1997, Kay Maguire, Travel Scholarship, A Visit To Four Botanic Gardens In Cuba

Four botanical gardens in Cuba

By Kay Maguire

I spent one month in total on the island of Cuba and during that time visited the four main botanic gardens. Initially based in Havana, where I stayed in lodgings owned by the University, and from there I travelled to the gardens of Cienfuegos and Soroa in the Province of Pinar del Rio. Public transport on the island is very poor — slow, crowded and unreliable, exacerbated by recent fuel shortages and it was therefore decided that garden staff would drive to Havana to collect me. The gardens are linked to governmental ministries and access to cars was therefore possible; I paid for fuel costs as the cost to Cubans in pesos was way beyond their means. The Cuban motorways are in the same worn condition as the rest of the country’s roads, but much emptier. With fuel prices so high, it is rare that Cubans make journeys, even between provinces. I travelled to Santiago de Cuba from Havana by air — a slow rather precarious flight in an old propellered Aeroflot plane. The air conditioning was so dense it looked as though the clouds were coming through the windows!

Whilst in Cienfuegos and Soroa I stayed in guest houses within the gardens. Both were in incredibly beautiful positions. At Cienfuegos the old colonial building looked out onto the Escambrey Mountain Range and in Soroa, on the top floor of the guest apartment building, the view over the palm-filled mountains was breathtaking.

The first evening there was spent on the balcony, watching a rainbow before the sun set. In Santiago I stayed with a family, one of the increasing number who have obtained licenses from the government to rent rooms in their houses to tourists. Not only does this give them an extra income and one that is not controlled by the state, but it also gives them the benefit of access to U.S. dollars. It obviously also provides an excellent opportunity for the tourist — to experience Cuban life first hand and to make some good friends!

Lodging in each of the guest houses, I had a cook who would prepare enormous Cuban meals for me; in Santiago I visited various houses licensed as restaurants. Having read that the food in Cuba was appalling I had anticipated starvation and had even brought along muesli bars in case times got desperate. However, the dreadful food must only exist in the tourist areas, as all the food I tasted on the island was delicious. Rice and beans is practically the national dish and this is served with every meal. Seafood is very popular with meat scarce and expensive and many of the recipes have a strong Cajun and Caribbean influence. Fresh fruit and vegetables were also surprisingly rare considering their abundant evidence in the countryside and in the trees. The major staples of the diet, however, appeared to be coffee and sugar. As the island’s most important crops they are both consumed constantly. Cuban coffee is excellent and taken very short, very strong and very black. Sugar features in just about every dessert — and lots of it!

One of the most unusual aspects of travelling around Cuba was the monetary system. The Cuban economy currently operates on a parallel market — American dollars are used by tourists and `pesos’ by the Cubans. Most enterprises along the tourist route now insist on payment in U.S. dollars, in parity with the pesos ($1=1 peso).

My aim was to visit the botanic gardens which are situated across the island’s different geographical and vegetative zones and include a fern garden and an orchid garden. Studying the living collections, I hoped to extend my knowledge of temperate and tropical plants. Further appreciation could also be obtained by observing these species in their native environment and habitat.

It was also hoped that these observations could be related to the species recovery programmes within the gardens, thus enabling a greater understanding of the roles and benefits of ex-situ and in-situ conservation.

Secondly, I wished to look at the concept of environmental education with specific reference to botanic gardens. Cuba is a leader in the Caribbean with regard to environmental education. The gardens recognise the importance of an active relationship between the botanics and their local communities and I was interested to witness the activities and entertainments they initiate as a way of drawing people into the gardens.

My trip, therefore, began and ended in the city of Havana, whilst I saw much of the island on my journeys to the botanic gardens, covering many of the provinces as I went. At each garden I was made outstandingly welcome by all the people I met who were willing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Not only was I taken on extensive tours around every aspect of the gardens and included in the canteen lunches and national holiday celebrations, but I was also taken into their homes and shown the country as it is for the Cuban people — from power cuts and water shortages to salsa clubs and concert evenings in the city squares.

(From the Introduction to Kay Maguire’s Report)

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