Baracoa is without a doubt a gem. A piece of paradise facing the Atlantic Ocean; the birthplace of proud and prodigious citizens; providing a wealth of historic feats which though true, appear pure fantasy, a source of myths and legends.
The city was the first villa to be founded by Adelantado Diego Velásquez during the colonization of the island. According to the catholic custom of the time, Baracoa was originally baptized Our Lady of Assumption, almost two decades after Christopher Columbus stepped foot on these lands which he described as the most beautiful human eyes had ever seen.
A place of firsts, Baracoa was the setting for the earliest church on the island, made from the wood of palm and balsa trees, which sheltered the Sacred Cross of Parra - made from the wood of Golden Berry trees grown on the coast - planted on the island by the Genovese Admiral on arrival in 1492.
There the first square, the first government, the first cemetery were established, as well as the first evangelizing mission, the enslavement of Africans and the indigenous Taínos whose descendents, contrary to the belief that Cuba’s original inhabitants were totally exterminated, continue to populate the mountains of Guantánamo.
Historians have noted that Cuba’s first national war against Spanish colonization, which lasted 10 years, was led by the indigenous communities of the island and specifically Cacique Guamá.
Baracoa is also a land of unparalleled natural beauty, with its picturesque bay, the Yunque Mountain, abundant flora and various endemic species of fauna, clear-flowing rivers, enchanting all those who have visited over the last five centuries.
However, Baracoa is also much more. Practically unreachable by land, the area opens up to the sea, to such a point that by 1930, the city’s port received more ships than Havana bay, according to City Historian Alejandro Hartmann Matos.
Despite being an essentially mountainous region, sugar cane production began to flourish here during the early 19th century.
Journalist Ariel Soler Costafreda, in his book En Baracoa, más allá de la Farola, describes how in 1803 the region was “One of six points on the island through whose ports sugar was exported (…) as raw sugar packed in boxes.”
With exceptional soil and climate conditions, Baracoa soon became a successful coffee, cacao and coconut producing region, which developed continuously but sporadically from 1900-1940 following a boom in banana production, destined mainly for the United States and Norway; which led to the establishment of the area’s first and last railway.
This land also gave birth to important stories and mythical figures, such as the wealthy Russian woman, “La Rusa”, who lived in Baracoa until her death, giving her life, jewels and property to the Revolutionary cause. Then there’s Cayamba, the self-taught musician who left an indelible mark on the romantic music of the city; as well as the urban legend that is the curse of Pelú (The long-haired man), a statue of whom stands in the middle of the city’s main boulevard. Others include Urbano Rodríguez, the “King of Cacao”. Then there are what are known as “the five lies of Baracoa”: the La Farola (lamp), which provides no light, the Yunque (anvil) which despite its name is not made of iron, and so on.
Baracoa was marked by the Revolution of 1959, which saw new social policies implemented in the once forgotten villa, which in 1965 saw an end to its isolation thanks to the completion of the La Farola, a six-meter wide seven kilometre-long concrete highway located in the municipality of Imías, stretching from the Las Guásimas bridge in Veguita del Sur to the site known as El Mirador, recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of Cuban civil engineering.
Then began the second stage of Baracoa’s history: a city where schools and family clinics were erected, the home of the first Latin American Olympic Champion javelin thrower María Caridad Colón, who won gold in Moscow 1980 with a throw of 68.40 meters.
Today, Baracoa has a population of 81,698 and almost 27,000 homes, it is the largest coconut and cacao producer in the country, is home to one of the most important natural areas in the region, mainly concentrated in the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, a World Natural Heritage site, and represents the province’s most promising tourist destination, with over 300 private rooms and 250 in state hotels.
Everyday more and more people arrive to the city in search of its wonder, which according to Alejandro Hartmann, is not just natural beauty, history, song and dance, exceptional food…, what distinguishes Baracoa, “is also its people, their hospitality, character, open way of receiving those who visit us (…) its fine, beautiful population.”
In Baracoa, originality is law. Examples range from the area’s culinary traditions, with unique recipes, many of which use coconut milk and seafood, and include typical dishes such as bacán; a type of tamale prepared with green banana or plantain stuffed with pork or crab meat, seasoned with spices and coconut milk, and wrapped in banana and palm leaves.
The famous cucurucho, a typical dish of the region, is made from grated coconut, Baracoa’s other key crop, sweetened with honey, sweet spices and to which is usually added seasonal fruits such as orange, papaya, pineapple or guava, before wrapping the mixture in a cone-shaped palm leaf.
Meanwhile, cacao – the other “c” of Baracoa’s agriculture in addition to coffee – forms the base of another traditional treat, the chorote, made from sugar, coconut milk, bananina or another thickener and sweet spices, while it is also used to produce chocolate bars and various types of chocolate candies.
The sea offers another typical yet magical feast. Fishers sail out just before dawn to the mouth of the rivers Toa, Duaba and Miel to catch the little tetí fish, which is cooked with coconut milk, fried and serve with rice…
Another typical feature of Baracoa is its music, as the birthplace of nengón and kiribá, which according to Teresa Rochet Lores, founder and director of the dance-music group “kiribá nengón,” “are not classed as variants of Cuban son…but rather the primary cells of the genre, a merit within the various sounds of Caribbean music.”
Music is accompanied by food, transforming into a party with an abundance of roasted suckling-pig and other typical dishes served on banana leaves, which lasts the entire day, although long ago festivities used to last three, according to Rochet Lores.
Baracoa saw in its 505th anniversary with the tranquility of someone who has lived a long time. Little has changed in its architecture which, despite lacking the grandiloquence of other cities across the nation, features among its most outstanding buildings the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Assumption, three forts built during the colonial period to defend the city against constant attacks by buccaneers and pirates, and the old Town Hall, part of which currently houses the municipal government headquarters.
But Baracoa is more than just history. Luis Sánchez Rodríguez, president of the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power for the last five years, states that over twenty social initiatives have been inaugurated or reopened from mid-June through August 15.
Such works include the Taberna Caribe Atlantic, in the city’s beach area, the plaza Cacique Hatuey at the site known as La Punta as well as the Bus Station, an over five-year project offering both private and state transport services, in accordance with the new relevant regulations.
Other important initiatives have been undertaken in the Octavio de la Concepción y la Pedraja Hospital, where renovations were carried out to the nephrology and neo-natal departments, birth, caesarean and integrated emergency services, teaching area and dining-hall, as well as oncology, chemotherapy, curettage and laundry areas.
The municipal development plan through 2020, includes an 18 million peso investment to build a food production and commercialization plant, principally directed at cacao and coconut, to produce raw materials and finished products.
According to Sánchez Rodríguez, given abundant cacao crops, the current cacao derivatives production plant is scheduled to receive an eight million peso investment and will be subject to a technological overhaul, while a canning area has been installed in coconut processing factories.
Baracoa also has a food industry which manufactures products for the state subsidized and non-subsidized markets which supply the fixed local population as well as an estimated 30,000 non-permanent residents and visitors. These include a confectionary industry, coconut derivatives plants and this year the city is set to receive a new flour derivatives factory, as the result of an international collaborative project.
Besides agriculture, Baracoa’s other “most important development sector, given its origin and nature, is tourism, with visitors above all attracted by Baracoa’s natural environment, linked with its culture, traditions and history,” he noted.
Sector development plans include a new hotel offering 44 rooms and located near the Malecon seawall, which will also contribute to supporting agriculture and local industries.
Among investments which have already been completed in the tourist sector are two municipal initiatives: the Plaza Hotel and Cacao Museum, revenue from which funds the municipal budget and other local development projects.
Other options related to the marina are being assessed, in particular scuba-diving and various nautical activities, as although Baracoa has ports and a bay with great potential, “we have serious infrastructure problems,” noted the official.
However, the largest contribution has already been made. “The most important thing is that we expect the support of the people in all situations, compelled by their sense of belonging, deeply rooted in their land, and values of solidarity, hospitality, the belief that more can be done and the constant struggle to improve things for themselves and their land,” stated Sánchez Rodríguez.