BARACOA

Cuba

The remote location at the eastern end of the Cuban island has kept the influence of mass tourism quite low, despite the idyllic location. Baracoa can be reached by bus from Santiago de Cuba (four hours) or by plane from Havana (two hours).

Info Baracoa

introduction

Baracoa is a municipality and city in Guantánamo Province near the eastern tip of Cuba. It was visited by Admiral Christopher Columbus on November 27, 1492, and then founded by the first governor of Cuba, the Spanish conquistadorDiego Velázquez de Cuéllar in August 15, 1511. It is the oldest Spanish settlement in Cuba and was its first capital (the basis for its nickname Ciudad Primada, "First City")

Tourism

The remote location at the eastern end of the Cuban island has kept the influence of mass tourism quite low, despite the idyllic location. Baracoa can be reached by bus from Santiago de Cuba (four hours) or by plane from Havana (two hours).

To the east the Fuerte Matachín (built in 1802) is still standing and contains houses and museums. To the west the Fuerte La Punta (built in 1803) houses a restaurant; there is a small beach next to the fort. The third fort, El Castillo, which sits on a steep hill with a commanding view of the town and both bays, is now Hotel El Castillo. The other hotels in Baracoa are Hotel Porto Santo, Hotel La Rusa, Hostal La Habanera and Villa Maguana. There are also a few casas particulares. The Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción houses the earings of the Cruz de la Parra, a cross that Cali is supposed to have brought from Spain. Although it has been carbon dated to approximately that period, it is made from a local type of wood, which means at least part of the story is not correct.

There are two music venues near the central Parque Independencia, the touristy Flan de Queso and the more traditional Casa de la Flana.

Nearby are the rivers Miel and Toa, the latter of which has many waterfalls, the best known of which is 'el Saltadero', which is 17 m high.

The 575 m high table mountain el Yunque (the anvil) is 10 km to the west of Baracoa. It is a remnant of a plateau and because of its isolation it houses several unique species of ferns and palms. The only official and easiest approach to climb it starts at campismo El Yunque (simple lodgings for Cubans only), where a guide is obligatory (about 15 euro).

From Baracoa, it is possible to visit the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt located about 20 kilometers north.

Salto Fino is the highest waterfall in the Caribbean, located in this municipality, is produced by a sudden drop in the Arroyo del Infierno (Hell's stream), a tributary of the Quibijan river. That river, along with 71 others, flows into the Toa river, which is the largest river in Cuba. The 305-meter-high Salto Fino waterfall is recorded as the 20th highest water chute in the world.

History

The original inhabitants of the island were Taíno. They were eradicated by European diseases throughout the island. Today, there are descendants of the Taíno people, albeit few and of mixed-race. A local hero is Hatuey, who fled from the Spanish in Hispaniola and raised a Taíno army to fight the Spanish in Cuba. According to the story Hatuey was betrayed by a member of his group and sentenced to burn at the stake. It is said that just before he died a Catholic priest tried to convert him so he would attain salvation; Hatuey asked the priest if Heaven was the place where the dead Spanish go. When he received an answer in the affirmative he told the priest that he would rather go to Hell.

Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba in a place he named Porto Santo. It is generally assumed from his description that this was Baracoa, although there are also claims it was Gibara. But Columbus also described a nearby table mountain, which is almost certainly nearby El Yunque. He wrote in his logbook "the most beautiful place in the world ...I heard the birds sing that they will never ever leave this place...". According to tradition, Columbus put a cross called Cruz de la Parra in the sands of what would later become Baracoa harbor.

Around 15 August 1511 (the official foundation day) Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar was appointed the first governor of Cuba and built a villa here and named the place 'Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa', thus making Baracoa the first capital of Cuba. In 1518 it received the title of city and the first Cuban bishop was appointed here. As a result, several remains of the Spanish occupation can still be seen here, such as the fortifications El Castillo, Matachín and La Punta and the cemetery.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the isolated location made it a haven for illegal trade with the French and English. At the beginning of the 19th century many French fled here from the revolution of independence in Haiti, who started growing coffee and cocoa.

From the middle of the 19th century many expeditions of independence fighters landed here (including Antonio Maceo and José Martí) which greatly helped the independence from Spain in 1902.

Before the Cuban Revolution the only access was by sea, but in the 1960s a 120 km long road from Guantánamo named La Farola was built through the mountains, which was one of the showcases of the revolution. The road had already been planned by the Batista government, but never got built. The highest point of the road is at over 600 m and it passes over 11 bridges.

Climate

Baracoa and the surrounding areas has a tropical rainforest microclimate, which allows chocolate to grow very well. Expect a fair bit of rain, although it's generally not unpleasant. Baracoa can be surprisingly cool, though most of the surrounding area is pretty hot.

Geography

Baracoa is located on the spot where Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba on his first voyage. It is thought that the name stems from the indigenous Arauaca language word meaning "the presence of the sea".

Baracoa lies on the Bay of Honey (Bahía de Miel) and is surrounded by a wide mountain range (including the Sierra del Purial), which causes it to be quite isolated, apart from a single mountain road built in the 1960s.

Economy

The main products in the region are banana, coconut and cacao. It is Cuba's main chocolate manufacturing area.

Transportation - Get In

Although no longer reachable only by boat, Baracoa remains pretty isolated. Baracoa is accessible from Guantanamo City via La Farola (the lighthouse), a mountain pass road built in the 1960s to reward the Baracoans for their support of the revolution.

Note that transportation in and out of Baracoa on both the plane and bus is frequently fully-booked during high season. So make sure to buy your tickets early enough, especially when leaving, since there are not many alternatives. In low season, however, the Viazul bus might run with less than 10 people.


By bus

A daily Viazul (prices & times see link) bus runs between Santiago and Baracoa via Guantanamo City, taking about 5 hours. The bus terminal is located at the northern tip of Baracoa city. The bus ride is one of the more beautiful in Cuba, going from semi-arid desert out of Guantanamo to impressive mountains on La Farola to rain-forest lowlands approaching Baracoa. Near the midpoint of La Farola, the bus makes a stop at a tiny tourist-oriented village, where you can buy red bananas, Baracoa chocolate, and cucurucho.

Also Astro, the national bus line, serves Baracoa from the same bus terminal as Viazul, but as a tourist you are highly unlikely to be allowed on, and if you are (usually by being a student), you're not likely to get a seat. Furthermore, there are local provincial buses and passenger trucks from a separate terminal within the center of the city (ask a Cuban). The latter also connects to Moa with at least one (packed) bus a day (1-2 CUC) in each direction, which can easily take up to 3 hours. Either way, you can try stopping both (Astro and provincial ones) at the exit of the city, depending on where you want to go.

Of course, this being Cuba, the usual array of chartered buses also serve Baracoa.


By plane

Cubana's subsidiary Aero Caribe flies to Havana on Thursdays and Sundays. The flight is frequently delayed so check the time at the airport office (Calle Jose Marti) or with local travel offices before showing up at the airport.


By car

It's also possible to drive La Farola in a rental vehicle or a taxi, though this is not particularly recommended as, asides from the difficulty and expense of getting a rental car in Cuba, most of the road, especially the mountainous sections, is very remote and if a breakdown happens, you will be stuck for a while; there is no cell phone reception and the only way to communicate will be through buses. Baracoa is 150 km east of Guantanamo City.


By taxi

Many taxi drivers will offer you to travel between Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa for the same price as Viazul, depending on the availability of sufficient passengers (at least 4), which they will try to find. This is a meaningful alternative to be considered, especially due to its flexibility (to take pictures) and directness, i.e. no stopping or waiting.

Taxi and car will also be the only two options to travel between Punta de Maisi and Baracoa.

Transportation - Get Around

Baracoa is a tiny and very compact town, as such walking will be the primary form of transportation in-town. For excursions further afield, a taxi, a bici-taxi or horse-drawn vehicles are handy. Bici-taxis are everywhere and can be paid for in CUC or Moneda Nacional (CUP). Regular taxis are less common but can be hired if necessary.


By hired driver

Bici-taxis are available for rent for approximately 5 CUC per day. Alternatively, you can hire a car (with driver) for about 20 CUC.


By moped

Mopeds/Scooters can be rented from a rental agency just off the main park (Parque Centro). It is located inside a cafeteria next to the Cinema. Expect to pay approximately 25 CUC for a full day.


By bicycle


Hitching

There is a lot of short distance travel in and out of town. For destinations less than 15 km along the main road, try waving at vehicles with people already on its back.

Hotels

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Shopping

Contrary to what you might expect for such an isolated city, Baracoa isn't any more expensive than anywhere else in Cuba, partly because the Cuban tourism market is so tightly-controlled. Costs in Baracoa run the gamut depending on whether you frequent peso or CUC places.

In general, as one goes east in Cuba, how much people care whether you give them CUC or moneda nacional decreases, and this is most so in Baracoa, with virtually all non-tourist goods (such as trips to the national park) being payable in either currency.

  • Cadeca (corner of José Martí and Roberto Reyes). The place to change your money into CUC, or your CUC into CUP.

Baracoa is a good place to buy indigenous-styled art, although it's not cheap.

Restaurants

Travelers weary of the repetitive (and frankly somewhat boring) food found elsewhere in Cuba can breath a sigh of relief when they reach Baracoa—and then dig straight into the small city's delicious regional dishes.

The local peanut butter bars are a good snack. The peso pizza is a good treat too.

In general, aside from chocolate, government-run restaurants don't serve local cuisine.


Regional Specialties

Baracoa is known as the land of chocolate and coconut and most of the local cuisine is based around these two ingredients.

  • Baracoa chocolate (You'll find people selling it everywhere, but the best place to look is around Parque Independencia, where you may be able to find someone selling them in packs of 25-30.). It is sold in tiny 6-piece bars at 5 per CUC. You will also find people selling balls of chocolate - these are unsweetened, which would normally make them totally unpalatable, but Baracoa chocolate is quite mild (though it's definitely not to everyone's taste). Be sure to buy plenty, as its cheaper here and absolutely amazing.
  • Plain Coconut (Along Playa de Miel beyond the stadium). Drink a fresh and delicious coconut and afterwards eat the jelly-like pulp inside. Make sure to demand it without added lemon, otherwise the coconut taste is spoiled. 0.50 CUC.

In addition, coconut manifests itself in two local specialties.

  • Coconut milk sauce. The first oddly resembles Thai curries while remaining completely different (quite a change from the usual bland Cuban diet!) and is served with fish and seafood. The best way to try it is to specifically ask your casa owner to prepare it, or go to some of the paladares that specialize in local food.
  • Cucurucho. The other speciality is a conical concoction of shredded coconut, sugar (and lots of it), orange peels, guava, and whatever else the maker felt like putting in–no two are alike! Cucuruchos are wrapped in palm leaves with a handy lid. They are quite sweet, sweeter perhaps than the typical North American palate usually allows for. 1 CUC each.

Coffe & Drink

Be sure to check out Baracoan drinking chocolate – hot chocolate brewed with cinnamon leaves. It's delicious, though the powdered milk limits its potential somewhat.

You'll of course find the usual assortment of peso and CUC sodas and alcohol in bars all around Baracoa.

  • Casa de la Trova (By the church). It offers itself as a comfortable and welcoming drinking establishment where you can dance with the locals. Popular for any blossoming salsa lovers.
  • Local Bar (At the northern end of the boulevard). This local bar offer cheap drinks and often good authentic music. Give a tip to the musicians or buy their CD.

Sights & Landmarks


In Town

Baracoa's Malecon is much more low-key than the famous one in Havana

  • Parque Independencia (corner of Antonio Maceo and Felix Ruene). Effectively the city's main plaza, Parque Independencia features a fountain, a statue of local hero Hatuey, and Baracoa's original church (closed for renovations as of 2012). Most of the tour operators' offices, including Cubatur's, ring the park, as do the city government offices. Many casas and paladares are nearby.
  • Old Town. Baracoa's old town, which pretty much encompasses the entire city, is not particularly pretty nor does it contain many particularly notable buildings, but it's pleasant to stroll in.
  • Malecòn. Baracoa has its very own Malecòn, running from the northern bus station to Fuerte Matachín, though it has none of the fame (or crowds) of Havana's. It does, however, make for a pleasant stroll along the Atlantic. Near the middle of the walk, a park and statue commemorate Columbus and the Spanish landing on Cuba. Some casas are along the Malecòn, offering great views onto the sea.
  • Castillo de Seboruco (Hotel El Castillo), Hill west of Calixto Garcia, near Mariana Grajales. The highest fort in Baracoa, dating to 1739, is now a hotel, but non-guests are free to wander the outdoor (and some indoor) areas and admire the views.
  • Asiento TainoMoncada beyond Hotel El Castillo. A reconstructed Taino burial ground full of statuettes. While the museum is fascinating, one does end up wondering how heavy-handed the reconstruction was. On the way there, watch for the dilapidated old gas station on Moncada – it's an impressive sight. 3 CUC.
  • Hotel La Rusa161 Máximo Gomex. More a historical oddity than a great place to spend the night, this hotel along the malecón was run by a Russian woman who escaped to Cuba from the Russian Revolution – only to become one of Castro's closer confidantes.
  • Fuerte MatachínCorner of José Martí and Malecón. At the southern end of the Malecòn this former Spanish fort now serves as the city's municipal museum. It's quite informative, but most exhibits are in Spanish.$1.
  • Veteran's Center216 José Martí. A tiny museum that has some photographs and other articles from the revolution and, perhaps more interestingly, the conflict in Angola. Will kill 15 minutes. free.

Further afield

  • Cucurucho Factory (Fábrica de Cucuruchu) (500 m beyond the Fábrica de Chocolate, 3.8 km north on the main road). Yes there's a factory that makes them! It's located on the outskirts of town (ask a bici-taxi driver to take you there) and is a good place to buy the conical coconut confection, at least when it's open.
  • Finca Duaba (4.3 km north of Baracoa city on the main road, take the small road east for about 700m (keep right)). A place to learn about the cacao plantation, production and history in Cuba. A few 100 m further there is a river where you can take a dip.
  • Yumuri. Venture just outside the city on a bici-taxi to see the mighty Yumuri river, which runs through several of the surrounding communities.

Things to do

Relax around the town, share a bottle of rum and koola cola with locals at the nightclub 100 steps above the town. The Casa de la Trova by the church offers itself as a comfortable and welcoming drinking establishment where you can dance with the locals. Popular for any blossoming salsa lovers.


Beaches

  • Playa de MielJust south of Fuerte Matachín. A lovely black sand beach within easy walking distance of town. free.
  • Playa DuabaNorth of Baracoa off the road to Alejandro de Humboldt. A beach located North of Baracoa (not in walking distance), usually visited at the end of a tour to Alejandro de Humboldt Park (below) to relax after a day of hiking. free.
  • Playa MaguanaNorth of Baracoa off the road to Alejandro de Humboldt. A nice secluded beach, usually visited at the end of a tour to Alejandro de Humboldt Park (below) to relax after a day of hiking. A small restaurant is there too. free.
  • Playa Blanca (South east of Baracoa by bici-taxi). This is a white and quiet beach to relax and remain for a while. The road there is a long winding 12 km.

Sports

  • Baseball stadiumOn Playa de Miel. This being Cuba, of course there is a baseball stadium. Baracoa's stadium though, is actually on the beach but already in a bad state.

Natural Attractions

  • El Yunque (4.3 km north of Baracoa city on the main road, take the small road east for about 5 km (keep left)). A 575 m high mountain whose name means the anvil in Spanish, about 30 mins by bici-taxi from the centre of town. A return normal taxi is about 15 CUC. You must pay to enter the national park, but the views from the peak are fantastic and well worth the 1-2 hr hike. 12 CUC.
  • Cascada (Waterfall) (On the way to El Yunque). A nice waterfall to take a swim. 8 CUC.
  • Alejandro de Humbold National Park (Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt). Unmatched in the Caribbean for sheer biodiversity, this fascinating park can be the highlight of any visit to Baracoa. The park features the world's smallest frog, the endemic polymita snail, and a surprising amount of rural agriculture. Talk to Cubatur at Parque Independencia for a group tour; it's also possible to visit independently and hire a guard at the gate, but this is more expensive and not particularly recommended. The road to the park is not so much a road with potholes, but potholes with bits of road, and you'll feel the bus swerving in all directions to dodge them. Most tours also take in Playa Duaba, above.

Things to know

Being a tiny isolated tourist town in a largely isolated country, Baracoa doesn't have lots of communication with the outside world, though it does have an Etecsa office just off Parque Independencia.

The local newspaper is Venceremos ("We will conquer"), as in the rest of Guantanamo province.

  • EtecsaAntonio Maceo on Parque Independencia. As Baracoa is a tourist town, Cuba's telecommunications and internet company has an office here with surprisingly fast internet terminals. This is the only place to (legally) access the internet in Baracoa. 2 CUC per hour (internet).

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