A favorite vacation destination, the seaside village of Baracoa, on the north side of Cuba's easternmost tip, has quietly developed into a quirky little town with galleries, up-and-coming restaurants, and a tremendous salsa palace, or trova.
Baracoa has not traditionally been on Cuba tours run out of the United States, but smart travelers will put it on the list. Not only is the town, a charming jumble of brightly-painted little buildings, a great spot to spend several days, but Baracoa is a historic site (Cuba's first settlement and capital), and has a beautiful malecon along the water that is a mini-version of its more famous cousin in Havana.
Shopping in Baracoa's charming, cobblestoned town center is greatly enhanced by the presence of several good art galleries, where local work can be purchased for incredibly reasonable prices. (Just make sure you obtain a receipt, as you'll need it to prove your purchase when you leave the country.)
When government restaurants were the only official choice, entrepreneurial Cubans ran small restaurants out of their homes. With a relaxing of control, those hidden gems have now moved, in many cases, upstairs to the tops of two or three story buildings where they thrive as public restaurants, many of which are done up in wild and whimsical designs.
In Baracoa, restaurateurs are working their menus into shape that breaks free of the traditional Cuban government-controlled fare. Here, fish croquettes are a fresh and tasty plate at a local rooftop restaurant.
In most Cuban towns, the trova, or salsa palace, is the de facto center of town after nightfall. Here, the Trova Baracoa is a historic and vibrant hall that swings all evening with live music and a small floor filled with dancers.
The magic of a trova on a Cuban night has everything to do with the musicians holding court on the small stage. Three nights a week at Trova Baracoa, regular stars Maravilla Yunquena heat up the night.
One of the charms of Baracoa is its embrace of diversity. A well-known drag performer who has been photographed by international magazines and featured in books (and whose mother lives in Baracoa), Gaspar Lobaina is a local celebrity and hero. In the mornings, children on the way to school stop, hug, greet, and visit with their famous neighbor.
Every school day in Baracoa, seven clangs of a tower's bell sound like someone banging a pot, which sets loose a joyous cacophony of boisterous children's voices, as they enter the town's schools and take their seats. The shouts and calls are replaced by the scraping of metal chair legs against tile, and then all becomes suddenly silent. School is in session.
A short drive west of Baracoa, Alejandro de Humboldt National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered Cuba's most important protected area, with remarkable biodiversity. A quick visit can take in a quiet lagoon (with boats and guides to pole you out among mangroves and along cliffs); a longer stay offers spectacular hiking into the mountains.