Although we started out in Havana this morning, it wasn’t long before we departed for the province of Pinar del Rio and the jewel in it’s crown, Vinales. Vinales is the tobacco growing capitol of Cuba and is the valley from which the best tobacco in the world hails. I’m not a cigar smoker, but I must tell you that to try a cigar at the source was one of the best experiences you can have relating to tobacco. We traveled for several hours by van to a breathtakingly beautiful valley dotted with land formations known locally as “mogotes”; limestone mounds formed over millions of years, and covered with lush vegetation. Mogotes are indigenous to this part of the world. The verdant green foliage contrasted with the brilliant red flowers of the “fire trees” made for spectacular photographs. It is hard to imagine a place in Cuba with more breathtaking natural beauty than Vinales. Our visit to this part of Cuba allowed us to enter a cave known as Cueva del Indios. Native peoples have lived on this land for hundreds of years and there is a dedicated exhibit at the mouth of the cave. Inside the cave, there is a river and one can board a small boat that takes you through the caverns where lime and calcium formations cling to the ceiling and shoot up from the floor in fascinating formation. After a short boat ride, we had refreshments before moving on to Juan’s farm. Juan is a tobacco farmer in Vinales who provided us with information about how he grows and processes tobacco leaves. At the time we visited, the tobacco had been harvested and was neatly drying in the special drying houses constructed for such use. Juan carefully described the process by which the plants are maintained, harvested and the leaves removed for drying. He provided us with details about how to cure the leaves and ‘season’ them with honey, vanilla and other ingredients so that the flavor of those ingredients infuses the tobacco leaves. He then showed us how to select the proper leaves for the inside of a cigar and the outside of a cigar, and proceeded to roll one right before our eyes. His hands moved quickly and smoothly over the tobacco leaves and we had no doubt that Juan was an expert at his craft. He was quick to offer a fresh cigar to each of us, but first drizzled a sampling of honey on the tip of the cigar. The experience of smoking a cigar right after it was rolled was something I will remember forever. The group definitely enjoyed the experience – whether they partook in the smoking or not.
Sure enough, it was time for lunch, so we walked down the country road back to our van for transport to a local paladar. Lunch was served at the home of another local tobacco farmer. He offered a choice of either fried chicken, grilled local fish or grilled pork. I chose the chicken, which I must say was the moistest chicken I have ever eaten. All in all, it was another wonderful day in Cuba.