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

In the post leg interview, the team said that they were both glad to have visited Cuba.  Ang in particular was glad because “the country is rapidly changing and becoming more commercial.  I’m glad we saw it when we did, Cubans have such a very relaxed pace of life”.  Simon thought “it was surprisingly easy to travel about in the country.  I enjoyed just being there, and I’m only a little disappointed that we had to travel on such a restricted budget.  I wish we could have confirmed if we could access funds via ATMs.  Perhaps we would have been able to complete the salsa lesson challenge, but that is just how the exclusive race is”.

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Cuba 4: Viñales

After a quick early morning swim, the team departed Varadero on a Viazul bus bound for Viñales.  Oddly, on this bus service there were no stops for the two drivers to collect their groceries and soon the bus arrived in Havana.  The team, along with Isabella and Steffano, then negotiated a faster taxi ride in an antique Peugeot 309 to Viñales.

Racing through the Cuban country side, the team stopped only once at a tobacco farm, which both Simon and Angela agreed wasn’t very interesting as it was the wrong season, before they sped into the town of Viñales.  Soon they arrived at their Casa Particular.

Apparently really good dinner Loco perro on the roof of a casa
Wisdom from Che: (google translator says) “one of the noblest ways to serve the country is to be committed to working” The feast in the casa

After an optional rest period, the team departed the casa on bikes.  Their task was to ride to the Cave of the Indian and explore it to gain their next clue.

Restaurante cave

They rode north through the Pinta Del Río country side.  They soon travelled 6km and arrived at the cave and paid their 5 CUC each entry fee.  To the annoyance of the Cuban staff, they went into the cave without a guide.  Soon they were walking through the well-lit cave space.  After exploring less than 200m later, they arrived at the underground river.  There they waited until the speedboat arrived to take them further into the mountain.

Scary well-lit cave

The Cuban speedboat captain gently and expertly guided his boat to the dock.  The team boarded the boat, along with some Israelis and they headed deeper into the mountain. Only to turn around 50m later, with the boat captain explaining that the water level was too low for them to go further into the mountain.  Simon thought it looked very Lord of the Rings, with a lone staircase disapearing into the darkness ahead. The boat drove past the dock and around a couple of bends before they exited the cave.

Daylight The exit to the caves

Annoyed at the overpriced and underwhelming crappiness of the caves, the team raced through the gift shop and were soon back on their bikes.  Intending to visit a 1960s mural located to the west of the town, but not wanting to miss the chance to explore further, the team continued north and then west to Valle Acón.

The road into the valley was lined with pigs and not much else.  The team made good time over the next 8 km and they soon reached Acón village.  There they continued onto cooperative commune land, heading in what they thought was the direction of the mural.  Soon they were in thick plantation land.  Unable to see a shortcut over the hills through the jungle, the team returned to the commune entry.

A panorama of a field near Acón village, pre flat tires

Annoyed that there was no connecting road offering a more direct  route to the mural, the team asked a commune worker in broken spanish if a horse trail would get them back to the village of Viñales.  He said that it would, so the team went through the gate and started up the the trail.

Heading into the jungle

Within 500m both bikes had at least one flat tire (Simon’s bike soon had two flats).  Thinking this route couldn’t be that difficult (there were bike tire tracks along it and it kind of headed in the right direction), the team pushed on.  Two hours later, in the late afternoon with nothing but jungle around them, the team decided that they probably weren’t going to make it through to Viñales via this overland route.  To avoid being eliminated (and having to spend the night in the jungle), the team turned around and rapidly made their way back down the hills to the village of Acón.

As is the norm for this part of Cuba, heavy afternoon thunderstorms greeted their return to Acón.  After sheltering briefly in a friendly farmer’s house from the lightning, the team walked the 8km along the Valle Acón road back to the main north south route.  With the greater traffic, they attempted to get a lift back to Viñales.  Unfortunately, Cuban truck drivers were not able to stop as either their trucks were full or perhaps they were not allowed to give foreigners a ride.  This forced the team to continue walking the remaining 6km back to Viñales, much to the delight of the Cuban locals, who called out pinchazo with knowing smiles.

Ang is soaked, but happy 4kms left to push the bikes

Eventually they pushed the bikes into the town and returned them to the hirer.  After showering, the team celebrated this feat by heading into town for ice cream.

Viñales main plaza, where much ice cream was consumed

Their next task was to make their way to the mural that had been painted on the side of a cliff back in the 1960s.  According to the clue, the mural was a sight to see. After the previous day’s bike issues, the team headed off on foot. After walking the 4km, they headed into a valley where to their right the mural appeared.  Simon and Ang were not impressed, but were able to take photos and avoid paying the entry fee.  They promptly walked back to the main road.

Epically aweful mural

There they were able to get a lift with a couple of rural farmer types on their horse and cart. The cowboys dropped the team off in town and they headed off to next task, find and have lunch at the Balcón, which was provided by Beñat (a friendly spaniard the team had met in Varadero earlier). The 3 km walk up the hill was easy and soon the team located the restaurant. There they ate a huge feast of 10 CUC lobster, drank mojitos and enjoyed the view. Ang thought ‘it was a bit weird we had lobster in the mountains, but it was very meaty’.

Hitching a ride to town Lobster at the Balcón
Panorama from the table at the Balcón
And lunch is finished Later at the view hotel (which doesn’t have as good of a view as the Balcón)
Three little piggies went to market

Later back at their casa, their host offered to take them to his family’s nearby farm.  They went, and despite having no interest in the tobacco element, the team accepted the homemade cigars (but left them later in the casa for their host). There they drank Cuban coffee and drank fresh rum and coconut before back once again heading back to their Casa.

This dude rolls his own She’s 83 and likes her coffee
Waiting for rum The family’s christmas ham
A big pair of fresh coconuts

… to be continued

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Cuba Part 3: Trinidad to Varadero

With only a limited time in Cuba, the team set off to the Viazul bus station via taxi.  There they boarded a bus heading south to Trinidad on what would soon become a grocery run.  At each opportunity, the two drivers would stop the bus and one would disappear into a house only to return with the desired items.  These would range from breads through to single avocados. Other than the chance to see the Cuban country side, a highlight of the bus ride for Simon was passing by Australia, Cuba.

Later that day, the team were finally able to arrive at their destination.  There they were met by their booked casa host and after dumping their bags in the casa, they set off to explore the town.  The influence of the Spanish was clear in the cobbled streets and colonial buildings.  That evening, the team enjoyed the Cuban music on offer at the Music cafe and later during dinner at a little restaurant filled with antique furniture.

Old car Trinidad A tractor in Trinidad
We think it is under repair A surprisingly healthy horse
Exceptional value at 1.75 CUC for 500ml Sunset in Cuba’s Caribbean Capital
Classy dinner

The next morning, they were tasked with lazing on a nearby beach.  To reach Playa Acón, the team negotiated a 5km Coco taxi ride.  Coco taxis are a unique Cuban transport that is like a cross between a tuk-tuk and a carnival ride. Arriving at the Playa, the team did little else than swim, walk and eat ice cream until late that afternoon. With this challenge completed, the team returned to Trinidad for dinner and some more music.

Dudes on their velos heading to Playa Acón Towards Trinidad
Cuban crabs are tiny!
Simon enjoying the coco
Cuban dogs are cool Suburban Trinidad
Sitting and watching is a pastime Every house needs a lion on the roof
Warm nights in Trinidad Live music Trinidad style

The next morning the team once again boarded a Viazul bus north to the resort island of Varadero.  Once again this was a grocery run, with several stops being made on the indirect route that included Playa Girón and the Bay of Pigs.  Their scenic route included the hamlet of Australia.  Unfortunately the team were unable to get any photos as their bus raced through on its way to the next foodstuff pickup.

Hasten to battle, men of Bayamo! The motherland looks proudly to you…
The Bay of Pigs Highway to no where
Monument to the velo

Hours after departure, the team arrived in Varadero and were met by their friendly casa host. They set off to complete the main tasks for this town.  In order to receive their next clue, the team needed to laze on the beach some more.  Having gained considerable skill at this type of challenge, the team was easily able to complete this task in the perfect amount of time and were awarded their next clue.

It isn’t the Caribbean, but it’s still very nice More Playa

The next challenge was to walk to the far end of the island or near enough to ‘see what was there’.  The team attempted this late one evening, but after some kms, decided to return to their casa.  The next morning, the team travelled by foot and negotiated cheap tourist bus to the Plaza Los Americas, where they then walked along the beach back to their accommodation in Centro Varadero.

A revolutionary golf course in Cuba
More classic things Un Perro en la Playa

Having completed these two tasks, the team checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race, a bar on the beach that served drinks and snacks.  There they celebrated their first place with fresh swordfish and mojitos, negotiated for 5 CUC each.

Cuban sunset Post check-in walk on the beach
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Cuba 2: Havana

After a brief rest period, Simon and Ang who were first to arrive at the pit stop at 4:00am, departed seven hours later at 11:00am to explore Havana.

Standard Havana photo

Their first task for this leg of the race was to complete a walking tour of Havana and map their route using a smuggled GPS logger.  This tour took in the Malecón, Centro Havana and Old Havana.

Havana building
Capital building and another classic car Capital building

Having been warned by their host, the team was easily able to spot the Jinateros, many of whom decided to introduce themselves to the team. A Jinatero or Jinatera is a girl or guy who has no formal employment and who instead makes a living by using ‘their mind to take money from tourists’. Typically they would make idle chat or ask if the team wanted to buy some cigars.

They were no worse than those in other countries and were easily ignored or defeated through questions.  Ang found it particularly fun to ask them what their job was, which usually meant perfect English was quickly replaced with confused Español and a hasty departure.

Cuban street art inspired by deadmau5

The team’s extensive walking tour allowed them to identify a variety of historic and famous sights. On this walk they were able to complete the first viewer challenge for this leg of the race.  This challenge was provided by Sandy and was to locate La Bodeguita del Medio (birth place of the Mojito). However, short on time, they did not enter the bar and restaurant at this point.

Typical Havana street

Changing their Euros into CUC was the next challenge of this leg of the race. They first located a suitable bank, and then proceeded to complete the transaction.

Before the team could leave the counter, the teller tried to sell them an Australian dollar note.  Simon initially thought they wanted him to check to see if it was a forgery, as the condition of the note was very poor and it was missing some security features when he held it up to the light (the teller quickly grabbed the note off him to show that it had the UV marker).

While actual inspection time was limited before she snatched it back, Simon thought it was highly likely to be a fake.  Simon’s main disappointment was the 30 CUC she was asking for the note was much more than the 5 CUC he was prepared to pay for the note as a souvenir.

Cuban cops walking the beat, defending socialism

The only other real problem the team faced in Havana was that at each government run Mercardo supermarket, the team was consistently short changed.  The simple solution was to consistently check their change and to challenge the teller automatically (sometimes even before checking the change), and by doing so they were able to avoid losing any CUCs.

Yes, please defend socialism

Food challenges include eating lots of traditional Cuban food in particular chicken and Moros y Cristianos (a recipe for fancy non-Cuban Moors and Christians). On two occasions, the team had dinner had in China town.  This amused Simon greatly as on one of the occasions, the restaurant was state run and staffed by Cubans who were not of Chinese descent.  They served an interpretation of Chinese food with a distinctly Cuban twist.  Simon and Ang liked the combination of rice, beans and fried chicken with Chinese five spices.

Later they walked through Centro Havana to Vedado where they sampled some ice cream at Coppelia (a huge cathedral dedicated to ice cream) before they headed to the National Hotel where the team enjoyed sunset mojitos.  This completed two viewer challenges for this leg, which were provided by Sandy and Callan respectively. The team received their next clue and set off for the pit stop.

Che neon by day (Plaza de la Revolución)
Dude fixing his car Moijitos at the National Hotel

Racing back to their casa, stopping only for dinner, the team checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race, once again arriving first.

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Cuba 1: Cancún to Havana

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive Race, one team of two spent a week relaxing and recovering at Playa Del Carmen. Simon and Ang both enjoyed a fantastic week in the stunning Playa, graciously hosted by Sandy and Gigi.  They lazed on the beach and visited ancient Mayan ruins.  After successfully completing the food challenge for this leg, they were given their next clue, provided by Callan.

Quickly packing, the team raced via ADO bus back to Cancún airport.  There they found that their Cubana de Aviación flight to Havana had been delayed.  The delay was initially 2 hours due to mechanical problems.  Checking their bag in, the team was told the delay was not two, but actually 12 hours, and that they would be taken to a hotel in Cancún to wait until their flight later that night.

Having previously experienced this, the team were hesitant to go to the airline hotel, as it rarely lives up to the hype.  However, the chance to see Cancún and hang out with the friendly Israelis they met at the airport convinced them otherwise.  Two hours of airport wait time later and the team was on a bus along with the other passengers to the Imperial Perlas, Cancún.

This hotel could be best described in nine words as a one star spring break all inclusive budget cheapie.  The team decided against swimming in the pool or the attached beach and instead set off to walk to the nicer beach about 8km away they drove past on the bus ride in.

After passing other establishments such as Temptation (an adult only hotel experience) and the big giant Mexican flag and with the sun setting, the team accepted they were not going to be able to swim in the nicer beach.  They returned, slept and a few hours later boarded the bus back to the airport.

Big giant Mexican flag!
Cancún sunset panorama

The rather interesting crowd of fellow passengers included Americans, Canadians, Russian, Mexicans, Cubans, a nice Spaniard named Juan and Israelis.  Bizarrely on the bus ride, Simon chatted with a nervous Mexican-America.  He was nervous because he regularly flew Cubana and in particular the aircraft that would be used for this flight.  He also had recently escaped from being kidnapped, was wanted by Mexican gangsters and probably suffered from post traumatic stress.

Being 2am, the airport was completely clear of people.  The racers were able to clear security in under 5 minutes, but had to surrender their toothpaste.  Ang and Simon then joined the other passengers in the departure lounge, waiting for the final boarding call.

Soon the team and their fellow passengers boarded the bus for the short drive to the aircraft.  Cubana fly the Cancún to Havana route using an old soviet aircraft, the Yak-42d.

The Yak for tonight’s flight had several unique features.  To enter the aircraft, the team had to bowed as the cabin door is about 4.5 feet high.  The luggage compartments were spray painted silver.  The seats had the capability to fully recline 180 degrees and the Cyrillic on the signs was supported by English, Spanish and a mystery third language.

Ang is thrilled to be on the airplane

The team was allowed to sit in any seat, so they wisely sat next to an exit door (one of seven) and awaited the flight.  Soon the safety briefing commenced and the aircraft was prepared for take-off.

Climbing out of Cancún airport, the air-conditioning started to vent thick smoke.  The team was unable to see people two seats away.  Other passengers were concerned, but an unfriendly hostess assured the other passengers that this was normal.  Both Ang and Simon agreed that it was like being in some sort of gloomy time machine.  They then resumed pretending it was a bad dream.

The Yak climbed to 24,000 feet and the next hour was relatively smooth with exception of one unfriendly incident involving the angry hostess and an ‘Americano’ oversized carry-on bag that was too large for the locker. No one admitted to being American to the hostess for the rest of the flight.

Burnt sesame treats anyone?

Soon the plane was on final approach to Havana.  Once again, smoke vented from the air-conditioning as the engines strained.  A British girl living in Cuba, who sat in the seat next to Simon, went to the toilet on final approach.  About 10 minutes later, the Yak was still landing.  Ang was getting annoyed at this point and wanted the plane to hurry up.  Finally, the plane touched down at José Marti International Airport, Havana.  The British girl returned from the toilet to her seat to collect her bags.

Next, they took a tour by bus of the airport precinct before clearing customs, acquiring some convertible pesos and getting into a taxi.

They were sped into Centro Havana, where to complete their journey back in time they were greeted by gloomy streets with classic American cars cruising past colonial buildings, stray dogs and prostitutes.  Their cab driver had some difficulty, but eventually was able to locate Rolando’s casa particular.  There the team checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

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