CUBA'S ENCHANTING FIRST CITY
A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR
My father -- Mervyn C. Alleyne -- was an author and pioneering linguist with a passion for the Caribbean and a unique vision of Caribbean unity. Born in Trinidad, with Bajan lineage and choosing to live his adult years in Jamaica, he was 100% island. His work in linguistics was among the first that sought to establish the local "dialect" of Jamaica as a language and elevate its perception. One of the last books he began to write spoke about this vision of Caribbean unity that embraced our demographic and lingual differences and leveraged our shared histories and DNA in both the English and Spanish speaking regions of the wider Caribbean. He promoted a proud Caribbean identity.
The Caribbean is a tropical playground of unparalleled beauty and bounty. The Caribbean Sea holds a rich history of her people and an inspiring story of a relentless pursuit of freedom. Her islands are rich with traditions, myths and legends that have been passed down from several generations. These traditions are an amalgamation of a complex history that has seen several cultures intermingling in one place. The remnants of colonization can still be seen in many of these islands, but even more pronounced, is the persevering spirit of its indigenous peoples -- from the Arawaks in Jamaica to the Tainos in Cuba -- that still haunts their islands. This journal seeks to highlight a different side of this magical region through the hidden gems and folkloric legends that live on. This first issue looks at a magical town in Cuba -- Baracoa -- that was the first established city on the island. This is a dedication to my dear father, who would be so proud. M.C.A.
AN ISLAND WITHIN AN ISLAND
Some refer to Baracoa as an island within an island, and if you dare to make a trek to this remote, eastern extremity, you will understand why. The isolation is tangible, and the atmosphere -- utopian.
A magical, insouciant energy fills the air here. It is mysterious, untainted, addictive. The enchanting town of Baracoa lies far out on the southeastern tip of Cuba along the Caribbean coast. It is nestled on a beautiful bay -- the Bahía del Miel (Bay of Honey), in the Guantánamo province. Although Guantánamo has become notorious for a harsh history of detention camps, there is a strong legacy and resilient culture that overwhelms these dark periods. Indeed, Baracoa tells the complex stories of colonization and oppression, but it also tells the story of a resilient people, rich with heritage and tradition.
The original inhabitants of Baracoa were the Tainos, who were later wiped out by European diseases. Christopher Columbus first arrived to Cuba in 1492 on the Bay of Honey and subsequently started a reign of Spanish terror. In 1511, the Spanish colonizers established Baracoa as Cuba's first city. Part of the intrigue of Baracoa comes from the fact that this coastal gem was cocooned by an impenetrable fortress of mountains that kept the town hidden from the rest of the island until 1965.
Today, the scenic La Farola road connects Guantánamo to Baracoa on a winding journey, somewhat dissipating the mysterious enigma that this hidden treasure has long enjoyed. Cuba's "Ciudad Primada" continues to elude many, however. On the way to Baracoa, you’ll pass dramatic scenery -- from waterfalls and dense rainforest, to banana plantations and pine trees. The beauty is overwhelming. Some refer to Baracoa as an island within an island, and if you dare to make a trek to this remote, eastern extremity, you will understand why. The isolation is tangible, and the atmosphere -- utopian.
A HIDDEN TREASURE
Almost everything in this quaint little town beguiles.... Beyond the city walls, folklore and local legends abound. The vast, endowed landscape forms an idyllic, tropical playground for wanderers who have a penchant for discovering the rare and unique.
The Bay’s backdrop is a majestic spread of mountains flanked by tall, imposing palms -- iconic emblems of Baracoa. In fact, 95% of Baracoa is mountains and tropical forest. On one side is the flat-topped mountain -- El Yunque, affectionately called the guardian of the city. By her side is La Bella Durmiente (sleeping beauty), so called because it forms the shape of a woman lying down.
Almost everything in this quaint little town beguiles. A mostly wet and windy climate gives way to lush and exuberant greenery, adding to the allure of this hidden treasure. Baracoa is home to more native flora and fauna than anywhere else in Cuba.
Beyond the city walls, folklore and local legends abound. The vast, endowed landscape forms an idyllic, tropical playground for wanderers who have a penchant for discovering the rare and unique. Hiking, rafting, paddle boarding, cycling are just a few ways to get drenched in Baracoa's rustic charm.
And herein lies its magic: Baracoa has a bucolic charm that is nostalgic and yet not quite like anything you've seen before.... Scenes of ox-driven carts, children bathing in the river, rustic homes, fishermen casting their nets for the day's catch -- it is quintessential island enigma.
The first thing that hits you about Baracoa is its mesmerizing landscape of coast and mountain, covered with dense rainforest. And herein lies its magic: Baracoa has a bucolic charm that is nostalgic and yet not quite like anything you've seen before. And everyday life looks enchanting. Scenes of ox-driven carts, children bathing in the river, rustic homes, fishermen casting their nets for the day's catch -- it is quintessential island enigma.
It is said that Baracoa stems from the Aracuan language spoken by its original inhabitants -- the Tainos, and means “the presence of the sea.” As you hit the Bay at the city's entrance, you will feel this. Water is everywhere. The island is enveloped by a network of 29 rivers running through the region. Straddled by tall canyon walls, verdant terraces and scenic caves, the rivers’ edge is home to many quaint fishing villages. These communities are like cultural capsules that create sanctuaries for old traditions. The hamlet of Boca de Miel (Mouth of Honey) is one such. Located at the tip of Rio Miel, Boca de Miel gives you a little peek inside Baracoan tradition. To this day, locals still use thatched huts called atarazana, to cover their canoes -- a clear nod to Taino tradition. Legend has it that those who bathe in this river will never leave Baracoa.
Boca Yumurí is another of Baracoa's enchanting fishing villages. Located at the tip of Río Yumurí, a favorite pastime for visitors is to hitch a ride on a fisherman's boat to the beautiful Isla de Alemandras nearby. If you're lucky, locals will swim alongside you in the river, and will even offer you their shoes to help you make the trek from the boat to the island. The island is lush with coffee, cocoa and coconut trees, and home to the world's most beautiful snail: a colorful snail called Polymita. Boca de Yumurí is also home to bohíos, which are traditional dwellings made with palm-leaf roofs. In this countryside escape, you’ll be able to try some of the most authentic stews and other culinary treats of Cuba.
LIGHT OF YARA
Although history has not been kind to the indigenous people of Baracoa, their spirit lives on in an enchanting web of myths and legends. These myths and legends can't be seen, but they are felt throughout the island and continue to be passed down from generation to generation.
The first inhabitants of Baracoa were the Tainos. But this would soon change with Spanish greed and conquest. When Christopher Columbus intruded the island on his first voyage in 1492, he entered through Baracoa's Bay of Honey. He was enraptured by the beauty of the island, and rightly so. By 1511, Spanish terrorist, Diego Velázquez, set out from Hispaniola to conquer the town. He was later appointed governor. By 1518, Baracoa received official city status, making Baracoa the oldest Spanish settlement.
Like many of the gems in the Caribbean Sea, this history of colonization and slavery has forever shaped the tenure of the island. The architecture, names and stories behind some of your favorite towns in the area are steeped in a past that hasn't always been sunshine, swaying palms and succulent breezes. While the Tainos were eventually wiped out by European diseases during the island's colonization, physical remnants of Spanish occupation remain on the island to this day. Remnants such as the city's three fortresses -- El Castillo, Matachín and La Punta -- built in the 1500s to defend the island against pirates. Although history has not been kind to the indigenous people of Baracoa, their spirit lives on in an enchanting web of myths and legends. These myths and legends can't be seen, but they are felt throughout the island and continue to be passed down from generation to generation. And here in lies the conflicted allure of this hidden city: the juxtaposition between old and new; imposition and tradition; conquest and freedom.
According to one of the more popular legends, it is said that the locals would jump off of high precipices to their death to avoid Spanish oppression. On the way down, they would shout Yumurí, which means "I die" in the native Taino language.
This spirit of resistance and a relentless pursuit of freedom is not unique to Cuba, but it is a spirit that reverberates across the Caribbean Sea. And with this history comes many stories of heroes and freedom fighters who led revolts and revolutions. Hatuey was one such figure in Cuba.
Hatuey is arguably one of the most important legends of Cuban history. He was a Chief from the Indian part of the neighboring island of Hispaniola, which is what we know today as Haiti and Dominica. In the 1500s, he fled with four hundred natives on canoes, it is said, to warn the people of Baracoa about the oncoming onslaught of the Spanish. At first, many did not believe Hatuey, but they would soon know the truth behind his claims when Diego Velázquez arrived in 1511. Nonetheless, when Velázquez arrived on the Bay, he didn't meet docile inhabitants ready to surrender, but rather freedom fighters determined to resist their oppressors. To this day, there is a camaraderie that exits among the islands of the Caribbean Sea, partly due to a shared history and intersecting traditions.
Hatuey was eventually captured in 1512 and burnt at the stake for his resolve. There is a legend that every Cuban child learns growing up that goes like this: just before Hatuey died, a Catholic priest tried to convert him so he would be saved and accepted to Heaven. It is said that Hatuey asked the priest if Heaven was the place where the dead Spanish go. When the priest said yes, he told the priest that he would rather go to Hell. On the day of his execution, the legend continues, a brisk wind rustled up Hatuey’s ashes, and later a fractured, colored light –- supposedly Hatuey's ashes –- could be seen drifting across the hills. The locals call it the Luz de Yara (Light of Yara).
THIS IS BARACOA
And so this is Baracoa: a town rich with history, legends and tales. A town on the Bay with a beauty that is unparalleled, and a fertility that mimics the persistent spirit of its first inhabitants.
~ THE END ~