Baracoa, back to its roots
By Marta Gómez Ferral Photos: Vladimir Molina
Visiting Baracoa, in the Province of Guantanamo, 494 years after its founding continues to be a trip into the past and perhaps a realization of our dreams of the origin of the world.
Even for Cubans, Baracoa is a sort of lost paradise from a bygone era, Located in the eastern part of the country, it is a fertile, undulating, abrupt and overwhelming and, n August of 1511, Royal Governor Diego Velazquez founded the first Cuban village, naming it Asuncion de Baracoa.
This is an especially charming city, surrounded by a green and blue water bay and made up of narrow streets, modest eclectic buildings, an 0 d Spanish fort and some more modern and comfortable hotels, But to talk about Baracoa, we have to go back to its roots.
One of the main attractions is simply walking its streets and breathing the fresh air from the c amour of virgin ands and breathtaking nature surrounding Baracoa.
This community of over 81,000 inhabitants - chiefy employed in the small scale development of forest resources such as processing coconuts, growing coffee and cocoa, and producing chocolate and activated charcoal - live in one of the most extraordinary environments in the country.
Thick rainforest foliage and sender pine trees cover Baracoa's mountains and coastal pain, Cuban and international scientists agree that the most important biodiversity in the Caribbean is found in this territory due to the prevalent flora and fauna.
Timber a one accounts for 130 species including cedar, mahogany, ebony, teak, bariaco, white oak and coconut palm, Three of the four species of palms existing in Cuba grow there and the fauna includes very rare species in danger of extinction such as the almiqui, sparrow hawk, and royal woodpecker.
The Polymita picta, a small, brightcoloured snai, is considered by some malacologists (experts in the study of moluscs) to have the most beautiful shell in the world, Baracoa furnishes its unique and exclusive environment.
Baracoa boasts an important network of waterways, Among the most important rivers are the Toa, which is the largest in Cuba, and the Yumuri, Duaba, Miel, Macaguanigua and Quivijan whose waters are crystal clear and unpoluted.
Other we preserved natural resources are 8aracoa's small and cozy beaches, is main beaches, the Yumuri Barigua, Miel, Duaba, Maguana, Cayo Santo and MapurisL are open to the public with some of them emerging from rain-forest areas.
The Capital of Taino Culture We will stop describing Baracoa's natural beauty to meet with the local historian, Alejandro Hartmann.
"Definitely," says Hartmann, lithe Araucanian word 'Baracoa' means 'existence of sea,' and not 'high lands' or 'water lands,' as one would think, taking into account the geography of the place".
Apart from being a painstaking and tire less researcher of the history of his territory, Hartmann fee s a very deep love for its people, their customs and traditions, That is why we were lucky to have him accompany us while we were writing this article.
It is no wonder that Baracoa has been ca ed the capita of timber, coconut and cocoa since the country's largest reserves of those forest resources are found here, But it a so has to be ca ed the capita of Taino culture in Cuba, Most of Cuba's archaeological sites, more than 60, were found in this region.
The Tainos, of Araucanian origin, were the most developed indigenous group living on the s and when the Spanish conquistadors arrived.
The Tainos plowed the and, developed pottery and had a very complex mystical religious system, Hartmann added that the version of Christopher Columbus' diary written by Friar Bartolome de las Casas high lights a large presence of indigenous peoples in the region.
As soon as you arrive in Baracoa, your host will ask you whether you know Baracoa's three lies, indulge him or her by saying "no," even though you may know the answer. The host will say that there exists an an vi that is not made of iron, a "sleeping beauty" who is not a woman, and a river named "Honey" whose waters are not fresh.
The first answer is the famous Baracoa anvi which is really a flat topped mountain which dominates the cityscape and can be seen from along distance through the sea mists, The mountain is covered by thick vegetation including coffee plantations, ferns, cedars, ocujes (calophyllum antillanum) and pa m trees, There is a so a unique palm in the region, the Coccothrinax yunquensis, which grows up to eight meters in height. The small plateau, which is over 560 meters high, is the nesting place of Cuban tocororos, green and West Indian woodpeckers, thrushes, and other beautiful singing birds.
The second answer is a group of hi s ca ed the Seeping Beauty which, seen from a distance, looks like a reclining woman, We will explain the legend of the Honey River a bit later on.
Columbus' Cross "Christopher Columbus p anted a cross in a rock at the entrance of that port which think he ca ed the Puerto Santo,"
wrote Friar Bartolome in the diary, describing the ceremony to erect what is now known as the Santa Cruz de Parral in Baracoa on December 1, 1492.
According to historians, the great explorer erected 29 crosses in different p aces in the Americas but on y Baracoa's cross has survived the vicissitudes of time.
Eighteen years after Columbus paced that cross in Baracoa, Conqueror Don Diego Velazquez and the members of his expedition found the cross in the area where they founded the first vi age, A wild grapevine had stuck to the cross leading people to ca it the Cruz del fa Parral or the "Grapevine Cross,"
Historical evidence shows that the symbol was venerated from the very beginning and that Friar Bartolome de Las Casas used to officiate his masses near the cross.
In 1987, an interdisciplinary commission formed by Cuban experts and Doctor Roger Dechamps of the Tervuren Museum in Brussels certified the cross as genuine, The cross was made of Coccoloba wood, which grows on the coast of the West Indies and Cuba, The Carbon 14 test reveal ed with 95 percent accuracy that the cross dated between 860 and 1 530, This proved that the age of the wood coincided with Columbus' arrival, The cross is on display at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption.
Following the thread of history, when Baracoa lost its position as the capita of Cuba in the 16th century, the village fell to the mercy of pirates and corsairs' attacks for about two centuries and a lucrative rescue trade flourished.
In the 18th century, Spanish authorities decided to put an end to the situation and built a defense system formed by the Matachin and La Punta Forts and the Seboruco de Santa Barbara Castle, These o d structures have survived the passing of time with some restorations, The forts are current y the headquarters of a local museum and the cast e is a hotel.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the French landowners who escaped from the Haitian Revolution introduced the latest techniques for coffee growing in Baracoa's mountains, The cultivation of cocoa was a so introduced into this region a long with the production of honey, wax, sugar cane and coconuts.
In 1878, Baracoa had become an important exporter of coconut products, which were of great value in cosmetics, and a variety of banana local y known as "guineas, " improvements in the cultivation of cocoa and the production of chocolate started to distinguish Baracoa as the and of the exquisite products.
Then, Baracoa suffered through a long period of economic and social impoverishment. The difficult access to its ands and the corrupt governors contributed to the deterioration of the village, After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Baracoa began to overcome that situation.
The on y access to the vi age was by sea or steep mountain paths, some of which are over 1 ,200 meters high, La Faro a viaduct built by the new Revolutionary Government in the 1960's, is one of the country's most important engineering works, The viaduct goes through the Sagua Baracoa Mountain and its highest point Altos de Cotilla, is 600 meters above sea eve.
Baracoa is a and of refined cultural traditions, Guitar music flourished in the 18th century and was even more developed than in Havana, This vi age is a so the birthplace of popular dances like "Nengon" and "Kiriba,"
According to Hartmann, the liplastic" arts (i ,e, sculpture and modeling) have a ways been very good in Baracoa due to the strong influence of the natural colours, its flora and fauna, the impressive landscapes and the impact of the religious my tho logy of the region.
Returning to the third answer of the romantic legend of the Honey River, here is one version, There was once a beautiful and cultured young woman who everybody ca ed Miel (Honey) because of her tanned skin and peasant manners, One day, a sail or watched while she swam in a river, He fell under the spell of her charm and immediate y began to court her, Honey a so fell in love with the sailor and thinking of the departure of her be loved, she started to enrich the waters of the river in which they first met. The water became sweeter and sweeter, The young sailor began to delay his departure to take dips in the sweet water of the river, He eventually married Honey and never left.
The river was named after this girl and many people will assure you that those who bathe in its waters will marry and stay there forever.