A journey into the Vuelta Abajo, land of the world's best cigar leaves
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Even though I'm in Cuba at the start of the tobacco harvest, it's beginning to seem as if there isn't any tobacco on the island. My driver and I have been on the road for more than an hour without seeing a single leaf. The long, straight highway that takes us southwest from Havana to Pinar del Río cuts through thousands of acres of farmland, but it's mostly grains, rice, sugarcane and coffee in the fields. Many of the farms lie fallow.
The road is bumpy as our well-used Mercedes 300 taxi cruises along at about 6o mph. Rusty trucks and cars from the 1940s and '50s travel at about half our speed and bellow out clouds of black smoke from their exhausts. We pass the occasional late-model Nissan loaded with lost tourists staring at road maps. Cubans standing by the road take shelter from the sun beneath overpasses and wave at passing vehicles in hopes of hitching a ride. Many of them are wearing green military uniforms, apparently on leave or trying to get back to their barracks. A few men stand in the road selling freshly picked fruit or just-made cheese from nearby farms in hopes of picking up a few bucks.
Every five or 10 minutes, we see a large ox or ancient tractor working in the fields. The only other points of interest are the few stops where travelers can find a cold beer or soft drink to refresh their dry palates.
It isn't until the last 25 minutes of the ride into the dusty city of Pinar del Río that we finally see bright green tobacco leaves growing in the strong morning sun. Everything is fine now. I light a cigar and enjoy the rest of the trip. We are in tobacco country.
It's pretty close to the same scene every time I drive to the Vuelta Abajo during tobacco harvest time. The Vuelta Abajo is where, according to most cigar aficionados, the best leaf in the world is grown. It just wouldn't be a trip to Cuba without visiting the tobacco fields, which are usually full of plants from December until the end of the harvest in March. I have made the pilgrimage dozens of times, but it's always a rewarding experience to see the tobacco farms. As a cigar smoker, it gives you a deeper understanding of why a cigar is one of those wonderfully simple pleasures in life. It's like visiting vineyards if you are a wine lover. In today's high-tech world, it's calming to know that one of the world's great luxury products is agricultural. It's Mother Nature who gives you that wonderful-tasting smoke, not some whiz kid in Silicon Valley or guru on Wall Street.
Tobacco experts often say that the best and the worst tobacco in the world come from Cuba. The leaf is grown in just about every region of the island. However, it is the rich red soil of the Vuelta Abajo that produces the best tobacco, both for filler and wrapper. Nothing compares with the tobacco from such towns as San Luis and San Juan y Martinez. The hundreds of farms dotted around these small towns together make up what is the Holy Grail to cigar smokers. Names like El Corojo, Hoyo de Monterrey, Esperanza, and El Pinar are to cigars what Margaux, Latour, Mouton, Lafite and Haut-Brion are to wine¿they are some of the best in their fields.
Each year, thousands of acres of tobacco are planted here. The entire process takes about nine to 10 months, from planting the tobacco seeds to picking the fully grown leaves and drying them in large wooden barns, called casas de tobaco.
If I don't have an appointment in the Vuelta Abajo, I usually just ask the driver to cruise around the farms near San Luis and San Juan y Martinez. Occasionally, I ask him to stop and I walk into the fields and chat with peasants working the tobacco. Perhaps it's my bad Spanish, but they usually seem rather surprised, almost amazed, that a foreigner would stop his car to get out and discuss the tobacco harvest with them.
A large part of the tobacco in San Luis and San Juan y Martinez is grown for wrapper, the leaves used for the outside of cigars. This tobacco is grown under immense cheesecloth tents called tapados. The cheesecloth diffuses the sunshine and allows leaves to grow larger and finer in texture. Until recently, the only tobacco used for wrapper was a type developed in Cuba in the 1920s and '30s called El Corojo, after the farm where it was developed. But today, Cuban farmers are using hybrids such as Criollo 98, which is more resistant to disease. Another recent hybrid, called Habana2000, has been almost completely discontinued, since it has become susceptible to blue mold and growers did not like the quality.
The other category of tobacco is tobaco del sol, sun-grown tobacco. These are the leaves grown for the cigar's filler and the binder that hold the bunch together. Sun-grown tobacco plants do not grow as high as their shade-grown cousins. In addition, the leaves are not as large or fine, and the farmer is paid less for them. It's less expensive to farm sun-grown since no cheesecloth is needed, and the cultivation is much less rigorous.
Since the revolution, the government has been the only buyer of Cuban tobacco. Most of the hundreds of farms in the area are now privately owned; some of the families have been plantation owners for hundreds of years.
On the way to San Luis or San Juan y Martinez, I usually stop in at the Francisco Donatien cigar factory in the center of Pinar del Río. It's a small factory, with about 100 rollers, that produces its own cigar brand, Vegueros, as well as a few sizes for Montecristo. A former prison, the factory is open to visitors, and it has a very good cigar shop, Tabaco en Diseno. I often find brands and sizes of cigars there that are sold out in Havana, so it's worth the visit, not only for the tour but for the smokes.
The big drawback of visiting the Vuelta Abajo is finding a good place to eat or stay. I used to spend the night at the Hotel Los Jazmines or Hotel La Ermita near the small village of Vinales, but the rooms, food and service are nothing special. The only decent place to eat in the area is a pizzeria in Pinar del Río called Pizzeria Terrazzina, but even that is very basic.
I usually stop in at the pizzeria around 2 p.m. after visiting plantations and just before heading back to Havana. But the last time I went to the Vuelta Abajo, I stopped by one plantation and the farmer asked me to join him for lunch. We ate grilled chicken, black beans, rice, plantains and tomatoes. We drank strong coffee after the meal and smoked home-rolled cigars. Everything from the coffee beans to the tobacco had been grown on his property. ¿You can have all the money in the world, but you can't have this,¿ he said, looking at my fancy casual clothes. He had a point.
I had brought a bottle of rum, so I offered it to the tobacco grower and we finished the lunch with a couple of glasses along with our smokes. We talked about life in the Vuelta Abajo, tobacco, cigars and women. It was getting late, so the taxi driver and I got up, thanked the old man and headed for Havana.
Not everything is new when you visit the Vuelta Abajo, but each visit is a different experience¿one that anyone who loves cigars should try.