Cuba del Espiritu Cubano
East of Guantanamo Bay is a large hill. After you cross that you reach the north coast. It is a complete contrast from the coast south of Santiago de Cuba. Where the south coast was mountainous and wet, the north coast is flat and arid. Traveling along it is a bit surrealistic with coast to the south of you and cactus to the north. It was delightful.
Our most obvious objective for the day was to get to Baracoa (145km, 90 miles) but we kept getting sidetracked.
San Antonia del Sur, at 65km, was an obvious a quick refueling stop. We checked out the offerings of a few vendors and cafes, pocked around, talked to some kids, watched people gather for some kind of program, the exact nature of which was never determined, noted the museum, and took some pictures. After that we decide we were in fact hungry so grabbed a snack. The quick stop had stretched to nearly an hour.
By the time we reached Imias (75km) it was close enough to lunch time that we figured that we had better each while we had a chance. From the map it didn't look like the next sizable town would be Baracoa, over some mountains and another 70km along. So we doddled again. Imias is one of the prettiest towns on the trip. Most front yards are well manicured and abound with flowers, plams and lush leafy trees. To accent the delicate, clean, unhurried feel of the town, if you need a lift you could hire a pedicab.
In the course of looking for some rice and beans or some other simple carbohydrates, we met an English speaking waitress, whose ambitions were to get out of Imias to Guantanamo, and then get out of Guantanamo, hopefully to Havana. She was hoping that her English would be the ticket. But as she explained it, it was going to be as simple as getting the money for a bus ticket. Job mobility is limited. If the authorities caught her in Havana without a job she would be sent back to Imias. And without being in Havana she had almost no chance of getting a job there. Even if she got a job offer, she would still face the challenge of finding some place to live. None-the-less she had here dream and she seemed to have every confidence that she would achieve it. As a bonus, while we were learning all this we had an absolutely great bowl of bean soup, rice, and fresh fruit drink.
On leaving I so much wanted the woman's dreams to come true. One of the toughest parts of meeting people like this is often never know even the next chapter in the story, let alone the ending.
After Imias, there are a few more kilometers of flat. In hindsight, the sign for Playa de Cajobado should be an ominous sight. First a little history. Playa de Cajobado is landing point of Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez in 1895, signaling the start of the second liberation war. Marti would die less than three months later. Gomez, joined by is old friend Antonio Maceo would fight on and were on the verge of beating the Spanish force with five times as many soldiers, in 1898, when the U.S. intervened and beat both exhausted armies.
At the sign for Playa de Cajobado, the road leaves the coast and starts a serpentine climb over the rugged Purial mountains. Called La Farola, this road is an engineering marvel with cantilevered pavement hanging off the cliffs for long stretches. As the road cut through the tropical forest, it follows rivers, ridges and the contours of mountains. All of the topography makes for outstanding panoramas. It is an extraordinarily beautiful and sparsely populated county.
Within the natural environment there is a human story as well. The most lucrative industries in the area seems to be coffee and lumber. Closer to Baracoa there is some cacao (chocolate). The mountain soil and climate must be good for fruit trees and vegetables. Near the summit kids wait with bananas, pineapples, coffee beans, cocoa, carrots and other produce to sell to the passing cars and buses. This is the only place I recall seeing a lot of items for sale from roadside vendors -- something very common in tropical Africa. Above all, my guess is the people in this area like their isolation and the quality of life that that brings.
Here I could slip in a full description of everything you should know behind how your coffee and chocolate gets to your table, but you can get that yourself when you study the area. Suffice it to say the processing methods that are being used for coffee are not capital intensive, so the are probably not producing the highest grade of bean.
It may be that the only person who stopped Baracoa first on their visit to Cuba was Columbus and his crew. Just west of Baracoa may be where Columbus first sighted land in the New World, in 1492. This was also Cuba's first capital, founded in 1512.
For the rest of us Baracoa is "at the end of the road" and more likely to be one of the last place you would get to. This also means that historically not as many outsiders have gotten here, which gives it some undisturbed old world ways. Unfortunately, the tourism authorities are doing their best to change that. In the meantime it is a very enjoyable and quaint town to walk and bicycle. The people are easy to talk to and the waitresses had beautiful smiles. I don't know if that is because they drink the water of the Honey River, but it flows through town, so it would make a good story. The Casa de Trova opens right on to the street and welcomes passers-by. The crowd was Cuban -- there few others in town -- so it was clear that it wasn't being put-on as a sideshow for tourist.
We got the basic history over view of town at the museum, which was set in a fort that had originally be built several centuries ago, and then reinvented with stronger fortifications with each new advance in military technology. As part of our understanding of the economy of the town we visited the cigar factory. The produce a half dozen different labels here, seemingly from the same leaf stock. All of the production went to the state. The factory could give us a sample but they couldn't sell them. On the other hand, outside the factory no one was giving any away, but there were cigars for sell. How do they do that? Another twist in the Cuban economy.
My favorite visit was to an art studio. The artist had his works around the walls and was working on a small pieces. His work reflected a range of styles and mediums, all done very well. With him were several students that were so focused on their work that they didn't give any indication of noticing us as we looked around and looked over their shoulders for fifteen minutes. They were totally engrossed and it was from being in front of a television.
It is not something that I regularly felt the need to take pictures of, but everyday we shared great meals (even when they were simple) and great discussions with our Cubans hosts.
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