It's late February and the fields of the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's prime tobacco growing region, are in the throes of harvest. From the town of Consulacion del Sur to the village of San Juan y Martinez and beyond, cigar tobacco is growing from small sun-grown plants just a month old to five-foot-high wrapper tobacco that is protected under cheesecloth.
There's a slow, methodical pace to the harvest. Dusty, rusty trucks rumble down the region's roads with workers standing in back. Horses trot by with carts laden with freshly picked tobacco. Oxen plough picked fields, and men and women stroll through the plantations working the leaves. Tobacco needs care and time. Workers in the field often say that great tobacco such as this deserves to be treated with the utmost respect and attention.
For centuries, the inhabitants of the Vuelta Abajo have done just that. Regardless of the changes in the economy or government, tobacco crops have been grown, harvested and processed. Here is the heart and soul of great Cuban cigars. Visiting the tobacco fields is a pilgrimage every cigar lover who travels to Cuba should make. Not only will you gaze upon the gleaming plants that grow in the region's rich red soil, but the opportunity to observe the cultivation of tobacco will give you a better understanding of the agricultural basis for producing cigars.
Tobacco is grown all over Cuba; most tobacco experts believe that the world's greatest and worst tobacco is grown here. The province of Pinar del Río, a two-hour drive west of Havana, is the tobacco mecca. Here, particularly around the towns of San Luis and San Juan y Martinez, farmers grow the best tobaccos on the island, especially those used for wrappers. The only way to get here is by car, so either rent one or take a taxi, which should cost about $200 for the day.
About 80,000 acres of tobacco are planted each year in the region. Growing tobacco is a nine- to 10-month process, beginning in the summer months, with tilling and ground preparation, and ending with the harvesting of the leaves from January through March. The best time to visit the area is during the harvest, when the plants are fully grown. Not all the tobacco is grown at the same time, however. Fields are planted a few weeks apart so that all the harvesting does not occur simultaneously, which would be a logistical nightmare.
Two types of tobacco are grown in Pinar del Río. The first is filler tobacco, or criollo, which grows in the sun. The second is wrapper tobacco, which is usually grown under fine cheesecloth netting called tapados to assure a uniform leaf color and texture. Traditionally, wrapper tobacco is a variety called corojo, although the Cubans have recently been growing varieties that are more resistant to diseases and bad weather.
Regardless of the type, different leaves on each tobacco plant are harvested on different days. A typical plant has about 16 to 18 leaves. Pickers start from the bottom leaves, called libre de pie (freestanding leaves) and work to the top, or coronas. Leaves at the bottom of the plant are riper; therefore, they are ready to pick earlier than those at the top. Everything is done by hand. After the tobacco is harvested, the green leaves are loaded into baskets, placed on wooden carts, and transported by oxen to the large casas de tabaco, or curing barns.
There, the green tobacco leaves are hung for drying on long wooden poles. It usually takes 50 days for the leaves to dry. Once the leaves are a uniform brown, they are moved to warehouses where they will be stacked and fermented. The first fermentation takes about 30 days. Depending upon the leaves, they are then classified and perhaps stripped of their stems. A second fermentation follows and lasts up to 60 days. The tobacco is then aired and packed in large square bales, or tercios, weighing about 150 pounds and covered with royal palm leaves and burlap. The bales may be stored in the warehouse for up to two years before being shipped to island factories for cigar production.
Visits to tobacco plantations are difficult to organize unless you have an in with the Ministry of Agriculture or Habanos S.A., the official distribution and marketing organization for Cuban cigars. Tours arranged through travel agents or hotels are usually unsatisfactory and mean little more than a bus ride through the area and then a lunch in a nearby restaurant. It's better to visit a farm on your own. Tobacco growers do not mind the occasional visitor and it's always interesting to walk among the tobacco plants or to take a quick peek into a curing barn.
A trip to the tobacco fields can be done in a day, which leaves one time to have lunch in Pinar del Río (Palacio de la Artesania has the best food) and to visit the Francisco Donatien cigar factory in town. Normally, visitors are allowed to enter the rolling room and watch the workers. In addition, the factory has an excellent cigar shop with a knowledgeable staff and a wide selection. Prices are usually slightly lower than those in Havana. Try a box of the Vegueros cigars, which are exclusively made at the factory.
If you decide to stay overnight, avoid the Hotel Pinar del Río, which is a drab industrial complex on the outskirts of the city. A layover in the quaint and friendly rural village of Vinales, about half an hour away by car from Pinar, is preferable. Vinales is what you'd expect from a sleepy tobacco town. It has a tiny main street lined with old, well-kept wooden houses with porches. Stay at Hotel Los Jazmines or Hotel La Ermita. Both have excellent views of the gorgeous green valley, although Los Jazmines offers superior service, rooms and food. Light up a cigar, order a mojito at the pool bar and watch the sun go down over the valley, which encompasses a number of hills, called mogotes by the locals. The contrasts of the lush green knolls and rich red soil against a clear blue sky are spectacular. It's a shame that the tobacco from Vinales is considered second-rate to San Luis or San Juan y Martinez. But hey, you can't have everything.
(Outside of Cuba, telephone numbers require the 53-8 prefix.)
Fabrica de Tabaco "Francisco Donatien"
Casa de Tabaco "El Estanco"
Maceo No. 157
Phone: 2 34 24
Palacio de la Artesanía
Esquina Sol y Coloma
Pinar del Río
Phone: 7 82 63
Hotel Los Jazmines
Carretera de Vinales, Km 25
Phone: 9 32 05
Hotel La Ermita
Carretera de la Ermita, Km 2
Phone: 9 32 04