A Garden Tour of Cuba
By Janine Anderson
Part 1: Havana
Just when the 45-minute flight from Miami to Havana reaches cruising altitude above the Gulf of Mexico, the plane begins its descent. The flight is short, but the journey to get there can be long. In February 2012, my husband Terry LeLievre and I traveled to Cuba as part of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens (UWBG) Cuba Garden Tour. None of the 23 people on the trip, including our leader, Sarah Reichard, UWBG Director, had previously set foot on Cuban soil.
Sarah Reichard planned the trip with the assistance of Holbrook Travel of Florida. Travel restrictions to Cuba have eased some under the Obama administration, but the permit process is still daunting. Our trip was arranged under the People-to-People program, an initiative that allows United States citizens to travel to Cuba on a limited basis to have meaningful exchanges with the Cuban people and to learn more about them and their culture (and vice-versa). Permission to travel to Cuba comes from the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces sanctions on Cuba. To get a permit, the schedule must be rigorous—beach time is not on the itinerary. To paraphrase our Cuban guide: “There are ten world-class beaches in Cuba, and YOU will see none of them!” What our group found, however, was that what we were able to do during our 10 days in Cuba more than compensated for fine white sand and aquamarine seas.
Though billed as a garden tour, the UWBG trip encompassed far more than gardens. Landscapes, both natural and altered, played large roles, as did culture, architecture, food, and wildlife (Cuba boasts more than 350 species of birds, 21 of which are found nowhere else). This article describes the five days we spent in Havana, including our base in the old city and excursions we took from there. The three areas we visited during our remaining five days are covered in the second part of this article. While in Cuba, we were both students and tourists—and we hope, ambassadors as well.
Arriving in Cuba
Our first contact with Cuban ground was on the tarmac of the José Martí International Airport on the outskirts of Havana, a one-story structure built exclusively for travelers to and from the United States. Most of our fellow travelers were there to visit family and to deliver items most Cubans are unable to obtain for themselves, ranging from bars of Dial Soap to flat-screen TVs. These items had been bundled and shrink-wrapped at the airport in Miami, thus increasing the likelihood they would arrive intact at the baggage carousel in Havana.
Statues, busts, and plaques honoring José Martí were seen frequently during our travels. Martí, a Cuban national hero and an important figure in Latin American literature, died in a battle against Spanish troops in 1895 at the age of 42 and became a symbol of Cuba’s bid for independence from Spain. A more contemporary revolutionary whose visage appears on everything from billboards to T-shirts is Che Guevara, a handsome, romanticized hero who was assassinated in Bolivia in 1967 at the age of 39. In contrast, images of long-time president and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his brother, current president Raúl Castro, are relatively rare.
After clearing customs and retrieving our luggage, we met our guide and bus driver, employees of the Cuban government who were with us throughout our stay. Frank Alpizar, our 28-year-old guide, was facile in English, in addition to being kind, considerate, and fun. Frank knew everything about Cuba and much about us. Miguel, our young driver, was careful, cautious, patient, somewhat reserved (at least around us), and less fluent in English. Our Chinese-built bus was spacious, enabling us to spread out during some long travel days.
Old Havana (La Habana Vieja)
Frank pointed out landmarks and other features between the airport and our hotel in Old Havana. Having arrived in Oz, our heads swiveled right, then left. The notable scarcity of industrial sites gave us some appreciation of the deprivation Cubans have suffered for over five decades.
Our hotel in Old Havana, Palacio de San Felipe (or rather, Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal), was fit for royalty, and indeed, it was a former palace—as were many of the renovated buildings in the old city. Though it dated back to the late 1700s, the rooms were new and had modern amenities. The hotel was located on the cobblestoned Plaza de San Francisco (St. Francis Square), just a short walk from many of the old city’s attractions, including Havana Harbor, the busiest port in Cuba (excluding the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba’s southeast coast).
The square’s most prominent structure is it eponymous church, Convento de San Franciso de Asis, which opened in 1719, was reconstructed in the baroque style in 1730 with a 131-foot bell tower, then languished for a few centuries before being restored and reopened in 1994.
After our welcome mohito, a refreshing rum-based drink, our first activity was lunch. It was in the sun-dappled courtyard of the government-run restaurant La Mina that we first realized we should have brought more money. We had been told that $2 a day would be sufficient to tip waiters and musicians. It turned out, however, that budgeting $5 a day for tipping would have been more comfortable—$1 at each of our three meals and $1 for each band—the one at lunch and the one at dinner.
Pesos were also needed for a variety of other services, such as bathroom and luggage attendants and for taking photos of colorfully attired locals who supplemented their incomes by posing for tourist photos. Beyond that, none of knew before we arrived that we were obliged to tip our hosts, including experts in various fields, for sharing their expertise, even though the host institutions had been compensated for our visits. Regardless of their profession, all Cubans earn about $25 a month, and tips and gifts from foreigners are ways to supplement their meager salaries, which go farther in Cuba than they would in the United States, but still do not last an entire month.
After lunch at La Mina, Frank led us to a bank where we could exchange money. Most of us brought Canadian currency because of the 10% surcharge levied on American dollars (owing to the American trade embargo, credit and ATM cards from American banks cannot be used in Cuba). We stood in line outside the bank and were allowed in one at a time, after someone else exited. Our dollars were exchanged for Cuban convertible pesos (called CUCs and pronounced “kooks”), which are unavailable to most Cubans. We used CUCs to shop and eat. Most Cubans would be unable to shop and eat where we did as the national Cuban pesos at their disposal are not accepted there; in addition, purchases considered modest by foreign visitors are luxuries beyond the reach of most Cubans.
Highlights in Havana
While based in Havana, we were free to explore some on our own, and I think all of us were captivated by the narrow cobbled streets of the old city, its colonial architecture and wide open plazas, and the people whose lives are lived there.
A formal introduction to the area was provided by Alina Ochoa, an architect who has been instrumental in some of the restoration projects in the area. Ms. Ochoa led us through the streets of the old city and enlightened us on the significance of various historical buildings and landmarks. Most buildings in the Old Havana were constructed from 1700 to 1900, but some are even older, dating back to the earliest European settlements in the 1500s. In the conference room of our hotel, Dr. Ramona Oviedo, a botanist, told us about Cuba’s various ecosystems and invasive plant species.
Many of us welcomed the opportunity to attend a performance at the Buena Vista Social Club, just a few-minute walk from our hotel. Although its legendary musicians are no longer around, it was easy to imagine what the scene must have been like in its heyday. We visited a nearby elementary school, met its principal, and observed lively schoolchildren engaged in classroom activities. We also stopped at a large food market rather like the Pike Place Market, just a little grittier and more colorful—and where we were advised to secure our wallets and cameras. In addition to an elaborate array of produce, meat, and flowers, the market was also where Cubans obtain their monthly rations of a few basic items such as black beans, rice, cooking oil, eggs, and soap. We heard many complaints from Cubans about the quality of their soap, and soap is one of the items recommended to tourists to bring as extra gifts for hotel maids and other service employees who do not have access to these goods.
In Santiago de Las Vegas, a town of about 22,000 south of Havana, we visited the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture. Located in a stately colonial-era building, a presentation by the staff on their research projects was followed by tea and a tour of the lovely grounds.
A highlight while based in Havana was an excursion to the Alamar Organoponico Gardens, one of Havana’s most successful urban gardens and about a half-hour bus ride from our hotel. The 27-acre food garden has 160 cooperative owners and is run by a charismatic agronomist, Miguel Salcines, who was our guide while touring the farm. The more than 200 organic farms in Havana, which cover over 80,000 acres, were borne of necessity. The Cuban economy collapsed in the early 1990s after support from the Soviet Union ended, and the farms that emerged to feed its citizens resorted to more primitive agricultural models, which are more sustainable than Western industrialized practices and are now considered progressive.
When people think of Cuba they often mention old cars, and there are many American-made cars dating from the 1950s, as well as some newer—but far less glamorous and more cheaply made—Russian and Chinese models. The old cars are passed on from generation to generation, and they are kept running through ingenuity, determination, and probably some desperation, as most Cubans could not afford (or locate) a new car if the old one died.
The cars are often used for taxi service—who wouldn’t want to tour Havana in one of the vintage models? Although the spiffed-up old cars generate nostalgia for another era, Cubans would prefer to have access to (and the resources to purchase) the more fuel-efficient and lower-maintenance versions available (and affordable) elsewhere.
Breakfasts in Havana were ordered off the menu in the elegant ground-floor atrium of our hotel. The system needed some fine-tuning, as the wait staff was unable to accommodate our large group in the time available, so some of us either ate quickly or missed the morning meal altogether.
For lunch and dinner, our group dined at either government-run or private restaurants. Private restaurants (called paladares) are relatively new in Cuba, and they have a reputation for serving tastier fare, largely because private restaurant owners can become rich, whereas those who subsist on government salaries barely scrape by. Of course, even in government-run restaurants, waiters, musicians, bathroom attendants, etc., do garner tips, significantly enhancing their bottom line. It is surprising that Cuban food is so bland, but there is a startling lack of variety, partly because of the impoverished state of the island and partly because of the narrow and unpredictable range of available food items. Food is a necessity, whereas cuisine is a luxury. After being served a mohito, only one choice was available to us: chicken, beef, or fish? The type of fish, its preparation, accompaniments, etc., were not open for discussion.
Our most memorable dining experience in Havana was at La Guarida, a private restaurant (and possibly the most famous one in Havana) that served as the location for the Oscar-nominated Cuban film “Strawberry and Chocolate (“Fresa y Chocolate”). It was the setting more than the food that enthralled—a grand but almost surrealistically dilapidated apartment building where residents and diners mixed while climbing the long, wide, and dingy flights of stairs leading to the top-floor restaurant.
Cuba has a rich musical heritage, and it was in evidence everywhere we went. Lunch and dinner were always accompanied by live music, typically a combination of three to five instrumentalists—such as trumpet, guitar, double bass, and bongos—plus a vocalist. The prevalent musical style performed is called son, a blend of African and European musical elements. Most groups sell homemade CDs for $5 to $10, and more than anything else, listening to the music we heard while in Cuba helps bring back the flavor of the island.
UWBG Return Trip to Cuba in 2013
A trip to Cuba is a rare opportunity. Havana is a special city, combining as it does centuries of stately architecture in a beautiful setting where people still live and work and make music. Any opportunity to visit should be an opportunity considered, and indeed, a second UWBG group will make the trip in 2013.
The rest of the 2012 trip is covered in the second part of this article. After our group left Havana, we spent four days in two incredibly scenic and sparsely populated areas to the west, then traveled southeast to the Zapata Peninsula and the infamous Bay of Pigs, where we were finally able to enjoy a glorious, albeit brief, swim in the Caribbean Sea!
Part 2: Beyond Havana
Leaving Havana, we headed southwest to Soroa, a narrow valley that has become a popular tourist destination.
Our first stop en route was the National Botanical Garden (Jardín Botánico Nacional) on the outskirts of Havana, where we were met by the director and specialists on her staff. After tea and a presentation, we toured nearby garden areas on foot; the remainder of the collection, with 4,000 plant species native to tropical areas of the world, including 162 species of palm and emphasizing flora native to Cuba, was toured by bus. At almost 1500 acres, the garden is more than five times larger than our Washington Park Arboretum. Among its highlights is an architecturally impressive triptych of partially roofed greenhouse structures that showcase artful groupings of cacti and other desert, semi-desert, and tropical rainforest plants. Our visit concluded with lunch at El Ranchón, an open-air restaurant set on picnic-like grounds amid a stand of tall pines.
Closer to Soroa we visited Las Terrazas, an eco-resort village that is part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve established in 1985. Situated in a valley amid low mountains (the Sierra del Rosario range), this reforested area was the former site of over 50 coffee plantations. For a variety of reasons (among them, outdated farming methods, emerging coffee markets in other parts of Latin America, and the abolition of slavery), the plantations declined over a period of years and eventually were abandoned, following which the forests were logged, destabilizing the slopes and causing erosion. The restored area helps protect close to 850 endemic plant species and 98 bird species, including 11 of Cuba’s 24 endemic bird species. The approximately 1000 residents live in white-washed houses with colorful shutters and clay tile roofs. We walked the narrow roads of the terraced village and visited several houses and resident artisans.
Also within the UNESCO reserve are the restored buildings and ruins of the Buena Vista coffee plantation, which was built in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti. The ruins are beautiful yet haunting, evoking as they do the slave labor that made the farmers rich. Among the ruins are stone terraces where coffee beans were laid out to dry, a huge ox-powered grindstone used to extract coffee beans from their husks, and the remains of former slave quarters. The master’s house, with a westward view of the valley beyond, has been restored and now houses a restaurant.
After finding our cabanas at the Horizontes Villa Soroa resort, we were delighted to discover an Olympic-size swimming pool filled with clear aquamarine water. It was a welcome sight to a group of wilted travelers. Besides meals and swims, our two-night stay took us on a walk to nearby waterfalls and on a short steep hike with a naturalist. I believe the highlight for most of us was a morning tour of the nearby Orchid Garden (Orquideario Soroa), covering over seven acres on a slope overlooking the valley and run by a nearby university. The garden’s collection comprises 700 species of orchid, in addition to numerous other native plants and exotic species from around the globe.
Our next destination, Viñales, lay directly west of Soroa, but getting there was not simple. First, a long and winding road took us off the beaten path to Mil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks), an area no one on our bus, including our guide and driver, had ever visited. At the foot of Cuba’s highest mountain, the nearby town of San Juan de Sagua offered an opportunity for a guided plant walk, and the Mil Cumbres field station provided the most memorable lunch of our trip, partly because of the exquisite fare and partly because of a special celebration honoring the 45th wedding anniversary of two of our fellow travelers.
The valley of Viñales is one of the most scenic areas in Cuba, surrounded as it is by landforms known as mogotes, flat-topped hills dating back to the Jurassic period. These reddish limestone formations were sculpted by tectonic uprisings—combined with wind, water, and erosion—and are found in only four countries in the world.
Our hilltop resort overlooked the valley and had wonderful views of the surrounding mogotes. Informal tango lessons were offered in the bar area near the pool, and entertainment was provided by a game group of hotel guests who attempted the moves. On our second evening there, an emboldened handful of us passed on our standard (and paid for) hotel fare and ventured out to a nearby private restaurant (Paladar Wilfredo), where we dined at a farm under a thatched roof with views of crops, livestock, and distant mogotes. Our waiter was warm and welcoming, the food and drink were fine, and we were happy to be in Cuba.
The Viñales valley is one of Cuba’s main tobacco-growing regions, and many families have farmed there for over a 100 years. Our visit to a tobacco farm was informative and entertaining, as our group of nonsmokers passed around a freshly rolled cigar to puff on while posing for pictures.
We had a few afternoon hours to explore the bustling town of Viñales (population, about 10,000) and peruse the shops and activity on either side of the busy, two-lane highway that runs through town. A palm-lined town square had tables of tourist wares (Che Guevara T-shirts, seed-strung necklaces and bracelets), and an adjacent gallery displayed paintings by local artists. Viñales is a small town where people live, work, shop, attend school, etc., and our visit there gave us a brief glimpse of local residents going about their lives.
One fascinating stop in Viñales was the Jardín Botánico de Caridad, named after Caridad, the creator of the garden, who is now deceased. Though billed as a botanical garden, this small gem is rather difficult to define (or understand), as the garden combines such disparate elements as decapitated dolls’ heads and stuffed animals with 189 species of orchids plus many ornamental and medicinal trees and shrubs. The small house, where Caridad lived, is equally eccentric and eclectic, crammed as it is with a lovingly arranged assortment of dolls, doilies, knickknacks, Christmas decorations, and framed photographs, diplomas, and newspaper articles.
Bay of Pigs
Leaving Viñales, a long day of bus travel awaited us. Although tiring, it was also fascinating to watch the passing landscapes and people. Traveling south and then east, our circuitous route took us back into Havana, where we visited a small herbalist store. The herbalist shared with us the many native and other plants used to treat conditions ranging from headaches to skin cancer.
Lunch in Havana was at a restaurant called La Giraldilla. Located on the site of a large restored luxury estate dating back to the early 18th century, the grounds were lovely but appeared abandoned save for our group of spent travelers, who soaked our swollen feet in a large swimming pool while awaiting our meal. As we dined, our driver Miguel maneuvered our bus through the narrow streets of Havana in search of bottled drinking water. We had run out, as had nearby stores, a mini-crisis as tap water in Cuba is unsafe to drink. Eventually, water was found, and we were back on the bus and headed toward the Zapata Peninsula.
The Zapata Peninsula covers about 2400 square miles and extends south into the Caribbean Sea. It is part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that includes the Zapata Swamp National Park, which protects Cuba’s most important wetland areas and is one of its premier birding destinations. Unfortunately, our overnight stay afforded only a glimpse of what the area has to offer. A park naturalist boarded our bus when we entered the park and gave us an overview of the area’s ecological and historical significance, and the next morning we were led on a short flora and fauna hike. The peninsula has more than 900 species of flora and 171 species of birds, in addition to 161 concrete monuments marking the sites where every Cuban soldier fell during the United States-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
The Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs)—named for resident wild pigs—borders the eastern shore of the peninsula. We stayed at a beachfront resort in Playa Larga, a fishing village at the top of the bay. Cuba has a number of destination beaches dotted with oceanfront resorts. The Bay of Pigs is not a destination beach, but as it was the only beach we visited, we took full advantage of it during the one late-afternoon hour available to us to swim in the warm, though somewhat cloudy, Caribbean Sea.
Though our group spent only ten days in Cuba, the experience lingers through stories, music, literature, pictures, shared experiences, and news stories featuring Cuba. Personal contacts with Cubans gave us glimpses into their lives, and we hope they came to know us at least a little bit too. The subtropical paradise has faced many challenges and will continue to change, but travelers keen on flora, fauna, music, architecture, landscape, and culture will find much to appreciate.
Janine Anderson, CPH, is an award-winning landscape designer (www.andersondesign.net), member of the Bulletin Editorial Board, and a long-time Arboretum Guide.