In 2011 I found out that it was possible to get permits from the federal government to take study tours to Cuba. Given my long-standing interest in that country, I was in the first wave to apply for, and receive one of these licenses, leading the first tour in February 2012. That first trip was an amazing experience – we were among the first large wave of American tourists and the Cuban people could not have been happier to have seen us. They have been through such incredibly hard times, such as the “Special Period” but they are resilient. Those famed old cars are wonderful to see roaming the streets, but they were of necessity – money and availability of newer cars was simply not there. Their famed organic agriculture system started during the Special Period when food and fertilizers were unavailable following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They continued to find ways to not only survive, but to find joy in music and family.
And the natural history! The birds there are amazing and so many are only found in Cuba! They include (and we saw all of these on the trips) the Cuban pygmy owl (smallest owl in the world), Cuban bee hummingbird (smallest hummingbird in the world), Cuban trogan (the national bird because it has the same colors as their flag), and my favorite, the Cuban tody. The plants include many endemics, including a very rare cycad, which we will see, and many species of orchids.
And then there is Viñales. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I have been there on sunny days and pouring rain and it never loses its ethereal beauty. The limestone mogotes rise from the valley floor, cloaked in tropical foliage, while the valley grows a variety of crops, including tobacco for the famous Cuban cigars.
I loved it so much that first year, that I took groups back in 2013 and 2014. It has been fascinating to go each year and see the changes that the government is slowly implementing. People can own property, start businesses, and there is some greater freedom to travel outside of Cuba. After taking 2015 off to visit Costa Rica instead, I am now happy to announce that UWBG is going to Cuba in 2016! Given the announcements this week of our opening embassies in each other’s countries, it will be an exciting time to visit. So join me on this trip to Cuba in this very historic time! It will be unforgettable!
Dates: February 20 – March 3, 2016
Cost: $3,910 plus $300 donation to UW Botanic Gardens