The sweet, leathery smell of drying tobacco is hard to forget, and that’s reason enough to be grateful. You won’t want to forget this scent. Tobacco fields line the drive from Havana into Viñales and are punctuated by mogotes, large green mounds that look like lush mountains. This is the lifeblood of the Cuban people and what most likely comes to mind when people think of the Caribbean nation. It is, after all, their largest export.
How to get from Havana to Viñales
Hire a private car or rent your own. Viñales is extremely easy to find because it’s only 113 miles (183 km) from Havana, most of which is on the Carretera Central which spans the entire island from east to west and stops in all the hot spots. It’s actually really tough to get lost in Cuba because just about every other road on the island branches off of this highway. While it’s only just over a hundred miles away, it’s going to be slow going for most of it.
There’s no actual speed limit but that doesn’t really matter when you can’t go highway speeds anyway. The road conditions can be tough to navigate as they’re riddled with crumbling asphalt and potholes so big, you could lose a chihuahua in them let alone a wheel or axle. This is one piece of advice you’re going to want to heed, otherwise you’ll be stuck on the side of the road with a broken axle like we were.
The good news is, the Cuban people are so friendly that you won’t wait long if you need help. Someone will likely stop and either help you or call their buddy who can help you. This is the Cuban version of AAA. Do these kind folks a favor and toss them a few CUC for their service, they’ll undoubtedly appreciate and deserve it.
Where to go to see tobacco fields in Viñales
Remember that point about the Cuban people being so friendly? That also means you can pretty much stop anywhere along the road and talk to the people in the tobacco fields. I know, I know - this seems like a huge imposition. And in most cultures, it would be. But Cubans are so warm and welcoming that any genuine interest in them will almost always be met with an enthusiastic explanation of how something works. How the tobacco is planted, harvested and hung out to dry are just some of the scenarios where you’ll find their willingness to talk.
Of course, if you’re going to interact with the locals in this manner, you’re likely going to need to have a Spanish-speaker in the group. The more remote you get into the island, the less likely you are to find English-speakers...especially if you’re not in a touristy area. But that’s part of the allure, right? To see the real Cuba, not just the tourist traps. We saw a tobacco barn in the distance, down a long, dusty lane with a family in rocking chairs on the porch and decided they looked nice enough. And they were. Normally, we wouldn’t do something like this ever, but Cuba is extremely safe and our driver assured us it wouldn’t be a big deal. And turns out, it wasn’t.
The family said they had been farming the same land for as long as anyone could remember and took us to the barn. We could smell the tobacco before we even stepped inside. The rich and robust scent hung in the air, thick as molasses. While squatty and covered in dried palm leaves on the outside, the inside was much bigger than expected. Layers of beams criss-crossed to the ceiling above, with leaves tied and hanging upside down in bundles. It looked like a labyrinth and a hell of a fun place for kids to hide.
They explained that the process takes about three months from planting the tobacco seeds that are nearly microscopic and look a lot like flecks of black pepper, to harvesting the thick ropy leaves. Not only is the process organic because they don’t use pesticides, they even pick the tobacco leaves by hand before hauling them to the barn. About 90% of their crop is used in government production, the other 10% is for the farmers to sell their own products.
Cigar rolling is so innate, these folks could do it in their sleep. They’ll roll cigars for you, sealing the leaves with either honey or a gum adhesive, and pack them for you to take home if you’d like. Our friendly folks told us that we needed to let our cigars age for about a year in a sealed bag in the refrigerator for them to reach the height of their perfection. However, they have several aged cigars for you to enjoy onsite whilst soaking in the vistas through your plumes of smoke.
Keep in mind, these are not going to be your more famous Cohibas or Montecristos. If you want those, find a reputable store and buy them there. In truth, if you just want to be able to say you’ve had the experience of smoking Cuban cigars, these will do the trick. If you are a tried-and-true aficionado, you will be able to tell the difference between extremely good tobacco and the scraps they save for unsuspecting tourists. They could’ve given me dried-out leather boot soles to smoke and I wouldn’t have known the difference. The point is, you can have both experiences.
How to know if a Cuban Cigar is fake
Our European friends will know the pure seduction that is a fine Cuban cigar, they account for four of the top five countries importing them. But they are still something of a myth for most Americans. They’re so highly coveted around the world, a booming empire of counterfeit cigars saturates the black market today.
What’s a good rule of thumb to spot a fake Cuban cigar? Sloppiness. If you purchased a box from a reputable dealer like Casa del Habano, the precision will be impressive. The internal rows and labels will be perfectly aligned and the box will have several holograms and stamps. If you want singles, it’s a lot trickier. A serious cigar buyer should not buy anything from a guy off the street and you’ll want to pay close attention to the labels. If you’re looking at a Cohiba and each square is not perfectly aligned or the same exact size as the others or the exact same width apart, you’ve got a reproduction.
Another good piece of advice to remember, they don’t offer deals on Cuban cigars because they’re regulated by the government and the price is controlled. Sure, like the world-renowned rum, you’ll get it at a much cheaper price while you’re in Cuba, but cigars still aren’t cheap. It’s still extremely likely you’ll pay more than $20 for a single premium cigar. Multiply that by whatever size box you want and you can see how quickly it adds up.
Have you worked up an appetite? Good! There's a great restaurant nearby and you're not going to want to miss this farm-to-table experience at La Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso.
More things to do in Cuba
Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last ten years. Her work has been featured in Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.