A trip to this long-lost Eden – known for its tropical forests, azure seas, creative cuisine and quirky city – will show you a whole new side of Cuba.
Cuba’s wild, wild east
Turquoise water. Sugary white sand. Lush tropical trees stretching back into a wide mountain range. When Christopher Columbus swung his ships into the arced bay of Cuba’s eastern end in 1492, a view nearly identical to this one likely greeted him. “I was so astonished by the sight of so much beauty that I can find no words to describe it,” Columbus wrote to his royal Spanish patrons. “[It was] so enchantingly beautiful that it surpasses all others in charm and beauty.” Fast-forward more than 520 years, and surprisingly, this area’s allure hasn’t diminished, nor has the coastline changed much from what Columbus originally observed. In this forgotten corner of the island, you won’t find big resorts or even much tourism at all – for now. (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
The colourful coastal city of Baracoa
The hub of Cuba’s eastern end is the tiny city of Baracoa, which has some powerful claims to fame. Not only is it the spot where Christopher Columbus likely first landed on the island, but it was Cuba’s first capital and oldest Spanish settlement.
Nevertheless, Baracoa’s isolation has kept it from becoming a more celebrated place. The hilly and windy La Farola road, linked from Guantanamo 120km to the west, serves as the sole pipeline in – and it was only finished as recently as 1965. Today, a rickety fleet of small planes fly from Havana twice a week; otherwise, the only way to get there is by boat. The lack of infrastructure is hardly a bad thing, though, as it’s allowed Baracoans to develop traditions, tastes and attitudes that are uniquely their own. (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
Baracoa’s sea-thrashed Malecón
On one side of the Malecòn – a term synonymous with boardwalk – stands an endless swath of Atlantic Ocean. On the other, El Yunque mountain rises behind a jumble of scruffy 18th to 20th Century buildings. During the day, it’s tranquil as people saunter along or sit on the stone wall beside the sea; at night, groups gather under the dim beams of scattered streetlights to stage impromptu music jams or play ball. (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
The unlikely flavours of eastern Cuba
The standing joke in Cuba is that the food is better in Miami, since every dish on the island is seen as a repetitious round of rice and beans, beans and rice. Not so in Baracoa, where the locals bring their own creative twists to the locally-grown cuisine, with a nod to the area’s indigenous Taíno, French and Haitian influences. On the savoury side, there’s lechita, a mixture of coconut milk, tomatoes, garlic and spices that’s often poured over seafood, as well as tetí river fish, a Baracoan delicacy (available August through December) that’s often fried into omelettes or served dried as a snack. On the sweet side, the area around Baracoa is ground zero for Cuban cacao production, and chocolate is everywhere. Look for chorrote, a thick hot chocolate sometimes found in cafes or made by campesinos (country people) at their homes, as well as homemade squares of the rich stuff sold on nearly every corner. (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
Into a lush paradise
Starting at the Sagua-Baracoa mountain range, the national park’s greener-than-green forests stretch straight down to the ocean. According to Unesco, it’s “one of the most biologically diverse tropical ecosystems in an island setting anywhere on Earth”, and it hosts a lengthy list of endemic species that includes more than 1,000 flowering plants, mangroves and palm, cacao and banana trees within its borders. (Credit: Tanveer Badal)