At the far eastern end of Cuba, almost 900 kilometres from Havana, is a country town slumbering on the coast between a wide horseshoe bay and the tangled forests at its back. Baracoa is steeped in sweet small-town nostalgia that seems to filter down through the coconut palms like aromatic dust. At the Hostal La Habanera, you can sit on a rocking chair on the porch with a frosted beer as the heat seeps out of the streets and the shadows lengthen, watching the slow passage of life in the town.
Now that all thought of travel prompts its own wistful nostalgia, of a yearning for how things were in the before time, this is where I wish I was, with its echoes of another age, with its hint of innocence. Baracoa was always a kind of time travel, and now more than ever, I long for it.
Every evening, I would sit on that deep veranda and watch the donkey carts rattle past and the lean men in straw Stetsons riding home on high-stepping horses and the young women strolling arm in arm beneath the fig trees towards the Casa del Chocolate. And I would wait for the first falling notes of the tres guitar drifting down the street from the Casa de la Trova, heralding another night of music and mojitos and madness.
Wish I were there . . .
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Baracoa is Cuba’s oldest town, founded in 1511 by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, and one of the first settlements in the Americas. Diego wanted to make it Cuba’s capital until he understood where it was — the first stop if you are arriving from Spain but the last stop from anywhere else on the island. Barricaded behind a confusion of mountains, Baracoa was a place apart for well over four centuries. Until 1964, when they built a road over the passes, most people arrived here by boat.
Which was how Columbus came, of course. Baracoa is said to be one of the first places he landed in the New World. He was so determined that Cuba was the Asian continent that he obliged all his crew to sign a notarised document to that effect so everyone would be on message when they got back to Spain. The cross he erected on the shore — La Cruz de la Parra — is in the cathedral here, encased in ecclesiastical silver. Now misshapen and blackened with age, it could be a piece of dinosaur hide or even a fragment of a burnt mummified corpse.
Perhaps Columbus is a lesson. The baggage of expectations can be a burden. Long before we have left home, destinations acquire their own life, rummaging in our imaginations, stirring private hopes. We are all looking for something, and sometimes what we are looking for acts as a prism through which we glimpse, only darkly, the places we have come to see. From the moment I drifted into Baracoa, and glimpsed the verandas with their rocking chairs, the people chatting on front steps, I wanted it to return me to my own past — a small town elsewhere in North America — to a time before the mature complexities of the present.
Cuba’s eastern provinces, known as Oriente, were always a troubling place for the sophisticates of Havana. I remember the scholarly Ricardo, a guide who led me round Old Havana and whose uncles had all decamped to Florida with their stock certificates in 1960, frowning at the mention of the east. “Backward,” he would sigh. “In Cuban history it has been the source of much trouble.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully. The meaning was the catastrophe of the revolution, the appropriation of his own family’s assets. Even my friend Ariel, a Havana barfly, was unnerved by its reckless reputation. “Crazy people,” he shouted above the music at Bar Monserrate. “Music makes them crazy.” Which seemed bit rich, as we were dancing a conga line in the street at 3am.
But there was another view of Oriente, a more enlightened idea, that it represented not a rural backwater but an uncontaminated Cuba. Its distance from the sophistication of Havana was not provincialism but authenticity. Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second city and unofficial capital of Oriente, was never the playground of American film stars or gangsters. The city remains closer both to its Spanish colonial heritage and to the island’s plantation roots, with their hybrid African religions and their infectious rhythms.
Ethnically diverse as well as politically restive, the eastern provinces have been the crucible of modern Cuban history. The dictator Batista was from Oriente, the first shots of the revolution were fired here, and from a balcony overlooking Santiago’s main square, Castro declared its triumph. But perhaps most tellingly, Oriente is the deep well from which the island draws its extraordinary musical traditions.
The first time I went to Oriente I drove, a thousand kilometres down the spine of the country, most of it on the Autopista Nacional, a carriageway that was the pride of the Cuban road system. In places it looked like those early pictures of the M1, its four lanes largely empty. When traffic did appear, it was pleasingly retro — a handful of cars and trucks, bicycles, several horse-drawn wagons, a loose mule or two.
The past is another country, and sometimes travel allows us to visit it. Cuba can be like an album of sepia photographs, glimpses of a lost world that seems simpler and slower and more innocent than the present. It may be an illusion, an illusion only available to fortunate visitors and not to Cubans. But still the idea pulls at us like a powerful undercurrent, as we are surrounded by mementos of the past, of our own childhood, and that of our parents and grandparents. All travel is personal, as our journeys navigate through memory and imagination.
In Cuba, it is not just the old cars, the ’59 Chevys with tail fins and a back seat the size of a small lounge bar. The country is full of quaint throwbacks — of phone boxes people queue to use, of offices of clacking typewriters, of motorcycles with sidecars, of leaders spouting revolutionary slogans, of policemen riding old-fashioned bicycles, of photo studios with painted backdrops, of big bands with matching jackets, of milkmen and bread vans and rag-and-bone men. In my hotel in Havana there was a uniformed lift operator — cap, epaulettes, a touch of braid. In Baracoa, the clip-clopping sound of hooves is as common as cars.
On that drive to the east, the central provinces looked like an earlier America — Oklahoma or Texas, perhaps, in the 1930s: the old cars, the wooden shacks, the ranch gates with horseshoe decorations, the gravel roads disappearing towards long horizons, the threadbare baseball diamonds and rodeo grounds on the outskirts of towns. I passed a wooden house sagging against empty reaches of sky. In the earthen yard a woman was drawing water from a well, the wind flapping her calico dress.
From Santiago, the road to Baracoa runs along the coast, past Guantánamo and San Antonio de Sur. Then at Cajobabo, you strike suddenly inland over the mountains, on La Farola, the famous road that was a present from Fidel to Baracoa’s loyal comrades, the road that finally connected the city to the rest of Cuba. It feels like a beanstalk, twisting upwards into the jungles and banana plantations of the Sierra del Puril. Hawkers emerge from an undergrowth of giant ferns to hold up sweet delicacies like cucurucho — grated coconut mixed with honey and guava — wrapped in banana leaves. At the top of the pass, clouds invade the forests. And then the road swings downward, falling suddenly past grey cliffs to another world, to the lush tropical Atlantic coast that Columbus thought “the most beautiful land that eyes had ever seen”. At the bottom of the descent, enclosed by chaotic jungle, lies Baracoa, landfall for confused explorers, disillusioned revolutionaries and time travellers.
It has the intimacy of small towns, where people know one another over the course of generations. In Plaza Independencia, old men who have been to school together sit on park benches chatting as if it is still 1952 and they have all the time in the world. Along Calle Antonio Maceo, colonial houses lean on one another like long-suffering companions. From the narrow pavements, one gazes directly through grilled windows into front rooms and shaded courtyards of domestic life, of laundry and bed sheets, of ornate chests and fogged mirrors, of figures dozing in wicker chairs. Between the hot bright streets and the shadowy unbuttoned interiors, dark glances are exchanged.
The best of the three 18th-century Spanish forts, built to defend this town against pirates, has been made into a rather smart hotel, imaginatively named El Castillo. It has a swimming pool in its courtyard, and fine views from the ramparts over the tin and tiled rooftops to the ocean with its horseshoe bay. In the other direction, slopes of dense vegetation rise from the town to El Yunque, the anvil-headed mountain that Columbus noted.
But I preferred La Habanera, a former colonial mansion where I could bag a rocking chair on the balustraded terrace and watch the comings and goings along the potholed street, like an exile from a Norman Rockwell painting. Across the street I went for a shave in an old-fashioned barber shop, a marvellous male bastion where men gathered to gossip and read newspapers. A sheet was snapped open and pinned round my neck, soap was lathered and a razor stropped while all around me was the reassuring murmur of masculine conversation — baseball, crops, girls.
A few doors down was the Casa del Chocolate, like some outpost of Willy Wonka’s empire. Cacao is one of the main crops on this coast, and Baracoans take chocolate very seriously. Che Guevara himself came to open the chocolate factory in 1963.
In the café, the atmosphere is always hushed and reverent. Couples whisper to one another over mugs of hot chocolate. Old men sit alone at tables, rolling their tongues tentatively round spoonfuls of chocolate ice cream. Young women lick chocolate lollies as if it was an act of devotion.
Every evening, my nostalgic veranda reveries came to an end with the sound of a guitar, followed by the rising riff from a trumpet and the percussive rattle of maracas. Famously described as a love affair between the African drum and the Spanish guitar, Cuban music has a multitude of permutations — rumba, bolero, danzón, mambo, habanera, cha-cha, guajira, descarga, charanga, changüí — all with their own dance moves. Gabriel García Márquez called Cuba “the most dance-
orientated society on earth”. Cubans dance with fluid elegance. They swim through their music.
In all this musical treasure chest, Baracoa has a special place. The town is to Cuban music what the Mississippi Delta is to American music. It is one of the places where everything began. In its streets and bars, listeners first heard son, the forerunner of salsa. Baracoa’s isolation means that early musical forms have survived here. Musicians still play the cajón, the wooden box used as a drum, which originated with fruit-packing cases, and the marímbula, a primitive bass with five metal keys riveted to the front that is a Cuban descendant of the African thumb piano. Cuban musicians come all the way from Havana to listen and to learn here, to sit in on Cuba’s own past.
Up the street, at the Casa de la Trova, the mojitos were lined up on the bar and couples were getting sweaty on the dance floor as an eight-piece band was kicking into some complicated rhythms. There was a percussive crescendo of maracas, guiros and claves. The music faltered, as if momentarily transfixed by its own beauty, then an elderly gentleman in a white cap stepped forward to rescue the melody from among the guitar chords and the plunging line of the double bass with the exhilarating notes of a trumpet. A salsa queen test-drove me for a while in a blur of swaying hips before depositing me back at my corner table, probably a little disappointed with the handling.
Suddenly Baracoa was not so much a provincial backwater as the old heartland of Cuba’s greatest achievement — its phenomenal music. Throbbing in this open-sided room was Cuba’s own past, the happy and complex sounds of a world that has endured from some before time, before revolutions, before Fidel, before the cold war, before sanctions, before shortages. This too was a kind of sweet time travel, a nostalgic touchstone of identity, not mine, but Cuba’s.
Cuba’s borders are currently closed; airports are expected to open on July 1 provided cases of Covid-19 infection remain low (since the start of the pandemic, figures from the Cuban government show 2,083 confirmed cases and 83 deaths). When flights resume, Cubana flies several times a week from Havana to Baracoa and daily from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. Hotel El Castillo has doubles from $80. Down on main street, La Habanera has doubles from $59. Close to beaches half an hour from town is Villa Maguana, where doubles are from $103. Tour Operators include cazenove & loyd, Steppes Travel, The Ultimate Travel Company and Original Travel
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