My fantastic little walkabout to Baracoa, Eastern Cuba.

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Published: December 16th 2022

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Great little adventure I just took, highly recommend going someday to Baracoa if you can. Let me tell you a little bit about the journey. It’s one of those places in the world, so evocative, it will be come part of you forever. As always, I never quite know I’m going to have time to travel until I do. About a month ago, I saw a window open up in my schedule. Things fell into place in a great way and I made it happen.

I grew up in South Florida, went to school with many Cuban American kids, but had never been to the island. I guess avoided it in the past because I thought it would be difficult to travel there solo, which is what I love doing. I knew it was possible to go as a group, or cultural exchange, but that isn’t me and also has to be planned. Yet somehow in the back of my mind, I was intrigued by this enigma, this much misunderstood island.

A bit of historic context. For years, the American blockade of Cuba has been in place, affecting all forms of commerce but also travel. In a nutshell, it

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has been maintained because political parties in the US have been hesitant to alienate the large and very powerful Cuban American voting block in South Florida. Many of these Cuban Americans had their family’s property taken when Castro took power, saw relatives killed and tortured during repressive moments of Castro’s regime and have been furious at that government all those years. They have achieved wealth and influence and have affected US policy for many years toward Cuba. Cubans tend to vote Republican in national elections in the US, but for years a fairly large percentage (let’s say 30 percent) voted Democratic.

This huge voting block (more than a million people) have the ability to swing the election in Florida during national elections. For years, Republicans have been in favor of a strict blockade of Cuba, Democrats less so but have been quite aware that Florida has been a swing state and very important to national elections. So, the blockade has lasted, the goal being to someday bring the Cuban government to it’s knees and be overthrown. It hasn’t worked out that way, the Cuban government has actually be able (from a PR perspective) to cast the US blockade as

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it’s enemy and has been able to limp along with help from other countries, trade relationships and tourism. Also, despite sometimes repressive actions with its own citizens, they don’t by any means universally hate their own government, the government has provided a high level of education, healthcare and (reasonably) basic needs to citizens. Of course many Cubans want to leave for opportunity (more so now as inflation, economic difficulties exist), but to say that Cubans detest their government and country is just not true.

Obama during his time in office loosened visiting and some commerce regulations, to the extent that he could with still being conscious of Florida’s swing state potential, i think Florida voted for him both times. At this time, I was traveling other places in the world. When Trump came to office, he predictably clamped down again on sanctions and visitation possibilities, I had put the idea out of my head for awhile and not really focused on gathering info. A few months ago, I came across an article about how Biden had opened up four airports in Cuba to fly into, perhaps increasingly realizing that Florida is trending Republican and the Democrats may not have

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to tread as lightly with the Cuba policy. My car camping trip last fall to Puerto Rico had been unexpectedly excellent and perhaps made me think about exploring the caribbean basin more. The combo of mountains, sea, tasty food and indigenous heritage had caught my eye.

So, I realized that I only had about 10 days to travel, the proximity of Cuba vaulted it up on the list as a possibility. I was aware that many tourists traveled to Havana, Vinales and the beaches of West Cuba, it just wasn’t that appealing to me. I wanted something different, something a little more off the grid, an adventure. One evening on the computer, I found a little town in the very far east of Cuba called Baracoa. It looked very intriguing, hard to get to so not many tourists around. It was actually isolated with no roads until the 1960s so developed a culture, cuisine and vibe quite unique to the rest of Cuba. It rains more there, quite a bit more. This means there are jungles, rivers, waterfalls, lushness. Now this area had my attention and excitement, how to make it happen.

I dug deeper in a few

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excited research sessions. I learned that there really wasn’t a problem traveling independently to Cuba, just needed to self-designate as a category “support for the Cuban people” when booking my ticket. Biden had loosened up this category, essentially as a traveler you are committing to stay in local homes, eat local food and have cultural experiences, rather than stay at government owned resorts and restaurants. The former is the way I travel anyway. In theory, you are supposed to keep receipts to show to the US government if they ask, in practice you don’t really need to. Also, you can’t being back cigars or rum (as owned by the government), local handicrafts, paintings, etc are fine.

Most of the flights to Cuba go through Miami, as a traveler you just need to choose a connection that has at least a two hour connection time. When you arrive in Miami, you walk out into the arrivals hall, look for a kiosk call the “Cuba Ready” booth, show them your airline ticket and passport, pay $50 and you are out of there in no more than 5 minutes . This card is what you use to board your flight, also show

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it to the Cuban immigration authorities on arrival and departure. So, I did,bought the ticket, flew to Miami, grabbed my travel card, hopped on my connecting flight to Holguin, the fourth biggest city in Cuba, in the eastern part of the huge island. It’s wild, this place I had known about for all my life, suddenly going. Lots of Cuban expats on my plane going back to see family, also quite a few European and Canadian tourists, many of them going to a well know beach resort nearby called Guardalavaca. I settled in, the flight was 1 1/2 hours, quick!

For the past few years, since I lost luggage in Ethiopia, I have avoided checking bags on planes, I have a perfect carry-on backpack that suits my needs if I pack carefully. It’s so easy to get on my way when I arrive somewhere. In the case of Holguin, I walked right out of the airport, past the slightly aggressive taxi guys and acted like I knew where I was going. I didn’t really, but had scoped information in advance that it was relatively small airport. I walked across the road from the airport and was on a two

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lane road, turned left and walked about 1/2 mile up the road toward Holguin. I didn’t quite know where I would end up but it was 3PM and i had some daylight still. I felt the sun on my face, new sights and smells and it was exhilarating. Classic American cars came by, really cool ones, one of the results of the American blockade. Cubans are amazing recyclers, adaptable and creative to use what they have.

I put out my thumb when vehicles came by, not because I couldn’t afford the cab, far from it. I do it because I like the adventure, the spontaneity. A few people who passed by in cars, motor and even on horses looked at me curiously, not a common sight to see a foreigner hitchhiking. A nice young man on a motorcycle pulled over and waved me on, told me he was just going 4 miles or so but would give me a lift. He smiled nervously, pulled out an extra helmet and I hopped on, it seemed like a great place to start. My Spanish is about that of a 3rd grader, I know enough to get any questions answered and get

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where I need to go, really helpful as many of the people I met in the far east of Cuba spoke none (or very little) English. My moto buddy dropped me on a corner in an area that felt fairly agricultural, he refused my offer to give him gad money. I knew petrol was expensive and rare in Cuba, this gesture meant even more, Kind guy.

I walked on another 1/4 mile of so, feeling thrilled about this development. An older gentleman on another moto picked me up, he told me he was happy to take me the 8 miles or so into Holguin, he was more chatty than the first guy and asked about my plans. I told him I was headed for Baracoa, I asked him about the possibility of catching the circumference road around Holguin and heading in that direction instead of going into Holguin. He basically said “love your adventurous spirit, you can do it”. This great guy drove about 5 miles out of his way, dropped my at the junction of La Carretera Mayari, again refused money, waved and smiled as he road off. He had told me that he originally was from Moa

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(closer to Baracoa) and I would love it over there. My goal was to take the north coast road, supposed to be rough in places but passable. For sure this was off the tourist trail, I didn’t see any after I left the airport for a couple days.

So, it was probably 4:30PM when I was dropped at the junction, my moto buddy had pointed me down the street to an area where “collectivos” gather, shared trucks that hold maybe 12 people in the back. When I walked up, there was one more spot left on one of them, I stumbled up the stairs and plopped on a bench seat, my fellow passengers kindly making space for my backpack on the floor. My moto guy had told me not to pay more than $3 for the ride to Mayari, happily the driver didn’t try to overcharge me and asked for that. Doors closed, we headed down the road, driving out into the country, mountains in the distance. This was a fairly busy road, also the road that went to Santiago. I had been really careful to hop on a collectivo going to Mayari. My fellow passengers, jammed in the

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truck with me, couldn’t help but ask about my journey. They were soft-spoken, shy and curious, seemed amused about my hitchhiking. We turned on the road to Mayari, I was excited now as it looked like my first day crazy idea was going to work. As we got closer, it started getting hillier. Lots of horses and carts, country vibes, lots of smiles. In my reading about this part of the country, I had heard of a few travelers passing through, read their accounts of buses but never heard about a hitchhiker doing it without planning. Why not?

As the daylight slipped away, we pulled up to the busy junction into Mayari. My driver said “we have arrived”, was kind enough to point me over to a buddy of his who had a little motorized cart and was going the 2km into Mayari town. I hopped on and headed down little lanes with the guy who owned it, it as quite dark as power outages are common in Cuba right now. he dropped me at a corner near his house, refused money and told me that if I walked a few more blocks, I’d find a blue building that

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was a “casa particular”, a place i could stay for the night. So, there i was, walking down a little street in the middle of nowhere Cuba, using my flashlight so I wouldn’t fall in any potholes, trusting that somehow i would find a place to stay for the night. I passed a few people who reinforced that I was on the right track to find the home. This town was friendly, peaceful, people sitting outside and visiting. I was tired and walked on, turned the corner and saw the house right in front of me, it had lights, found out later they had a generator.

I knocked on the door, the smiling owners (a couple) came out to greet me, asked about my journey, again amused by the spontaneous quality of it. They told me to throw down my bag, poured me a big glass of delicious cold fresh fruit juice, sat on a comfy chair and visited with them for a bit. No one was staying there, they had a room for me, $18 with AC, and including dinner and breakfast. I was home, and it felt great. I had scraped my leg getting off the truck

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I had been on, the house owner told me they were both doctors and expertly cleaner me up, used iodine and bandaged me, really great. They showed me to my room, I dropped my bags, grabbed the first of many cold showers and dropped down for a rest on my cozy bed. The room had two double beds, very nicely appointed they had two rooms that they rented out, they explained to me that doctors don’t make much and this is a way to supplement their income. They enjoy the guests who pass through as well, the interactions they have. There was a shared shower that served the two rooms, this night I had it to myself, there was a lovely balcony attached to my room that i could walk out on and overlook life in this little town.

I heard a knock a bit later, the owners brought me up a big plate of tasty spaghetti and fresh sliced cucumbers and cold beer, they adjusted my AC so it was very comfortable, checked on my bandage, chatted about my plans for the next day. The man told me he would run me up to the main road in

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the morning, a great time to catch rides headed farther east. I went out for a walk, couldn’t go very far as the power was out and it was dark now. Came across a group of twenty somethings, blasting music and dancing in the streets. A couple of them were a bit drunk, in a friendly way came over and shook my hand. I headed back to my room, visited with the owners and some friends who were in town from Miami and had stopped by. These friends had left the country years ago, these doctors were the first people I met who described the process of leaving to me, even though things are tough, they love where they live and were really struggling with the decision of leaving or not. Tough times with inflation and shortages, yet such a tough decision. To leave means to give up your home, risk a dangerous and expensive trip through Mexico or an even more dangerous journey on a small boat. Tough choices, for now they were staying put in the peaceful little life they had created for themselves as doctors and the rooming house.

I took another shower as it was

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easy to get sweaty outside with the heat and humidity. I changed some US money with the owners, normal people give a better exchange rate than the government places. he explained to me to only change as much money as I needed each day, to not be stuck with unnecessary Cuban money at the end of trip. Did some journaling, reflected on my superb first day and collapsed in bed at about 9PM, huge smile on my face. It had been great adventure so far and I had put myself in an excellent position to reach Baracoa the next day without too much trouble. As aways during this trip, my Spanish was helping, I couldn’t have made these things happen without my language skills.

8 solid hours sleep later, about 5am, I awoke, stretched my still sore body and packed up my bags, walked out on my balcony and waved down to the neighbors passing on horses and on foot. The daylight was coming, saw the pretty colors and then sun rays peek over the horizon. It was a little bit cooler in the morning, I breathed in the air and felt grateful. Just at this moment, the woman

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owner knocked at my door and brought my tasty breakfast of an omelette with local cheese, fresh fruit, juice and coffee with milk and local bread. I ate fairly quickly, hopped the back of the owner’s moto and he drove me back up to the junction. I was rested and ready for my day, a couple trucks were loading nearby, I grabbed (again) the last seat on one headed to Moa. Not ten minutes later, we pulled way, this group of passengers more lively than the one the day before, perhaps we were all rested and the cool morning air was energizing. We headed east, every mile brought more vegetation, lushness, rolling hills, just beautiful. There were so many places I could have happily stopped and explored, my heart though was excited to get to Baracoa. 2 beautiful hours later, with heat increasing, we turned left off the highway and pulled into Toa, a fairly decent sized town with a port facility and unsightly mine nearby. On the north coast, it serves as an important transit hub, also seems to be a place where agricultural products are shipped out from this part of the country.

The driver dropped all

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of us under a huge banyan tree that provides natural cover from the sun. He told me another collectivo would come along soon to Baracoa, this was great time of day to catch one. I had been so fortunate so far, no waiting at all for rides. Happened again, not 10 minutes later I was loaded up on another truck and heading out to the east with another kind group of Cubans, all people heading to Baracoa, like me. We crossed the new bridge over the Toa River, the one that was washed out by the hurricane and paralyzed the area for awhile. Ugh, the driver forgot something and we had to go back about 5 miles. In short order, we were back on course and zipping along past jungly hills, striking vistas of the sea in the distance. I had heard that this road had been very rough in the past, it seemed like there had been some repairs and it was pretty decent.

Somewhere, in this little “collectivo” truck bus holding 12 people, on the remote northeast Cuba coast between Moa and Baracoa, I think that’s where I fell in love with the Cuban people. Had a

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great vibe with my fellow riders, don’t try this if you don’t speak Spanish btw. We shared snacks, it started raining, my backpack was on top. They said “Vicente, we will bring your backpack in. One stopped the truck, went to get it, came back in with a sheepish look and no backpack. He said “se fue”, “it’s gone”. I looked with horror. “Mi Mochila?”, “My backpack”. My new buddy smiled and said “no, the rain is gone” then patted me on the shoulder and said “relax, we are very kind and trusting in this part of cuba, you won’t have any problems”. All my fellow passengers had laughed at the misunderstanding and patted me also on the back. Great people.

Our truck also had good clearance and apparently there hadn’t been recent heavy rains. All those things helped to make our ride fairly smooth, just one or two real bumpy sections that didn’t last that long. We rolled past coastal communities, past the Rio Duaba and then rounded a bend and there was Baracoa in front of me in the distance, amazing.

I had booked a room for a couple nights on the outskirts of town, my

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bus driver was kind enough to roll right up to my place and drop me off, my fellow passengers saying they would see me in town over the next couple days.


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