The Far East – Santiago and Baracoa

12 to 17th of January
Santiago and Baracoa

The last night in Trinidad went on until very early in the morning. At some point during the night, I agreed with Enzo that we will go together to Santiago. I was home at 5 in the morning and had to wake up by 6:30 to catch the bus, I woke up, said goodbye to Betti and ran to the bus station. I barely made it on time and had to argue with the driver who insisted that I lost my place on the bus as I was late. I finally made it into the bus, somehow, but was put on the last seat, not reclining, near the heat of the engine for a trip that lasts 12 hours.

Arriving exhausted to Santiago, I was trying to find my bag while Enzo got outside the station to have a cigarette. When I got out, I found him surrounded by at least 20 jiniteros trying to drag him to their casas, it was an unbelievable spectacle, I just grabbed him from his hand and went away from the crowd as far as we could, eventually took a taxi to an address of a casa I got on the way, we agreed terms with the casa lady then just threw ourselves in our beds and slept.

The following day, we went around walking in Santiago. The city has a striking resemblance, soul-wise, to Cairo. The noise, the crowd, the heat, the jiniteros, everything… It was an extremely hot day, sudan-standards hot (or maybe I softened up). We walked around the center and we booked a ticket for the following day to Baracoa, one of the furthest points east in Cuba.

We headed to Baracoa, more than 6 hours on a road that turns into an amazing scary maze spiralling around a mountain at some point. We arrived to Baracoa, and we got greeted by a lady from a casa near the bus station. The casa lady from Santiago arranged for her to meet us. She took us to René and Marilyn’s casa, a couple in their seventies that own a small casa called La Rusa, they were as welcoming as any casa in Cuba, we talked a little bit and Mr. René told us that, when we have time, then he’d like to show us his “museum”.

Baracoa is very small and cute, barely three places to go to so you end up bumping into the same people over and over again. One of these places is el Ranchón, a club on top of a hill that is the main attraction of the small town. For every ugly middle aged westerner, there were at least 5 prostitutes. It was disturbing but also didn’t make much economical sense! We spent the night dancing there, approached by women all the time ready to leave the island and go with you to anywhere in the world, anywhere is better, they claim, even that weird country I come from that none of them heard about before.

Next day, we went to Playa Maguana, a beautiful beach as all the beaches of Cuba, we spent the whole day there. It was almost as if it was our own private beach. Not many tourists and few locals trying to sell you stuff. Baracoa is far and isolated, people are happy to sell you anything in exchange to clothes or shoes or whatever items they can’t get hold of in this part of Cuba. We spent a quiet day on the beach then went back and had dinner at the casa (one of the best meals we had over there), then went to the same places as the day before, casa de la trova and el ranchón. Over there, I met this girl I saw you on the beach in the morning, a dazzling Ethio-German beauty and her German blanquita friend, a small ball of fire full of life, laughter and energy. We talked a little bit until they were snatched by the Cuban muchachos showing off their salsa skills. One of the few times I deeply hated those hot Cubanos.

The next day, we headed to Rio de Miel, the honey river, one of the attractions of Baracoa, it was a rainy and windy day and after visiting the caves, we were stuck on one side of the river for a while until we decided to cross the wobbly crossing regardless, we made it to the other side although it felt like a 50-50 chance at some point. We walked by the beach back to the city with a cool salesman, who chatted us about Baracoa, Cuba, his wife and mistresses until we split at some point. It is interesting how you get to know all these secrets from a random passing stranger in Cuba, more than you would know in a lifetime about a close friend in Europe.

Best Pizza in the World

We spent the day hanging around, eating these amazing Cuban pizzas for 5 pesos. Enzo insisted that they were better than Italian pizzas, he must be the least fussy Italian on earth when it comes to food.

We finally got to sit down with Mr. René and he showed us his museum. The gentleman is the adopted son of a lady called La Rusa, the Russian, she was one of the richest people in Baracoa and owned a big hotel – that still exists – in the town, she got involved and supported the Cuban revolution at its very early beginnings, and when Castro and his comrades finally won, they had their first meetings in her hotel. René had albums with her photos with Fidel, Raul, Che and all of the barbudos. He still had her dresses, drawings, letters, all kind of possessions that belonged to her. We spent, at least two hours, mesmerized in front of the charismatic Mr. René, listening to every word he had to tell us about his mother, about the revolution, Baracoa and his life and his mom’s life… Again, one of these random coincidences that turn a superb trip into an amazing unforgettable experience.

At night, we followed the same routine from the previous days, la trova then el ranchón. By now, we knew everyone in the small town, we bumped into people we found in Santiago, Trinidad and we bumped into the Ethio-German and la blanquita who were still being wowed by the salsa skills of the bloody Cubans. I was as well.

We went to el ranchón for a final goodbye. Enzo – the soft hearted Italian – must have fallen in love a hundred times that night. I hate to admit it but my cynical heart definitely envied him a little. I love my Italian brother.

The following day, we headed back to Santiago, rested for few hours then took the night bus to Santa Clara, Che’s sacred sanctuary.

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