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Cuban Road Trip

With the police in tow, our European editor takes a tour of the historic towns of Sancti Spíritus and Trinidad
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

(continued from page 1)

Havana seems a long way from the town of Sancti Spíritus, especially with two policemen riding in the back of your rental car.  

The two young members of the Cuban police force had stopped my friend and I as we were ripping across the A1 motorway, just 10 miles from Sancti Spíritus, a small, sleepy colonial town in south central Cuba. Maybe they stopped us because of the fancy new black Audi A6 I had rented in Havana for the weekend to travel to Sancti Spíritus and Trinidad? Or maybe it was my suspicious-looking Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses and my American passport? I was trying to get back to Havana in time for dinner with another friend, but it wasn't looking good. 

When the police stopped us, I thought that I was going to receive a warning or even a ticket for driving twice the speed limit on the bumpy motorway. A few hours earlier, I had been pulled over by an officious cop for passing on a curve, and I didn't want any more hassles. When I stopped and rolled down the window, one of the officers shook my hand and said that he and his buddy were late for work and needed to get 35 miles west to a checkpoint. Could I really have said no?  

After they jumped into the back of the car, I realized that we were all wearing dark sunglasses, we all looked rather suspicious and none of us really could tell what the others were thinking. For some reason, however, I thought that the police seemed rather amused with the idea of riding in the back of a new A6. Most Cubans do not have cars and those who do normally drive something that's 30, 40 or 50 years old. They say that Cuban mechanics are among the best in the world and the number of classic cars still running on the island's roads are proof of their automotive talents.  

The policemen were not great conversationalists. I asked a few friendly questions, such as how long they had been policemen, where did they go to police school, why most policemen are said to come from Remedios, and how many police worked in the region. I stopped myself after thinking that these were probably inappropriate questions to be asking some of Cuba's finest--especially by a foreign tourist carrying an American passport!  

I then asked them if they knew anything about tobacco. A lot of tobacco is grown in this part of the island. In tobacco circles, the growing areas around Sancti Spíritus are part of a zone called Las Villas or Remedios. Traditionally, this area grows large quantities of dark-leaf tobacco for export to Europe as well as for local cigarette and cigarillo production. The Europeans use the Remedios tobacco in their blends for machine-made cigarillos as well as cigarettes. The biggest buyers are the French and the Spanish.  

Recently, there has been a push to upgrade the quality of Remedios tobacco in hopes of using some for the production of handmade cigars. San Cristobal de la Habana, Cuba's newest premium cigar brand, was originally developed to be an inexpensive cigar made with tobacco from this region. But the Cubans eventually decided to make yet another brand with top-rate tobacco from the Vuelta Abajo region in the western end of the island.  

I don't think that we'll be seeing great tobacco grown from Remedios anytime soon. I have spoken to many tobacco experts from Europe and Cuba and they never have had kind words to say about the region. Last February, Habanos S.A., the marketing organization for Cuban cigars, sent samples of cigars made with tobacco from Remedios (they actually called it Vuelta Arriba) to participants at its annual cigar festival in Havana. They were decent smokes but tasted neutral and papery, rather like a dull Dominican cigar.  

Perhaps there's potential for Remedios wrapper tobacco. I couldn't help but notice a number of wrapper tobacco plantations as we drove towards Havana from Sancti Spíritus. The police knew nothing about the plantations when I asked them. Maybe they were holding out on me, but I had heard about experimental plantings using shade-grown tobacco in Remedios. The large white cheesecloth tents covering the tobacco plants could be seen for miles as I navigated the wide, empty road towards Havana. (The cloth diffuses the light onto the plants as they grow, making their leaves finer and more uniformly colored--better for covering cigars.) Some of the tapado plantations were as big as several football fields put together.  

Apparently, a big problem with growing new types of tobacco and obtaining better quality in Remedios is the workforce. The growers here do not work in the same way as those in the Vuelta Abajo. There's very little concern for quality. Moreover, they harvest the tobacco in a quicker, less sensitive way. For example, growers in the Vuelta Abajo pick different leaves of a plant at different times to assure optimum ripeness in the tobacco. They usually conduct six pickings over five or six weeks, starting at the bottom of the plant and working up. This patience and attention to detail produce the best quality tobacco. In Remedios, the picking is all done at one time.  

So how was the other town on my weekend excursion? Trinidad shouldn't be missed. It's a tiny bustling town, with about 6,000 people in the colonial section, located near the sea on the south side of the island (about an hour from Sancti Spíritus and four hours from Havana). There's not a lot to do there other than walk around the large historical square called La Plaza Mayor de Trinidad or down the handful of main streets. Nevertheless, the town is one of the finest examples in the world of Spanish colonial architecture and it isn't as overrun with tourists as you might think.  

Most of the roads are cobblestone and the colonial buildings are painted pretty pastel colors. Locals hang out chatting in their doorways or sit in their living rooms watching television, playing cards or entertaining friends. We dined at Sol y Son, a wonderful restaurant in a private home. It was full of hundred-year-old antiques, and the food was hearty.  

During the day, we stayed at the beachside Ancón hotel, about five miles from Trinidad. While the architecture of the Brezhnev-era hotel was rather stark, the gorgeous beach and the clear blue water more than made up for it.  

When we finally got rid of the police in the back of our rental car, they had the nerve to ask if a couple of their colleagues could ride to Havana with us. I had had enough at that stage and I said no and sped off towards the city just as they closed the door. Every 30 miles or so, more policemen tried to flag us down, but I kept going. If they didn't have cars, motorcycles or radios, they couldn't stop us anyway.  

I was pulled over one more time, a few miles from Havana. This time the cop had a motorcycle and a radio, but he let me off when I showed him my foreign passport and spoke my appalling Spanish.  

When I arrived at the Meliá Cohiba hotel in Havana and dropped off the Audi, I went straight to the bar, ordered a mojito and fired up a Partagas D4. As I drank the tart cocktail and puffed on my robusto, I thought how road trips in Cuba are always an experience--good or bad and with or without the Cuban police force on your tail.

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