Baracoa is located 75 miles (120 km) east of Guantánamo and 125 miles (200 km) east of Santiago. The town borders the Bahía de Miel (Honey Bay) and lies beneath the large, flat-topped mountain of El Yunque. Baracoa is actually the oldest town in Cuba, having been founded in 1510 by Diego Velázquez. Baracoa’s isolated location kept it from developing into a larger settlement. In fact, the town remained unconnected to the rest of Cuba by roads or railways until the 1960s.
This seclusion made a distinct impact on the town, and you can feel it once you arrive—Baracoa simply feels older and somehow different from other places in Cuba. It’s rickety and quaintly rough around the edges. The houses are brightly painted and the streets are alive with locals.
The town center is Plaza Independencia. A large church, the Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, fronts one side of the plaza. This church dates from 1805 and is best known for the “Cruz de la Parra,” a dark wooden cross that is said to be the oldest European object in the Americas. Locals claim that Columbus left the cross at the entrance to Baracoa’s harbor in 1492. Carbon dating has confirmed that the cross is indeed 500 years old, however, further analysis determined that the wood was made from a species of tree that grows in Baracoa (not Europe).
A pedestrian street exits the plaza. This is a nice place to stroll, grab a bite, or explore local art galleries. Stop by the Casa de Cacao to learn about chocolate production and to sample the goods. The Casa de la Trova is a lovely space that hosts traditional music most nights of the week—spend a few hours here listening to son, dancing, and drinking cold beer. Locals and foreigners alike also enjoy walks along the Malecón, a seafront walkway that’s a perfect place to watch the sunset. You’ll often see locals casting lines into the ocean, hoping for fish.
The main attraction in Baracoa is the Paradise Cave Archeological Museum. This museum, which is set within a series of caves, has interesting exhibits on Cuba’s aboriginal inhabitants, the Taíno. You can see displays with jewelry, ceramics, carvings, and even skeletons.
Travelers can enjoy numerous outdoor activities in this area. You can hike to the summit of El Yunque (“The Anvil”), the flat-topped mountain that overlooks Baracoa. The Taíno held this mountain sacred, and a hike to its summit is challenging and rewarding. You’ll pass waterfalls and dense forest along the way, and will enjoy beautiful views from the top. El Yunque is actually contained within the Duaba Natural Park, which has additional hiking trails. Certain trails lead to waterfalls with some of the clearest, warmest water you have ever seen. You can also take trips to secluded, black-sand beaches or go horseback riding through the hillsides that surround Baracoa.
The drive from Santiago to Baracoa is long but beautiful. You pass Guantánamo – and can even see the U.S. military base from a hillside lookout – and beautiful coastal sections that offer up places to swim. Eventually, the road heads into the mountains on a route known as La Farola. The highway ascends via steep switchbacks and provides dramatic views of the coastline. After reaching the summit, you descend through pine trees en route to Baracoa, and the environment gradually becomes more tropical. This is one of the prettiest drives in all of Cuba.