Is it possible to not love a place which has rivers of honey and love dripping from everywhere? How can you not miss a place, where mangoes as sweet as nectar are best enjoyed under pitter pat of tropical rain and glowworms create a galaxy of stars on earth? My Baracoa travel revealed the most beautiful part of Cuba to me and it was the classic end of my trip. My hosts in Baracoa, who were introduced to me by Danny (Holguin casa owner), were the most welcoming and friendly couple I have ever met and their charm was infectious. Warm, hospitable, and extremely kind, Ivan and Rosa enveloped me into their family folds in no time and blessed me with some of the best travel moments of my life.
My Baracoa travel was all about experiencing the local love
People make places and the love I received from them made my Baracoa travel experience one of the most memorable ones. The province in itself was spectacular. It had an easy pace, and the local cuisine was simply delicious. Rosa, like a true blue Baracoa lady, was an excellent cook and churned up a huge amount of food for every meal. I later came to know that Baracoans take pride in their native indigenous history, their women, and their food, all of which were interconnected. The Baracoan specialty of prawn/fish cooked in spicy coconut sauce was the best dish I had in Cuba and the province made me fall in love with their national cuisine. Thus it was no wonder that I lingered at Cuba’s easternmost tip longer than planned and my Baracoa travel experience revolved around the local people and food.
Read the rest of the Cuba series here.
Food took the center-stage of my Baracoa travel
My first Baracoa travel highlight was its famous cuisine, and I got a taste of it when Rosa presented me with a lovely lunch, the morning after I arrived. The Moa-Baracoa journey nearly killed me from fatigue and I woke up to Rosa’s warm smile, red bean soup, rice, and fish with a cup of boiled malanga (a local vegetable). She topped it with big bowls of mango salad and Baracoan chocolate ice cream. Baracoa had a thriving cocoa industry and their chocolate ice cream was to die for. With so much of homely comfort at my fingertips, I went molasses lazy in Baracoa and spent most of my time there, unwinding, relaxing, rejuvenating, and feeling recharged.
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Coconut palms, cocoa plantations, and the silvery sea
I ventured out only once to the much recommended Playa Maguana and came back with disappointed feelings. The lean tourist season made the taxi fare hike up to 20 CUC and I stopped at a spice farm en route for a delicious vodka cocktail. Though it was the biggest expense of my Baracoa travel, the drink was sinfully delicious and I sipped it by a crystal clear river. Served in a whole orange skin, the cocktail was the perfect thirst buster on a hot Baracoa day and the ambiance was awesome. Dense tropical forests fringed the spice farm and mangrove swamps could be seen in the distance. Cocoa trees heavy with fruits burst out their golden pods and ripe coconuts swooped down on silent rivers.
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Baracoa is the land of rivers with beautiful names
Baracoa has many rivers and they all have beautiful names like Dauba, Miel (Honey). They crisscrossed the region, making it fertile and lush, and forests sprung from them like natural barriers. In fact, Baracoa was cut-off from the rest of Cuba until 1965, and the only way to reach there was by boat. Thus, life was also slower than the rest of vintage Cuba and the highlight of my days was to watch peasants wash their horses in the seas or rivers. Baracoa horses loved swimming and I could never get over the beauty of the glistening powerful animals arising from the water. My favourite activity during the Baracoa travel was to wander around by foot and I loved the sight of the isolated seaside town bathed in velvety twilight. The beautiful Malecon, gaily painted clapboard homes and fierce dominoes competitions consisted of its gullible charm and the lavender evening breeze of Baracoa was very relaxing. It had none of Havana’s glitz and glamour, and it felt nice to be so accepted there, instead of being treated like a tourist.
My Cuba trip and Baracoa travel ended with a picnic with the local family
Ivan and Rosa effortlessly accepted me as a part of their family and on my last day surprised me with an impromptu picnic. Known as excursions in Cuba, picnics are the best way to enjoy with your family and closest friends in Baracoa and the gesture touched my heart. They took me to the Miel (Honey) river along with their whole family and it was the highlight of my entire Cuban trip. Baracoa’s network of crystal clear rivers has numerous beautiful picnic spots and except for weekends, these were usually empty. Thus, on my second last day, we all piled into cycle rickshaws to go to the outskirts of the city and stopped en route to shop for Cuban picnic essentials of a fat chicken and a big bottle of ron/rum.
Ever had mangoes and rum in a river during a rain shower?
The Baracoa countryside was very pretty and lush greenery, hills, river and simple village folks surrounded us. Trekking up to the rustic cabin was a lot of fun and it was located right on the bank of the clear Miel river. The river water was sun-warmed and we swam in it even during a rain shower. It felt wonderful to get so earthy, be disconnected from the modern world and enjoy simple pleasures like eating honey sweet mangoes, guzzling rum straight from the bottle while swimming under the fine drizzle. The Miel was a shallow young river with a soft pebbly bed and we sat submerged in it while drowning rum with raindrops. It was the most wonderful afternoon of my entire Baracoa travel and the lunch that followed was pure pleasure.
Chocolate ice-cream, spicy chicken feet soup, and barbecue
When I mentioned food, being the highlight of the Baracoa trip, I was not exaggerating because, for lunch, Rosa churned up a big spread of traditional local dishes. Spicy chicken feet soup, chicken with rice and breadfruit, plantain stuffed tamales, with big glasses of rum, and chocolate ice cream. With so much food, siesta came easily and we woke up when the evening sky was already full of stars. Baracoa campisino evenings begin with a big bonfire, guitar and another round of huge meal. Predictably, rum again flowed as we barbecued meat for a hearty malanga (breadfruit) broth.
The long Baracoa travel is absolutely worth it
Even today when I recollect my Baracoa travel days, my mind conjures up memories of Ivan’s paternal fussing, Rosa’s loving smile, and Christina, their teenage daughter’s conspiratorial giggles. It is no secret that I love traveling and have been to many places, met people who make my world beautiful. But in no other place, during my travels have I slept more fitfully than among my friends in that rough Baracoa campisino.
Baracoa Travel Tip
How to reach – It makes a whole lot of sense to fly in and out of Baracoa as other modes of transportation are either physically challenging and/or very time-consuming. Bus connectivity is possible either via Santiago de Cuba or Guantanamo and it takes around 12 hours to reach both the places by bus from Havana. The Moa-Baracoa route is suggested only for adrenaline junkies or crazy travelers like me.
Where to Stay – Casa Colonial of Ivan Ramirez and Rosa Isabel Quintero of Marti No 87-B, 10 de Octubre y 24 de Febrero Baracoa (#53 211 64 2206). Ivan and Rosa were one of the most hospitable and welcoming hosts I have ever met.
Things to Do – Baracoa offers a host of excellent outdoor excursions like trekking/hiking to the table top El Yunque, visiting the UNESCO biosphere reserve Cuchillas del Toa (which contains Alejandro de Humboldt National Park) and the stunning 17-meter high Saltadero Waterfall. If driving along La Farola (the region’s main highway), don’t forget to try a cucurucho sold by local vendors. Its a melt-in-your-mouth mixture of coconut, honey, mango and banana wrapped in a palm frond and is a cheap nourishing on the go snack. Culture vultures will surely enjoy Baracoa’s unique changüí music, which is very popular in the nearby villages Virginia and Yateras and unique Tumba Francesa, a Creole dance inspired by the French minuet.
What to eat – If in Baracoa, do try their awesome cuisine. Chocolate and/or coffee ice cream, chicken feet soup and mildly spiced prawn in coconut sauce are not to be missed by food lovers.
Local Festivals – There is a great annual street festival each April commemorating the beginning of Cuba’s War of Independence and Parque de la Independencia (also called Parque Central), a popular gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. On weekends it hosts several street parties too. A bust of the rebel Taíno Indian leader Hatuey (whose face is the trademark of a popular beer) adorns the square. Hatuey took up arms against the early conquistadores until he was caught by the Spanish and burned at stake.
What to See – In the 18th and 19th centuries, Baracoan settlers had built three fortresses to protect the town from pirate attacks, out of which El Castillo de Santa Bárbara, the oldest of them, has been converted into a hotel. Although a bit dated, it offers splendid views of the bay and surrounding countryside. The other, Fuerte de la Punta, facing the seaside promenade, is now a restaurant and the third, Fuerte Matachín, near the entrance to town, houses the municipal museum, Museo Matachín. The museum has a number of interesting historical exhibits related to the history of Baracoa and its legends and myths. The museum also has a collection of extraordinary, vividly colored and striped polimitas (snail shells), which earlier locals used to make into necklaces for sale to tourists. It is now illegal to sell them.
Check out the cathedral with the Columbus cross – Nuestra Señora de la Asunción is a rather austere cathedral whose sole claim to fame is its in-house wooden cross Cruz de la Parra, supposedly planted by Columbus himself. In the area around Baracoa, there are around 50 pre-Columbian archaeological sites related to the major Native American groups that inhabited the area (Siboney, Taíno, and Guanturabey). The only native group to survive is the Yateras. It is a small community living along the Río Toa that succeeded in preserving its traditions by marrying only within themselves. Museo Arqueológico has some interesting pre-Columbian native American tribal exhibits but the highlight of this museum is undoubtedly the mirador (viewpoint) where on a clear day you can see the stunning vista of the entire bay.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE