In the eyes of many visitors, the countryside around BARACOA is quite simply the most beautiful in Cuba. Set on the coast at Cuba’s southeast tip and protected by a deep curve of mountains, the town’s isolation has so far managed to protect it from some of the more pernicious effects of tourism that have crept into other areas of the island. Self-contained and secluded, Baracoa vibrates with an energy that is surprising for such a small place, and has become a must on the traveller’s circuit. It’s also home to a uniquely mixed population, with many locals of Haitian and Jamaican origin – the result of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigration.
Just wandering around is one of the town’s greatest pleasures. The quaint central streets are lined with tiny, pastel-coloured colonial houses with wedding-cake trim, and modern development is confined to the outskirts and the Malecón, where new apartment blocks were built after the Revolution. All the sites of interest are within easy walking distance of one another, radiating out from the Parque Independencia on Antonio Maceo, where, under the shade of the wide laurel trees, generations of Baracoans gather around rickety tables to play chess and dominoes.
Cradled by verdant mountains smothered in palm and cacao trees, and threaded with swimmable rivers, the Baracoan countryside has much to offer. El Yunque, the hallmark of Baracoa’s landscape, can easily be climbed in a day, while if you have a car and a little time to spare you could take a drive east along the coast and seek out some quintessentially Cuban fishing villages, including Boca de Yumurí. Alternatively, just head for the beach – there are a couple of good options northwest of town.
Baracoa – Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa – was the first town to be established in Cuba, founded by Diego de Velázquez in August 1511 on a spot christened Porto Santo in 1492 by Christopher Columbus who, as legend has it, planted a cross in the soil. The early conquistadors never quite succeeded in exterminating the indigenous population, and today Baracoa is the only place in Cuba where descendants of the Taíno can still be found. Their legacy is also present in the food and transport and several myths and legends habitually told to visitors.