Disaster Zone #1, and a lovely quiet, friendly town


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Central America Caribbean » Cuba » Este » Baracoa
September 20th 2008
Published: October 2nd 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

Baracoa, one of the most heavily hurricane hit places in Cuba. We werent even sure if we would be able to travel here. Not so much if the road would be open, but if there would be services for tourists, would we just be getting in the way, or putting money into a region that needs it? We´d heard varying reports ranging from ¨yeah fine no problems¨ through to ¨its a disaster zone, stay away¨.

It turns out that while we werent the first tourists to go back to Baracoa, we werent far off, its still a disaster zone, some places dont have power and water still, but the centre of town is up and running again, and welcoming us with open arms (thinking of those tourist dollars of course!!!)

Colin got a ride in another old vehicle from the casa in Santiago to the bus station, this time an old Willys jeep of undetermined vintage. Not that it was driven as it was designed to be. I´m not talking about off road and over battle fields, but the guy driving spent the whole time either coasting or in at least one gear too high. Whichever, the jeep was slow, struggling along the road, we were overtaken by push bikes. Its all about saving petrol.

We passed about 20km from the US base at Guantanamo Bay, couldnt see much. The scenery was stunning going along the coast and up over the hills. The last part over the hills was a bit too winding to be reading a book, so it was time to just gaze out at the scenery, the bus swinging from side to side. The hills had been hit quite hard by the winds, trees were down or shortened, stripped of leaves, and powerpoles stood at crazy angles.

The first day there we just wandered round the town. Coming in on the bus we could see plenty of damage to buildings and spaces where it looked like buildings used to be. Our walk took us down the the south end of town, to the beach and baseball stadium. It looked like there used to be a path, road or promenade type thing between the stadium and the beach, but now the stadium is prime water front property. It was clear here how hard Gustav and Ike had hit. Buildings and the promenade were scattered in bits on the beach. We walked along the beach for a little way, till we got to the river, but we left exploring further for another day.

We walked back along the Malecon, the waterfront road, all the way to the bay entrance where there used to be a castle. This area was hit hardest, with the waves up to 7m high and coming several blocks inland. Whole blocks had been flattened. Strangely, one of those things about nature, some houses had been spared while their neighbours were gone. The rubble had been cleared and the empty sections ready for rebuilding. We passed teams working to fix houses and apartments, and those getting services back in. The idea, once the area was made save and the rubble cleared, was to fix those places that are only slightly damaged, replace a door or windows, fix the roof, and then to start on the rebuilding. We passed a trenching machine that Colin reckoned Northpower needs, builders repairing walls and balconies, a team of linesmen we chatted to briefly. They enjoyed telling Colin his job was easy with power tools, and to try doing everything by hand!

Even the fort at the end of the Malecon, built in the early 1800´s hadnt escaped damage, although I believe it would have fared better if it wasnt attached to a late 1900´s poorly built building. We also saw a secondary school on the waterfront that was all but destroyed. All the windows were gone, the first couple of floors had no walls (in places no floors too). The ocean was as calm as anything, millpond like, when we were there, no sign of the power that destroyed much of this lovely town 10 days ago. We have a movie clip though, given to us by the casa owner in Santiago, from the internet showing the waves pounding Baracoa. His mother lives here and he rushed to help her and her neighbours as soon as he could. We have a bunch of photos from him too showing the immediate aftermath.

We went back the following day to the beach and took the ¨ferry¨ across the river, a smallish boat poled across the flooded river mouth. We walked along the sand the other side for about 15 minutes, then crossed an estuary into a village. From there we headed up into the ¨bush¨ along a dirt road until we came to the house of the brother of a guy we met on the beach. Sounds dodgy, but this is the way they get tourists in during low season. Approach them in town or on the beach, tell them about the tours on offer, take them or send them across the river. It just so happens that the exact same instructions we were given we ahd already read in the guide book, and we were heading out anyway. At least we didnt have to pay this guy as a jinetero.

This tour wasnt quite as we expected, as we didnt get to see much of the banana, coffee and cacao plantations, but we were taken to the edge of the cliff and down to a cave. The views along the coast from the top of the cliff were impressive, palm trees, beautiful blue ocean... The path down the cliff was a different story. Vaguely cut steps in the rock, wobbly handrails, and a guide who trotted down so quickly we couldnt keep up. But the climb down was worth it. The cave was neat, with a pool at the bottom for swimming in. The only thing spoiling it really was the kerosene lantern used to light the way into the cave. I say lantern, what I really mean is old beer bottle with some kero in the bottom and a rag in the top. We ¨swam¨in the pool and though to a couple of side chambers. None of the caverns were particularly big, but there was some natural light in all of them. One was deeper than we were tall, we couldnt see the bottom of the pool or how far it went into the hill.

That night we ate in a peso restaurant, slightly different than in Santiago. This time the rules were different...
[ol]
Locate restaurant and check opening times
When open, return. If there is no queue, knock once on the door and start queue. If there is a queue, join end.
Wait to be admitted. Just because you can see empty tables doesnt mean they will let anyone in.
Once in and seated, wait for the menu to become free (there may only be one or two for the whole restaurant). Order.
Wait.
Keep waiting.
Everything you ordered will come at the same time and the plates will be stacked everywhere.
Eat quickly as there will be a queue outside of people waiting.
[/ol]

We failed on several steps. We knocked more than once wondering why no one was opening the door. We didnt order nearly as much as everyone else. Our plates fitted easily on the table. Not that there was much choice, certainly not without meat. I had rice and beans, and a salad. The salad was a plate of sliced cucumber. So a really well balanced, nutricious meal! Less than a collar though. Way less. All the food together cost less than one beer, and that was a peso beer too. To make up for the less than satisfactory dinner, we went round the the Casa de Chocolate, another peso place that we knocked and waited correctly for. We had a thick, sweet hot chocolate and some chocolate ice cream each.

We took a side trip to Yumuri Canyon too. The first stop on the tour was on the side of the road for a look at coffee, cacao, banana and coconut trees. We even got to try (again) cacao beans straight from the pod. The white pithy stuff is ok, the bean itself is very bitter.

Next stop was at Mata Bay, a small fishing village in a big beautiful bay. The village had suffered a lot of damage from the hurricanes, more than they expected as the entrance to the bay is through a narrow gap in the cliffs. All the flimsy pole houses over the edge of the water were destroyed by the 3m high waves. Other houses had also suffered damage of one kind or another.

Next was the ¨German Arch¨, a big crack in the rocks that the road goes through, or maybe like a giant slab of cliff has fallen down leaving just enough space to drive under. The German reference is because some Germans has discovered or rediscovered the road / passageway, cleared smaller rocks out of the way and got the traffic moving along the coast.

Then it was onto Yumuri, town, canyon, river. We were slowly paddled a little way up the river, past the rocky entrance, to a large rocky island. From there we walked further up the river, past women doing their laundry and kids playing (or was it bathtime?). The canyon wasnt all that narrow, but it was high. It probably looked a lot better before the storms when there would have been a few more trees around. We walked another 400m or so up the river, along this island and along the river bank, to a deep pool past all the other people. We relaxed here for a while, swimming and eating fresh coconut.

And that was about it for Baracoa. We hired bikes and pedalled out to another beach on our last morning there. That was hard work. Neither bike had brakes or gears, and the frames were too small for either of us. Still, the roads were good, and the drivers here are careful around bikes and animals. The beach was neat too. We were talking to an old man who claimed one end of the beach, by a river, was an archaeological site, and he showed us some old pottery shards, saying they were pre European.

We kept up our habit of getting 5 peso pizzas for lunch, the cheapest meal in town. Why pay in CUC for something not as nice?! But only tried a peso restaurant for dinner the once. the CUC places had a slightly better selection of vegetables. But not by much. Cuba is running out of food.


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