Thursday, May 11, 2017
Vinales offers an oasis off the beaten path in Cuba

The town of Vinales is a popular destination, perhaps a little too popular, but despite the ridiculous scene of high-socked, European tourists filing off tour buses and the hoards of “look-how-cool-we-are” backpackers slogging down the leafy sidewalks in their worn, loose-fitting sandals, the stunning beauty of the Vinales valley and the warmth of its inhabitants continues to make the place my favorite of all, hands down.

Located about three hours to the west of Havana, and a world apart from the insanity of the city, there are caves to explore, horseback riding, hiking and birdwatching opportunities throughout the region, but if you look beyond the obvious attractions, there are many other, not-so-obvious spots to discover.

One such place is the Jardín Botánico de Caridad (Caridad’s Botanical Garden) and while it’s not a secret spot, the majority of visitors blow right by the small, faded sign that hangs over the rustic, iron gate. The garden is open to the public and free, guided tours are both available and suggested. And yes, as the whiners on TripAdvisor say “good luck getting out of there without tipping.” Really? Come on, people. Some friendly Cuban person leads you on a detailed tour through a veritable jungle of both indigenous and exotic plants and you can’t come off with a few bucks?

I’m sorry, but that’s lame.

Anyway, seen in the photo is Roberto, one of several incredibly friendly and knowledgeable English-speaking guides that will lead you through the huge property. Had I been taking Prevagen for the past year or so, I might be able to remember the particulars, but I think it measures more than an acre and was founded in or around 1917. Back then, it was legal to import foreign plants and many thrive in the garden today. The soaring canopy provides precious shade on scorching summer days and the hosts also offer classic Cuban cuisine along with a full bar.

I remember my first visit in 2001, during my Cristal beer drinking days. Back then, it wasn’t the plants that interested me as much as the kitschy décor inside the house. Along with hundreds of submitted photos with the now-deceased owner, Caridad, posters of Jesus and several Santeria altars, there were hundreds of Cristal beer labels and box tops covering the bedroom walls. It’s hard to describe what kind of message was being attempted, but let’s just say it was interesting and I walked away with more photos of the home’s interior than I did with anything botanically-related. Such is Cuba. It works for me.