Guantanamo Bay and a Crazy Journey from Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa

7 December 2016 was an epic day. After Fidel Castro’s passing and associated events, Rocío and I looked forward to finally beginning our normal holiday. However, little is normal in Cuba and this day certainly wasn’t.

Singapore Chris who we met outside Fidel’s funeral joined us at Santiago de Cuba’s Avenida de los Libertadores Intermunicipal Bus Station. Trucks and utilities east to Guantanamo and Baracoa leave from here and not the Serrano Intermunicipal Bus Station stated in Lonely Planet’s 2015 guidebook.

Morning mist outside Santiago

Morning mist outside Santiago

From Santiago de Cuba we intended to visit far eastern Baracoa with a stop at infamous Guantanamo Bay. The Guantanamo Bay lookout was 30 kilometres east of Guantanamo town and we didn’t know how to get there or onto Baracoa. Viazul buses ran between Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa via Guantanamo but only once or twice daily and weren’t practical. With Rocío’s determination (and Spanish) we succeeded, taking the following transport (prices in brackets):

  1. Passenger utility from Santiago de Cuba to Guantanamo Bus Station (2 CUC each)
  2. Local bus from Guantanamo Bus Station to Guantanamo city (1 CUP each)
  3. Passenger truck from Guantanamo city to below Guantanamo Bay lookout (5 CUP each)
  4. Short hikes to and from the lookout
  5. Hitch-hiking in Jeep towing pigs from below lookout back to Guantanamo Bus Station (1.50 CUC each)
  6. Classic Chevrolet van from Guantanamo Bus Station to Baracoa (50 CUC total?)

Note: 25 CUP = 1 CUC = US$1

Funeral procession along countryside road

Funeral procession along countryside road

Outside Santiago de Cuba, before La Maya, traffic crawled to a stop. After waiting a while, I got out and investigated. Ahead a band led a funeral procession on the main road. Returning, our vehicle was already moving and Rocío was worried I would be stranded.

Welcome to the city of Guantanamo

Welcome to the city of Guantanamo

Guantanamo has two main claims to fame:

  1. Guantanamera, perhaps Cuba’s most famous song
  2. Guantanamo Bay, a disputed United States naval base controversially housing terrorism suspects

The city itself has little of note for tourists. At the bus station Rocío asked locals how to get to the Guantanamo Bay lookout. Taking a local bus to the city’s eastern outskirts, we waited roadside for onwards transport, finding a passenger truck going our way.

Passenger truck from Santiago to roadside below Guantanamo Bay viewpoint

The passenger truck we took from Santiago to below Guantanamo Bay lookout

Sign for Guantanamo Bay viewpoint

Sign for Guantanamo Bay lookout

The Guantanamo Bay lookout is located on a side road off Carratera Central, 30 kilometres east of Guantanamo city.

Guantanamo Bay Panorama from viewpoint

Guantanamo Bay panorama from lookout

The lookout has a cafe, souvenir shop and shaded tower with panoramic views of the Guantanamo Bay. The bay itself is divided into two parts with the United States controlling the southern area next to the harbour entrance under the auspices of a 1903 lease agreement not recognised by the post-revolutionary Cuban government.

The US base at Guantanamo Bay

The US naval base at Guantanamo Bay

The US base is far from the present day lookout. A viewpoint providing much better base views closed several years earlier.

Five vultures circling, Guantanamo Bay

Five vultures circling, Guantanamo Bay

Vultures circled in the sky and provided photographic opportunities for us and the other tourists who arrived by tour bus or private car.

A Guantanamo Bay spider and its shadow

A Guantanamo Bay spider and its shadow

At the lookout we enjoyed cured sausage Chris had brought from Paris.

The windy road below the Guantanamo Bay viewpoint

Looking west from the windy road below the Guantanamo Bay viewpoint

Unfortunately, without any spaces in vehicles going to Baracoa, we needed to backtrack to the Guantanamo Bus Station. The first vehicle to accept us three hitch-hikers was a yellow Jeep towing pigs in a trailer.

Chris and I in the Jeep towing the trailer with pigs

Chris and I in the Jeep towing the trailer with pigs; note the branches to shelter the animals from the sun

We hitched a ride from near Guantanamo Bay viewpoint to Guantanamo Bus Station in the Jeep towing pigs

Rocío and Chris leaving the Jeep

Guantanamo (GTMO) Bus Station lies west of the city

Guantanamo’s bus station (Estacion de Omnibus GTMO) lies west of the city

We rode in this blue 1950s Chevrolet from Guantanamo Bus Station to Baracoa

Our transport from Guantanamo Bus Station to Baracoa: a blue 1950s Chevrolet van

With afternoon already here, few people wanted to travel east in the shared vans. Instead, Chris negotiated to hire a whole vehicle and driver for the 3&1/2 hour, 155 kilometre drive to Baracoa.

A Cuban Cristal beer and the Chevy van interior

A Cuban Cristal beer and the Chevy van interior

With beers and the stereo pumping, a red-interior, blue 1950s Chevrolet became our party bus. On the way our party grew when we picked up hitch-hiker Eneivis from Imías. With Cuba’s limited vehicles and fuel supplies, hitch-hiking is common.

Video of the funeral procession, Guantanamo Bay and our party bus:

The coast from the Chevrolet van window

A view of southern coast from the Chevrolet van window

The highway heads east along the southern coast and then travels north through the mountains to Baracoa. On both the coast and closer to Baracoa damage from October’s Hurricane Matthew was evident with vegetation destroyed and debris strewn about.

Che Guevara monument outside Baracoa

A Che Guevara monument outside Baracoa

The hurricane-damaged coconut palms and vegetation in the mountains outside Baracoa

The hurricane-damaged coconut palms and vegetation in the mountains outside Baracoa

Finally, by late afternoon we had reached Baracoa, Cuba’s first Spanish settlement and most isolated city.

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