[Except for the last section, what follows is more or less what I originally wrote down during our trip to the eastern city of Baracoa.]
Speeding down a narrow two-lane highway, expansive fields and not-so-distant mountains roll by the bus window slowly. The hoards of farm animals, numerous guajiros on horseback, and roughly-paved winding mountain road confirm the obvious: we have left the Cuba of Habana for a more distinct and ‘natural’ country. The rocky slopes bathed with tropical greenery, reach upwards toward the sky, whose usual monochrome blue has been replaced by a sea-green canvas, showered with peach rays and sprinkled with rolling clouds that seem impossible to believe. As magical as the sight of this land proved from the air, the ground view adds a sense of enormity and connection that a plane’s isolation could never match.
An orange full moon takes the sun’s place in the now-night sky, providing the only illumination over what I can only imagine are massive and plentiful mountains. As we rise and descend through the darkness, the occasional goat or donkey appears on the side of the road, always just close enough to the pavement to make me brace for an oncoming collision but always far enough for my actions to be in vain.
After almost 3 hours of this tiresome, bumpy ride, we reach the chiquitica city of Baracoa, quietly nestled between sea and mountains in the northeast corner of the Guatánamo province. Our hotel, presumably an old Spanish fort, looks over the town of low buildings and sparse lights. As we descend into Baracoa, the music from what seems to be the only nightclub in town echoes high above the streets. It is Saturday night. There are plenty of people out, although less rum (that I can see) and less whistling than we’re used to. However no less number of eyes following the twelve of us as we move past the locals. After walk around the center, a few minutes stargaze on Baracoa’s malecón, we find ourselves at el Museo del Cacao drinking chocolate frío (the same concept as hot chocolate, except cold) as a nightcap.
Waking up at 6:30am, three hours before my clock had planned, I peak through the curtains and see a strawberry sky behind the hills. The urge to document the beautiful morning conquers my tired body, and I manage to pull together enough strength to slide out of bed, snap a few pictures of the imminent sunrise, and appreciate the early morning rays over the bay before returning to sleep.
Leaving the hotel at 10am, the city seems completely distinct from both the one we had quickly visited the night before and the one I had sleepily seen just a few hours before. The sun, now high in the cloudless blue above, bathes the city with light and tropical heat. The sound of what seemed like a hundred roosters crowing at sunrise has been replaced by the shuffling energy of Baracoans beginning their day.
As we walk through the city, stopping occasionally to here a story from the historian acting as our guide, a thought comes to me: this is the way I imagined Cuba to be. The brightly-hued houses, the calm crystalline Caribbean, the mountainous backdrop had all floated through my head as the image of this island. This is certainly not the Cuba I had come to know in Habana, it is the Cuba I dreamed of visiting but had forgotten after seven weeks in the capital.
Baracoa is a city of much history and lore. In fact, many people in Havana have cited it as their favorite place in Cuba. After visiting, I can tell why, but I am not of the same mindset. I should have fallen in love with Baracoa (and after lunch I thought I had).
After all, that meal alone included: tamales, soup, chicken, lamb, fried plantains, rice and beans, crab, shrimp, two types of lobster, two types of fish, rum with juice squeezed right from the sugar cane, and heavenly chocolate ice cream accompanied by Cuban espresso; all of which was beyond delicious.
And as anybody who knows me knows, I love food, but in retrospect, my experience there felt a little hollow.
Though I’ve ventured to zero places with more natural beauty that Baracoa and its surrounding area, something was missing. Maybe it was the lightning quick visit, or maybe the manner in which the center seemed just a little too neat and clean and manufactured, especially coming from Havana. Whatever the case, Baracoa may have more-than-satisfied my physical appetite, but it did not grab my spirit. For that, I would have to wait ‘til Santiago.