Camping in Guantanamo
For most Americans, the word “Guantanamo” is synonymous with the controversial US military base and detention center of the same name. I am embarrassed to admit that until my first trip to Cuba in 2013, I didn’t realize that Guantanamo was not just the name of the prison, it is the name of the province and provincial capital where the base is located. As it turns out, Guantanamo receives the most rain on the island and as a result, is considered the most lush and beautiful province.
After spending several days lounging at beaches, jumping off waterfalls, and sleeping in a proper bed at a casa particular in the popular tourist destination of Baracoa, I met a small group of travelers and we headed north in search of the perfect campsite. We hiked several hours along beaches, back roads, and through rivers before deciding on a small beach we believed to be secluded. The next morning, we awoke to the sound of group of locals bathing and washing clothing in “our” river. The friendly families invited us back to their home for a breakfast of bread, fried egg and papaya (about $1 each).
Our days was spent drawing pictures in the sand, shaving wood with a knife, building odd contraptions out of bamboo, bottles, and random objects found on the beach. A young British fellow built a raft out of bamboo and rope purchased in town that was sturdy enough for a small person to float on. We swam to a nearby island, nearly submerged from the recent rain, and had a mud fight, ducking behind coconut trees for cover. We laughed, played, and allowed our imaginations to rule, perhaps for the first time since childhood.
After the village had gone to bed that evening, we went skinny-dipping in the river, dried off, and returned to our tents just in time to for an unexpected rain storm to soak all of our belongings. The same would happen the following evening. The third morning, a middle-aged woman, skin caramel brown and cracked from years spent in the sun, walked to the river with her two sons and a huge plastic tub of coconut pulp. They would spend the next few hours rinsing the pulp in the river water before taking it home to turn into cooking oil and skin care cream.
Three nights were spent at this beach and we could have easily spent more but we wanted to find a more remote location. Carrying our backpacks on top of our heads, we tread through chest-deep water to cross the river, rapidly rising with the evening tide. The previous night’s rain flooded the entire area and we cautiously waded barefoot through ankle-deep water, trying to avoid the sharp edges of thousands of coconut shells scattered as far as we could see. Hundreds of mosquitoes attacked our arms and ankles, thoroughly undettered by the Deep Woods Off we had applied. Unable to find dry land before sunset, we were forced to turn back, cross a now-even-deeper river, and set up camp at our previous location. A few children ran from the village to greet us and help us pitch our tents. The next morning, a local fisherman took us across the river in his boat and we hiked a couple hours into El Yunque National Park.
Security guards and staff greeted us at the official Campismo campsite within El Yunque, where reggeaton music blasted and children were treated to donkey rides. As is the case at virtually all campsites across Cuba, tents were nowhere to be found, as visitors “camp” in small cabins. This was absolutely not what we had in mind but were told that actual camping was off limits. We turned around, walked half a mile, and headed behind some small homes to find a more secluded location. We were rewarded with a picturesque Avator-like landscape with turquoise green water and vine-covered rocks. The reggaeton was still audible and lasted until 11pm, but at least we were alone. At least we thought we were alone. Awakened by reggaeton the following morning, we saw villagers walking along what we learned was one of the few paths in the area intended for locals who live in the humble cabin-like homes that border the river within the national park. After a breakfast of soy yogurt for me and hot dogs for the carnivores (the only options available at the Campismo store), we packed up again in search of a more remote location. After two hours of hiking through and along the river, we found a similar location that we believed to be private until we saw locals walking along yet another barely-visible path across the river from us the following morning.
I would go on to camp in Guardalavaca, Holguin; Pilon, Granma; La Boca, Las Tunas; and Playa Giron, Matanzas (The Bay of Pigs), but Baracoa was, by far, the most beautiful and most secluded area I visited. The beauty of camping in Cuba is that the beaches are public so you can camp on just about any beach, even those in front of the most exclusive hotels. There are also no venomous predators on the island to worry about, though bug repellent is a must, particularly along the southern coast!
Though not formal camping, an overnight security guard invited a friend and me to camp within the museum one night. He originally invited us to camp on the roof overlooking the town square but then thought it to be too dangerous for him. Given that he could lose his job for letting us in the museum overnight, I can’t give additional details here but will count the experience among many other memorable camping experiences in Cuba.