World travellers have descended upon Cuba in recent years tempted by her palm-fringed turquoise beaches, the flavour of a good dark rum and the sound of joyfully rhythmic afro-cuban music. Nostalgia-inducing vistas of her pastel toned architecture and old American cars, rumbling slow down cobbled streetscapes are some of the images we all associate with Cuba. But it’s not all classic Chevies and cigars. Here Dan Wheatley gives the garden traveller something to get excited about.
Cubans are great gardeners. The evidence is everywhere, from the planter-boxes decorating the modest inner city apartment balconies of downtown Havana, to the lush tropical home gardens in small rural communities like Soroa and Viñales. Cuba has a long history in cultivation, production and horticultural know-how. So it stands to reason that in Cuba, where excellent growing conditions couple with ingenuity and expertise, it’s not hard to find great gardens. Here are three of my favourites near Havana.
The quintessential scene from Havana, Cuba. We’re all familiar with it. But it’s not the only thing Havana has to offer. Photo – Linda Ross
1. Jardin Botanico Nacional de Cuba
The first thing you notice about the National Botanic Garden of Cuba is just how vast it is; over 600ha! It’s not only the principal Cuban facility for botanical research, but an arboretum, orchidarium, giant succulent terrarium and public park. The extensive collection of Cuban native trees, including the ubiquitous royal palm (Roystonea regia), are complemented by groves of Asian, African and Australian trees. There are also display gardens including the Japanese garden and the impressive, and enormous, Greenhouse.
The succulent garden within the National Botanic Gardens greenhouse. Photo – Linda Ross
One of Fidel’s greatest legacies, the garden was part of his vision of a botanic garden in every Cuban province. Though the land was earmarked for National Botanic Garden in 1968 it took over a decade to complete and was not opened until 1984. Good things do take time, and this project was well worth the wait. It’s now the third largest botanical garden in the world and the principal institute for botanical science in Cuba.
The National Botanic Garden is a favourite venue for bird watchers and (incredibly) hunters, who can shoot pheasants in designated parts of the garden by permit only; the latter, i can only imagine, is one of the things the locals refer to when they tell tourists to enjoy Cuba, but don’t try and make sense of it.
The west-indian woodpecker is one of the many birds nesting in the extensive arboretum.
2. Las Terrazas
Nestled high in the Sierra Del Rosario mountains is the small eco-village community or Las Terrazas. Designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984 the community was built as part of Fidel’s ‘green revolution’ in 1968.
Las Terrazas houses overlooking on of the community irrigation dams
Las Terrazas was part of Castro’s vision to improve the lives of Cuban families living in poverty and isolated in the mountains. His plan was to relocate these families and form teams called ‘Work Brigades’ under the direction of architect, Osmany Cienfuegos. The aim: to create an eco-utopia, repairing land degraded by years of logging and factory-farming, building a self-sufficient and sustainable community.
Relaxing by the lake, Las Terrazas village
Las Terrazas is built on the site of an old cafetales (coffee plantation). The ruins of old plantation buildings are still standing amidst a forest of six-million cedar, mahogany and hibiscus trees planted by the work brigades 57 years ago. There’s an orchard of tropical fruit trees and a stunning artificial lake on the San Juan River fringed by the community.
Artisans soon moved in including the late Cuban musician, Polo Montanes. Las Terrazas is still home to some of Cuba’s most internationally famous artists, like Lester Campa, who’s lakeside studio is open to the public. If you’re lucky he may be in residence to autograph a print for you.
Las Terrazas gets its name from Osmany Cienfuegos’ flat terraces system designed to mitigate soil degradation caused by intense tropical rains. You can stroll through the village at your leisure along some of these terraces, admire the well-maintained ornamental tropical gardens of the villagers and get a sense of what an extraordinary feat of engineering and perseverance Las Terrazas is.
Although only an hour south-west of Havana, Las Terrazas doesn’t need to be a day trip. Hotel Moka, the village’s only hotel opened in 1994, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent decline of Cuba’s economy. Available accommodation has turned Las Terrazas into a burgeoning tourism hot spot. Nestled in the treetops and surrounded by tropical foliage Moka is the perfect base from which to hire a guide and explore some of the 170km of hiking trails through the surrounding mountains. Or join the backpackers zipping along the aerial flying-fox strung throughout the village’s tree top canopy.
3. Orquideario Soroa
Just a little further west from Las Terazzas, and about an hour and a half from Havana is the former home and garden of Spanish lawyer, Tomás Felipe Camacho, who built an awe-inspiring garden on a severely steep rainforest hillside as a memorial to his wife and daughter. Camacho amassed a collection of over 700 orchid species from all over the world, the largest in Cuba.
View from the top. From the rockery these stairs lead to a huge grove of stunning flowering ginger. Photo – Linda Ross
The Orchidario lives on today, 50 years after the death of its creator thanks to the University of Pinar del Río, and the patronage of interested orchid lovers within Cuba and all over the world.
One of the many shell ginger thriving on the lower lawn of the Orchidario garden. Photo – Linda Ross
And it’s not just orchids on display here. The sheer volcanic rock cliffs that tower over the road leading through the garden to the top of the hill are scaled by long tendrils of giant philodendron, and the enormous century old trees above smothered in bird nest fern and tillandsia. Flowering ginger thrive in the fertile soil, bromeliads fill purpose-built pockets in retaining walls and ficus give the stonework the look of an ancient temple.
Linda under one of the enormous tilandsia-covered trees at the Orchidario Soroa. Photo – Dan Wheatley
Linda and Dan will be returning to these gardens for Ross Tours once more from October 23 2017, on the Mexico & Cuba tour, which includes the Dia de Muertos parade in San Miguel de Allende on November 1. Join the fun and come along by registering at Ross Tours enquiries or calling Ros or Royce on 1300 233 200
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