Smoke and haze: visiting Cuba’s cigar country

 

Leave the mojito by the pool and head out to Pinar del Río, home to the country’s top tobacco plantations

 

Javier Espinoza, The Wall Street Journal

 

MOST PEOPLE GO TO Cuba for its white sandy beaches and all-inclusive hotels, but the thought of staring at tourists lying on their backs all day was less than inspiring when I was planning my second visit to the Caribbean island. So I decided to ditch the usual mojitos by the pool and spend my time exploring Cuba’s even wilder side -its tobacco plantations.

 

Though I’m not a smoker, it’s hard to resist the urge to find out more about what are widely considered to be the best cigars in the world -and take a puff or two. So I find myself on a bus to Pinar del Río on the westernmost tip of the island. Encircled by mountains and dense with the forests of Viñales National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site, the area is one of the country’s top ecotourism attractions. It also happens to be home to the country’s top plantations.

 

Arriving in Viñales after the hourlong bus journey from Havana, my then-girlfriend, now wife, Mairéad, and I meet our guide, Jessy Gómez, and head out to a local farm to learn how cigars are made from those who know it best. The sun is blasting as we walk through the fields -and though it’s a welcome contrast to the freezing, gray London I left behind, I’m happy when we move toward a nearby hut.

 

“Here’s where the leaves are bundled and hung to dry for about four weeks,” explains Jessy. “First, of course, the farmers harvest the leaves. Before the tobacco is sent to the factory, farm workers, who are mostly women, will sort the leaves based on their size and physical state.” In the hut, there’s a smell of siesta in the air and everything is still -not one of the hundreds of dried leaves hanging from the beams flutters.

 

Outside, as we continue our journey, we catch a glimpse of a farmer plowing the fields with just an ox -“like the farmers in England 100 years ago,” our guide says. But before we get too close, we turn off the main path for one of the many caves that surround the fields. At the entrance to the 14-kilometer-long Cueva del Silencio, or Cave of Silence, we meet José Luis. His father started bringing visitors here about eight years ago, but now that he is elderly and blind, José has taken over the task of showing off the cave’s plethora of stalagmites and stalactites.

 

For two Cuban convertible pesos (about €1.60), he takes us on a 250-meter walk that passes rock formations of weird shapes and sizes, and eventually leads to a natural source of water. The floor gets more slippery as we descend. “During the rainy season water floods the whole cave,” he tells us. “Bats don’t like it because it is too humid in here.”

 

Just as I’m beginning to think that humans probably don’t like it either because it’s unbearably hot, we turn around, heading for relief in the form of shade and refreshments at Palillo’s. The farmer, whose name means “little stick,” is well-known in the area. As we sit under the soothing shade of his porch, he rolls a cigar for us to share and mixes up a delicious and cooling concoction of coconut juice, pineapple, sugar cane juice and a dash of rum.

 

It’s so hot the horses are resting on the ground. “They are pretending they are getting a suntan by the sea,” he jokes. While my girlfriend takes a siesta, I take a few tentative puffs of Palillo’s cigar as we chat about Cuba’s cultural nuances. I’ve heard that smoking a stogie can be a relaxing -almost sublime- experience, and pictures of Churchill flash through my mind as I imagine the start of a lifelong passion. But in the heat of the Cuban summer, I don’t fully enjoy the experience. I doubt I’ll indulge again any time soon.

 

Palillo rolls another cigar and offers visitors some for sale. (The government regulates the amount of crops farmers like Palillo can sell directly to consumers, though rules have recently been relaxed.) As we get ready to leave, Palillo winks at me and beckons me to a quiet corner of the hut. He has some fine tobacco, he says. He’ll give me a good price, a great bargain. Having consumed his refreshing beverage and tales of legendary cockfighting (Pinar del Río is the cockfighting capital of Cuba, according to the farmer), I feel the pressure to buy something.

 

Though I’m no expert, the cigars seem of a lesser quality than those I’ve seen sold in Havana shops. Then again, how often will I get the chance to buy Cuban cigars directly from the producer? I opt for five to hand to friends back home in London. Palillo is disappointed that I don’t buy more and he doesn’t hide it. As his cordial hospitality starts to fade, I make for the door as quickly as possible -trading in the farmer’s stern glare for the sun’s.

 

We begin the long walk down the valley, the sun still piercing our backs. The horses remain motionless, like a still-life. Back at our casa particular in Viñales, I mimic them -still in a haze from sun and smoke.

 

Cubanálisis - El Think-Tank

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