Vatsal is a techie and a coffee junkie. Most often he’s caught watching a film with Guinness for company. Preeti loves everything about the mountains. She always has her head buried in a book sipping tea.
We both love traveling and watching films so we decided to document some of it. Hope you enjoy reading as much as we’ve enjoyed traveling and writing about them 🙂
Vinales is a common pit stop for most tourist visiting Cuba. It’s a small town with stunning beaches and caves close by. It’s a striking contrast from Havana with a laid back atmosphere, mild weather, lush green landscape and . One of the things we wanted to do in Cuba was visiting a tobacco farm and smoking a cigar with the people who grow the leaves. So even though it might come across as a tourist trap, it was far away from that with a fraction of people that Havana attracts for starters.
We wanted to go off to the farms as soon as we’d arrived in Vinales. But the two guided tours for the day had already departed so we booked our place for the first tour next morning. We wanted a guided tour as opposed to wandering off on our own since we wanted to understand the process of cigar making and interact with the farmers as well. We had an amazing guide, Alexie who spoke excellent English and the tour was peppered with humour. Our group was a small bunch of fun people
– a German couple, an English couple, two boys from Switzerland and a lady from Spain. With these amazing people and Alexie leading us to the rural farms, we had a total ball.
Vinales is an agricultural town and the tour starts with an introduction to the local fruits and plants grown in the valley. We see pineapples, bananas, coffee, cassava, cocoa and of course the famed tobacco leaves. The fresh green tobacco leaves contrasting against the red soil with the humongous limestone mountains in the backdrop, farmers ploughing the fields with oxen, roosters crowing, men on horseback riding through the dirt path, little huts with thatched roof dot the landscape, some painted with revolutionary messages or faces of their leaders not only add character to the valley but make for an exhilarating rural cuban experience. The valley is incredibly beautiful and a perfect place to let the day slide by. The entire walking tour is only about three hours but one could spend an entire day hiking these mountains.
We walked through narrow pathways paved between the farms and reached a barn where the tobacco leaves were drying on wooden beams. The entire hut was filled with dried leaves turned brown and yellow with ageing. We met the owner here who explained to us the entire process.
THE PROCESS FROM LEAVES TO CIGAR
The best tobacco leaves are grown on these farms primarily due to the climate and the rich soil found in this valley. The leaves when ready are harvested and hung on wooden beams inside a barn for ‘air curing’, the leaves are basically dried. In this process, the leave loose their green color and turn into brown or yellow. Once dried, they are then sorted according to their color and size. Small or broken leaves are used for the cigar filler, large leaves for the inner wrapper or binder, and the finest leaves (grown under a canopy to protect from harsh sun) are set aside for the outer wrapper. The leaves are tied into bundles and packed in boxes called hogsheads for six months to five years. The leaves undergo chemical changes during this period which gives the leaves its aroma and taste. This process is called fermentation and is the most important part of making a cigar. The farmers have their own secret method of fermentation which is passed down from generation to generation. Fermented leaves which are two or more years old are used for high-quality cigars.
The leaves are then cut in the middle removing the stem (about 70% of nicotine is in the stem), they are wrapped in bales and stored for further fermentation. Just before rolling them into cigars they are steamed to restore lost humidity. The final stage is rolling the cigars which is an extremely skilled job. It is perfected over many years and the skill is usually learned from the older generation. Every worker sits on his own small table with a tray of selected leaves, rolling out the finest quality cigars.
To see how the cigars are rolled, watch this video CUBA 2016
Once the leaves are dried and sorted, the government takes 90% of the farmer’s produce, which are then rolled into Cohibas and Monte Cristo’s in the state-run factories. The remaining 10% is left for the farmers personal use which they also sell to the tourists who come wandering up to their farms. We bought about a dozen cigars from the farmers. These same cigars, when branded into Cohibas and Monte Cristos, are sold for 200-700 USD per box.
After talking us through the process he showed us how to roll a cigar. Seeing the leaves turn into a proper well-shaped round-headed cigar was thrilling. He then lit it for us to try it out. It’s passed around a group of non-smokers, some try it but others give it a miss. We take a drag slowly- its strong and smooth with a sweet taste, far away from the bitterness of cigarettes. The smoke curls up in the air lost in the rays of lighting filtering through the roof. We step outside, leaving our friends to try their hand at rolling a cigar. A spring day so perfect, sitting on a rusted iron drum under the azure sky with fluffy clouds, puffing away at the hand rolled cigar, in silence listening to the rooster crowing while soaking up the smell and feel of this stunning landscape. It is moments like these when we find ourselves completely immersed in the experiences that the country has to offer, a feeling so alien yet so overwhelming, my heart almost bursting with this unfamiliar ecstasy, greedily wanting to seize it all yet wanting it to last forever.
The agriculture in Cuba was heavily dependent on industrial supplies and machinery but with the fall of the Soviet in 1989(who ere the main trading partner exchanging sugar for fuel and chemical fertilizers), they had to undergo a major shift in the way they produce food. They had to replace tractors and fuel machinery with the ancient way of tilling and ploughing the fields with the help of animals, pesticides and fertilizers were replaced with compost and natural fertilizers and mono crop was replaced with the rotational crop. Today, Cuba is a stellar example of most of the country going organic. With the help of the governement the city plots, parking lots and any vacaant land were converted to organic farms for growing food domestically, a system called organiponics.
Vinales stimulates all the sensory elements. It’s struck me how rewarding a visit can be. In a country so far away from my own, yet so close to the heart.
There are Infotur offices on the main road in Vinales from where you can book the bus tickets or the tours around the area.
Tours : There are a number of tours in the area. Some take you to the Indian caves, Cayo Jutias beach, hiking in the mountains or tours to the tobacco plantation. Most of these cost about 15-20 CUC per person.
There are walking tours and horse riding tour to the tobacco plantation as well. There are two tours per day at 9 am and 2pm costing 15 CUC per person.
In addition, there is also a bus which takes you to all the places above except the tobacco farms for 5 CUC. This tour bus is similar to HOHO. We hired a taxi which took us to the Cayo Jutias beach and got us back to Vinales. Initially, we got quoted 60 CUC but we bargained it down to 40 CUC.
Renting : It’s also possible to hire a bicycle or a scooter if you want to explore the area independently. There is a place called Don Thomas at the end of the main road in Vinales. It’s closed on Sunday.
Buses from/ to Vinales: You can take the Viazul buses from Havana or Trinidad from the infotur offices. Else, you can take a shared car from Havana till Pinar Del Rio like we did or you can hire a private taxi to take you anywhere you’d want, they’d just cost you a lot more 🙂
The bus schedule from Vinales is:
Vinales to Trinidad 6:45 am – 2:30 pm. Price 37 CUC
Vinales to Cienfuegos 6:45 – 2:45. Price 32CUC
Vinales to Havana 9:00 am – 12:30 pm and 2:00 pm- 2:35 pm. Price 12 CUC
Other information : There is only one wifi zone in Vinales and there aren’t any places to exchange money so make sure you exchange your currency in Havana or Trinidad. Almost, every house in Vinales is a casa so you’ll always find a place to stay even if you land there without a booking in high season, like us.
Buying Cigars: Read our guide to avoid getting into the trap of buying fake cigars, which is very common especially in Havana. Buying from the farmers would be the safest and best deal but they don’t come packed in a box. So if you are gifting it to someone back home then buy them from the many official shops in the major cities.
Traveling to Cuba for the first time, read this exhaustive guide to the practicalities in the country.
Read about our experience of this beautiful country, Memories of Cuba.
Have you been on any plantation tours? We’d love to hear about your experience so tell us about it in the comments section below.