Crumbling Havana, colour-splashed Trinidad and Viñales' prehistoric landscape are top of the list for visitors to Cuba, but Baracoa - a municipality in the eastern tip of the country - rarely gets a look in. Yet this is the land of chocolate and coconuts, jungle-covered mountains and hidden sandy coves. Among Cubans, it's said to be home to the country's most beautiful scenery, while for tourists it remains a little-known paradise. While Cuba is relatively flat, in Baracoa the country folds up into mountains which encase the small town, threaded with 29 rivers with melodic names which roll off the tongue: Toa, Duaba, Yumurí, Miel. These rivers slowly wind their way through rows of palm trees down the ocean, an azure front that Baracoa backs onto. It's a beauty that photographs struggle to translate, when your cheeks sting from sweat and the sun and you hear the rustle of the palms as you slip along the mauve-tinged waters of one of its rivers at sunset.
Getting to Baracoa has never been easy. For nearly 500 years - until the 1965 La Farola road was built - the town was practically cut off from the rest of Cuba. The mountain road is torturous but the journey is worth it, finishing in a place even older than dilapidated Havana. This was the first town in Cuba, built in 1511 in a place whose beauty seduced Christopher Columbus in 1492. Power and influence may have drifted up coast long ago, but what remains today is a vibrant town enveloped by a natural Eden.
Base yourself in Baracoa to enjoy the town's compact charm, while it is also a good launchpad from which to explore the surrounding area. At Baracoa's heart is the bustling Parque Independencia, from which streets lined with low-level pastel-hued houses radiate out towards the Malecón. As elsewhere in Cuba, the best way to experience life is to stay in a casa particular, a room in a Cuban home, which can be booked through Airbnb. An en-suite room usually costs around $25CUC and you can fuel a day's adventures with a typical Baracoan breakfast of thick hot chocolate, fresh fruit, and fried eggs ($5CUC). Escape the city with a trip to Playa Maguana, a beach 25km northwest of town where Villa Maguana sits on its own secluded cove and offers 16 double rooms housed in rustic shacks.
In a country often bemoaned by travellers for its monotonous cuisine, Baracoa firmly goes against the grain. Here, catch of the day includes red snapper, swordfish and lobster, and sometimes the mysterious tetí, a small fish that can only be caught under the light of a waning moon. Make the most of the fresh fish and seafood with a beach shack lunch on Playa Maguana; pull up a chair outside Victor's home and try prawns in a creamy, curried coconut-milk sauce, or zesty-orange marinated red snapper hot from the grill. Unsurprisingly, as the home of Cuban chocolate, Baracoan's have a sweet tooth, so tuck into the chocolate-heavy menu at Casa del Chocolate (Maceo no.121), a quaint national peso café.
In the evening, head to El Poeta (Maceo no.159 esq. Ciro Frias), a restaurant located just a stone's throw from Parque Independencia. This is the place to indulge in the region's coconut bounty - at its best in their homemade ice cream served in a cacao pod. After dinner, catch the live music at Casa de la Trova. Set on a corner of the main square, this small but lively venue is the best place to enjoy authentic trova - the legendary sound of 19th-century Cuban troubadour musicians. Performances are daily (5-7PM and 9-11.30PM) and cost $1CUC; come to the later show when the chairs are pushed back as writhing dancers gradually fill the room and spill outside.
The true draw of Baracoa, however, is the surrounding landscape. Infotur, Ecotur and Cubatur, all of which are based in the town centre, offer a range of day trips. Start with a climb up El Yunque, Baracoa's iconic mountain ($17CUC). Even in a region of soaring mountains, this 575m slab - a remnant of vast primordial plateau - has a singular presence. The trek up the forested slopes takes you to the summit, where you can survey the land: the rivers running out to the ocean, the rolling mountains, and little Baracoa nestled on the coast. Having seen it all from above, delve deeper with a day exploring the Parque Nacional Alejandro Humboldt ($24CUC). This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its biodiversity: it's home to the smallest bird, frog, bat and male scorpion in the world. Here narrow paths weave through the mountainous jungle. Reach a viewpoint and the scenery is breathtaking: beneath a searing blue sky a wrinkle of mountains undulates out to the ocean, coated in a dense blanket of palm and coconut trees that sway in the breeze. Trekking further, falcons and hawks cast intermittent shadows across your path and as your eyes scan the greenery there are flashes of brightness - the iridescent flicker of a hummingbird, the spec of a tiny acidic green lizard. After so much walking, a dip in a waterfall is a fitting reward. Hidden from view, follow the low rumble of water as you wade through a shallow stream before reaching a deep icy pool fed by a rushing cascade.
For a less strenuous day out, head to the Yumurí river valley ($25CUC). Start off at the local fishing village, where the turquoise river bleeds into a deep blue ocean, and take a rowing boat through the steep-sided valley. From a stony peninsula in the middle of the river, you can spend a few hours swimming in the cool, clear waters. Another relaxing day trip is the charmingly untamed Playa Maguana ($5CUC). A short drive from Baracoa, a bumpy track leads to the beach where a tangle of undergrowth tumbles down to the fine bleached sand, and a handful of shacks serve fresh seafood to a clutch of visitors and locals.
As Cuba swells with wave upon wave of visitors, Baracoa remains unlike anywhere else on the island. Protected by its arm of soaring mountains and its historic isolation, Baracoa has retained its elusive, untouched nature. Come now and you'll have it much to yourself. Swim in its waterfalls, discover its secluded beaches, and stand surrounded by mountains listening to the rustle of the palms.