“Welcome to Finca Macondo. Mi casa es su casa.”
Wearing a straw hat and a khaki shirt with matching trousers, the man who greets us in the middle of a muddy path introduces himself as Nelson, a tobacco farmer and our guide for the next couple of hours.
It is a warm, humid morning. Dark clouds hover over the steep limestone hills around us. Occasionally, the Cuban sun makes an appearance, casting a warm glow across the large stretch of green fields on our left. We step aside to make way for a farmer riding an ox-drawn cart – a common method of transportation in this part of Cuba.
On the other side of the path, a woman and a child linger in the shaded doorway of a purple house with red windows. Meanwhile, two young men are busying themselves on a sheltered terrace next to the house. Like many other tobacco farms in Viñales, Finca Macondo is a family-run business.
We step into Nelson’s tobacco field through a break in the hedge fence that runs along the entire estate. A few chickens are busy strutting around the field, completely unperturbed by the presence of strangers. We stop at the entrance of a wooden barn, locally known as bohio. The thought of spending time in a stuffy, closed space makes me feel a bit faint. I take a long deep breath, but the smell of manure fills my lungs and another wave of nausea sweeps over me.
My stomach has been unable to handle the curvy mountain road to Viñales, despite the medical cocktail I had for breakfast in preparation for the long journey to Cuba’s tobacco region. The agricultural odours that enveloped us as soon as we stepped off the bus in Viñales have not made me feel any better. However, I do wonder whether smoking a fine Cuban cigar, or what locals call puro, may actually help soothe my stomach.
Cuba’s tobacco industry
Tobacco is one of Cuba’s main exports, along with nickel, sugar and shellfish. The country generates over $200 million in annual revenue from the sales of cigars. While many tobacco plantations in Cuba are family-owned, farmers are required by law to sell 90% of their tobacco to the Cuban government at a set price. Popular cigar brands like Montecristo and Romeo Y Julieta are produced in government-owned factories. Many farmers use the remaining 10% of their crop to produce their own cigars, which they can sell to tourists at their own price.
As I take a cautious step inside the hut, I am immediately greeted by a pungent smell of tobacco. The bohio is where tobacco leaves are dried and fermented in preparation for rolling. Before diving into the details about the drying process, Nelson leads us back outside through the other end of the hut, where we get a closer look at the tobacco plant.
The majority of Cuba’s tobacco farms are found in the Pinar del Rio province. Located right in the heart of Cuba’s tobacco growing region, the rural town of Viñales produces some of the best cigars in the world. The main streets are lined with colourful, colonial-era buildings. As you leave the town centre, the busy streets of Viñales give way to bumpy country roads that cut through large swathes of farmland. Pastel-coloured houses dot the fields, where farmers wearing wide-brimmed straw hats tend to endless rows of tobacco plants.
We stand around a patch of tobacco plants, their lush green leaves basking in the sun. Nelson produces a bag of seeds and sprinkles some of them into our hands. I lift my arm towards my face, squinting at the tiny brown dots on my hand. It’s hard to believe that these barely discernible seeds are behind one of the most lucrative businesses in the world.
Nelson explains that tobacco seeds are sowed one at a time and placed about 30cm apart. He assures us that his crops are organically grown and no pesticides are used in his field. The plants in front of us are still young, but tobacco grows quickly and the leaves will soon be ready for harvesting. In fact, tobacco plants normally reach maturity within three months. The leaves are then harvested and prepared for rolling – a process that takes several months and determines the quality of the final product.
From crop to smoke
We head back into the bohio. The smokey smell inside the hut is now a bit more bearable than earlier – if a little pleasant. Strands of sunlight seep in through small gaps in the walls. As my eyes adjust to the dim light inside, I spot a bunch of crispy tobacco leaves dangling from a wooden pole. On a busy day at the farm, the entire place is stacked with rows of drying leaves.
Tobacco farmers in Viñales practise traditional harvesting and curing techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. The leaves are picked by hand and hung to dry until they turn dark brown. After three months, the leaves are removed from the drying poles and sprayed with a special mixture, which normally consists of honey, cinnamon, lemon juice and rum. This gives the leaves a hint of sweetness. They are then flattened and left to ferment for at least another three months.
Nelson directs our attention to a large piece of cardboard nailed to a wooden pole. A hand-drawn image depicts the three main parts of the tobacco plant. Since the leaves from the corona (top part) are more exposed to sunlight than the rest of the plant, they are the strongest and most flavoursome of the lot. Meanwhile, leaves from the midsection of the plant yield a more subtle favour and contribute to the overall aroma of the cigar. The bottom leaves are weaker in flavour and texture, but they still play a vital role in the composition of the cigar.
After the brief lesson about the anatomy of the tobacco plant, we head back outside for the most exciting part of the tour. We cross the muddy path, climb up the stairs along the purple house and sit around a long table on the shaded terrace. The air feels heavier than earlier, but at least the thatched roof offers some protection from the sun, which is nearing its zenith. It’s time to learn how the wrinkled brown leaves in front of us are turned into the perfect cigar.
Rolling the perfect cigar
Nelson holds up a large, rust-coloured leaf and starts tearing out the main vein.
“We are not addicted to cigars. We only smoke cigars on special occasions, like anniversaries and Christmas,” he explains, dispelling the common misconception that tobacco farmers spend their days with thick cigars wedged between their lips.
Around 90% of the plant’s nicotine content is concentrated in the central vein of the leaf, thus pulling out the vein makes the cigar almost nicotine-free. In cigar factories, only a small part of the vein is removed. According to Nelson, many non-smokers who come to his farm are a bit hesitant about trying a cigar, mainly because they worry about its health risks, such as addiction. However, they normally change their mind once they learn that the cigars at his finca are 100% organic and, well, relatively harmless.
The cigar consists of a blend of leaves from the upper and lower parts of the tobacco plant. These filler leaves give the cigar its flavour, aroma, strength and combustibility. Nelson fishes out a middle leaf from a bag, unfurls its edges and once again pulls out the central vein. Lighter in colour and weaker in flavour than the coffee-hued upper leaves, the middle leaves normally serve as the binder.
The middle leaf is flattened and the filler leaves are placed on it. Using a curved blade, or chaveta, Nelson cuts off the edges of the leaves and places them in the middle, giving the would-be cigar more density. He then starts to roll the leaves.
“It’s just like making sushi,” he says, pressing the filler leaves into the binder leaf.
Although the cigar finally starts to take shape, it’s far from being ready. Nelson dips his thumb into some honey and spreads it across the edge of the binder leaves. The honey acts as a natural glue – and an aphrodisiac. Many cigar factories use maple syrup imported from Canada as glue. Nelson then rolls a sheet of white paper over the cigar, pressing it hard to make it absorb any remaining humidity. After being wrapped in paper, the cigar is stored in a box for at least a day.
Since middle leaves tend to be soft and elastic, they are typically used as the wrapper. After a day, the white sheet is removed and the cigar is placed diagonally on the wrapper and rolled.
“Cigars are like women,” Nelson says, as he glues together the cigar and wrapper leaf with a dab of honey, “We must handle them with love, care and a lot of patience.”
The cigar is once again wrapped in paper and stored for another two or three days. After that, the cigar is finally ready to smoke.
Nelson and his family spend at least 8 hours a day classifying leaves and rolling cigars. They produce about 80-100 cigars per day, with Nelson’s grandfather being the most skillful cigar roller at the finca. The best time to roll cigars is either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the air is more humid. This is because humid conditions make it easier to handle the dry leaves and roll a tight cigar.
“En la mañana, purito y cafe,”Nelson says. A smile then appears on his face, “En la tarde, purito y vitamina R.”
This is our second week in Cuba, so we are no strangers to vitamina R. However, as Nelson hands us a cigar to try, the accompaniment is something other than coffee and rum. We learn that Che Guevara always dipped his Montecristo No. 4 (his favourite type of cigar) in honey, as he believed that the natural filter created by the honey would prevent the cigar smoke from affecting his asthma. Holding the cigar between my index finger and thumb, I dip the unlit end in honey and take the first puff.
The sweetness of honey fills my mouth, merging with the gentle earthy taste of tobacco. I let the smoke sit in my mouth for a few seconds, savouring its full-bodied flavour, then blow it out. After a few more puffs, white ash appears at the tip of the cigar – a sign that the tobacco was grown in nutrient-rich soil. And just as Che enjoyed the soothing effect of his honey-tipped cigars, so does my now settled stomach.
Visiting Viñales: What you need to know
Getting there: Viñales is about 2.5 hours away from Havana. The tourist bus company Viazul makes daily trips to Viñales from Havana, although the trip might take over 3 hours if the bus makes a stop at Las Terrazas on the way. Alternatively, you could get a taxi or book a guided tour via your hotel or a local tour company. If you suffer from motion sickness, make sure to pack some tablets as the mountain roads in Pinar del Rio are very curvy.
Where to stay: If you’re planning to spend a few days in Viñales, there are several casas particulares where you could stay. These small guesthouses offer an authentic travel experience as you get to stay with Cuban families.
Top tip: Make sure to take enough cash to Viñales, especially if you’re planning to buy cigars from a tobacco farm. ATMs in rural towns like Viñales are far and few between.
Other amazing attractions: If you want to explore Viñales beyond the tobacco fields, take a trip to Cueva del Indio, an ancient cave dwelling with an underground river. Also, make sure to stop at the Mirador de Valle de Viñales, a viewpoint where you can take in staggering views of the Vinales Valley and the steep rocky mountains known as mogotes.
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