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 dancing. 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. Visitors can drive between granite bastions, ancient rock formations that burst out of its rich alluvial plain. Easily accessible for an overnight trip, we cruised the island's northern coast, heading west from the capital.
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.
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.
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.
"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 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 sat down. We ordered 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.
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