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12/20/13 - National Post - Che and the chocolate factory

Ernesto (Che) Guevara's legacy as a freedom fighter is woven firmly into
Cuba's cultural fabric, much as his fearless gaze is firmly rooted on
T-shirts and college dorm walls around the globe. But in Baracoa, Cuba's
oldest and most remote city, Che Guevara's legacy is based on something
sweeter. In the early days of Fidel Castro's revolutionary government, El
Che, then Cuba's minister of industry, came to Baracoa to deliver stimulus
to the local economy in the form of a shiny new chocolate factory.

Coastal Baracoa is unique among Cuban cities due to its hemmed-in location
at the island's eastern extremity. For a brief period it was Cuba's
capital, but as the country was settled, other regions flourished and
Baracoa languished in isolation for more than 400 years. Its fortunes
changed dramatically after Castro and his revolutionaries overthrew the
government in 1959. One of their first nation-building accomplishments, and
still regarded as one of Cuba's great engineering feats, was the
construction of a concrete highway known as La Farola - "the Lighthouse" -
over the jungle-covered mountains that had isolated Baracoa for centuries.

I arrived in Baracoa after cycling La Farola, appreciative of the hard work
that went into the concrete road that weaves up the Sierra del Puril
mountains, peaking in pine-scented cloud forest before dropping down to the
tropical Atlantic coast. Normally the first place I go to get my bearings
in a Cuban city is the central plaza, but as I coasted into town I was
beckoned by waves breaking along an arching bay. I came to a stop next to
an 18th-century Spanish fort built to protect the city from pirates. The
fort's walls are thicker than they are tall, so I was able to pull myself
atop the outer wall and survey the ocean crashing onto the black rocks
below the malecon, or seaside boulevard.

When I did make it to Baracoa's modest central plaza, I discovered that
Guevara was not the only hero to leave his footprint there. Occupying the
south side of the Plaza Independencia is a crumbling white cathedral built
in 1833. Behind its tall wooden doors is a glass cabinet housing the Cruz
de la Parra, a wooden cross with gold trimming that many believe was
delivered by Christopher Columbus when he landed in 1492.

Exiting the cathedral after paying homage to this symbol of the
conquistador's faith, I encountered the fearless gaze of a Taino chief
named Hatuey. A copper bust of the pierced and ponytailed warrior is set
above a white pedestal with the words, "The first rebel of America.

Slain in Baracoa." Hatuey lived on the neighbouring island of Hispaniola
when Columbus and the Spaniards arrived and decimated the indigenous
population. He fled in a canoe to Cuba and led a group of local Taino in
resistance to Spanish rule. Hiding in the jungle hills, just as Castro and
Guevara did centuries later, Hatuey waged a successful guerrilla campaign
against the oppressors. Inevitably he was captured and, displaying their
Christian charity, his captors offered to baptize him before burning him at
the stake.

The next morning I explored Baracoa on foot, walking down sleepy streets
lined with one-storey pastel-coloured homes, featuring neglected colonial
facades topped by dishevelled clay tiles. Moving to higher ground, I
climbed the steps to the Hotel El Castillo overlooking the city. The
region's swankiest hotel was built in the late '70s on the site of another
18th-century Spanish fort. Along the perimeter of the pool deck, the
original turrets are still in place, offering panoramic views of what
Columbus allegedly described as the most beautiful land he had ever set
eyes on.

Next I got on my bike and rode north toward Duaba beach. Before I reached
the outskirts of the city, I passed a monument featuring Guevara's
beret-clad profile next to the words "Fabrica de Chocolate." The monument
marks the entrance to Baracoa's chocolate factory, which still churns out
Cuba's best chocolate. I asked at the gate if any was for sale, but the
attendant shook his head. It is not available in any of the common shops in
town either, as it is considered a luxury item, sold only in high-end
stores, priced well out of reach of average Cubans.

Eleven kilometres farther, I reached Duaba beach. Because Baracoa gets few
visitors compared to Cuba's resort destinations, the two-kilometre
white-sand beach hosted only a few dozen tourists. There were an equal
number of Cubans on hand selling snacks and meals. Here I encountered my
first bars of elusive Baracoa chocolate. I was told that employees at the
factory occasionally get free boxes of chocolate, and by selling them to
tourists for $2 a bar they can double their regular salary. I pulled out a
three-peso bill, featuring Guevara's image, that I had been saving for a
special occasion and exchanged it for a Baracoa chocolate bar.

Before my teeth had pierced the bar, I could tell it was far superior to
the coarse chocolate I had previously encountered in Cuba. Its rich flavour
and smooth texture were comparable in quality to American milk chocolate,
but perhaps not quite as good as European varieties. However, locally grown
cocoa beans are coveted in Europe and most are exported to Switzerland.

Due to the perma-hunger that stalks all cycle-tourists, my eyes constantly
prowled the beach for other snacks. I spied some peculiar cone-shaped
bundles hanging over the shoulders of hawkers walking the beach. These are
the region's original sweet treat, cucurucho, a sugary blend of mashed
coconut and other fruits with honey and spices wrapped tightly in a palm
frond. Unlike Baracoa chocolate, cucuruchos are enjoyed by locals in every
income bracket. I purchased three for less than one peso.

Although Baracoa is not large, the legacies of some of Cuba's biggest
heroes reverberate off its remote coastline and jungle-clad mountains,
reinforcing its heritage as Cuba's, and one of the world's, most unique
cities. Guevara famously once said, "Be realistic, demand the impossible!"
In Baracoa you can realistically demand to do a number of impossible
things: sack a fort that repelled pirates for centuries, visit a companion
that sailed the seas with Columbus, stare into the eyes of the New World's
first martyr or eat a chocolate bar made by Che Guevara.


Original Source / Fuente Original:
http://life.nationalpost.com/2013/12/20/che-and-the-chocolate-factory-cubas-most-remote-city-is-also-its-tastiest/


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