Caught between a wall of mountains and the blue waters of the sea is a charming city, the easternmost of Cuba’s geography, in whose shield is the Latin inscription Tempore Primas or First in Time: Baracoa.
Throughout its history, this region has captured several firsts that distinguish it from other regions of Cuba. It was here that the meeting between two cultures began, when on November 27, 1492 Admiral Christopher Columbus from Genova arrived at its coasts. It’s said that when he saw the exuberant nature of the surroundings, which he called Puerto Santo, Columbus wrote in his logbook: “this is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Here, on August 15, 1511, Adelantado Diego Velázquez founded the first of the seven colonial villas and named it Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa (Our Lady of the Assumption of Baracoa). Having become the first political and ecclesiastical capital, and with its 500 years of existence, it’s recognized as the First City.
A place with many names
The different names that identify Baracoa reflect many other honours that distinguish this picturesque area of 377 sq. mi. and a population of 81,562 inhabitants, all pertaining to the province of Guantanamo – the easternmost of the country. It was here that aboriginal tribes established their largest settlement, receiving the nickname of Taino Capital of Cuba.
For the abundance of archaeological sites, it is called the archaeological Capital of Cuba. Baracoa, an aboriginal word meaning presence of the sea, is also known as the Landscape City, the Rain City, the Mountain City, the City of Waters and the Paradise or Natural Paradise City, all synonyms for the exotic environment that still remains undamaged, just as admired by Columbus.
Something unique: La Cruz de la Parra
Among the characteristics that make Cuba’s first villa a sui generis site is La Cruz de la Parra (cross from the vine), the oldest relic in the country as well as in the Caribbean region explored by Columbus. A symbol of Spanish colonial Catholicism and used to Christianize the aboriginals, it is safely kept in a display case in the centuries-old Parochial Church of the Primate.
It’s said that Taino aboriginals saw the sailors - who accompanied the Admiral - place in position a reddish colour cross, made from logs from the uvilla (tree grape), a species of plant related to the uva caleta (sea grape).
Subjected to carbon-14 analysis in European laboratories to accurately determine its age, it was found to be made of this kind of coastal tree five centuries ago.
On Baracoa’s 500th anniversary, the cross - also designated the Cross of Columbus or Santa Cruz de la Parra, the only one existing of the 29 placed by the navigator during his four voyages to American lands -was declared a National Monument and Cuban National Treasure by virtue of its spiritual and patrimonial values.
This region is equally distinguished for its high endemism in flora and fauna. Of the four species of royal palms, Cuba’s national tree, three are found in Baracoa’s landscapes: the palma criolla azul (Roystonea violacea), palma clara (R. stellata), and palma seda (R. Lenis).
Exclusive to the landscape of Baracoa are the tibaracones, geographic accidents that separate the rivers and the sea through sand and stone walls that break when the rivers overflow and close again when the waters recede. Baracoa’s extensive network of rivers includes the largest in Cuba: the Toa (frog in the aboriginal language), the island’s largest river.
Only in this environment can one find a tiny creature, of unknown origins, that at the ebb tide, reaches the mouth of the river – a feast for the fishermen. Fish or eel? It’s not yet known, but there’s no doubt that the tiny tetí is part of the rich local cuisine.
Baracoa, 500 years later…
To reach Baracoa by land, one is obliged to use the La Farola Viaduct, a zigzagging road with cantilever bridges lying 500 metres above sea level and that reach 600 metres at its highest point. Considered one of the wonders of Cuban civil engineering and the only road of its kind in the country, it put an end to the isolation of Cuba’s First City after nearly four centuries of separation from the rest of the island.
Baracoa’s plazas and narrow streets maintain their original colonial urban layout, and with the characteristic architecture of wood, combines the old with the contemporary The sea wall surrounds a beautiful blue horseshoe-shaped bay from where one observes fortifications, once defenders against attacks by corsairs and pirates, now transformed into comfortable hotels or inviting restaurants.
Baracoa fuses an energetic modernity as one of the archipelago’s most important tourist spots with an ancient history, rich in a heroic legacy that includes the struggle of caciques Hatuey and Guamá against the colonizers, and the founding fathers of the nineteenth century wars for independence.
Everything indicates that this locale, formerly known as the Cinderella of the East for her secular backwardness, became a Princess, confirming that the evil spell cast centuries ago by a Spanish missionary were not fulfilled. That character, ridiculed for his dirty and dishevelled look, prophesied that this village would never see any of its great initiatives completed. Today’s First City shows that the so-called Curse of Pelú comprised only words that are gone with the wind…