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Appreciating Cuba's Clichés: Cigars are Nothing to Be Sniffed At

Where: Cuba
February 22, 2011 at 10:45 AM | by | ()

With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the island risks getting caught up in a hurricane of clichés. Thinking travelers aren’t generally fooled by the shiny veneer of places plugged in a Lonely Planet, but don’t discard Cuba’s clichés. They’re what make this intriguing country so exotic, so vibrant and so darned colorful. A Jaunted special secret correspondent discovers the best of each, all this week.

The only people I saw tangoing in Argentina were tourists and, in the years I lived there, the only people I saw eating frogs’ legs in France were British schoolchildren. So I learned to distrust clichés and genuinely expected that the only people puffing cigars in Cuba would be foreigners.

It took three seconds in Havana’s arrivals terminal to learn that I was wrong; the tobacco smell hung heavy in the air like great thunderclouds. Smoking is banned inside the airport; this was coming from people’s clothes and breaths. Until recently, the Cuban government heavily subsidized cigars and cigarettes for people born before 1956. Read into that what you will. Suffice to say that smoking-related diseases kill around 6,000 people each year in Cuba. Castro himself doesn’t figure in that number, having given up smoking for health reasons in 1985.

So tobacco, let’s be clear, is a quintessential part of Cuban life as well as one of its most well-known clichés. Health risks aside, you mustn’t miss it.

Steer clear of Havana’s Partagás tobacco factory—at least 500 meters clear if you wish to avoid the illegal cigar touts—and head west to the dusty red fields of Pinar del Río, Cuba’s main tobacco-growing province. You can take a day trip for $55 or jump on a Transtur or Viazul bus and stay there a night or two.

Pinar del Río town has its own cigar factory, Francisco Donatien, which produces the neatly trimmed and labelled puros that fill Cuba’s Casa del Habano state-run tobacco shops. For a more authentic experience, pop to the lush Valle de Viñales. Just outside the village of Viñales is the little Casa del Veguero tobacco drying shed, where a man jammed behind a scratched three-legged school desk sorts, rolls and jams the dusty stuff into a mold while giving a running commentary in broken English.

Top tip from personal experience: don’t be tempted by a cut-price jobbie from the friendly chap who emerges from an alley with a carton of cigars tucked into his jacket. Unless, that is, you want the lining of your lungs stripped clean like the paint from a Cuban mansion’s peeling wall.

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