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.

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE or skip straight to the good stuff —

Budget Travel: San Juan, PR

Summary: One of the frequent knocks on the Caribbean is that many of the islands (not all) are nothing more than receptacles for tourists. That there’s no real dynamic culture and sense of place. But this statement also ignores the fact that millions of Americans head to the Caribbean each year, and many of them are looking for nothing more than a cheap vacation with a beautiful beach and a frosty drink in a coconut. I can’t say that I blame them.

That said, we’re here to tell you that San Juan, Puerto Rico is the perfect combination of all these factors – affordability, authentic local culture and beautiful, warm sandy beaches. As the capital and largest city on the island of Puerto Rico, San Juan is a city with a surprising diversity of options for visitors. It’s among the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere, having been founded in 1521 by the Spanish. The history is strongly felt wherever you might wander in San Juan, whether it’s a visit to the imposing El Morro fortress or a walk along the fading beauty of Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets.

That’s nothing to say of the glitzy nightlife and beaches of Condado, or the untouched beaches and lush rainforests within an hour’s drive of the capital. Ready to be amazed by one of the most underrated (and cheap) destinations in the Caribbean? Come along for our Budget Guide to San Juan…

Getting in: Most travelers from the contintental United States will arrive at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, the central hub for many flights into and out of the Caribbean. The airport is served by almost all major U.S. carriers, and your chances of finding a deal during peak season are fairly good. As of the time of this posting, just about every major U.S. city east of the Mississipi River was offering round trip January fares to San Juan for between $200 – $300 per person.

Once you’ve arrived, it’s easy enough to grab a taxi into the city center. Rates are typically around $10 – $20 depending on if you’re going all the way into Old San Juan or to the outlying hotels. The frugal can also take the B40 bus, which will bring you to Isla Verde or Rio Piedras, where you can connect to other buses including the A5 to the city center. Total bus cost is .50-.75 cents.
Where to stay:
San Juan offers a surprisingly diverse cluster of different neighborhoods, ranging from the glitzy and glamorous to the historic and atmospheric. It all depends on what you’re looking for out of your trip.

  • For our money’s worth, the place to stay in San Juan is in Old San Juan, a picturesque neighborhood of cobblestone streets, elegant public squares and quietly crumbling facades. It’s been experiencing a resurgence in recent years, with hordes of great restaurants, bars, galleries and shopping. The best way to go is to rent your own apartment in one of the beautiful old buildings that dot the area. If you don’t want the hassle though, Hotel Milano and Caleta Guest House have rooms starting at under $100/night.
  • Just east of Old San Juan is the glitzy neighborhood of Condado, sight of many of Puerto Rico’s best hotels and resorts. Condado is the tried and true tourist hotspot of San Juan, bordered on one side by a heavily trafficked beach and avenues lined with casinos and fancy boutiques. It’s not necessarily the most authentic part of Puerto Rico, but for non-stop action it can’t be beat. Unless you want to drop a wad of hundreds at a fancy resort, the At Wind Chimes Inn has reasonably priced rooms starting around $110/night.
  • A little closer to the airport is Isla Verde, another main tourist drag. Though Isla Verde is technically not part of San Juan, it’s conveniently situated next to the airport and close enough you can still easily head into San Juan proper if you want to soak up some culture or fine dining. It’s also got its fair share of lovely sandy beaches, Pina Coladas and casino action, so don’t despair. Rumor has it that the Holiday Inn is the place to stay. It’s nothing fancy, but still clean and a good bargain.

What to See:

  • El Morro: San Juan was originally the last stopover for Spanish galleons loaded with gold and silver bound for the mother country. As such the city founders built the imposing El Morro stone fortress at the mouth of the harbor to protect it from pirate and enemy attacks. Today the fort is a National Park and one of San Juan’s top tourist attractions. And the entrance fee? Only $3 for those over 16. On Sundays the locals flock to the vast parade grounds in front of the fortress to fly thousands of kites in San Juan’s vigorous tradewinds.
  • Old San Juan Wandering: Spend an afternoon and an evening wandering the atmospheric streets of Old San Juan. Each corner is filled with a wealth of surprises – from delicious mallorcas at La Bombonera, to sizzling live salsa music at the Nuyorican Cafe to the overflowing art galleries and restaurants of Calle Fortaleza, the area’s newest hotspot. Unless you buy a new painting for the living room, you’re sure to end your visit with a few bucks left for breakfast the next day.
  • El Yunque: If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s no better way to get a sense of the island of Puerto Rico than renting a car ($40-$50/day). Grab a GPS and head for El Yunque National Forest, one of the island’s most beautiful natural wonders and only about an hour’s drive from San Juan. As the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, El Yunque features an astonishing diversity of wildlife, plenty of hiking trails and some refreshing waterfalls where you can stop for a swim. Cost to get in? Free.
  • Hit the beach: There’s a number of beaches within the confines of San Juan if you’re looking to soak up a few rays. Condado has a strip of sand where you can kick back, throw around a frisbee and have a swim. It’s not the most picturesque beach but certainly convenient. If you really want to see the best of Puerto Rico’s beaches, take that rental car I mentioned and point it at Luquillo Beach, one of the most beautiful in all of Puerto Rico and only about an hour from San Juan. Along the edge are food vendors selling roast pork, mofongo and other Puerto Rican specialties.

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