Driving through endless green fields of fertile tobacco and red soil in Viñales, we meet local farmers who are harvesting medicinal leaves, and soon they will become things. Famous cigars around the world.
Viñales is a small town in the west of Cuba. The whole town is located in a beautiful green valley with strangely shaped hills and many limestone caves, where people have grown tobacco plants for more than 200 years.
In Havana, we hired a guide named Jose and his red car to take four of us to visit Viñales for three hours. There are very few cars on Cuba’s highways, mainly horse-drawn cars.
Welcome to Viñales!
Come to Viñales you will feel trapped in time. On the streets are wooden houses with translucent paint, each house carries its own stories. Locals move by riding, riding an old bicycle, or driving classic American cars.
There are several hotels in the city, but most tourists are in Casas particulares – the locals have rooms for renters, they look like guest bedrooms in a house.
Lay, a woman turns her house into a guest house with two double rooms for renters. This is how many Cubans do to earn extra income outside the government-regulated salary, about $ 30 per month.
The town has a lot of small restaurants and bars with live music but still doesn’t make it overload. In fact, Viñales is known to be the favorite destination of Castro (Fidel Castro is one of the key leaders of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba’s Prime Minister from February 1959 to December 1976, and then Chairman of the Cuban State Council until his resignation in February 2008).
Viñales National Park
Viñales Valley was voted as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1999 due to the impressive landscape of the limestone mountain dome called mogotes, traditional agricultural methods, and rich cultural history.
The valleys formed below the water surface, over millions of years before the sea erosion, ancient sea fossils can still be found scattered in caves.
The New York Times voted Viñales to be one of the places to visit in 2016.
In addition to being a beautiful tourist destination, Viñales is also known for its excellent quality of cigarettes. I am not a “drug addict”, sometimes I will enjoy cigars at the end of a big trip or for special occasions.
So I was very excited to learn how to make world-famous cigars in Cuba.
Why did Cuban cigars become special? Yes, many believe that Cuba is the birthplace of cigars. Christopher Columbus met the first Cuban to use twisted tobacco leaves to make medicine to smoke in 1492.
The first cigars were exported to Europe, and in the 19th century, cigar smoking became a popular pastime for rich men – the founder of the cigar club was called is the divans.
Cuba’s growing tobacco and long-term production techniques have been exported to places like the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. After that, the United States announced trade sanctions, making Cuban cigars illegal – which made its value even higher.
Viñales’s fertile soil and favorable climate are perfect conditions for developing cigars and cigarettes. Most people here trade in tobacco agriculture.
Experience in tobacco farms
We hired a guide and a few horses to start a Viñales National Park tour, learning about traditional techniques that have been used here for hundreds of years. There is absolutely no use of machines here, which means that plants are hand-picked and plowed by cow power.
Going through pig, chicken and turkey farms, I went to the area filled with the green of the best quality tobacco plants that local workers harvested. Tobacco plants grow very fast, can be harvested after 2-3 months.
The leaves are then stored in special stables, where they will dry them for about a month so that the leaves turn brown. The Cuban government has bought 90% of cigarettes while local people are only allowed to keep 10% for themselves.
To prepare Cuban cigars, the main tendon of the leaf is removed, where it resides to 98% of nicotine. Next, the leaves are sprayed with a special mixture of ceramic ingredients such as pineapple, lemon, honey, cinnamon, vanilla, and rum to serve the fermentation process.
Three different types of leaves are used to roll cigars: fillers (inside), adhesives (hold it together), and wrapping paper (outer layer of attraction).
Adventure at Viñales
Visiting tobacco farms is not the only thing to do in Viñales. As part of the farm tour, we also explore one of the caves