Cuba – Baracoa

When we mentioned that we would be visiting Baracoa, our Cuban friends would rave about its stunning beauty and untouched wilderness, with many proclaiming it is their favorite region of the island. So it was with high expectations that we visited our last destination in Cuba. We are pleased to announce that Baracoa did not disappoint. We rented bikes for two days and got a great workout when we attempted to bike to Boca de Yumuri. After burning countless calories, we happily exchanged our bikes for a scooter, which we used to explore Playa Maguana. The atmosphere of Baracoa is chill and laid back, with an easy vibe, beautiful black and white sand beaches, and most importantly, some divine chocolate.

Thankfully the bus to Baracoa left on time (it was completely full) and at the Guantanamo stop (about two hours into the trip), more than half of the bus disembarked. We continued on to Baracoa and were met by Sol, our casa owner who guided us to two awaiting bici-taxis for the short ride to her casa. We arrived, settled into our room, drank some fresh mango juice, and decided to rent bikes (3 CUC a day per bike) from Sol’s neighbors. Our first destination was to find the Cubana office, where we wanted to check to ensure that our tickets were valid. The office was closed (only open M, W, Fr from 0700-1500) despite what both our guidebooks told us, but we noted the new opening times and figured we’d come back tomorrow. So off towards Playa Blanca, an easy bike ride away, just past the stadium. We were momentarily confused once we got to the black sand beach before Playa Blanca, but after talking to a friendly local, figured out we had to dismount from our bikes, push them across the first beach and make our way towards a rickety wooden bridge. Once we crossed the bridge, we were to turn left and at the next intersection (with two options, to proceed up the hill or turn a sharp left), we were to turn left and in ten minutes, would reach Playa Blanca. His directions were superb, but the only thing he neglected to inform us was that a new fee (2 CUC per person for entering the “national park”) had been imposed. Once we found this out, we decided to forego our visit to Playa Blanca (the photos of it made the beach area appear miniscule) and backtracked to the lovely (and free) black sand beach. We spend a blissful few hours relaxing here, and were surprised to find the sand to be soft and rock free. Swimming in the sea was a bit of a jolt at first, the water was cooler than expected but oh so refreshing. We both enjoyed our time here and were amazed to realize it was already 6 pm when we decided to head back for our pork dinner. Baracoa is full of one way roads, so we had to wind our way around town to avoid going the wrong way down a one way street. After showering and gorging through dinner, we were approached by one of Sol’s nephews, an aspiring artisan, to look at his hand made wooden figurines. We ended up buying a wooden spoon and called it a night.

9 Jul, Baracoa: Had breakfast and headed straight for the Cubana office, where we exchanged our vouchers for an official ticket for Sunday’s domestic flight from Baracoa to Havana. It was a simple process and didn’t take long. We wondered what would have happened if we had turned up to the airport with the voucher instead of the official AeroCaribbean ticket? The rest of our day was a tough day! Whoever wrote the Lonely Planet section that riding from Baracoa to Boca de Yumuri is “flat, easy and hot” deserves to be shot on sight! It is hot, but neither flat nor easy. The LP Cuba book has been crap throughout our trip but this set us over the edge…the book is going into a bonfire…its an absolutely atrocious guidebook and we wouldn’t recommend it to others. We now both have buns of steel after riding our bikes towards Boca de Yumuri, making it as far at Playa Barigua before deciding that we disagreed with virtually every single statement that the LP Cuba writer had written on this section. It had taken us just under 3 hours to reach this point, with our bikes that wouldn’t shift gears and climbing some serious hilly terrain under very hot and sweaty conditions. Vacation isn’t supposed to be this hard! We lunched at Playa Barigua (full of sea urchins, beware) and made friends with the local school girls who wanted our address to be our pen-pals. The journey back wasn’t so bad until we reached the township of Jamal, and then an epic hill appeared. Trudging our way uphill pushing our bikes alongside, we eventually made it to the summit and thankfully, had a downward ride the rest of the way towards Baracoa. Even though we had consumed 4 liters of water between the two of us, we were still parched and stopped at the first gas station to buy more water. Since we were hot, sweaty and exhausted, yesterday’s serene beach beckoned us. We didn’t have the energy to push our bikes through the sand to get away from the crowds, and boy what a different experience. We had tout after tout approach us trying to sell chocolate, polymitas (colorful land snails), jewelry, wooden carvings, tours to El Yunque…you name it, they’ve got it. Apparently it is impossible to get a serene beach experience if you lay out on the main beach strip..we would have been better off making our way to the isolated strip of beach we relaxed at yesterday. After dipping into the sea to cool off, we went in search of a scooter rental place and found one near the main plaza, charging 24 CUC for a bike rental from 9 am to 6 pm. Agreeing to come back tomorrow, we headed home to shower, relax and read before our dinner of fish with coconut milk, a traditional Baracoan dish.

10 Jul, Baracoa: We rented a scooter for 24 CUC for the day (plus 50 CUC deposit), which was a great deal considering that the bike was brand new (it only had 20 km on it) and was sturdy enough to support the two of us on Baracoa’s hilly terrain. Our first destination of the day was towards Playa Maguana which is about 20 km to the north of Baracoa. There, we met a nice farmer who sold us two coconuts (delicious juice/fruit) and spent a pleasant morning there hassle free. Afterwards, we rode over to the Maguana Resort (it looked really nice with its own small private beach), and than decided to backtrack to Boca de Yumuri, since we tried but failed to get there the day before. Getting there on scooter was definitely the way to go, as we passed gorgeous scenery along our way to the German natural arch (we wondered why its called the “German Arch”?). There were quite a few locals swimming where Rio Yumuri intersects into the sea. It was scenic but what a long ride! On our return trip back to Baracoa, we stopped by a beach named Playa Manglito that is near Playa Barigua and it was fantastic, full of Cubans enjoying the calm waters, playing volleyball and just having a blast at the beach. We weren’t hassled at all, which was a pleasant surprise considering we were the only two tourists there. This fun beach is not mentioned in either of our guidebooks and we aren’t sure why, as it’s definitely a worthwhile one to explore if you are into the fun beach scene. We would have loved to spend more time here, but had to return the bike rental by 1800, so we headed back to Baracoa. It was a breeze returning the scooter, and we immediately got our deposit back. Despite not really being interested, Becky bought a jewelry box for 1 CUC from a street side vendor who was quite persistent, figuring she could give it to someone as a gift. We climbed the stairs up to Hotel Castillo (nice views over the city) but it was undergoing renovations. The pool area did look lovely, and a musician was setting up to play some tunes, but we headed back down to a nearby shady square which had a colorful mural of musicians. It turned out to be an open air bar, with the bartender boastfully claiming “the best mojitos you have ever had or they are free”….well, let’s just say they were damn good and we ended up having several before saying goodbye to our new friend Alex (our awesome waiter) and stumbling downhill for our chicken dinner at Sol’s. After dinner, we took a cat nap before our Havana casa owner called to awake us to give us directions to his house. We then headed out to check the Saturday night street party that Baracoa supposedly hosts each Saturday night, and saw lots of couples decked out in their finest outfits, but no street party was to be found. It was an easy decision to end up back at our favorite bar in Baracoa for more mojitos before bidding Alex goodnight and heading home at around 11 pm.

11 Jul, Baracoa – Havana: After breakfast, we headed out to visit the Museo Arqueologico and were drenched in sweat in no time. Today was a swelter! The Museo Arqueologico is an interesting museum with the best views of Baracoa bar none. However, it is best seen later in the day since the sunlight wasn’t good for taking pics in the morning. After returning back to our casa, we settled our casa bill (135 CUC) and took some pics with Sol, thanking her for her hospitality. Our Baracoa to Havana domestic flight was scheduled for 1400 and we were advised to be there at noon, so we met Miguel (the bicitaxi guy) at 1130 for our ride over to the airport. Unfortunately, he got fined 250 National Moneda for carrying us (tourists aren’t officially allowed to use bicitaxis despite it being a common practice). Another bicitaxi friend had given Miguel a head’s up, so we actually had gotten out of our ride and tried to walk past the police but they suspected something was up and followed us on motor bike. Then they took Miguel’s license leaving him on the verge of tears. We felt really bad that this happened especially since all Miguel was trying to do was earn a few bucks. So we took care of the fine and Miguel, who only realized it way after the fact, actually returned to the airport with chocolate bars in hand as a thank you gift. Checking into our flight was easy but the tiny room was way over crowded. It was bloody hot and the electricity in the terminal went out, leaving all passengers sweltering in their own sweat. We finally were herded into a room where the World Cup was playing (Spain versus Holland) and the AC was on full blast, sending us all in shivers. We finally were able to board the flight and arrived to Havana 2 hours late at 1800, with none of us sure what the delay was. We had to wait another 30 slow minutes to get our baggage, and met our Havana casa owner (Jorge) and had a quick ride into Havana Centro. We dropped our bags in the casa we were staying at (25 CUC a night) and headed over to Jorge’s house for a shrimp dinner (yum although we had to contend with Jorge’s boisterous 5 year old son). It was an early night, with us returning to our casa and packing for our early morning flight tomorrow.

12 Jul, Havana – Cancun flight at around 0700. We woke up early (0400) to meet our ride by 0430. Unfortunately, the headlights on our ride died on the way there, so we hobbled along towards the airport. Both Jorge and his sidekick got a bit paranoid and decided to drop us off by the curb “just in front of the airport”…the airport terminal did say Jose Martin International Airport, but little did we realize it was Terminal 2, not Terminal 3 as we needed. After several frustrating minutes of asking around, we found out we had to make our way about a KM down the road. We asked a taxi driver how much it would cost to take us just down the street but were angered when he quoted us 5 CUCs, so on principle alone, decided to lug our backpacks towards Terminal 3. About 15 sweating minutes later, we arrived to Terminal 3 and were able to exchange our extra CUCs (about 1020) to 835 Euros and check in at MexicanaClick’s very efficient and fast moving line. With tickets in hand, we paid the obligatory exit fee (25 CUCs in exact change each) and proceeded past passport control. The Mexicana Havana – Cancun flight was comfortable, lasting just over 40 minutes with a smooth touchdown in Cancun. Overall, good experience in Cuba. We have learned so much about this amazing country in just under a month and will forever have positive memories of the people, places and experiences.

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