Group Picture at Hotel Nacional
Dr. Jeff Block

Trip Report: Historical Cuba and Botanical Countryside Gardens Tour

Trip Report: Historical Cuba and Botanical Countryside Gardens Tour

Jul 15, 2016|Holbrook in the FieldGardens| by Holbrook Travel

Sandy Schmidt, Holbrook’s garden tours director and specialty travel consultant, took a trip to Cuba to soak in some history of the country and tour botanical gardens in the countryside. Here’s part 1 of her trip report:

This wonderful tour was put together with members of the American Public Gardens Association in mind, to offer them an opportunity to travel to Cuba with fellow members after the conference. Therefore, we put together a short version which ended June 15, as we knew that there would be those who needed to get back to their respective Gardens or Arboretums, having already been gone for the conference. We started with a total of 38 people, which we called the “short tour,” and 20 for the “long tour.” Of the 38, there were 31 who were affiliated with APGA. Here is my story, and I’m sticking to it…

Walking tour of Old Havana

June 12: We started with an overnight at a Miami airport hotel because we needed to check in for our charter flight to Havana at 6:30 am. That process began a long day of hurry-ups and waits until we finally were sitting at a lovely café-style restaurant on a main street near the water in Havana, enjoying lunch and for many, their first mojito! We started to get to know our guide, Arián, and our driver Peter (who was not bilingual).

Old Havana

A walking tour of Old Havana followed, with dinner at our first paladar (a restaurant in a private home).

Musicians at the Havana indoor market

Our first three nights in Havana were in the modern and welcoming Meliá Cohiba, with great views and excellent service. 

Reception at the Meliá Cohiba


The Meliá Cohiba lobby


 Views from the Meliá Cohiba

​June 13: This morning we met our Specialist guide, the charming Lucía Hechavarría Schwesinger, who has a master’s degree in Botany. She was with us for most of the time in Havana, and all of our time in the countryside (Soroa and Viñales). She has a wealth of knowledge, was extremely helpful, and even after the tour contributed a long list of most of the botanicals we saw, their family, and their location.

Jardín Botánico Nacional de Cuba

Our first stop of the day was at the Jardín Botánico Nacional de Cuba – it was FANTASTIC! Not only did the Directora General Nora F. Hernández Monterrey give us a great slide presentation with a shot of espresso at the end, but we also were guided by one of the chief curators – Rosa – who did an excellent job at letting us know about the collections, followed by a bus tour through the expansive arboretum. I was amazed at how well the garden was maintained, and very happy to have spent a good deal of time there.

Jardín Botánico Nacional de Cuba

Lunch was al fresco in a lovely shaded restaurant on-site called La Bamba, with delicious soup and a plethora of choices of vegetables and fruit. We then visited the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture, and again were given a slide presentation before going outside and seeing some of the work in progress.

National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture

The night was filled with a private performance at the “Jazz Café,” which happened to be across the street from our hotel, and included dinner. The trio of bass, piano, and percussion were amazingly talented young men, and were augmented by the addition of a trumpet player and a female vocalist during select numbers. What a full day!

Jazz Café

Performers at the Jazz Café

June 14: The visit to Alamar Organoponic Gardens was a highlight to those in the group interested in food production, and for the rest of us, an eye-opening experience.

Alamar Organoponic Gardens

Our guide at the farm was Isas, whose father was one of the founders of this cooperative. She was as funny as she was informative. We had a great time there, learned a LOT, and saw some of the healthiest crops many of us had ever seen.

Alamar Organoponic Gardens

The history of the gardens is quite interesting as well, having risen from the survival mode during the “special time” when Russia pulled out of Cuba and left most everyone to survive on very little food and little to no transportation. They had to get creative (as Cubans do so well) and find new ways to be able to simply have food on their tables. They certainly did figure it out, because now these gardens are thriving. 

Crops at Alamar Organoponic Gardens

Lunch was very special, in the seaside town of Cojímar Bay, where Ernest Hemingway used to come frequently, and where he got his inspiration to write “The Old Man and the Sea.” 

La Terraza de Cojímar restaurant

We enjoyed delicious food while sitting along the water, and then spent the afternoon in Old Havana. We first visited a Contemporary Art Museum, which was very avant garde, and not to everyone’s taste. But what followed rather blew us all away – standing ovation for a private performance by Danza-Teatro Retazos.

Danza-Teatro Retazos

These dancers – and their director/choreographer – were over-the-top talented. And quite easy to look at too! They have performed internationally, and I would highly recommend seeing them if you are in Cuba or you can catch them while in Europe or the U.S. 

Danza-Teatro Retazos

Before dinner at another paladar, we popped out of the bus and took a group photo in front of Hotel Nacional. This was the last night for some of the group, and so we made sure everyone enjoyed their meal before saying “adios” to our new friends.

Group photo in front of the Hotel Nacional

Photo by Dr. Jeff Block

Continue with Part 2 of Sandy's Cuba trip report