Baracoa City, first settlements and capital of Cuba.
Due to its geographic isolation, Baracoa, Cuba, is just beginning to be discovered by tourists. Those who venture to this remote northeastern corner of the island will discover an almost unspoiled colonial village surrounded by secluded beaches and virgin rainforest. On the horizon looms the most recognizable local landmark, a table-toped hill called El Yunque.
Baracoa’s cobblestone streets are lined with one-story buildings, whose peeling, carnaval colored paint jobs and weathered tile roofs add, rather than detract, from their charm. Local people watch you curiously from wide verandas. Some may approach you to sell sweets, but they are not as mercenary as the venders in Havana. Baracoa, where cocoa trees grow in abundance, is famous its white chocolate, sold in round, flat cakes encased in palm bark. Also try the cucruchu, an ambrosia of honey, coconut, nuts and fresh seasonal fruit served in palm bark cone.
Along the eastern edge of the village runs the Malecón, a miniature of Havana’s seaside promenade, which ends in a park dedicated to Christopher Columbus, who arrived here in 1492. His statue, hewn out of a giant tree stump, stares inland with a stern expression. Downtown, in the Cathedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, you can see a silver-plated he is said to have planted here.
To the west of town lies the tranquil beaches Playa Maguana and Playa Nibujón. Playa Maguana is the tourist beach, featuring restaurant and bar service, while the Playa Nibujón is more rustic and frequented by the locals.
Located farther inland, the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Cuclillas de Toa, protects some of the world’s last untouched rainforest and its endangered plant and animal species. Among these species is the Cuban land snail, about two inches in diameter with striking spirals of color. It is advisable to hire a guide for trekking or hiking excursions in the reserve. Official government guides can be found at the Office of Natural Parks. However, local people are happy to act as guides and are often more affordable and entertaining. This common practice is technically illegal, so some discretion is advised, such as not handing over bills in public.
After an active day of hiking and swimming, return to the homey atmosphere of your bed and breakfast, or casa particular, and enjoy a home-cooked meal. Be sure to advise the proprietor in advance. For less than a McDonald’s Happy Meal your hostess will prepare a feast of traditional Cuban Creole food: fried chicken, rich, beans and sweet plantains, or better still, a typical Baracoan meal of fresh Black Market seafood, fish stuffed with plantains, garlic-rubbed shrimp or lobster smothered in butter.