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Baracoa: the authentic Cuba

Baracoa: the authentic Cuba

by cubapura

Baracoa is located at the northeast of the province of Guantánamo, the easternmost part of Cuba. It is the oldest village founded by the Spaniards in Cuba (1511), hence the name of Ciudad Primada (Cuba’s first city). Besides its antiquity, why it is worth to travel to the farthest corner of the country? Well, now you will know.

You can call this city the “authentic” Cuba. Centuries of historical heritage, charming landscapes, beautiful beaches, modest people and traditional food make Baracoa a unique place in an already wonderful island.

Landmarks and history

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church

Baracoa is National Monument since 1949. The church Nuestra Señora de la Asunción is the oldest in the island. Inside it, there is the Cruz de Parra, one of several crosses Columbus brought to the New World in his trips, and the only one that still exists.

The defense system was established in the first half of the 18th century, motivated by the increase in piracy. The Fuerte Matachín is a fortress situated in the southeast part of the city, in front of the inlet of the River Miel (Honey). Nowadays it is a museum, which holds different collections of items used by the aborigines, the cultural heritage of the city, and exhibitions of the autochthonous flora and fauna. The Fuerte de la Punta in the north, and the Castle of Seboruco in the southwest complete the group of fortresses. This latter is now the “Hotel Castillo”; where opens a complete view of the city and its surroundings.

Inside the city

Unlike other Cuban old cities, the architecture is not too impressive; although, the ambiance and the people’s friendly temperament are quite remarkable. The Historical Centre of Baracoa is also a National Monument. The main squares have a triangular shape, another singular feature, that makes it different from the rest of the country. Parque Independencia is a perfect place to socialize with locals. The main building of the park is the cathedral, the same one that keeps the Cruz de Parra.

In the surrounding area are located several cultural institutions, such as Casa de la Trova, the best place for dancing any given night. To the rhythm of the rumba, the original changüí, trova and popular music in general, many locals and foreigners do their best on the dance floor. Other important plazas are the Parque Martí, Parque La Victoria, and Parque Maceo.

The Hotel Porto Santo was built in the very place where Columbus presumably landed in 1492. This seaside area has the advantage of being easily accessed by air. The Hotel La Rusa (The Russian) is situated by the malecón baracoense (the local promenade). This emblematic place is a reminder of a Russian lady who lived here in the past century.

The astounding nature

HYanWong [CC0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The city of Baracoa is surrounded by mountainous massifs, with a plethora of the endemic flora and fauna of this zone. Virgin forests, crystalline rivers, and astonishing beaches give it a distinctive hallmark within the cities of the country. It has one of the best-preserved ecosystems in the Caribbean region.

A natural attraction you can see quite clearly from any distance is the Yunque de Baracoa, a flat-topped hill. From the Yunque (Anvil) you can see the whole town and the marvelous bay.

The flat summit of the mountain seems to be the most reliable fact proving that the village was the landing point of Christopher Columbus.

The admiral described this feature in his notes, also mentioning that the whole place was “the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen”  and who dares to refute Columbus? A medium difficulty daylong trip with a guide will make you reach the top.

Plenty of water beauties

There are plentiful rivers near the area. The river Miel baths the city, and the mighty Toa is recognized as the largest in the island. An interesting tour could be sailing in a cayuca, which is a flat-bottomed raft made with logs, simulating the ones that were used by past aborigines.

The river Yumurí has a beautiful canyon, filled with the diverse flora and fauna of the area. It is not as well defined as the Canyon of the River Santa Cruz, in the west of the island, but still, it is worth to travel along the river bank. Salto Fino is the highest waterfall in the Caribbean and the 20th in the world. It makes part of the Arroyo del Infierno (Hell’s Stream) and drops into the Toa.

Photo by Gabriel González from Flickr

The Maguana beach, one of the best in all the country’s territory, has fine white sands and shallow waters. You can book an excursion, including scuba diving in the coral reefs and a visit to the tirabacones (sandbars accumulated near the river’s mouths).

Endemic species

The vegetation is varied and very peculiar. Extended areas of wood with pines and other hardwood trees such as the caguairán, as well as timber-yielding trees like the ácana and the caoba adorn the region. The fauna is rich and highly endemic, with some species in danger of extinction. Animals like the rare almiquí (an insectivorous mammal) and the beautiful polymita picta (a brightly colored snail) can only be found here. The tocororo and the gavilán caguarero (a kind of a sparrowhawk) are two species to see if you are in the lookout for birds. The great biodiversity makes itself obvious in the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, place where the carpintero real (royal woodpecker) was last seen in Cuba.

Food in Baracoa

Baracoa is widely known for being a region that cultivates the coconut and the cacao, of which it is the first producer in the country. The coffee is the third product by importance. The taínos (aborigines) settled in the island, remained here for more time than in any other region, before the subsequent total extermination caused by the Spanish. Nowadays some inhabitants still have taíno roots. The blend of cultures like the aboriginal, Spanish, African, and French, coming from the Haitian migrants, have permitted a blend of cultures that is reflected in the authentic cuisine of Baracoa.

The bacán is a dish of grated green banana mixed with coconut milk, spices, and pork, but the version with crabmeat is what makes it a real treat. The popular cucurucho de coco (coconut cornet) is one of the symbols of Baracoa. The dry coconut flakes are cooked with sugar, and then mixed with fruits and put into a cornet made of palm leaves, hence the name. A fish named tetí is served in different ways. What is special about it, is that the fish can only be found in the estuary of the rivers here in Baracoa. People use a closely-woven fabric to catch this tiny and transparent fish, preferably in the summer, which constitutes an important event.

Chocolate

The Ciudad Primada is a paradise for the chocoholics. You can visit the museum devoted to cacao and its history or learn in a farmer’s property about the process of chocolate production. The ideal place to sample the locally manufactured chocolate products is the Casa del Chocolate, located at 121 Maceo Street. You cannot leave Baracoa without trying it. The chorote is the beverage par excellence, made of grated cocoa beans in a jar of warm milk. Its thick consistence could make you avoid comparisons with the traditional hot chocolate.

If this has not been enough for you, don’t hesitate about looking for more information. One thing is sure: there is no other place like this to captivate the visitor, so far away from the hustle and bustle of the crowded cities. Cuba’s first village can be far from the usual atmosphere of the rest of the country, but close to the very heart of the island and its deepest traditions.

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