Total distance travelled: 34,794.3 kilometres (20,990.25 miles)
503 years ago (and 106 days, but who’s counting), Baracoa became the first Spanish settlement on Cuba, and indeed the capital of the fledgling colony until the rise in prominence of Santiago de Cuba (by 1515 the capital had been moved there).
Indeed locally, the people still like to think of the place as Ciudad Primada, ‘First City’.
For 450 years out of its existence, it was also, but for the sailing vessels that plied these waters, cut off from the rest of Cuba, the first road that connected it with the rest of Cuba, a gift from Castro himself as a thankyou for their support during the revolution.
It was along this road, a half days trip from Santiago de Cuba that took us past the infamous Guantanamo Bay, that place where the US infamously locks up undesirables and throws away the key, along the country’s south coast, before turning north across the mountains.
Before reaching this point, there was about a 45 minute delay, in which time we were able to observe Cuban resourcefulness first hand.
Our Chinese built coach had a breakdown, apparently due to an oil leak or some such problem. Being Cuba, it also meant spare parts weren’t readily handy and should the bus not be returned to working order, it could be a long, long while before we saw any sign of a replacement.
Fear not, our conductor (who bore some similarity to Archbishop Desmond Tutu) and one of the assistant drivers promptly stripped their blazers and shirts off, donned some overalls and got to work rectifying the problem.
It was an impressive effort to get us again on the road, many passengers eliciting their appreciation in the form of several cheers.
Eventually we pulled into Viazul’s bus terminal in a very damp looking Baracoa.
Again we were met by a patient representative from our casa (who’d waited at the terminal, despite the bus being an hour late due to the breakdown and the weather), the first of which not only held a sign with our names on it, but the first of which had not gotten one of the three names incorrect!
We were bundled into 2 Bici-Taxi’s, our first such experience in one, where I (crammed in one with the man from our casa) impressed myself with my Spanish, explaining why we’d arrived much later than expected.
As this conversation occurred, our driver began to labour (or perhaps he had laboured the whole way), and very quickly we were not only overtaken by the rider ferrying Sarah and her mother along, but I was shortly able to watch them disappear in the distance…
Had we known how short a distance we’d need to travel, we’d have probably walked it, but instead we had to shell out for the cost for the short distance from the terminal to the casa.
The casa itself was a pretty grand affair, sporting something like 5 rooms (that’s just rooms for guests) and a couple of open aired terraces with ocean views.
It also looked as though in the high season, this place also doubles as a paladar (restaurant), so by Cuban standards, despite the city’s remote location, this family seem to do pretty well for themselves.
We found a local eatery, keen to try some of the Baracoan fare, which by reputation at least is the best outside of Havana (but let’s keep it real here, the paucity of food options for tourists, pales when compared to what repetitious meals the locals must endure).
It didn’t disappoint, with one dish, a fish in a coconut based sauce particularly good and certainly unlike anything else we’d had in Cuba to date.
So what is Baracoa?
As already mentioned, it is Cuba’s oldest ‘city’ (I use inverted commas here as it is by no means large or grand), and its eastern most settlement of any real note.
To us it was a wet, windswept place, which had more of that gritty Cuban charm I’ve really come to love. It is also different in that the waves that ravage its shores, are actually the Atlantic itself, unlike much of the island which faces the gentler Caribbean.
On this day of our arrival, the Atlantic was in a particularly foul mood, the waves both regular and large, whilst the water, no longer turquoise or any shade of blue for that matter, was a sad and sorry brown.
It was also kind enough to saturate me as I embraced the weather (whilst Sarah and Julie sensibly sheltered on the opposite side of the road, away from the ocean), thankfully only a little as I was wearing a waterproof coat at the time.
A town wide blackout that evening saw us with few options but to indulge in a few beers and several plates of French Fries for dinner at the only place we could find that still had power, one of the government run hotels.
The following day however, the weather was certainly improved (still, several showers were scattered across our morning), giving us the chance to ascend the slopes behind the city to visit one of the more unique museums on our trip to date.
Museo Arqueologico ‘La Cueva del Paraiso’ is a cave in the mountainside, and also a former Taino (the indigenous people who once inhabited the island) burial chamber.
Within is housed unearthed remains (or at least replicas of), pottery, carvings, and once you ascend the stairway which leads out of the caves back entrance, you receive some wonderful views of the city as well.
A passing shower prompted us to duck into Casa del Cacao, Baracoa’s famous chocolate factory for a morning tea of sorts.
In an amusing turn, this factory is sadly not famous for its chocolate, but more commonly for its lack of the product.
Indeed, when we arrived, there were only two things on the menu, but intrigued, we all opted for their hot chocolate with chocolate ice-cream.
Yes, that is no typo, frozen ice-cream in a hot drink.
It melted quickly as you can imagine, but was actually quite a delicious treat!
I was still fascinated by the waterfront, and also by the city’s main stadium which we’d spied from afar, and sits right on the edge of the seashore, so it was on another walk to the ocean we went.
There was also some weird desire that I’d held to dip my feet in the Atlantic, but upon first getting to the beach we were repulsed by what looked to be mountains of trash.
Upon closer inspection, the majority of it was organic matter (indeed an industrious local was checking for full coconuts amongst the debris), so undeterred, I completed my task of dipping my feet in the water.
Unfortunately the ocean wasn’t content with just that, promptly delivering a large wave just as I turned my back, saturating my legs and the majority of my shorts.
This caused a re-think (I wasn’t really interesting in further walking with damp clothes), and succumbing to a lure that had been thrown out as we’d passed by earlier, we wandered back to town where taking a seat at the barbershop, I proceeded to get my beard shaved for the first time in five and a half months!
I undoubtedly paid too much for the experience, but it was just that, an experience, not to mention a shock to see my face for the first time in many, many moons!
Although we shortly made our way to the bus station for the first leg of what would be a long trip all the way back to Havana, Baracoa had one last culinary treat to throw our way.
We’d read about them already, so when our bus pulled over at a small family run store in the mountains, we jumped at the chance to sample some Cucuruchu.
The mountains also gave us some stunning views back towards the coast, but by the time we were boarding our overnight bus to Havana from Santiago de Cuba, the sun had long set.
* The cost of the Viazul bus from Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa is $15.00 CUC per person (only one bus per day), and takes somewhere around the 5 hour mark.
* Our final casa in the casa chain (the last one recommended by our previous) was a grand affair, Casa Elvira and again came in at $25.00 CUC.