Cuba's botanical gardens gain ground amid COVID-19 pandemic

HAVANA, Aug. 5th Tired of watching movies at home and of social media, Leonilda Perez, 56, took a bus and embarked with her family on a journey to the National Botanical Garden, located some 25 kilometers away from Havana’s historical downtown center.

Green areas in Cuba have become a top attraction for locals eager to reconnect with nature and take some respite from the hustle and bustle of the city life amid social distancing measures still in place in line with the country’s post-pandemic recovery plan.

Perez, who lives in a tiny apartment on the third floor of a modern building in El Cerro district, wanted to visit an open-air space where her grandsons could run, enjoy the smell of flowers, and play soccer.

The Cuban grandmother termed the garden “a museum of plants,” saying that “the healing power of nature is fundamental to get rid of social stress caused by the COVID-19 crisis”.

“Until recently, I was reluctant to come here because I preferred going to the beach. But now, I realize there is a whole new world to discover in this place. Kids are feeling very well,” said Perez before sitting on the grass at a picnic area on a sunny day.

The National Botanical Garden, which showcases about 3,000 different species of plants from Cuba and other regions.

Alejandro Palmarola, director of development and institutional relations at the garden and also president of the Cuban Society of Botanic, knows this place like the back of his hand.

“The garden highlights one of the most important collections of tropical plants and contributes with the expansion of green areas in the country’s capital”.

“We want people to have fun in the garden, but our first and foremost goal is to have them learn how to adopt environmentally friendly behaviours during their daily life,” he added.

Among the botanical garden’s new attractions after the coronavirus lockdown, there is a brand-new canopy tour option by which, for the first time in Havana, dozens of people take a glimpse of the Cuban rainforest every day.

Unlike other zip lining tours set up in some country’s tourist areas, the service provided in the garden is aimed at raising public awareness about the importance of biodiversity while conveying a message: the environment is of the essence.

Marlon Mendez, a visitor at the garden, wanted not only to do something outdoors but to feel the adrenaline in his veins as well. Thus, he and his three-year-old son embarked on the one-hour zipline adventure that took them in and above the trees.

“I have always had fears of heights but decided to overcome my phobia to preach by example to my kid. Professional guides also provided us with insights into the Cuban fauna and flora,”  after loosening the full-body harness completely once back on the ground.

Cuba’s National Botanical Garden is also a birdwatching destination with close to 120 species ranging from endemic to migratory birds passing through on their way south and those spending the winter on the island.

It has also found a place on the country’s eco-tourism map, which will encourage photo hunters and nature lovers to explore the anatomy of the garden and enjoy the stunning views of the Cuban landscapes.

To minimize overcrowding during the rush hours and reduce the risk of COVID-19 contagion, Havana’s provincial government has reinforced public service of buses, which transport locals to the National Botanical Garden.

Currently, the garden receives nearly 2,500 visitors during the weekends, and about 500 from Wednesday through Friday.