Cuba – Baracoa
Keen to leave Santiago de Cuba, and keen to try out the Taxi Collectivos (group taxis) that we had heard other travellers rave about, we decided to skip the bus and make the 5 hour journey to Baracoa by car. It was supposed to be quicker, more convenient, and only slightly more expensive. In the event, we were piled with three other girls into a huge, hearse like vehicle which was probably fifty or sixty years old, and set off along the coastal roads with all the windows rolled down. While this may sound quite whimsical and delightful, I can assure you that barrelling along a narrow cliff road while your hair is being violently whipped around and sticking to your sweaty face, while your driver insists on stopping to pick up every hitchhiker he can find (and he made me get out of the car each time so that they could get in), is far from the magical coastal drive which the guide book describes.
Eventually, our driver stopped for lunch (so that he could eat lunch at a relatives house – we were not invited) and we got to stretch our legs and make awkward conversation with the hitchhikers (I’m sure they were very nice, but I was so annoyed that having taken our money the driver was then making extra cash on the side by making detours to pick up extra passengers). The journey didn’t seem to be any quicker than the bus (we were actually stuck behind the bus on our approach to Baracoa so if anything we got in just after it did) and Kati and I were getting more and more frustrated, especially when our driver actually stopped the car in the middle of a small village and invited the locals to swarm around it, sticking their hands in the car windows trying to get us to buy mangoes, maracas, hats made of grass, keyrings or sticks of incense.
Eventually, we found ourselves driving past beautiful turquoise water and dramatic sandy cliffs, and soon arrived at our next casa, where we were greeted by Julke (Junke, Yulke, Yunke?), an enthusiastic and obliging host who was rather too keen to tell us about the sights of Baracoa and spoke at us in rapid Spanish for almost half an hour before we could get him to leave us in peace and go out to explore ourselves.
The town itself is very small and quaint, rather quiet at the weekend, and not exactly the beachfront paradise that we had been imagining. We were still being stared at constantly, and we actually had to leave the café where we were desperately trying to order some food (not having eaten all day), because a group of men wouldn’t leave us alone. It was all quite disheartening. We lost our bearings and couldn’t find anywhere to eat, we lost our guide book at some point, and eventually I lost my temper in the bank because (male) employees and customers alike were staring, giggling, making comments and suggestively licking their lips or making crude gestures at us. I (calmly, firmly) asked the teller to stop staring at me as I attempted to change money, and he was so rude to me that I simply (calmly, firmly) made him return my money, and I turned on my heel and left without saying a word. This wasn’t the greatest idea (we really needed to change that money because we didn’t have any Cuban currency left), but it was worth scraping together pennies for an evening meal to get away from the situation.
We regrouped, we did some research, we found our guide book (we had left it in a supermarket), ate dinner and then took a stroll along the sea wall at sunset. It truly was beautiful – the big blue waves crash against the rocks and make that delicious white foam and at the weekend the place is filled with locals, especially teenagers, running around barefoot in little dresses or swimming trunks, on their way to the beach or to buy ‘peso pizza’ from little stands on street corners. It really was charming, and we began to warm to Baracoa more and more, as we sat on that sea wall and watched the sun slowly set. That night, we listened to a band of old men play lively salsa music on old guitars, drank mojitos, and hung out with the locals, leaning in the windows of the ‘Casa de la Trova’ (you have to pay an extra peso if you want to sit indoors) and trying to dance salsa in our flip flops.
The next day dawned brilliantly sunny and we bustled around the little town, making reservations for our onward journey, buying water and snacks and trying to change money only to discover that (despite Yunke’s assurances), the bureau de change was closed. We had asked Julke to arrange us a taxi so that we could return to Santiago de Cuba in time to catch our flight, but he was singularly unhelpful, at first denying the existence of taxis (despite the fact that we had arrived in Baracoa in one not two hours prior to this conversation), then saying that they only left at 8am (‘but Junke, dear, the one we arrived in at 2pm just picked up some passengers and is taking them back right now’), and then suggesting that instead we allow his friend to drive us in his ‘super-fast’ car (‘Yulke, with the best will in the world, unless your friend is Batman, I don’t think his car will be able to out run a plane’), remaining steadfast on this point and refusing to do anything except make ‘whoosh’ noises and rapid hand movements (I assume to demonstrate the remarkable speed of his friend’s car), whenever we brought up the subject. We simply booked a bus instead (it meant we lost half a day in Baracoa but couldn’t be helped), but we had Yulke down as a tricky customer, and Kati found talking to him very frustrating, as his Baracoan accent and the fact that he talked so quickly made him almost impossible to understand.
After he assured us that the Bureau de Change would be open and it actually wasn’t I became so frustrated that when we got back to the casa I politely sat him down and explained in my best Spanish (which is really not very good) that he had given us bad advice and that we would need him to lend us 40 CUC. To our amazement (and his credit), he went and got the money, and (we were even more surprised to find) followed through on his promise to arrange us a ride to the beach, waving us off as we climbed into an aged but super fun bright blue Landrover and set off down the bumpy roads to get ourselves some beach time.
We were dropped off at Playa Maguana and, apart from the employees of the two small beach side cafés offering us mojitos, food and coconut water a little too often, we were left in peace to sunbathe, read, play in the sea and just relax after our insanely intense trip! We had been to six cities in two weeks and travelled the entire length of the country and I just wanted to read my book, lie in the sun and chill out. It was perfect. A Cuban family were sitting together under the shade of a nearby tree, chilling out, listening to an old school boombox and dancing to Frank Sinatra and Queen. Their little boy, who was just toddling, was the most adorable little kid I’ve ever seen, he had a little afro and was playing with a log that he was carrying around. We had cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch (heaven), and then had to cool off in the sun and retreat into the shade to escape the crazy heat for a little while!
The next day we trekked along the sea front in the opposite direction until pavement turned to sand and we were able to head right to the end of the spit of land, trying to find Playa Blanca. We obviously missed the bridge that we were supposed to cross, and we came to the mouth of a deep bay, unsure of where to go next. A little old man in a little fishing boat rowed past, and we waded in to ask him directions. Obviously realising how lost we had managed to get, he kindly gave us a lift across the bay, so that we could scramble over the hill, through the forests of palm trees, and down to the tiny little cove of Playa Blanca.
It really was a tiny beach, and we put down our rucksacks behind some rocks and dived straight in. After drying off in the sun and getting in some last minute sunbathing, we had just enough time to head back (via the bridge this time), buy some amazing peso pizza (thick dough, fresh salsa and lots of cheese) from a roadside stall, repay our debts to Julke (who was sulking because we didn’t choose his friends ‘super fast car’) and catch the Viazul bus which was the first part of our journey back to England.
Returning to Santiago de Cuba, ready for our midday flight the next day, felt oddly comforting and familiar. We were returning to the same lovely casa we had stayed in before, and we were greeted so warmly by our hostess, who obviously appreciated how tired we always are from all of our running around in the sun and was in the habit of asking ‘you sleep now?’ anytime we got in, even if it was the middle of the afternoon. The next day, Santiago got another chance to impress us as we spent the morning strolling around killing time, and I have to say that (thanks to a ridiculously cheap pizza restaurant, a very very cute puppy and the fact that it was a Tuesday and most of the street harassers appeared to be at work) we definitely liked the city better the second time around.
Our hostess arranged us a taxi to the airport, and was so kind in making sure that we had everything we needed and set off on time! The plane, which was to take us from Santiago to Havana, was oddly efficient (it actually left over an hour early which, although displaying a remarkable fervour for punctuality which I haven’t yet encountered in Cuba, probably wouldn’t be much help to those who actually arrived on time). The flight itself was so smooth and, probably because the pilot – unlike our dear Viazul drivers – could not stop to collect friends, buy mangoes, whistle at girls or to eat meals at his relatives houses, we arrived in Havana with lots of time to spare. If we had been at the right terminal, or even at the right airport, it would have been an entirely smooth journey. As it was, we had some rather frantic consultations with airport staff (and literally anybody we could get our hands on) before eventually sharing a taxi with a Spanish man (he was delightful) and arriving at the international terminal just in time to check in, buy some Havana Club Rum from duty free, and say our sad goodbyes to the intense, crazy, beautiful, frustrating, confusing and absolutely breathtaking country of Cuba.
We really had the best trip, we did so many things and got a real flavour of a country that is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been to. Cuba is definitely a country that makes you work hard, and I left feeling like I’d gone ten rounds with this tiny island, but it was so worth it. The quiet magic of Cuba is, at least to visitors, oddly impenetrable, and I think that’s what makes it so charming, so fantastic, so utterly impossibly to describe.
(But I hope you’ve enjoyed my attempts to do so – Thanks for following along!)