The car slows down as it leaves the main road for a rutted dirt path. Dust rises from the tires, the sound of rocks crunching beneath vulcanized rubber reaches your ears, and a mother hen clucks to get her freshly hatched brood of chicks away from what serves as a road out here in farm country Cuba.
At the roadside is a field that has been completely wrapped in white nylon, as if it were a present waiting for a young child on a cold Christmas morning. A weathered farmer, his narrow forearms ridged with muscle that looks like iron and a face etched with lines from the sun, lifts the flap of the tarp, an uneven cigar of his own making clenched in his jaws. He’s walking into his tobacco field in the town of San Luís, out in the famed Vuelta Abajo in Pinar del Río. For him it’s just another day, but his ragged boots are walking across the world’s most revered tobacco land.
Cuba grows some of the world’s finest cigar tobacco, but you can’t see it in Havana. To get a look at Cuban tobacco farms, a visitor needs to go west, to the province known as Pinar del Río. The agricultural province makes up the westernmost 4,200 square miles of Cuba. A narrow and long piece of land that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico, it offers wide open spaces, beautiful views, the cigar factory that makes the Trinidad cigar brand, a very good cigar store and some of the world’s best tobacco lands, including Cuchillas de Barbacoa, the famed Robaina tobacco farm.
Getting to Pinar del Río takes about two hours in a car from Havana, and while Cuba’s highways are sparsely traveled, it’s wise to let someone else do the driving for you. If you motor along at top speed, it’s not uncommon to hit a bump in the middle of the road that sends your head into the ceiling, and locals often cross the highway in hopes that you’ll slow down and offer a ride. Leave the driving to someone who is used to this type of chaos, fire up a cigar and relax—there’s lots to see once you get out west.
Francisco Donatién Factory
Calle Antonio No. 157, Pinar del Río
About a third of the people who live in the province of Pinar del Río live in the city by the same name, and in the middle of that city is the Francisco Donatién factory. The building is actually an antique prison that was transformed into a cigar factory in the 1960s. For decades the only cigars made here were for local consumption, but in the 1990s the fabrica began making a brand called Vegueros, which featured thin shapes and an atypical white and green cigar label.
You can still see the Vegueros image all over the Francisco Donatién factory, but the brand has been discontinued. Today 90 percent of the cigars made here are Trinidads, a brand that was relocated here from Havana’s El Laguito.
(As with Vegueros, Trinidad is known for its lancero shape.) The factory, which also rolls some Romeo y Julietas, is one of the smallest in Cuba, with only 58 cigar rollers.
Francisco Donatién is open to tourists (the entrance fee is $10) and is quite ready for visitors—perhaps a bit too ready. Unlike other cigar factories, where you can get up close and personal to the workers, tourists here are kept separate from the rolling gallery by a wooden rail, so you have to observe from a distance. Other parts of the cigarmaking process take place behind glass.
There’s a little retail area in the courtyard where you can buy a Cuban flag or a Che Guevara T-shirt, if you’re so inclined, and the factory has a decent cigar store. It even had a few old Vegueros cigars in May. Stocks were very good, although a few of the cigars were slightly beat up in appearance. If you’re shopping here, choose a Trinidad Fundadore, one of Cuba’s greatest thin cigars, which is made right on the premises, and puff away, but we prefer to buy across the street.
Casa del Tabaco
Calle Antonio No. 160, Pinar del Río
Directly across the street from Francisco Donatién is a superb cigar store, far better than the one within the cigar factory. This shop was once a Casa del Habano, and while it no longer carries that distinction, it’s a lovely shop with several relaxing areas to puff on a cigar.
The shop is big, wide and inviting, and it is well decorated with old cigar advertisements, maps, antique humidors and the like spread throughout the store. There’s a big walk-in humidor, a fine selection of singles, and the back of the shop has a courtyard with a bar. If that’s not sufficient, there’s even a smoking lounge with one open wall to the right of the courtyard. It’s easy to spend a comfortable hour here.
Cuchillas de Barbacoa (Robaina Farm)
San Luís, Pinar del Río
The most famous Cuban tobacco farm lies up a dirt road in San Luís. The farm is named Cuchillas de Barbacoa, but everyone knows it as the Robaina farm, the plantation of the late, great Alejandro Robaina.
Unlike, say, the Partagás Factory, this farm is not an official tour spot, although there have been talks about having a bus that would bring people here on occasion. Still, plenty of visitors find their way here, and the reception is pleasant. “The Robainas have always been known to be admirable hosts,” says one well-connected Cuban official.
So you don’t find yourself going down the wrong dirt road, make sure when you’re driving up to the farm you see a big tobacco barn to the left of the driveway with large, bold red lettering on the roof, angled so that visitors can see. It should read: Finca El Pinar Alejandro Robaina.
Alejandro is, sadly, no longer with us, but his tradition lives on with his grandson, Hirochi Robaina, who welcomes visitors with the same pride and passion as his abuelo. If you visit during tobacco season (October to January), you can see leaf in the ground, but virtually anytime is fine to get a view of this land, where beautiful leaves are coaxed from the earth each year.