A goggle-eyed owl hovered under an arch leading to the boneyard. I tip-toed past the creature and into the cold-earth cave. Moments before, I’d been warming my limbs in the morning sun surrounded by perky coconut palms, listening to the shush of waves on the warm Atlantic in eastern Cuba. But I’d been lured away from my sunshine balm, and promised a glimpse into a sunless world where tales of treachery and cold-blooded murder lurked.
Centuries of isolation enveloped this Atlantic-facing huddle of homes with a magical aura and its locals with a knack for peddling thrilling legends and tales.
Baracoa, in Cuba’s jungly east, is no stranger to the dark. It was cast adrift by human indifference until 1965, when a road was pushed through rugged mountains linking the locals to the mainland. Until then, pirates, New-World seekers and banana moguls had heaved in on the waves into Baracoa’s small Porto Santo. Centuries of isolation enveloped this Atlantic-facing huddle of homes with a magical aura and its locals with a knack for peddling thrilling legends and tales.
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So on a warm spring morning, I swapped a day on a soft-sandy beach for sleuthing about the high-rise caves of Baracoa in search of skullduggery and ancient lore. I’d left Baracoa by bike, crossed fields of streams and cattle, pushed my bike up a too-steep hill and then boarded a boat with my wheeled steed. A five-year-old boy and his father rowed me across to a tiny fishing village, Boca de Boma, a bowl-shaped punch of a river mouth on the fretted coastline of prickly limestone and palms. Our boat docked amid floating coconut husk and sturdy mangrove, and the sight of glistening octopus on sale to incomers by the fisherfolk.
Many history books say Taínos were wiped out by disease and massacre by the Spanish, who sailed to Cuba in 1492, first founding Baracoa in 1511. But in the faces of people in the mountains, you can see their Taíno ancestry.
Up and away from the shore I wibble-wobbled along a ridge riddled with limestone rocks stopping to take in views of the indigo sea lashed against a wild, palm-strewn coast. Waiting for me at the home of a farmer was trailblazing local archaeologist Roberto Ordúñez. Leading a clamber up near-vertical chiseled steps in limestone rock, woven with a millennia of tough twisted vines, Ordúñez brought me to the ghostly galleries of the Yara-Majayara limestone terracing, and our destination, La Vigía Cave.
The owl watched us as we walked its way. Its wide-eyed stare had been nosying the incoming traffic for several centuries. But, at just a couple of carved centimeters high on a rock face, he was a motionless bird. Or so I thought.
“Owls were an incarnation of dead souls in the world of darkness for the Taíno,” Ordúñez whispered, referring to the indigenous people who lived in eastern Cuba prior to Columbus’ 15th-century New World-hunting voyage.
I gulped. We tunneled through and up to a shaded clearing in the rocks swerving bat shit as we went. It was all very Indiana Jones. In a shallow grave, his back to us, a model corpse with thick black hair crouched in the fetal position. A bracelet of shells fell about his ankle, and a nearby ceramic trough of discarded snail shells lay amid a scattering of animal bone.
“Owls were an incarnation of dead souls in the world of darkness for the Taíno [people]”Roberto Ordúñez, local archaelogist
“I dreamed we’d find bodies here,” Ordúñez announced “and we did find a skeleton here almost 20 years ago.”
Ordúñez and fellow archaeologists have been digging about the caves and grottoes of Baracoa for more than 40 years and they soon realized this burial site might be a headline-making find.
They were convinced the skeleton belonged to ferocious Cuban Taíno leader, Guamá. Guamá founded a rebel army to trounce the conquering Spaniards in the 1500s. In 1532 Guamá upped his game. Enraged, Cuba’s Spanish ruler sent a force of men to Baracoa to hunt him down. It’s here the story convolutes, conflates even, mixing history with hearsay.
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Some say Guamá was captured by Spanish forces and killed. Others, that when imperial soldiers arrived at Guamá’s settlement, he’d vanished. Some of the seven locals captured at the time testified that Guamá was a bloodthirsty leader who lured his own men to their death one by one; that Guamá had even killed his own brother, Olguamá, with an axe blow to his head while he slept. The more popular tale plays the drama in reverse: that Olguamá slew Guamá with an axe crack to the head after Guamá had killed a man so he could seize the man’s wife for himself.
They were convinced the skeleton belonged to ferocious Cuban Taíno leader, Guamá [who] founded a rebel army to trounce the conquering Spaniards in the 1500s.
While the Cuban whodunnit had got me thinking, I learnt experts had used all tools known to science at the cave. The skeleton was unearthed with a ceremonial petaloid axe, so named for the petal shape of the stone, and a vessel that could well have been used for a ritual. But, crucially, its cranium was cracked — in keeping with the account that the victim died by a forceful blow to the head. Experts confirmed this cause of death, and revealed, too, that the body’s sternum had been pierced after death.
“So his soul could escape,” Ordúñez explained.
Carbon dating eventually pitched the remains to around 1200 AD, predating Guamá by some 300 years.
As I think about ancient restless spirits, I notice a grapefruit-sized gourd next to the model’s head. It’s the same type of gourd I’d used to drink a local broth, chorote, made from cocoa, coconut milk, honey, cinnamon, and banana flour.
“Many people think the Taíno disappeared from Cuba but we’ve rediscovered them,” Ordúñez says.
Locals still drink this cocoa mix, a culinary link to the region’s past. Many history books say Taínos were wiped out by disease and massacre by the Spanish, who sailed to Cuba in 1492, first founding Baracoa in 1511. But in the faces of people in the mountains, you can see their Taíno ancestry. Many villagers in these parts cook with casabe (yucca flour), a staple of Taíno diet, and park wooden canoes, cayucos, under thatched shelters as their ancestors once did.
Ordúñez’ mission is to revive interest in Cuba’s Taíno legacy. Opening up historic sites, such as La Vigía Cave, is part of that.
Passing the sentry owl petroglyph on our way out, I noticed the bird sat above a circular symbol — like a monochrome lollipop emoji. It was the Taíno symbol for water. I thanked the owl for reminding me I’d earned time for a splash on the beach.