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Published: December 10th 2009
This anvil shaped mountain looms over Baracoa
Odd how one song can make up the soundtrack of your life? Soundgarden just happened to be playing as I peered down from the plane window to see the blackest sand beaches desperately trying to flee dense jungle. The song seemed weirdly appropriate.
My seatmate asked, "There is going to be a runway some time soon, right?" We were only about two feet off the turquoise ocean when we suddenly hit pavement.
....or should I say Holy Baracoa? Hurricane Ida came in right behind us, unleashing her torrential rain for days. Angry ocean blasted over the measly malecon seawall, and the Baracoanians went about their lives without batting an eyelash...they'd seen this all before.
Me, a diehard Vancouverite*, for the first time in my life, was caught without an umbrella.
*Vancouverite: proper noun (Vancouverites) (context, Canadian) A native or resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada never caught outside without umbrella or appropriate rain gear, ever.
My first few glimpses of Baracoa between the sideway rain gave the impression that I may have accidently stumbled onto the set of an old western movie, carved from a jungle. Located at the far east end of
Street party Baracoa
Always a party going on in Baracoa
Cuba, Baracoa is a sleepy little village, stunning and raw. Dirt streets are horsecart narrow and everyone looks like they are waiting for a bus. Mass tourism hasn't quite found its way to this place yet, so we are stared at like a curious circus act come to town (well okay, honestly we do resemble said circus act).
Jose Alfredo Jr., ushers us off to his homestay (called a casa particular). He is a big brute of a man with a friendly laugh, who strikes a resemblance to the notorious BIG...or maybe it was because he was wearing a Biggy shirt? Anyhoo, Jose lives in a two story casa with his wife Mardi, two children and his parents. We were given their entire upper floor and balcony to reside. A comfortable, sparsely furnished bedroom, bathroom with shower, and kitchen table where cooked meals would magically appear at the appropriate times. Stepping over chickens, the family instantly made us feel so very much at home. We were treated like kings.
My Spanish is kindergarten level on the best of days, but the endless games of communication charades can be quite energizing. We spend the rest of our time exploring
and it rained...
just another day for the Baracoanians
this tiny town, eating street pizza with the locals - a favorite doughy concoction handed over with a piece of napkin saturated in oil. 5 pesos - which for us tourists would be less a quarter of a CUC (pronounced kook) or a dollar. 2 pesos for the tu kola to wash it down. A young cuban couple sat with us and we learned they were only here to visit family, both were studying in a University in Havana. They gave us some tips on what to do and see in Baracoa before an old crazy lady shooed us away from hogging her designated table.
Looming in the background is impressive El Yunke, the anvil shaped mountain often hidden amongst dense cloud. Our plan was to hike this baby, (a 4 hour trek) but with the rains and subsequental flooding, it was currently unpassable. So we resorted to climbing the decrepid stairway to hell, to the hotel El Castillo perched at the highest point of the town, to drink some serious Mojitos. This hotel used to be a jail, and before that a spanish colonial fort. The breathtaking 360 degree view is well worth the 85 danger stairs to
take a slow ride
riding dirty in Baracoa
check it out.
More rainy days make the decision for us to venture out of town to visit some schools, community vegetable gardens, and lastly a cacao farm. All hail the mighty chocolate. It is so very interesting to see exactly where something you covet grows. We meet a woman who lives alone in her little shack, she welcomes us out of the rain, we slosh through the mud feeling very invasive entering her extremely neat but tiny dwellings. Here she renders cacao beans into baseball sized balls to sell. She painstakingly extracts the beans, dries them, roasts them and then by adding sugar, makes little nuggets of chocolate to sell. We all buy a few. Then she whips out the bottle of cacao wine. Woohoo. Tastes like a cross between lychee nuts and gasoline. We depart shortly after.
There is this little place called Yumari we are told has interesting rock formations carved out from a chocolate coloured river. While some of our group go off for a touristy river ride up, me and Cindy hang out with a gang of women with apparently have nothing better to do. You can feel a certain desperation here and
Baracoa beach spot
lovely beaches everywhere in Cuba
it becomes obvious that these local gals only know tourists as instant ATM machines. After we got past them asking us for things, they actually relaxed and just enjoyed our company, introducing us to family members and showing us their homes, all newly built since the last big hurricane. Because of my fascination of local plants, next thing I know I'm getting a horticulture lesson. They pull stuff off of trees in a random show and tell, while I joted the names down for later reference, we taste test stuff. The black sand coast is turbulent and while we stroll the length of the town, I pass out a bag of cranberries with almonds to share amongst us, they tell us about their lives and we wait for our group to return.
Nighttime in Baracoa was beyond fun. Around every single street corner, live music! We sat in several trovas, drinking cuba libres, and dancing with the friendly locals. Music is so much a part of their life, their passion for it is unbelievable. It spills out onto the streets. On the malecon me and Cindy meet an old gentleman who chats with us for some time in rusty
English. He is a musican who has travelled extensively and he sings a few tunes for us while we share bucaneros, and watch the sun set in the volitile sky. Later that evening we run across him again playing in one of the trovas, and we are told he is very famous. He greets us like old friends and sings us a few of his songs while the audience accompanies him.
On the morning of our second last day, the sun god finally smiles on us, and we make a bee-line for a small isolated beach near Moa called Maguana. The weather is still wreaking havoc on the sea but none of us care as we spend the day getting bashed around by the waves, sunning ourselves leisurely at this beautiful beach spot, feeding potato chips to the ferrel pigs and chickens to the amusement of several local kids.
Our last night we spend with our fantastic homestay family drinking rum, an instant language barrier resolver. I envy their carefree lifestyle. Neighbours hang outside on their porch and watch the goings on. The kids ham it up for our cameras and we all joke around. A few friends
drop by. People just do that here, there are no locks on the doors or bars on the windows. Everyone knows everyones business. Behind each housefront is a confusing maze of buildings and rooms, all haphazardly constructed together with anything they can get their hands on. There is no garbage here, everything...and I mean everything is recycled. Forced yes, but I often wish for a simpler life back home where every one wasn't in such a hurry to throw away everything.
Leaving Baracoa, we are rewarded with stunning tropical mountain vista views as we wind our way down to the arid farmlands on the other side. Here scrubby trees and yucca cactus dot the landscape, and eventually give way to sugarcane fields. Our next stop is the town of Guantanamo. Not much to see here, yet made infamous for the US base looming way far off distance...I am indifferent as it seems so far removed from why I'm in Cuba.
On a side note, driving in Cuba has got to be one of the weirdest sensations. The autopisa (a 6 lane freeway) is eerily empty. It is completely void of any other traffic except the odd horse cart
The easy life
Baracoa is a relaxing laid back little town
or diesel truck. Our bus driver aka speed demon weaves around them aggressively while laying on his horn. I am amused that all horses in Cuba appear to be very car & horn savvy. Miles of miles of emptiness. If you do see another car, it's an oldie crammed with people spilling out from the rolled down windows. Fumes belch like a smokescreen as the driver attempts to gain on the posted speed of 100km. Amarillos (men in yellow overalls) stand near groups of local people all taking shelter from the blazing midday sun under an overpass, their job is to flag down those with red or blue licence plates. These designated vehicles are obligated by law to take on passengers, and the amarillos are there to ensure this happens. It appears chaotic, yet I am told extremely efficent, and everyone gets to where they need to go, eventually.
A gigantic city loams off in the distance. We are gaining on Santiago de Cuba.
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