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…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - Get ori­en­tated

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); vi­

The visit

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.

THE CIGAR’S THE STAR ♦ The plant q Libra de pie: at the base w Uno y medio: one-and-a-half e Cen­tro ligero: light cen­tre r Cen­tro fino: thin cen­tre t Cen­tro gordo: thick cen­tre y Semi-coro­nas: near the crown u Coro­nas: the crown ■ Es­sen­tials...

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