The garden is named after Carmen and Miranda Caridad, who at the beginning of the last century were the two most famous sisters in the city thanks to their original garden filled with exotic plants. They had cleared the area from bushes and undergrowth, when the colonies of the whole area were interested in exotic crops and experimentation wildlife. Viñales takes its name from the project of the Spanish colonists that the ‘800 decided to grow European vines in the fertile soils in Pinar del Rio province. As the vines didn’t take up, landlords soon supplanted the fields with the more profitable Tobacco plantations.
Editors at Lonely Planet insist on calling this a Botanic Garden but, though it hosts a wide variety of native and European plants, it is in the end a private garden of a medium-size cuban house. So, if you are passionate about Phytosociology or Paleobotany you will be a little disappointed…On the famous Guide the opening hours of this site (from 8 to 17) are also inaccurate. The proud live-in owners will happily show you around from dusk to dawn. So, according to the season you are visiting, “follow the sun” and do not be discouraged by opening times. Yolanda, a relative of the Caridad sisters (one of whom disappeared recently), was very annoyed by this inaccuracy. Many are tourists – she tells me – returning to Vinales in the afternoon from an excursion to the Mogotes, the northen beaches or one of the Cuevas (note: the Viñales Valley has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since November 1999), that may give up on the visit because misinformed.
Segñora Maria says that she lives there, and there is siempre someone ready to open the gate and show travellers around. They sustained by contributions but donations of clothes and westerners products are also very welcome – as it is in any Cuban households.
You can wander freely around the garden behind the house and see native plants, local products (coffee, cocoa, spices), as well as a small display of fruits trees and vegetables.
And then, slowly, you will see them… Many small eyes staring at you from within the vegetation. Old dolls’ heads and plastic robots impaled on branches or at the foot of the trees like creepy presences. This, is the real attraction of the garden!
Originally placed there to decorate the garden, the pretty big-blue-eyed faces withered ad hardened as the years went by. The pink rubber started to mould in the wet Caribbean weather, giving these dolls a gloomy aspect. The limbless figures look like Sid Philips’ creations, poor tortured toys from the movie Toy Story.
To recover from the ghoulish garden, do not miss the chance to visit the house: a dive into the caribbean kitsch. If you ask politely, the owners will not hesitate to invite you in, and proudly show you the collection of trinkets and crucifixes neatly displayed and the vintage photos and yellowed magazines collage that cover the living room walls.
Next to a poster depicting a portrait of a handsome and vaguely hippy Jesus, is hung a photo of the late Lady D (RIP!).
Next to them, you may see a large statue wrapped in fuchsia satin. It’s the statue of St. Lazarus, who in the tradition of Cuban Santeria represents Babalù-Aye, associated with infectious disease, and healing. Both feared and loved, Babalú-Ayé is sometimes referred to as the “Wrath of the supreme god” because he punishes people for their transgressions. To keep the spirit “calm” and happy, and as confirmation that this is NOT a Christian Saint, at his feet were offerings of wine and tobacco offerings: half a cigar (hand rolled), a small glass of rum.
So, once again, in spite of all the inaccuracies reported on my guidebook but following my curiosity and my vagabond instinct, I discovered an enchanted garden full of wonders and stories to tell.
MORE PHOTOS: CUBANOS