236km (147 miles) NE of Santiago de Cuba; 150km (93 miles) NE of Guantánamo; 332km (206 miles) E of Holguín
Swathed in generous tropical vegetation -- royal palms, coconut palms, coffee bushes, and cacao plants -- and refreshed by 10 rivers, Baracoa is perhaps the most picturesque spot in all of Cuba. The historic town sits on a lovely oyster-shaped bay, Bahía de Miel (Honey Bay), and the landmark flat-topped mountain known as El Yunque (the Anvil) looms in the background.
Not only is Baracoa, for my pesos, the most beautiful place on the island, it's also the oldest. That Baracoa was the first settlement established by Diego Velázquez in 1511 -- making it the second oldest colonial city in the Americas -- is not in doubt. Christopher Columbus is thought to have first landed at this spot in late November 1492, and locals claim that he planted a wooden cross here to mark his arrival. (The cross, carbon-tested for age, is temporarily on display in the priest's house next to the Asunción church in town while the church undergoes renovation.)
After its founding, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Baracoa remained the capital of the new Spanish colony for just 4 years; when Velázquez moved the capital west to Santiago, on a bigger and deeper bay, Baracoa's isolation had already begun. The small fishing and farming village remained virtually cut off from the rest of Cuba, with no true road in until the 1960s, when a scenic roller coaster of a highway was cut through the mountains.
For such a small, isolated settlement, Baracoa is loaded with things to do and see. It swims with possibilities for hiking, rafting, swimming, and boating. Baracoa really shines the first week of April, when heady street parties (part of a semana de cultura, or cultural week) commemorate the date General Antonio Maceo disembarked at nearby Playa Duaba in 1895, marking the beginning of Cuba's War of Independence. The greatest pleasure Baracoa offers, though, is just being here. Most people make the trek just to take in its extraordinary beauty, tranquillity, and abundant charms. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the tropical seaside town is tucked into green hillsides covered with cocoa and coconut groves, and surrounded by beaches lined by royal palms. As the abundant greenery attests, Baracoa is huddled in the midst of the wettest region in Cuba. In 2011, Baracoa will celebrate the 500th anniversary of its founding.