We visited Cuba for a cycle tour in February/March 2017. For three nights we stayed at a wonderful casa particular, called Villa Paradiso, in Baracoa. This is one section of a series of diary entries I made during our trip. I will also be publishing a section on this site with further information on our trip, including a gear list, route plan and general Cuba information and opinions.
Sunday 26th Feb – Baracoa
It was hard to choose what to do around Baracoa; there are many options and we only had a couple of days. Luckily, one of the great ideas Roberto and Manuel have had is to put together some short videos of the area to show to their guests when they arrive. These give us lots of ideas but also make us wish we could stay longer and do more!
Knowing we have a bit of hiking to do tomorrow we choose the soft option today. One of Villa Paradiso’s videos showed us the white sands and clear sea at Playa Maguana. After a lie in until 7.15am, we are pretty sure we deserve a day on the beach.
Before we head out we just have to explore the gardens at our lovely casa. Although this does mean compulsory head scratching with the cute but cheeky casa cat. She spends her days alternating between sunbathing and chasing small insects. The garden heads up another level on the hill and the view just gets better. Apparently a gazebo area is soon to erected at the top, allowing for lazy afternoons and barbecues.
Company On The Beach
Three Canadian ladies are also staying at Villa Paradiso; Kathy and her two daughters Carly and Julie. We all get on well, so we are delighted when they decide to join us, with Yolande, at the beach. They tell us they used one of Roberto and Manuel’s beautiful, custom made, cycle maps the day before to head out to some waterfalls. The maps are only just ready and are being printed exclusively for Villa Paradiso guests. With our road map being pretty basic, we think these stylish maps are a fab idea.
The beach is just as beautiful as the video showed and Yolande tells us we need to look for the perfect conch shell to take back for Manuel. One of Villa Paradiso’s terraces has a fish pond and Manuel wants a new conch for the fish to swim in and out of. The perfect conch must be imperfect; it should have a hole in the side! I realise Yolande has found a very good way to keep us occupied, as all five of us swim and dive, each proudly presenting her with our best finds.
At lunch time we find that our new Canadian friends are just as soft as we are when it comes to animals. A variety of skinny dogs head up from the beach to take advantage of our food sharing group.
My thighs have set up a pretty good ache after the last couple of days of cycling. I’m sure that swimming and salt water are probably the perfect therapy for my muscles. Jamie feels I take this a little far though as he loses sight of me. I’d been trying to make it to the coral reef but even scared myself a little when I realised just how far I had gone.
Back to Villa Paradiso
Back at Villa Paradiso we get the chance to chat to Manuel a little more about the casa. He and Roberto clearly take great pride in their home and the way they share it with others. It is important to them that all visitors to Baracoa are comfortable and welcome. They make a point of expressing their Casa is a place where LGBTQI visitors can feel at home. Roberto has also previously told me that they are looking to set up a network of female guides. Most guides in Cuba are male and they recognise that some people feelmore comfortable with a female guide.
Due to Villa Paradiso’s position, slightly up a hill, the views from our room stretch beautifully across the town and down to the ocean. Manuel tells us that the room is soon to be extended to include its own balcony. They are also extending the number of rooms, so will soon be able to accommodate ten people.
We eat at the villa and I hope that Manuel will share his recipe for vegetables in coconut milk with me! Then we head out for another evening of people watching on the square. There seems to be a slight beer shortage in Baracoa that night. Nothing to do with us being in town of course! When one bar runs out of beer it is fine to head to another, buy a drink, then come back to your original bar to drink it.
Monday 27th Feb – Baracoa
I had read much about El Yunque, a mountain in the Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa range. Described by Christopher Columbus in 1492 as “a high square mountain which seemed to be an island” it has also been compared to a slab of butter. The name, El Yunque, however means ‘anvil’ and this too is an accurate description. The mountain is just 575m high and it is possible to hike to the top in a couple of hours. With a days rest behind us, this seems like a great idea!
Manuel has kindly arranged a taxi to take us to and from the mountain, just twenty five minutes outside Baracoa. We are given differing stories on whether you need to hire a guide to take you to the top but in the absence of maps we decide to take one.
Before you get to the mountain a river crossing is required. The water is only just over our knees but the current is fairly strong and the stones are sharp. Jamie’s sensitive feet and low pain threshold make the crossing difficult for him but amusing for me…sorry Jamie!
He Marched Them Up To The Top Of The Hill…
Our guide seems intent on getting us up and down the mountain as quickly as possible and sets up a good march. Despite our language barrier he explains a few points of interest to us. Halfway up the mountain we bump into an Exodus travel group. They are British ( the first British people we have met in Cuba) and their guide speaks fluent English.
We all chat happily for a while and I discover that everyone in the UK really does know someone in West Bridgford. I have been telling Jamie not to be so specific about where he is from as no-one will have heard of it. However, three of the five people in this group have friends living there, small world. I stand corrected. We are also glad of the rest due to the speed of our ascent. The Exodus guide notes that we are pretty sweaty and we laugh that this is meant to be a rest day for us.
I’m not sure if it was the chatter in English or that the Exodus guide mentioned we were going up very fast but our guide now sinks into a sulk. For the rest of the walk up and down El Yunque he storms ahead of us at an even smarter pace. I feel his annoyance is compounded when we do not want to buy souvenirs from the homes he takes us to.
El Yunque is Climbed!
The mountain is not high and the walk not very long but the gradient really ramps up for the second half and it is worth watching your footing! Our efforts are rewarded at the top with gorgeous views to the ocean and a cooling breeze. I am also oddly excited to find a trig point! From here it is possible to see the full devastation of Hurricane Matthew; thousands of trees lie broken across the hills and mountains.
At the end of the walk we head to a waterfall for a swim and cool off before heading back to Villa Paradiso.
As we come back into Baracoa the smell from the chocolate factories hangs sweetly in the air. Cocoa plantations surround the town and we would love to buy some local chocolate, if only it wouldn’t melt in our panniers!
Jamie decides to try to repay some of Manuel’s kindness by fixing a puncture he has on his own bike. He also gives the bike a little TLC. Manuel and Roberto both love cycling and often accompany guests on their days out.
Manuel has been cooking us some delicious food since we arrived in Baracoa but he also mentioned a vegetarian restaurant. Kathy, Julie and Carly had eaten there the night before and told us the food was great. There was only one snag – the restaurant had no home! Hurricane Matthew had destroyed the building and the owner/chef was now relying on borrowing kitchen space from other restaurants. Therefore its location could change at any time.
Last Evening in Baracoa
Manuel, again, made all the arrangements for us and we were dispatched with a good description of the building to look for. Our chef was excitedly looking out for us and we were presented with a spread worthy of a top restaurant. The textures and flavours rival any meal I have had in the UK for a long time. We polish off the whole lot with gusto and pay double the small amount of money our chef asks for.
We really have fallen for Villa Paradiso and Baracoa. The night life is just the right amount of lively and we have found some lovely bars. The bikes are calling and we are looking forward to the challenge of climbing La Farola tomorrow but we will miss this town.
We stayed: Villa Paradiso, Baracoa; see more here. We would strongly recommend you stay here if visiting Baracoa. The hosts, food, ethos and location are all spot on.
We ate: At Villa Paradiso and the currently mobile, vegetarian restaurant. We ate very well in Baracoa.