The city of Baracoa lies in the far northeast of Cuba, at the eastern end of Carretera Central It is relatively isolated and therefore little-known by tourists. The alleged site of the landing by Christopher Colombus in 1492, Baracoa is overshadowed by the unmistakable table-topped hill called El Yunque. Nature lovers are immediately seduced by the amazing biodiversity of this place.
El Yunque is flanked by the rivers Duaba and Toa. The summit stands 575m (1,886 ft) above sea level. It is 1125m (3,691 ft) long and has a total area of 461,000 m2 (114 acres).
There are many examples of indigenous flora and fauna unique to this local ecosystem, but the real highlight is the Coccothrinax Yunquensis, a palm endemic to the area. It was this unexplored forest that sheltered natives and slaves fleeing the colonisers. The dense vegetation served as a secluded look-out point.
An imposing landmark
El Yunque is formed by an outcrop of limestone rock. It is so distinctive and large, that when Christopher Columbus approached the location of modern-day Baracoa, he even mentioned it in his diary entry for 27 November 1492. He wrote: "and at the head of it in the south east part, stands a cape in which there is a high and square mountain that looks like an island…" So distinct is the shape of El Yunque and so accurate this description, that it has been used to pinpoint Columbus' arrival on Cuba and the creation of Baracoa, Cuba's first settlement. The colonial-style town remains well-preserved and is surrounded by secluded beaches and rainforest.
A National Monument
On 25 December 1979, El Yunque was declared a National Monument, an event which was proclaimed from the summit the following 2 April.
With a qualified guide, it is possible to make hiking excursions through the rivers and up the paths through the forests on and around El Yunque. Depending on the season, the rivers can be high, so be prepared to carry your backpack above your head! In the forest, you may come across locals who prepare juice and snacks from the abundant endemic fruits. You may also encounter another kind of local - the indigenous millipedes!
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If you are interested in Cuba's incredibly diverse indigenous biodiversity, the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park is worth a visit. Featuring 16 of the 28 protected national plant species and several endemic animals and birds, even those less attracted to flora and fauna will be impressed by the landscape and unspoilt beaches. It is best accessed from Baracoa.
A visit to the Almendares Park is an opportunity to relax in a lush, green setting in the heart of the city. Located by the river-side of the Playa neighbourhood, the park is an example of forward-thinking urban planning and offers some leisure activities for adults and children alike as well as the chance to see Habaneros relaxing with their families.
Playa Ancon just might be Cuba's best south beach. A 15-minute drive from Trinidad, visitors will find white sand, clear water, great diving, and sunny skies on the end of Ancon peninsula. There are three luxury resorts for those looking for an opulent holiday, as well as more modest options for the budget-conscious.
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