Baracoa—but which one?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

At 3 a.m. we exit the casa, leaving our keys with Alberto. As arranged, there is a taxi waiting on the street below.

Just as we pull out from the kerb, Clare remembers she has left her passport in the safe box in her room. We have no key to get back into the building, so we have to raise Alberto somehow. We try calling out but this is hopeless because the apartment is on the 8th floor. The taxi driver tries to raise Alberto on the mobile phone, but there is no answer so he tries to send Alberto a text message. As his phone closes down, he looks up at me apologetically and explains that he has no charge left in his battery, and he’s not sure if the text was sent.

After what seems like an eternity, Alberto appears at the door and lets Susie and Clare in. They disappear into the building and re-emerge 10 minutes later with Clare’s passport. We pull away from the kerb a second time and speed into the eerily deserted streets of Havana.

After we have driven some distance I ask the driver if there is more than one terminal at the airport so he knows to take us to the domestic rather than to the international terminal. I let it slip that we are heading to Baracoa. He immediately brakes hard in the middle of an intersection. He tells us that we must drive to a different airport much further away, and that we were twice lucky—once for remembering Clare’s passport and once for mentioning that we were going to Baracoa.

After about half an hour driving through deserted streets, we begin to see signs for Baracoa, and Susie remembers that there is a place near Havana called Baracoa. Has the driver mistakenly assumed that we are flying from Baracoa rather than to Baracoa? In our best broken Spanish we try to ascertain whether this is the case. The driver insists that he understands we are flying to Baracoa in the east of Cuba, and that he is taking us to a domestic airport where these flights depart from.

Could there be a more confusing scenario than two towns at opposite ends of the country, each with the same name, and each with an airport? I keep checking the tickets in my wallet, searching for clues as to where the flight departs from. There are none.

We pull up at Playa Baracoa Airport some time before 4 a.m. A few travellers are waiting there. Most are asleep. None speak English but we manage to ascertain in broken Spanish that none of them are travelling to the other Baracoa in Guantánamo province. Susie is suddenly seized by bowel cramps. I hand her some serviettes I have stashed in my daypack and she vanishes around a cyclone fence and into a paddock. The taxi driver takes two of our tickets and walks off with a guard who has a walkie-talkie.

As 4 a.m. approaches I began to wonder whether this is how and where our plans come unravelled. The entire itinerary for our trip in Cuba—including all of our forward bookings for transport and accommodation—depend on getting to Baracoa (in Guantánamo Province) on or by 12 May. We cancelled our bus tickets in Havana when the flight reservations were confirmed, so there is no longer any “Plan B”.

As I entertain the possibility that we might need to revise the entire itinerary, a horde of mosquitoes descend on Clare, who is sitting patiently in the back seat of the taxi.

Just before 4 a.m. when Playa Baracoa Airport is due to open, the taxi driver reappears and confidently announces that the flight is due to leave Jose Martí airport, but from the domestic rather than the international terminal. I fancy that we have all been cast as characters in an Absurdist play.

We speed off again through the empty streets. About half way to José Marti airport, the taxi bottoms out in a pothole and starts making a racket around the front end. The driver pulls up. I get out with him. Both front tyres are still inflated. The jolt must have shifted the front left guard so it is hitting the wheel. We do our best to pull the guard free, and as we again reach cruising speed again, it somehow settles back into place.

As we pull into Jose Marti National terminal, I bolt inside while Susie negotiates with the driver. He settles for twice the agreed fare. Check-in for the 6 a.m. flight to Baracoa is still open, and I am told there is still time to board. We lose the argument about taking the travel guitar on board as cabin luggage, but that seems like a small loss given what we were facing only minutes earlier.

After checking in, we go upstairs to queue for a security screen. The queue is interminable. We end up in a departure lounge which has two gates but no indication of which flight is leaving through which gate. Every time one of the gates opens, a crowd swarms around it. At 7 a.m. we are still shuffling from one gate to the other like lost lemmings. We have experienced enough anxiety to fuel a lifetime of those airport dreams that travellers have on a rough night at home.

When the doors finally open onto the tarmac, we file out to find—a bus.  The bus takes us from the domestic terminal to the International terminal, the very destination where the taxi driver would have taken us had I not uttered the word ‘Baracoa’ a few hours earlier.

We alight from the bus and queue again to board an antiquated twin-propeller Aero Caribbean plane that seats 70 to 80 passengers. It seems to take forever to taxi to the top of the runway. As I relax into the gravity surge on take-off, I have the distinct sensation of waking from a nightmare—or perhaps walking out of an Absurdist play. Assuming the flight reaches its destination (by this stage I am taking nothing for granted) we will have made the most crucial transport link in our itinerary.

We have since considered the possibility that the diversion was scam to extract a princely cab fare. But how did the mastermind dupe Clare into leaving her passport in the safe box? Who dug the pothole? What gave Susie the bowel cramps? The alternative hypothesis seems more likely.

It was a fiasco.

When we landed at Gustavo Rizo Airport in Baracoa, we were greeted by our hosts who bundled us into two bicycle taxis and transported us to the casa on the far side of town. The architecture was different from the towns we had visited in the west. It was older, and dominated by single-story buildings. There were school children everywhere.

We settled into the casa, had a late breakfast, and then caught up on some sleep. When we re-emerged, we were able to take stock of where we were.

Baracoa lies at the Eastern-most tip of Cuba. It is thought to be the place where Columbus first landed in 1462. The township was founded in 1511, and it was Cuba’s first capital—although that seems unlikely now. Until the 1960s it was accessible only by sea until Fidel Castro ordered the construction of a concrete road into the town from the East, which remains the only approach by land.

As is our habit, we acquainted ourselves with the town by walking through the centre of it. We were soon drawn to the Malecón—a long, straight road that runs along a seawall on the enchantingly named Bahia de Miel (Bay of Honey). The rocks were anything but enchanting, however: they looked like they would rip the soles of your feet off. At one point the wall was marked with graffiti that warned of a recent fatality.

The buildings along the Malecón were in various stages of disrepair. There was the usual political propaganda painted onto walls, and horse-drawn buses trundled along at a leisurely pace. At one stage an open army truck passed by laden with soldiers who catcalled at a lone transwoman sashaying serenely along the promenade. Where the Malecón ended, there was a set of concrete steps that once led down to a black sandy beach, but which now terminated half way down.

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Buildings on the Malecón in Baracoa

We doubled back through town to the Ecotur office and booked a ticket on a tour to Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt for the following day. We were waylaid briefly in the Central park by some inebriated jineteros, one of whom was a muchacho we met at the departure lounge in Havana; but we quickly managed to extract ourselves from the situation.

In the late afternoon we settled on the veranda of a hotel for mojitos and a beer. We soon beat a hasty retreat inside, however, because we were beset by beggars and vendors. We chatted to the bartender and bought an Internet card for Clare. It was taking some time for her to come to terms with the fact that Instagram is not accessible in Cuba.

At length we headed back to the casa. Our host was having a guitar lesson which I was invited to observe. The guitar teacher had an instrument whose neck had been badly broken, so he had to constantly re-tune it.

Before the lesson was over I was summoned to dinner. Our bedroom was a flat that had been appended to the back of the house, up a flight of stairs, and there was an outdoor seating area. We were served a delicious dinner of Dourada—a fish that we had last eaten in Portugal some years before. It was served in a spicy coconut sauce, Caribbean style.

We turned in early, having been exhausted by our nightmarish flight and a full day of walking.

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