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Saint Augustine

The streets and most of the buildings along the road from the Baracoa airport are sorely in need of repair and might lead visitors to a false conclusion about the rest of the rest of the city. I found the buildings and streets of Baracoa’s small historic center to be in a relatively good shape. However, access to some of the nearby historic sites, beaches, rivers and other natural resources require the full attention of the driver especially if he is not familiar with the roads and particularly during one of Baracoa’s frequent afternoon downpours.

The eastern edge of the city is separated from the Bahia de Miel by a low concrete wall, called the malecon. Avenidos Malecon, the name of the seaside boulevard, buzzes with pedestrian traffic as well as automobile, bus, horse drawn carriages, and other means of transportation. The malecon is similar to the ones in Havana and Cienfuegos, but not as picturesque, in part because of damage still evident from Hurricane Ike which hit the island in 2008.

At the southern end of Avenidos Malecon is a small park with a tented bar where visitor can enjoy local refreshments, enjoy a breeze from the ocean and listen to live music performed by local musicians.

Nearby is a carved bust of Christopher Columbus close to the spot where locals say he landed in 1492 and subsequently placed a cross in the soil.

In the same vicinity of Columbus’ bust is Fuerte (Fort) Matachin, the second of four forts built to protect Baracoa from attacks from pirates
and corsairs. Built in the mid-18th century, the fort has served many purposes over the years including housing for the homeless during the pseudo-Republic era.

Today Museum Matachin is home to Columbus’ journal and displays a selection of polimitas, an endemic but endangered vividly colored tree snail that is frequently fashioned into jewelry and sold to tourists by many locals. The museum also presents a brief history of Baracoa including its indigenous culture and significant events in the region. Standing in a nearby park is the bust of Antonio Maceo, the Cuban independence fighter who was also known as the Bronze Titan because of his mixed heritage.

Parque de la Independencia (Independence Park) in the historic center of the city is where locals hang out or gather protest various issues. Facing the park is Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary) originally built in 1512 and widely recognized as the oldest Christian church in the Americas. Prior to the current
multi-year restoration, the church also housed the Cruz de la Parra reputed to have been planted on the city bay by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Carbon dating confirms that the cross is constructed of indigenous wood that fits the timeframe that Columbus first set foot on Cuban soil making it the oldest Catholic relic in the Americas.

Directly in front of the church is a bust of Chief Hatuey, leader of the resistance when Diego de Vasquez first came to the area. Hatuey was eventually captured and burned at the stakes by Spaniards.

Beside the church is the Casa de la Trova, a popular nightspot where tourists and locals dance the salsa to traditional Cuban music performed by local bands.

Of course, the aboriginal indians, the original inhabitants of the area, already called the place Baracoa, an Indian word meaning “beside the sea”. Hatuey, the former cacique or
chief of La Espanola de Hayti, had fled to eastern part of Cuba to escape the hardship that white Haytian Christians imposed on his former countrymen. In his adopted land, Hatuey who had established himself as a chieftain of importance, assured the locals that they would suffer a similar fate unless they resisted the white invaders. Soon after his arrival Velázquez was faced with such hostility from the natives that he and his men hunted them into the mountains. Even though Chief Hatuey was betrayed and eventually captured and burned at the stakes, resistance from the indigenous people continued under the leadership of a new chief.

In the years that followed Baracoa outlasted Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion as the settlement's name which was given the honor of being named the first capital of Cuba. Velázquez established himself in the city then went on to found the remaining six of Cuba’s seven original cities including Santiago. In 1523 the capital was moved to Santiago, a city that was more accessible to the rest of the island. Velázquez’s abandonment of the struggling municipality led to its decline in the years that followed.

Even though Baracoa had an auspicious beginning as Cuba’s first city and its first capital, it was just too isolated from the rest of the island. Fortunately for current day travelers, that isolation caused the city to maintain much of its authenticity. Today Baracoa is a modest city of one and two story buildings and a population of around 80,000 residents. In recent years, tourists in search of the authentic Cuba have found their way into the city via daily flights from Havana, Santiago and perhaps a couple of other Cuban cities or via the scenic switchback mountain road.

More Baracoa Tourist Attractions
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