There is a long-standing dispute between the cities of Gibara in Holguin and Baracoa in Guantanamo as to which was the site of the first landing of Christopher Columbus in Cuba. There is much at stake, because the winning city would then be considered the site that inspired the historic and flattering expression of the discoverer upon its sighting:
"This is the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen."
Most scholars side with the people of Baracoa, mainly due to the description found in the binnacle of the Genovese Admiral about a flat-topped mountain. Locals are convinced that the reference is to the Yunque de Baracoa, and I believe they are right. The peculiar shape of this mountain makes it unmistakable in comparison to any other found along Cuba’s coasts.
Located between the Toa and Duaba rivers, two of the widest in the Guantanamo Province, the Yunque is found at about seven kilometres to the west of the city. The most popular route to the mountain starts at a camping site named after it. Getting to the point of departure is not a problem, for there are many trucks that shuttle this distance for little money, and you can also bargain over the price of a private taxi to get there.
Start of the route and the Duaba River
From the very moment you take the path it’s hard to forget the words of the Genovese Admiral, because all you see from both sides of the road is beautiful and spectacular. At the beginning of the five-kilometre-long trail you´ll have to wade through the Duaba River, and while doing so you can take the opportunity to freshen up with a cooling dip in the chilled waters.
Wading through the river is easy, it´s not deep and there are lots of rocks jutting out of the surface allowing you to jump from one to the next without getting (too) wet. Mind your step though! The rocks are slippery and if you’re not wearing a bathing suit at this point, you should at least take off your shoes and carry them in your hands. I have seen plenty of overly confident hikers cross the river with their shoes on only to end up knee-deep in water after a sudden slip. And climbing up to the top of the mountain with water in your boots is not so fun.
The way up
One kilometre after passing the ford your reach Juan´s house, a local farmer who serves a fruity buffet spread for hikers. There you can sink your teeth into big, juicy, tropical fruits in season for a mere $1.00 CUC. The typical assortment includes guava, mango, pineapple, coconut, oranges or grapefruits. Many of these exotic gifts of nature may be new to you and they have the added nutritional value of being organically grown. However, you can only have what you can eat there; if you want to take some with you for the remainder of the journey; you have to pay for them separately.
Be mindful not to overindulge with citric fruits; a belly full of tamarind or acidic fruits, together with the resulting drop in blood pressure, is one of the worst things to be experienced during an excursion. In my experience, the best fruit to have or take with you is a banana, an excellent source of potassium which is very useful for regulating your body temperature.
From Juan´s house, the road becomes steep, not as much as the Turquino Peak, but a good challenge anyway. The very high temperatures -together with the high humidity of the leeward coast (not far from the most humid area in Cuba), increase the route’s level of difficulty during one of Guantanamo’s torrid summers. It is definitely a journey I prefer to make in autumn or winter.
Two kilometres before you reach the top, there is an open space where you can pitch up a tent for the night, in case you want to make it a two-day excursion.
The view from the top of El Yunque de Baracoa reminds me of the one to be enjoyed from El Pan de Guajaibon. There are differences, however, mostly in terms of height: El Yunque is just around 500 metres tall, while El Pan doubles it. Although they both are unique and unmistakable, each is special and distinctive in its own way. They are similar in some respects, too. Both are surrounded by plains that stretch out all the way to the sea on the north side. Both have a treeless top that towers the rest of the hills, thus rewarding climbers with a great panoramic view.
If I had to choose, I would stay with the mystique of El Yunque, associated with the discovery of the Americas and its beautiful view of Baracoa; one of the first European settlements in the New World and the first capital of Cuba. On top of the mountain, you can find a sign to remind you of the 500 years of the city’s existence.
Watching the perfect match of the lush vegetation’s bright green hues and the dark indigo-blue of the sea you can perfectly understand the European explorer when he said the everlasting phrase we Cubans learn in our earliest years:
"This is the most beautiful land human eyes ever saw."