From the beginning oft he trip, I am enveloped by the nostalgia that is typical of Cuba. A mint-colored Pontiac, built in 1960, chauffeurs me tot he promised tobacco land, to Pinar del Río. The leisurely swaying vintage car has a calming effect on the soul yet is also stimulating, like the first smoke in the morning.
My journey starts in the provincial capital Pinar del Río on the tobacco route that was opened in the fall of 2015. The emblem of the Ruta del Tabaco (Tobacco Route) shows a drying barn covered in fan palm, referring to the age-old traditions of cultivating the “brown gold” in Valle de Viñales. The valley, some 10 kilometers long, also includes the Sierra de los Órganos, the national park popular with tourists. The internationally famous growing region Vuelta Abajo was declared a UNESCO world cultural heritage site back in 1999. San Juan y Martínez and the nearby municipality of San Luis are the important destinations on the Habanophile tobacco route.
On the trail of the tobacco cultivation in western Cuba, you see horse-drawn carriages everywhere and, on the tobacco fields, oxen carts that seem to have sprung from a Biblical parable.
My transport is much more expensive than a rental car. But traveling through Cuba like this has the advantage of the drivers knowing the region like the backs of their hands. I can relax and enjoy the spectacular landscapes, such as the curious mogotes rock formations, which rise up between deep green meadows like huge, surrealist mushrooms.
My first destination is the hacienda Quemado de Rubí, where the pioneer of Cuba’s popular eco-tourism awaits me – Héctor Luis Prieto, awarded the Hombre del Habano in 2008 and, at 45 years of age, so far the youngest holder of this prestigious title. He has managed to transplant a touch of the internationally renowned cigar event Festival del Habano to his farm. Prieto cooperates with guides who offer multi-lingual tours and surprises them with a little farm house in which his own Habanos production is stored in top temperature-controlled conditions. Here, some visitors discover a new favorite cigar and, in passing, receive memorable lessons on tobacco.
Prieto exudes peace and a close connection with his tobacco homeland. Visitors from all over the world can work on the fields and in the drying barns or help out sorting leaves or gain their initial experiences with rolling.
CUBA’S WILD “TOBACCO WEST”
Until now, those who traveled through the cigar lovers’ Eldorado on their own had to improvise or were dependent on personal contacts. Or they booked with a travel agent that had a license to visit several highlights in Cuba’s “wild tobacco west.” There was always a great demand – for in the Vuelta Abajo, according to the opinion of many experts, this is where the best tobacco on the planet is grown.
The Ruta del Tabaco holds the trump card by offering visitors the chance to experience processing tobacco growing from seeding to the end product as a whole and in an interactive way. The list of fincas [farms or estates] includes front-rank tobacco growers such as Héctor Prieto, but also vegueros [farmers] like Gerardo Medina and Pancho Cuba, whose pilot farm is already known to those who have been to the Festival del Habano. Naturally, El Pinar’s finca is also included in the program. The legacy of the legendary master Don Alejandro Robaina is being perpetuated by Robaina’s grandson, Hiroshi.
It’s worth closely studying the official fact sheet of the new Tobacco Route. Because, so far, being able to trust GPS equipment in Cuba has been quite limited. At the 120-kilometer mark on the highway to Pinar del Río is the Parador Las Barrigoas, the Tobacco Route information center. This is where you can get the especially devised street map – and then, it’s all systems go for those who want to travel in a hired car independently.
LEAVES HARVEST FOR BEST COHIBAS
“I’m proud that, over the years, up to 60 percent of my production has been used for wrappers for exporting,” Prieto later tells me during a trek along his fields. If you like, you can also do some horseback riding on Héctor’s horses, bathe in the nearby river and, if you’re staying in the guesthouse, taste the Creole home cooking.
We take a souvenir photo in front of the statue of José Martí (1853-1895), Cuba’s revolutionary national hero. The tobacco farmer Prieto reserved a place for him with a broad view of his land. After the tour of the finca there’s Cuban beer in the ranchón, the terrace that is typical for regional Pinar del Río, protected by a rustic wooden roof. With a view of the torcedor, who is rolling souvenir cigars here, the veguero says: “I’m passing on my father’s knowledge to my 23-year- old son.”
In the small tobacco house, I honor with reverent silence the fact that exquisite Cohibas are rolled from Prieto’s leaf harvest, from which even the Cuban record world champion Cueto got his material to create the longest cigar in the world. I experience moments of true happiness with the random olfaction of new tobacco aromas that are new to me. For these aromas only develop after a refined fermentation process, which is constantly influenced by unknown variables. Comparable with a valuable perfume, here, too, the secret of the recipe remains nebulous: like the tobacco fields of Vuelta Abajo, which, early in the morning, are shrouded in fine veils of mist.
1 – Los Vegueros: Habanos tobacco specialist dealer in the idyllic Viñales (center of tourism in the prov- ince Pinar del Río), centrally located on the through road.
2 – Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatien, C/Antonio Maceo 157 20100, Pinar del Río, T +53 48 7 73 06 90: Known as the Vegueros Cigar Factory, this manufacture houses a tobacco shop stock- ing the finest Habanos.
Of Interest on the Fincas: Many vegueros roll Puros with tobacco from their harvest that is allocated to them by the state. Price: about two to five CUC per cigar (1 CUC = 0.95 eur).
3 – Paladar Café Ortuzar, C/Martí 127, 20100 Pinar del Río/City, T +53 (82) 48 75 11 11
4 – Bacanal, Ave Borrego e/, Colón y Gerardo Medina, 20100 Pinar del Río/City, T +53 (82) 52 93 96 10
Hotels & Casas
Private accommodation usually offers good home-made cuisine; smoking is generally done outside.
5 – La Ermita***: Panorama view over the Viñales valley. www.hotel-la-ermita-cuba.com
6 – La Auténtica: Luxurious casa www.bbinnvinales.com/bedandbreakfastrentweb/?631,casa-la-autentica-(vinales)-4-
7 – Casa Yuri y Nino, Accommodation right by the tobacco fields. www.cuba-casa.de/item/4-vinales/154
8 – Villa El Habano. www.mycasaincuba.com/casa-particular/vinales/villa-el-habano
9 – Finca Paco Hernandez, Km2 Carretera Moncada, Barrio Cuajani, 22400 Viñales, T+53(48)54032532. Please reserve by telephone.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2016. Read more