View from Hotel Los Jazmines
Sandy Schmidt

Trip Report: Historical Cuba and Botanical Countryside Gardens Tour | Part Two

Trip Report: Historical Cuba and Botanical Countryside Gardens Tour | Part Two

Jul 12, 2016|Holbrook in the FieldGardens| by Holbrook Travel

Enjoy part two of garden tours director Sandy Schmidt’s trip report of her time in Cuba. (Missed Part 1? Find it here.) During these six days of the trip, Sandy saw beautiful views of the area, visited an orchid garden, toured a national park, visited a world-renowned artist, and much more...  

June 15: 6 a.m. is early, but it was the departure time for about half of our group. I was glad to have gone downstairs to bid them all farewell. They were a wonderful group of people who I hope to see again in the near future, and definitely next year at the APGA conference! Next we all departed at 8 am. and left Havana, with Lucia, and headed toward Soroa, located in a gorgeous mountain range, which made for a nice drive. En route to our hotel, Villa Soroa, we stopped at Las Terrazas, where we received an explanation of this community and a quick look around, a visit to one of the artists there (he was quite talented), and a hike in the area. The afternoon was spent either with Lucia doing some botanizing on the grounds of the hotel or taking a quick siesta by the pool. The grounds and surrounding forests were full of beautiful trees. You could hear many birds that actually woke me up the next morning! We were definitely in the countryside!

Villa Soroa, our hotel. 

Las Terrazas 

Artist at Las Terrazas 

June 16:  Near our hotel was the orchid garden, which is run by the University of Pinar del Rio. It was lovely, and a beautiful way to start the day. From the entrance we visited the greenhouse, which is not large but nice, and then meandered almost straight up the road to the home at the top of the hill that is used for the gardens now, but what a home it must have been “in the day”! The views were stunning. We then had lunch al fresco at a nice restaurant next to the entrance of the waterfall trails, which some of the group went on that afternoon. We took another hike with a local guide in the afternoon, and then had dinner that evening at a local paladar.

Orchid Garden at Soroa

Paladar in Soroa 

Paladar in Soroa 

June 17: The drive today to Vinales was one incredible view after another. We were in the area of Mil Cumbres, where the hillsides were lush and full of the native royal palms, just gorgeous. The hike we did; however, was in a special area of karst topography, quite arid, and famous for a great number of endemic species. Lucia kept a great log of what we were seeing, but we couldn’t stay out there more than an hour because it was just too darn hot. We then went in search of the endangered Microcycas calocoma, which is endemic to a small area of Pinar del Rio. Well, this was quite an event. We first walked through a small (300+ people) town or village, down a road between farm homes, and were led through a gate by the owner of the land, by his pigs, and there it was – the bridge. The bridge that hung over a fast-running river that was about 20 feet wide. Well, the "bridge" was one not-so-big log.  And to help you walk on this log, there was a thick cable wire that you might use for phone lines that strung that from one side to the other, wrapped around a tree on each side. The wire was rather loose, so the local guides held them; Peter gladly jumped in the water to help, and Lucia also got in the water. Not by choice at first, but just stayed in to help. I wanted very much to go across, but didn’t feel I could cross the boulders and the log without falling in, so I opted out with about five others. But the rest made it across, found 13 specimens of the cycad, and had to return the same way they came. By the time we sat down at the local home of the guide for lunch, the adventurers had some great stories to tell! We then proceeded to Viñales, and when the mogotes started to appear in view, I knew we were getting close. Our hotel, Los Jazmines is famous for its expansive views of valleys and surrounding farmland, with the geological wonders (only found in 4 places on the earth) – the iconic mogotes – sit in the background. Dinner was al fresco once more, with commanding views as well.

Karst Pine Forest Hike 

Crossing 20-foot-wide bridge en route to site 

Group of 13 makes it across bridge

Boxed lunch at a paladar in Mil Cumbres

June 18: This morning was advertised in the itinerary as a hike in Viñales National Park. I came to realize that to Cubans, a national park can be a whole community, so the hike was more like a walk in the area of the tobacco farms, which were visited; not what was expected. But it was interesting all the same, and there were some trails that were hiked as well. We again made the decision to change from a planned box lunch to lunch at the hotel, which turned out to be a great choice. After lunch, we went to visit Nils Navarro, a long- time friend of Holbrook, and an amazing world-renowned artist. His wife, formally in the tourist business, runs a casa particular (which are all OVER  the place in Viñales), and so between his watercolor paintings, the book he just published – “Endemic Birds of Cuba” – and her very nice casa - they seemed to do quite well! Their baby was sleeping while we were on the back rooftop terrace. We enjoyed delicious fruits and fruit juices, some people bought his book, with a few who bought multiple copies to give friends and colleagues, and then we went back to the hotel. There were many different things individually planned for those few hours of free time, such as horseback riding, climbing trails on the mogotes with Lucia in order to botanize, taking salsa lessons, and relaxing by the pool. Dinner was at Agro Ecológico – again al fresco – which is a paladar that features food from their farm, and amazing views of the valley and mogotes.

Nils Navarro, world-renowned artist. 

Dinner at a paladar in Viñales 

View from Nils Navarro visit 

June 19: Our last full day in Cuba. It was Sunday, Father’s Day, so the official Tour Leader, Dr. Jeffrey Block, who brought his lovely family with him on the tour, enjoyed having his 11-year-old twin sons and wife with him. We went to Playa Jutías, a beautiful beach northwest of Viñales. The drive was nice, and changed in an interesting and rural way as we got closer to the coast. The water was as you would expect – gorgeous. There were a good number of people out that day, enjoying their families, and the various water sports offered by a company housed in a hut on the beach. Some of our group decided not to swim, and either took walks or simply spent the hour or so enjoying a beer and the beautiful beach. For me, the minute we got there I was in the water until it was time to change into dry clothes and sit down for lunch. The restaurant was right there on the beach, which was nice and included a great ocean view. It was then nap time (for some) as we left the beach and headed back to Havana. The drive was 5 hours because we had to backtrack to Viñales before we could get on the highway. I really enjoyed watching the scenery as we traveled, and it certainly didn’t feel like 5 hours! Our bus, which I’ve yet to mention, was huge! Meant for the original group of 38, we also used it for the last half of the trip, so there were singular seats if you wanted them! In Havana, it was great to be back at Melia Cohiba, and the evening’s farewell dinner at a paladar in Old Havana was exceptional.​

Cayo Jutias 

Cayo Jutias 

June 20: An early morning, left the hotel at 6:30 a.m., said farewell with hugs to Arian and Peter, who we had all enjoyed thoroughly, and then into the airport. The long lines were tough – took what seemed to be forever to get checked in – then customs, then wait a bit for boarding, then waited on the plane for an hour and a half. Found out there was only one luggage crew for the whole airport. So after a while, they finally got to our plane to unload luggage from the last flight that had gotten there probably at least an hour before, if not longer, and then load our luggage onto the plane. 8 of our group were from Miami, so they didn’t need to worry about connecting flights, but luckily our wonderful Laurie McLaughlin (at Holbrook Travel) always advises our clients to make sure to leave plenty of time between arriving in Miami from a charter and checking into a subsequent flight home. By the time we reached Miami, we scattered, exchanged hugs if we could, as I prayed that everyone made it home safe and sound. Our trip was over, back in the states, with toilet seats in bathrooms and an ATM around the corner. Cuba is magical. And don’t worry, it probably always will be.