Cuba: Lost in time in the Caribbean

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Beyond 'that' bay in Cuba's easternmost province, the isolated port of Baracoa reveals five centuries of history, says Fiona Dunlop

At strategic spots along the near-deserted road, locals dangled bunches of tiny bananas, strings of mandarins, cucuruchos (cones of pineapple and coconut paste), recycled bottles of wild honey, solid lumps of cacao and bags of coffee beans. Pulling in, I ended up having a chat, added a few pesos to their income and learnt how desirable a bar of soap was. This basic yet rare commodity costs a fortune: a whispered "Jabón, jabón" became a leitmotif of the trip.

I was driving over La Farola, Cuba's highest mountain road and an engineering feat of the brave new Cuba of the early 1960s. Although the road was nothing like as bad as I had been warned, it took nearly five hours to drive the 230km from my starting point, Santiago, to my destination on the north coast – Baracoa. The route curled through the unlikely tourist destination of Guantánamo province, passing the arid scrub and cacti of the desolate coastal strip around "that" bay and its anachronistic pockets of US-controlled land.

Then the rolling sierra took off and morphed into dense forest for mile after spectacular mile. At the first high point, I looked back to see the distant blur of red-tiled roofs of the American facility, a chilling sight in view of its remaining 171 detainees. Far down the slopes was an occasional wooden shack, but the otherwise limitless, undulating green was a reminder of how vital Baracoa's sea access had been before La Farola was built.

Monday marks the 500th anniversary of this first Spanish settlement on Cuban soil, which was a curtain-raiser to the virtual extinction of the island's Taíno inhabitants and the genesis of an Afro-Hispanic culture unlike any other. Centuries later, in 1959, the Cuban Revolution added another dimension. Giant cut-out figures of Che are likely to greet you from hilltops; affectionate references to "Fidel y Raul" decorate shop walls; endless political slogans dot the roadside. Back in 1515, the conquistador Diego Velázquez transferred the Cuban capital to Santiago, and Baracoa became a backwater.

Pirate attacks nonetheless demanded that the town retain muscular forts, which now respectively house a dusty municipal museum, a restaurant and a hilltop government-run hotel called El Castillo. With unbeatable views over the bay and the Atlantic, it's definitely the best place to stay.

In indigenous Taíno, Baracoa means "beside the sea", but the town also wallows in a lush hinterland of coconuts, cacao, bananas and coffee, nurtured by the highest rainfall in Cuba. You see this best on the road east to the dramatic canyon of Yumurí, which, after crossing the Río de Miel ("honey river"), passes bucolic farmland edged by deserted beaches. Together with the north-eastern trade winds, rain brings endlessly inspiring skyscapes, which, whatever their mood, frame the iconic silhouette of El Yunque – "The Anvil".

This limestone outcrop allegedly inspired Columbus's 1492 diary entry describing "a high and square mountain that looks like an island..." He continued lyrically: "I have never seen a more beautiful place. Along the banks of the river were trees... flowers and fruit of the most diverse kinds, among the branches of which one heard the delightful chirping of birds."

Today, you could add to those warbles the clip-clop of pony-cart taxis, the rattle of bullock-carts, the ring-ring of bicycle and pedi-cab bells, the throb of antiquated motorbikes with sidecars, and the splutter and belch of American cars from the 1950s (nearly all resprayed in a lurid mint green or fearless turquoise). And at night there's the inevitable blast of live son and changüí – the local cubano music.

Architecturally, it's a bizarre juxtaposition of vividly painted clapboard beside ornately stuccoed and colonnaded beauties from Baracoa's big 1930s comeback, when bananas became the "green gold" that reaped fortunes. On the seafront, incongruous Soviet-style blocks overlook a devastated stretch slowly recovering from a hurricane in 2008, but the action all happens a block or so inland.

Every street tells a story of past glories. At the excellent paladar (privately run restaurant) El Colonial, chandeliers illuminate sweet, fresh lobster in a divine coconut sauce. Yet, despite this decorative nostalgia and Cuba's economic woes, the town seems to thrive on an energetic individualism, peaking at night. Brilliant musicians– legions of them – play at the funky Casa de la Trova beside the gutted cathedral, which is undergoing a painful renovation.

More local still, the beaten-up El Patio heaves with dancers and drinkers. One evening, a veteran guitarist in an immaculate white guayabera even lured me into the Casa de la Cultura to lend a hand on percussion in his otherwise masterful son band.

After a few days, I felt as if I knew everyone, and they certainly knew me. There was Ramón, the dynamic postman, with his sideline of a second-hand book exchange; the peripatetic cigar-seller (whose price for the local Guantánamo smoke plunged dramatically as the nights went by); and the willowy Afro-Cuban with a heavily bandaged arm who seemed to crop up at every nocturnal venue, talking wildly.

More measured in style was René Frometa, an 82-year-old painter. He turned out to be guardian of the legacy of his adoptive mother, a Russian aristocrat ("La Rusa", now the name of the hotel she opened in 1953, where she later hosted and supported the revolutionaries Fidel, Raul and Che).

Dragging myself away from the charms of this time-locked, end-of-the-world place, I headed west to Playa Maguana in search of a swim. This lay a 25km crawl along a spectacularly cratered road that crossed several rivers, including the broad, crystalline Río Toa. En route, hitchhikers piled in to my hire car – a very Cuban form of public transport. In the background the hills were clad in a tangle of vegetation.

The area is now a national park named after the great Prussian naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt. Egrets and hawks winged past while children splashed in the shallows.

The idyll continued at Villa Maguana, a small-scale wooden lodge on the curve of a blissful white sand cove, where hummingbirds, coconut palms, giant scarlet hibiscus, a coral reef washed in a palette of blues and the lull of gently rolling surf all compounded the Caribbean magic.

Nothing is perfect though, and the sleepiness of the hotel service soon forced me to venture out in search of better food and sharper attention. On the neighbouring beach, I discovered a laid-back chiringuito (beach bar), where I arranged dinner with the owner, Pablo. Later that evening, the headlights of my car picked out the thatched bar in the pitch black, moonless night: no sign of life. Cuban indifference? Unlikely, given the lure of the convertible peso, the curious home-grown hard currency.

Suddenly, out of the night, appeared an apologetic Pablo, in a whiff of rum. Action followed: lights, crackling music, chilled beers, a family of pigs snuffling round the edge of the deck, a strutting cockerel and, perched languidly on a stool in the corner, a young girl still in a bikini despite the night chill. The surreal performance continued as a dreadlocked groover appeared from nowhere to dance salsa with her, then an older Cuban leading a goat on a string shuffled in for a beer. My beaming host finally materialised bearing plates of perfectly grilled dorado, rice, fried plantain and a salad of home-grown tomatoes.

Afterwards, digesting the food and ambiance with the usual añejo rum, I wandered on to the shadowy beach to look upwards at a dense scattering of stars glinting above the palms, the same constellations that guided Columbus and then Diego Velázquez to these shores 500 years ago.

For them, it was the beginning of an adventure. For me, it was the end: a typically haphazard Cuban finale full of warmth and theatricality, and hard to forget.

Travel essentials: Baracoa

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Travelzest's Captivating Cuba (0800 171 2150; captivatingcuba.com), which arranges tailor-made holidays to Cuba, including car rental and flights from Gatwick to Havana with Virgin Atlantic. There are frequent domestic flights from Havana to Santiago, and occasional departures to Baracoa's tiny airport.

* An alternative from the UK is on Cubana from Gatwick to Holguín, which Travelzest's Captivating Cuba can also arrange. Baracoa is about six hours' drive from the airport, depending on road conditions.

More information

* Tropical rain is frequent in Baracoa, but the months of November to March see less, as well as maximum temperatures in the low 30s.

* It is obligatory to have travel insurance – and to carry the policy – when you arrive in Cuba. Note that travel insurance policies underwritten by an American company, such as those issued by Boots, are not valid for Cuba.

* American dollar travellers' cheques and US credit cards are not accepted in Cuba. On arrival, sterling can be changed easily into convertible pesos (CUCs), the foreigners' currency, much sought after by Cubans.

* Cuba Tourist Board: 020-7240 6655; travel2cuba.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'