A 3 - City Road Trip, Part 1, Baracoa
27 March 2011 | Baracoa, Cuba
Beth - 90's
We packed our bags with clothes, cameras, and snacks along with give-aways (children’s clothes, pens, markers, crayons, paper, razors and soap) and headed off in our air conditioned little Hyundai. Ali had told us that Baracoa was his favourite city and that the northern road was scenic. Tina told us that road was “not so good” but that we should definitely go to Baracoa along with Santiago de Cuba.
We have this to say: Definitely go to Baracoa - but definitely do NOT take that northern road! It was so full of pot holes that it was pure misery for the last 30 or 40 miles. It wound through the mountains and we saw tiny rural houses and farms tucked away in valleys and on hillsides - that was nice. (Really - it was very nice and very picturesque - I’m just grumpy from the bumps!) We drove past the big ugly mine at Moa - not so nice - and finally emerged into the city of Baracoa (population 42,000). It is Cuba’s oldest city, founded in 1511. According to the Lonely Planet Guide it was, for many years, somewhat of a Cuban Siberia where rebellious revolutionaries were sent, and in the early 19th century, French planters arrived from Haiti to start farming the same crops that are found there today - coconut, cocoa and coffee. Until the wonderful new highway, La Farola, was completed in 1964, the area was pretty much isolated allowing it to develop its unique culture and traditions.
As we drove into the city about 4 pm, we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of narrow little streets filled with horse, bike and foot traffic. We were on the lookout for a Casa Particular - the private houses with rooms to let - like the Bed and Breakfasts we are familiar with in other countries. They can be identified by the blue, upside down anchor signs which mean they are government approved and meet certain standards. (Air conditioning, private or shared bath, at least one double bed per room, clean!) As we drove, a man and little boy on a bike kept waving at us and following us around corners. Jackie, at the wheel, ignored him for a bit, but then as we were stopped at a corner, we decided to see what he had to say. He offered to lead us to a casa, and since he looked “respectable” and we had no particular place in mind, we said OK. We could always refuse it if we didn’t like it. Well it turned out just fine! He led us to his brother’s casa at #3 Frank Paix at the corner of Ava Malecon - the road along the water. It was airy, clean, 2 blocks from the centre of the city and cost 20 CUC’s per room. (We were to learn later that sometimes it works to follow people who want to lead us to casas and sometimes it doesn’t. This time it worked!) The people there had very little English, but our friend, John, spoke pretty decent traveller’s Spanish so we were quite comfortable. Without him, we’d have had to resort to the dictionary much more often.
We arranged to have dinner there that night and after depositing our bags and handing over our passports, we headed out to explore. (We discovered that all the casas particulares require our passports for their records - they are given back once the hosts fill in the forms and we sign them.)
As became our pattern - we followed the music. Up a couple of streets and around a corner, we discovered an outdoor patio with music and dancing. We quickly responded to the waving hand of a waiter and found seats. With beers and mohitos in hand, we listened and watched - for about two minutes. Then the invitations came to get up and join in the dancing - so of course we did! What fun we had. The locals were good natured and encouraging and managed not to laugh at our ignorance of steps and our inability to move like they did. When the music stopped, we sat and talked in very broken Spanish and English with several of the patrons - with laughter and smiles filling in the gaps where the words just did not connect.
The Baracoan cuisine includes dishes cooked in coconut milk - and that’s what we enjoyed that night. Jim and I had fish and John and Jackie had lobster. The meal started with a chicken noodle soup and the main course included a platter of cabbage, tomato and cucumber along with bowls of rice. (About 5 or 6 CUC’s per person) Again, we were operating on information we had heard from others - the most authentic food is generally available from the Casas. It was all delicious, and with full stomachs, we headed for bed.
Next morning, we were up bright and early. I went for a walk along the waterfront and saw trucks full of people heading into the city. We saw lots of these trucks - like cattle trucks - closed sides with an open space running all along the top. There were as many of these as there were real buses - both in the small towns and in the cities. A garbage truck rumbled along the street too. I had wondered about the piles of garbage at the street corners - it turned out that folks just dumped their buckets of garbage and the garbage cleaners came by and shoveled it up into the truck. I guess it saved on bags! And of course, there is not nearly so much garbage in Cuba because there is not nearly so much over packaging or disposables.
Breakfast (3 CUC each) was fruit - banana, papaya, pineapple - bread, juice, perfectly fried eggs and wonderful thick sweetened coffee. Hot milk was available if we wanted it. We discovered that was a pretty typical breakfast. The fruit varied and the kind of bread, sometimes there was cheese or even sliced meat, and sometimes the price was 4 CUC but that was the food we started our day with. It can be hard to understand that it is different here. We don’t place an order. The hosts offer what they can, and we learned much later that it costs them a considerable amount to put that food on the table. (More about that later)
We spent the day roaming around town. The little triangular “square” or plaza in the centre of town was a good starting place. The cathedral on one side was undergoing renovations so we couldn’t get in, but we were happy to see that something was being done. It surely needed repairs. We checked out the library where there was a good selection of books - fiction, social issues, history, local interest, the expected books on the party and the leadership figures. There was even a poster on the wall reminding people to practice safe sex! An art gallery we hoped to see was closed, but we spent time perusing the carvings and paintings at the market area. We each bought a nice carving from a man whose work was clearly a cut above that on the other tables. We never did find anything we liked as much in any other city. I wish now that I had bought some of the beautiful wooden spoons and salad servers there. They were beautiful and well priced.
Jim and I had a laugh when we gave a gel pen to a fellow who asked for something. The cap was quite difficult to remove, and he kept coming after us to question how it worked. Jim would open it, close it and give it back to him and he’d go off. Pretty soon he appeared again. Finally, we showed him how to grip it firmly and pull, got him to try it and then he was satisfied. Meanwhile his buddies were all laughing too. I would never have thought that something as simple as a pen would be so gratefully received, but I learned to carry a stock of them in my purse. (We came prepared with a good stock that Jim brought back from Canada on one of his trips.)
We watched a fellow selling little candies from a big bag on his lap - he’d spoon them out into the hands of his buyers. A young woman selling sugar had a set of scales set up on the verandah in front of a store. People would give her their bags or containers, she would weigh them and then ladle the sugar from her big bag to the container on the scales. Other folks had tables set up and were selling whatever they had extra.
Jim got a haircut here! A barber standing in the doorway of a very attractive barber shop motioned him in. Since he really did need a haircut, he sat down in his chair and proceeded with the full deal - haircut, shave and facial massage. It was a good, short cut and our friends said it took 10 years off him from the shaggy, grizzly look he had been sporting. And the cost? The extravagant sum of 5 CUC.
We went to our first Etecsa centre - where we could use computers. We needed to present our passports again - no Cubans are allowed to use the computers - and pay 6 CUC for an hour’s worth of time. The cards could be saved to use again if we didn’t use the whole hour. The connection was sometimes slow, and we couldn’t connect with some sites, but it was at least a chance to make a quick check of emails. Interestingly, I tried to get on my PayPal account but it told me I was in a suspect place and would not be able to get into the account. (When I got back to Florida, I was irritated to find that they restricted my account and I had to supply photo ID and a faxed proof of my address in order to get it restored. Geesh!)
At lunch time, we went to a paladar listed in the guidebook - the Paladar El Colonial - where we shared a plate of chicken, rice and salad - all delicious and costing 4 CUC. By the time we sat on a bench in the shade for a bit, wandered the streets some more, chatted with some students at the medical school up the street, the end of the afternoon was approaching and we had time for just 2 touristy visits - the first to the Museo Archeologico in las Cuevas del Paraiso - the caves high on a ridge on the edge of the city that once were Taino burial chambers. (The Taino were pre Columbian people, pretty much wiped out by the Spanish although there is some speculation that there are Indians still living in the Sierra Maestra, and of course it is likely that there is Indian blood in many mixed race people of the area.) It was quite an adventure, climbing up to the top level of the caves! No lawsuit-conscious officials had anything to do with that place! We saw skeletons and bones, pieces of pottery, 3000 year old petroglyphs and then climbed ladders made of sticks wired together to the viewpoint at the very top. It was worth the climb, but I had to breath deeply and look no farther than my feet for some of it.
We ended the day with beers from the little stand beside the Cruz de la Parra, the cross said to have been erected by Christopher Columbus in 1492 - it once was at the cathedral and is now located way down at the end of the road along the water. The cross has been carbon dated to the late 1400’s, but it appears to have been made of indigenous Cuban wood, and therefor was not carried here from Europe as legend has it.
Back at our casa, we watched the young man who is renovating the top floor into a restaurant as he made nails for his project. Yes - that’s right - he was making nails. From a long piece of what looked like copper, he chopped two inch pieces with his machete, and then proceeded to shape them into nails by hammering one end to a point and flattening the other end. It’s a hard way to get construction materials.
We enjoyed another fine dinner and then Jim and I went for an evening stroll along the seawall, watching boys playing basketball in an open air court, and the many local folks out for strolls of their own. We saw that a couple of carnival rides had been set up near our corner, but it didn’t dawn on us that it would be a noisy evening until the very loud music started at dusk and continued until midnight. Unfortunately the morning started early too as a car with a well functioning stereo parked at the end of the street and woke up the whole neighbourhood.
We could easily have stayed here another day or two but Santiago was calling us, and we loaded ourselves into the car, said good bye to our hosts and headed off, meeting dozens and dozens of folks headed toward the centre of town for work and school. Once again, the main transportation was bicycle, horse and foot, with a few truckloads thrown in too. It was really worth the 8:30 departure to see the Baracoa version of the Ottawa Queensway at rush hour!