Gardens in Paradise

By Neil Melancon, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation

It’s a tough life waking up in a garden paradise surrounded by lakes and mountains, but someone has to do it, I suppose

We only had one night in Las Terrazas, but we did get to explore some of the surrounding areas. The preserve is turning into a tourist destination, but not just for foreigners—native Cubans get a discount, which is good, considering the gap between the regular peso and the convertible peso is something like 25 to 1. One of Raul Castro’s efforts is to combine the currencies, but the gap remains a perpetual challenge.  

Still, it might come sooner rather than later, especially with the rate of foreign dollars coming into Cuba. Hotel Moka was full of tourists and we did see some from Havana, driving around in their converted American cars from the 50’s. We left the hotel to tour the grounds including the old French coffee plantation I mentioned yesterday. Set high in the mountains surrounding the preserve, it reeks of history. 

Our guide, Oriel, soaks up the mountain breeze in a dramatic gesture as the tour ascends to the grinding house.  

Our guide, Oriel, soaks up the mountain breeze in a dramatic gesture as the tour ascends to the grinding house.  

Our energetic tour guide led us up a ridge where the coffee grounds were between two mountain valleys, providing scenic views on both sides. Only one real standing building was left. Ruined stone walls ringed the area, containing old slave quarters, drying areas and the fields themselves. Coffee is a shade tolerant plant, so only the drying grounds were treeless. Behind them lay a replica of the grinding wheel, complete with thatched roof.

We departed the preserve and went to the Saroa Orchid Garden. It could be considered the Taj Mahal of orchids in Cuba, both because of its soaring heights, as well as being dedicated to the wife of the now-deceased founder, who died in childbirth at 23. The garden has been given for research use to a university and when asked whether or not orchids were for sale, the answer was “no,” but the guide said they were developing cultivars for sale in the near future. 

True to its nature, the variety of orchids was stunning. One looked like a miniature pineapple on a stick. Another resembled a series of tiny little bells. One red and yellow variety smelled of chocolate. Beekeeper Randy Fair’s eyes lit up as he smelled it, imagining what kind of chocolate-infused honey he could produce with the bees that gorged upon its pollen.

Also in the gardens were many other varieties of plants. Cycads, which normally only grow a few feet tall in south Louisiana were easily 15 feet plus. We were introduced to the mariposa, the national flower of Cuba, which doesn’t stand out as any different from the rest of the orchids… until you find out its a type of gardenia.  

A late lunch with views that never tire.  Restaurants such as this are relatively new here, but seem to be thriving.  Greg Gravois, a sugarcane grower (red, striped shirt), remained unimpressed, citing similar views were readily available in Back Vacherie.  

A late lunch with views that never tire.  Restaurants such as this are relatively new here, but seem to be thriving.  Greg Gravois, a sugarcane grower (red, striped shirt), remained unimpressed, citing similar views were readily available in Back Vacherie.  

It was a long bus ride to a late lunch just outside of Viñales, with a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside. The tables were arranged with a view of the river valley, which is becoming an international must-see. A short drive through the small town to our hotel finally revealed how changes were coming, even to this rural community. Almost every single home had signs advertising that rooms were for rent here. Those that did not seemed to be under construction to add rooms and even whole stories to their homes. Out guide told us there were now more than 1,000 rooms available in private homes here. Tourists flooded the streets, driven in part there by AirBnB, a modern internet service that finds homes and apartments for rent.  

It was not difficult to imagine that this sleepy river valley and its soaring mountains would be transformed in the coming years. I thought about it at the end of the day as we enjoyed the gorgeous sunset at the hotel restaurant, complete with double rainbows behind us. The restaurant faced the same mountains as lunch, but the spectacle of colors was an added bonus. It was one of those perfect moments free from worries of past, future, and ideologies. For now, we’re all just people chatting over a good meal.

Tomorrow, we head to farms for both tobacco and coffee.