Shifting Gears in Baracoa, Cuba — Page 2
Story and photos by Heidi Siefkas

Both well fed, we hit the road again. This time I paid closer attention to the abundance of cacao, papaya, banana, guava, mango, and passion fruit trees. The surrounding area appeared to me like a Caribbean Garden of Eden, freshwater rivers reflecting every hue of green from the lush mountainsides. In fact, I was not alone in this observation. In between picking up hitchhikers and beeping at friends, neighbors, or dogs, Octavio shared with me that Columbus wrote in his journal that Baracoa was the most beautiful place in the world.

As we arrived back in Baracoa, it was noticeable that it had been raining. The town looked as if all the houses had gotten a fresh coat of paint, still with a gloss finish. The birds, including the chickens, were quiet, waiting for the sun to dry the trees. That afternoon, the original plan was to summit El Yunque; however, with the recent rains, it would make the two-hour, uphill climb nearly impossible. Octavio suggested that I hike the following morning, which was my final day in Baracoa. I tend to roll with the punches, but I was disappointed as I had been looking forward to the hike being the highlight of the trip.

However, as I have uttered many times to travelers on my trips to destinations around the world, "Plan B is many times much better than Plan A would have been."

 cuba river rowboat

Cuban River Transportation

I took my own advice and embraced Octavio's Plan B, which entailed pulling off at a small farm that was located on the Duaba River. A young man in his early twenties came out of tiny, wooden home with a machete on his belt and sugarcane in his mouth. Yasmani greeted Octavio as if they were brothers with a quick hug and pat on the back. I introduced myself. Then, Octavio explained our Plan A and recommended a Plan B, which put Yasmani in the driver's seat.

Little did I know that Yasmani and his family ran a rafting business. I looked around for large, inflatable rafts, but there were none. Wanting to make us feel at home, Yasmani took his machete out and cut both Octavio and I two large pieces of sugarcane. As I gnawed on my cane, Yasmani asked me to follow him to the riverside. Alongside a small dock, I realized what Plan B was, a bamboo rafting adventure with views of El Yunque Mountain.

The raft was rustic and 100% authentic. I sat carefully in the middle of the raft with water coming up through the cracks. Nevertheless, it was very sturdy and balanced. From the back of the raft, Yasmani stood with a bamboo pole that would be our propulsion, brakes, and steering. As we quietly went upriver, I noticed other small homes. These families did not have driveways or vehicles. Bamboo rafts were their mode of transportation to the main road where they could hitchhike or take a local bus. Lesson to us all: next time you complain about your commute, think twice.

Yunque cuba bamboo raft

Within a half-hour, we had reached a bend in the river, allowing for perfect alignment with El Yunque. So, instead of hiking up the mountain, Plan B gifted me a view of its beauty from afar while doing another first: my maiden voyage on a bamboo raft. With a soggy bottom, but a smile on my face, I returned back to my land-based chariot for a ride home for good home cooking: slow roasted pork, yucca, dirty rice and beans, and candied guava with cheese.

Overlooking the city at sunset was bittersweet as I didn't want to leave the following day. I went to my room to begin packing up the tornado mess that I had created, leaving out my hiking gear and crossing my fingers for dry weather. Although I knew I didn't need an alarm clock, I set one anyway out of habit; every departure day makes me a bit anxious.

Hiking El Yunque to the Summit

Like so many other mornings awaking in Cuba, I got up with the chickens, witnessing once again the bread deliveries and the neighborhood starting its day. I got lucky. On my third day to try to hike El Yunque, I would summit. Like before, Octavio picked me up, drove through the tricky neighborhood, but then left the driving to me once outside of town. I drove with care on the same dirt road as my first day, beeping to walkers and people rocking in chairs on their porches. Just like Octavio would, I stopped and picked up a young male hitchhiker named Manuel who coincidentally would be my hiking guide up El Yunque. We arrived at the end of the road for ChiChiTurbo, where I would need to register and pay for access to El Yunque and its nearby waterfalls.

I mentioned to Manuel that I was on a time schedule, needing to catch the only bus from Baracoa to Santiago that would get me to the airport on time. His response was, "Vámanos." The roundtrip hike and swim in the waterfalls typically takes groups five hours. Manuel and I didn't let the grass grow underfoot.

By following his lead, we crossed the Duaba River, which was about waist height. Then, we wound our way up the path passing forests of bamboo, mangos, and coconuts. Although it was morning, it quickly became steamy. Because the trail was still muddy from the previous rain, both Manuel and I slipped, slid, and fell. It would be necessary to wash off the mud in the Duaba River. After a brisk, two-hour ascent to 1,500 feet, Manuel and I reaped the buena vista.

Yunque River palms

With the clock ticking and not afraid of a little more mud, we carefully slid our way back down to the river crossing and onto the natural swimming pool and waterfalls. Not unlike most waterfall areas, the water was chilly, but it was now almost noon and my only opportunity to bathe before getting on a bus.

Using the walk back to ChiChiTurbo to dry off a bit, I was grateful for my flip flops and a change of clothes that were in the trunk. To make the last drive together a celebration, Octavio pulled out a bottle of rum, offering me a swig and a medallion, which was from the 500th anniversary of Baracoa becoming a town in 2011. I had nothing other than cash and a hug to give to Octavio. However, in some way, this story of Baracoa is a gift to him, his family, and neighbors.

James Dorsey

Heidi Siefkas is an author, TEDx speaker, and adventurer. Her books include Cubicle to Cuba, With New Eyes, and When All Balls Drop. She also leads tours around the world. If you would like to travel to Baracoa with Heidi, learn more here. Follow her adventures on YouTube and other social media channels.

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Related Features:
Message en una Botella - Lea Aschkenas
Cuba's Port of Hope, on Hopeless Machinery - Luke Armstrong
Following the Grooves in Martinique - Darrin DuFord

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