By Louise Clarke
In June, 2016 I seized a last minute opportunity to join an escorted tour to Havana and western Cuba with other horticulturally-inclined travelers. This trip had been arranged by Holbrook Travel , Gainesville, Florida to highlight historic Havana, its horticulture, and botanic gardens. With President Obama’s earlier visit in March, and the prospect of normalizing relations, now seemed an opportune time to go before the fabric of Cuban society changes with an influx of American cash and culture.
Departing Miami on a sultry Sunday morning, my plane touched down at José Martí International Airport, southwest of Havana in less than 60 minutes. I soon discovered that my flight was a trip back in time to the 1950’s. The first indication of this was my descent down the rickety aircraft stairway to reach the shimmering tarmac. No motorized jet ways here.
The walk from the plane to the terminal was only slightly less than the length of a football field. After clearing Customs in the International Arrivals Hall, I waited for my luggage. It seemed an eternity before my bags appeared. The reason for the delay could easily be seen out the window as passengers watched enormous piles of teetering cargo stacked onto carts which the baggage handlers pushed to the terminal. The variety of items scrolling past me on the baggage carousel included truck tires, baby strollers, flat screen TVs, bicycles, electronic equipment, all things unavailable in Cuba. With luggage finally in tow, I exited the terminal to spy a ’56 Ford Fairlane ragtop, the first of many old American cars I’d see.
An air-conditioned, modern time-traveling bus whisked me and my fellow travelers into Havana, on traffic-less streets, passing scenes unlike any I’d seen before. Crumbling buildings, dingy Soviet-era concrete high rise apartment blocks, brightly painted single story houses, and political billboards sporting images of Fidel or Che Guevara. In the streets I saw people on every imaginable transport. Bicycles, tricycles, motorcycles, mopeds, vintage American and European cars, ox carts, and mules all shared the roads.
Our walking tour of historic Havana was a picturesque introduction to the city’s varied architecture with Spanish, Moorish, Greek, Roman, and Cuban Baroque buildings shouldered next to each other. Some of them were restored to their original elegance, while others showed signs of age and neglect, like a beautiful woman past her youthful prime. Tourists mixed with friendly locals in the streets and squares, while the humid air was alive with pulsing Latin music, laughter, birdsong, pleasant but unfamiliar aromas, and a warm aura of romance. It wasn’t long before I sampled my first Mojito at a seaside cafe where street musicians serenaded diners, working for tips.
Along the Malecón, Havana’s famous seaside boulevard and esplanade, more crumbling, formerly grand architecture overlooked the sparkling turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. All of these buildings were occupied. Glimpses into them, through doors opened to welcome any breeze, revealed sparse furnishings and dim lighting. The Riviera Hotel, 1957 casino resort of mobster Meyer Lansky, stood tall overlooking the western Malecón. A stroll through its lobby revealed its dated but well maintained late 1950’s decor. Soft piano music greeted me as I walked past the famous Copa Room Cabaret toward the reception desk and lobby.
Within ten miles of Havana sits Jardin Botanico Nacional de Cuba, Cuba’s national botanic garden. Our group was warmly welcomed by the garden’s director, Nora Hernandez Monterrey. First we attended an introductory talk. Then we walked the open air glass houses, roofed by rusting angular frames, to see plants grouped by climate and region. By bus we toured the garden’s 1,500 acres, which showcased palms and other geographically arranged collections.
Cuba doesn’t have an ornamental horticulture industry. People garden to supplement their monthly government stipends. Only useful plants like taro, mango, cassava, and papaya are grown. The Alamar organic farm I visited was a model of sustainable agriculture. When Cuba entered the “Special Period.” the time after the Soviet Union withdrew its financial support, Cubans had no choice but to recycle and be resourceful. Seedlings are grown in plastic bags or trimmed beer cans. Fertilizers are composted plants and animal dung. Vermiculture is also practiced to provide worm castings for soil improvement. Oxen teamed in wooden yokes plowed the fields as tractors sat rusting, useless without fuel or repair parts. Of necessity Cubans take recycling and repurposing to an extreme level.
Viñales was the highlight of my trip. This national park is one hundred miles west-southwest of Havana in neighboring Pinar del Rio province. A UNESCO world heritage site, Viñales is home to fertile red soils, lush tropical greenery, the world’s best tobacco growing region, and prehistoric-looking mogotes, lumpy limestone formations that dot the valley floor like slumbering giants. During a tobacco farm tour we trod through growing fields and entered a traditional palm-thatched drying barn. The farmer demonstrated cigar rolling at his humble kitchen table, and offered cigars for sampling and sale. Not a smoker, I nevertheless purchased ten cigars wrapped in cut sections of palm leaf petioles, neatly tied with palm fiber string.
Our group was fortunate to have Lucia Hechavaria Schwesinger, a botanist from the Cuban national herbarium, accompany us. While in Viñales she offered to lead a mogote climb to see endemic plants. With Lucia as our guide, two of us taxied to Mural de la Prehistorica Park, an attraction with a decorated flat-faced mogote. Upon entry we saw a garishly painted mural with snails, dinosaurs, and sea monsters. Lucia explained that there was a climbing trail and staircase to the top with expansive views of the valley. She added that we’d also see Gaussia princeps, the endemic palm that grows only in that region.
As we started our adventure that humid afternoon, we encountered two young Germans
who advised us to turn back. Lucia pressed on until we came to the place where a stairway had formerly stood. Posted signs saying ‘Peligro’ pointed to a steep pock-marked limestone cliff face rising sharply about 20 feet high before us. Undaunted, Lucia climbed, finding handholds in the limestone, exhorting us to follow. Turning to my climbing partner, I asked “Are we going to do this?” We joked about the possibility of visiting a Cuban hospital, something our travel host had told us was ill advised. She nodded, so up we went, cautiously moving our feet from foothold to foothold.
At the plateau, drenched with perspiration, we surveyed our location and saw yet another steep incline. Lucia led us upwards again to the next level. We’d climbed high enough to see Gaussia and other endemics. Selaginellas, cacti, aloes, and orchids surrounded us, as small lizards darted from our shadows. We stayed long enough to take photos, mop our brows, and rehydrate before beginning our descent. With muscles beginning to ache from the ascent, the prospect of the return was even more daunting. Due to the sheer rock face, we backed down, feeling for footholds we couldn’t see. After a harrowing but safe descent, we met our taxi. Upon returning to the hotel, our travel host visibly blanched when told of our adventure.
In Viñales we also saw a bit of garden whimsy in the form of a six foot tall Tyrannosaurus rex surrounded by scheffleras, hibiscus, dracaenas, and mango trees. Nearby, a column stenciled with the iconic Che Guevara portrait was topped by a mini dinosaur. The occasional vintage garden gnome, plastic Santa Claus, and in one garden, plastic doll heads impaled on sticks added some quirky decorator touches.
My memories of Cuba are rich with images of a warm, friendly, and resourceful people, pristine natural beauty, lush tropical foliage, and the slower pace of island life, sans Internet. Time seems stalled in the 1950’s in Havana, and even earlier in the countryside. With the lack of infrastructure, I don’t foresee Cuba dramatically changing any time soon, so you’ll have plenty of time to experience it as I did. Being little more than 100 miles from U.S. soil, that short flight to Cuba will transport you to a different world altogether.
Meet the Author
Region II Director Louise Clarke is employed by The Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. Besides tending a sustainable landscape which includes rain gardens and green roofs, she leads workshops, lectures, creates social media content, and writes for Seasons, the Arboretum’s periodical, and Washington Gardener Magazine. After hours she tends Halcyon, her personal garden, home to a tiki hut surrounded by lush plantings reminiscent of a Rousseau painting.