Baracoa

Baracoa is the tourist hot spot of the east - small, low-key and attractive, surrounded by rich, tropical forests. It is the perfect place to come and spend a few relaxing days on the beach. Alternatively you can be more energetic and go hiking in the mountains or explore the many rivers that wind their way through canyons to the sea. It is well worth the trip from Santiago (five hours' drive) for the scenery of the 48-km section of road known as 'La Farola', a viaduct that winds through lush, bright green pine forests in the mountains and then descends steeply to the coast. If you are in an open truck it feels like a roller coaster as it bends and swoops at speed down the mountains. Look out for people selling cucurucho, a delicious mixture of coconut, fruit and sugar served in a cone of palm leaves.

Ins and outs

Getting there

There is an airport with
Cubana
flights
twice a week. In high season they can be notoriously difficult to book, even in Havana. It is usually easier to book a tour with an agency as they have greater access to seats, or you could fly to Moa, north of Baracoa, and hire a car to drive from there. There is no
railway
. It is best to travel by
road
from Santiago, with buses from there via Guantánamo.
Víazul
runs a daily bus service from Santiago. The bus station is within walking distance of the town centre. There is a road from Holguín round the coast through Moa, which is interesting if you are driving yourself and you can do a circular route via Guantánamo and Santiago back to Holguín, or vice versa.

Getting around

The best way to get around Baracoa is on foot or by
bicitaxi
. Most of them wait around the Parque Central close to the Cathedral, outside the Manuel Fuentes Borges tobacco factory and outside the Banco de Crédito y Comercio, with fares depending on how far you want to go. Getting from the Hotel Porto Santo into town is difficult as there are no
bicitaxis
or taxis outside the hotel. Unless you get reception to call you a cab, walk down to the
barrio
at the bottom of the hill and wait around on the bridge for a
bicitaxi
.

History

Christopher Columbus arrived in Baracoa on 27 November 1492. He planted a cross, now housed in the church, and described a mountain in the shape of an anvil (
yunque
), which was thereafter used as a point of reference for sailors. The first maps of Cuba drawn by an Englishman showed the
Yunque de Baracoa
mountain, copies of which can be seen in the museum. Baracoa was the first town founded by Diego Velázquez. On 15 August 1511, he bestowed the settlement with the name Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa and, for four years, it was the capital of Cuba. Between 1739 and 1742, Baracoa's three forts were built. The oldest,
El Castillo
, also known as Seboruco, or Sanguily, is now the
Hotel Castillo
. The others were
Fuerte de la Punta
, now restaurant
La Punta
, and
Fuerte Matachín
, now the municipal museum. Baracoa became a refuge for French exiles after the revolution in Haiti and they brought with them coffee and cacao farming techniques, as well as their own style of architecture, which contributed greatly to the buildings we can see now; as in Guantánamo, they have much less of a Spanish colonial style than in other towns in Cuba. The French also created the first drinking-water plant. In 1852, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes spent five months in isolation in Baracoa as a punishment. The war of independence of 1895 saw many revolutionaries disembarking at Baracoa. Up until the 1960s, it was really only accessible by sea until the viaduct,
La Farola
, was built. This is one of the most spectacular roads in Cuba, 30 km long, joined to the mountain on one side and supported by columns on the other.

Land and environment

The name Baracoa is an Amerindian word meaning 'existence of the sea', also known as 'land of water' - it is the wettest region in Cuba with annual rainfall of 2 m in the coastal zone to 3.6 m in the middle and upper Toa Valley. The Toa area is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, encompassing the Parque Nacional Alexander Von Humboldt. Baracoa has 29 rivers, including the
Río Toa
, 120 km long and the widest river in Cuba . Another river, the
Río de Miel
, carries the legend that if you swim in it you will come back to Baracoa one day or stay here. There are many beautiful waterfalls, 120 different types of tree and lots of coconuts. Some 80% of Cuba's coconut production comes from here. Rafting is possible down the Río Toa, with different levels of difficulty. Baracoa has 56 archaeological sites, with traces of the three Amerindian groups who lived there: the Siboney, the Taíno and the Guanahatabey .
Caridad de los Indios
is the one surviving community of 300 Amerindians, called
Yateras
(now the Manuel Tames municipality), dating back to the Spaniards' arrival. Previous generations only married among themselves, but now they are integrated with the rest of society. They maintain many of their traditions and live in an isolated region with difficult access along the shores of the Río Toa.

Sights

The Parque Central
, or
Parque Independencia
, is halfway down Antonio Maceo, one of the main streets in town. It has peso stalls selling good snacks and sandwiches at lunchtime and in the evening there is also a
Gaviota
café,
El Piropo
. There are other eating options on the Boulevard, as well as the karaoke bar,
El Paraíso
, the
Casa de la Trova
and the pizzeria,
La Baracoesa
, as well as other snack stalls. The
Iglesia de la Asunción
, on the Parque was built in 1511, burned down by the French in 1652, and rebuilt in 1807. The church contains the cross, known as the
Cruz de la Parra
, said to have been planted there by Columbus. Catholics and restorers have carved off slices over the years, with the result that the cross has diminished to almost half its former size. Belgian historians confirmed in 1989 that the cross did indeed date from Columbus' time and was made from the native seagrape tree (
cocoloba diversifolia
).

The
Museo Municipal
, is in the Matachín fort at the end of the Malecón to the east of the town (turn right as you come in from La Farola). It is a small museum with interesting but rather antiquated displays on the history of the town from prehistoric times to memorabilia of La Rusa who died in 1978. There is a large cauldron for making sugar and the only armaments magazine of its type in Cuba dating from 1739. In 1838, the Queen of Spain presented Baracoa with its own coat of arms, now on display in the museum. The English-speaking conservation officer, Daniel Salomón Paján, is happy to give further information on local history and legends.

Above the town is the
Museo Arqueológico La Cueva del Paraíso
. Located in a large and beautiful cave, which is part of the Majayara terrace system, its attractions include stalactites and stalagmites as well as petroglyphs and display cases containing archaeological finds from the area. The mirador at the museum offers stunning views of the town and the bay. In the second chamber there are graves of Taínos lying in the traditional foetal position, with their funereal offerings still in situ. One skeleton, which is currently undergoing testing, could be that of the cacique, Guamá, a rebel leader at the time of the Spanish invasion and the first known Cuban guerrilla, who fought against the Spanish for ten years. The dead man was clearly a dignitary, from the type of burial, and died from a fractured skull. It is believed that Guamá suffered a blow to the head, possibly by his brother after a dispute. The Yara-Majayara geological area is made up of three terraces, Yara, Majana and Majayara, in between which are many caves, used by generations of Amerindians before and after the arrival of Columbus and now becoming tourist attractions. More than 500 petroglyphs have been found, along with evidence of irrigation canals and tools. Archaeological tours of the area are available from the museum. They include a visit to the Cueva Perla de Agua, east of Baracoa, containing rock drawings, which has been made into the first Parque Arqueológico Turístico de Cuba, and to the petroglyphs and other caves.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

Cuba Handbook

From its ramshackle mansions and retro motors to stunning white beaches and fine cigars, Cuba's...

Havana Handbook

Of all the capital cities in the Caribbean, Havana has the reputation for being the most splendid &...
PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!
Read more...