Travel icon: The cigar, Cuba
FIRST 24 HOURS The cigar isn’t just an undisputed Cuban icon, it also offers visitors – whether they’re puffers or not – a gateway to some of the country’s wildest corners…
Whether you’re a smoker or not, there’s no denying cigars are a Cuban icon, and offer an alternative look at its countryside and traditions
When Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba in 1492, he stumbled across locals puffing away on hastily rolled tobacco leaves wrapped in dried palm. Soon enough, Europeans developed a taste for it and plantations popped up across the island.
Today, cigars are the country’s most iconic export, built on fierce tradition; they also form part of most travellers’ experience of Cuba. The thick fug seeping from the many cigar bars and cafés lining capital Havana’s colonial streets is a classic sight. Meanwhile, the plantations that patchwork the country intersect many lush and rugged landscapes, acting as a jumping-off point to explore the wild setting that lies beyond.
Getting there & around
Only Virgin Atlantic offer direct flights from the UK, from London Gatwick to Havana. Flight time is from 9.5 hours, with prices from £479 return; indirect flights with other airlines from £355. Trains run Havana-pinar del Río every other day; one-way fares cost CUC7 (£5.50). Buses between Havana and the Viñales Valley from US$24 (£18); viazul.com.
In the ‘Big Smoke’ (aka Havana), many of its cigar factories (including Partagás and La Corona) open their doors to visitors. Tours give an good insight into the quality control that Cubans pride themselves on, while many of them are also housed in fine examples of Caribbean architecture.
However, it’s early spring when the capital really plays to the tobacco tune, with the Habanos Cigar Festival. This year (26 Feb–2 Mar) sees it celebrate its 20th anniversary with plantation and factory visits and a number of concerts; you can even pull up your sleeves for a hand-rolling masterclass.
But the real tobacco heartland is in the western Pinar del Río region, where 70% of the country’s share is grown and emerald vistas are pocked with lovingly cultivated plantations. Like the factories in Havana, many of them offer guided tours through the fields and drying rooms (such as Alejandro Robaina). During the harvest season (Feb-apr), villages also open up their escogida de tabacos, where the best leaves are held.
But beyond the baccy, the surrounding wilderness is equally ripe for exploring. The UNESCOlisted Viñales Valley is sprinkled with forested limestone karsts (known as mogotes), which rise up from flat plains fed by brick-red soils. Hiking and cycling trails thread these wilds and boats ford the labyrinthine caves that honeycomb the rugged buttresses. Wherever you turn here, though, these valley-wide views show Cuba at its best. Other places come close, but they’re no cigar.
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