Baracoa

Baracoa, nicknamed La Ciudad Primera, is Cuba's easternmost and oldest city. It is popular among tourists for its indigenous-inflected unique local culture, distinctive local cuisine, natural rainforest surroundings, and its chocolate.

Understand

El Yunque, an anvil-shaped mountain, surrounded by rainforests
El Yunque rises above Baracoa

Shielded by heavy mountains on one side and the Atlantic ocean on the other, Baracoa has historically been isolated from the rest of Cuba; until the 1960s, it could only be accessed by sea. This isolation has contributed to much of Baracoa's distinct identity from the rest of Cuba.

History

It is believed that Baracoa is where Columbus first landed on American soil, making it truly the first city of the modern Americas. Baracoa was formally established as the first of Diego Velazquez' villas in 1511, and was Cuba's capital until 1515, when the capital was moved to Santiago in part due to Baracoa's remoteness. In the coming centuries, Baracoa, simultaneously close and remote from the rest of Cuba, thrived off piracy and developed a culture distinct from the rest of the island. French settlers fleeing the revolution in nearby Haiti found the climate ideal for growing chocolate, and the city transitioned to an agricultural center. In the lead-up to the 1959 revolution, the citizens of Baracoa were particularly supportive and helpful (as was generally true of Eastern Cuba), and were rewarded by the completion of a road from Guantánamo and the end of more than 4 centuries of isolation. Today Baracoa is chiefly a major agricultural zone for Cuba, with all of Cuba's chocolate coming from the surrounding area, as well as a major destination on the Cuban tourist trail.

Culture

Baracoa's culture has more visible indigenous roots than most of the rest of the Cuba, and many major archeological finds have been made here. The local hero is Hatuey, who famously resisted the Spanish, and local art has a distinctive indigenous inflection to it. The cuisine is also different from the rest of Cuba and the overall lifestyle is more relaxed.

Climate

Baracoa and the surrounding areas has a tropical rainforest microclimate, which allows chocolate to grow very well. Expect a fair bit of rain, although it's generally not unpleasant. Baracoa can be surprisingly cool, though most of the surrounding area is pretty hot.

Get in

Although no longer reachable only by boat, Baracoa remains pretty isolated. Baracoa is accessible from Guantanamo City via La Farola (the lighthouse), a mountain pass road built in the 1960s to reward the Baracoans for their support of the revolution.

Note that transportation in and out of Baracoa on both the plane and bus is frequently fully-booked during high season. So make sure to buy your tickets early enough, especially when leaving, since there are not many alternatives. In low season, however, the Viazul bus might run with less than 10 people.

By bus

A daily Viazul (prices & times see link) bus runs between Santiago and Baracoa via Guantanamo City, taking about 5 hours. The bus terminal is located at the northern tip of Baracoa city. The bus ride is one of the more beautiful in Cuba, going from semi-arid desert out of Guantanamo to impressive mountains on La Farola to rain-forest lowlands approaching Baracoa. Near the midpoint of La Farola, the bus makes a stop at a tiny tourist-oriented village, where you can buy red bananas, Baracoa chocolate, and cucurucho.

Also Astro, the national bus line, serves Baracoa from the same bus terminal as Viazul, but as a tourist you are highly unlikely to be allowed on, and if you are (usually by being a student), you're not likely to get a seat. Furthermore, there are local provincial buses and passenger trucks from a separate terminal within the center of the city (ask a Cuban). The latter also connects to Moa with at least one (packed) bus a day (1-2 CUC) in each direction, which can easily take up to 3 hours. Either way, you can try stopping both (Astro and provincial ones) at the exit of the city, depending on where you want to go.

Of course, this being Cuba, the usual array of chartered buses also serve Baracoa.

By plane

Cubana's subsidiary Aero Caribe flies to Havana on Thursdays and Sundays. The flight is frequently delayed so check the time at the airport office (Calle Jose Marti) or with local travel offices before showing up at the airport.

By car

It's also possible to drive La Farola in a rental vehicle or a taxi, though this is not particularly recommended as, asides from the difficulty and expense of getting a rental car in Cuba, most of the road, especially the mountainous sections, is very remote and if a breakdown happens, you will be stuck for a while; there is no cell phone reception and the only way to communicate will be through buses. Baracoa is 150 km east of Guantanamo City.

By taxi

Many taxi drivers will offer you to travel between Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa for the same price as Viazul, depending on the availability of sufficient passengers (at least 4), which they will try to find. This is a meaningful alternative to be considered, especially due to its flexibility (to take pictures) and directness, i.e. no stopping or waiting.

Taxi and car will also be the only two options to travel between Punta de Maisi and Baracoa (see #Go next at the end).

Get around

Baracoa is a tiny and very compact town, as such walking will be the primary form of transportation in-town. For excursions further afield, a taxi, a bici-taxi or horse-drawn vehicles are handy. Bici-taxis are everywhere and can be paid for in CUC or Moneda Nacional (CUP). Regular taxis are less common but can be hired if necessary.

By hired driver

Bici-taxis are available for rent for approximately 5 CUC per day. Alternatively, you can hire a car (with driver) for about 20 CUC.

By moped

Mopeds/Scooters can be rented from a rental agency just off the main park (Parque Centro). It is located inside a cafeteria next to the Cinema. Expect to pay approximately 25 CUC for a full day.

Hitching

There is a lot of short distance travel in and out of town. For destinations less than 15 km along the main road, try waving at vehicles with people already on its back.

See

In Town

View along the Malecon (sea wall) of Baracoa
Baracoa's Malecon is much more low-key than the famous one in Havana
A small stone Taino statuette resting among plants
A statuette at Asiento Taino

Further afield

Do

Relax around the town, share a bottle of rum and koola cola with locals at the nightclub 100 steps above the town. The Casa de la Trova by the church offers itself as a comfortable and welcoming drinking establishment where you can dance with the locals. Popular for any blossoming salsa lovers.

Beaches

Sports

Natural Attractions

Buy

Contrary to what you might expect for such an isolated city, Baracoa isn't any more expensive than anywhere else in Cuba, partly because the Cuban tourism market is so tightly-controlled. Costs in Baracoa run the gamut depending on whether you frequent peso or CUC places.

In general, as one goes east in Cuba, how much people care whether you give them CUC or moneda nacional decreases, and this is most so in Baracoa, with virtually all non-tourist goods (such as trips to the national park) being payable in either currency.

Baracoa is a good place to buy indigenous-styled art, although it's not cheap.

Eat

A yellow, oval, ribbed pod split in half to reveal semicircular seeds covered in white slime
The inside of a cacao pod prior to undergoing the many steps necessary to become chocolate. A common sight in Baracoa

Travelers weary of the repetitive (and frankly somewhat boring) food found elsewhere in Cuba can breath a sigh of relief when they reach Baracoa—and then dig straight into the small city's delicious regional dishes.

The local peanut butter bars are a good snack. The grossly overweight Cuban selling peso pizza is a good treat too.

In general, aside from chocolate, government-run restaurants don't serve local cuisine.

Regional Specialties

Baracoa is known as the land of chocolate and coconut and most of the local cuisine is based around these two ingredients.

In addition, coconut manifests itself in two local specialties.

Drink

Be sure to check out Baracoan drinking chocolate hot chocolate brewed with cinnamon leaves. It's delicious, though the powdered milk limits its potential somewhat.

You'll of course find the usual assortment of peso and CUC sodas and alcohol in bars all around Baracoa.

Sleep

As elsewhere in Cuba, casas particulares, available for around 15-20 CUC per night will most likely be your cheapest options. Note that while many casas are small, they tend to operate in informal (and not entirely legal) family networks, so if the main casa is full, you will stay at a family member's.

Be prepared for the onslaught of hoteliers and taxi drivers as you arrive at the bus terminal. Watch out for the people claiming to be hotel owners, offering you a very cheap rate because this may change when you arrive at the hotel, meet the real owner and get given the real room rates. The game is that by this time you cannot be bothered to go and look for another hotel because it is just too hot. Instead just walk the short distance from the bus terminal into the city and check out 2 or 3 casas for yourself.

Budget

Casas Particulares

Hotels

Splurge

A path along a wall with turrets. Palm trees and small tropical plants grow nearby.
At Hotel el Castillo, you can pretend to be a conquistador

Cope

Being a tiny isolated tourist town in a largely isolated country, Baracoa doesn't have lots of communication with the outside world, though it does have an Etecsa office just off Parque Independencia.

The local newspaper is Venceremos ("We will conquer"), as in the rest of Guantanamo province.

Go next

There isn't much to do in the surrounding towns, and as most visitors come in by bus via La Farola, they leave exactly the way they came, towards Guantanamo City and Santiago, or alternatively take a flight to Havana.

If you're determined to leave a different way than they came and have your own very good wheels (or a taxi's) and a sense of adventure, there's actually two other possibilities for leaving Baracoa.

NOTE: Both of these alternatives go over extremely bad to practically non-existent road and are even more remote than La Farola, and should not be attempted except by the absolute most experienced and prepared driver.
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