Shifting Gears in Baracoa, Cuba
Story and photos by Heidi Siefkas

It's best to go with the flow while riding the picturesque back roads of eastern Cuba in a '54 Plymouth.

countryside in Cuba

On a road off the beaten path we caught a glimpse of El Yunque, a tabletop mountain and summit of one of my up and coming hikes in the area. My driver Octavio asked, "Quieres manejar?" I thought for a second, did I want to drive? After nearly a decade of travel to Cuba, I had ridden in hundreds of classic cars, but never driven one. Candela (wow)!

I moved the bench seat forward as Octavio, a thirty-five-year-old, born and raised Baracoan, instructed me how to carefully let out the clutch (sauve) and give it more gas (dale!). Flashbacks of learning how to drive a manual Honda Prelude in small-town Wisconsin punctuated my first few minutes on that backroad as the tires kicked up gravel and I avoided the large potholes in the road because of recent rains.

Once I got the hang of it, Octavio reminded me that driving in Cuba is not all about the technique; nothing in Cuba is done without a bit of socializing. As we passed locals on the road, Octavio would reach over and honk the horn, lightly like a casual, "Hi, what's up?" Some were asking for a ride into town, which is the norm. Transportation in Cuba is quite challenging. Hitchhiking is legal and common. Most Cubans use hitchhiking as well as communal taxis and buses.

Cuba roadtrip

After stopping and allowing several to hop in the back of the Plymouth, nicknamed ChiChiTurbo (aka Chick Magnet), the back seat was full and the fold-down seats in the extended trunk made us a 9-pack.

This was my introduction to Baracoa on my very first afternoon. Little did I know that Octavio and ChiChiTurbo would be my tag-team of local guides to authentic Baracoa, which was Cuba's first capital and where Columbus landed in 1492.

Up With the Animals in Baracoa

I retired for the night at a casa particular bed and breakfast overlooking Honey Bay. Relishing the cool breezes and another great day, I sipped a cold Crystal beer. That night, I hit the most comfortable bed in Cuba hard. Thank you Villa Paradiso.

Baracoa hotel view

Regardless of where in Cuba I have traveled, there is little to no need for an alarm clock. Typically, it will be the roosters that wake you first, just in time to reap the sunrise and watch the town wake up. The cries of a few roosters become a chorus, often syncopated by the sounds of fresh bread delivery by local men on bikes, whistling and chanting, "pan, pan." With this soundtrack and an appetite, I wolfed down my fresh fruit plate of papaya, guava, orange, and banana along with fresh bread and homemade mango jam. As I heard the engine of ChiChiTurbo start up, I knew it was time to finish my Cuban coffee. It just so happened that Octavio lived two houses down from where I was staying.

Octavio Cuban guideTogether, Octavio and I had planned an intense adventure schedule for my three-day stay. We would use our neighborhood as base, but hit as many rivers, waterfalls, mountaintops, beaches, farms, and yummy refueling stops as we could. We made a pact: "You drive in the morning and I in the afternoon, but I continue until our first stop."

With a beep beep, we twisted, turned, stopped, and started various times trying to avoid other cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians, dogs, and bicycles on the narrow, windy streets of Baracoa. I then understood why he had remained behind the wheel in town. While places like San Francisco or the Amalfi Coast may be known for narrow streets, the world has nothing on Cuban streets. Viewing our base in the rearview mirror, we cruised over the Río Miel, heading to the Yumurí­ Canyon.

Escorting the Honorary Mayor in a Giant Auto

As with any good adventure, you must run into an obstacle. Ours was goats in the road. I mentioned to Octavio that I grew up on a farm. I got out of the ChicChiTurbo and gave shepherding my best shot with a little "yodeleheho!" while waving a stick. Try as I might, it failed. Octavio took a new tack with beeping to get the attention of the shepherd who exited his humble wooden home with a cup of coffee in one hand and a typical Cuban machete in the other. The goats moved.

First stop done, it was time for me to take the driver's seat again. Just like the day previous, Octavio coached me through the first couple of starts and shifts. However, this time I was more confident with being a social, Cuban driver. Beep beep. It felt as if I were driving the local mayor around the area. Octavio knew everyone. It was apparent that when you own one of the largest private cars in Baracoa, you have given everyone a ride at one point in time.

After another amazing driving feat of narrowly squeezing through a large rock tunnel, ChiChiTurbo, Octavio, and I had arrived at Yumurí­ Canyon. This river gorge with cliffs measuring 600 feet tall was nothing less than spectacular; I wanted to explore it. As it is a protected area, Octavio knew I would need a guide; he knew just the person. For a small fee of less than $7, I was granted access to the pristine river and canyon, but via rowboat. I was paired up with a slim man, Ram ón, who had seen a lot of sun over the years and had lost several teeth. However, it is wise to never judge a rower by his cover.

Cuba Yumuri canyon

We headed upstream for five minutes. Then he asked me if I wanted to row. Over the next hour, I got schooled in rowboat navigation, which is harder than it looks. It requires strength, but also frequent paddle strokes to navigate the course while going backward. I heard more of Ramón's calls of "right" or "left" in Spanish than I did any of the endemic birds like the Cuban trogon. Ram ón finally admitted it was best that I stick to driving ChiChiTurbo. I jumped back into the driver's seat and beep beep again. We were on our way to the Manglito beach for refueling.

Cuba Travel in the Countryside

Following Octavio's directions off the main road, on to a dirt road, which shortly became sand, a small, blue beach shack came into view. Nestled under a group of Royal Palms was our lunch spot. I stopped the car in a shaded spot, pulling over far enough for other cars, horses, and dirt bikes to get around it, but not leaving room for me to get out other than from the passenger's door. After crawling out, I happily handed the keys to Octavio. It was afternoon, his turn to drive. The paladar (private restaurant) Bar Tato was indeed a two-in-one treat: exceptional fresh, grilled fish and octopus in a coconut sauce with beers so cold there was some ice in them and the location came with a million-dollar beach view. Sitting next to Octavio, we raised our cans and said, "Salud" and "buen provecho." For the rest of the meal, we were silent.

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