Blowing an Atlantic gale in Baracoa. That’s the airstrip just short of the water!
The current selection of my book club, The Distant Marvels by Cuban-American writer Chantel Acevedo, centres on the town of Maisi on the hurricane-prone Atlantic Coast in Guantanamo Province, near where our Cuba odyssey finished in Baracoa. The book tells the story of an elderly evacuee from the deadly 1963 Hurricane Flora, Maria Sirena, a former lectora or professional story-teller, who entertains fellow evacuees by recounting her colourful life as the daughter of revolutionaries fighting in the Spanish-Cuban War of Independence. By coincidence, as I turned the novel’s pages, the scenes brought alive by my familiarity with the setting, Hurricane Matthew was roaring towards that very coastline, crossing around Baracoa.
“The most beautiful land that human eyes could set upon”.
The day we arrived in Baracoa an Atlantic gale was blowing too, the winds whipping up the darkened waves with wild white crests and bending the copious palm trees. By the next day the weather had settled, returning the town to what Christopher Columbus described as “the most beautiful land that human eyes could set upon”. Baracoa was where Columbus first set foot on Cuban soil in 1492. The conquistador, Diego Velazquez, established a settlement in 1511 which became the fledgling colony’s first capital. Baracoa retained this status until the crown was taken by Santiago de Cuba, its isolation because of the high Sierra del Purial mountains making it accessible only by sea until the 1960s when the first paved road between the town and Guantanamo went through. Columbus is said to have planted a cross, the Cruz de la Parra, in the sands of Baracoa Beach, the sacred relic now safely behind a protective grill in the local Cathdral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion.
The Cruz de la Parra planted by Christopher Columbus in the sands of Baracoa beach.
At the time of settlement the area was populated by the Taino people, but European diseases played havoc as they did with the indigenous people in other Spanish colonies. Taking price of place in the town square is a statue of the local Taino hero Hatuey who raised an army to fight the Spanish. He was captured and sentenced to death by burning at the stake. Legend has it that, asked if he wished to convert to Catholicism to ensure his passage to Heaven, he replied that if Spaniards were in Heaven he would rather go to Hell. Remnants of Taino culture can be observed at the local Archeological Musuem in a cave behind the town. Glass-enclosed exhibits, indigenous jewelry, ceramics, sculptures and skeletons are on display.
Taino Archeological Museum and exhibits.
Baracoa’s abundant climate and setting have endowed it with plentiful food resources. Tropical fruits, coffee and cocoa flourish while absolutely fresh seafood graces restaurant tables. Laden almond trees grow wild in the forests and on an island in the middle of a river our helpful boatman found fat specimens and cracked them fresh for us. A combination of necessity, isolation and the verdant climate has resulted in Baracoa developing a reputation as a centre for alternative medicines.
Baracoa treat…almonds fresh from the tree.
We were due to leave the splendid isolation of Baracoa by aircraft for the one-and-a-half hour flight back to Havana. But hearing that the plane was waiting for a few replacement parts, and having viewed the runway of the local airport, which ends abruptly before it pitches into the Atlantic, we didn’t complain when we had to take a four-hour bus ride across pot-holed dirt roads to get to the airport at less remote Holguin.