Monday took me on a tour to Pinar del Rio, the region to Havana’s west, famous for making the best tobacco in Cuba and a town called Vinales.
My buddy, Anna-Marie (who you may remember I met in a frustrating 2-day Athens to Santorini travel adventure), has spent a lot of time in Cuba, and recommended the region for a day trip. I am not normally one for tours, but some places lend themselves to submitting your independent self to the comfort of an air-conditioned bus and someone else’s itinerary.
Pinar del Rio is less than 3 hours from Havana, and our first stop is at the Prehistoric Mural. From the name, one could easily expect some kind of indigenous cave painting, resplendent with stick figure men chasing ancient buffalo. Oh no, I’m sorry but you are in Castro’s Cuba (albeit Raoul not Fidel these days) so what greets our merry band of travellers is a large mural painted on the side of a rocky hill, comprised of dinosaurs and other ancient beings. This was commissioned by Castro in the 1960’s (no doubt to somehow demonstrate the greatness of the revolution), and even though it took several years to complete, truly surpasses all the lame sights I have ever encountered.
The banality of the site itself was more than compensated for by the place was home to the best pina coladas I’ve had (Pinar del Colada?). I had to ask for the recipe: it turns out that they put powdered milk in! (In case you wish to try this at home, it’s fresh pineapple, sugar, powdered milk, coconut milk, and ice. Blend all this and add rum to suit your taste; I preferred to leave the rum out)
We visited one of a number of state-run cigar factories. Unfortunately – who knows why – you cannot take cameras in. Essentially, the various stages in the cigar-making process are laid out in various rooms, from the selection of leaves, which have their inner stem expertly removed, to the insertion of the cigar into the ring and the collation into boxes. In the main workroom, workers sat side by side, around 5 in each row for 13 or so rows. Each person is given one of a number of different cigars to make, which mainly vary based on density and size, ranging from a skinny cigarette-sized version to a monster Monica Lewinsky one.
As you would expect, the workers work efficiently, but there is certainly no-one standing over them with a whip, and they seemed content enough. The cigars are placed in a testing chamber, where air is flushed through the cigar to test that it is the correct density, and those that fail the quality test are discarded. Each week, every worker is given 3 cigars for their own use.
Afterwards, we visited a tobacco farm where the farmer demonstrated cigar-rolling for us to take snaps of, and everyone received their very own cigar! A few people lit up, yes even in a dimly-lit barn, causing a few of us to choke or evacuate. As for me, I just busied myself with taking photos of the farm, which you can expect was full of photo opps.