Traveling authentically on the cheap in Baracoa, Cuba.
Despite being ravaged by hurricanes, Catholicism and a thirst for gold, Baracoa has retained its pristine natural beauty. Baracoa was Christopher Columbus’ first stop in the Americas. The first “Indians” he came across were actually the Taino, one of Cuba’s most prominent indigenous populations. The Taino offered the Spaniards (believing them to be gods) something shiny that would quickly change the course of history for indigenous populations all over the Americas. For the Taino, this soon developed into massive enslaving. Hundreds were drowned and beaten to death by whips in their beloved rivers, searching desperately for more gold. This led the Tainos to seek out a more natural way to die. So the enslaved began climbing the immense canyon walls as high as they could muster, and then they jumped back down to their deaths. The same river that once gave them life now took on a new name: Río Yumurí, roughly translating to “I died river.”
If that doesn’t make you want to check it out, what will, right?? But what is most amazing about Baracoa is how little has changed since then. Of course there are no Tainos running around anymore. Nor are there many tourists, however. Almost nobody makes it all the way to Baracoa, as it is just about as far from Havana as one can get. This makes it an incredibly authentic and unsoiled place to visit. Much of the past here has been preserved. The Taino lived in caves, and to this day you can still explore these caves. Many of them still have artifacts like relics, tools and skeletons.
A cheap and worthy hour can be spent heading uphill from town to the Museo Arqueológico (Archeology Museum), a well-preserved Taino cave packed with these ancient reminders. If Alejandro is working the entrance, spend another hour talking with him. He is a geographer by profession and historian by passion. He also speaks near perfect English, giving me a break from my interpreting job with the guy from Hong Kong and girl from Taiwan that latched on to me for a few days during my time here. Alejandro told us all about the Taino and gave us advice on the best things that we could do in Baracoa to enjoy nature and see the Taino past. The guy from Hong Kong was also a geographer, and they quickly moved to the topic of hurricanes and climate change. Then Alejandro turned to me and I knew exactly what was coming.
“What the hell is Trump thinking? I’ve seen climate change with my own eyes here in Baracoa! All you have to do is look at the historical hurricane patterns. They used to never hit this part of the island, but now it has shifted and we get hit hard.”
He knew he was preaching to the choir, but I explained that most politicians (except for maybe Trump) aren’t stupid enough to truly not believe in climate change, they just receive millions of dollars to pretend they are through lobbying.
I knew the exact next line that was coming too: “sounds like legal corruption.” Yes it does Alejandro.
Before parting ways, he gave us a golden recommendation: “Cross the Río Miel (Honey River) and find the Fuentes family farm. Ask one of the sons to take you through the caves and around their property. There you can see major effects of climate change before your eyes.”
So the next day, after having breakfast at our casa, we headed out early for the Río Miel. To get there, you need to walk southeast out-of-town towards the baseball stadium. Take a quick break before a tough hike along the beach to watch baseball practice, the pride of Cuba! With sore calves, you’ll get to a small river where you’ll pay a couple of dollars to be ferried to a shaky dock by fishing boat. The dock used to cross the river until Hurricane Matthew. Now old enterprising fisherman prefer to charge a small crossing fee to their local townspeople and tourists instead of repairing it.
You’ll now be in the tiny, picturesque fishing village of Boca de Miel (mouth of honey), named such because where the mouth of the river meets the ocean the saltwater and freshwater do not mix, creating a honey-like appearance. The Cuban government has their hand in everybody’s businesses, and as such you’ll have to pay a hiking fee to be here. Find the cheapest option on the tollbooth price list and tell the operator that is all that you plan to do, even if it is not true! Pay the fee and then walk two houses down to the left, where one of the Fuentes sons will likely be waiting around to see if any tourists pass through. You cannot do the hike without either paying a large fee to the government to walk on their land, or a small fee to the Fuentes’ to show you around theirs. The Fuentes option is cheaper and you will get to spend a day with a local, a necessity when seeking out authentic ways to travel!
One of the Fuentes sons, Yunior, took us around the farm. As usual with Cubans, we became fast friends by laughing about the current “idiocracy” of the US government. He walked us through his land on the ground, pointing out all the different crops and other flora and fauna. Eventually, we arrived at a ladder. We climbed up, and from here Yunior took us through a series of elevated caves and outcroppings in the tremendous rock face. Yunior told us about how the Taino used to live in these caves and how strategically important they were to them as a lookout center against bad weather and intruders, especially once the Spanish had begun coming and killing and enslaving them by the thousands.
From up above, we could also see the havoc that hurricane Matthew had wreaked on the Finca Fuentes (Fuentes farm). The land looked dry, littered with spoiling immature fruits, fallen trees and graveyards of unripe coconuts. A shift in ocean patterns brought about by climate change made Baracoa a prime target for hurricane Matthew, and rising global temperatures are now making it nearly impossible for the Fuentes land to recuperate. “It’s just going to take more time now,” Yunior said confidently.
The grand finale of the trip, after hiking in the sweltering Cuban heat, came at the Cueva de agua (water cave). We changed into bathing suits and climbed down from the rock face and down into a dark cave underground. We soon reached ice-cold water and waded above through the different sections of the cave, using a headlamp to guide the way. It was unexpected and refreshing!
We ended the hike at a local restaurant, where a kind woman has a constantly changing menu based off of her husband’s daily catch. We had fish (I don’t remember what kind) cooked in fresh sweet coconut milk, freshly made banana chips, rice and freshly squeezed mango juice. All this for $6. Although that’s more than I normally like to spend per meal, there were very few meals that I had in Cuba that came close to being as good or as much food as this one!
Saving money in Baracoa
As with all Cuban towns, if you want to save in Baracoa, walk far from the town center and look for meals advertised on small wooden boards in pesos nacionales (Cuban national pesos). Buy fresh fruit on the street and local markets, and try to strike a deal with your casa owner to include a meal or two in their price, or for just a little more. For souvenirs, Boca de Miel is also a great place to meet the artists that make much of the typical woodwork you will see in tourist markets. Buy straight from them for some of the best prices in the country. A handmade domino set is a nice option and great for passing the time with fellow travelers and making Cuban friends! The overnight bus is another good way to save money here. You don’t have to pay for a casa for the night and not many tourists make it this far, so you could very well have two seats to yourself to sleep!
Baracoa is one of the hardest places to get to in Cuba, being at the farthest tip of the island. It is also easily one of my favorite destinations and somewhere I regret not having left more time to explore! The overnight bus may sound brutal, but it is well worth it to not lose a day to travel time. Visit Baracoa!