After many trips to Cuba, starting in 1999, I finally made it to the far-flung town of Baracoa in 2004. Having taken the all-night “Tren Francais,” a not-so-reliable 1970s-era passenger train that was built in France, Citizen reporter Scott Fusaro and I rode the rails from Havana to Santiago de Cuba from sunset to sunrise. We were beat up and feeling the effects of smoking cigars and drinking straight rum all night with a few off-duty police officers, but it sure beats driving. As the Cuban countryside flew by outside the wide open doors of the caboose, you couldn’t help but notice that there were no ropes or chains to assure one’s safety. Looking back, it probably wasn’t a great idea, but it certainly was a blast. After a quick group photo with the cops, we secured a rental car and headed to one of Cuba’s most isolated towns. Surrounded by mountains, Baracoa enjoys much nicer climate than those living on the other side, on the more desert-like environment of the Guantanamo province in the easternmost region of Cuba.
While the town was founded around 1511, it is believed that Christopher Columbus first landed here in 1492, and like any good Spanish sailor back then, planted a flag and claimed ownership. But that’s not all, they also raped the women, killed the men and enslaved the rest, not to mention sharing small pox and other foreign diseases that decimated the three main indigenous tribes, the Ciboneyes, the Guanahatabeyes and the Taínos. But that’s a topic for another time.
The fact that it takes much effort to reach Baracoa has kept it a really cool place. Bananas, coffee and cacao, which leads to some really killer chocolate, are the main exports from the region, but it’s tourism that drives the local economy.
Last October, Hurricane Matthew destroyed the town, which leads us to this Saturday’s fundraiser at the Coffee Plantation on Caroline Street. A few months ago, many Key Westers threw a few bucks in the jar, (others much more) and we ended up with almost $800 that I sent to my friend, Roberto, whose son is featured in this week’s photo. Roberto considered himself lucky since all he lost was his roof; his parents, though, lost their entire home. Perched on a hill overlooking the town, the home had been in his family for at least three generations. Today, all that remains is the foundation.
Needless to say, he was deeply moved by Key West’s compassion and said so in a heartfelt email that about made me cry. Theo Glorie, one of the first to donate during our first effort, is proprietor of the Coffee Plantation and recently brought back a huge sack of Cuban coffee and will be serving it up for free on Saturday from 11 a.m. to whenever. We’ll also be selling some photos and artwork with everything going to my buds in Baracoa. Every dollar will help them rebuild their corner of this most interesting and way “off the beaten path” location. The quickest way is a direct two-hour flight on an old Russian plane from Havana, or, just take a 16-hour bus ride, or, if the “Tren Francais” is running, which it probably is not, you’ll eventually reach Santiago de Cuba. From there, it’s a gorgeous, four-hour drive along “La Farola,” a winding, climbing road that was built in the early 1960s, connecting Baracoa to the rest of the country for the first time. Prior to the road’s construction, Baracoa was only reachable by sea.
When you arrive, head for the Havanatur office near the center of town, ask for Roberto, and tell him that “El Gringo Gordo de Cayo Hueso” sent you. He’ll be happy to point you in the right direction of cool things to see and do.
On my second trip to Baracoa, for a very nominal fee, Roberto’s family created a traditional Cuban pig roast on the banks of the Duaba River. As the salsa music roared from the open trunk of a 1950-something Ford, Roberto’s wife washed the vegetables in the river as his parents carved up the pork. Freshly-cooked rice, beans and plantains, along with huge portions of meat, were served, riverside, in halved bamboo stalks. Surreal, genuine and authentic would have been the words coming out of my mouth had it not been filled with the aforementioned fare. Give a little, get a lot.