Sequestered by jungle on Cuba’s eastern coast, Baracoa is a remote haven for those pursuing either adventure or relaxation.
Detained just 100 kilometres away, Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp inmates will never experience the charms of Baracoa, Cuba’s most eastern town. Just around the coast from the controversial US naval base, Baracoa’s protection from the outside world comes in the form of crumbling mountain roads rather than razor wire and electric fencing. With fewer international travellers taking the time to navigate this jungle route, the seaside town offers relative respite from the tourist honeytraps and hustling of Cuba’s larger cities. While it’s hard to avoid propaganda relating to 1959’s socialist revolution in other parts of Cuba, Baracoa appears geographically isolated from much of this rhetoric. Local pride instead centres on the fact it was here that explorer Christopher Columbus made his first Cuban stop in the Santa Maria in 1492. Believed to be the mountain Columbus described as “lofty and square” in his log, the flat-topped El Yunque is a haven for unique flora and fauna. Located on the edge of the UNESCO-listed Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, El Yunque’s residents include the mysterious almiqui, a rat-like critter with venomous saliva. Although this strange species makes itself scarce during my visit to the 575m peak, yipping geckos, colourful butterflies and yellow and black millipedes as big as Cuban cigars fill the void. We arrive at the foot of El Yunque after hurtling through the local chocolate factory’s warm and wafting vapours, over the Toa River and along muddy forest tracks in an old Russian 4WD. As he leads us up El Yunque’s slippery trail, our local guide Luiber points out farmers harvesting cacao on the mountain’s lower slopes and discusses local crops such as bananas, sugarcane and coconut. An enterprising farmer stands at a wooden food stall halfway up El Yunque, offering a fruit buffet for three Cuban convertible pesos (A$4). The burly, shirtless campesino wields a machete as he slashes coconuts and slices large citrus fruit, but for an energy hit it’s hard to beat a glass of freshly squeezed sugarcane. El Yunque’s peak presents stunning views of favoured beach destinations Playa Duaba and Playa Maguana, where azure waters lap at the jungle’s edge and desultory chickens peck at the white sand. Baracoa’s unique location between the mountains and the sea presents the region with an unusual microclimate. A soaking deluge can unexpectedly dash the warm tranquillity of a sunny Caribbean day on the beach. Back in Baracoa’s city centre, a local seafood dish is sure to warm up any travellers who’ve been caught in tropical showers. While many of Cuba’s signature dishes lack the dynamic flavours international palates may crave, the region’s fish curry is a stunner. Seafood dishes can be both uncommon and expensive in other Cuban cities, but Baracoa menus routinely boast fish and crustacean options. Served on a bed of rice, the local coconut milk-based speciality has more in common with Thai red curry than this Socialist isle’s routinely bland meat dishes. Baracoa puts its dancing shoes on after the sun sets behind impenetrable jungle ridges. At the local live music venues Casa del Chocolate and Casa de la Trova, the moves are uninhibited and the vibrant spirit contagious. As the inexpensive rum flows, locals join visitors in dancing into the night, spilling onto the cobblestone streets when the clubs become deliriously boisterous. While there’s an ugly commodification of Cuba’s traditional music in many bars and clubs patronised by international travellers, Baracoa’s musicians are more inclined to play to fill their hearts rather than their wallets. As the live music winds down, the town square witnesses an exodus of Baracoa’s younger revellers as they make their way up 146 steps to El Ranchón. An open-air nightclub overlooking the city and its harbour, it comes alive after midnight, with the dancefloor populated by locals, tourists and more than a few jineteras – girls vying for drinks, tips or something more from their international targets. Not yet sullied by a blatant lunge for tourist dollars, Baracoa is a city of genuine warmth. This year’s re-establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba may well see Baracoa become yet another American travel hotspot in the coming years, but for the moment it’s Cuba’s secret treasure not even Columbus could plunder.