The Adventure Begins – Travels to Cuba

March 13th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director

It has been less than a week since we left Cuba and has started to seem like a dream.  This is probably in part because most of us came down with a hellish cold the day we left and have spent these few days back in a feverish and dazed condition. But it is also because the experience of immersing ourselves in a world so different from our daily lives has made the transition back more intense than after some trips.

As I expected, the internet access in Havana was spotty and in the other parts of the country we visited, non-existent. I will post a few blog entries over the next week or so that reflects our travels.


The beautiful Palacio de San Felipe, our home in Havana on the Plaza San Francisco de Asis. Some of our group is loitering outside.

We met up in the wee hours (5:30 am) on Feb. 23 to get to the Miami airport and complete all the paperwork to get our visas for Cuba. After spending time standing in this line, and then that, we were on the flight to Cuba! The plane had hardly gone up before it came down, underscoring how close Cuba is to southern Florida. We straggled out of the baggage claim to meet Frank Alpizar, who would be our able guide for the next 10 days. We checked into the beautiful Palacio de San Felipe, a former mansion that has been remodeled into an excellent hotel. The location was fabulous, right on the San Francisco de Asis Square in old Havana. After our first meal of many to consist of white rice, black beans, and our choice of chicken, fish, or pork (pretty much every lunch and dinner followed this formula), we had the afternoon free to explore the old town.


A view into a courtyard in old Havana. Photo by Steve Westcott

Old Havana is beautiful and sad all at once. It is filled with ornate colonial buildings in various conditions. Some, like our hotel, were beautifully restored. Others are in such disrepair that is hard to believe that people live in them, but in most cases they are indeed lived in. Many of the buildings use the typical Spanish concept of an interior courtyard, and peeking in the open doors of some showed a nice space in a few, and crowded and, well, squalid conditions in others. The many plazas in the area were filled with kids playing games, indicating that families lived in these homes.

The unusual living conditions in Havana were displayed in the most bizarre and almost hallucinatory terms when we visited the private restaurant, La Guarida, for dinner one night. We drove in the bus to a neighborhood of decaying, but formerly glorious, buildings. The restaurant is on the fourth floor of a beautiful old mansion that was the location of the Oscar-nominated movie “Strawberry and Chocolate.” We hiked over marble floors and up stairs lined with wrought iron railings, and had a wonderful dinner. Afterwards, we descended down a different set of stairs and found ourselves in what seemed to be a former ballroom.

Lisa and Nevada dance in the old balllroom downstairs from La Guarida, with an audience of not only our group, but small children who live off of the room.

Lisa and Nevada began waltzing and I attempted to take a few photos. As I did this, I realized that there were a couple of toddlers watching us through an open door of a small room opening onto the ballroom that was the home of their family. As we left the building, I realized that other families also were living in small areas carved out of this once grand estate now visited by tourists rich enough to afford a meal they could never aspire to. It felt surreal.

Our time in Havana was busy. We visited the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture where we heard a presentation on their programs and had a brief tour. They have been around for 108 years but it seemed clear that they lack the resources to as effective as they could be in providing assistance to Cuban farmers. They seem to have a strong program in plant pathology, but their labs need much upgrading.


This is a typical scene – with one building at least partially restored, but the adjoining building uninhabitable. The old car is also typical – more about that later.

One of the standouts of our trip to Havana was the visit with Miquel Salcines, a Cuban agronomist who started Alamar Organoponic Gardens during the “Special Period.”  These thriving gardens were an inspiration in urban agriculture. Mr. Salcines provided some interesting background, including that before the Special Period 80% of the food was grown in non-urban areas, with large inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and now 80% is grown organically in urban areas. They went organic, in part, because no other means were available to them and they had to go back to the “old way” of doing things. These food cooperatives provide good working conditions and workers have access to food, loans, education, and payments for shares that accumulate over the time with the cooperatives. The Seattle area is striving for greater food security and there are many lessons to be learned in Havana.


Miquel Salcines talks about the practices of the Alamar Organoponic Gardens.

Many of us chose to go see the Buena Vista Social Club on our final night on this first part of the trip. I saw the famous Oscar-winning documentary not that long ago and recognized some of the performers from the film, though many of them are now deceased. It was a fun show and a good way to end the first phase of the trip.  The next day we set off to explore some of the countryside. Stay tuned for more on that.


The farm is managed using traditional practices. The fields are plowed using oxen.

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