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Baracoa: the birthplace of Cuban culture

Baracoa: the birthplace of Cuban culture

by Ailyn Martín Pastrana

photos: Karel Pérez Alejo & Frank Baltodano

Anyone visiting Baracoa will be treading on different ground in Cuba, where the imposing Farola mountain highway with its crags and pronounced curves announces that the end of the road is really just the beginning of your trip to a corner of the world that has been frozen in time. Called the “First City of Cuba,” Baracoa patiently awaits its visitors, bathed by the waters of the Caribbean Sea and guarded by the mountain massif studded with coffee plantations, coconut palms and cacao trees. People who travel a lot will tell you that fishing towns follow a different rhythm, more easygoing than big cities, and this eastern port city certainly confirms that.

The word “baracoa” comes from the Arawak, meaning “sea existence.” The town has gone by many names, something that can be expected from a settlement dating back over 500 years: First City of Cuba, Landscape City, City of the Waters and City of the Mountains. It was founded on August 15, 1511 by Governor Diego Velázquez and it has survived through the ages as a town that brings together the past and the present.

Dressed by the Sea

Walking along Baracoa’s malecón, or seawall, something that is a must when you are there, visitors will run across the wonders of 15th-century military engineering, still standing as the Matachín Fort, La Punta Fortress or Seboruco Castle. The fortifications were built by the European conquistadors to defend the city from pirates and today the buildings have been transformed into museums.

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción of Baracoa Parish features the Cruz de Parra, the only cross to survive the ravages of time after Christopher Columbus planted 29 of them in the Americas as symbols of Spanish supremacy. Originally this example was 7 feet high, but it has suffered from countless mutilations and has become smaller. Important figures in colonial Cuba would visit and request a small piece of it as a souvenir.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that authorities decided to cover it with silver plating. The historical piece was blessed by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Cuba in 1998, and was declared a National Monument and treasure of the Cuban nation in 2011 as part of the celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the founding of Baracoa.

The authenticity of the piece has been proven and for years it has been exhibited at the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Parish Church of Baracoa, one of the foundations of the Catholic faith on the Island since it was the first parochial church to be built in Cuba. Bartolomé de las Casas, known as the defender of the rights of the natives living in Cuba when the Spanish arrived, officiated there. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the aboriginal population to be quickly wiped out as a result of forced labor.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the impossibility of being able to reach the town easily forced the people of Baracoa to find other ways of surviving, such as smuggling operations with the French and the English. The inhabitants of the so-called “Sleeping Beauty” (the sobriquet happened because from a distance the town looked like a young woman lying down) were pretty much removed from the realities the country was living through until the 1960s when La Farola Viaduct was constructed, one of the wonders of Cuban engineering.

This highway has 11 arched bridges and the highest point is at Alto de Cotilla, over 600 meters above sea level where a lookout point has been placed offering a view of both the northern and southern coastlines—legend has it that from there you can see the lights of Haiti. If coming from the west, you can take the Holguín-Mayarí-Moa-Baracoa Highway, an asphalted stretch of 180 kilometers to Moa and 16 kilometers to Punta Gorda. The remaining 60 kilometers are along a causeway that crosses important rivers over cement bridges.

Natives + Spanish + French… “Baracoenses

The people of Baracoa are a mix of several nationalities: native, Spanish conquistadors and French immigrants. These cultures have come together naturally and created a unique mélange. From their native ancestors they inherited some physical traits that are much more difficult to perceive elsewhere in the country. The Spanish bequeathed them their military fortifications that stand guard over the first city founded by them. And thanks to the French from Haiti, they learned how to grow coffee, one of their prime products.

“Baracoenses,” or “baracoesos” as they are also known, speak of the “Three Cs,” a reference to the three principal products of the area: coconuts, cacao and coffee.

Climatic events, such as Hurricane Matthew which swept through the zone in October 2016, once again tested the tenacity of the locals. This meteorological phenomenon battered the area for hours and left in its wake a great number of trees, houses and objects ripped out of the ground. Hashtags quickly inundated the social networks in a show of solidarity for the city and its inhabitants: #BaracoaEstamosContigo, #TodosSomosBaracoa and #FuerzaBaracoa. The rubble that had been strewn around has practically disappeared today. As the farmers say, plantations recover, and now they await favorable rains to revive this year’s crops.

A Nature Destination

These days the city is witness to the passage of time, and the fever of private enterprise can be seen in the number of businesses that have opened up in recent years, especially the sales of arts and crafts, inns and restaurants. Gradually, the city is turning into a tourism destination with some excellent ingredients: lovely natural scenery and cultural traditions that date back to aboriginal times.

Visiting the Toa, Yurumí and Miel rivers is an essential part of any trip. Legend has it that whoever bathes in these rivers will come back to visit the city. Women washing clothes in the age-old way and men fishing in the river are daily scenes. Harvesting, collecting and roasting cacao beans is daily activity for many people in Baracoa—they have the only factory devoted to this product in Cuba.

Another calling card for this Eastern city is its cuisine, which is quite different from other parts of Cuba. Coconut milk and cacao get combined in amazing ways, surprising visitors both from Cuba and abroad. Since it is 1,000 kilometers away from the Island’s capital, its authenticity can be more easily preserved. Restaurants such as “El buen sabor” or “Calalú” serve typical dishes cooked by local chefs. Bacán, shellfish cooked in coconut milk and calalú are the most popular, but far from the only ones. For those who adore desserts, the greatest attraction is the cucurucho, a sort of coconut-orange-pineapple jam that is put into a container made of yaguas or dried Royal palm leaves. There are also the famous bolas de cacao (cacao balls) which you can grate at home to coat all sorts of desserts. A unique fact about Baracoa’s style of cooking is that they tend to put together really unusual ingredients. You will have to spend a few days eating your way through town to get the complete idea! But what a unique experience it will be!

Tips for first-time visitors:

  • Wear comfortable shoes and clothing made of light fabrics because the eastern part of Cuba is very hot and humid (the warmest months are July and August).
  • Get your picture taken on the Farola (there are a few spots where you can safely stop the car for a while)
  • At the Miel River estuary, you will see the tibaracón, a natural sand formation that protects the river’s ecosystem and where people annually fish for tetí, a rare shellfish that is the most appreciated dish in the region.
  • Don’t forget to buy cucuruchos and cacao balls for your friends: that will be the best gift you can bring back because they are unique to the region.
  • Try bacán and other goodies made from coconut milk.
  • Climb the Yunque Mountain and discover how cacao is grown and collected.
  • Stroll along Baracoa’s Malecón.
  • Row a boat in the Toa River, the most mighty in Cuba: this could be quite a challenge.
  • To get to Baracoa quickly, you can take a plane (there are several flights every day) or you can take the highway which will let you interact more with the place and its people.


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