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On the Road to Tobacco Country

A journey into the Vuelta Abajo, land of the world's best cigar leaves
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

(continued from page 1)

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.

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