The day was dawning as I climbed between sacks of vegetables and trussed poultry to join the locals aboard a Soviet truck belching its black exhaust fumes down the single street of Imias.
Papi Sarracen, retired barber and village father, was shouting his farewells. I had spent the previous day and night with this noble old man and his numerous family, as he sang the songs of Cuba’s exiles and told me tales of his country’s past. We shared coconuts from the overhanging palm trees among the scurrying chickens and snuffling pigs in his patio. Supper was a stewed pig’s head.
Open to the elements, there was no better way to see the Guantánamo coast and the peaks and pine-clad canyons from the spectacular Farola - a viaduct 30km in length. It was also a chance to meet the Guantanameros on their way to Baracoa. Disgorged just outside the town, I squeezed aboard a horse cab, relaxing to the reassuring clip-clop motion with ten or so of my new companions.
Having checked out several recommendations, I chose to stay as a paying guest with schoolteachers Marta and Luis in an airy flat on the seafront. But the attractions of this friendly, historic town meant that I was to spend little time at home with my attentive hosts.
With the magnificent Casa de Cultura as its font, the town bursts with talent inspired by local history, mythology and geography. Its walls are coated with lurid canvases. I heard poet Juan Idilio Terrero perform his lyrical decimas in a flamenco wail to the lute and guitar. Jazz, rumba, salsa, son and danzón spill out on to the narrow streets and little squares at all hours.
Early each morning the street vendors set up their stalls. They tempt with strange yet tasty morsels such as boniato bread and fried yuca and a root drink called pru. Dani in black beret pedals past on his tricycle with its big box of bread hot from the baker’s oven. His shrill whistle competes with the crowing cocks in announcing breakfast time.
On fiesta days the citizens converge to dance and sit at tables in the open air. They drink rum and beer and eat pizzas and chunks of pork carved from the carcass in front of them.
Along the white, palm-fringed beach to the south is Boca de Miel, literally Mouth of Honey. This ancient fishing village became my favourite vantage point to admire the resplendent sunsets and full moon. Here I met Tillin tying up his boat to the long and rickety wooden bridge.
It was Saturday: his father Simonquito could forget his labours in the chocolate factory. He had set sail at four in the morning. The fisherman returned twelve hours later with seven large fish - dorado, peto and aguja – aka supper.
While waiting, I learnt to thresh rice. Once the red plastic cloth was laid on the table, I sat with the women separating the grains from the grit and straw - a ceremony in which I was to participate in many houses. Chicks ran in and out pecking around our feet. The family pig grunted at the back.
I helped the returning fisherman furl the sail and slide the mast into the rafters above us. Then we celebrated from my bottle of rum throughout the evening.
Early one morning I headed north on a Chinese bicycle taxi shared with Tillin and its owner Yaroldi. An hour later we were wading across the fast-flowing Rio Duaba to the foot of El Yunque. Shrouded in mist at dawn and glowing red at dusk, the magical mountain - a holy site for the Taino Indians - rises dramatically from the rainforest of the surrounding biosphere reserve.
We made frequent stops to break open coconuts and pick tropical fruits such as cacao and zapote. Colourful birds - including the rare ivory-billed woodpecker - sang from the branches above us. The jungle eventually gave way to reveal the sunlit peak, where butterflies fluttered around us as we surveyed the leafy landscape all around. It was just below that the heroic general Antonio Maceo had landed to lead his rabble to eventual victory against the Spaniards a hundred years ago.
With this part of my mission accomplished, it was time to head north-west to Gibara and thence south to Manzanillo, to complete my triangle of fortified colonial ports, so rich in colonial history and adventure. Sadness mingled with anticipation as I waved goodbye to my many friends from the back of the lorry trundling out through the dusty streets of Baracoa.
By Alan McOwen, Journey Latin America Client.