Having only experienced Havana from the passenger seat of two taxis, Baracoa was the first real stop on this Cuban adventure.
It is an ideal town to get into the Latin spirit, surrounded by farmland growing coconuts, coffee, chocolate, bananas, mangos and many more exotic fruits on three sides and the sea on the other. Exploring the narrow but seldom quiet streets provides a great introduction to Cuban culture. There is always something happening regardless of the time of day.
Predictably the best times to wander through the town is morning and evening, the heat of the afternoon is usually too uncomfortable and savvy Cubans keep out of the sun.
The morning appears to be when most locals go about their business, meeting friends, buying meat or fish and vegetables for dinner. These are often sold at the side of the street or off the floor, piles of mixed chillies, mangos, garlic, sugar beet and of course bananas. Although there is a supermarket and some large shops in the town centre, the smaller ‘casa’shops are much more interesting and attractive.
These are usually little more than a stall, a wooden hatch from which the local butcher will carve off select cuts of pork or chicken to order. A few metres away a small crowd chooses vegetables to accompany the evening meal from another hole in the wall. Several homes down the street a family is selling off spare household goods from their doorway, the Cuban version of a garage sale.
On weekends a ramshackle market springs up along the seafront, mountains of unripened bananas, mangos and sugar beet are sifted by expert hands seeking the best choices. Trussed-up chickens squawk loudly with indignation while similarly bound small pigs sleep serenely, oblivious to their fate.
In the attractive small squares which punctuate the streets artisans sell intricately carved wooden items. Amongst blossoming trees, benches and statuettes it is possible to purchase domino boxes, mojito ‘muddlers’, jewellry, maracas, other instruments or small busts of the heroes of the Revolution especially Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
Reminders of Cuba’s glorious revolution are everywhere, slogans and murals adorn already colourful buildings and the iconic image of Che Guevara is constantly looking down over his adoring people.
Classic cars known as cacharros weave their way through horse drawn carts, countless bici-taxis, bustling pedestrians, kids playing football and occasionally the odd chicken or pig. During the hottest part of the day people lie in doorways to keep cool and at all times men congregate to play chess or dominoes at tables out in the street
The streets sway to the rhythm of salsa and a percussive beat is never far away. It is common to find oneself being drawn by an ‘invisible’ cord, following a hypnotic rhythm to its source. This usually turns out to be a band or a couple of musicians having an impromptu ‘jam’ where donations are always welcome.
On one occasion after following a particularly powerful beat I came across a small group of people crowding around a doorway from which the music was emanating. Packed into a room no larger than an average sized bathroom were 6 musicians and all their equipment. Practicing, possibly for a gig that evening the sound of drums, keyboards and several guitars being accompanied by a female vocalist were blasting out from huge amplifiers squeezed into the tiny room. The crowd steadily grew in size, swaying in time with the beat whilst attempting to find a good vantage point to catch a glimpse of the performers.
The town really puts on its dancing shoes after the sun goes down. A party appears around every corner and bands perform in bars often less than 100 metres apart competing for supremacy of decibels and passion. A Latin-American battle of the bands is performed on the Baracoa streets into the early hours of the morning most days of the week.
Beautiful women sway their hips sexily to the rhythms of salsa and mambo aiming to entice a male ‘escort’ for the evening. Once the bait is taken the movements become even more seductive to drive the hook firmly home. For the price of a couple of drinks the gentleman will have her undivided attention for the evening, including some ‘bump and grind’ on the dance floor and the envious banter from friends. It sounds like a win-win situation.
Any tourists wishing to take things a little further however should be aware that there are plenty in Cuba that practice the ‘oldest profession’. Most are just amateurs whom when presented with an opportunity to make some extra cash will happily take it.
The bands also attract the characters of the town, who maybe after one cerveza or caipirinha too many attempt to show-off their moves, competing with each other for prime dance real estate. One even dresses up like Spiderman; they aren’t any bother however and provide additional entertainment, most people merely laugh at their antics.
The town is on Cuban time, so despite the bustling streets there’s never any need to rush. Late nights are easily followed by an equally late start or just relaxing on a nearby beach. Time enough later for slwoly exploring Baracoa which is the best way to discover the bars, maybe finding a cool salsa beat down a backstreet.
As first impressions go Baracoa is a great introduction to Cuba which whetted my appetite, discovering more of the culture of the island was going to be fun.