Baracoa is one of Cuba’s best kept secrets! This small colonial town off the beaten tracks is bordered on one side by the sea, on the other by the mountains, and surrounded by rivers. Baracoa will no doubt delight nature lovers and visitors eager for authenticity!
With approximately 80,000 inhabitants, Baracoa is a small town in the Province of Guantánamo, in the “Oriente”, the far west of Cuba.
The city’s location, off the country’s major tourist destinations, has protected it from mass tourism. Yet, Baracoa ticks all the boxes: beaches, moutains and chocolate!
Discovering Baracoa’s history
In 1492, Christopher Columbus set foot in Cuba on the exact location where Baracoa was later to be built. A few years after Colombus’ arrival, in 1511, famous conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar founded the city of Baracoa, making it the first city to be created on the island. Velázquez was quite a productive conquistador: he then founded the cities of Trinidad and Bayamo.
Surprisingly enough, while Baracoa is the oldest Spanish colony on the island, it is also the only place where the Tainos, the indigenous people of Cuba, survived Spanish occupation.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Baracoa’s privileged location attracted countless pirates and smugglers turning the city into an epicentre for contraband in the Caribbean.
When the neighbouring island of Haiti declared independence in the early 19th century, a number of French settlers sought refuge in Baracoa and introduced cocoa and coffee cultivation in Cuba. Since then, the region has remained a major producer of chocolate.
Facilement accessible par la mer, Baracoa demeure au contraire très longtemps inaccessible par voie de terre. En effet, la ville est coupée du reste de l’île jusqu’à la création dans les années 1960 de la Carretera Central qui traverse Cuba d’est en ouest.
While Baracoa has always been quite easy to access from the sea, it remained for quite a long time largely inaccessible by land. The city was cut off from the rest of the island until the creation of the Carretera Central, a road crossing the entire country, in the 1960s.
Baracoa may still seem quite difficult to access, but several ways exist to reach the city.
If you want to reach Baracoa from the east of the island, the city has a small airport, Gustavo Rizo airport. Cuban airline Cubana de Aviación serves the airport from Havana and Santiago de Cuba.
Flying to Guantánamo or Santiago de Cuba is another option. You’ll then have to take a cab at the airport to get to Baracoa. The drive is 3.5-hour long from Guantánamo, 4-hour long from Santiago.
Viazul busses also drive to Baracoa from some of the country’s biggest cities: Havana (19 hours, 66 CUC), Camaguey (11 hours, 33 CUC), Santiago de Cuba (5 hours, 15 CUC).
As the west of the island is far less touristic than the east, finding collectivos, shared taxis, is much more difficult. If you’re stuck, you can always opt for a private taxi but the drive will be considerably more expensive. Simply ask the hosts of your casa particular and they will arrange the details for you.
Baracoa’s three fortresses
Christopher Colombus setting foot in Cuba on Baracoa’s current location was no coincidence: the city is ideally located and is a perfect gateway to the island. As a result, the following centuries saw Baracoa become the epicentre of contraband in the Caribbean. To protect the city, three fortresses were then built: Fuerte Matachín, the Castillo de Seboruco and Punta de Maisí’s lighthouse.
Built in 1802 to protect the Bahía de Miel, Fuerto Matachín now houses the Municipal Museum of Baracoa.
Located in the northwest of the city, the museum retraces the history of Baracoa since the days of the Tainos, who inhabited the island before the arrival of the Spanish settlers.
Entrance fees are 1 CUC.
Castillo de Seboruco
The castle’s construction was initiated by the Spanish in 1739 but was not completed until 1900, under American supervision. A few decades later, the castle was turned into a hotel.
Located 100 meters above sea level, Castillo de Seboruco overlooks the entire city and offers panoramic views of El Yunque. Take the stairs on Calle Frank País to reach the viewpoint.
Punta de Maisí’s lighthouse
Located 1 hour from Baracoa, in the far west of the island, Punta de Maisí’s lighthouse overlooks the Caribbean Sea. If the weather is clear, you’ll even be able to spot Haiti in the distance.
You’ll find a white sand beach at the foot of the fortress.
Catedral de Nuestra Senora de Asunción
Built in 1803 Baracoa’s main square, Catedral Nuestra Senora de Asunción underwent many transformations during the eighteenth century. The cathedral was completely renovated in 2012.
But it is for its relic rather than its architecture that the cathedral is now famous. Indeed, the “Cruz de la Parra” is said to be the only remnant of the 29 wooden crosses that Christopher Columbus erected upon arriving in Cuba in 1492.
La Casa del chocolate
Although the Casa del Chocolate (also called Casa del Cacao) is presented in most travel guides as a small museum dedicated to chocolate, do not get your hopes up! All you’ll find onsite is a handful of explanatory boards. More than a museum, the Casa del Chocolate is a small shop where you can stock up on chocolate bars and enjoy a mug of hot chocolate.
El Yunque Natural Park
Located some 6 miles from Baracoa (a 20-minute drive approximately), El Yunque is a 575 meter high mountain in the shape of anvil, hence its name (anvil is called “yunque” in Spanish).
A nice hiking trail leads to El Yunque’s summit, where the view on Baracoa and its surroundings is quite simply beautiful!
Alejandro de Humboldt National Park
This national park is a paradise for nature lovers and ecotourism aficionados. It’s the perfect place to discover Cuba’s stunning biodiversity.
You can book an excursion to the park from Baracoa at the Cubatur and Gaviota offices in the city centre or hire a taxi for the day (40 CUC).
Boca de Yumurí
Boca de Yumurí is a small fishing community located 18 miles southeast of Baracoa, at the mouth of Río Yumurí, in Yumurí canyon.
Activities onsite include hiking, snorkeling and boat excursions on Río Yumurí.
Even though, if you ask us, Baracoa’s beaches are not the city’s greatest asset, the region still has some nice places where you take a dip. That being said, in the summer time, a lot of Cubans rush to the beaches and they can therefore be rather crowded. Consider yourself warned 🙂
Shaded with almond and coconut trees, Playa Manglito is located in a lagoon on the road to Yumurí (you can ask the taxi driver to make a stop on the way).
It’s a nice spot for snorkeling, or simply to relax and have a drink at Tato’s bar.
Located 12 miles north of Baracoa, on the road to Moa, Playa Manguana is a white sand beach bordering a beautiful lagoon.
A bus will take you to the beach from Baracoa’s city centre for 4 CUC. Otherwise, you can take a taxi (20-25 CUC). If you’d like to stay a little longer, you can sleep in one of Villa Maguana’s 16 bungalows.
Playa Blanca is located within walking distance of Baracoa, near the village of Boca de Miel. It is a nature reserve and you will be asked to pay 2 CUC to the caretaker to access the small beach.
Located by the Río Duaba, Playa Duaba isn’t the nicest (nor the cleanest) beach in Baracoa but it is within walking distance of the city (2.5 miles). From the beach, you’ll also have a nice view, with El Yunque in the distance.
Our recommendations in Baracoa
If you’re looking for a place to stay in Baracoa, we highly recommend Casa Colonial. This casa particular is run by a very friendly couple who’ll offer you a delicious mango juice upon arrival. The rooms are spacious and comfortable. The casa also counts several lovely terraces, including one indoor and one overlooking Baracoa.
The restaurant La Terraza (Flor Crombet No. 143, between Ciro Frías and Pelayo Cuervo), located in Casa Nilson, serves delicious seafood. In addition, you’ll get to enjoy a panoramic view of the city. We paid 35 CUC in total for the both of us, including a menu each (starter / main course / dessert), two beers, plus tip.
The paladar El Buen Sabor (Calixto García No. 134 Altos) is another really good restaurant in Baracoa. Fish and seafood also are the restaurant’s speciality. And service is absolutely charming.
Services in Baracoa
Banks & currency exchange agencies:
- Banco de Crédito y Comercio: Antonio Maceo No. 99
- Banco Popular de Ahorro: José Martí No. 166
- Cadeca: José Martí No. 241
Bus station & Viazul office: on the corner between Avenida Los Mártires and José Martí
City information desk / Excursions & tours desk:
- Cubatur: Antonio Maceo No. 181
- Infotur: Maceo No. 129, on the corner between Frank País and Maraví
Etecsa Telepunto: on the corner between Antonio Maceo and Rafael Trejo
Post office: Antonio Maceo No. 136