Airport stopovers aren't meant to be exciting, but Lima was something else. Matt and I ran around like kids released into a candy store. We goggled at the wild choice of tat in the tourist shop, picking up Brightly Coloured Things that we didn't need, gorging on tester chocolates, admiring all the numerous Pointless but Pretties on the shelves.
"Don't mind us. We've been in Cuba..."
We'd got used to supermarkets selling biscuits, booze, Tu Cola and maybe, if you scraped out the bottom of the ice-cream cabinet, a frozen chicken. Homeware stores offering plastic pipes, shoes, tupperware, old curtains and a garden gnome. To buy anything you would have to wait for the assistant to finish filling in whatever forms they were busy filling in, make your request, then wait for them to fill in another form before you paid. Sometimes they'd ask for a passport as well - especially if you were moving or staying somewhere. The paperwork requires half an hour to buy train tickets - after queuing.
It is socialism in paradise - or something like it.
The landscapes are beautiful, the people are lovely. If you need anything, don't bother with anything official, just ask. Best dinner in town? The guy will take you to the freshest food, and join you to eat. Gaffer tape? Give me two hours. Somewhere to camp in the middle of nowhere? A farmer jumps on his moto, motions us to follow 4km to a mountain ranger's house. The ranger moves out for the night so we can have a bed. After a solid day of cycling hills, the cold beers and hearty home cooked dinner are heaven.
Everything costs, mind. Security guards want £10 for you to camp on their mosquito ridden bit of land 'so I can keep you safe' and £1 to look after a bike for an hour. You feel like a massive cash cow, till you realise that a government tour guide receives just £15 a month - dinner for one at a tourist restaurant. Everyone here has a few private sources of income - renting rooms, teaching, beauty, repairs, and of course tips. Tourists are vital to Cuba's economy. There are heavy laws against anyone acting to deter tourists, just as there are laws against unregistered casas allowing foreigners inside.
There are different economies. The classic dinner of meat with rice and beans, tomatoes, shredded cabbage, and fried plantain is 50p at a local cafe, or £10 in Vinales, the honey pot of West Cuba. There are even two currencies - convertible and national pesos.
The landscapes of Cuba are rich and varied. The mountains of Sierra del Rosario were beautiful, rising and falling sharply amid their green shroud of rainforest. We met no other tourists; they were all racing along the Autopista in air conditioned coaches, as we churned every pedal stroke to reach Vinales. The views were hard earned, but worth every ache. The people and villages we passed were lost in this other world, cut off even from the rest of Cuba. We raced with the cowboys, got laughed at by farmers walking (uphill) faster than us, and felt exalted by our surroundings.
Elsewhere the mangroves and palm fringed white beaches of Caya Jutia were as beautiful as you would imagine. Though we were bemused at all the staff, drivers and tourists leaving by 6 - until the moment night fell and the mosquitos swarmed. As soon as the sun dipped below the horizon the air grew thick with the hungry. We dived for the tent, zipping up in record time. 50 bites on each leg, and a we gave up counting. We never camped near mangroves again...
We headed South to Cienfuegos, an old town we wanted to explore away from the chaos of Havana. We dawdled through city then took a ferry to the far side of the bay and headed into the wilds. Down a country track we were hailed by a policeman.
"Bandit country." He wasn't letting us past. We peered into the lush farmland and forest, wondering what horrors lay beyond.
"No." We turned back, hoping to finally wild camp for real.
We found a beautiful bay, with a beach and a small hut. We asked if we could pitch our tent for the night. The three men said we could, but only three months earlier four travellers had to be taken off in an ambulance after the bandits attacked them, right there overlooking the sea. We weighed up our chances. They apologised for not being able to let us stay with them, but Cuba's laws and snoops would make mincemeat of their generosity. They gave us dinner, so long as we ate it outside, and were unwilling to take payment for sharing.
We headed back to the village to find a casa, with bandit proof walls, pining the genuine hospitality we had left behind.
Mention Cuba and everyone thinks about 50s American cars - and they are everywhere. Where there are tourists to taxi, they've been done up, rust spots GRP'd over, new paint job, new Pioneer sound system, plastic over the seats. They cruise up and down the Malecon along Havana's seafront, tourists sat on top of the back seat, pretending they're extras in Grease. Where there is money, there are also new cars, shiny silver things deadening the cacophony of colour, and diesel, on the roads.
What no one talks about are the Ladas, the Soviet cars bridging the gap between Americana and modernity. Outside the Tourist Hubs, these and the 50s classics are the beat up workhorses, swerving along roads avoiding potholes, horse drawn traps and stray livestock roaming free. Bikes are everywhere too, a few mountain bikes (the Cubana cabin crew were importing a few on our flight in from Toronto), but mainly pre-revolution sit-up-and-begs. Riddled with rust, clanking and groaning, wheels wiggling like ensnared snakes, but still going.
We loved Cuba, the place and the people, and being cut off from the rest of the world (especially when that world includes a certain Fart.) WiFi was available - in the main square of large towns, where Cubans gathered with their screens to connect to friends and family far away; 1hr, £2. No vacant facebooking whenever.
We drank the best Cuba Libres, Mojitos and Pina Coladas, and a few ice cold cervezas nacionales, smoked the cigar made by Miguel from the train, thinking how lucky we are to be here, but looking forward to ordering a dinner free from rice and beans...