As the Carretera Central heads southwest from the provincial capital, it cuts through the famed Vuelta Abajo region, one of the most fertile areas in the country and the source of the finest tobacco in the world. There are countless vegas (tobacco plantations) in this zone, but one, the Alejandro Robaina, has an edge over the rest. While most plantations produce tobacco for one or more of the state-owned cigar brands, such as Cohiba, Monte Cristo and so on, this is the only one to farm the crop exclusively for its own brand, named after the grandson of the original founder, who bought the plantation in 1845. The brand was established in 1997, then only the third brand to have been created since the Revolution in 1959. The owners have gone further than any other vega in their efforts to attract tourists, offering engaging guided tours of the plantation, product sampling opportunities and even the chance to meet members of the Robaina family, though Alejandro himself died in April 2010, aged 91. Visits here remain an unofficial tourist attraction, with the enterprising owners, not the state, running the short tours. Though this adds to the sense of authenticity, it also means the plantation is difficult to find, with no road signs pointing the way nor any mention of the place in tourist literature or on maps. To get there by car, take a left turn, marked by a small collection of huts and a solitary bungalow, off the Carretera Central 18km from Pinar del Río. Follow this almost ruler-straight sideroad for 4km until you reach another left turn, just before a concrete roadside plaque that reads “CCS Viet-Nam Heróico”. This dusty track leads to the plantation.
The best time of year to visit is between October and January during the tobacco growing season. The tour with Carlos Forteza (who speaks English, French and Italian) takes in the various stages of tobacco production, starting with a visit to plots of land covered by cheesecloth under which the seeds are planted. Next you’re taken to one of the casas de secado, the drying barns, where the leaves are strung up in bundles and the fermentation process takes place. There’s a table here where cigar rolling is demonstrated, although no cigars are actually produced for sale on the farm.
Tobacco is one of the most intrinsic elements of Cuban culture. Not as vital to the economy as sugar (Cuba’s most widely grown crop), tobacco farming and cigar smoking are nonetheless more closely linked with the history and spirit of this Caribbean country. When Columbus arrived, the indigenous islanders had long been cultivating tobacco and smoking it in pipes that they inhaled through their nostrils rather than their mouth. When the leaf was first taken back to Europe it received a lukewarm reaction, but by the nineteenth century it had become one of the most profitable Spanish exports from its Caribbean territories.