We headed out of Havana early on a Sunday morning. This was really our first look at the countryside, and at the transportation system. The stories about huge numbers of old American cars from the 1950s? All true! Under Cuban law, cars registered after the 1959 revolution could not be bought or sold, though that is changing. The result is that those who had a car hung onto it and tried to keep it running, passing it down as an inheritance. Many of the cars we saw are Frankencars, with parts from various cars slapped together. Some were well-tended, others looked like they were held together with rust, and it was not uncommon to see one of them along the roadside with the hood up. I was on the lookout for a ’56 Mercury Monterey, like my grandmother’s old car that I drove in high school. Chevys seem to be the most common but I did see Mercurys, as well as just about any other model you can imagine.
Only about 1% of Cuban people own cars, so other forms of transportation are common too. We saw lots of bicycles, including pedicabs. There were lots of horses with buggies too, especially as we got outside the city. We saw some recognizable buses, packed with people, but in the rural provinces, it is common to see people standing, jammed into the back of an open-air truck. In the countryside we also saw an interesting sight – most vehicles are owned by the state and at key intersections in the small towns we passed we observed an official dressed all in yellow stopping cars and trucks. Our guide, Frank, explained that all state vehicles had to give rides to citizens going in the same direction, so the man in yellow was coordinating ride-sharing.
Our first stop that Sunday was at the National Botanical Garden. The director, Dr. Angela Leiva Sanchez, gave us a lecture on the plants and vegetation zones of Cuba that was very helpful in our interpreting what we saw on our later hikes. One of her staff then joined us on the bus as we toured the Garden. It is HUGE – about 600 hectares (1480 acres) so we only saw a small bit of it in our tour. Probably the most impressive part was the palm collection. They have over 200 species in their collection, making it one of the largest in the world. They also have a really lovely greenhouse area. Following our tour we went to their open air restaurant and had a wonderful buffet lunch – one of the best meals we had in Cuba! Many of our meals were short on fresh fruits and vegetables and this lunch had various salads and a large fruit plate.
Our day was just beginning though – from the Garden we traveled west to see the community of Las Terrazas located in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range in the Pinar del Rio province. French coffee farmers arrived early in the 19th century and there were more than 50 plantations in the area. These plantations were later abandoned and erosion became a problem. Beginning in 1968, the hillsides were terraced (Las Terrazas means terraces) and reforested with 8 million trees. In 1985 the area was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. Such Reserves allow some development within and Las Terrazas is designed as a sustainable community and ecotourism center. We visited a restored coffee plantation and then went to the small community, where we visited the homes of two local artists. The homes were small, but very nice and the community seemed vibrant, with children and chickens roaming around. We visited their small coffee bar where we were treated to excellent espresso drinks. The community seemed very peaceful – they take great pride in retaining the natural, social, and cultural heritage of the area.
Leaving Las Terrazas, we traveled to our hotel near Soroa, a sprawling set of buildings on hillsides. In the center was a very large pool, which became of focus on interest on the next couple of toasty afternoons. The hotel is right next to an orchid garden that is now run as a research center by the University of Pinar del Rio. The garden was originally built by a wealthy man, starting in 1948, who then gave it to the University. It is a set on a steep hillside, like my own garden, so I was really interested in how it was terraced to provide planting areas. Most of the building material appeared to be native limestone. There were more than 700 species of orchids, begonias, and other types of flowering plants. Our guide took us up the hill to the house, where we sat on the terrace, listened to musicians, and had refreshments, including fresh coconut water.
We also enjoyed a short hike while in Soroa, but the best hike of the trip was on the next leg of our journey, which we visited the “ecologically protected” area of Mil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks). More about that coming up!