On The Road: Cuba


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The Independent Travel

Had Rafael and Carmen Jiménez Fuentes lived 500 years ago right on the sands at Baracoa in eastern Cuba, Christopher Columbus may well have moved right in. When the "Great Admiral of the Ocean" sailed along the north-east coast of this Caribbean island in 1492 and Baracoa came into view, he wrote in his diary that Cuba was the most "enchantingly beautiful" land he had ever seen.

Rafael and Carmen's home, facing Duaba beach north of Baracoa town, may well have suited the explorer. Their lonely wooden house, embedded in a rampant tangle of tropical greenery, makes the perfect place to stay. Not only is it a model of sustainability but it's a foodie's heaven – Carmen is celebrated in the area for creating the tastiest sweets along the coast.

I went to meet them both, in the hope of tasting some of Carmen's coconut candies. The welcome was a warm Cuban one. We sat in the backyard facing the Atlantic waves. The yard was decorated with recycled finds – fishing nets, coconut husk sculptures and seed curtains. We were offered what we were hoping for – cucuruchos (mashed coconut, honey and almonds wrapped in a cone of royal palm tree bark).

As I dug my fingers into the cone, Carmen told me her recipe had been handed down from the Taínos, Indians who lived in Cuba when Columbus arrived.

Together for 56 years, theirs is a working partnership. Rafael is 90 and has been climbing coconut trees all his life. The hard work of scaling the palms is visible in his very curved feet. As he pointed to a huge coconut husk cemetery next to the house, he told me he receives the equivalent of 82 pence for 70 collected coconuts.

There are thousands of them – enough for Carmen to supply cucuruchos to the entire town. As the seed curtains rattled in the light breeze, Carmen told me: "I make the sweets and I make bags from coconut fibre and I've got a medicinal plant garden."

Rafael interrupted: "Yes, about the garden – all the mothers come here with their children; she should be a millionaire by now!"

Yes, Columbus would have loved it: beautiful views, great hospitality, tasty food, and light, humorous conversation.

Footprint's Cuba Handbook and Havana Focus guide are out now