Monday, April 11, 2011

The Road to Baracoa

We have less than a week left in Cuba and the experiences far out-number the space left on this page, but it is essential that we tell you about our favorite place in Cuba that we have travelled to so far: Baracoa. Inspiring Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Baracoa is nestled in the largest, most biologically diverse rainforest region of the Caribbean. Prior to the 1960s, Baracoa was only accessible by sea and today to reach the town by car, one must be prepared for the roller coaster road called La Farolla. Baracoa has been home to the native Taino peoples of Cuba for centuries, and today their descendants still practice traditional, Taino agriculture in this region.  A land of our dreams, with such a rich history, where we will be returning pronto.

The landscape of Cuba is strikingly diverse. This morning we were in a desert land, watching south swells of the Caribbean in front of the military check-point at the Santiago-Guantanamo border. Cactus plants, wild aloe and red-rock limestone caves were the backdrop to the turquoise sea.
As our tandem wheels took us farther west, the desert dryness evaporated into misty mountains so lush and green. The hairpin road nicknamed La Farola guided us from sea level to 2,000 feet as we twisted and turned, following the contours of these mighty mountains. Around each corner were vistas of deep canyons, wild river gorges and tropical plants new to our eyes. The cool yet humid tropical air made us inhale with patience to take it all in. We finally arrived in the isolate northeastern Cuban village of Baracoa as night engulfed the day and misty mountain clouds floated below the canopy of stars. We have arrived in Baracoa.

Arriving in Cuba by canoe near 700 AD, the Taino People originated in the Rio Orinoco region of Venezuela. With them in their canoes, these people brought with them their staple crops: Yucca (cassava), Boniato (sweet potato), Maize, Calabasa (squash) and Frijoles (beans). Similar to the Tres Hermanas (Three Sisters) form of traditional agriculture found in many regions of the Americas (corn, bean and squash are inter-planted to take advantage of their positive ecological interactions) the Taino also had a three-crop inter-planting system which incorporated Maize, Boniato and Yucca. The Taino also used ground corn and corn husks to make ‘Hallaca’ or Tamales. Tobaco, coca and clarinocampana, a hallucinogenic flower, were all plants sacred to the Taino and used to help chiefs communicate with their gods. Taino farmers placed special ‘energetic rock idols’ in the middle of their fields to help protect their crops.

Baracoa is the land of three rivers, Rio de Miel, Rio Duaba and Rio Toa, the most voluminous. These freshwater lifelines begin their journey to the tropical Atlantic waves high in the lush mountains above Baracoa. They provide needed water for the Caribbean’s largest rainforest, irrigation water for the diverse plantations of platanos, cacao, coconut palms and mangoes, and an important tranquil inlet for the curious and gentle manatees of Cuba.

Polimitas: These Cuban endemic land-snails are vibrantly colorful, delicate and beautiful. Becoming endangered due to their illegal poaching for the tourist trade.
Roof Top Garden: Luis and his family began this rooftop garden ten years ago when the Baracoa Urban Agriculture Program gave out an urban growers handbook. Today, they produce medicinal herbs for use in teas and bushels of lettuce which they sell weekly to their neighbors. Luis says his son, Yeser, has loved to garden since he was a little boy.

On the last day of March we made some great friends who offered to prepare us a fresh meal, Baracoan style. We met this young group of guys at their home and they were carrying a string of congrejo (crabs). Next we picked up a bottle of rum, and headed to the beach. The most spectacular beach, miles of soft, black, glistening cobblestone, arching into a protected bay, backed by the tropical forest, and not another person in sight. We felt like they had led us to a secret beach. The boys climbed the coconut trees to cut fresh cocos, which we spike with Cuban white rum, for the freshest Cuban cocktail possible. They built a driftwood fire in the sand between the Caribbean Sea and the flowing river Duaba, and as the sun set we feasted on crab, vegetables with rice, mangoes and more agua de coco. Our best Cuban dining experience so far...

With the lushness of Baracoa and the white sand beaches of Playa Maguana behind us, the road west quickly turned devilish. The banana groves, waterfalls and fern-lined creeks quickly vanished, and we were pedaling up steep hills covered in an endless Pine Forest. Temperatures were pushing 100 degrees and the road would challenge even a professional downhill mountain bike racer. Huge potholes, steep descents and agonizing uphill climbs had us cursing the midday heat, each other and bike travel all together. We stopped in a small sliver of roadside shade, drank our last drops of water, and watched as dozens of vultures circled in the scorching thermals above us. Bumping down the dusty road, a truck slows to a stop and signals for us to hop in. Cubans pile out of the truck to help us lift the bike in, and we are off again, heading west, in the shade of a truck’s canopy. We pass through Moa, a land of environmental destruction, the island’s largest nickel mine, where factories puke with smoke, roadside pipes drip neon yellow sulfur dioxide and the barren land is devoid of vegetation. The tropical beauty of Baracoa is in our lovely memories.

The truck dropped us off here in Moa, where we had already missed the only bus out for the week. As has been the motto here in Cuba, if we go with the flow, great opportunities and wonderful friends emerge. Within ten minutes we find another ride in a truck, heading to the town of Holguin. The fare is reasonable and we hop aboard. The truck is filled with thousands of cartons of farm fresh Cuban tomatoes, and the turquoise tandem, Kati and I and three farmworkers fit snuggly as we again continue west into the sun. After the truck stops and unloads the tomatoes, the farm manager having sold all his crop, the celebration begins with a bottle of rum. For hours we pass the bottle around in the truck, the evening breeze blowing in my face, the Cuban countryside whizzing by in its greenness and expansive beauty. Spanish flows from my tongue easily as the truck picks up and unloads many interesting travelers.  This journey has been so  rich and full of adventure and learning.....our internet time has run out for the more stories when we see you soon.



  1. Really wonderful pictures on here you guys. looks like time well spent.

    It's finally nice out here in portland. 5 days of sun ahead! It's been cold, wet, grey in portland for months. But i was reading your blog about the fresh coconut spiked with rum. Vicariously imagining the black sand beach...... ahhhhh...... Shared the story with a couple key people during the dark days here, put a big smile on their faces.

  2. Hi Pete and Kati! Your pictures and commentary are wonderful and inspiring me evermore to get in shape and make plans to do an extended bike trip in Cuba. Your presentation at the Copacabana in Havana was one of the highlights of my Global Exchange trip in early April. Your passion and love for what you are doing and each other is contagious. I look forward to following what you are doing on this blog and staying in touch. I can't wait for my next trip to Cuba!!