It’s a serene space full of greenery and contrasts, where gigantic jaguey trees and their hanging green curtains drape around the scenery, partly concealing, partly beautifying the surroundings. It’s a place where a wide diversity of plants thrive; some of which stem out of tree trunks while others grow wild around them. It’s also where the badly polluted Almendares river’s murky waters sharply stand out in an otherwise idyllic picture of green perfection.
It’s like stepping into a wild forest and peaceful oasis at the heart of a noisy, bustling city. This green urban paradise has its many challenges ahead of itself but beautiful it is, nevertheless. Part of the Gran Parque Metropolitano de La Habana, the capital’s verdant haven lies on the banks of its widest river, Rio Almendares, one that has suffered the adverse effects of several factories dropping toxic waste in its once crystalline waters. Most of the factories fringing it are now either closed or no longer functioning as such (like the converted “Los Jardines de la Tropical” and “Los Jardines de la Polar”), and since the early 90s great efforts have been made to battle contamination and restore the area’s badly damaged ecosystem. El Bosque and its river are no longer the city’s waste dump but there’s still a lot of work to be done and a long way to go before all the sowing bears visible fruits. Great results can already be seen in the reforestation efforts but the recovery of the waters’ condition will take longer as part of a slower process.
Regardless of the river’s condition, this wild enclave at the heart of the city draws awe among many visitors and parts of it, like Isla Josefina, have been declared Official Protected Areas that are starting to attract many tourists. Never before my last visit in June, had I seen so many classic car taxis parked outside, showing a clear spike in interest - many Havana city tours now include a stop here, and it was about time too! Things are definitely looking up for the once abandoned Havana forest.
How it came to be
The story of how this dense city jungle came to be goes as far back as a century, when the idea of creating a recreational park bordering the Almendares River was first proposed. Such an initiative didn’t fall on deaf ears and towards the end of the 1920s, President Machado invited conservator of Parcs de Paris, Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier, so that he would give recommendations and guidance on the proposed layout and indicate how best to proceed to give Havana’s new green project a clean-cut, modern look. It was him who first came up with the idea of creating a Great National Park on the banks of the Almendares river but his proposal couldn’t be materialised immediately. It wasn’t until the late 1930s, (by which time the area destined to host such park laid trapped within the city) when by command of President Laredo Bru some projects finally starting taking shape, albeit at a sluggish pace, giving birth to what is now known as El Bosque de La Habana first and a decade later, the Parque Zoologico Nacional (National Zoo).
A recreational complex is born – Parque Almendares
Shortly after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the government decided to pour every effort into completing the once ambitious project that was initially envisaged to cover over 2010 hectares and, due to the growth of the city and the many factories that had popped up lining the river banks, had now been reduced to around 900 hectares. The new vision was to now create a recreational family-friendly complex where people could picnic, host parties, enjoy shows, concerts and attend special events and activities.
This is how Parque Almendares was born, complete with playground, mini-golf, snack bars, BBQ areas and an amphitheatre (the only one in Cuba designed for string puppets and where families enjoy magic acts, concerts and shows). Pony rides for children are offered in some sections of the park as are boats for hire to sail down the Almendares river, but the latter isn’t always available and according to recent reports published in September 2017 the boats are no longer in service, although this might be temporary, we can’t know for sure.
For quite some time though, from the 60s to the late 80s, Parque Almendares was the pride of a Cuban generation who came here to celebrate birthdays, spend fun weekends attending shows or festivals, enjoy hearty family picnics or provide the best backdrop to a romantic outing as couples sailed down the river (that’s how and where my parents got engaged!). It was a green respite from the city buzz, a refreshing canvas of green with the echoes of laughter, children’s excited cries and birds singing on the dense canopy of evergreen trees. It was powerfully beautiful and inspiring. It still is now, even when parts of it lie full of rubbish and neglected, there is still a magic that human disregard hasn’t been able to erode.
Due to the rapid industrial and demographic growth of the city between the 1920s and the 1950s, the city started closing up on the banks of the Almendares until the government called all development and construction to a halt in 1960 to create what is now the Gran Parque Metropolitano, containing the Parque Almendares and El Bosque de La Habana. But for the river it was already too late and already the damage being caused by the factories that lined the river shores was unstoppable because of its invisibility. They continued to dump toxic waste in the river’s waters at a pace that wasn’t visible until two decades or so later, by which time the harm was too great to reverse.
By the 1990s the state of contamination was so bad the government decided to take swift action. Swift in the sense that biologists and conservations were quickly called to the scene to take measures but recuperation of the water’s health has been nothing but slow and painful. Fidel Castro himself pioneered in conservational efforts long before it was the worldwide hot topic of the hour, but in the case of El Bosque de La Habana the government arrived too late, took too long to implement recovery action initially and did too little for anything to show signs of recovery soon.
Sound achievements and cultural complications
In recent years though, more steps have been taken towards the rescuing of this great park, with environmental efforts picking up the pace, especially where the reforestation process was concerned. The vegetation today is as green as it ever was and stands in stark contrast to the river’s dark grey, murky waters. While measures to rid the river of its filth and pollution couldn’t reap any immediate benefits, nowadays they have achieved oxygenation levels close to 5 per cent and some fish species have reappeared in its waters, as have some migratory birds.
Still, the task of rescuing the Gran Parque Metropolitano across all its areas, but especially its river; the heart and soul of the place, around which everything else revolves, is very much an unfinished project. The main objective and biggest challenge is to decontaminate the river but for this it’s also essential to involve locals and engage those inhabiting the park's surroundings in caring for the environment, not disposing of rubbish and human waste around it. This will be the most difficult challenge of all to overcome, especially given that the afro-Cuban santeria rituals often performed here dictate that biological remains of sacrificed animals are left there as offering to Orishas dieties. Which isn’t as concerning from an environmental point of view (small animal carcasses are nothing like chemical waste and are naturally biodegradable after all – plus there are carrion birds flying overhead ready to take on the challenge) but it can be unpleasant for visitors to encounter decapitated chickens during a relaxing stroll.
The mystifying magic of Isla Josefina
There is a protected area within the confines of this lush forest known as Isla Josefina. Its name refers to the previous owner of its lands, Josefa (Josefina) Juana Gabriela de Embil Quesada, a lady long since gone whose house ruins remain for all to see. The ruins themselves are so scattered and battered they don´t resemble much of a house any longer, yet together they create one of the park´s most photogenic landscapes.
As an official “Paisaje Natural Protegido” it´s more unlikely you´ll stumble across animal carcasses in this section of the park, although santeria rituals are still performed by the river (with the odd chicken´s lopped head swirling in the river waters) so you can’t be a 100 % sure you’ll escape this Cuban peculiarity. Yet the virtually untouched, wild natural beauty in this part of the urban forest will more than make up for any unpleasant animal remains you may encounter.
With the status of “Paisaje Natural Protegido” (Protected Natural Landscape) Isla Josefina is dramatically stunning, with differently shaped giant trees from which a rich green drapery of hang, creating the dreamiest visual effects. It’s where jaguey trees twist and turn into impossible magical shapes, like gigantic and elaborate pieces of furniture, elegantly scattered on the soft, bright carpet of greenery. It’s where you stumble on what look like ancient, medieval-like pieces of stone that were once part of Josefina’s private garden, with the likes of stairs, arches and stone bridges adding another dimension to the landscape.
It’s here that I spent most of my leisurely stroll around El Bosque de La Habana last June, drinking in the tranquillity and the dreamlike views, like I had just gone down Alice’s rabbit hole and found myself stumbling into Green Wonderland. It’s so magical, with such an other-worldly feel to it, that you almost expect a fairy to suddenly pop out from somewhere.
The Santeria rituals – a side order of culture and religion
Many tourists find Cubans’ faith in the Yoruba religion a fascinating, interesting or quirky aspect of the island’s folklore. In fact, many are keen to experience as many facets of it as they can during a visit, though few truly understand its syncretism with Christianity and the sacrifices behind many right of passages and cleansing rituals.
For decades, as Yoruba practices became more and more widespread and gathered a stronger following, the Rio Almendares has been at the heart of it all, as many “santeria” rituals demand that they are performed on flowing bodies of water, in natural surroundings, as they believe in the spirits that inhabit the earth and its elements, and to them they offer their sacrifices.
Havana has more than one river, but the Almendares is the largest and most centric of them all. No surprise then that last time I visited I witnessed what I had never seen in my childhood on the numerous times I had come to the Parque Almendares, to spend a day out with family or attend a friend’s birthday. Last June I almost walked into a santeria ceremony, right from the moment I got off the car and made into the scenic forest trails. Not far from the parking lot I witnessed a right of passage for a newly converted “Iyawo” (someone in the process of being initiated as “santero”) attended by his “padrino” (Godfather) and a female companion.
Such a ritual is the first ceremony called “La Tinaja del Rio”, which for the initiated symbolises a break from their past life, a complete rebirth. During the ceremony, and as can be seen on some of my pictures, the “padrino” cuts off holes in his T-shirt (old clothes worn by the iyawo were often discarded into the river but due to widespread conservational efforts people hopefully aren’t doing this anymore and at least the people I photographed didn’t) and proceeds to sacrifice a chicken as offering to the Gods.
Moments later a live chicken passed hands while the “padrino” muttered prayers and the female assistant rang bells. I felt sorry for the chicken struggling to get away, fiercely fluttering its wings to try and escape the ill fate that awaited it. Inevitably, he was eventually slain, though I didn’t wait on standby to see it happen and my photographs are not graphic, further evidence I wasn’t keen on the gory details. But if you’re a curious tourist who wants to get a closer look into the world of Cuban santeria rituals, you can’t go wrong with a stroll in this park, especially on weekends.
But beyond animal sacrifices there’s an even darker side to these ceremonies. Santeria conversion rituals are gathering more and more popularity in the Almendares river and as such becoming a grave concern were public health is concerned. The sacrificed animal offerings left for the Orishas are not reduced to the banks of the Almendares rivers, they are found everywhere in Havana and the disintegration of such remains, not disposed of properly can harbour diseases and be a source of infection, especially with Cuba´s relentless heat. Whether the public sacrifices are left on parks, streams, rivers or street corners to rot for days on end, they are not sanitary and no one dares remove them for fear of the gods. Perhaps someone can come with a way of striking a compromise between religion and sanitation – I’m sure that something can be worked out so that designated areas.
Yes, the rituals add folklore and an element of live culture to El Bosque de La Habana, but in a way that’s potentially harmful for the area’s conservation status and its visitors. Flowing bits of dead animals are certainly counterproductive in terms of recovering the river’s health. Official authorities have already complained of the antibiotic resistance to infection in its waters.
Parque Almendares or Bosque de La Habana?
Some people refer to the two as the same thing, and indeed they are one and the other, but for the purpose of this post I’m referring to El Bosque de La Habana as the green, undeveloped part lining the river, with no manmade structures beyond the bridge and Josefina’s ruins, and El Parque to the more developed recreational area with benches, picnic tables, snack bars, pony rides and so on.
While the section encompassing El Parque Almendares is found at the north-western tip of this green complex, El Bosque is found on the southern end of the park.
What else is there to see?
Parque Almendares, generally speaking, refers to the area comprising the bridge that joins Vedado with Mariano all the way to Puentes Grandes but the lines between Parque Almendares, El Bosque de La Habana and Isla Josefina are somewhat blurry. There’s also El Parque Forestal, Los Jardines de La Tropical (where frequent rock, outdoor salsa concerts and festivals are held) and Los Jardines de la Polar (in a state of complete neglect nowadays, sadly), with the last two found in the space previously occupied by two beer factories. There’s also a lookout (Mirador), the remains of a dam “Presa El Husillo”, and the canals of Fernando VII’s aqueduct.
I’ve just mentioned a few other associated parks and attractions that are part part of the wider Gran Parque Metropolitano de La Habana complex, an extension of El Bosque de La Habana and Parque Almendares despite some of them being found outside the physical confines of such, they still are within steps of each other. Namely, the Jardines de la Tropical are a good option to catch a live concert.
Now, if you want to venture outside this leafy park, go beyond its adjacent green spaces and wonder what else is there to see and do in this part of Havana, I’ll draw attention to some other nearby attractions.
Casa de la Musica de Miramar
One of Havana’s most popular nightlife hotspots, along with its eponymous twin in Centro Habana is found just minutes from El Bosque de La Habana, a quick hop away in fact. Famous for regularly hosting some of Cuba’s most internationally prestigious salsa bands, this attractive and casual concert venue is housed inside a grand mansion with space for dancing and the cocktails are superb.
Depending on which part of the park you come from (remember the park is over a kilometre-long) you’ll find the Casa de la Musica de Miramar either a short 10-minute-walk away or a five-minute car journey (20-minute-walk) at its farthest away point. Either way, with some performances starting as early as 5 p.m. while others kick off at 11 p.m. it can be the perfect place to freshen up and down a few drinks in an upbeat ambience. It’s one of your safest bets if you want to sample the true Havana nights essence.
Zoologico de 26
Not as impressive as it was back in its heyday and with far fewer animals than it had when I visited as a child, the centric Zoologico de 26 or Zoologico de La Habana remains popular among families in the city (less so perhaps than the more recently refurbished Parque Zoologico Nacional in Boyeros, but more about this one on a future post). With a location that makes it accessible to most city dwellers, this is Cuba’s oldest zoo, occupying the grounds of a former hacienda and nursery gardens that once belonged to the city council.
Extending over 24 hectares, you’ll come across some 90 different animal species today, from bears, to monkeys, ostriches, and one of the very few species of flightless birds with hair-like plumage: the southern cassowary. In its days of glory, it hosted over 160 species but overtime, as a natural consequence of the death of some animals and the difficulties for others to breed in captivity, the zoo’s population got smaller and smaller. The Special Period (when the USSR disintegrated) hitting hard on Cuba’s economy didn’t help much and so the general decay that can be perceived today is due to the sum of these factors. Still, it can prove an interesting day out, checking out a local family favourite and inspecting the beautiful flora and fauna that still calls this its home. Perhaps its most famous feature are the stone deer guarding the entrance, sculpted by famed Cuban artist, Rita Longa.
Hotel Kohly, its pizza place and its bowling alley
Directly overlooking the southern part of El Bosque de la Habana, you’ll come across Hotel Kohly, a three-star property that has seen better days but still functions as a centric hotel in Playa, out of the hustle and bustle of downtown Havana, but with a handful of attractions nearby. With a good-sized outdoor pool, a gym, a sauna and basic, yet comfortable rooms, it’s a popular option among solo travellers and young groups on a budget.
It’s also home to the city’s only bowling alley, “Bolera El Kohly”, popular with locals and foreigners alike and which also has a pool table and bar serving a variety of drinks. Adjacent to the hotel and its tennis courts you’ll find a pizza place with reasonably priced (actually quite cheap) Cuban-style pizzas and pasta dishes. I remember we went there as a special family treat on weekends when I was a little girl. If you want something more upscale and trendy, there’s also the privately-owned Bistro Habana – Kohly, also in the Kohly neighbourhood and serving a good variety of generously-filled sandwiches, tasty tapas, soups, broths and decent meat cuts.
How habaneros experience El Bosque today
Despite its shortcomings, habaneros still enjoy their beloved enchanted forest, much in the way they enjoy everything else in Cuba, taken with a pinch of salt and a resigned grin. Many are indeed saddened and horrified by the river´s pollution, especially when it once held such special significance to them (remember the part about my parents getting engaged during a sailing session on a boat) and many are sceptics about it ever being crystalline again, but many also believe in its recuperation efforts, and so everyone dreams of the Rio Almendares that was and could be again someday. Beyond the water though,, the haunting beauty of the forest continues stealing many young hearts.