Steven Baker | Forbes Traveler
“Take a look. Cohibas.”
I’m sitting in a taxi, speeding along the Malecon with windows down. The night air smells heavy with salt; the few lights that mark Old Havana sparkle in the distance. My driver had urged me — oddly — to sit in the front seat, then suggested I look in the glove box. Wrapped in a white plastic bag is a box of cigars. “Originales,” he assures me.
Uh-huh. These “Cohibas” cost $20 each in the government-run stores, but my new friend is offering me a “deal”: “$60 for all 25,” he says with a smile. “Or $5 each.” In the dark of the cab, I can’t distinguish the cheapness factor, but they must be knockoffs. I buy one for amusement and step out into the bustling Plaza de la Catedral.
Tobacco may only be Cuba’s third-largest export, but the cigar defines Cuba more than any other single product. It’s a $240 million industry, offering work to farmers, scientists, rollers, and exporters (and of course the omnipresent phony-stogie hawkers): each year, the country produces some 150 million cigars, exporting most to Europe.
But though some say Honduran or Dominican cigars have eclipsed Cubans, they maintain their famous mystique. The combination of quality, the forbidden nature of Cuban travel, and the regal air of those who have enjoyed them — from JFK to Fidel — have combined to make the Cuban stogie the ultimate symbol of prestige.
So I flew to Havana for a look behind the smokescreen and to have a seemingly simple experience: find some great cigars and smoke them in cool places.
Leaves of class
Cigars have a storied history on this island, dating to the 18th century, when the first plantations arose in the east and moved progressively to the west. Though sugar was king, tobacco quickly grew in popularity, with Cuban natives (who named cigars cohibas) using them for religious, political and social ceremonies. It didn’t take long, of course, before word — and demand — spread to Europe; soon thousands were toiling in the tobacco fields.
I figure those fields are the logical place to start. I wait for a ride out there at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana, where Hemingway did some toiling of his own (and where his preserved room is on display). The faint air of colonialism still lingers in the woodwork and swirling fans of this open-air lobby, the perfect place to light up a Romeo y Julieta, Churchill’s preferred brand.
As horses, buggies, and 1960s Chevys pass outside, I take in the smoothness of the Panetelas. “Nice, right?” says the man next to me. He’s a Canadian named John and says he comes to Cuba several times a year. Though these stogies are legal in Canada, he buys boxes here — they’re a bargain. “So you come back to buy cigars?” I ask. “No,” he says. “Just to vacation.” But when tell him I’m a journalist and casually ask why he comes so often — and what his last name is — he grows uncomfortable. “Smith,” he says, and annoyingly storms off, tamping his stub in the black plastic ashtray.
Tobacco grows best in the western highlands of Cuba, making for high-quality tobacco and a gorgeous day trip from Havana. Rent a car (it’s easy) or take an organized tour from your hotel. The farmland and small towns begin to appear, and after a couple hours you’ll see limestone mountains begin to jut skyward.
I’m doing the same when my ride arrives to Pinar del Rio — tobacco country. I travel west from Havana, and it isn’t long before mountains appear in the distance and thatched roofs by the side of the road. The scents of eucalyptus, orange and grapefruit trees commingle in the humidity, which hovers around 70 percent year-round — ideal for growing tobacco.
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