Viñales, a small town in the Pinar del Río region, was by far my favorite place we visited in Cuba. We stayed in an Airbnb tucked at the edge of a dirt path with views of the mountains, and spent our days alternating between relaxing in our hammock and learning about regional specialities like coffee, tobacco, and guava liqueur.
We met a local guide named Oleg who showed us around the valley. First we visited a coffee plantation, where the coffee was incredible, and not like anything we had in the rest of Cuba. Check out this post to read more about why.
We tried Guarapo, a sugarcane juice that is honestly one of the tastiest things I’ve ever had. Sugarcane is obviously not common in the Midwest, and my sweet tooth was in heaven. The juice is poured over ice and mixed with lemon and pineapple, and ‘Vitamin R’ as Oleg liked to call it (rum), is a welcome addition. SO good. As was Guayabita del Pinar, a liqueur made from tiny guavas only cultivated in the Pinar del Río region, served over ice with a bit of lemon. The liqueur is sweet but herbal, and a little bit nutty. I kept trying to relate it to vermouth or other aperitifs, but there’s really nothing like it I could think of, and after some research I discovered it’s very hard to find outside of this region. Guess you’ll have to take a trip to see for yourself. 😉
Moving on to tobacco fields in El Valle de Silencio, Oleg told us about the growing process and the differences between government made cigars versus those people in the valley actually smoke.
Each tobacco farm holds about 60,000 plants, which grow 15-20cm tall before they’re transplanted using bulls. When they grow to 30cm, they are harvested by hand, “never, ever by a machine.”
Once harvested they dry in two different places, depending on the quality needed. Drying in the top of the storehouse provides access to sun and wind, and those plants are used for higher quality cigars, like Cohiba. Once dried, they’re sent to the government, where they are made into cigars and exported around the world. (We were told that the government takes 90% of all tobacco profits from each farm).
“You cannot inhale the government cigars because they use chemicals and nicotine,” Oleg said.
In Viñales, cigars are not made with nicotine, and people use honey to soothe their throat while smoking. “Smoking with honey is good for throat and a Che Guavara tradition, so we like it,” Oleg told us, “but the government uses nicotine. If it’s not addictive, the economy goes down.”
The fermentation process is different as well, and where factories use chemicals, farmers use things like lemon, honey, and pineapple.
We watched a farmer expertly roll a cigar by hand and bind it with honey (factories use maple). Then he and Oleg showed off blowing smoke rings while I tried and had a coughing fit. Emily and Laura had better luck.
If you visit Viñales I highly recommend spending a few days to walk around the town, go on a few hikes, and learn about the local agriculture and businesses. Oleg was a wonderful guide and is excited about the prospect of more tourists. (“The Americans are coming. It’s starting!” he said). If interested, leave a comment and I’ll send you his email to book.