By Heather Rhoades
I recently had the opportunity to visit Cuba. I know, pearl clutching all around, but calm yourselves. Really, Cuba is a very safe country to visit and a fascinating one as well. Most Americans have a curiosity and uneasiness about the country due to the long standing, complicated, love/hate politics between the U.S. and Cuba. Recent changes to Cuban/American relations, however, have opened up the borders a little to allow people like me (considered a journalist) to visit. And being the owner of a large gardening website, how could I not take a visit to the Jardin Botanico Nacional de Cuba (National Botanical Garden of Cuba)?
How To Get To Jardin Botanico National de Cuba
Getting there from Havana can be a little tricky. The Jardin Botanico Nacional de Cuba is located about 30-45 minutes outside of Havana City Center and you will need to take a taxi there. A local taxi from Havana will cost about $50 CUC (which is roughly $50 US) for the round trip and the driver will wait for you in the parking lot of the Jardin Botanico National or will arrange to meet you in the parking lot at a certain time.
I would highly recommend that you make sure you have arranged for a ride back to Havana with your taxi driver, as there were no taxis waiting to be hired in the parking lot. I hired one of the more rustic local taxis because, for me, that is one of the charms of Cuba, but if you are looking for an air conditioned taxi, I would recommend that you head over to Hotel National to find one. They will cost more though.
Admission to the Jardin Botanico National is $5 CUC per person and this includes a guided tour of the grounds and they do have a few English speaking guides if you are not fluent in Spanish. The guides will also expect a small tip at the end of your tour. $5-$10 CUC is considered reasonable.
Touring the Jardin Botanico National
My first impression of the Jardin Botanico National is that it is a reflection of much of what you see in Havana. When the current government took over, it very much wanted to prove that it could compete with the rest of the modern world in terms of sophistication and enlightenment. It sponsored lovely works of public art, museums and botanical gardens in an attempt to show that they were of the same caliber as the rest of the developed world. But as time has gone on, the money to properly maintain these attempts has not been available and locations like the Jardin Botanico National show the effects of the declining budgets. While much of the Jardin Botanico National facilities are faded and shabby, it was still worth the trip. There are obviously some very dedicated people who help keep the important parts of the grounds well-tended and beautiful.
There are 2 glass houses that feature many of the plants you can see in Cuba. There are areas in the glass houses that show plants that are indigenous to Cuba and the other areas have plants that grow in Cuba but are not indigenous and has them divided by region of origin, mainly South America, Asia and Africa.
The rest of the tour is taken by open air bus. The overall grounds of Jardin Botanico National is massive. The grounds are almost 1,500 acres big. And while the grounds are open to pedestrian traffic, it is far more efficient to take the tour buses. Most of the rest of the tour focuses on trees that you might see in Cuba, again divided by region of origin. I think that it would be fair to say that the Jardin Botanico National is actually more of an arboretum than a traditional botanical garden, as 90% of the gardens do focus on trees.
The collection of trees is quite impressive. They even have an area of the gardens dedicated to a rather large collection of palm tree varieties.
While the buildings at the Jardin Botanico National were a bit run down, the guide we had was highly knowledgeable and professional. She did a wonderful job of explaining all of the plants and was happy to list off the common and botanical names of any flower or tree that we saw as well as give us a short history of the plant and its uses in Cuba.
Many of the guide books will also mention that the Jardin Botanico National has a Japanese garden as well. While this is technically true, the Japanese garden is in such a state of disrepair that it is no longer recognizable as a garden. Our guide informed us that the Japanese garden was undergoing renovations, but I saw no such sign that this was true and it simply looked overgrown and abandoned. I believe that it may have become a victim of money constraints.
Other things to know about the Jardin Botanico National
There is a restaurant on the grounds of the Jardin Botanico National. It serves a few traditional Cuban dishes like you might find at the many cafeterias around Havana. The quality and selection is about the same as those little cafeterias as well, which means poorly cooked meat, rice and beans, banana chips and vinegary cucumber salad. I don’t mean that as an insult to the Jardin Botanico National. Almost everywhere to eat out in Cuba has about the same selection and quality.
You will also need to remember to bring toilet paper with you, as the bathroom facilities, like many of the public bathrooms in Cuba, do not have toilet paper (or toilet seats for that matter). But, unlike many public areas in Cuba, the Jardin Botanico National did provide cold water free of charge. You will need to bring your own bottle, but it was nice to be able to find refrigerated water without having to pay for it.
Also, on a rather odd note that reflects on the way things are in Cuba, there is a concession stand on the grounds as well, and like most of the minimarts and concession stands in Cuba, it sold full size bottles of 70 proof rum. Yes, it is a little like going to the zoo and buying a bottle of Bacardi to drink while you walk around with the kids. But in Cuba, this is just a typical thing. In many of their recreational activities, Cubans like to enjoy some rum, whether it be at the beach, enjoying a day at the park or a day at the Jardin Botanico National.
Due to the fact that the Jardin Botanico National focuses so much on trees, there is an abundance of shade. It makes it a nice day trip to escape the heat of the Cuban sun as well and the smells and noise of Havana.
As an American visiting the Jardin Botanico National, I enjoyed seeing a botanical garden from another country. It also reminded me how fortunate we are here in the U.S. to have the types of botanical destinations that we do as well as the wealth to maintain them.