We heard our ride before we saw it. As soon as we laid eyes on this beast of an automobile; our queries as to why they were so late to pick us up were answered. We were not upset that the only seats left were in the very front, as some bright sparks had picked the very back “dicky seats”; obviously they have not been in Cuba long, and certainly had not travelled via ancient car, that had very minimal suspension. This beast was part “old school cool”, part “not entirely sure it will kick over cool” and a little bit of adventure all mixed in to a shiny green machine.
We roared down the street and out of Santiago De Cuba, taking with us about 10 travellers and a part of the ozone layer as we went.
The views along the coastal roads outside of Santiago De Cuba to Baracoa were spectacular. From the most beautiful shores along the Caribbean to the thick densely tree populated mountains of the south.
After five or so hours of bumpy winding road in a car with the worlds dodgiest gear box, we arrived in Baracoa. We were whisked out of our collectivo by a prearranged (by grandma Yoyi we assume) bici-taxi powered by a very slender old man, approximately double our ages, combined.
He threw both of us and our bags coupled with him (being about 50kgs himself) into his human powered bicitaxi and he peddled hard through the streets of Baracoa. It was, by far the most embarrassing journey either of us had ever faced. He enthusiastically powered along chatting away about how good the weather was, all whilst we were 1- trying our best to not be seen, 2- coming up with helpful ways to aid his cycling, like, scutching forward for momentum. Yep, that’s what we thought might help! I offered the driver to take a break and I would give it a go, I wanted to give it a go, but he would not have it.
We were going quite slowly and we had considered a thousand times to at least get out and walk (without causing offence) when we hit a steep hill. We couldn’t take it anymore so we both jumped out and ran the bici-taxi up to the top of the hill. The driver thought this was the best thing ever and luckily we only had another block until we arrived. Greeted by Ysabel (recommended by Yoyi) we made our way up to our room on the terrace which hosted two big double beds and front door entrance onto the terrace. This was the only room situated on top of the terrace so it was as if it were all ours.
People Watching @ Baracoa
School Sucks @ Baracoa
Once we had settled, we then had the most efficient hour of our lives. We reserved a table for dinner, booked a tour for the next day, bought water and beer, got money out and even managed to see the whole town. Ok, so the town of Baracoa is practically one street and can be seen in about 5 minutes, but that is besides the point. Everything was very close by and better yet; open!
We were just waiting on a call from Yoyi about bus tickets back west to Santa Clara. We were getting pretty worried about getting stuck east and having to either spend a bomb on dodgy collectivos or have to spend another day working out other very expensive options, including possibly flying. Just before we headed out for dinner we called Yoyi’s house and there had been a network problem at the Viazul bus company (this is apparently super common) and we still had no tickets, but she was sure that tomorrow, when the system had network again, she would be able to get them.
We went from trying to book six days ahead to just two because Viazul is so useless and unnecessarily complicated! Well it is in Alice’s opinion. The company lacks sufficient internet connection, well the whole country lacks sufficient internet connections to be able to connect an ever growing network of transport and tourism that is in constant demand daily. Being the only bus line (and the only long distance method of transport), you can understand why these issues and malfunctions occur. Something to remember if you are ever travelling Cuba in the not to distant future, is just how under developed the country is in terms of infrastructure and tourism.
The problem is in the organisation of the bookings, as you cannot ring to book, you cannot book online in the short term, and at the time we were unaware that you could book in other Cuban cities. This all was due to, again, not having the networking capabilities that we have become so reliant on. Anyway, for the time being we were stuck waiting for Yoyi to come through for us, otherwise we would have to sort out other methods of getting back to Santa Clara and Havana.
That has been the only really difficult part of Cuba, besides no internet (which let’s be honest is a great thing) needing to rely on a guide book and word of mouth for everything, transportation has been tough. There is simply not a sufficient amount of buses; buses fill up a more than a week in advance and there is only one semi reliable bus company. More buses Cuba!! More buses!
For dinner that night, we followed our noses to the Lonely Planet recommendation Hostal Niells La Terrazas. We tried some local Baracoan food including little croquettes of potato and fish, fish in the traditional spices and coconut milk and Choco-coco the traditional desert.
Local Transport @ Baracoa
We woke up the next morning as our breakfast was being served on our wonderful balcony with stunning views over Baracoa. We enjoyed the typical eggs, bread, refried beans, dulces, fruits, coffee and smoothies before heading off for our trip.
As it had been raining over night, I decided at the very last minute to sprint back to the casa and swap my trainees for my hiking boots and grab a waterproof bag, what a winner of a decision that was!!
Baracoa is famous for a few things; chocolate, coconuts and as we were soon to find out, rain. The meaning of the name “Baracoa” is “many rivers”. There are 29 tributaries that feed into the sea through Baracoa.
Hurricane Matthew hit Baracoa hard in 2016 destroying important infrastructure, including a principle bridge. Access has been restored but is very much dependent on rainfall. Venezuela is helping to rebuild the bridge currently, and if there is enough rainfall, the entrance to the Unesco Biosphere Reserve is completely blocked.
Benny was our local guide. He spoke perfect English as he had studied in Guantanamo. Benny wasn’t a fan of many things other than nature, including the country, the government and tourists taking any more time than he had allocated.
We had such a variety of people from all over the world in our group, including Lithuania, Hungary, Germany, Italy, Spain and Canary Islands! We couldn’t believe there wasn’t a single French person in our group, we had pretty much only met French people.
We had heard some rumours that the bridge was always closed and the tour group would make you take a huge detour adding hours to the trip. Lucky for us this was not the case. Unfortunately though, 2km prior to the start of the track, we were told that there had been too much water to continue driving and we would have to walk an extra couple of kms at either end of our hike which was not the end of the world as we were happy to be out hiking. As we walked these extra kms, we soon realised that there was absolutely no way the bus would have ever been able to cross the rivers, even without it raining for a month.
About half an hour in it started to torrentially pour down with rain. Half of the group had been told to bring a waterproof, half had not. Guess which half we were in. As we trundled on, absolutely soaking (except the camera thank god! Thanks to my earlier sprint and the waterproof bag), the hike was oddly not very strenuous considering how high we climbed. The views were stunning, we saw heaps of birds and learnt a lot about the endemic vegetation. Alice feels about plants and trees what other people, including myself, feel about birds; a little interested but probably wouldn’t stop for 20 minutes to take photos. Tree and bird loving hippies!! Although Alice still made a list of what we saw, just in case on the off chance someone cares:
– Snails- Polimitas a unique land snail destinguished by yellow, red and brown bands and only discovered in 2011!
Polimita@ Parque Nacional Alejandro De Humboldt National Park
Grey Lizard @ Parque Nacional Alejandro De Humboldt National Park
Kestrel@ Parque Nacional Alejandro De Humboldt National Park
Cuban parrot@ Parque Nacional Alejandro De Humboldt National Park
Cuban Emerald Hummingbird@ Parque Nacional Alejandro De Humboldt National Park
Chunchun@ Parque Nacional Alejandro De Humboldt National Park
– West Indian Woodpecker
– Red tailed hawk
– Green lizard native to Cuba
– Leaf cutter ants
Cuban Trogan (national bird) @ Parque Nacional Alejandro De Humboldt National Park
– Snake- one of 15 species of snake in Cuba, all of which are non poisonous.
– The smallest frog in the world- less than 1cm in length and has a range of 100 sq kms!! It wasn’t discovered until 1996 because it is so small. It still doesn’t have a “normal” name but is known as “Eleutherodactylus Iberia”
The World’s Smallest Frog @ Parque Nacional Alejandro De Humboldt National Park
– AND Loads of farm animals hanging about as well.
We had a lunch stop after just seeing the amazing tiny frog. Half of the group had been told to bring lunch and the other half had been told we could get it at the beach but we weren’t going to the beach until 5pm. Guess which half we were in?! As we sat and shared a cereal bar we luckily had in the bag, we felt grateful for the huge amazing breakfast we had had! The tour group was a bit hit and miss as everything tourism related is in Cuba. It didn’t necessarily feel like a guide was needed but Cubans really don’t get hiking for pleasure. Why would you want to go there? You want to walk there? Why?! We think it is part of Cuba’s charm the pretty disorganised tourist End.
On the way back to the bus, we had the opportunity/option to ride on a Ox and cart to cross the rivers. It was pretty terrible but it was that or basically swim.
We stopped at the Maguana playa (beach) which was beautiful but it was a bit late in the day (and a tad cold) for a swim despite the water being quite warm and us being covered in mud.
We were granted an hour to swim and hang out at the beach, but within 20 minutes Benny came over in a hurry and told us that if we didn’t leave now we wouldn’t make it back across the river. Everyone quickly piled in the bus apart from the few people who were swimming and who Benny forgot to tell. As the bus started to pull away we all jumped up and stopped them from going until the rest of the group was back on bus. When we reached the river/bridge, people were still crossing on bikes and horses. We also then had to wait for some work to finish on the bridge before we could cross. Turns out, well I believe, that Benny had had enough for the day and just wanted to get home. Despite the quick departure from the Playa, we made it across the river and back home in plenty of time. All in all it was a fantastic day.
We arrived home, muddy, dirty and covered head to toe in dust, to find out that Yogi had come through and got us our tickets! The relief we felt was indescribable, we love that woman! We could not really relax and enjoy our time without worrying about getting stuck so far east. We still had no bus tickets from Baracoa to Santiago but that seemed a lot less important now, as we could just as easily get a collectivo again.
Home time! @ Baracoa
We had an amazing dinner at El Sabor Buen, three courses of perfectly cooked food. The next day we managed to get ourselves some tickets back to Santiago De Cuba on the bus. We spent the rest of the day checking out the remains of the city and enjoying the Baracoan life. The next day we packed up, said our farewells and bussed through to Santiago De Cuba, ate dinner with Yoyi (some of the best pumpkin soup I’ve ever had) and after a sad goodbye, we then jumped on the 13 hour overnight bus that would take us to our next destination… Santa Clara.