If there’s one thing to know about holidays to Cuba let it be this – those that limit themselves to the Havana area alone are depriving themselves of something truly remarkable.
Without any shadow of doubt, one of Cuba’s most glorious areas that can still in most ways be considered an undiscovered gem is Baracoa. Haven’t heard of it? Exactly, and neither have the vast majority of the mainstream masses who haven’t had the chance to leave their mark on this stunning coastal Cuban corner.
The best way to describe Baracoa would be as something of a time-capsule in which much of the true spirit of Cuba has been preserved better than perhaps anywhere else across the length and breadth of the nation. Home to no less than 29 rivers and an immensely lush contingency of hillside groves and jungles, Baracoa is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of chocolate trees, royal palms, coffee bushes and stunning coastal scenery.
And there’s also something about the smaller side of Baracoa to celebrate too – for some reason the smallest frog, bat and bird in the world today all call Baracoa home.
Having been around since a couple of decades after the arrival of Columbus, Baracoa is in fact the first capital city of Cuba. The city streets are bendy, twisty and frankly all over the place, which immediately delivers a sense of somewhere that has mercifully escaped modernisation – as well it should. The air is thick with legends and tales of old, as residents share their proud heritage and welcome locals along for a colourful insight into Baracoa’s past.
In contrast with the sparkling white sands and heady, hedonistic atmosphere of Havana, Baracoa is the place to head for something more deep, complex, engaging and alluring. Not that there aren’t abundant opportunities for relaxing on world-class beaches, but a few days here can be punctuated with so much more – exploring Indian relics, bathing in cool rivers and of course, eating your bodyweight in coconut and chocolate from the region.
The road to Baracoa is an experience and a historical treat in its own right, having been built as recently as 1965 as one of the first big efforts of Fidel Castro. Prior to the completion of the road, the only way in or out of Baracoa was by sea.
Stray past the stunning black sands of the main beach at Playa Baracoa to find Boca de Miel, a fishing village, a living piece of history like none you’ve seen before. The coast is lined with rich banana plantations and visitors can take a stroll up the now defunct rail line once used to supply the US-bound bounty during the Green-Gold-Boom.
A little further on, Mata Bay is the place to try out some real Cuban food. Not the kind of Cuban food created to win over tourists, but real Cuban food by the locals. Chances are you’ll never find a spread that isn’t accompanied by live music and dancing, so be prepared to work off the calories and don’t go too mad with the local rum.
Taking into account the fact that Baracoa was effectively cut-off for over half a century, it is astonishing to find such a friendly and accommodating local community. It may now be well and truly linked to the rest of Cuba, but for the time being at least there’s no better corner to head to in order to find discover how it used to be.