Wednesday 13 May, 2015
Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian explorer and naturalist who visited Cuba in the first few years of the C19th. He studied the flora and fauna of the island and surveyed the capital, Havana. There is a large national park named after him about 1½ hours drive in a bus from Baracoa. This was our destination for the day.
There are about 3000 campesinos living inside the park so there were small rural outposts along the way. We stopped at one of these and headed on foot up a steep slope that took us high into the hills and forest. The majority of the 28 tourists wanted our guide to speak English but Susie and I found it easier to understand him when he reverted to Spanish.
We encountered a range of wildlife on the walk, including a large family of feral pigs wallowing in a puddle; the world’s second smallest frog; and a giant centipede that has a row of large pores along each side for spraying cyanide at anything foolish or unfortunate enough to mistake it for lunch. Birdlife was abundant, and it included the Tocororo (Cuban Trogon), bullfinches, and the ubiquitous Aura Tiñosa (Turkey Buzzard). The highlight was a hummingbird barely taller than my index finger. It had a deep green sheen on its breast, and it sported smart, jet black, velvet tails. We spotted it hovering over a bush like a little drone.
The guide provided commentary on the flora, pointing out plants used for food or medicine. Some enterprising local lads set up a stall where we purchased a famous local sweet made of coconut and honey wrapped in a banana leaf. After a few hours of fairly arduous walking we arrived at a stream with a swimming hole and not far away a larger, deeper swimming hole with a waterfall. Clare and I paused to eat, as we were getting hungry and needed some energy. Susie changed into her swimming costume and vanished upstream to explore a cascade in glorious solitude. After she returned, I did the same.
The pool was about four metres deep and the cascade was a four or five metre drop. By then, other tourists had showed up and were jumping off the cascades, but I was more interested in exploring beneath the falls. I returned to the lunch spot and coaxed Clare into coming upstream. We swam behind the curtain of water and beneath the falls so that it pounded on our backs.
Refreshed and fed on crackers with Vegemite, we set off again. The rest of the walk was fairly easy, but we were grateful to be wearing sandals, as there were a dozen shallow river crossings and it was much easier to wade out into streams with something on your feet. Clare just wore her sand shoes and tried not to think about trench foot.
The bus picked us up where it let us off, and we bumped our way back out of the National Park to a beach called Mahuana which is reputedly the best beach in Baracoa. I ventured into the water and found there were perilous limestone outcrops beneath the murky, tepid seawater.
We sampled some excellent street food (or should that be beach food?) made of roasted almonds bound together with candied honey. The vendor was so charming she could have sold waves to the sea.
On the way back to Baracoa we watched carefully for landmarks that would help us the following day on the bike ride we had planned. When we arrived back in Baracoa we looked for bottled drinking water to buy, but found none. When a personable tout lured us into a buzzing music venue close to the central Plaza, I bought a mojito for each of us in lieu of a bottle of water, and we sat down to enjoy the music. The band was made up of men of different ages. They swapped instruments and they all sang. A tall man with a farmer’s rough hands and a shock of white hair stood up and invited a woman less than half his age onto the dance floor. His formal gestures soon melted as he began to dance with youthful grace and agility. Is there anyone in Cuba who can’t sing or dance?
The tout talked me into buying another round of the excellent mojitos as the music drew more and more locals onto the dance floor. A handsome young local plucked up the courage to ask Clare for a dance, but she resolutely resisted. It is notable how she turns men’s heads here, and they are not shy about displaying their interest. She did eventually agree to dance with one of the men who guided her through some impressive salsa moves.
When we returned to the casa, our host was having another guitar lesson. We freshened up and then headed out to eat at a restaurant with a funky decor called La Terraza located near the malecón. Susie ordered the prawns. I am not partial to this particular seafood, but Susie encouraged me to try them and I was taken aback: they were the tastiest prawns I have ever eaten. I ordered fish in a spicy coconut sauce, as I was keen to sample the Caribbean cuisine. Clare ordered a spaghetti marinara. Gentle sea breezes blew in through the windows from the Bahia de Miel.