Our featured bloggers, Dave and Carmen, head to Vinales in search of the perfect cigar. And find it in a ramshackle farmer's hut.
The sky in Cuba is stark blue, the clouds are baking flour white, and the jungle is so green my eyes struggle to pick the palms from the Ceiba trees. The crisp hot sun sits so high in the sky there are almost no shadows. But as I walk beneath a jungle canopy toward a waterfall near the coastal city of Trinidad I see the colours in front of me blur and fade. Curling tendrils of something white ghost across the path and I smell coffee, tobacco and wood smoke all at once.
I follow my nose and come around a bend to discover a hut, small and square at the bottom with a peaked thatch roof on top. Three sides are closed off by chairs and long benches laid out with crockery like a tea party. ‘Would like a coffee my friend?’ the cheerful man inside calls to me. ‘Two CUCs fifty (US$2.50) for fresh coffee and it comes with a cigar.’
Of course I say yes and take a seat. Carmen joins me and our host welcomes us with a song as he grinds up the coffee in a mortar and pestle. His voice wails higher and higher as he taps out the rhythm with his pestle, which also grinds the coffee beans. When it’s ready he lifts the mortar up to my nose and I inhale the delicious aroma of freshly bashed coffee beans – so sharp and earthy I almost sneeze.
‘These are from my family’s farm,’ he says proudly. ‘So are the cigars. Do you want yours strong or mild?’
I don’t know what he means so he just picks up the cigar, sticks a skewer in the end to make a hole then dips it in a bowl of honey. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘Draw deep,’ and lights the business end while I huff and puff to get the thing started.
I roll the smoke around in my mouth and blow it out so it wafts up into the treetops. The honey on the tip dissolves a lot of the tobacco’s bitterness and a warm rush of nicotine floods through my body. This is heaven, I think to myself as our host hands me a steaming hot cup of black coffee.
Here I am, in the middle of the jungle in Cuba, smoking a cigar and drinking fresh coffee, not a care in the world, and all for the equivalent of two dollars fifty! Can it get any better than this?
The next day Carmen and I travel to Vinales which is a two and a bit hour drive west of Havana. Vinales is famous, especially amongst Cubans, for its jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery, caves and tobacco farming. We sign up for a walking tour of the fertile valley that gives Vinales its riches. The sun rises hot and high in the sky – a perfect day for exploring.
We meet up with our guide in the main square and he explains to us that the tobacco farmers in Vinales grow the best leaves on the island and that the Communist government takes 90% of their crops – paying them a small amount for the stuff that will be made into the Cohibas and Monte Cristo cigars sold for a king’s ransom in shops around the world (except the USA of course).
But today we are going to see the 10% that is left over and maybe even sample some of the goods.
Off we go, Carmen and I and a couple from the Netherlands, trudging along the long, rutted road that leads from the sleepy streets of Vinales to the bucolic rim of farms and fields surrounding it. The single storey bungalows we pass are all brightly painted and draped with hanging gardens and all have signs out the front advertising a spare room for rent or a chance to dine. This is how you make money in Vinales if you don’t work in the fields.
The soil of Vinales is reddish brown and pulsing with nutrients – you can smell the life all around – the jungle, the crops, and the fresh loamy smell of paddocks being ploughed by teams of oxen. As we walk deeper into the valley, the stubby mountains and ridges known as the Sierra de los Órganos suddenly loom large and give the whole area an almost unreal aspect; as if we are walking inside a dream.
Sideways and along we are following a dirt track leading to a shabby barn whose wooden beams tick and groan in the midday heat. ‘This is where the farmers dry the tobacco leaves,’ our guide explains. ‘They strip the leaves from the plants and bring them inside here where the heat shrivels them and makes them delicious for smoking.’
I go through the middle to an open door at the other end and peek outside again – the tobacco fields are full of weeds and cows and chickens quietly grazing. It’s like travelling back in time and hard to believe something so rough produces cigars so smooth.
Back on the track we’re being followed by a pack of friendly dogs that accompany us to a whitewashed shack where a sun-beaten tobacco farmer and his jolly wife invite us inside.
Their home is a simple affair: a well swept concrete floor with a bed, table and chairs and a wood-fire stove with religious art on the walls and a transistor radio for comfort.
‘Sientese, por favor,’ the man of the house says and we each take a chair around the table where he’s laid out some gigantic tobacco leave freshly plucked from his fields.
We watch with utter fascination as he makes a cigar by hand. The legend goes that Cuban cigars are hand rolled on the thighs of virgins but this old bloke was definitely a bit more experienced than that.
His steady hands begin with large, rough tobacco leaves of poorer quality than the others – they were acting as the rolling paper. Inside them he places a mix of rough, stringy tobacco leaves that make up the bulk of the cigar.
He then rolls this mass of leaves tighter and tighter until he’s produced a fat stick which he then wraps with the best leaves, twisting the ends off and cutting them down till he has the finished product – a Cuban cigar – the most basic one often called a ‘Corona’ or ‘Parejo.’
The farmer inspects his handiwork, gives a little smile, lifts the cigar to his lips and strikes a match to light it. He passes it around and as we all have a puff as he lights three more and in a minute flat his little home is a blizzard of white cigar smoke.
It’s perfect – strong and rich yet delicate without a trace of bitterness. As fresh as the cup of coffee I had in the jungle.
I buy half a dozen of the farmer’s cigars and later that night I decide to have another one – up on the roof of our Casa Particular as an electrical storm passes over the low mountains of Vinales.
Each fat cloud is an electric jelly fish or brain firing with godly ideas and as I puff away on my second cigar for the day I feel Cuba in my hands, a fat roll of tobacco plucked from the earth I’m watching tremble beneath a gathering storm. I breathe out and see the smoke curl into the night, joining the bright stars and the black sky – the sharp colours of Cuba.
We’re Dave and Carmen – husband and wife, journalists and writers, travellers and companions. We got hitched in 2012 but have been saying ‘I do’ to travel for all our lives.
Follow us as we explore the hidden depths of the world – we hope to pass on a little of our taste for adventure to you.