Guide to BARACOA – Cuba’s Hidden Gem

Let me guide you all the way east where Cuba keeps a hidden gem called Baracoa.

View of Baracoa and the Bahia de Miel, the Honey Bay, from the Hotel El Castillo.
View of Baracoa and the Bahia de Miel, the Honey Bay, from the Hotel El Castillo.

I was very glad that Baracoa was my last stop in Cuba – since it was definitely the highlight. Wrapping me in its relaxed, homey atmosphere, Baracoa would have spoiled me for the rest of Cuba.

Baracoa’s History

Baracoa is a city and municipality in eastern Cuba and belongs to the infamous province of Guantánamo.

The Spanish conqueror and first governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, founded the city in 1511 on the very spot where Christopher Columbus anchored on his first voyage in 1492. Consequently, Baracoa was Cuba’s first Spanish settlement. From 1518 to 1522, it even used to be the countries capital. However, the remote location quickly turned out to be a hindrance for the Spanish conquerors. Therefore, Diego Velázquez moved his residence to Santiago de Cuba, and eventually, Baracoa lost its status.

View of El Yunque and the Bahia de Miel, the Honey Bay, from the Hotel El Castillo.
View of El Yunque…from where you have a grand view.

The city is located on the Bahía de Miel which poetically translates to Honey Bay. Before the Cuban revolution, Baracoa was only accessible by sea. Nevertheless, to this date, it’s totally secluded and cut off from the rest of the island by a mountain range with only one road.

Baracoa’s historic old town has a mix of styles of classicist buildings with a strong French influence – actually, a bit like Cienfuegos.

Parque Central Baracoa
Baracoa’s kind of Central Park

The mountain range around the city is overgrown by lush vegetation and home to one of the best-preserved ecosystems on the island.

The Anvil

The table mountain El Yunque – which translates to anvil – can be seen from afar. Just like the surrounding area, the 575 m high limestone cliff is covered with rich vegetation. To the indigenous people Taíno, this mountain was actually sacred. In its distinctive formation, it served as a landmark for Spanish sailors.

Mesmerizing Sceneries at the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt
Mesmerizing Sceneries.

About 20 km northwest of Baracoa is the Bahía de Taco with the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt in the backdrop. This national park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001. At their visitor center, you can get guided tours through the national park on land and water.

Bust of Alexander von Humboldt at the Parque Nacional Alexander von Humboldt in Baracoa, Cuba
 Alejandro de Humboldt overlooking the Parque Nacional that the good people of Baracoa named after him.

Due to its scenic diversity and a large number of endemic species in flora and fauna, the national park is one of the most important nature reserves in the world. It includes terrestrial and marine areas, mangrove forests, offshore reefs, rainforests, and the summit of the El Toldo mountain.

Downtown Baracoa

Baracoa, home to more than 80,000 inhabitants, is a very pleasant, tranquil town where you can get lost in time. It’s this mix of local everyday life, some mildly touristy facilities, and lots of time and space to create your own blissful vacation.

The most important spot is the Parque Independencia, the central square of Baracoa. Here are the city’s most important cultural buildings like the Fondo de Bienes Culturales. Here you can admire – and purchase – the works of regional sculptors and craftsmen. Like in every other Cuban city, there is a Casa de la Trova where locals and visitors alike are swaying to Salsa tunes that are performed live.

Cathedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
Cathedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

The Cathedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción is one of the oldest buildings on the island. It was consecrated on the occasion of the city’s foundation. In 1833, the building was completely restored. It houses the Cruz de la Parra, hence, the Cross of the Vine. No less than Christopher Columbus erected this wooden cross during his first voyage of discovery.
For a long time, it was believed lost. Finally, they found it under a vine.

Cruz de la Parra from the 15th century. 
(Photo: anonym, Cruz de la Parra, cropped 2:3, CC BY 2.5)
Cruz de la Parra from the 15th century.
(Photo: anonym, Cruz de la Parra, cropped 2:3, CC BY 2.5)

The church is not open. However, visits with the sexton can be arranged.

Not far from the square is the Casa del Chocolate where you can enjoy typically oblivious Cuban service yet delicious hot chocolate made from locally grown cocoa.

Uptown Baracoa

One of the city’s most important landmarks is the Castillo de Seboruco. It is located on a hill not far from the center. This fort was initially built as protection against pirates.

Sunset over Baracoa
Buenas Noches, Baracoa!

The excellent panoramic view of the entire bay was decisive for the construction. Today, the guests of the hotel El Castillo enjoy this amazing view.

Life Is a Beach

So, the town as such is nice, but obviously not very exciting.

However, the surroundings are just exquisite: the ocean, mountains, rivers, wild beauty of nature.

Playa Blanca on the outskirts of Baracoa
Beats me why they call a beach full of black rocks Playa Blanca.

Baracoa has a city beach which is not very nice. Nevertheless, as you keep walking east, you reach the pretty secluded Playa Blanca.

But first, you have to cross a bridge over a river – which is incomplete. Therefore, there is a boat waiting at one end of the rotten bridge, picking up passengers and taking them to the other side.

Broken bridge crossing a river near Baracoa
Necessity is the mother of invention – I assume this slogan was created in Cuba.

Quite fun – and very Cuban.

Although everything is nearby, due to the terrible dust roads with huge potholes it takes a while to get for instance to paradisiac Playa Maguana or the Parque Alejandro de Humboldt.

Days Out

To get to the outskirts of Baracoa, just take a jeep at the Parque Independencia.

However, there are also travel agencies organizing trips – whereby organizing isn’t the correct word. These agencies are government-owned. Consequently, the employees are not…let’s say overambitious. While in Cienfuegos my day trip with Cubanacan was just great, in Baracoa there either was nobody at the office or for some reason they were not able to book anything for me.

Playa Manguana
I presume you don’t blame me for having spent every day at a couple of hours on this beach.

Finally, I organized my rides and trips with the guys hanging around the main square.

Lobster overlooking the ocean where the good people of Playa Maguana caught it just minutes ago.
Lobster overlooking the ocean where the good people of Playa Maguana caught it just minutes ago.

As a matter of fact, the son of my hosts in Baracoa is a biologist and offers tours to the Parque Alejandro de Humboldt. If you want to check with him, please refer to the contact data in the accommodation section below.

Obviously, serious hikers will enjoy a tour on the 575 meters high mountain El Yunque.

Another very nice day trip goes first to a cocoa Finca. Cacao, coconuts, and bananas are the main products in this region. On the Finca, you see how cacao grows and also how they process it.

Cocoa fresh from the tree.
Cocoa fresh from the tree.

You can also stock up on cocoa products like beans, powder, cream, and, of course, chocolate.

Unfortunately, I must say that I got to use only the beans that I did grind together with coffee beans which gave the brew a chocolaty taste. The rest rotted pretty fast. Even chocolate stored in the fridge had some sort of parasites in it. But maybe it was just bad luck.

Rio Yumuri
Floating in ice-cold waters certainly was refreshing.

The trip then continued to Río Yumurí where a boat took us to some small islands where we were floating with the current of the clear, ice-cold river.

Beach near Baracoa
Last stop palm tree.

Finally, we got to hang out on a dreamy beach – the epitome of Caribbean.

Practical Information

How to Get There and Around

By bus, it takes about four hours to get to Baracoa from Santiago de Cuba, and it takes an entire day to get from Baracoa to Havana.

But there are domestic flights from the Gustavo Rizo airport. However, if you have an international flight from Havana, I recommend including a time buffer of at least 24 hours; at least!

Anyway, I recommend buying tickets as early as possible. In any case, at least six weeks in advance and possibly on the website www.cubana.cu. Booking tickets in Cuba at short notice is difficult and usually not possible. However, you can always try to book a flight in Havana or Santiago de Cuba at one of the larger Cubana offices.

 Aeroporto Gustavo Rizo in Baracoa, Cuba's hidden gem
A truly tropical journey from Aeroporto Gustavo Rizo.

I spared two nights before my flight out. I got to Havana in the morning and left my stuff at my Casa Particular. Then, I spent the day on one of Playas del Este, had a nice dinner and a last mojito, and left the next morning.

If for any reason the flight got canceled, I’d had more than 24 hours to make it to Havana by bus or by cab.

Actually, I’m sticking to this time planning anywhere in the world – and definitely in Cuba.

Where to Stay and to Eat

As in all other places I’ve visited in Cuba, I stayed at a casa particular also in Baracoa. Actually, at two casas since there was this big mixup. Like I mentioned before, it does occure that you book with a host who then accepts a walk-in and arranges another casa for you.

Obviously, the most important fact is that they don’t leave you stranded in the street. Nevertheless, me and other travellers did feel a bit shuffled around.

Howsoever, finally, I was very happy that the first casa-owners had kicked me out send me to their relatives. As a matter of fact, the room at casa Ramon y Mima was very comfortable and their food was the best I got to enjoy during my entire trip. Oh, wait, the food at the casa in Vinales was also excellent.

As I mentioned above, their son offers guided tours – this way you spare yourself the hassle of negotiating with the guys around Parque Independencia.

You can get in touch with Ramon and Mima by landline + 53 21 64 50 28 and mobile +53 53 21 13 41.

For the hotel’s excellent location Baracoa might be a place where staying at a government-owned resort shouldn’t be ruled out.

At least at sunset, there’s no better place to be than on the terrace of the Hotel El Castillo way up high over Baracoa.

Albeit, the food is not good because – sorry to repeat myself – it’s a government-owned restaurant. But get a mojito and just enjoy the view – as always for incredible 3 CUC – the official price…and upside of government-owned.

Cash and Cards and Connection

There is an Etecsa Office in Baracoa as well as another sales point where you can obtain scratch cards. On this page you’ll find ETECSA’s complete list of hotspots. To narrow it down, you need to choose Guantanamo from the dropdown menu Provincia and Baracoa from the menu Municipio. Then, you’ll see all the places where you can access the internet.

There is an ATM on the westside of the Parque Martí in Baracoa.

Until the end of 2020, there were two official currencies: The CUP – Peso Cubano – and the CUC – Peso Convertible. The socialist island state has had this confusing dual currency system since 1994.

However, since the beginning of 2021, only the Peso Cubano keeps circulating. The exchange rate is 24 CUB to one US$. This unification of the currencies is expected to grant Cuba’s citizens equal opportunities and social justice.

People waiting at the entrance to a bank in Santiago de Cuba
People waiting at the bank in an invisible, thus strictly to be followed line.

Already in July 2020, Cuba had abolished the ten percent tax on US$ purchases that had been in force since 2004. Since then, in some shops, certain products can also be paid for by card in the US currency.

Since this novelty is still in progress, obviously, some prices in my posts on Cuba still quote the Peso Convertible CUC – as do many Cuban websites. I hope that they’ll correct their sites asap so that I can adjust the information on my blog. However, if you don’t want to wait: One CUC equals one US$, so that shouldn’t be a big problem, after all.

Map

On this map, you can see all the places worth visiting around Baracoa:

Baracoa was one of the loveliest places I’ve visited in Cuba. However, to read about the others, go to the main post and take your pick! There you’ll also find valuable general information that will make your trip smoother.

Pinnable Pictures

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Note: I am completing, editing, and updating this post regularly – last in May 2021.

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34 Replies to “Guide to BARACOA – Cuba’s Hidden Gem”

  1. We have visited several spots in Cuba but missed Baracoa. Very interesting that this was the spot where Columbus landed on his first journey. I love the charm of the Cuban cities. But that national park would draw me in to hike high for those views.

  2. This part of Cuba looks incredible! I love your images of Parque Nacional and Playa Blanca beach. The Government owned agents are always non-existent by their absence in their offices in most countries. It’s wise to set an itinerary based on online research or asking around like you did. Lovely blog post!:-)

  3. I love Cuba for all the reasons you mention that would make people hate it but I have never visited Baracoa. Next time, after reading this, I think it sounds like my kind of place. The way you described your visit to the “agents” to try & book trips put a smile on my face, so inefficient & pointless. I’m glad you were able to organise something with the guys in the square. It highlights how for Cuba you need time, patience & persistence but when you have those, the experience can be magical.

  4. It is always good to leave a country on a high, and Baracoa looks the perfect place to end your trip to Cuba. Baracoa seems to be a great combination of mountains, beaches and history. If I ever get to Cuba I will make sure to visit.

  5. Wow I didn’t realise Cuba was that big. In my head I thought the main land area (not including the Cayo coco etc would be a short drive from one side to the other. I’m dying to go and this place looks perfect. I love exploring national parks and green areas. I like the sound of Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt

  6. It’s good that you saved your trip highlight to last, it’d be a shame to have done that first and everything else was a let down. I’d love to go to Cuba. I watched a documentary the other month The Buena Vista Social Club … although it was partially in Spanish, it was fascinating to watch. Loved the vibe.

  7. Wow, that view at The Anvil is breathtaking! I want to go there. Thanks for introducing us to Baracoa, I learned a lot about its history!

  8. cuba is quite a mystery to me….20 yrs of cruising with in the Caribbean but never been in to cuba….i hope that other countries recognize its tourism and let cruise ships enter its port with out restrictions impose by other nations

  9. Baracoa looks to be a superb place , with oodles of sunshine and beach vibes. The downtown Baracoa feel also looks so interesting and appealing. YOu have covered the city so extensively for any traveller

  10. It is really a great gem with natural scenery and historic sites! Would love to go back there some day since it’s been a few years since I last visited Cuba ~ Knycx Journeying

  11. I loved reading about the history of this town. I don’t know very much about Cuba, but it looks like a nice place to visit and spend time on the beach too!

  12. What an incredible location, Cuba has more hidden gems than the media would have us believe. Adding this to my bucket list.

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