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Havana's Cigar Festival

Posted January 22, 2001, 6:30 p.m. e.s.t.

Cuba is Cigar Mecca. No one can deny it. And this is why so many people come from all over the world to the annual Habanos Cigar Festival in Havana, sponsored by Habanos SA, the global distribution company for Cuban cigars. This year's event is February 19 to 23.

The festival always includes a day of seminars, a day of plantation or cigar factory visits, a cocktail party in the city and finally a gala dinner at the end of the week. It sometimes seems as if the event is organized for the Cubans themselves, since the people in the local cigar business spend most of the time speaking among themselves. Moreover, the various events -- whether it's a cocktail party in a beautiful colonial manor house in the center of old Havana or a dinner in one of the city's top hotels -- are not up to international standards. Yet, you have to go. It's great fun.

It's a must if you are part of the world of Cuban cigars, not only those in the cigar trade but lovers of Cuban cigars (like myself). It's the ultimate reason for any cigar lover to be in the City of Cigars, La Habana. So who cares if the festival itself leaves a lot to be desired? You're there with people who work, live and breathe Cuban cigars. Plus, you are in Havana.

Granted, it's illegal for Americans to attend the festival -- and I have friends who have had to shell out $3,000 in fines to the U.S. government for the privilege of going. Another spent at least that much paying his lawyer to get him out of the mess. He was busted in Nassau, Bahamas, on the way back stateside by some of the nastiest Customs people on earth. My friends were fined for "trading with the enemy," according to archaic laws created when most of us were either in diapers or the deep dreams of our mothers.

So, if you do travel to this year's event, I suggest Cancún as the best route. Forget Nassau. There are usually two or three flights a day through Mexico's second-rate copy of Miami. Check the Internet for flight information ( is a good site.) Or call a travel agent in Cancún. All the information is there. It's usually a few hundred bucks round trip. Don't arrive in Cancún without a ticket for Havana, since Mexicana (through Aerocaribe) charges about $3,000 for a same-day round trip. You can buy your Cuban tourist visa when you check in at the airport for $15.

Last Friday I took the evening flight at about 8 p.m. and it was full of Americans. There was a group of about 20 ladies, part of a group called Women of Faith. They were going on a "missionary trip" to help the Cubans with their faith. Their intentions were obviously sincere, but the women knew nothing about Cuba. They seemed surprised that it had a large airport with electricity and running water. "What are all those big planes like Air Fraaance doing here!" one said. What did she expect -- DC3s or large balloons?

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