I was running out of money in Cuba much quicker than expected and, being American, I couldn’t access more. I knew that I shouldn’t try to cross the entire island for fear of getting stuck there, but since I had arrived in Havana both locals and travelers alike had mentioned how beautiful Baracoa is, and I knew I would go.
It might be a long while before I ever returned, I reasoned, and Cuba certainly wouldn’t be the same.
Around the country, locals will sell you “the best mangoes in all of Cuba, “or the “the best [insert product here] in the world.” I was beginning to question their claim on Baracoa, but this is one time they did not disappoint.
Baracoa is an unknown paradise. Or at least that’s how it felt when we finally arrived via hitchhiking at sundown (read that story here). Our truck driver dropped us on the malecon at a homestay with a rooftop balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We didn’t even really need to see the rest of the house before we said yes. With this view, who needs much more?
But Baracoa is so much more. From the beautiful black beach right in town, where locals spend hot afternoons jumping into the sea, to nearby national parks and secluded caves, this was without question my favorite stop on the island.
With June temperatures reaching 100 degrees matched by what felt like 100% humidity, it seemed like I was on a constant search for water. But I love hiking, and I’d been wanting to see some hilltop views on the island.
My new friends and I decided to conquer Yunque.
A strenuous hike, straight up, Yunque is famous in Baracoa for it’s flat top and seascape views. I’ve never sweat more in my life, but despite the heat, the hike was one of my favorites for the following reasons:
1) Most of the path was shaded by the forest, at least protecting us from the burning rays.
2) The view from the top was completely worth it, overlooking the jungle below, stretching out to the vast sea.
3) About three quarters of the way back down, we met a river and soaked in it’s stream until we were wrinkly from the water. Talk about the best payoff to a hike ever!
4) After our swim, we hiked even further up a different route to a beautiful and relaxing waterfall. It didn’t take us long to get there, but we were ready for another dip!
5) Before heading back, we stopped at a house in the countryside for some home-cooked grub. We were all pretty tired of the Cuban cuisine by this point, but it tasted good after our hard earned time on the mountain, and it was pretty cool just to stop at a local house and order food!
Perhaps my favorite day on the island was my first in Baracoa. My new friends and I took off walking aimlessly, as I always like to do when I first arrive in a new city, along the black beach in town. Along the way we met a local Cuban who suggested we keep walking toward the beach, and so we crossed the wooden bridge of the fishing village and wandered into the forest.
We came to a secluded beach with an inlet just waiting to sweep us out to the sea, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Our new friend/guide met us after we’d had our fill of the beach and led us through a military zone to a cave deep in the forest. At the base of the cave was a freshwater pool that couldn’t have felt more amazing in the dark coolness of nature. We even got to swim through a crevice to find another pool!
On the long walk to the cave and back, our gracious guide took it upon him to find us fresh fruit. Machete in hand, he climbed a palm tree as if it were as simple as a ladder, promptly cut down four coconuts, one for each of us, and then cracked them so we could savor the juice and then eat the meat inside.
He even stopped to pick us “the best mangoes in Cuba” and “the best papaya” as well. I found the mangoes in Baracoa to be stringy, if sweet, and not my favorite because eating one means picking strings out of your teeth for several minutes after! But, our guide did not lie about the papaya. It was by far the best I’ve ever tasted.
On my final day in Baracoa, I decided to spend $30 of my last $180 to do a tour to Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, just 25 miles northwest of Baracoa. Now an UNESCO World Heritage Site (as is much of Cuba), they’ve declared it “one of the most biologically diverse tropical island sites on earth.”
We hired a jeep and a guide to rough the dirt roads and lead us on a hike through the forest. Along the way, we saw beautiful birds and plants I’d never seen before, and we found yet another waterfall to swim to midway through the day.
On the drive back, our driver took us to his favorite locals beach, and we thought we’d found heaven.
The kind people at the little food shack brought us a table out into the sand and cooked us up a traditional Cuban meal, which we got to enjoy with a cold beer in hand our our toes in the sand. Talk about feeling spoiled!
Even though I was forced to eat pizza for dinner as a result of my irresponsible budgeting (one can buy fast-food pizza for about 10 cents!), I managed to make it back to Havana with just enough money to change my flight and eat my last bland Cuban meal before heading back to Mexico.
I’m so glad I took the risk of visiting Baracoa, because it was a different side to Cuba than I’d seen elsewhere, and I enjoyed every minute of my time there. In addition to the gorgeous landscape, the people are friendly, the town is a quaint and French inspired, and the ocean breeze is welcomed every night.
The Most Beautiful Place in Cuba