We don't feel any need to see the American Naval Base, so we bypass the city of Guantanamo. A portion of the road has signs forbidding photographs, so we assume we are in the vicinity of the base.
We follow the coast eastwards along La Via Azul, (The Blue Way). The scenery is spectacular! The coastal plain is very narrow and steep cliffs press the road close to the indigo sea. The southeast trade winds are blowing strongly; huge breakers crash onto pointed limestone rocks, called dientes de perro (dog's teeth), throwing spray high in the air. The land is extremely dry and the vegetation is scrubby and desert-like; mostly cactus, small shrubs and wind-blasted trees.
At the village of Cajobabo, the highway turns inland and almost immediately begins a steep climb into the Sierra del Purial mountains. This road, called La Farola, is a marvel of engineering and was completed only since the Revolution. Before the building of La Farola, Baracoa was inaccessible from the rest of Cuba except by sea or by air. It is an exciting drive! The road, twists and curls up the side of sheer cliffs and through steep ravines. Eleven bridges are suspended on the mountainside by columns. As we climb higher, the road narrows, the bends become tighter and the vegetation changes, first to fir trees and then to pine forests where the air is crisp and cool.
We stop at a mirador (lookout) to admire the magnificent scenery and try to resist the blandishments of the local people hawking their wares. They are selling necklaces of coloured seeds and shells as well as bananas and oranges. One man is selling something wrapped in odd-looking cone-shaped packages. Susan recognises it from Marta's description: Cucurucho, a specialty found only in Baracoa. Cucurucho is a mixture of coconut, honey, nuts, orange, guava and pineapple, cooked down to a paste and wrapped in cone-shaped packages made from the hearts of the Royal Palm. At first it tastes quite bland, but soon it is impossible to stop eating it. From the summit, the road drops quickly through a moist valley, brimful of banana trees and emerges by the sea in the town of Baracoa.
Baracoa is a small town and it doesn't take us long to find the right street and soon we pull up in front of our next home. Again, the proprietors are waiting to greet us. Nelsi is a dentist but she earns more money operating a casa particular than from her practice. Her family is delightful; her husband works in a chocolate factory and her mother is the cook. Nelsi's brother, Israel, lives with them and he owns a way-cool 1948 Willys Jeep with the original motor. I want one just like it.
We spend a great deal of time sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch, reading, watching the neighbourhood go by and drinking cold cervezas. Baracoa is a cheerful, relaxing and charming place. The atmosphere is quite unlike any other place we have visited in Cuba. We really like it here and talk about another visit when we could stay for a longer time. Mama calls us to dinner and a feast awaits: a tasty fish and noodle soup, followed by plates of salad -- lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes and beans. A huge plate of rice with black beans, a Cuban specialty called moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) and then a wonderful fish -- fresh from the sea. The fish is white, firm and very tasty. A cold bottle of Soroa white wine helps to wash it all down. Nesli's mother is truly a wonderful cook.
After dinner, we wander downtown where there is a hell of a street party in full swing. It is February 14 and apparently Baracoa takes Valentine's day very seriously. The main street is filled with blaring music and a lot of cheap rum is being consumed. People are dancing, talking and laughing. Young girls are dressed to the nines and in every block, a pig is being roasted over an open fire. A happy man with a big toothy grin takes a shine to us but we can make out very little of his conversation. We sit and listen to a band playing traditional Cuban music very badly. The youngest member of the band is about seventy. The leader comes around during their break and sells us a CD. The CD is even worse than their live performance, but they are very sincere and are having a wonderful time.
Next morning after a delicious breakfast, we set out to explore the town on foot. We climb up a long flight of steps to a high hill with a beautiful view overlooking the city. Bob discover a huge, ancient, Russian air compressor and takes a picture of it to show his mechanic at home. He plans to tell Gerry he bought it and wants him to rebuild it! We continue our walk down into the lower part of the town near the harbour, where we take pictures of beautiful old ramshackle houses and daydream about buying one and restoring it. Back in the centre of town we buy pork-on-a-bun from a sidewalk vendor and a cold beer to wash it down.
We spend the afternoon sitting on the front porch of our casa watching the Baracoa world go by. We visit with Nelsi and her husband and he gives us some of the chocolate bars that are made at the factory where he works. They are absolutely delicious!
A long line of tiny students in their uniforms goes by and workmen heading home at the end of their day, greet each other as they pass.
The street sweeper comes by pushing a little cart. People rush out to put their household garbage in the cart. Bob takes a picture of the "local garbage truck" to show the fellows back home. Whenever they complain about wanting a new truck, he plans to show them these pictures!
In the morning, after a wonderful breakfast of tortilla, fresh bread, bananas and hot chocolate, so thick and rich if you let it cool, it would turn solid, we head out to see the countryside. We drive along the coast towards Moa. The area is very pastoral: lots of goats , sheep and pigs everywhere and people offering fruit and produce for sale. We stop at a bridge over a small river and get to watch a curious performance. At first we don't notice, but under the bridge is a span of oxen hitched to a cart. There is a water tank mounted on the cart. What easier way to fill your tank than to drive into the stream until cart, tank and most of the oxen are underwater? As we watch, the driver moves his team towards the shore and then drives them up the steep bank.
A little further on, we stop to watch a tableau more typical of the eighteenth century than the twenty-first. On a hillside sloping up from the road, a field is being ploughed by spans of oxen and hand-held ploughs. No less than eight ploughmen work their labourious way back and forth across the field. The cries of the teamsters directing their animals float down to our ears. We are mesmerized! It is as if we have been magically transported into a scene out of a history book.
At the Alexandre de Humboldt Park, we chat with a couple from Toronto who are spending eight weeks touring Cuba by bicycle. We have a look around the Interpretive centre and chat with the guide. He recommends a nice beach for us to stop for a swim on our way back to Baracoa.
With only a little difficulty, we find La Playa Managuez and pull into the parking lot. There is a ramshackle restaurant and we are thinking about lunch. Before we can get get out of the car, a young man rushes over and asks if would like something to eat. We point to the restaurant and he says: "No! No! Our food is much better! What would you like to eat?" We ask: "We would like fish -- do you have some fresh fish?" He answers: "Yes! Yes! We have very nice fish. It is very fresh! Only, please, do not say anything to the restaurant about us or we could get arrested!" Private enterprise is alive and well in Cuba.
We go down to the beach and have a swim. Then we see a fellow lugging an extremely large (and no doubt, VERY fresh) fish down the beach. He puts the fish down on some palm leaves and starts to butcher it, carving off large steaks. When we notice a lady with a platter, waiting for the steaks, we realize: "That's our lunch!" Forty-five minutes later, "our waiter" shows up beside our beach towels with two fish dinners and two cold beers. The fish is excellent and the service superb! Obviously, the quality of the cuisine is well-known hereabouts; looking up from our plates we discover a ring of small dogs staring hopefully at our dinners. They seem very polite and never come closer to us than a couple of meters. Unfortunately for them, neither of us is inclined to share our fish.
Back home we sit again on the front step to watch Cuba go by. Omar, the entrepreneur, from across the street comes to visit (and maybe sell us some very fine cigars). Israel tinkers with his jeep, which seems to have sprung a leak. Bob helps by peering at the engine in a knowledgeable fashion.
The next-door neighbours build a fire on the sidewalk and put on a large pot of water to boil. Omar tells us they are making ajaico, a sort of vegetable stew. They put sweet potatoes, plantains, squash, seasonings and pieces of pork in the pot. He says it is a traditional thing to do at the beach but the crowd of people partying next door don't seem to worry about the lack of a beach.
In the morning, we take our leave of Baracoa and get on the road by 9:00. We have a long drive all the way back to Holguin and the guidebook promises the road is terrible -- not much more than a track in places. The coast west of Baracoa is a lonely region. The road is hemmed in between the steep-sided Alturas de Baracoa and the sea. The scenery is very beautiful with several broad rivers and virgin rainforests. The coast alternates between white-sand beaches and mangroves with many off-shore cays. Much of the region is protected in National Parks and Nature Reserves.
As we approach the coastal town of Moa, we brace ourselves for a shock. Moa is the centre of Cuba's metal mining and processing industry. The largest plant, Empresa Ernesto Che Guevara processes nickel ore. The whole area is an unmitigated environmental tragedy. The town is dominated by tall smokestacks belching out a noxious stew of black, brown, yellow and red smoke and vapours. The town is smothered in red dust that settles over the residential neighbourhoods and a pall of metallic particles catches in the back of your throat and makes your eyes run. Signs near the mill forbids photography but, while looking over our shoulders, we manage to sneak a couple of shots. On the other side of town, we pass by huge tailings dumps -- vast acreages of red dirt with no living thing growing near them. Miles of above-ground pipes criss-cross the area, many of the joints hissing and leaking who knows what foul solutions. The environmental devastation of this one area seems even more horrifying, contrasted to the pristine beauty of the rest of the country.
In the town of Mayari, the local traffic police peer intently at the license plate on our car and then politely ask us to follow them to the station. They request Bob to come inside with his passport and he sits while they make phone calls and check something out. We wonder if someone reported us taking pictures of the factory in Moa. After about ten minutes, they give him his passport back, tell him: "No hay problema, Seņor" and apologise for the delay.
Late in the day, we arrive back in Holguin and are greeted enthusiastically by Ruben and Marta. They want to know all about our journey. We tell them how much we enjoyed staying with their friends and how we loved exploring the towns and the countryside of the Oriente.
We have now explored nearly all of the island of Cuba except for a portion in the middle. Our favourite place of all and the place we would most like to return to for a longer stay is Baracoa. This small town has a special feel to it and we found it laid back, relaxed and comfortable. A close second, would be the small rural town of Viņales in Pinar del Rio province that we visited on our first trip. We would be happy nearly anywhere in Cuba but these two places stand out in our minds.
Because of our experiences in Cuba, many of our friends have asked us: "What will happen in Cuba after Castro is no longer there to lead the country?" Recently, we read an article called Fidel's Final Victory, which in our opinion, gives the most accurate and authoritative answer to this question. The author, Julia E. Sweig, is the Director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has visited Cuba 30 times since 1984 and met with everyone from Fidel Castro himself to human rights activists and political prisoners. If you would like to read this very interesting article please click HERE.