Cuba Libre: Baracoa

Baracoa was the site of devastating Hurricane Ike just 7 months ago. To even imagine the degree of damage to Baracoa’s coastline, you might take a look at this video from the Associated Press:

If you are paying a visit to this gorgeous little fishing village on the northwestern coast of Cuba, there are still opportunities to lend a hand in rebuilding projects and the like. As long as you’re staying for longer than a day (as I did, which is just not enough time), you should have plenty of time to help in one way or other, as there is not a whole lot to speak of with regard to activities in Baracoa.

This place is all about the outdoors and relaxation. With the enormous plateau called El Yunque, the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site of Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, and beautiful Playa Maguana, there’s plenty of exploration and nature for every type of traveler.Getting to Baracoa
This town is one of the most remote parts of Cuba. With just one daily flight from Havana, and one daily bus from Santiago de Cuba, visitors really have to want to get there and must be patient with travel time. I took the bus from Santiago and the ride was lengthy. We passed through the famous city of Guantanamo (though the U.S. sanctioned part of Guantanamo is farther toward the coast). The last half of the ride to Baracoa winds its way along La Farola, which is a two-lane byway that cuts its way up, around, and down the Sierra Maestra mountain range. When you finally make it to Baracoa, it’s like being dropped on a perfect cloud.

Sightseeing by bici-taxi
Baracoa was at the tail end of their Culture Week and transitioning into its biggest celebration of the year: Carnaval, which would lead straight into Holy Week (better known as Semana Santa). I decided to hire a bici-taxi to take me around the town and show me the most important sights around town. I visited the two museums in town, Museo Matachin and Museo Arqueologico, neither of which were really worth the $2 entry fees. The best part of my tour was interacting with my guide, Edar. He insisted that he had never met a nicer tourist than me, and I think he was genuinely serious about his compliment which made me really happy.

Edar lives in a neighboring town about 20 minutes from Baracoa and runs a farm with his family. He works as a bici-taxi driver to earn extra money to feed his 8 year-old son. My experiences interacting with local Cubanos is that they are extremely curious about our lifestyle here in America. They want to understand how democracy and society works. They are also desperately searching for happiness amid financial woes and (in Baracoa’s case) natural disaster.


Baracoa by foot
After my bici-taxi tour, I did a bit of sightseeing by foot. I visited the Hotel El Castillo, which is an old colonial castle that was converted into a hotel. From there, you can see a nice view of the Bahia de Miel (Honey Bay). I highly suggest walking along the Malecon, too. Because Culture Week was in progress and other festivities were right around the corner, there were tons of food booths and kiddie rides set up along the promenade. I made small talk with the vendors in a peso pizza booth, who told me they follow the traveling Carnaval. The next stops would be Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba. I asked them why pizza was such a popular food in Cuba, and they said it’s cheap and it’s tasty. At least with pizza, Cuba and America can agree.

Moped excursion to Playa Maguana
I was so tired from travel that I couldn’t wake up from my after dinner nap and slept through the whole evening. I had planned on going out, as Baracoa (though small) is well-known for its raucous nightlife. Amid dreams, I could here reggaeton being played from the Malecon, but just couldn’t get my body moving.

Instead, I woke up early and decided to rent a moped and drive myself to Playa Maguana, about 15 miles west of Baracoa. This was a scenic drive the whole way. I had grown used to men whistling at me as I passed by, but they were even more curious here, craning their necks and squinting their eyes at me (probably thinking, “Is that a girl and is she Asian?”) as I whizzed by.

I spent two hours at Playa Maguana, a beautiful and secluded beach with just one beachside restaurant and one hotel called Villa Maguana nearby. Save for four other tanning tourists, I had a long stretch of beach to myself, and swam in the ocean with my goggles (though there were no fish).

Too soon after feeling completely relaxed, I had to head back to Baracoa to catch my bus and return to civilization. I was able to slowly take in the gorgeous Cuban countryside. There were kids playing the Rio Toa, men working hard to transport cultivated crops by oxcart, music playing from several houses, and of course signs to show how the Revolution was still very much alive. There is huge unrealized eco-tourism potential right through Baracoa’s backdoor. If/when Cuba opens up, Baracoa will be a much different place.

Hurricane recovery is both quick and slow along Baracoa’s Malecon

Too soon was it time for me to leave. Edar gave me a ride to the bus terminal to see me off and waited for thirty minutes until the bus finally departed just to wave goodbye. We had exchanged addresses and I’ve promised to write to him, which I will. As I peered out the bus window at the houses facing the sea, I wondered how different this town would be in five years.

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