Once upon a time, not all that long ago, it wouldn’t matter if a list of things to do in Baracoa was about the most tempting thing you’d ever heard of in your life, since it was practically impossible to get there. In the 1960s a road was built through the Sierra del Purial mountains that surround the town, connecting Baracoa with the rest of Cuba. Before this, much of Cuba didn’t make their way to the beauty of Baracoa except for the two or three weekly flights from Havana on Baracoa’s small regional airport on Russian-made airliners.
Times might have changed (although not all that much in Cuba), and the town is still gloriously isolated. There are still just a handful of flights into the town each week, and that road through the mountains has not been expanded in any major way. And yet this is the appeal of Baracoa.
You will be surprised that more visitors don’t actually make the effort to come to this part of Cuba, particularly those who love nature and also love to fill their stomachs. So what is it that makes this luminous town so special?
A Rich, Important, and Weird History
Pretty much everywhere in Cuba has a rich and interesting history (although this is a claim made in practically any tourism guidebook for practically any destination in the world). Baracoa has a considerable claim to fame, however. It could be stated that the formation of modern North and South America began in this unassuming little town. It was here that a certain Christopher Columbus landed in 1492 – the first location in the New World, beginning centuries of colonisation that shaped the history of the world.
The town of Gibara, a considerable distance along the coast, has claimed that it was in fact the site of their town was the original spot where Christopher Columbus landed.
Sorry Gibara, but notes from Columbus pertaining to the geography of the region makes it clear that Baracoa was indeed the spot. Unsurprisingly, some Columbus artifacts are a top pick when it comes to things to do in Baracoa. La Cruz de la Parra is proudly displayed in the Cathedral of Baracoa and is one of the crosses that Christopher Columbus brought with him on his initial voyage (and is believed to be the only one that survived).
Thanks go to Karol Józef Wojtyła, who is better known as Pope John Paul ll. In 1998 he became the first Pope to visit Cuba and was offered La Cruz de la Parra as an official gift. He thanked his hosts profusely, but thought the cross belonged in Cuba. Incidentally, the Cathedral of Baracoa was also the site of a juicy scandal back in August 1819.
The cathedral hosted a marriage between Juana de León (the wealthy daughter of a Baracoa landowner) and Dr Enrique Faber (a doctor who trained in Madrid and also worked in Havana). It was a scandal because some months later it turned out that Dr Faber was in fact a woman who had disguised herself as a man in order to make it easier to find success in a male-dominated field.
She entered into the marriage because Juana de León reminded her of her deceased daughter and she simply wanted to be near her, which is… touching? Their relationship was never physical (separate bedrooms helped with the ruse) and upon being discovered, the marriage was annulled.
Dr. Faber fled in disgrace to Santiago de Cuba. She narrowly escaped imprisonment and was exiled to the colony of Florida, where she disappeared from history, but hopefully was still allowed to be a doctor!
So as you can see, an exploration of the rich and really rather interesting history of the region should be an absolute must-do on any list of things to do in Baracoa.
And of course, that list of things to do in Baracoa is also going to include a lot of nature… and a lot of food.
Eat Your Way Around Baracoa
Part of the enjoyment of the region is by partaking in the numerous delicacies the area is famed for. So seriously, any list of things to do in Baracoa will include rather a lot of food. So what can you expect?
This is a made from the cacao beans that are harvested in the area. For chorote, the beans are essentially made into a solid chunk of cacao which is grated or shaved into a saucepan of warm milk. It would be a stretch to call it hot chocolate since it’s so thick that you could fix potholes with it. Still, it’s utterly delicious. One of your necessary things to do in Baracoa might be exercise, since there are a huge number of chocolate shops in the town.
This tiny, tasty little fish is found in the mouths of the rivers that feed into the ocean around Baracoa. It’s cooked in a variety of different ways and is often thrown into different dishes as is, or salted and dried and used much like dried shrimp is in Asian dishes. Be mindful that it’s only found in abundance in the second half of the year.
Much like the cacao trees dominate the landscape, there are also a lot of banana crops around the town. El bacan is grated green banana, often mixed with crab meat. It might sound odd, but you’re going to enjoy it.
Things to Do in Baracoa to Explore Nature
You might be perfectly content to explore the town and sit by beach, but Baracoa is also a great place to explore the local rainforests. You can hike in the Sierra del Purial mountains and even swim in the cool, refreshing streams (with the heat of Cuba, you will probably need it).
You should try to climb El Yunque, a distinctive table mountain (flat-topped) that overlooks the town and the glorious bay. This mountain was apparently described in the notes of Christopher Columbus, making it certain that beautiful Baracoa was the place where the New World began.