By the time we left Havana I’d run out of cigars. I had puffed away my last Churchill the night before amid the haze of daiquiris and exuberant salsa. Behind the rental car’s wheel the fresh sea air of the Malecón – Havana’s iconic sea wall – was banishing the fuzz that three days of Cuban hedonism had left at the back of my throat.
We were driving to Viñales, tobacco-producing country one hundred miles west of the capital. The region contains a spectacular national park, which offers motorists fine driving between granite bastions, or ancient rock formations, bursting out of its rich alluvial plain. Easily accessible for an overnight trip, we cruised the island's northern coast, heading west from the capital.
Driving a rental car in Cuba is an extraordinary experience. The stately 50s relics which cruise along the Malecón are so much the norm that one forgets how a modern car looks. The remote control central locking of the SEAT Ibiza felt a betrayal to the happy memory of the hulking Ford town car we'd clambered into the previous day, given that its rear doors had stopped working thirty years before. Whisking us away from the crumbling decadence of old Havana and its bleaker outskirts, the automobile announced its arrival in the Cuban countryside with a jolt: the first pothole of many.
The day had started in a Cuban supermarket, stocking up for the road. Grocery stores in the Caribbean’s last bastion of communism are a counter-service affair, requiring both excellent eyesight to read the minute labels behind the scowling attendant and a well-tuned ear to understand Cuban drawl (the ‘R’, trilled throughout the Spanish-speaking world, is muted in Cuba). It only left us to find ice, and the villages have this eventuality planned for. Stopping at any house, one need only ask the nearest matriarch and she will produce a litre bottle of the stuff from the closest freezer. How you break it up into useable chunks is your problem.
Photograph by Alasdair Baverstock
Cuban villages stretch for half a kilometre along its back roads, their architecture more stately than other Caribbean nations, and the towns' residents more gregarious. Children playing on the main street run past men congregated around the liquor shops, sipping Buccaneer Beer and putting the world to rights.
Further along our route a barn stood on the crest of a hill. Made entirely of thatch, its rustic triangular form rose above the sweet-smelling guava groves. Pulling up to the structure we notice a squat house and fields of tobacco. A woman waved from the porch and signalled us to accompany her to explore the workings of the farm.
Tobacco is cultivated throughout the year in Cuba. Native to tropical America, seedlings are grown according to the leaves that they will produce. Following the annual harvest the tobacco is 'air cured' in humid barns before being sold to the government, the farmers’ only client.
"We earn next to nothing", said Rogelio, the rugged and dark-eyed farmer who had come in from his work to hand-roll his tabaco. "It's made it very difficult to expand the operation. The government is fastidious about private enterprise."
A cigar consists of three different types of tobacco leaf, all cultivated separately. The “filler”, which makes up the bulk of the item, the “binder” which holds its contents in place, and the “wrap”, a larger and unblemished leaf which forms the cigar's skin. Cuban torcedores (cigar makers) are highly regarded in island society and considered to be the world's most skilled. Cuba exports on average 60 million cigars annually.
We arrived at Viñales with Rogelio's hand-rolled cigars safely in the glove box. Strolling through to the hotel poolside to take in the astonishing view across the national park, we took our seats, ordered our daiquiris and breathed deeply after the day's voyage. The wind, cool in the evening, still carried the sweet scent of the fresh tobacco fields below – the Caribbean's most spectacular tobacco country.
If you want to explore more of Cuba check out some of these itineraries and buy the Rough Guide to Cuba to plan your trip. Book hostels for your trip and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.