Far, FAR off the beaten path on Cuba’s southeastern coast lies a hidden treasure. Tucked away in lush green jungles and lined by a beautiful sandy coastline lies Baracoa, a nature lovers paradise!
Baracoa’s relative inaccessibility makes it difficult to reach, but the disconnection from the rest of Cuba has preserved its natural beauty and a vibrant small town atmosphere mostly untouched by tourism.
A couple of days here can easily turn into a week with all of the outdoor excursions available to keep you busy. Or if you are looking to relax, you can head to a beach and hang with some locals.
For an incredibly unique stop on your travels through Cuba, Baracoa needs to be on the top of your list!
Getting to Baracoa
Making the trip to Baracoa is an adventure in itself. There is only one paved road that leads to Baracoa and it carves through the aptly named Cuchillas de Baracoa mountains (literally meaning Knives of Baracoa). To be honest, I wasn’t sure our bus would make the trip. Many times our driver played a fine line between the road and razor-sharp cliffs. My doctor has told me to get my heartrate up more often, so I assumed this was good for me.
That being said, the entire bus ride is absolutely stunning with tons of photogenic peaks before zig-zagging down into the town of Baracoa. One bus leaves in the morning from Santiago de Cuba. Make sure to reserve a ticket at the bus station when you arrive in Santiago.
What do to in Baracoa
Sites around town
Hike uphill to the west end of the town to visit the Archaeological Museum of Baracoa. The entire museum is inside a small cave carved out of the hillside and is also the site of an ancient burial ground for the indigenous Taino people who inhabited the islands centuries ago. You will find an abundance of well-preserved artefacts (including the remains of a Taino chief), and the unique setting only adds to the appeal.
After enjoying the exhibits climb up to the museum’s balcony that takes in the gorgeous view of Baracoa and its surrounding cove.
Back down into town, you can explore the quaint main square of Parque Central. Standing over the square is the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion. Legend has it that the small wooden cross inside the church was the one Christopher Columbus used to christen the land of Cuba. At the time I didn’t believe it, but some Google fact-checking proves it may be true!
The square will be packed day and night with Cubans, whether it be locals making use of the wifi connection throughout the day, or strolling between relaxed bars with a drink in hand.
Hike up El Yunque
Take a guided trek up the brooding mountain that looms over Baracoa. This flat-topped giant is no easy walk (especially if the trail is muddy like when we hiked it in April). Be ready for a tough hike and even better rewards.
The excursion has you undertaking wild river crossings, and cutting through primary and secondary jungle. Before starting your ascent you get the chance to visit a small coffee plantation at the base of the mountain.
The amazing scenery and the sounds of the jungle all around you will help to take your mind off how loud your calves are screaming. The climb can get quite steep at times, but the 5-hour excursion gives you enough time to take breaks and catch your breath. Make sure to bring lots of water and some snacks to fuel up along the way.
Once you summit El Yunque you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the rich landscape below. You can see the Rio Toa, a great hangout if you are looking for a beach day, and north of the mountain is the grand Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, the largest national park in Cuba. This view will show you just how much exploring there is in Baracoa. All that untamed jungle is calling!
After working up enough sweat for a week, you will have the option to continue the hike to a hidden waterfall for a swim (the guide may need some “encouragement” since this is technically not included). Saying the spot is hidden is no exaggeration as you will need to make another river crossing and free climb some boulders to reach the natural pool. The deep blue waters are incredibly refreshing after this long hike, and the waterfall’s rockface offers some good diving spots.
Cost of El Yunque trek: About $30CUC (same as USD) including tips. The hike can be done on your own with entrance into the park and would be about $15CUC.
Cruise up the Rio Yumuri
FUNNY STORY that we should let you in on.
A boat ride up the Rio Yumuri will be a fantastic experience!… If there is enough water to get you up the river.
We tagged along with an older couple and our favourite pair of travellers we’ve ever met, Gary and Anne. They had hired a taxi to take us to a small village at the mouth of the river where we would start our journey. The Rio Yumuri is lined by dramatic cliffs covered in dense forest that would make for a beautiful and relaxing day out. Far upstream there are several small communities living in the thick of the jungle that you can stop at for a visit.
What we were not told until arriving at the launch point is that the water level was significantly lower since we were visiting Cuba at the very end of the dry season. Nonetheless, we took our boat out until we literally ran it into the ground.
In the spirit of making the most of our trip we hopped out back onto land for a leisurely hike along the riverside spotting tropical birds with our boat guide.
This adventure may not have turned exactly how we expected, but it would surely be a memorable experience if you are in Cuba when the river is more navigable.
Cost of Rio Yumuri Trip: This one is hard to tell… We hired a driver for the day to take us to the river, and covered all the costs for the tour for about $80CUC (split 4 ways it was $20CUC each). A tour price will probably be a bit more.
Even though we spent nearly 3 full days in Baracoa, it was still not enough time! Here are more places to check out in Baracoa that we wish we had time for!
Other Day Trips You should take
Into Humboldt National Park
If you really want to experience unspoilt nature at its finest, take a tour into the massive Humboldt National Park, Cuba’s largest national park. Cuban tour offices will offer single-day trips as well as many multi-day hikes if you are up for it.
Go Beach (or River) Hopping
There are a handful of local spots around Baracoa with Playa Boca de Miel being just outside of town. A few kilometres past the airport you can find the black sand beach of Playa Duaba. Maybe the most interesting swimming option is to take a boat up the Rio Toa and enjoy its easy currents (I suggest a tour for $20CUC, or ask around for a local connection).
Where We Stayed
There are tons of great hostel options, but our favourites in Cuba were always staying with locals in a Casa Particular. We stayed with Reina – simply the sweetest, cutest host in town (just look at that smile!) who could whip up a mean fish in coconut sauce. She has two rooms available so one should be available if you show up
Casa Reina y Rebeca: Calle Raul Cepero Bonilla No.17, between Marti & Rodney Coutin. (+53) 21- 611164. firstname.lastname@example.org
Baracoa is a hidden gem by every sense of the phrase. Luckily, it’s in the far south and its inaccessibility keep tourism from breaking it wide open. If you are looking for a unique experience exploring the bounties of nature, and frankly the best scenery that Cuba has to offer, Baracoa is a must for any adventurous backpacker.
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