I hook up with my Spanish school compañeros, Meg, Suzanne and Charles, in the tiny plaza in front of La Floridita—reputedly Hemingway’s bar of choice whenever he craved a daiquiri´. There we meet our driver for the day, Lazaro, along with his pride and joy, his nicely restored 1956 Chevy Bel Air.
(Lazaro finished medical school, but hasn’t yet found a job. What’s more, at a doctor’s salary of 1,060 Cuban national pesos—about $40 usd—a month, he didn’t seem to mind driving tourists around for $75 a day!)
Turning north off the Autopista Este-Oeste (Route 4), we wind our way up a long, narrow valley to El Salto Park, where we pick up the climbing trail up to El Mirador (Overlook) de Soroa. It’s a hot, sweaty climb, but the rewards along the way—flora, fauna and even the rocks’ and trees’ amazing forms, colors and patterns—are well worth the effort.
After the beautiful half-hour trek we’re looking out over a broad sweep of the lush hills and plains of Pinar del Rio—and down on the backs of soaring vultures.
Once we’re back down, Meg and Suzanne decide to pay the three-peso (CUC) admission to cool off under the wispy, 20-meter salto (waterfall) while I play with some of the amazing touch-me-not plants (Mimosa Pudica) that furl up when brushed with a finger.
Some orchids are so playful, so animated
as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.
From El Salto we head down the road to the Orquideario Soroa, the largest botanical gardens in Cuba—and, some claim, the second biggest orchid gardens in the world. Built by Spanish lawyer Tomás Felipe Camacho in 1943 in memory of his wife and daughter, the lovely eight-acre grounds feature some 700 orchid species, including many endemic plants. Though Camacho died in 1960, the Orquideario, now supported by the University of Pinar del Río, continues to thrive.
(Admission to the Orquideario costs three pesos (CUC) for a person—plus an additional peso for a camera!)
Our knowledgable guide explains the origins, preferences and significance of each specimen—though I must say I’m distracted by the sheer visual impact of such gorgeous flowers, some so playful and animated in form as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.
Unfortunately, not all orchids bloom at the same time. Alas, Cuba’s splendid national flower, the mariposa (butterfly) orchid, (Hedychium Coronarium), with its intoxicating, gardenia-like fragrance, is among the absentees. But the other amazing orchids of Soroa fill in nicely and will forever decorate the sultry alcoves of my happy place.