Baracoa: Cuba’s First City
Another of those obscure but magical Cuban cities off the beaten path is Cuba’s First City, Baracoa. Rich in history, a scenic wonderland and another of the Cuban destinations where Columbus probably landed, Baracoa receives relatively few tourists per year.
The city is surrounded by the Bahlia de Miel and the tall mountain chain, Sierra del Purial. These natural boundaries have protected the Baracoan lifestyle and culture more than the culture in any other Cuban destination. Prior to 1960, the only way to arrive in Baracoa was by boat. With the 1960 addition of La Farola, a steep mountainous road that includes 11 bridges and steep inclines, road traffic gradually began to arrive at the city, bay and surrounding mountains.
Interested in destinations that will probably only be enjoyed in a customized People-to-People Cuba tour? Contact Dave or Yordi at Info@travelguidecuba.com.
The Gustavo Rizo Airport, a small regional airport was eventually opened for business, adding yet one more portal to the area. Today, visitors can arrive by bus from Santiago de Cuba, a four hour journey, or by plane from Havana, a two hour excursion. Once on the ground in Baracoa, you will probably want to stay around and explore the environs and culture that in many ways seems mired in another century.
Baracoa is northeast of Guantanamo in Guantanamo province. It is said that Columbus first landed here in 1492. His annals refer to a table top mountain believed to be El Yunque that has a mystical presence over the city by the bay.
Baracoa is the oldest continuous settlement in Cuba. The culture is rich in folklore. Spanish Conquistador Diego Velazquez de Cuellar founded the city in 1511. When he built his Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion de Baracoa in 1518, he established the city as Cuba’s first capital. Remains of the Spanish presence still dot the landscape today.
The earliest civilization to inhabit the area were the Taino Indians. The Spaniards made fast work of the Tainos in other regions but were met with uncommon resistance by the fearless tribal leader Hatuey in Baracoa. Catuey retreated to the mountains and built a formidable resistance force.
Eventually, the chief was betrayed by a follower and set for execution. A Catholic priest tried to convert the chief prior to his execution. Catuey asked the priest if Heaven was the place where Spanish soldiers went when they died. When the priest responded affirmatively, Catuey then declared that, “He would rather go to Hell.” Baracoa has the longest surviving strain of Taino tribespeople on the island. Catuey is part of the local folklore.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Baracoa was a haven for illegal trade with French and English traders. The French influence increased dramatically during the Haitian rebellion in the early 1800’s when prominent French farmers migrated to the area. The French helped make the region known for its prodigious coffee and coca trade.
As the 19th century advanced, Baracoa came under attack from a number of would-be invaders. Rebel leaders Antonio Maceo and Jose Marti grew and trained forces here that played important roles in the War for Independence from Spain.
The city is surrounded by a number of fortresses including Fuerte Matachin, built in 1802, to protect the eastern shores and Fuerte La Pinto, built in 1803, to protect the west. With luck, People-to-People Cuba travelers can spend nights at El Castillo, currently Hotel El Castillo. Other hotels in the city are Hotel La Rusa, Hotel Porto Santo and Hostal La Habanera. Need information about the finest hotels and restaurants in Cuba? Contact Yordi and Dave at Info@travelguidecuba.com. For valuable insight that can make your stay more enjoyable than imagined.
The Catedral Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion features the earrings of the Cruz de la Parra, the cross that Columbus is said to have anchored in the beach at Baracoa. Baracoa has its own brand of music which can be enjoyed near the central parque of Independence at Flan de Queso or at Casa de la Flana.
Two rivers flow from the mountains into the bay. The Miel and the Toa, the largest river in Cuba, offer magnificent waterfalls. El Saltadero, Cuba’s most compelling waterfall that is 17 meters high is one of the many falls on the Toa. Salto Fina is the country’s tallest waterfall and higher up on the river. Hikers can also climb El Yunque, just 10 kilometers from the city. Local guides are mandatory for this climb. Bring your boo0ts and camera to capture unforgettable images from atop the table top mountain.
Another attraction to Baracoa is that it is Cuba’s largest chocolate manufacturing center. Baracoa is a wonderful area where visitors could easily spend three days and experience something new and old at every waking hour.
Baracoa is not likely to be included in pre-packaged People-to-People Cuba tours. However, on a custom tour, this is a remote destination with much to offer the naturalist or the historian. Cuba’s First City will probably be the last city in Cuba to change. We recommend the area be experienced before change arrives.
Travelguidcuba.com is not a licensed People-to-People tour provider but works closely with licensed providers. Complete Cuba People-to-People tour is licensed (CT-2013-299822-1) by the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to engage, organize and conduct authorized people-to-people travel to Cuba that engages participants in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.