Baracoa, Cuba’s forgotten city
8pm October 4th 2016, Baracoa, Cuba’s forgotten city, is all but annihilated.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of Baracoa? How about Guantánamo? Guantánamo is familiar to most people but for all of the wrong reasons. No, it’s not a US military installation. That is not Guantánamo. That is not Cuba. Guantánamo is a province on the eastern tip of Cuba and like the country as a whole, this region is a fascinating cultural and environmental gem.
Baracoa is Cuba’s eastern most urban centre and the oldest, dating back 500 years and to quote Christopher Columbus –
…the most beautiful place in the world
If you are lucky enough to visit this part of Cuba you will be in for an experience that few places on this earth can offer.
Everything changed for Baracoa in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew ripped across the Caribean. It had already devastated Haiti, now Baracoa and much of the north-east Cuban coastline along with it. Remarkably, there was no loss of life in Cuba. The same hurricane that killed nearly 900 people just 90 miles across the sea in Haiti was thwarted by the ingenuity and preparedness of the Baracoan community.
Writing about the power and destruction of a weather event like Hurricane Matthew doesn’t paint the picture quite like the images do. I can’t imagine what that experience would have been like and if that wasn’t enough Hurricane Irma made a pass under a year later.
Cheryl and I visited Baracoa over a decade ago. We monitored the tracking of Hurricane Matthew from the comfort of our lounge room, on the other side of the world. Our fingers were crossed in the hope that the core of these storms would stay out at sea. We often hear of the hype surrounding the preparations in the southern part of the US for hurricane events and are all quick to forget or ignore that there are large communities in the Caribbean that have felt and dealt with the devastation long before they even arrive at these higher profile destinations. True to the history of this island, Baracoa and Guantánamo have made a recovery and it’s with our help and patronage that they can continue to prosper.
Travel in Cuba
For tourists, Cuba travel is largely confined to bus travel and the route is pretty standard. You’ll meet the same travellers over and over again as you cross the island. We were lucky enough to meet a like-minded New Zealand couple on the way down to Trinidad and after the fourth or fifth encounter, in Santiago, the idea was put forward to hire a car together and explore with a little more freedom. I’ve read quite a few negative things about car rental in Cuba. Let me tell you, that single decision made for one of the best travel experiences we have ever had. Yes, the roads are ordinary but who’s in a hurry and there is very little traffic so it’s hardly stressful.
I can’t speak highly enough of the Cuban people. Whether it was farmers ploughing fields or commuters in bus cues, people consistently expressed a casual air to our presence, a warm indifference that gave to the sense of community that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. On one occasion, to be allowed into a particular area, we had to hire a personal guide. Five of use were already crammed into the car, but the guide would casually suggest that we needed to pick up random people walking by the road and drop them at the next town. Our prime concern was how we were going to fit another person, that persons concern or perhaps surprise would be evident when they realised they were getting into a car full of tourists. We assumed the guide knew these people, he didn’t and seemed confused when we asked him. I suppose it’s the side of a system that western society is rarely privy to. You have a car, why wouldn’t you give them a ride?
Cuba is known for the weathered pastels of its colonial architecture. Baracoa has weathered more than most, it isn’t packaged as neatly as Trinidad – Cuba’s urban poster child. It has a larger population, the sea influences the layout of the city and the impressive el Yunque mountain plateau crowns the horizon – not unlike Capetown’s Table Mountain. The vast wilderness regions and wealth of highly educated and resourceful residents have largely gone unnoticed by tourism relative to Havana and Trinidad. The area was only made accessible in the 1960’s when a 120 kilometre highway was constructed through the Sierra del Purial (mountains), until then Baracoa was reached only by sea.
When I was researching this post I contacted Roberto who operates a “casa particular” called Villa Paradiso, with his partner Manuel. We also run a holiday accommodation business, an Airbnb listing in a tropical environment. As I write a cyclone is tracking up the coast toward us, but to date we have not had to endure what this region has endured.
Roberto was a wealth of information and very forthcoming about the hurricanes and how they have affected the area. He also supplied these recent images and some links to his own website which offers up some fantastic information. I thought it would make sense to ask Roberto to package up some of his insight into what the region has to offer for the adventurous traveller. I’ve included a little of our correspondence to frame what has been going on in the region over the past 18 months, so… a big thank you to Roberto from Villa Paradiso, Baracoa!
by Roberto, Villa Paradiso
As you know by now, Mathew was a total disaster with its 220km/h winds – and 250km/h gusts unleashed right on us. Irma’s core, for its part, spared us, passing further north in the waters of the Atlantic (we only got 74km/h winds, so not much damage at all, luckily). Irma arrived in Cuba a mere 11 months after Matthew. Baracoa had prepared the same way we did for Matthew. The trauma from the latter was still quite in the raw and folks were scared to death. But Baracoan’s ended up falling asleep through Irma and waking up the next to find nothing much had happened.
This high season our region has seen significant low numbers of visitors. Not that it has affected us at Villa Paradiso (we’ve been fully booked almost all the time), but for many casas particulares and for the region as a whole it’s been pretty tough. Our guess is that many travellers discarded going to Cuba altogether without researching a bit about the damaged areas of the country – and the regions that did not sustain any damages this time around.
10 best things to do in Baracoa
These hikes include the 4 major protected areas in Baracoa.
- Alexander Humboldt National Park – you may choose either a long trail or a combination of a shorter trail and a boat ride in Taco Bay.
- The Yumurí Canyon and the Belete waterfalls.
- A hike to the top of mount El Yunque follow by a bathe in river Duaba’s waterfalls.
- The Archaeological Balcony at the Yara-Majayara protected area.
Culture & Gastronomy
- A visit to Finca Las Mujeres (Women’s Farm): a family-run organic, export quality cacao farm.
- Music: experience ancient rhythms “Nengón” and “Kiribá” at small peasant town El Güirito (on Saturdays only)
- The Cuevas del Paraíso archaeological museum and the exhibition room of the Baracoa Archaeological Society.
Things-to-do in 1 day
1.Cacao farm, Nengón & Kiribá & El Manglito beach.
2.Duaba waterfalls morning & Maguana beach & then Cajuajo beach.
Off the beaten track
The following 2 things-to-do are done by very, very few Baracoa visitors – both are really unspoiled places, even by Baracoa standards ?.
When to go to Baracoa
We went in December, all the advice we were given was that the end of the year, from December to the start of the rainy season – April, May and into June was best. August to October is hurricane season, but unless you are purely going for the beach resorts I wouldn’t let that stop me from exploring Cuba.
Getting to Baracoa
Our car rental was spur of the moment, we went through the tour desk at the IBEROSTAR Casa Granda in Santiago de Cuba. We dropped it off in Havana a couple of weeks later. Super easy. The roads aren’t great so the distances are not a good indicator of transit times. We found you could pretty much add half again to what you would normally estimate – not sure why you would want to zoom around anyway, there is so much to see.
*A great suggestion from Roberto – take a direct flight from Havana to Holguín (1h25m). From there you can hire a private taxi to Baracoa, they charge 120 CUC and the trip lasts for 5 hours. The trip is especially beautiful over the last 70 km stretch, crossing parts of Alexander Humboldt National Park.
Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba – 240km, 4 hours
Baracoa to Havana – 1000km, 13 hours
There is no train service from Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa. If you were desperate to expereince travel on a Cuban train you could go from Havana to Santiago de Cuba then take a bus.
The buses are comfortable but we were over it by the time we got to Santiago. As you can see, a multi-stop from Havana to Baracoa via Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo is quite a journey. The bus service in Cuba is now very regular and reliable and can be booked in advance.
Havana to Baracoa – 20 hours
Santiago to Baracoa – 5 hours
Air Cubana fly Havana to Baracoa 2/3 flights per week. There are no international flights direct to Baracoa.
Havana – Baracoa – 2:20 hours
Where to stay in Baracoa
Roberto and Manuel’s Villa Paradiso of course! The reviews are great and it looks lovely, you’re sure to get terrific insight into the area.
If you are after a different experience or travelling in large groups perhaps try the Hotel El Castillo, up on the hill overlooking Baracoa.
You can find out more about the funds & programs currently working toward sustainable human development in Cuba by clicking here.
Haiti has endured tremendous suffering in recent years, Hurricane Matthew has added to the misery of the Haitian people after the devastating earthquake of 2010, click here to explore ways you can help.
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