Isolation breeds individuality, and Baracoa is both isolated and individual. The town looks and feels antique, with its little fortresses and streets lined with venerable wooden edifices, rickety and humbled with age.
Baracoans have a good deal of Indian blood, identified by their short stature, olive-brown skins, and squared-off faces.
On October 27, 1492, approaching Cuban shores for the first time, Christopher Columbus saw “a high, square-shaped mountain, which looked like an island.” For centuries, it was widely accepted that the mountain he saw was El Yunque. It is now thought that Columbus was actually describing a similar flat-topped mountain near Gibara, many miles to the west (Baracoans, however, are staunchly partisan on the subject).
In 1510, Don Diego Velázquez de Cuellar arrived fresh from Spain with 300 men and founded La Villa de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, the first of the original seven cities founded by Velázquez. As such, it is the oldest colonial city in the Americas. The indigenous Taíno population resisted the strange cutthroat proselytizers. A Dominican-born chief named Hatuey rallied the Indians in a rebellion against Spanish enslavement. The Spanish repelled the Indians and captured Hatuey. The noble “savage” was burned at the stake.
Baracoa’s remote geographical circumstance did little to favor the settlement. After five years, Santiago de Cuba, with its vastly superior harbor, was proclaimed the new capital. Baracoa languished in limbo for the next two centuries, without road or rail link to the rest of Cuba until La Farola was completed in the early 1960s.
In September 2008, Hurricane Ike came ashore here, tearing up Baracoa pretty badly; many of the houses along the Malecón were demolished.
La Farola enters town from the east as Calle José Martí. The town is only a few blocks wide, with narrow roads running parallel to the shore. The wind-swept Malecón runs along the seafront, two blocks north of Martí. From Holguín, the town is accessed via Avenida Primero de Abril, which curls around the western harbor.
Sights in Baracoa
Dominating the town is El Castillo, a fortress—Castillo Seboruco—atop the rocky marine terrace that looms above Baracoa, offering a bird’s-eye view. It was built during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739–1741) between Spain and Britain, when the two nations’ navies battled it out over the issue of trading rights in the New World. It has metamorphosed as the Hotel El Castillo and is accessed by a steep staircase at the southern end of Frank País.
Tiny Fuerte Matachín, at the east end of Martí and the Malecón, dates to 1802 and guards the eastern entrance to the old town. A bronze bust of General Antonio Maceo stands outside the fortress, with its thick walls topped with cannons. The storehouse houses the Museo Matachín (tel. 021/64-2122, daily 8 a.m.–noon and 2–6 p.m., CUC1 entrance, CUC1 camera), tracing the history of the region since pre-Columbian days. It also displays polymites (the local polychromatic snails). The round tower—Torreón de Toa—immediately south of the fort served as a Spanish customs checkpoint.
The semicircular Fortaleza de la Punta, at the far west end of Martí, was built in 1803 to guard the harbor entrance. It’s now a restaurant.
This triangular plaza (Antonio Maceo, e/ Frank País y Ciro Frias) is the town hub and is pinned by a bust of Hatuey, the Indian chief. It is dominated by the near-derelict Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (it was trashed by Hurricane Ike and will likely remain closed for some time), dating from 1805 on the site of an earlier church destroyed by pirates in 1652. The church is famous for the “Cruz de la Parra,” a dark, wellworn, meter-tall cross (supposedly the oldest European relic in the Americas). Baracoans believe that Columbus left the cross upright amid stones at the harbor entrance in 1492. Carbon-dating analysis confirms that it is indeed about 500 years old, although scientific study by experts determined that the cross was made of Coccoloba diversifolia, a native New World hardwood that grows abundantly around Baracoa. Perhaps Columbus whittled the cross himself in Cuba!
Museo Arqueológico Cueva del Paraíso
The highlight of Baracoa is this archaeological museum (no tel., Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 8 a.m.–noon, CUC2), inside a cave on the southern side of town. Aboriginal artifacts, carvings, and jewelry, plus skeletons (one possibly being the cacique Guamá, who rebelled against Spain) are displayed within floodlit glass cases ensconced within crevices between the dripstone formations. A funerary cave has skeletons in situ; access is via makeshift wooden scaffolding: you clamber at your own risk! Follow Calle Moncada uphill to a tiny traffic circle; the museum is signed from here.
Other caves with dripstone formations and Taíno petroglyphs (one of which local archaeologists purport represents Columbus’s three caravels) are protected in Parque Natural Majayara, east of town. It was closed to visitors at last visit.
Parque Zoológico Cacique Guamá
This small zoo (tel. 021/64-3409, Tues.–Sun. 8 a.m.–4 p.m., 20 centavos), seven kilometers east of Baracoa, displays monkeys, a hippo, a lion, birds, crocodiles, rodent-like jutías, and a near-extinct relative, the almique, indigenous to eastern Cuba.
Shopping in Baracoa
Galería Eliseo Osoris (Félix Ruenes #25, Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.–noon and 4–9 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 4–10 p.m.), on the north side of Plaza Independencia, sells paintings and sculptures. Also try the Bien Fondo Culturales (Maceo #120); the Taller la Musa (Calle Maceo #124, e/ Maraví y Frank País), where noted artists Roel Caboverde and Orlando Piedra sell original paintings; and Studio Taller Las Orishas (Martí #131, e/ Frank País y Pelayo Cuervo), cater-corner to Taller las Orishas (Ciro Frías #48, e/ Ruber López y Calixto García), which makes dolls.
Getting to Baracoa
Aeropuerto Gustavo Rizo (tel. 021/64-2216) is on the west side of the bay. Cubana (Martí #181, tel. 021/64-5374) connects Baracoa with Havana twice weekly and with Santiago de Cuba once weekly.
Buses arrive and depart the Terminal Interprovincial (Los Mártires, esq. Martí, tel. 021/64-3880). A Víazul bus (tel. 021/64-3093) departs Baracoa for Guantánamo and Santiago de Cuba at 2:15 p.m.
Camiones serve Moa and Guantánamo from the Terminal Municipal (Coroneles Galano, esq. Rubio López).
You can rent cars from Cubacar at the airport (tel. 021/64-5343) and Hotel La Habanera (tel. 021/64-5212); and Vía (tel. 021/64-5135) at the Hotel Porto Santo and Hotel El Castillo.
For a 56-kilometer loop tour of town and the environs, hop aboard the Baracoa Bus Tour (Calle Maceo #132, tel. 021/64-5212, CUC5), offered four times daily in a minibus. You can hop on and off along the route, which begins in Parque Central.
Horse-drawn coches and pedal-powered bici-taxis ply the main streets. For a taxi, call Cubataxi (tel. 021/64-3737).
You can rent scooters at the Hotel El Castillo (Calle Calixto García, Loma del Paraíso, CUC6 first hour, CUC26 per day).
Cubatur (Martí #181, tel. 021/64-5306, firstname.lastname@example.org) and Gaviotatours (Calle Calixto García, Loma del Paraíso, tel. 021/64-5165), in the Hotel Castillo, offer excursions. EcoTur (Calixto García, esq. Marina Grajales, tel. 021/64-3665, email@example.com, Mon.–Sat. 8 a.m.–6 p.m.) handles excursions into the nearby national parks.
There are gas stations beside Fuerte Matachín and one kilometer east of town.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Cuba.