Travel Cuba: Cuba's real sleeping beauty

Cut off from the rest of the island until the Fifties, Baracoa is still a gem. By Sue Kay
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The Independent Culture
Approaching Baracoa from the sea you can't blame Columbus for believing that he had found a continent. And, 400 years later, the landscape remains so unchanged that you find yourself staring at the very coastline that Columbus saw. No matter that some meddling scientists in the Thirties proved he had landed further west. Baracoans won't have it.

One man, scoffing at the suggestion, swept his hand around the bay as evidence, and appealed: "How can he not have landed here?" Behind the bay the mountains rise, climbed by palms and pine trees. To one side, the outline of the mountains forms the shape of a woman lying down - "La Bella Durmiente" (the sleeping beauty). At her side is a curious, flat- topped mountain, "El Yunque" (the anvil), set like a platform for the sun to set on. Two rivers sweep down into the sea through the bay's delicate vegetation and a woman washes clothes at the water's edge. Her children play in the water, and a bamboo raft punts downstream. A stork takes flight from the bank. The composition is perfect.

Baracoa, this small town in the extreme east of Cuba, has some powerful claims to fame: Columbus - to the convinced - first set foot here in 1492; Velasquez founded the first colonial town in the whole of the Americas here, and this was also the first capital of Cuba. By rights it should be a proud and majestic city, full of Spanish history and glory. But this is not quite the case.

Sequestered and screened off by the impassability of the surrounding mountains, the town was cut off from the rest of Cuba until the Fifties, when a highway was carved across the Sierra del Purial. The winding road to Baracoa, known as La Farola (the beacon) is completely unlit.

Today the first town in the Americas is ramshackle, cobbled and terracotta- roofed, with three sets of impressive fortifications. This was the capital of all Cuba, we learn from a proud old woman in the central square. "For only three years," says the guidebook. We are directed to the oldest house in Cuba by a young man wheeling a sink along on a bicycle. We recognise the house by the public telephone attached to its wall. Inexplicably, I jot down the number. At the time, it seemed a telephone number worth having.

The town's three forts are now a hotel, a restaurant and a museum. In Cuba, only Havana can boast greater fortification. We stay in one castle, eat in another and "muse" on pre-Columbian myths in the third. Thus fortified, we set out for El Rio de Miel (the river of honey) because we are hot and because local legend has it that if you swim in this river you will return to Baracoa and its bracelet of coconut palms.

The coconut palm is a useful tree in Cuba. Coconut oil and milk are used for cooking and flavouring (giving Baracoa its distinctive cuisine), the branches provide roofs for the houses (though they have to be cut down at the full moon), and the trunk provides wood for construction. The coconut itself is made into the Baracoa "snack" - the cucurucho - a sticky mixture sold in a cone made of palm fronds and bark, and eaten with a spoon that is also made from the palm. And, for the tourists, there are baskets and hats, Cuban-made shampoo and soap that is scented from the coconut palms of Baracoa. The tree, of course, provides shade from the scorching Caribbean sun.

That afternoon, however, we were happy to settle for a beer in the shade of a colonnaded colonial house. This was a paladar, an ingenious Cuban invention, and the only form of privately run restaurant permitted. These must be run from the owner's own home, staffed by family and seat a maximum of 12 people. I counted at least 15, but the waiter counted 10 - which left two more still to be seated, so he fetched a table and chairs from behind a curtain and placed them behind a pillar for us.

We discovered from the beer cans that Baracoa has another hero. Hatuey was the Indian chief who resisted the Spaniards and who Baracoans believe was burnt at the stake here (although it is generally agreed elsewhere that he was martyred in the next province). He famously refused death by sword (in return for baptism) on the grounds that if there were three Spaniards in heaven he didn't want to go there.

The streets and public buildings here may be named after Columbus, but the local beer bears the legend "Hatuey" - the first rebel in America (of course).

Before we order, the waiter brings out a small dish of something unidentifiable. "These," he tells us, "are teti." And he explains that from August until December, the tiny red fish swim up to the mouths of the three rivers, all stuck together. When they reach the fresh water they disperse and hundreds and thousands of them swim upstream.

"They only come to Baracoan rivers, you know," he adds, with a familiar ring of pride.

Fact File

When to go: Cuba is mostly hot and sunny; humidity and rainfall are highest in September and October. For maximum sun, go in April or May.

Getting to Cuba: The main carrier, Cubana (0171-734 1165), flies four times a week from Gatwick to Havana; note that the Cuban national airline has attracted unfavourable publicity with regard to safety, overbooking and punctuality.

British Airways (0345 222111) has just begun direct flights from Gatwick. Lower fares are available on airlines such as Air France via Paris and Iberia via Madrid. Organised package are typically pounds 499 for a week in Havana.

Red tape: Visitors need a Tourist Card: pounds 15 from the agent who sells you the ticket or holiday. Immigration officials at Havana airport have been known to demand that travellers with no accommodation booked pay for a night or two in a hotel before they are admitted.

Getting around: Cubana flies a fleet of mainly ancient Soviet aircraft around the island. A one-way flight from Havana to Baracoa costs about $80 (pounds 50). Domestic flights can be booked in advance.

Buy tickets for long-distance buses and trains in hard currency from tourists' ticket offices. Renting a Jeep or car is expensive. Cuban roads are mostly dreadful, but empty.

Money: The main currency is the US dollar. The "convertible peso" has a coinage counterpart in Intur tourist money - 5c, 10c and 25c, introduced to counter the lack of small change. The "real" peso (21 to the dollar) is essential for local buses and postcard stamps. When faced with a mix of dollars, convertible and ordinary pesos, be sure to check your change.

Most credit cards are widely accepted, but not American Express.

Health: No vaccinations are needed; protection against malaria is unnecessary. Some people say water quality is deteriorating, though it has not done The Independent's travel editor any harm. Bottled water is available.