Baracoa Cuba Basics
Located off the beaten path in the Eastern most area of Cuba, Baracoa is not only beautiful, but also historically and culturally significant. It was at Baracoa’s beach where Christopher Columbus first landed in Cuba on November 27, 1492. Shortly thereafter, Baracoa became the first city and capital of Cuba in 1511, well before Santiago de Cuba or La Habana. However, because of its remoteness and the flourishing of other cities in Cuba, Baracoa has remained off many travelers’ radar.
Although I have been traveling extensively in Cuba for the last seven years, it was this year that I treated myself to a birthday adventure to El Oriente, the Eastern portion of Cuba, including Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa. I had a few reasons why I chose El Oriente. Firstly, I had never been. I wanted a completely new adventure to celebrate yet another year on this beautiful planet. Secondly, the area has so much historical importance relevant to the colonialization of Cuba by the Spanish, the slave trade from Western Africa and the rise of sugar as Cuba’s number one product, and the beginning of the Revolution in ‘53. Lastly, as a true adventurer and nature lover, I gravitate towards Mother Nature’s masterpieces. When I read a logbook entry by Columbus himself, “the most beautiful place in the world ...I heard the birds sing that they will never ever leave this place...,” I was sold. Baracoa or bust!
How I got to Baracoa?
From my home in South Florida to Baracoa, Cuba isn’t a quick ninety miles like most generalize. During my journey of approximately five hundred and thirty-five miles, I used many modes of transportation. After a flight from the States to Holguin, Cuba, multiple Cuban taxis, both a 1950’s American classic car as well as a Russian Lada, and a long ride on a Chinese bus, I had arrived in Baracoa. (Good news is that in 2019, there will be direct flights from the US to Santiago, which is only three-hours via car or bus to Baracoa.) As you can imagine, I was completely on empty upon my arrival, short on sleep and in desperate need to stretch my legs. However, with a fresh guava juice and a strong Cuban coffee at Villa Paradiso, I put myself in gear to explore the green hillsides and the hard to miss El Yunque on foot as well as the crystalline rivers and dramatic canyons via boat.
Reasons to Travel to Baracoa Cuba
Nature Lover’s Paradise: Hiking, Boating, and Beaches
Hiking: El Yunque
El Yunque or the anvil is a tabletop shaped mountain that serves as a symbol as well as a landmark from many places in the surrounding area. As part of a park, hiking El Yunque requires a local guide. The rate for the park is 13 CUC (roughly $15) with an additional gratuity for the guide. Most people choose to start early morning to approach the summit of one thousand and eight hundred feet before the noon’s powerful sun. The trail starts with crossing the Duaba River, which can be knee to waist deep in places. I removed my hiking boots and used a hiking pool to assist in navigating the various rocks and river’s current.
The well-marked trail winds through cacao (chocolate) trees, palms, and lush tropical plants. At the half-way point, you will have a two for one treat: a buena vista of the surrounding valleys, beaches, and bays plus a fresh fruit bar. For 1 CUC ($1.15) you can eat all the fresh fruit: guava, coconut, papaya, banana, mango, orange.
Unlike my assumption, the summit is not a large flat space. Instead, it is a small peak. The rest of the table top is off-limits as most of the park is under ecological preservation. However, the summit’s space is perfect for a triumphant photograph before heading down the same route.
Depending on conditions of the trail as well as your pace, most can go round trip in four to five hours. I was on an express adventure so up and down in three hours with a side trip to the Duaba Waterfalls a twenty-minute walk from the end of the Yunque trail (8 CUC).
**Be aware that after much rain the Duaba crossing is not advised nor is the Yunque trail. The best conditions are dry and sunny.**
Boating: Duaba and Toa Rivers
In Baracoa, there are an amazing twenty-nine rivers, which provide beautiful river valleys for exploration as well as the needed water for Baracoan residents and the area’s major products of cacao, coffee, and banana. When I learned that in Baracoa, there is a tradition of using bamboo rafts (balsas) for basic transportation for those living on or near the river, I was game. When in Baracoa, do as the Baracoans. Venice ain’t got nothing on this! A voluntary tip for the rafter (balsero) is a wonderful gesture.
If you would like to take a voyage on a larger river, the Toa is a gem. For 6 CUC per person, you can take voyage like this from Rancho Toa. My insider’s tip is to ask for the Naranja Toa (Toa orange). It's an tasty cocktail made of passion fruit juice, orange juice, and rum served in an orange.
Beaches: Manguito and Maguana Beaches
If you are a beach bum or just need a little siesta after your travels to Baracoa, have no fear there are many to pick from. I cherry-picked the best two for you. Maguana Beach is a tranquil beach with a few small cafés as well as vendors of cacao butter, massages, and homemade coconut candy. It is located between the National Park of Alexander Humbolt and Baracoa. My second favorite beach is Manguito, which is situated between the Yumuri Canyon and Baracoa. I include Manguito Beach in the next reason for traveling to Baracoa because one of my best meals was on this beach.
From this lush paradise come wonderful ingredients such as coconut, cacao, citrus, and banana to create truly unique flavors with the freshest seafood, including red snapper, octopus, and shrimp. My recommendation for experiencing the best of Baracoan cuisine is to go to the source by visiting a cacao farm to learn how chocolate is made as well as how cacao butter is harvested. You will most likely have the opportunity to taste other tropical fruits such as starfruit, pepinillo (tart cucumber-like fruit), and guava. Secondly, I would suggest a beachside lunch or dinner at a paladar (private restaurant). I mentioned Manguito Beach before (pictured above). I loved a relaxing lunch at Café Tato. The specialty of the Tato is lechita, which is a coconut milk sauce, that is served with all dishes. I had a whole red snapper, but my driver and hosts at Villa Paradiso rave about the octopus in coconut sauce.
I feel in love with Cuba years ago primarily because I love the spirit of the Cuban people, very happy, genuine, and funny. However, when you add the small town feel of Baracoa to those already wonderful characteristics, you get the salt of the earth. In Baracoa, everybody knows one another. Being isolated, those of Baracoa have strengthened their bonds not only with the day to day getting by and working together, but also they have preserved through tough times such as 2012’s Hurricane Matthew.
My hosts of Villa Paradiso opened the doors for me to with introductions to their neighbors. Whether it was the next-door neighbor that was my driver or the local doctor up the street, each person from Baracoa welcomed me with open arms. I learned how to dance a Baracoan salsa. I drove my first ’54 Plymouth. I shared rum cocktails to celebrate mutual birthdays. I laughed. All of it with my new friends in Baracoa. Mil gracias Villa Paradiso and hosts Roberto and Manuel!
Do I agree with Columbus?
I believe that many places on this earth can be paradise. Whether a place is truly your paradise depends on many factors, most importantly that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is better if shared with others. I would call Baracoa paradise indeed.
Will I return to Baracoa?
I will return to Baracoa to revisit my friends, special places, and find new adventures. I encourage you to travel to Baracoa, Cuba. Perhaps I can twist your arm to go with me October 16-23rd, 2020.
If you have questions about Baracoa and travel to Cuba, please comment below. You may want to get a copy of my book Cubicle to Cuba as it shares much of my previous years in Cuba, travel tips, and life lessons from the island.
As always, here’s to looking up!