Good cigars require at least two things: good tobacco and expert tobacco rollers. To see where the good tobacco grows, you can go to Vinales in the wild west of Cuba. Take a tour bus from Havana (which I did) or, (if you want to stay overnight in Vinales) a long-distance collective taxi arranged by your casa particular in Havana. Vinales is only a couple of hours from the capital. As you ride through the relatively flat fertile landscape of province Pinar del Rio, you will start to see little houses painted in pastel colours and surrounded by fields. These are tobacco farms.
You will see men on horseback in high white boots, their small horses trotting in the grass beside the road, a dog at their heels. Or a farmer standing on a heavy sledge made of logs and pulled by oxen (below), which is used as a harrow to flatten a plowed field.
Yes, Pinar del Rio is tobacco country and Vinales is at the tourist heart of it, If you go with a guided tour, you will hear about the different kinds of tobacco leaves – from the top, middle and bottom of the plant – that have different purposes in a cigar.
Here’s our guide (right) explaining about the three different leaf types while standing in the middle of a tobacco field.
If you visit a tobacco farm (left), you’ll also see how the tobacco is harvested and cured in special curing barns, and at the end of your tour you’ll probably get the chance to photograph a man dextrously rolling a cigar from scratch.
Besides premium tobacco, quality cigars require a good rolling technique. You can observe some of the best tobacco rollers in action by touring an authentic cigar factory, e.g. in Pinar del Rio or in Havana, where dozens of cigar rollers sit at school desks, listening to a reader while they transform tobacco leaves into finished cigars.
I especially enjoyed my tour of the Partagas Cigar Factory in Havana (below), right next-door to the Capitolio. It is interesting to watch the many different steps that go into a cigar, from sorting the tobacco leaves, to rolling and pressing the inner core, to covering it with its final silky wrapper. It’s an absolute must for cigar lovers and an eye opener to those of us who never thought about it before.
Lots of people you meet on the street in Cuba will offer cigars for sale. Needless to say, these will not be the quality Cuban cigars you were hoping to take home to your brother-in-law. A good place to buy cigars is in a cigar factory, where you have advice and a range of cigars to choose from.