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Saint Augustine

Baracoa, Cuba’s First City

Founding and History

Even though flying into Baracoa can be a nail biter, it’s the quickest way to reach the oldest colonial city in the Americas. Alternatively, you can take the four hour ride from Santiago along the scenic La Farola (The Latern) switch-back road through the Sierra de Purial Mountains. Before the road was built in the 1960s to link Baracoa to the rest of the island, the only way to reach the city was via the water.

The drive on La Farola can be slow and acrid especially if you're trapped behind a slow moving, exhaust spewing truck or bus. Travelers can be assured of outstanding mountain vistas along the way. Near the summit, there is a smelly rest stop and a small shop that sells water, coffee and fruit. A climb up the overlook tower will reward you with a view of both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantc Ocean. It's the only place in Cuba where both bodies of water can be seen from the same spot. 

It was at Baracoa that locals claim to be the October 27, 1492 debarkation point for Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the Americas. They make that claim based on Columbus’ journal entry where he writes about landing on “the most beautiful land man’s eyes have ever seen” and describes a “high square mountain which seemed to be an island”. Since no other mountain in Cuba fits that description, Baracoans are inclined to believe that he was writing about El Yunque, the 575 meter / nearly 1,900 feet flat-top mountain just northeast of town.

However, the people of Gibara, a coastal city nearly 200 miles northwest of Baracoa, as well as most historians say that Columbus first landed in the Americas in Bay of Gibara. No one really knows where Columbus first set foot on land in Cuba since his journal entry describing his landing is preserved only in extract and, according to Irene Wright’s book, The Early History of Cuba, “reflects the confusion which existed in the discoverer’s mind as he sailed along the unknown coast of an island which is on the other side of the world from where he was supposed to be.”

Fast forward nearly two decades during which time the King of Spain heard that there was gold in Cuba. To determine if the rumors were true, in 1511 he commissioned a Cuban expedition led by Spanish conquistador Diego de Velázquez to “investigate its mineral potentialities.” Velázquez and his small army established a base of operations in a lush green spot on the eastern coast of Cuba and gave the new settlement the name of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion. 

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