During my first visit to “La Bosque de la Habana,” or “Havana Forest,” I was mildly impressed by the huge trees, many of which are dramatically draped in thick, green vines, but didn't see much else of interest. I do remember a really cool, New York City-style, weathered, wrought-iron park bench with the name of the park emblazoned on the back rest.
The next time I found myself in the forest was while showing Jimmy Buffett's niece and her friends around Havana in 2017. While having lunch on Obispo Street, a member of our group struck up a conversation with a chap from PBS. The film crew was in Havana to record a free concert by The Mavericks, to which we were cordially invited. The show was happening the following afternoon at a super-funky, fairly-dodgy venue at a nearby place that translates into English as "The Tropical Gardens." The venue, along with the “Havana Forest,” is also part of the overall Parque Metropolitano (Metropolitan Park), which must be seen to be believed. I suppose if you combined a mild acid trip with some really weird architecture, you'd have an idea of what I’m talking about. The location’s heyday was during the first half of the 20th century when it was an opulent beer garden for the rich and famous, a must-have on the grounds of any successful brewery.
A year later, my interest piqued, we took another spin through the sprawling park, further exploring the grounds, and sure enough, as every article mentions, we came across a stereotypical dead chicken, proof of a recent, religious Santeria ceremony. The history books say this has been going on for centuries here along the Almendares River that runs through Cuba's capital city. My Cuban friends say that no one wants to go near the sacrificial creatures to clean them up for fear of catching a curse, so they just kinda lay there.
So last week, when our amazing driver, Frank, suggested we take a spin through “The Forest,” I shrugged it off with a “been there, done that” kind of attitude. Truth is, I don't mind seeing things over and over since the lighting, the people, the cars, the sacrificial animals, are in a constant state of change. Shortly after entering the park, with its thick, green canopy in Frank’s 1948 baby blue, 14-passenger van, we saw a small pavilion, bustling with a constant flow of classic cars dappled in afternoon light. The beverage stop immediately turned into a “Yank Tank” photo bonanza. It turns out, the “Isla Josefina” bar had been open less than a week and it seemed like every classic car taxi driver was either passing through, stopping for their customers, or taking a break themselves in the deep shadows of an unseasonably-toasty January afternoon.
The “Havana Forest,” with its vast swaths of CO2-absorbing, riverside trees including jaguey, ficus and banyans, is considered the “lungs” of the recently-turned 500-year-old city and is undergoing a major renovation. French landscape artist Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, best known for the Eiffel Tower’s Champs-de-Mars gardens and the Parc de la Ciutadella in Barcelona, laid the plans for the park beginning in the 1920s and also created Havana's world-famous Paseo del Prado, Havana's Central Park, as well as the city's iconic "Escalinata," the 50 meter-wide, 88-stair-step work of art that leads up to the University of Havana. Guided by the work of Frederick Law Olmstead, co-creator of New York's Central Park, Forestier, like Olmstead, envisioned a vast green space amid massive urban development. And while Forestier’s original plan of creating green spaces spanning from the ocean to the farthest inland reaches of the city was never fully realized, the park and its subsidiaries encompass more than 1700 acres. For those of you playing along at home, that's literally twice the size of Central Park in Manhattan. So, I guess I’ll have to revise my attitude toward "El Bosque de La Habana" to, ‘been there, done that, going back again and again.’